Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Batanes, Beautiful Island

Long ago, flying to Batanes would be such an ordeal because only Philippine Airlines flew there--once a week! If you chanced upon bad weather while were there, you could get stranded for a week, maybe two.  Now, PAL and Skyjet both fly two flights a day, making the island more accessible.

It's not cheap though at about P15,000 roundtrip--and that's just the flight. You will need a local tourguide to show you the sights, arrange a vehicle, and also some meals.

Batanes is very different from any other province or island in the Philippines and it's worth seeing and experiencing at least once in your life.

I thought the kids would get bored just sightseeing and looking at beautiful vistas, but they were actually taken in by the scenery and would spontaneously plop down on the grass and not want to get up.

The good thing nice about the tourism in Batanes is that they've created a few days' worth of "must-sees".  Any google search will bring up the "standard tour" that tourguides follow, and would go something like this on the first day:

A visit to Mount Carmel church is usually the first stop on the first day. This is the Chapel built by the Fundacion Pacita (Abad family) people. It's perched on a hill with a commanding view of what else, Fundacion Pacita!

The interiors of the chapel are painted by a scholars of the Pacita Abad foundation.  Read the details of the chapel here.

From Mt. Carmel chapel, we headed to Fundacion Pacita. We wanted to have coffee and also check out the accommodations. One of the guests enthusiastically showed us her room. She told us she just got back from visiting Basco town, where we were staying--and here we were doing the opposite: visiting Fundacion!

From Fundacion, we were shown an old tunnel which we were told was an old Japanese hideout. I didn't even know such a tunnel existed when I visited Batanes in 1995.

Any kind of digging underground holds so much mystery, but no other information was offered except that it was used during world war II.

From the tunnel, we headed to Valugan Bay. This boulder beach looks exactly as it did twenty years ago. 

We bumped into the photography tour group of Mandy Navasero here. She has been taking groups to Batanes for many years now--and from just the gorgeous Batanes shots from my point-and-shoot, it's no wonder why!

Then we were off to Vayang hills which has one of the best views of the islands. It was beautiful all around.

This was getting to be a habit

And finally after Vayang, we ended up at the lighthouse on Naidi hills.  Right in front of the lighthouse are three structures, one of which is Bunker Cafe, where we had dinner on our first night.

We had fish with mango, a chicken dish and something else, I forget now. We were more captivated with the view. Comparing again almost 20 years ago, when the only thing people ate was flying fish and vegetables, this was pretty good. 

It's unrealistic to expect spectacular food in Batanes when life here is not easy. The weather can be unpredictable, and many basic things need to be shipped or flown in from the mainland. Food and fuel are not cheap, and even tour services cost much more than tours in other parts of the country.

But things are still authentic and simple, with hardly any commercialism around. 

I hope with the influx of tourists because of the regular flights, Batanes will still manage to stay true to itself.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Rapitan di Vasay, Our Home in Batanes

Rapitan di Vasay is a three-bedroom house right in the heart of Basco town in Batanes. It was our home for four days last Easter, for our traveling group of 11.

G by the pomelo tree

When friends heard we were planning to go to the northernmost island of the Philippines, they told us that the "only" place to stay was Fundacion Pacita, the quaint and luxurious inn of the Abad family. We would've needed at least 5 rooms, and there was only one room left.

I immediately started researching online and came across many other types of lodges, inns and homestays. Nothing seems suitable for our group until I stumbled on this house with a  name.

Rapitan di Vasay looked curiously interesting. It had sterling reviews on Tripadvisor, not only for the house, but for the personalized manner the bookings were handled. The rooms are rented out individually, and guests share the common areas.

I sent off an email to ask if all three bedrooms of the house were available. The very next day, I got a return email confirming that it was--and that began a series of extended emails between me and Yolanda, the owner of the house.

"As you will see, Rapitan di Vasay is a very modest house.  It is a window to how we Ivatans live. Except for the addition of modern bathrooms, the house has been preserved to its original architecture.  We try our best to make the place clean and safe for our guests," Yolanda emailed.

"If you remember the location of Mama Lily’s canteen," she continued, "we are located only a block away. So much has changed in Batanes since you were there in 1995."

I had told her about my visit to Batanes almost twenty years ago, when literally, the *only* place to stay was Mama Lily's.

There were no other public lodgings except for Mama Lily's, restaurants didn't exist (we ate all our meals at Mama Lily's too), and there were only a handful of vehicles in Basco.  PAL flew to Basco only once a week, and if you encountered bad weather while you were there, you got stuck in Batanes for weeks at a time!

With the memory of how very basic Mama Lily's was then,  Rapitan di Vasay was already looking like the Four Seasons to me. Actually, I was more excited to have the privacy of a whole house to ourselves.

"Before you make your deposit, I have to be upfront with you. The house is not air-conditioned and it starts to get warm in late April. Each room in the house has two or three windows on all sides. In addition we have ceiling and floor fans for each room. If you are sensitive to warm temperatures, you might want to stay elsewhere," Yolanda said in one of her early emails.

Having no aircon is no big deal since I grew up spending weekends in a beach house that had no electricity.  And traveling with the kids, for me, is not about luxury anyway; it's more about exposing them to other people, cultures and customs.

We had to think twice about the shared bathrooms though. The two bedrooms upstairs share one bathroom (the shower room is separate from the toilet, so that made it a little better), and the bedroom downstairs has access to a bathroom on the same level.

 The Valugan Room on the second floor is the closest to the bathroom

In the end, the idea of having the whole house to ourselves with a living room, a dining room, and a balcony was more important than sharing bathrooms. At least there were no strangers among us.

I liked that the house looked tasteful online--there were no attempts at fancy interiors that could be visually irritating. I also appreciated the mid-century wooden furniture, the wooden floors, the windows--basically I liked the authentic simplicity.

Rapitan is a bed and breakfast operation so there is of course the option of having breakfast served for P250 per person (plus P50 pesos for brewed coffee).  The breakfast was good and so was the presentation.

 breakfast in the dining room when we first arrived

Our first breakfast consisted of an unusual fern salad, flying fish, lumpia and eggs.  All were good. 

It reminded me that twenty years ago, the only thing we ate for a whole week was flying fish--cooked all ways-- and rice.  Now with the inclusion of a nice salad, lumpia and eggs at breakfast--this was looking promising.

We had another breakfast under the bougainvillea-laden trellis behind the house. 

I noticed  the effort to keep things visually pleasing.  Indian block-printed tablecloths covered wooden tables, and the wooden dining chairs were brought outside. There were no multi-colored monobloc plastic chairs to ruin the view and my mood.

Even the staff's uniforms are coordinated nicely. Today they were in pink t-shirts, coordinating nicely with the floral tablecloths and the bougainvilleas above.

On our last morning, our breakfast was served on the second-floor balcony.

A regular shared inn wouldn't have given us the opportunity to sprawl out until late into the wee hours. We spent a lot of time in our living room when we were home between the tours--before and after our dinners out. 

We had merienda one day at Fundacion, to see what all the recommendations were about--and rightly so, we were awed by the structure, the interiors and the view.

Impressive view from Fundacion Pacita. Bedrooms were 5-star, plush with ensuite bathrooms.

The merienda they served us though was so-so.  Although it was truly beautiful and tastefully built and put together, it was also isolated from everything else. With surroundings like this, you can easily feel that you are not in the Philippines.

On the other hand, our little modest house is centrally located right in the middle of Basco-- but it's  also shielded from the street by a high fence. It's about a kilometer from the airport and just around the corner from a general store which we visited once a day. We stocked up on beer, diet coke, and bottled water for a cooler which we brought with us on our tours. One evening we even passed by for a gallon of ice cream to bring with us to dinner.
On easter morning, our big kids indulged us by searching for the bubble gum eggs we had hidden in our little garden the night before.

The house is down the road from the Basco cathedral and the town plaza. It's in a good location to walk around and explore, or to just observe how people go about their daily life.

Doing stations of the cross at Basco Cathedral on Good Friday

I was happy with Yolanda's responsiveness to all my questions and concerns. She sent me long emails detailing restaurants around us, and then also wrote me as she came up with celebration ideas for G's 13th birthday. (Yes, G was going to turn 13 while we were in Batanes!) 

It was surprising that I could always reach Yolanda easily by email specially since it wasn't so easy to email our tour guide, Noel. With him, it was easier to text him.

It turns out that Yolanda, together with her sister Chita, run Rapitan by remote control! Yolanda is in the States, and Chita is in Australia. Aha! It's no wonder the standards are higher than I initially expected; the sheets and pillows are comfortable and the towels big and fluffy. Then there are little conveniences like individual towel rods in the bedrooms, mirrors, shelves and extension cords. These details can easily be taken for granted by big-city people like us, but when you remember you are in a "modest" BnB in remote Batanes,  attention to these details is appreciated.

With all the communication that transpired between me and Yolanda even before we got to Batanes, I was confident that our trip would go smoothly. And I was right. 

I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Rapitan di Vasay to any group looking for a place to stay in Batanes specially if you have kids with you. The whole house costs less than one room at Fundacion, so it's worth booking the whole house even if you don't fill it up. Like us, you will have the luxury of privacy, the bathrooms to yourselves, extra lounging space and the whole staff at your service. 

Yolanda will tell you everything you need or want to know, and her staff will execute everything efficiently.  I wish there were more places run like Rapitan in other parts of the country.

Yolanda and Chita, Mabuhay! Keep up the good work!

Rapitan di Vasay
Basco, Batanes


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