I was just on a Twitter Chat the other day and the question was ‘what is your favourite travel memory?’ I thought about it, tough one that. Then I remembered our weekend just gone and I went back in my mind to the sensory memories and I realised my answer. I don’t have just one favourite memory, my favourite memories are the moments I feel really happy and content. There are so many of those from so many places but let me tell you about the most recent time, on a little island called Cagbalete.
Cagbalete Island is a privately owned property, about 1,640 hectares in size. It is located east of Quezon Province, inbetween Lamon Bay and the Pacific Ocean. It lays just off the little port town of Maubin and is actually under their jurisdiction. This little island is surrounded by sandbars that are exposed during low tide, and when the tide is high it provides gorgeous calm waters in which to swim and play. There is no electricity, and life is completely basic. If you want to escape and get off the grid for a while, perhaps this is a place you can try.
Getting to Cagbalete is straightforward. You can catch a bus down from Manila to Mauban, or take your car and drive down on the expressway. Pass through Laguna down to Batangas and into Mauban. Once there you catch a ferry across the water. Easy.
Mauban is a sweet looking town with colourful houses. The fishing boats are freshly painted so they stand out against the backdrop and look like colourful boiled lollies bobbing about on the gentle waves. There is a hill that is green, and next to the coastline it reminds me a little of home. From here you board the ferry which is a standard open air boat and as we waited for the seats to fill pop music blared out of speakers on the roof, and young boys swam out and scurried along the outriggers. FB and BB looked out and they all eyed each other off, the local boys saying ‘hello’ repeatedly like it was the only English they knew.
I looked around at the crowded space, life jackets hanging down the center of the ceiling and the middle loaded up with bags, ice boxes and bottles of water. The wooden frame of the boat heaving under the weight of it all and peeling paint weathered from life on the open seas told stories about what this boat had seen.
An elderly man sat next to me and was already dozing before we took off. His head bobbed down, chin almost touching his chest, open through his plaid shirt, a red cap covering his face. Noodles jumped on him at one stage, startling the man out of his daydream. I apologised, embarrassed at the attention it drew. Laughter filtered through the boat with amused whispers of ‘aso, aso!’, which means ‘dog’ in Tagalog.
Soon enough the music was switched off, the ticket seller came around collecting money and the engine roared into life. We were sitting next to the captain and his accelerator pedal was just a few pieces of wood nailed together and somehow attached to the motor through a hole in the floor. Crude, yet effective. Wearing aviator glasses, he looked like a cool dude as he led us off the mainland.
Passengers were dozing off while the ‘grrr’ of the motor vibrated gently and the sound of soft waves lapped the sides of the boat. We looked out and felt the cool breeze on our cheeks and wondered what our weekend would be like.
This weekend away was auspicious for a few reasons. Firstly, we brought Noodle-Bug with us. Noodles has seen the beach before, but he has never been on a boat, been on the wide ocean nor been away from home camping style. Secondly, it was our first real ‘going basic’ kind of weekend away. You see, if you visit Cagbalete Island you need to be prepared for local style living. Everything is very basic, from accommodation to the fact you need to take your own food and water and cook using a grill and a kalan de uling in the great outdoors. Our bodies and minds were feeling exhausted from the goings on in our life and we needed to unplug. This was our chance.
Forty five minutes later the boat chugged into the village on the island. As we approached the water became lighter until it was brilliant turquoise blue. It was captivating. I had been messaging our allocated boat man who was picking us up. He said his name was Tikboy and I told him we were westerners with an aso. I knew Tikboy immediately as he was asking for passengers to point in the direction of the aso and again, the filtered laughter traveled down the line to us. I envisaged a young guy with the name of Tikboy yet was surprised to find a middle aged man, still very much limber as he jumped around the boat, like he had done this his whole life, and he had. Born and raised on the island, Tikboy had left only once, for four years to work in Tokyo in electronics, but was now back. A fisherman by trade and being a courier for extra income, he worked the ocean with his two sons.
Tikboy’s boat was brightly painted in orange, yellow and blue and had a distinct engine sound like a small motorbike. Another short boat ride across the turquoise waters and we came into our resort. Villa Noe Beach in great white letters sit across the sand, so you are sure you are in the correct place. The tide was out so we had to walk in quite a distance which was okay because the ground is sandy with a bit of seaweed. We came across three sea urchins but they are stark black and stand out easily enough in the shallows. Noodles wanted to walk, I don’t think he realised it was water he had to walk through but after a short moment of shock, he pranced like a dancer to shore. It was really hot by now, the midday sun was blazing above and we were drenched in sweat.
We were greeted with a friendly smile by Pop, a young man who was managing the resort. After finding life in Manila stressful and the traffic unbearable, Pop has taken a year to live on the island with his sister, to get away for a while and ‘figure out what I want to do’. He explained that the generator would come on at 6pm, introduced us to our ‘guide’ Francis, who would teach us how to use the charcoal, grill and kalan de uling. Then after telling us that videoke would start at seven that night until midnight, he pointed in the direction of our hut.
At Villa Noe you have a choice of accommodation. We did not want to camp, being wet season we just were not sure about the weather. Aside from that, the chance to sleep in an authentic Nipa Hut was just too appealing. I booked the smallest one for us, it had a little veranda with a table and inside were two bunk beds. The children thought they were in cubby house paradise and got busy jumping around picking beds. While SB went off to buy icecream from the Dirty Icecream Peddler, the children played pirate ships on the bunk beds. Soon enough SB and I found comfy spots in our little hut and slept the afternoon away.
Waking at four o’clock we found the tide was back in and had made the most delightful beach. Throwing on bathers and gathering up Noodles we headed down to the water and the children ran straight in. The water was warm and the sand was soft and clean. The sun was going down and that lovely sunset glow covered everything. Walking up the beach the cool sea breeze washed the stress of city life away. BB collected old coconut shells and FB found seashells. They played games in the shallows and dug holes in the soft sand. Noodles swam a little, sniffed around, dug in the sand and rolled around. This is what we had hoped for this weekend.
Suddenly Noodles sensed something and pulled at his leash, dragging me up the beach to the trees. Then I saw her, Beepo the Caribou. Quietly grazing in the long grass she was minding her own business. Noodles decided to wage a war and started barking like a maniac, pulling at his leash again. Beepo just looked up slowly as she chewed her cud and then lowered her eyes again, nonplussed by the noise the little fluff ball was making. I dragged Noodles away, back to the water, back to learning how to be a Seadog.
As evening fell we showered in the outdoor showers under cold water and SB got busy cooking dinner. BB and FB ran around exploring with torches and BB found freshly fallen coconuts, collecting them up, eager to open them and drink the water.
The sea breeze does wonders for your soul and by seven that night it was dark and we were ready to sleep. Despite the videoke kicking off and the loud engine of the generator breaking the serenity, we all crashed. Even Noodles was so exhausted he promptly jumped onto SB’s bed, snuggled in and fell asleep.
What is with roosters? I thought they crowed at sunrise, I don’t think a pitch black sky and four am is sunrise…
Our first full day on the island was going to involve a lot of not much. At breakfast our guide cut open the coconuts for the children to drink out of, then they swam and built sand castles. Tikboy came by to pick us up and he took us on a bit of a tour. Not that there is much to see aside from crystal waters you just want to fall and disappear into for a while. A sandbar where the mangroves grow was still underwater and gave Noodles the chance to really practice his doggy paddle as we waded and swam in the shallows. The sand is powdery white in this part of the island, just like the sand back in my home town.
We rode around to Bonsai Island, a small island of rock with a single mangrove growing on it, hence the name. In low tide the rocks are exposed. SB and BB got out and had a walk around.
We got back to our resort and once lunch was eaten the afternoon rains came in. An enormous storm hit the island and we stayed in our hut listening to the thunder and pelting rain. SB and BB were snuggled on one bed and FB was nestled into the crook of my arm and Noodles was at my feet. We lay listening to the rain on our bamboo roof and fell into a gentle slumber. You could not get a better afternoon than that.
When it came to meal times on the island, SB did the cooking. I think any open fire just attracts a man, it reminds him of his BBQ back home. I would sit on our veranda and watch as he worked in the small undercroft, speaking with the locals about how to work with the charcoal and fan the fire at just the right pace. The children helped him out, running back and forth to collect plates, and having turns fanning the flames of the grill. Our final meal was gourmet with chargrilled asparagus, zucchini, potatos and beans alongside sausages and rice.
Monday morning came and we were going to catch the public ferry back. We could either leave at six am which was clearly not going to happen, or between midday and one o’clock. After breakfast we had lazed on the beach swimming. The morning waters were blissfully cool on our hot skin. SB went off to snorkel around Bonsai Island. Tikboy had offered to drive us back to the mainland the previous day and after our relaxing morning we agreed it would be much more pleasant to have our own space and so we messaged him to come and get us before lunchtime.
As we putted along through the ocean the waves became choppy and the sea spray cooled my arms and my face. Noodles lay on my lap, I watched SB and BB sitting huddled together in the front of this boat chatting away about secret boy stuff and I looked down at FB nestled in her usual place under my arm. I kissed her head, breathing in her salty scent and smiled. Sandy toes and salty kisses, it really doesn’t get much better than this.
Where: Cagbalete Island
How: Drive to Mauban Port in Batangas. Find the Tourism Office and pay the environmental fee. Then you get on the ferry and pay for tickets on board.
Where to Stay: There are a lot of resorts on the island, privately owned. They are all pretty basic. We stayed at Villa Noe and found it lovely and welcoming. Check them out on Facebook, and they are really quick to respond to any inquiries via messenger.
Environmental fee: 50 php each
Ferry tickets: 70 php adults, 30php kids
Entrance Fee: 100php adults, children under 7 free, dog 200php
Nipa hut: costs vary depending on size so check the website for details
Boat transfer from the community to the resort: 400php
Island Tour: 1500php
Return trip by private charter: 1500php
Public Ferry Details
From Mauban: The ferry leaves at 10am and 3pm each day. It is a first come first served basis so get there early to get your seat.
We left Manila at 5am and arrived in Mauban with just enough time to get on board.
From Cagbalete Isand: The ferry leaves between 6 and 7am, then again between 12 and 1pm. It waits until it is at capacity before leaving.
Cagbalete Island – what you need to know
Amenties: Are basic, take toilet paper and don’t expect the Ritz. Villa Noe was kept very clean, the grounds were swept daily, rubbish cleared and amenties cleaned.
Cooking facilities are undercover but outside, as are the dishwashing and most shower facilities. There are enclosed showers for use too.
Food: Take everything you need including plates, cooking equipment, dishwashing sponges and detergent. Villa Noe can organise your meals, just liaise with them. The locals come past with seafood caught daily, we asked the ladies with the giant squid to come back the following day and were so excited to be getting fresh squid but they didn’t show. Luckily we had some food left over.
This is a community so there are street dogs everywhere. I did not consider this when taking Noodles so he was kept in his harness, on a leash the entire time, until bedtime. The dogs in the resort were harmless, very placid and did not bother us until we fed them (which we were told not to do). Then they all wanted to be adopted. Keep this in mind, if you have young kids, teach them to stay away from the dogs. If you take your pet, be mindful of how your pup will react to the environment.