Gems Of The North

It was my first trip to the northern end of the country and, quite frankly, I was not expecting much. I was there to check on the availability of tourism and hospitality establishments willing to take in our students as interns. Having taken the eight-hour overnight bus trip, I was still sleepy, dazed and not really in my element when I arrived early morning in Laoag City.

The ride from the bus terminal to my hotel took around 20 minutes. I immediately noticed the clean, wide, and well-paved roads, like those of the US and Singapore. I thought, maybe only these streets mainly used by visitors are in this condition, and is just a strategy to impress, much like how Imelda, during her reign as Metro Manila Governor, covered the squatters’ shanties along Pasay’s Airport Road so that arriving visitors won’t see them. I lacked sleep, so I didn’t dwell on it.

The imposing façade of Paoay Church

The Plaza del Norte Hotel and Convention Center, reportedly owned by Ilocos Norte Governor Imee Marcos, was my home for the weekend. From my lethargic state, I immediately perked up when I noticed that traces of the city’s Spanish-colonial charm blended beautifully with the property’s luxurious facilities and amenities. My room even had a spacious porch looking out into the huge Olympic-sized pool right in the middle of the property. I have to admit I was impressed to see a hotel like that in that part of the country. 

The Leaning Bell Tower of Bacarra

And, breakfast at my hotel was always a feast, considering the many “calorific” delicacies from the province. Every morning, I had this mental “tug-of-war” between wanting to stay longer to try out all the culinary offerings on the breakfast buffet or leaving the hotel early to start enjoying the many tourist attractions the city and neighboring towns offer. The Leo that I am, my desire to have many photo ops at these interesting destinations always won!

The beautiful lobby of Fort Ilocandia Resort

Being on my first visit, I made sure I had the time to check them all out. The Suba Sand Dunes of Paoay is the ultimate thrill ride, so I decided to write about it immediately in an earlier column. As to the other “gems” in the province, across from the hotel is the Malacañang of the North, a five-hectare property, once the official residence of the former First Family during their hometown visits.  The locals tell me that this two-storey mansion was a gift from the former First Lady to the former President on his 60th birthday. It used to have all the luxurious trimmings and modern facilities of a royal residence. Unfortunately, it is now in a state of disrepair, in its new identity as the Fort Ilocandia Golf and Country Club.

The new owner should have taken better care of it, like it did of its flagship property, the Fort Ilocandia Resort. This deluxe haven is sprawled over 77 hectares of land including sand dunes, a pine forest and a two-kilometer sandy beach facing the Western Philippines Sea. I particularly like the hotel lobby, so “old world,” so elegant and so “welcoming.”

The picturesque windmills of Bangui

Next stop was the beautiful, imposing, baroque St. Augustine Church, popularly known as the Paoay Church, with its enormous buttresses on the sides and back of the building. These huge support structures were designed to prevent possible destruction of the church during earthquakes. The Miag-Ao Church in Iloilo also has these buttresses. Both churches are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

The former residence of the Marcos family in Batac is now the Marcos Museum, where the former president’s remains lie in state, kept in a class case inside an air-conditioned hall. Five security guards made sure we did not take pictures. I learned from one of them that picture-taking is now prohibited because there have been many instances in the past that pictures of the remains were vandalized and posted in various social media, dressed up like a monster, or with horns on the head, or a big swastika emblazoned on the arm, etc. Sad! I was never a fan of Marcos either but I believe in respecting the dead.

White sand and blue waters at Pagudpud Beach

The house of Doña Josefa Edralin, the former president’s mother, is in Sarrat and I took time to visit it, too, because my guide told me that the PCGG (Presidential Commission on Good Government) had an earth-shaking discovery there after the Marcoses left the country. Five drums of gold coins, supposedly part of the famed Yamashita Treasure, were found in the well at the back of this house. This made me curious and interested… I wanted to check out the well, just in case there were still a few gold coins stuck in some of its crevices. The well is still there, alright, but, alas, it is now completely sealed.

The Sinking Bell Tower in downtown Laoag got me confused. The guide pointed out the door to the tower, with its lower half now underground. I went to take a closer look but couldn’t see any trace of soil erosion or anything that would indicate continuous sinking of the structure into the soil. I decided to leave it at that and proceeded to another popular bell tower, about an hour’s drive from the city. Tagged as the Leaning Tower of Bacarra, it didn’t take long for me to notice that, indeed, it was leaning a little bit to the right.

A rear view of Doña Josefa Edralin’s house showing the tubular well that is said to have contained five drums of gold coins, as discovered by the PCGG

We drove all the way to Pagudpud, branded as the Boracay of the North. The white sand beach, the clear blue water, and the cool sea breeze made up for the long drive. On our way back, we passed by the beautiful lighthouse on top of the hill in Burgos, locale for many romantic movies and local telenovelas. But the highlight of that day’s long drive was the Windmills of Bangui, neatly arranged in a row along the seashore… perfect for a postcard-pretty photo op, as shown on this page.

The clean, well-paved, wide, highways of the province made it easy for us to travel long distances. After visiting the province’s tourist attractions, I am convinced that clean, well-paved wide roads is the norm in Ilocos Norte, something that all other provinces should emulate. Even the establishments and houses along the roads are all clean, well-constructed and nicely painted. Any visitor would easily be impressed by such order and cleanliness in the countryside. I have become an instant fan of Governor Imee!

I am happy I made the trip. I discovered many historical and cultural “gems” in that part of our country. But, taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture, I can easily declare that the real “gem” is Gov. Imee Marcos.  Like the Cullinan Diamond, the world’s biggest, she sparkles in the way she runs the province. Ilocos Norte is imbued with a 3000-carat brilliance which mesmerizes first-time visitors like me into wanting to come back for more. In fact, I’m now counting the days until my next visit.



A beggar approaches a woman at the beach with his hands out. “Please, Ma’am,” the poor man pleads, “I haven’t eaten all day.”  “Good,” says the woman. “Now you won’t have to worry about cramps when you go for a swim.”


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