Surfing and skiing have the same undeniable quality; should we need to explain them to an alien as examples of human recreational actives, we would appear undeniably bonkers. Throwing ourselves down a mountain or attempting to ‘catch a wave’ on a piece of wood, are unlikely to mark us out as an intelligent life form to our extraterrestrial friends. This was the somewhat uninvited thought that occurred to me seven hours into an eight and a half bus journey from Manila to San Juan, the surf town in the north of Luzon Island, Philippines. By this point it was dark, my iPod had died and we were heading into the unknown 4 hours and ten minutes hours beyond the advised journey time.
I had been informed the bus journey from Manila was a mere four to five hours to the surf school. This advice absent mindedly ommitted the hour and a half from Manila Ninoy Aquino International Airport to the bus station. Traffic in Manila is abominable. As a rule of thumb, think London rush hour and add ninety minutes to each section of the journey
Since moving to Hong Kong last year surfing in the Philippines has been at the top of my ‘to do’ list. I grew up lucky enough to enjoy endless summers spent on the Cornish coast honing the sport (read staying afloat) under the guidance of the team at Sennen Surfing Centre.
The Hong Kong mid-Autumn festival long weekend presented the perfect opportunity and with one of the world’s surfing capitals a stone’s throw away, it seemed silly not to go.
Despite the slightly nerve racking journey – which ended with the passengers assisting the driver in identifying the whereabouts of my hostel – in the dark and pouring rain, it was worth it. Half an hour after arriving I was at the beachfront bar enjoying a cold beer and chatting to one of the staff, as I attempted to eat a bowl of peanuts while avoiding the fish some culinary genius had thrown in with them.
From there my three-day stay went from strength to strength. Flotsam & Jetsam hostel describes itself as a family and it is a philosophy all the staff take to heart. Head of marketing Ali goes out of her way to engage you and make sure you’re comfortable while the receptionists are always keen to say hi and chat as you walk to and from the beach and your room. The rooms are perfectly nice for a hostel, well air conditioned with more than enough facilities to cater comfortably for all guests. The food served at the bar is cheap and delicious. My initial encounter with out of place fish bites was not repeated.
Maki smoothie bowls are the perfect breakfast – made with fresh fruit and coconut water for only 225 pesos (£3.60). However, if that’s not your thing basic coffee, toast, cereal and fruit is provided with the cost of the room. For lunch and dinner my favourites were truffle fries and carbonara,although they also do exceptional fresh pizza. I recommend the Barlic – bacon and garlic- the name alone won me over. Just watch out for Jarrio the adorable cat who ruthlessly and effectively exploits his looks for food.
I booked the three day surf package: two and a half hours of one-on-one lessons for three days. Although the surf wasn’t amazing with waves around 2-3ft the school did everything to accommodate, including moving one lesson to a beach half an hour’s tuk tuk ride away to find better swell. Sitting on the board admiring the scenery chatting to my instructor was just as enjoyable as the actual surfing. Don’t get me wrong with my mastery of 2 ft waves, turning and paddling I am well on my way to a pro-sponsorship deal. But chilling in the flat water enjoying the sunset isn’t bad either.
On Sunday I re-scheduled my lesson to 4pm to keep my sadly sunburnt legs out of the midday heat after acquiring 100% sun block which failed to block. I didn’t look cool. It didn’t matter. Sunday is the day when local families come to the beach to surf. The water was full of novices and experts of all ages splashing, riding and nose-diving , and all this set aagainst a sunset backdrop of jungle and mountains.
It was pretty spectacular – a surfer’s paradise made real. With the added excitement of a celebrity filming what appeared to be an advert for the area (there’s an outside chance my stand-up surfing abilities are the backdrop of a tourist board video) it was a fitting way to end the trip.
In between a hectic schedule of surfing, wandering along the beach and checking out the growing array of cafes in San Juan you just read and relax. There isn’t much else to do. With reliable wifi,endless sockets and beanbags the bar is perfectly set up for such activities; seamlessly bridging the escapism of a beach weekend with the desire to keep in touch with the rest of the world.
Leaving the resort was less relaxing. I was up and out for 4am into a tuk tuk generously arranged by Ali the evening before, in order to catch a 5am bus from down the road. From there it was,only a 6 hour drive back to the bus depot, which during the day provides fantastic views of the Filipino mountains and rivers. From the depot, after refusing to get in one taxi as they declined to turn the meter on, I was on my way to the airport.
As my first solo holiday the trip was a success. My pointers for anyone looking to do the same route is to spedn more time at the resort and less time on the bus. Twelve hours travelling is a long way for three days. Be prepared for things to go wrong, not dramatically wrong but buses being slow, or full, dodgy taxi drivers and wildly inaccurate timings threw me off my guard.
Manila isn’t a nice city by anyone’s reckoning – many of the Flotsum and Jetsum hostel staff had moved away from the capital- so a clear route in and out is key. Apart from that language isn’t a barrier and nearly everyone I met put themselves out to help me. Against a news cycle of Duterte’s harsh regime, I found a country and community wanting to engage, become safer and build bridges. One civil servant was even happy to debate the pros and cons of the President’s war on drugs and how that has affected foreign direct investment with me over pina coladas and nachos.
I hope I get the chance to go back, improve my surfing and hike the waterfall. Flotsam made it clear anyone is welcome, they are rightly proud of the surf community they have created away from the headlines. I would strongly recommend visiting alone or with others – just remember to charge your iPod before you set off.