Sarangani: Falling in Love with Sarangani

I’d have to admit that when I was first told that I’d be going to Sarangani with photographer Lisa Cruz, I didn’t know much about it. I flippantly thought I would find the usual beautiful resorts that the Philippines seems to have no shortage of. Little did I know that I would fall head-over-heels in love, not only with the place and the food, but also with the culture and its people.

I feel the first flicker of attraction when Michelle Solon (Sarangani Tourism Industry Association President) brings us to Sarangani Highlands in General Santos City. I step into a lyrical pocket of hill top land bursting with flowering shrubs; framed by the crystalline waters of Sarangani Bay, with languorous Mount Parker and Matutum as backdrops. Off to the left, a weather-beaten bench sits in a sunny alcove surrounded by lavender blooms. Round another corner, low, sculpted trees partially hide a thatched-roofed yet open eating area where sheer, white drapes flutter in the breeze.

We succumb to the gentle ministrations of resort owner and host extraordinaire, Dr. Tranquilino Ruiz with nary a struggle. After sitting ourselves down to a cozy yet impeccable table setting, “Doc” (as he is fondly called) sets about putting us at ease with his ribald wit and tiny injections of Sarangani culture and history. This engaging conversation punctuated by Michelle’s ebullience and Doc’s bon vivant spirit puts us in the mood for a repast – brunch.

And what a repast it is! A plate of crunchy tuna belly makes its appearance on the table. I encounter the delicately spiced, crunchy batter before I bite into the delectably moist tuna. When the last delicious morsel is polished off, we dig into meaty, sizzling bangus, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. What sets it apart from its less esteemed counterparts, is the creamy yet chewy meatiness that is to be expected from fish prepared at its most fresh. Between nibbles of the tartly spiced beef tapa, repartee had taken a three-way-arrangement among Michelle, Dr. Ruiz, and Dr. Anabelle Abella. Threaded through their spirited talk is a fierce pride in their culture.

Michelle Solon herself is an Ilongga, and is now a resident of Sarangani by virtue of marriage to Vice-Governor Steve Solon, but she talks of Sarangani as if she were Sarangani born.

“When I moved here, friends and family would occasionally ask me how I was coping. I’d always say that I was happy to call Sarangani home! I have everything I can wish for,” Michelle says. “There’s more time to do things in the day because there’s hardly any traffic. The air is fresh. Food is cheap and plentiful. Natural beauty is right in my backyard. What more can I ask for?”

Dr. Ruiz has his own share of narrative, “I have no regrets about being born in this part of the world. In fact, I relish my self-appointed role as mobile historian of Sarangani.” He gestures to a low knoll overlooking most of General Santos City. Perched near the edge of the knoll, facing the divide to Sarangani Bay is a driftwood seat.

“I usually have coffee in that cul-de-sac. It brings me closer to the divine. This is my paradise,” he muses aloud.

Doctor Anabelle Abella adds, “A guest once said we have a piece of paradise here – paradise reborn.”

That piece of paradise is aptly reflected in the paintings of native blooms by T’boli artist Ronald Tamfalan, which hang from stout wooden posts in the main restaurant and decorate the exterior walls of the toilets. After our gustatory and artistic appetites were filled, cups of smoky Sarangani Blend Coffee arrive just in time to soothe our full stomachs and senses. This, in essence, was my first taste of Sarangani—lyrical with a hint of more to come.

As I took my second and then my third sip, I thought to myself, “Sarangani, you had me at hello.”

A Farm Fit for a Champion

I am not much of a boxing aficionado but you’d have been living under a rock to not know who Manny Pacquiao is. If you were indeed living under a rock, the championship belt detail high above the massive gate would leave you in no doubt that a boxer owns this farm – and not only that, he has 3 children. Standing squarely at its entrance is a solid sculpture of Manny and Jinky Pacquiao’s three elder children (they actually have four kids now, I was told) done by Davao’s national artist, Qublai Milan.

Farther down is a museum of sorts, chronicling the rise of a little-known pugilist brimming with brawn and bravado. Amusingly, his hairstyle changes the higher up the welterweight ladder he climbs: from a bleached floppy hairdo to a fashionably dapper, cropped cut.

I notice a number of squat mango trees with low-hanging fruit nearby. Manny Pacquaio must love mangoes! And judging by the number of fighting cocks in his mini-cockpit, he must love cock-fighting too! This is confirmed by Maria Leonora Guanzon (tourism staff) who says that a number of bigwigs have graced the exclusive events.

The Groaning Table at Isla Parilla

Isla Parilla is picture of calm when we arrive in the early afternoon. Lisa Cruz snaps photos of cottages sitting on a rippling pond while I take a cursory walk down the wooden planks that connect the cottages to the main restaurant, Cafe Formosa. I finish taking a closer view of one thatched hut before my nose leads me back to Cafe Formosa. I watch as smiling waiters begin to lay down a myriad seafood dishes.

The dining table begins to groan! Just looking at the spread would make any gourmet’s knees buckle with anticipation: sweet and sour sea bass, steamed pampano with spicy shrimp paste, baked clams topped with cheese, garlic and butter on a hot bed of salt, chopsuey with mushrooms, grilled tuna belly, and the clincher: tuna sashimi. To give me enough gumption to sample every dish, Michelle introduces me to the king of all buko shakes; an ice cold, creamy, coconut concoction I was glad to have met on that balmy day. It would steel me for the orgiastic food feast to follow.

Inevitably, I took up the gauntlet thrown down by the groaning table. I went through every plate with the determination of a culinary soldier, amazed that each dish could still delight my taste buds despite the inordinate consumption. When I got to the tuna sashimi, however, I entered gourmet heaven. I simply knew that, much like comparing an expert lover to mediocre ones, other servings of tuna sashimi would pale in comparison after this.

My fate was sealed. My love affair with Sarangani had begun.

Sarangani Highlands on a Sultry Night

Sarangani Highlands, lit up at night, gets me in the mood to wear a maxi dress. The soft lighting, rippling fountain, and flowering arcs would put anyone in the mood to get all dolled-up for a romantic dinner. After the food fest at Isla Parilla, however, our stomachs could only accommodate a light salad of sinfully sweet mangoes, tart pomelos, chunks of sashimi, and aromatic black fern soup.

From the restaurant, the darkened bay glimmers in the moonlight, and Mounts Parker and Matutum stand like purple sentinels against the night sky. The perfume of blooms wafts towards us and I could distinctly hear the faint hiss of the bay against the shore. Before we knew it, the night had fallen and the flickering candles on the tabletops had melted down.

The Balinese-inspired corridor is lit by warm lamps. As Doc indicates, we come upon a door painted with bright, yellow sunflowers – this is to be our room for the night. The Asian flavor extends to the bedroom with its classic, simple lines and muted color palette.

For the first time in months, I sleep like a baby.

All Roads Lead to Lemlunay

Our journey to Lemlunay, which is T’boli for ‘paradise’, starts early the next morning at Saranggani Highlands. From our vantage point at Doc Ruiz’s cul-de-sac, I can see why “paradise” and “blessed” are words that find themselves in any conversation with natives of General Santos City.

Doc is up early. When I surmise that he must feel deeply satisfied when viewing his piece of paradise from the cul-de-sac, he responds by erupting into the song “This Land is Mine,” complete with flamboyant theatricality. I leave Sarangani Highlands, after a huge breakfast of “Arroz de Sarangani” (a tasty rice and ground beef preparation with eggs, fried bananas and sweet potatoes), with the song ringing in my ears.

The next stop is the “Sarangani Bay Prime Bangus” facility, where we view their first-rate operations first-hand. True to its vision of providing quality products as far as the USA and Australia and providing the local market with prime bangus, the Sarangani Bay facility is spotlessly clean—peopled with staff who seem to respect the rules and value their jobs. It’s a win-win situation for consumers!

Naturally, we just had to see the fish port after that! But not before donning white rubber boots, which not only make a startling fashion statement, but also ensure that the fish port remains unsullied. It is a bustling place of commerce with a rhythm all its own. Fishing boats drop off the sea’s bounty of silvery tuna, which are carried (dragging is not allowed) on a swarthy fish hand’s shoulders, one finger hooked into the fish’s eye socket for balance. The fish are laid out like a silvery chorus line. A needle tester punctures the area near the fin to determine the quality of the flesh. Someone chuckles after inspecting a sample, “Ka-puti (pale)!” In glutathione-obsessed Manila, that would have been taken as a compliment by any self-respecting young lady. At the fish port, it meant the pale flesh would command a lower price.

Beach Country!

Lisa and I are then left by Michelle Solon in the able hands of staff members of the Tourism Office, Aiza Plantinos and Arnold Anog. They brim with youthful eagerness to show us why the beaches of Sarangani are something even Boracay would have to worry about. By the sound of it, wild horses can’t drag them from their stretch of paradise!

Isla Jardin Del Mar boasts a slice of coast with golden sand that borders on white. Thatched bamboo cottages situated near the beach, come complete with the comforts of air-conditioning, for those who prefer nippy air during balmy nights. The cottage rates range from Php1, 300 to Php2, 500 depending on your preference. I am told, however, that despite having paid for rooms, most guests eventually find themselves spending a whole night by the beach.

A few yards ahead is Coco Beach, where the white, powdery sand can give Boracay a run for its money. Though more on the rustic side, cabanas can accommodate whole families at Php40 per head. One goes to Coco Beach for a few hours of family bonding and its spectacular sunset view. I espy fishing boats that resemble galleons meeting the pinkish rays of the setting sun in the distance. As the sun sinks into the blue waters, the fine sand gleams even whiter, silhouetting the families playing by the water’s edge.

Lemlunay Found!

The road to Lemlunay Dive Resort in Maasim, Sarangani Province is flanked by steep mountain faces which hide dark caves and a cliff-side view of placid beaches. We turn a bend and the vehicle finally crunches on a short stretch of gravel. We walk through a short entrance and emerge into a view that takes my breath away. Sarangani Bay allures with turquoise waters softly lapping against the reef wall.

We sit down to a late lunch with Paul Partridge, resort owner and resident dive master. Paul embodies the laid-back Lemlunay vibe. He describes the birth of the resort with the air of a surfer dude who just happens to be a diver.

“We started with just two cottages. It was pretty much for family and friends. Then, we added this restaurant area. Now, we have cottages farther ahead, and an infinity pool. It just grew out of our desire to enjoy the reef,” Paul narrates.

He gestures towards the waters, “I especially appreciate the view when there’s a little rain. There’s a stronger breeze and the waves are awesome! It doesn’t get violent though. Sarangani is not typhoon-prone.” He points to a section of the bay, “See that area from the yellow boat to the sandbar? That was declared a sanctuary five years ago. Since then, the pelagics (oceanic birds) have come back. You can even see turtles come up for air. In fact, three species of turtles lay eggs in Sarangani: the Olive Ridley, Green Sea Turtle, and Hawksbill. If you stick around long enough, the spinner dolphins will treat you to a show. The bay is huge!”

A languor descends as my eyes find the lapping waters of the bay and the white patches of Glan (a municipality of Sarangani) in the horizon, only to be interrupted Michelle’s chuckling remark, “Do you notice that Paul is not only a diver but also an avid environmentalist?” I have to agree.

Our grumbling stomachs also agree that we had built up an appetite when the waiter takes our orders. Lisa decides to get buffalo wings while I have fish and chips.

If you ever find yourself in Lemlunay, do order a plate of fish and chips! The batter is light, crunchy and subtly spiced, the perfect foil for the meaty fish; and, the potato wedges are slightly toasted, piquant and creamy. I tell you, it beats any old “fish and chips” in Queensland, Australia – and I’ve had platefuls of that back in Oz.

With grumbling stomachs satisfied, chatter pauses and the cool breeze induces a gentle stupor. Upon Michelle’s prodding, Lisa and I take a little nap. Our room is a luxurious suite right by the infinity pool. We slide open the glass doors, turn on the air-conditioning, draw the beige drapes shut and promptly fall asleep on the king-sized beds.

When I wake up, Michelle and I take a quick, refreshing dip in the pool. And then it’s off to the Sarangani Capitol Building we go! A brilliant white building with bright blue trim rises up to meet us and spreads over a raised, expansive area. The Capitol complex itself is dotted with pine trees and boasts verdant lawns which people are free to enjoy. As we approach a B’laan sculpture, which shows B’laan people dancing to illustrate where they are from, a group of boy scouts clamber in and out of the sculpted figures with an air of youthful mirth. Mirth is contagious in Sarangani so we follow suit, posing as the sculptured figures are posed. When the sky deepens to a purple hue, we head back to Lemlunay. Dinner is a simple yet flavorful chicken wrap for Lisa and a succulent beef wrap for me, flavored by a tart, garlicky sauce, and washed down with ice-cold soda – perfect for a full day of enjoyment.

Michelle had told me of the muted ‘boom’ as the bay pushes against the reef at night. The sound is primeval from my hammock near the reef’s wall. I lie back to enjoy a night sky dotted with stars and the rustling of coconut fronds overhead. Because I have perked my ears up for the rhythmic ‘boom’, I continue to hear it as my eyes close in the air-conditioned comfort of our room. Before I finally drift off to sleep, I make myself a promise; I would come back one day, to pick up where I had left off, and discover what more Sarangani has to offer.

In other words, my love affair with Sarangani doesn’t end when I leave on a jet plane.