Bound to the west by the South China Sea and to the east by the imposing Gran Cordillera Central mountain range, the Philippine provinces of Ilocos Norte and neighboring Ilocos Sur combine the cultural allure of old Manila and the natural beauty of holiday hot spot Boracay. Daily, hour-long flights connect Manila to Ilocos Norte's capital Laoag, but the area still manages to feel far from the tourist trail. Here are five of the top attractions.
1 Earthly Wonders
Lured by gold, Chinese and Japanese merchants sailed to the area centuries ago to barter with the predominantly Malay inhabitants. These days, travelers still go to Ilocos Norte, not so much to acquire its natural treasures as to experience them. The province's dynamic coastal topography lends itself to thrilling pursuits like sand-boarding and four-wheel driving at La Paz Sand Dunes. Time in a tethered balloon can also be arranged at nearby resort Fort Ilocandia for those who want to see this 45-hectare expanse from above. For a breathtaking example of the sculpting powers of seawater and wind, visit Burgos' Kapurpurawan a magnificent rock and coral formation, reached after a trek across sand, loose rocks and algae-covered coastline.
2 Church Architecture
When the first Spaniards went to Ilocos in 1572, local warriors thwarted their militant attempts to extend colonial authority north of Manila. So, to win over the rural populace, they resorted to a more peaceful means: religion. Conquered by the pomp and circumstance of Roman Catholicism, Ilocos eventually became the seat of evangelization in northern Luzon. Today, Ilocos Norte is home to dozens of the Philippines' grandest churches, including Paoay's Church of San Agustin. Other must-sees include Laoag's Italian Renaissance–style Cathedral of St. Williams, Sarrat's 105-m-long Santa Monica Church with its exposed wooden roof trusses and Bacarra's red brick St. Andrew's Church.
3 Bucolic Beaches
Forget Bali and Boracay. World-weary travelers wishing to escape the crowds should head to Ilocos Norte's pristine sands. Pagudpud's stunning Saud and Maira-ira beaches are ringed by lush green mountains and feature clear emerald waters (neck-deep, you can still count your toes). Midway to Pagudpud, stop by the historic Cape Bojeador Lighthouse. First lit in 1892 to facilitate the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade, this hilltop tower guides ships approaching the Pacific coast through the Babuyan Channel to this day.
4 Characterful Cuisine
Among Filipinos, Ilocanos are known for frugality, and the cuisine of this farming society features ingredients shunned elsewhere in the country, from velvety pokpoklo seaweed to slightly sour buos ant eggs. If you're after more conventional fare, head to the Laoag City Public Market and try the Ilocano version of the Spanish empanada. You can also take home some longganisa (peppery pork sausages) and a bottle of the famous local black vinegar, sukang Iloco. Don't forget to try authentic Ilocano dishes at La Preciosa restaurant, tel: (63-77) 777 5130, just a few minutes away. Start your meal with a salad of tomatoes, onions, mango and ar-arosep seaweed that bursts with brine when bitten, before indulging in the deliciously tender pork-belly dish known as bagnet.
5 Historic Vigan
Drive south for about an hour to neighboring province Ilocos Sur to get to Vigan, the Philippines' only UNESCO World Heritage city. Stroll along Calle Crisologo, the main street of this well-preserved Spanish trading post, for glimpses of the Philippines' colonial origins and gaze at one-of-a-kind architecture that combines 16th century Chinese aesthetics with European planning. Take in Syquia Mansion Museum, full of centuries-old furnishings from Europe and Asia, and pay a visit to the old pottery factory at Pagburnayan, where techniques introduced over 500 years ago by the Chinese are still practiced by local artisans.
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