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Albay and the Search for the Elusive Mayon

In finding the Mayon Volcano, I discovered that Albay is a land blessed with a multitude of attractions and world class cuisine.

It was a particularly busy time when my mom posed the question, “Do you want to join us when we go to Albay?” Fresh off a laborious project, I nodded. I needed a vacation, but the singularity of observing Mayon Volcano from a distance–awe-inspiring as I thought it would be–didn’t create quite a stir. It was the only attraction I knew of in the Bicol region, and I couldn’t be bothered to do any research at the time.

A week passed, and I found myself aboard a plane to the capital of Albay province, Legazpi, with my mom and a family friend. I was stuck on the idea that Albay would probably be too Mayon-centric for its own good, so I skipped the research; anything that I would encounter would be met with wonder and astonishment as a measure of self-preservation. It was a sound strategy, but perhaps fate realized what I was up to and devised a way to cloud my terrible judgment.

A hazy perspective

We landed in Legazpi after a 45-minute flight from Manila. Part of the airports purported appeal was its scenic view of the Mayon Volcano, which would goad many a traveler to pause for a moment and marvel at the mountain’s perfect cone shape before picking up their luggage. 

We had none of that. 

When I stepped out of the plane, I was greeted to half a volcano and a thick sheet of low-lying clouds, making the much revered site appear like any random mountain. Of course, that was unacceptable.  

Flustered, I boarded the van. We headed for higher ground to get a better view, and this time I saw more of the volcano but its tip was still concealed by a pervasive wisp. In resignation, I returned to the van, which left for the resort where we were staying. I didn’t do any research, nor did I bother to read the itinerary, so I had no idea where we were going.

While in transit, I notice that parts of Legazpi were far more developed than the typical provincial city. In place of expansive stretches of farmlands are webs of paved roads and a plethora of urbanized commercial centers, some of which resembled the smaller districts in Metro Manila. Large shopping malls can be found in Albay’s capital city, as well as widely known fast food and convenience store chains. At the rate the city is going, it might not be long before land developers turn Legazpi into a gentrified playground. 

Clandestine paradise

To my surprise, our van went past Legazpi—which I thought was our destination—and eventually reached a sleepy town called Cagraray, known for its beaches, a scenic ecological park, and a tropical island getaway in Misibis Bay. It turned out Misibis was our destination. 

The resort has five hectares worth of topnotch facilities, a multitude of swimming pools, remarkable architecture, a private beach, and first-rate meals. Furthermore, any traveler can stay at Misibis Bay for a week and not get bored, given the amount of activities on offer. You can always try an ATV ride to the Cagraray Eco-Energy Park or the foot of Mayon Volcano. There are a variety of beach-related recreations, tours to Bicol’s throng of caves and rivers, a tour of Legazpi City, and a tour to swim with the whale sharks at Donsol, among others. For an extra amount of cash, you can make the tours private and customize the itinerary.

It was raining hard when we arrived, and it continued to do so until the second day of our stay. A tropical storm had brought torrential rainfall as well as strong gusts of wind to the region, rendering excursions to Bicol’s attractions unsafe. I could have lost our second day to inclement weather, but I took the time to explore a bit of the resort and get some work done. Coffee and rain, after all, lent to a stimulating yet relaxing work environment, plus the fact that the resort’s facilities were easy on the eyes to say the least.

When the rain died down a little, I visited the lagoon pool, which elegantly bled into portions of the poolside walkway, separated by bridges and serving as a stylized lake to a manmade island at the center. Near it was an infinity pool, which gave the impression that it was the swanky opening to the seascape beyond the private beach.  

The beach is nowhere near the size and vibrancy of your Boracays and Palawans, but it has its own modest charm, tailored for the laidback beachcomber or the active travelers who prefer a more intimate setting. Reading a book while enjoying a cocktail on a bench feels just as welcome as diving or riding a kayak. 

As it was raining and extremely windy at the time, I was content to simply take photos and indulge in a reverie while looking at the horizon – a still Mayon-less horizon.

Notable Misibis eats

Fortune favors the famished at Misibis Bay, and my hunger from touring the place led me to one of my favorite attractions of the entire trip: the Crispy Bicol Express.

While traditional sinilihan from Bicol is already a culinary gem, with coconut milk, tender pork cubes, shrimp paste, and chili peppers, the Misibis version does one better by replacing the tender pork with a generous portion of ridiculously crispy lechon kawali and turning the sauce’s sweetness up a notch.

My mom, who normally had the appetite of a lovebird, wound up consuming an entire bowl of rice upon trying the Crispy Bicol Express.

An equally remarkable dish was the Chicken Tinutungan, or chicken cooked to a light char then lathered in milk from charcoal-grilled coconut with a potpourri of spices. The tart sweetness of the sauce complemented the bitterness of the toasted coconut and the chicken skin, weaving a flavor profile that delightfully punctuated the taste buds.

One of the most well-known Bicolano dishes, the laing, features shredded taro leaves, coconut milk, and liberal portions of chili. At Misibis, they temper the spiciness with a hint of sweetness, which allows the dish to mesh well with other savory meals. For those who want a little bit of everything, the restaurant serves a bento box sampler that contains laing and other Bicolano delights on the menu like the Crispy Bicol Express, Salt and Pepper Adobo, Salmon Sinigang, and some shrimp paste.

To end the meal, Misibis has on its menu a combination of two widely-known Filipino desserts in the Leche Flan Turon. Six lumpiang-Shanghai-sized turon come with a sweet leche flan dip.

The resort’s dedication to preparing sophisticated meals that are both familiar and unique coupled with accommodating and efficient service piqued my curiosity, as the experience was akin to that of fancy hotel restaurants. As it turned out, Misibis Bay is run by Enderun, an esteemed school and provider of hospitality solutions that has earned a glowing reputation in Metro Manila, perhaps the entire country even.

With the food, alone, I knew that I’d be a happy camper for the rest of the trip.

Exploring Legazpi

By the third day, the rain had stopped and the winds were relatively tame. We availed of a private tour of Legazpi via the resort and booked a van to take us around the city. At this point, I had nearly forgotten about Mayon Volcano and the singularity that I unfairly attributed to the region. But it was time to see the main attraction, which was no less than one of the planet’s most picturesque volcanoes. 

“There is a belief in Albay that Mayon shows itself to people at a time when they least expect it to. Maybe this is the reason why the clouds tend to part and provide a clear view of the mountain during the last days of tourist trips,” our tour guide said in Filipino.

It was our final full day and I expected to encase such a magnificent sight within four borders as both a subject and a backdrop to a variety of settings. Nearly every place that we were slated to visit had a distinct view of the historical mountain, so what could go wrong? The devil was in the details, apparently.

Our first stop was the Cagsawa Ruins. Its centerpiece, the Cagsawa Church, was built in 1587. The most powerful eruption of Mayon to date, in 1814, buried the Franciscan church and the town of Cagsawa in lahar. All that was left were the church’s belfry, some of the topmost portions of the church’s main hall, and a small section of the pathway leading to the church. The grim air of the centuries-old tragedy still permeated the otherwise lush and tranquil space. 

Looming over the ruins is the Mayon Volcano, an imposing figure that conceals its destructive power beneath a pristine and wondrous façade. When erupting, the volcano is unparalleled in magnificence as some tourists and locals would rather risk safety just to be within the sphere of such a beautiful disaster.

I could have had my share of those flowery feelings if not for the ocean of clouds that made the volcano appear like a gigantic tree stump.

Nonetheless, witnessing the Cagsawa Ruins is still an experience.

As I was heading back to the van, I noticed several stalls selling sili ice cream near the entrance of the ruins. The penultimate variant in the spiciness scale, Level 3 Chocolate, tasted like regular chocolate ice cream until a modest kick surprises the palate toward the end of the flavor trail. It was all right; nowhere near as hot as spicy Thai curry. Wanting more heat, I tried the spiciest item available, the Super Extreme Vanilla, and was thoroughly pleased. It also fell short in regard to heat as it was only mildly spicier than the chocolate, but its milky sweetness was highly addictive.

Next on the itinerary was the Daraga Church. Recognized as one of the Philippines’ National Cultural Treasures, the church became the settlement and place of worship for the people from Cagsawa who were displaced by the 1814 eruption of Mayon Volcano. 

Today, Daraga Church still holds masses and is a popular choice for weddings and baptisms with its exceptional architecture and the grandeur of its façade.  Like the Cagsawa Ruins, it also affords tourists a distinct view of Mayon should the clouds move in anyone’s favor. (Still none for me, though.)

Determined that we see Mayon, the tour guide drove us to a natural viewing deck called Lignon Hill. The nature park offered a panoramic view of Legazpi City, the airport, Albay Gulf, Daraga, and, of course, Mayon Volcano. While the clouds persisted in concealing Mayon, they added to the mystique of Albay Gulf’s view, which had a dim glow to it as if attempting to replicate an impressionist painting. Needless to say, it was remarkable.

I had one last shot to view Mayon for the day, but instead we opted to indulge ourselves in the region’s other attractions, particularly those that appealed to our taste buds. As such, we had a taste of what many consider as Albay’s finest halo halo at DJC. At only PhP 95, the DJC Halo Halo Supreme was an absolute steal as it came in a huge glass filled with copious amounts of ube, ube ice cream, cheddar cheese, leche flan, red jello, and beans.

I daresay it’s the best halo halo I’ve ever had.

To cap off the tour, we proceeded to Albay Pili, the oldest and most popular pili nut factory in Bicol.

I have to admit that the pili tarts sold by street vendors are a lot cheaper in comparison, but they also taste more like flour than pili nut. The same cannot be said for the wide range of pili-based delights found at Albay Pili, from toasted pili in sweet glaze, to pili brittle, to huge bars of mazapan de pili, down to Bicolano chili sauce which can be partnered with countless viands.

Satisfied with the tour, we made our way back to Misibis and shared a Bicolano Bento Box sampler at the restaurant for dinner. Each viand was a brilliant fraction to a stellar whole akin to the bite-sized portions of Albay that we partook of. I could’ve had a bigger box with more expansive compartments had I done my research prior to the trip, with Albay being a province that is diverse in culture and rich in attractions. But all was well. The specter of Mayon had done its part in tearing down a preconceived notion, leading to genuine fondness for the province’s true beauty, albeit in small portions.

The following day, as I was about to board the plane back to Manila, I had one last glimpse of Mayon, which was still largely concealed by clouds. I took a photo of the barely visible volcano with the plane and several passengers who were in a hurry to take their checked-in luggage; a pretty good photo by my standards and limited skills.

I’m not expecting Mayon to make an appearance next time.