North Country: Discovering Everything that Ilocos Norte Has to Offer - Travel

“It was an amazing experience that I believe is worth sharing,” says Lifestyle Asia editor-in-chief Dong Ronquillo.

I must admit that Ilocos Norte was never in my list of places to visit. I have only been to Ilocos Norte once in my life for a work trip moons ago. I have heard a lot of nice places to visit here, but it never got me excited. 

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But a few weeks ago, a group of friends and I were invited to help promote Ilocos Norte tourism through our social media accounts. Why not, I thought. it was something new to me and it probably will be good content. I have been a staunch supporter of local tourism and promoting it not just in the Philippines, but also around the world.

Patapat Viaduct

And so off we go, we took a Philippine Airlines flight and in a little over an hour we landed in the capital city of Laoag. From high above the ground, we could already see the province’s famous sand dunes as the airport is located at the mouth of Padsan River.

The Laoag International Airport has a lot of character, with brick walls and huge, church-like window panes that allows you to view all the intricate wood furniture and terracotta flooring. A coconut tree motif hugs the pillars that extends to the ceiling and they make use of nipa huts at the airline counters. It’s pretty much like the airports in Bali and Koh Samui.

Panzian resort farm-to-table dishes

The host of our trip, young, dynamic, and progressive Governor Matthew Manotoc, was with us in the flight. He and his team are taking Ilocos Norte tourism to the next level, with the end goal of helping their constituents recover from the pandemic. They want to give them a boost they need.

Their tourism campaign is “Ilocos Norte, I’m In,” which is also the hashtag. It is meant to create buzz and revive tourism. The aim is to have people ride on the bandwagon of going to Ilocos Norte and that they are “in” or they desire to travel to Ilocos Norte.

Morning yoga and meditation

We hopped on nice comfortable vans to Pagudpud, which is an hour and half away from the airport. The roads of the province, I must say, are well developed, and nicely cemented through and through. Not a single rough road in the whole of our five-day trip. I didn’t sleep despite the early flight and admired the beautiful scenic drive. I never imagined that the coast line would be that breathtaking. We passed through the Patapat Viaduct, which is also the fourth longest bridge in the Philippines.

We arrived at the Pannzian resort, a nice quaint rustic, utilitarian and a resort with a private beach area. This leg of our trip was all about mindfulness, and wellness.  As soon as we arrived we had a session with a trained mindfulness facilitator, Frida.

The church at Sitio Remedios

We had morning yoga and rope flow classes by the beach, breathing exercises and mindfulness walk by the river. Unlimited facials and massages were available for us throughout the stay. What else can you ask for?  It was such a rich experience to be one with nature and focus on self-care. It was a magical experience and one-of-a-kind.

The food in Pannzian was amazing. Food presentation and taste were exceptionally unique from the home grown ingredients in the resort plus a multitude of mulberry infused delicacies. I was impressed that every meal was a delight. And, of course, the service of the courteous and always jolly Ates were wonderful.

Paoay Church

While in Pagudpud, we were brought to Saud Beach. It is a two-kilometer charming white sand beach rivaling the other famous beaches in the Philippines. Underdeveloped and still virgin, it has a beautiful coast line with coconut palms, and pristine waters. Never have I known that such a beach existed here. Nestled in the peaceful beach of Saud is Hakuna Matata Saud Resort where we were treated with a marvelous Japanese dinner concocted by a Japanese Chef who moved to the province with his Ilocana wife.

The trip to Ilocos Norte wouldn’t be complete without visiting some famous sites that Ilocos Norte is known for.  We stayed at Sitio Remedios Heritage Village Resort.  As soon as I got down of the van, I was transported historically to the Filipino-Spanish era. Sitio Remedios stands in Colonial village with a plaza and church at the center and various well-preserved colonial houses for guests to stay. The place is both magical and nostalgic, solid wooden floors, bentwood furniture, and embroidered bed covers.  

Jamie Herrel, Kiko Pascal, Frida, Bubbles Paraiso, Earl Semitara, Mark Bumgarner, Monette Bata, Markki Stroem, Mick Salas, Tim Yap, Jolo Luarca, Javi Martinez, Christi McGarry, and Eduardo Lara

We went to Bangui wind farm. It supplies electricity not just to the province, but also to Metro Manila and other parts of Luzon. It is the biggest wind farm in the Phillipines. There are a total of 52 windmills already operational in Ilocos Norte, according to local officials.  What an arresting site to see so much windmills with a backdrop of the clear blue waters of the coastline.

Of course, we visited Paoay Church, whose name is Saint Augustine Church. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been declared as a national treasure. The baroque architecture is distinct highlighted by buttresses in the sides and back of the church. This church is really a must-visit while in Ilocos Norte.

Bangui wind farm

Another must visit is The Malacanang of the North. It was the holiday residence of former President Marcos and First Lady Imelda Marcos. This Grand Mansion from its façade beautifully overlooks the lake.  Not known to many is that this was the birthday gift of Imelda Marcos on the 60th birthday of Ferdinand Marcos. 

I was a bit underwhelmed when I went inside, as it was rather a bit empty and can be made more interesting by depicting the stories of the things that happened there and how the Marcoses spent their vacations. For sure, it has also a rich interesting story to tell.

Inside Malacañang of the North

Our Laoag visit was made more fun by our La Paz Sand Dunes adventure. We were taken to a hub where the 4×4 vehicles were parked. All of us were assigned 4×4 vehicles driven by sand dunes expert drivers. We stood at the back firmly holding the metal beams as we ride and navigate along the torrential landscapes of the sand dunes.

Truth be told, I ate sand while I screamed at the back of the 4×4 vehicle. I felt I was like in Egypt or in Dubai, but this was more beautiful, I believe. The La Paz Sand Dunes is an 85 square kilometer sandy coastal dessert and beach. It has breathtaking views of the beach and glorious sunset.

Paoay Sand Dunes 4×4 adventure

At the end of the trail, a beautiful setup awaited us in the middle of the dessert. An all-white set-up beautiful arranged to end our glorious Ilocos Norte Trip. The night was filled with good food, of course, there was bagnet and Ilocos empanadas filled with Ilocos longganisa, singing, drinking and of course dancing.

What a way to end this trip. It was an amazing experience that I believe is worth sharing not only in my social media accounts but also to the Lifestyle Asia readers.

Dong Ronquillo at the white-themed dinner

I will definitely come back as there are still a lot of places to discover in Ilocos Norte. So much memories left behind and will be forever remembered as one of my best trips in the Philippines. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Governor Matthew Manotoc for hosting us, Mick Salas, and Jamie Herrel of 1M destinations for organizing this wonderful trip and the efficient local tourism team.

Ilocos Norte, I’m In!

This story first came out in the March 2022 issue of Lifestyle Asia.

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