Text: Tito F. Hermoso / Photos: Tito F. Hermoso | posted June 15, 2010 12:32
Taking the new X-trail to the North
"Pamulinawen" is a song about a smitten lover who pleads for a response from the object of his affection. Sung to the tune of the Tagalog song, "Leron leron sinta", the Tagalog lyrics tell of a different story. A story of a female who uses her lover's affections for her to do something difficult and even down right dangerous. I don't know if it appropriately characterizes NMPI's relationship with the fickle motoring press.
"Pamulinawen", was the welcome song at Laoag airport. To those of us who were around the country in the 70s and 80s, it would be like living in a time warp. With the original Ilocos style brick arched air terminal as authentic as ever, I expected to see the Imeldific One part the crowds in her signature hair style.
The Ilocano's respect for history and rules were to impress us in the 3 days we drove around Ilocos Norte. Unlike most Philippine towns growing at the edge of its National Highway network, the Ilocano's considerably larger sized dwellings are built with plenty of space between neighbors and curb. Because of this respect for rules, their roads last longer and require less maintenance because erosion and blocked drainage is eliminated. Many of the large rivers flowing through the towns that empty into the South China Sea had banks armored in concrete. Ilocos politician's spending has not deteriorated into prioritizing Barangay HQ's, ambulances and basketball courts to court votes. They spend for the benefit of the ecology and for several generations in the future.
Fort Ilocandia is as maintained as it can be. There is the musty smell that reeks of moldy cash from the nearby Casino, full of Taiwanese and Chinese. The dark wood, dark brick and dark carpets project the era of its ascendancy. The white french framed windows, though big, filter the view of the beautiful lawn. The place is run by Jimei, the same guys who run Fontana. Fort Ilocandia, intact though not thread-worn, is a testament to how the Ilocanos respectfully preserve somethings [and people]. No doubt, it would make a challenge to some inspired designers out there who can exploit the heritage of the place while making it feel like a 21st century boutique resort. With plenty of garden and wind space, the overall layout of Ilocandia is the same international template one finds in Thailand and Bali. Cable TV shows are mostly programs from China and Taiwan with very limited local and global networks.
The hotel buffet had local versions of mechado, pinakbet, kilawin, litson manok and maja blanca; the perfect lunch before a technical briefing for the new X-trail. Considerable skill to disguise a good nap is gained after years of attending post-lunch meetings. Steven Hu, the product man from Yulon of Taiwan, one of our hosts from Nissan, did the briefing - Nissan X-trails are made in Laguna, Nissan Santa Rosa is owned 100% by Yulon, a Taiwanese conglomerate. After that, it was off to our assigned cars to make a move to Burgos, some 80kms north. Escorted by a PNP Highway Patrol Group 12 year old B-14 Nissan Sentra, we passed through charming towns, wide rivers and the compact CBD of Laoag City.
All along the coast, we saw rocky volcanic pumice sticking out of the marshy foreshore facing the South China Sea. We see more of the bigger than Philippine average residences well spaced from the road. Getting to Kapurpurawan rock formation via unpaved road, we leave behind the only sedan in our convoy in the safe hands of the PNP Highway Patrol: the new Sentra 200 imported from Aguascalientes, Mexico. Through the tundra like growth, akin to some sights in Batanes according to some press guys, we reach a small encampment with Nissan banners and giant coolers of water and iced tea. From here we walk towards what looks like nature's limestone carvings.
The inhabitants of the North of most storied countries - Scotland, Finland, China, India - hold a special allure. Generally they are characterized as contemplative, rugged, restrained, thrifty and of unbounded perseverance. The Ilocos region is no exception. Laoag City is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cantonments on the island of Luzon, but you can see that its doesn't plan to ever look like the congestion plagued cities of post 80's Philippines. There are plenty of green "belts" between pockets of urbanization; strip malls are absent leading one to suppose that they are prohibited by zoning statutes or simply against the grain of Ilocano tastes. Perhaps it is the foresight of a brilliant young member of a local political clan, who applied urban planning and municipal corporate thinking learned in England?
Faro, then Laguna
After Kapurpuran, we head back south for less than 10kms, to climb up the Faro of Cape Bojeador. It looks its 130-years with flaking white paint on its brick octagonal tower. The view from the deck beholds, but it was a hot 34-degrees and climbing the steep half-eroded stairs just made us sweat some more. Done with the photos, we rejoin the National Road to head back to Laoag and onward to Paoay and Currimao. The Paoay Lake area with Malacanang ti Amanianan, or the Palace of the North, is a beautiful bordered by the dunes in the distance. The Paoay-Currimao highway, allegedly never in bad shape, has been raised and concreted making it even nicer.
The X-trail seemed made for these roads. The old one had the best seats in its class so Nissan made sure that the new one won't disappoint. In order to keep the X-trail fans happy, the new one looks similar to the old one, though its longer, taller and wider. Now with a 6-speed automatic. Its still lighter on its feet than the latest CR-V, RAV-4 and all the Koreans. Its new length has made it less choppier in ride while its steering alacrity is undiminished.
The odd man out of our all SUV convoy, Nissan's latest Sentra 200 was introduced to the local market, after years of the N16 Nissan Sentra "classic". The Sentra, for most of the populace who barely bother with cars, is just an ordinary common car. Now this is not a bad thing. It only means that the Sentra stands shoulder to shoulder with the most ordinary car on Philippine roads: the Toyota Corolla. So what were we to do with an ordinary car in such an extraordinarily historic and majestic location?
We didn't make it by sunset, but still Sitio Remedios, a heritage village on the coast of Currimao, is lovely. It has transplanted authentic old houses [with air conditioning] which rent form 7k a night to 12k for a the entire period-piece 2 storey villa. There is a transplanted old chapel in the middle of a long plaza. On the beach was an old fort watch tower, a look out for marauding pirates 150 years ago. We had a wonderful buffet set for us by the owner, Dr. Joven Cuanang, a renowned neurologist and medical director of St. Luke's.
Long table, long dinner
There was the famous bagnet, igado, pinakbet of yet another version, some big fleshy talakitok fish just caught off the coast. Desert was leche-flan and what looked like macapuno balls. Tarragon tea and East province coffee ended the meal. The local grade school choir, a CSR project of Dr. Cuanang, rendered a couple of Ilocano songs. It was very nice and seems to have been arranged by a schooled music teacher.
The Ilocanos must have a better understanding of beef and pork as the buffet had excellent bistek, but so-so fish. Practically all of the Nissan Santa Rosa executives were there, the whole Philippine based Taiwanese contingent from Yulon, Taiwan, with a top management Filipino.
Through beautiful Paoay lake we went back south to Paoay. How things look different in the light of day. What seemed like an an out of the way place, Sitio Remedios is practically a short tricycle ride from the main plaza of Paoay where the main church stands. I prefer the way they kept the original look of the church, with the erosion of centuries of rain and black stains left by pollution.
St Augustine Church began building in 1694 but took almost 200 years to finish. Originally, the church roof was thatched but today it is tin sheet. Workers were laboring to restore the piedra China cobbled paths that cut through the all grass plaza. The Church interior itself is rather well preserved, avoiding the tackiness that visit most Churches when some rich native wanted to gift the parish priest with something valuable.
Our hosts made sure we did not miss the specialties of Cafe Herencia, right on the plaza. A rich lomi and egg soup which was sprinkled with bagnet - the crispy fried chicharron of the region. The deep fried empanada with orange colored pastry. The longaniza pizza and the Pinakbet pizza. Both pizzas were so rich as the slices were smothered with cheese and egg topping. No choice but to wash it down with Coke Zero.
Drive and dine
Just literally hours after breakfast, we were burping our way out of stupor and into work. The next drive was to take us to the 1.3km winding Patapat Viaduct, elevated 31m above sea level on the outskirts of Pagudpud. This is a long drive, relatively, at 100kms. We breezed through all 4 traffic lights of Laoag City and moved on north via Pasuquin and Bacarra towns, then Burgos. After Burgos, its a long drive through Banqui, where the windmills are and on to Pagudpud.
Having gotten to know us better, our Police escort still held our convoy down to the legal limit: 40km/h to 60km/h through towns and on open highway, in between towns, the cops would increase the lead over the following X-trail to 90km/h to 100km/h. It would seem that our PNP escorts were setting a good example to us notoriously hooligan drivers. But for some reason, when the road climbed and got twisty after Bangui, our PNP escort showed us some smooth and spirited driving. Up the winding road, our youthful constables turned our convoy into a "hill climb" lead.
In the distance, we could see fog capped Cordilleras with Paseleng Bay on the left. We were within striking distance of the vicinity of the Ilocos Norte provincial boundary and the next town of Sta. Praxedes in Cagayan. We reached the Patapat Viaduct some 31m above the rocky beach and a curious sight: a large abandoned freighter that seemed to have run aground at least 2 or 3 years ago as per the recollection of some motoring journalists who have done their Pagudpud journey. Our friendly escort cops explained to us that the original road, slightly above the current viaduct was prone to landslides and was too narrow for the growing truck traffic that traversed the tip of Luzon.
After some photos on the winding coastal viaduct, we headed back to Kapuluan resort. It's on Paugdpud's coast, which has a lovely place called the Blue Lagoon, where the lagoon is truly blue at a hot 37 degree noon. There were many village houses there advertising "homestay" for Europeans to B & B with the local families for a fee. Hannah's is a big modern resort but our hosts chose Kapuluan vista resort which has a small restaurant. Its pool and 6 rooms for rent, were filled with more Caucasian divers and bikers.
The food, again was terrific. There was octopus sisig, succulent char-broiled mahi-mahi, another version of bagnet, yet another version of pinakbet, Ilocano salad and very tasty "dinakdak" - slivers of char-broiled pork smothered in what looked like coconut milk, but was actually mayonnaise - the mayo sealed the smoked flavor of the pork. Instead of the usual sticky rice deserts, we were served a very light leche flan - very European. In fact, the cuisine here is well presented, and being a hot day, beer was free with the buffet! The place must have frequent European custom. This is all the more amazing as the few diving aficionados I know say Dive spots are usually dives in the sense that accommodations and meals are, just, politely speaking, sustenance. Not so here in Kapuluan. The place has interesting rock formations not far from the beach and one of them looked like a pair of female body parts with the attendant cleavage.
Dedicated platform, volume ambitions
From here, we had our turn on the Mexican made Sentra 200. Steven explained to me that other Nissan made compacts in Asia were very expensive to import to the Philippines. This 6th generation Sentra is Nissan's dedicated Global C platform, which, is only shared with the Nissan Rogue crossover and not with Renault or any other Nissan models. Reading between the lines, Nissan is confident that the global sales volume of the C platform-based cars alone will not require it to share modules in order to be profitable.
This Mexican made one, despite coming farthest as the ships take a roundabout way to get here - from Mexico on the Gulf side, Panama Canal, Japan, Korea, then here - the Sentra was the best value because the standard engine is a 2-liter. The 6-speed CVT automatic more than makes up for the fuel consumption penalty. Moreover, the Sentra pedigree gives continuity to the compact car market that already knows the Sentra. How else would the market react if the Sentra was replaced with model names like Tiida or Note [pronounced Now-Teh]? My sentiments exactly.
With typical mainstream specs - strut front suspension, torsion beam rear axle, even drum brakes in the rear, I was expecting a sober drive, typically inoffensive in feel: more Altis than Subaru Impreza. At the recent launch, enthusiasts were crying cop-out when they saw the rear drum brakes. Truth be told, drum brakes, though indeed an economy measure, are not illegal. In fact many a new car sold in the North American market sport them because American dealers pride themselves with offering the widest range of specs for the broadest range of buyer budget. Thus, price buyer shopping mom or college student specs that don't require alpine downhill trail braking abilities are available at a good price. Horses for courses.
There are the usual "cute" Nissan touches, like a secret compartment in the trunk called "divide and hide", an interior that conforms to Nissan's new design language, above average comfort for the seats, mid-size like interior volume and the porthole LCD trip info display. From the outside, its distinct enough to remember in a car rental car park, but not too off beat to offend when passing through conservative neighborhoods. There are short overhangs in front for good handling, a mantra hyped by other car makers as well.
On first bump, the B16 Sentra 200 seemed to have more wheel travel than most of the 5 previous generations of Sentras I've known. This suppleness was echoed by Inigo Roces, who has had 4 previous generation Sentras as daily drives. If it wasn't the wheel travel, then it must be what the press kit calls, ripple control shock absorption combined with rebound springs. The Sentra, unlike most cars made for the North American market, never crashes, floats or pitches on Freeway joints. And yet steering turn in is easy to synch with spirited and skilled fast driving. At only 140PS from the 2.0liter engine, the Sentra platform must indeed be torsionally stiff to be so quick reacting to steering inputs. It drove as nice as compacts with more sophisticated suspension, something the American motoring press does not agree with.
Bangui and the wind
The Danish windmills on Banqui has become a veritable tourist attraction, with curio shops by the dunes selling miniature wooden windmills. Northwind Power currently provides Ilocos Norte 40% of its power from the 20 windmills along 9kms of open beaches. Ilocos Norte, hardly had the daily brownouts afflicting the rest of the country this summer season.
Lock n' road
A simple deep and loose sand 4WD driving course was devised for us by local off road fan, Gilbert de los Santos of the Paoay off-roaders. Although all done automatically and governed by a computer, the X-trail's 4WD marks its difference with most SUV crossovers in the market today by being able to tackle more extreme surfaces and angles. Most SUVs are softroaders, destined to just park by a sandy beach and not drive through it. But the X-trail is a bit more hard core than that. Locking the 4WD is akin to locking the mechanical transfer case of off-road 4-wheel drive vehicles. This gives one a sense of invincibility over loose traction surfaces.
Bagnet and all its variations
After some play time on the sandy shore, it was time for yet another version of Bagnet at the Kangkang cafe. Serving highland brewed coffee, Kangkang's premises is roofed in knotted leaves that serve as thatch panels. There were several varieties of toasted rice or sweet potato cakes wrapped in banana leaves. All through our drive event, we were to experience as many variations of Bagnet as there are of "Pinakbet", the famous Ilocano vegetable stew.
Sitio Remedios had Bagnet with Ilocano salad of tomato halves, raw onions and swamp spinach vinaigrette. Cafe Herencia had the crispy Bagnet mixed with rich yellow miki noodle soup with hard boiled egg. Kapuluan cafe encouraged you to dip the Bagnet in bagoong patis or fermented shrimp paste mixed with fish brine. With all that eating, I settled into the back seat of the X-trail and let Inigo drive the last 80kms back to Fort Ilocandia.
Fellowship, they call this
Nissan fixed up the Sunset Lounge of Fort Ilocandia just for us. Its a big version of a thatched roof leisure hall with a bonafide sunset view over the beach. Big buffet, bar and a band corner was part of the repertoire. Our last dinner was devoid of pork and beef, something Ilocanos have proved to very good at making distinct and appetizing. It was capped off by the wackiest photos for Facebook. A guy who pretended to be holding on to one of the 50m high windmills was 2nd place, while first place had a character posed like an "X" as in X-trail, with hands holding up 2 bright headlights of an X-trail far behind, beneath a big windmill. Nope, not my photo.
An auspicious end
After last night's rain, Ilocos Norte was green and humid on the morning of our departure day. Worse, PR226, Manila-Laoag was delayed by a full hour. Which meant a full 2 hours waiting for PR227 [the homebound trip] watching the big LCD screens at the departure lounge, tuned into American NBA basketball. Obviously, many of the departing passengers are fans. Sleepy, I would doze off more than twice only to be awaken by the whole throng of departing passengers and air port staff cheering goals scored.
Though not as crowded and messy, Laoag City's airport is similar to Kalibo, Aklan which had the similar outmoded system of checking luggage behind a closed Bank teller like cage. Being the start of a long weekend, the flight coming into Laoag was full, but I had a 3 seat row to myself on the Airbus A320-200 on the way back home. Bodily tired, but intellectually, historically and experientially satisfied.