Sailing through Tayabas Bay on a baking hot day, we had three hours to kill in the warm cabin of the Montenegro Lines RoRo that embarked from Dalahican pier in Lucena City. Heading for the island's northwestern port of Balanacan, a fortnight after Easter meant we would miss the Moriones festival, the tourist crowds and the locals dressed like Longhinus and his cohort Roman Centurions.
Inside MV Ma. Rebecca's hold was precious cargo: a convoy of 20 Hyundais, 15 of which were the Next Generation. There's one each of the revised Santa Fe with either a 174PS 2.4-liter Theta gasoline engine and the 197PS R series 2.2-liter CRDi diesel VGT [variable geometry turbo]. The latest 6-speed auto transmission, with grille, lights and aux-in compatible TFT-video-DVD-audio upgrades round off the Hyundai's value virtues.
There were lots of the cute Tucson. Initially available this year with the 166PS 2.0-liter and 177PS 2.4-liter Theta 16-valvers, the much awaited 177PS R-series CRDi turbo 2.0-liter is now available in 4x4 6-speed automatic format. With the Tucson, were the other two fruits of Next Generation's "fluidic sculpture" styling theme by Thomas Buerkle of Hyundai, Russelsheim; a canary yellow Genesis coupe with a 303PS 3.8-liter puncher of a V-6 and the latest Camry challenger, the new Sonata, as avant garde in style as Jaguar's latest six-light XJ-6 and Mercedes' CLS 4-door coupe style sports sedan.
Plus a new limousine variant of the ubiquitous Grand Starex. The16-seat family van gains a bubble top, loses all the 16 Full economy seats, replaced by 10 Business Class La-Z-boy upholstered chairs, privacy blinds and cocktail lounge detailing. Last but not least, was a stretched 10-wheeler truck with the island's daily supply of precious San Miguel Beer. Can't leave Luzon's shores without it.
Balanacan Port of Mogpog, Marinduque had a large statue of the Blessed Virgin greet us not too far from the island's floating barge power station. From the deck, the coast is dotted with lots of coconut trees and sleepy fisherfolk villages sparsely lining the shore. But this place had its share of excitement. In 1944, the closing year of World War 2, US Navy Hellcat dive bombers based on the carrier USS Intrepid sank Japanese transports and destroyer escorts ferrying soldiers from Ormoc to reinforce Marinduque from the invading American forces. Dubbed the 2nd Battle of the Philippine Sea, Marinduque became the 7th island that Gen. Douglas MacArthur liberated in his Island hopping return to free the Philippines from the Japanese Empire.
This time, Hyundai is doing its bit of island hoping, again making events history. Completely rustic, Marinduque may never make it as a drive event venue, much less a scenic destination to launch the latest generation, if it wasn't for the dogged determination of the Japanese owner of Bellarocca resort who, for five years, had to haul in every single building material needed to create a world class exotic resort.
Driving off the Roro's stern ramps, I discovered two uses of discarded torso-thick abaca marine rope; cushions for driving off the steep angled ramp and tire wedges to keep cars parked in the hold from banging into each other if the waves turn rough.
Hustling through the languid lifestyle
It was already mid afternoon, so we had to hustle on Marinduque's narrow west coast highway to make it to Bellarocca Golf course, then to transfer to Lipata quay where dinghy like speedboats will take us to Bellarocca resort on Elefante Island. As citizens of what Marinduqueños call as the "kabila" - meaning the mainland of Luzon - we were more used to factoring for traffic in accounting for travel time, something we were not going to encounter on this lovely unspoiled isle.
Unspoiled? Marinduque had its share of man-made disasters. The Marcopper disaster of 1995 dumped 80 million tons of copper tailings on the Boac River, destroying Marine life on the delta. Happily, the rest of Marinduque's long coastline and the 1,157m tall Mt. Malindig were far enough to be unfazed.
Not another Aman
As tropical resorts go, the 6-star Bellarocca eschews the Bali-meets-Phuket look you find all over South East Asia. Going for Greek-Aegean cliffside village appeal, Bellarocca succeeds in making it feel and look authentic, avoiding the pastiche that is usually the sad result of transplanting misunderstood themes. As an exotic experience, Bellarocca, run by the Genesis group, meets the standards of its discriminating clientele, usually young honeymooning Japanese or Koreans out for isolation amidst rustic beauty. Which explains the Japanese market prices. M. Jan Michel Gautier, experienced with expectations of that other exotic destination in the Maldives, makes sure those are met or surpassed. I certainly can't complain about the view from my ocean balcony: Mt. Malindig volcano.
Getting to the island, one is dependent on the experienced speedboat pilots as they guide the speed dinghies with dual Suzuki outboards, to "kiss" the face of the waves in order not to get us wet with ocean spray nor slam into the wake of a wave. And the condition of the waves during the sea crossing is always dependent on Nature's fickle fancy, and is not time bound.
Not yet common on all 160kms of Marinduque's coastal roads, the environmentally friendly Next Generation Hyundais look like they landed from another planet. As for us, we could be on another one as well. Locals smile and wave as our convoy dusts them by, while Grandmas take out their camera phones to "shoot" at the yellow Genesis coupe. Pre-election rallies, roadside menfolk gad-abouts and late afternoon softball games on dried post-harvest paddies stop to cheer us through.
Doing their job
But our passage through the island's roads was not to be uneventful as the following morning, we were "ambushed" by a contingent of young and neatly uniformed PNP Highway Patrol Group constables in smallish motorcycles. The team leader, he with the Smokey bear hat with a yellow hat band [as opposed to red for the privates] and yellow piping on his riding breeches, was enforcing the grossly misunderstood "No Plate, No Travel" policy. Inspecting every delivery receipt of the unplated cars, the team obviously could not fathom why the recipient of the Hyundai's delivery receipts were, Hyundai itself. Which, on the other hand, is in full compliance with the LTO, the agency that issues the plate numbers and the delivery conduction sticker. Then the cops required the Hyundai managers to submit copies of the delivery receipts to their station, to which the Roadwise route guides retorted, why for as the Police sub station is not the authorized deliveree? After more discussions, the Highway Patrol team left, with the hatted privates getting on their mini-motorcycles while the team leader, took off his hat, put on a decent looking helmet with jazzy lightning graphics while an orderly, rode pinion with one of the privates, sans helmet, but clutching the team leader's precious yellow banded Smokey bear D.I. Cap.
Sometime in between, the Hyundai team leader gave a call to the office of Governor Bong Carrion, who immediately dispatched his tourism task force to "take care" of things. We were soon on our way and were welcomed at the Marinduque Capitol by the provincial office staff and a Praetorian guard in Moriones Roman Legion costume. After the obligatory photos, we then motored to the Boac poblacion for lunch at the century old "Kusina sa Plaza". This time a different and bigger contingent of young and neatly dressed PNP foot soldiers, blocked off 2 streets and commandeered a covered basketball court as our parking lot. Wise move as it was a cooking 39 degrees Celesius.
Lunch under a white tent
Soup made of succulent shrimp and coconut slivers, called "ulang-ulang" was first served then a salad of onion, tomato, bittergourd, salty egg and fermented shrimp paste [bagoong]. Then there was the local chicken adobo, which looked like a warm yellow curry with unripe papaya. The tender free range chicken was bonier than a battery bred bird, but it was far tastier. There was fried "Banakan" or red grouper, and stuffed squid. Deserts were rice cakes, smoked or fried, with one infused with a hint of jackfruit. Cold sago [tapioca] and gulaman [gelatin] was wolfed in no time.
Modern sculpture meets ancient backdrop
Hyundai's new found curvaceous look made sculptural modern art complements for whatever background we found, from 150 year old houses around Kusina sa Plaza in Boac, ancient brick-adobe Cathedrals to sweeping coves and solitary peaked mountains. For three days, the Hyundais served as our climate controlled comfort cocoon to glide over the varying surfaces paved or still to be paved by the DPWH. And a respite from the enclosed heat of the hold of the Roros.
With limited traffic but narrow roads cozily hemmed in by cottages with the road literally at their doorsteps, we were able to barely taste the European sports car handling and power of the Genesis coupe. Marinduque scenery looked all the more inviting lounging comfortably from Grand Starex limousine's windows. Over the winding roads going up to Malindig, the stunning new Sonata, stunned some more with German sports sedan refinement, cornering and bad road cushioning. Available only in 2.4-liter Theta engine and paddle shift 6-speed automatic, its rapid 8 second 0-100km/h acceleration won't make one miss the 3.3-liter V-6 of the previous Sonata.
Though the Genesis was the overwhelming thoroughbred, the 197PS diesel Santa Fe, was not easily left behind, even on the S-bends. But it was the darling of the moment Tucson that won our hearts as the crdi turbo diesel engine not only makes it thriftier, but quite a rapid and nifty runabout on the tight corners and narrow streets of of Boac, Santa Cruz, Buenavista and Torrijos. The Tucson's high ground clearance didn't spoil our boy racer pretensions either, when the road got twisty or cracked. All the Hyundai's, especially those fitted with the "R" eVGT crdi turbo diesel engine, are the most comfortable and thrifty way to leisurely see this unspoiled rustic kingdom of the Moriones, unbound by bus schedules.
Alas, if there is one schedule we had to keep, it would have to be the Roro's of Montenegro Lines. Our three day stint brought us to one last Roro embarkation at the western port of Cawit on our way back to Dalahican port.
Homebound, the only glitch we encountered was the closed Quipot bridge between Tiaong and San Antonio Quezon, forcing us to divert to San Juan, Batangas to get to the STAR tollway's Ibaan entry.
Also word of advice to those taking the first class seats of the Roro. Watch how you position yourself before taking a nap on those throne seats, lest you end up with back aches and lumbar pain. Being pre-owned Japanese inter-island ferries, something went wrong when the seats were reupholstered in the Philippines.
Back in the "kabila", Marinduqueños must be thinking about their recent inter-island [or interplanetary?] interlopers with typical honest and caring charm. Tagalogs themselves, despite the Franco-Hispanic name of their island, they're probably saying, "Poor guys.. they're back to their traffic and concrete jungle".
As events go, Hyundai's is a tough act to follow. So much effort and logistical planning. But knowing Hyundai, if they set their hearts on Marinduque and Bellarocca didn't exist, they would have to invent it.