Camiguin now: swim with turtles, hike to volcanoes, sleep in deluxe sheets

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Two hours from Manila, Camiguin Island is a one-stop-hop for all sorts of adventure. Even better when its new world-class resort is your jump-off point. Photo courtesy of HANNAH PANGILINAN

I saw 18 turtles while snorkeling at Mantigue Island.

That’s already 17 more turtles than I’ve ever seen in my life, and I didn’t even have to swim that far away from shore. It was only 10:30 a.m. on day two of our 4D3N excursion, but I was already crossing “swim with turtles” off my bucket list.

Our morning began about three hours earlier with a buffet breakfast of congee and dimsum at Nouveau Resort, only 15-minutes away in Mahinog, a municipality of Camiguin Island.

Like other underrated travel destinations in the Philippines such as Siquijor or Antique that are marketed as such, Camiguin’s magic lies in the unspoiled beauty of its natural resources. Apart from its beaches, "the island born of fire" is home to hot springs, cold springs, waterfalls, a rainforest, and four major groups of volcanoes — all of which you can visit in just a day.

At five hectares, Nouveau Resort looks straight out of “The White Lotus” and is the only accommodation that promises five-star amenities and services in close proximity to all of these natural wonders. With 150 rooms, an Olympic-length infinity pool, two restaurants, a 300-person capacity function hall, mini-golf course, and a recreational room featuring karaoke and ping-pong, its facilities are comparable to bigger resorts in tourist hotspots like Boracay and Palawan. While not a beachfront property, it makes up for this with picture-perfect views of the sunrise.

A view of some of the rooms from Nouveau Resort's infinity pool. Photo courtesy of NOUVEAU RESORT CAMIGUIN

Nouveau Resort's poolside room. Photo courtesy of NOUVEAU RESORT CAMIGUIN

Counting turtles

Although it isn’t as heavily hyped as the other facilities, I feel that Nouveau’s main draw is its close proximity to Mantigue Island — a Camiguin gem that tourists to the Northern Mindanao province can visit if they want to find themselves face to face with endangered marine life. For tourists, Mantigue is the lesser known beach option. It’s one of the few white sand beaches in Camiguin, second to the more tourist trap-y White Island sandbar on the opposite side of the island.

The journey to experience the island’s beauty was much easier than the hours-long trek I pictured in my head. It turned out to be 15 minutes of splashing and rocking against the waves via speedboat from Nouveau’s dock (20 to 25, if you take a bangka) — a quick trip that may still be a turn-off for those easily seasick (read: me), but well worth it as it offers a panoramic view of Camiguin deserving of its own John Williams theme music. Pulling up to Mantigue felt like being welcomed into paradise — its glimmering turquoise waters and fine white sand inviting us to revel in nature’s offerings.

Pulling up to Mantigue Island via boat felt like being welcomed into paradise. Photo by GABY GLORIA

Mantigue isn't as popular as the White Island sandbar on the opposite side of Camiguin. It was as if we had the island all to ourselves. Photo by GABY GLORIA

No one lives in Mantigue — its previous residents were relocated to Camiguin proper when the island was declared a marine sanctuary. Because of this, it is absurdly clean. No stray wrappers or bottles litter the shore.

Snorkeling is not our main activity on the itinerary — we were given free reign to do whatever we wanted. But someone mentioned that we could see pawikan if we did, so away I went into the clear waters with the hope that I’d spot at least one turtle.

Mantigue Island is home to plenty of species of marine life, including sea turtles. Photo courtesy of HANNAH PANGILINAN

The search seemed fruitless at first. Staying close to the surface, all I could identify from the visible seafloor were bleached corals, blue starfish, clownfish, and sea cucumbers. But after a few minutes of paddling out, I see my first one: a medium-sized green sea turtle swimming a few meters below us.

After that, they just keep coming. I see turtles big and small, some swimming swiftly by and some casually resting on the ocean floor. There are a few that we mistake for rocks because they’re just that big.

Later on, Marie, another media fellow, speculates that the smaller species we saw was a hawksbill sea turtle. A critically endangered species, it’s mostly found in the nearby Misamis Oriental. The hawksbill is just one of the many species of marine life that make Mantigue a haven for scuba divers.

A cross-country excursion

“If you want to go around the island, it will only take you about an hour [by car] so you can [visit] the ocean [and] the mountains in just one day,” says Nouveau’s general manager Fay Paras when I ask about what makes Camiguin special. She says that apart from the beaches, the island’s Mt. Timpoong-Hibok-Hibok National Monument — declared an ASEAN Heritage Park in 2015 — offers many options for trekking and exploring.

As if clocking my Manileña sensibilities, she immediately follows up with a comment on cleanliness. “It is very clean. There are no beggars, no people lying down in the streets. No traffic, so no pollution either.”

Katunggan Park in Mahinog is a mangrove forest that looks straight out of a Tim Burton film. Photo by GABY GLORIA

Marked an Important Cultural Property by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, Casa Corrales de Camiguin is one of many ancestral houses on the island. Photo by GABY GLORIA

Nouveau’s Sales Coordinator Sheila Mae Lago grew up in Camiguin. Like everyone else on the island, she speaks Cebuano, but she says that she knows of a few locals who are fluent in the native dialect of their ancestors. She left for Cebu right after graduating college, but soon found herself back on the island. It was the right decision, she says. “Balik sa simpleng buhay.”

We are now in a van rented by the resort, headed “cross country,” meaning we cut through Mambajao to Catarman in an attempt to catch the sunset at the Sunken Cemetery. Road infrastructure in Camiguin has improved vastly in the past decade, with hundreds of millions spent to make tourist spots more accessible.

Visitors can take a quick dip in the shallow spring pools of Tuasan Falls. Photo by GABY GLORIA

This worked for us — we breezed through five tourist spots on opposite ends of the island in just over four hours. The tour included Katunggan Park in Mahinog, a mangrove forest that looks straight out of a Tim Burton film. 15 minutes away in Mambajao was Casa Corrales de Camiguin, an ancestral house that clued us in on the island’s history during the Spanish Occupation. And 25 minutes away from that was Tuasan Falls, where we had time to take a quick dip in the waterfall’s shallow spring pools. Our final stops were close to each other: the Old Spanish Church Ruins and the Sunken Cemetery, two casualties of the 1871 eruption of Mt. Vulcan.

A view of the mountains from Tuasan Falls. Photo by GABY GLORIA

A cross marks the spot where a cemetery was submerged after a volcanic eruption in 1871. Visitors are welcome to snorkel in the site to see the headstones. Photo by GABY GLORIA

As the sun sets, someone in the group states a fun fact: the spine-chilling 2007 Judy Ann Santos horror film “Ouija” was filmed at the Sunken Cemetery. But with a decade and a half separating us from the tragic eruption, the vibe on the viewing deck looking out at the cross marker and submerged graves was more serene than eerie.

Switching plans

On our last full day on the island, we take an unexpected detour. Because of the long weekend, our original destination — the picture-perfect White Island — is (quite literally) overflowing with tourists. If we continued, our group wouldn’t have any space on the 700-meter sandbar. But you can never run out of things to do in Camiguin, so we eventually file into the vans to head into town. In Mambajao, we grab Pastel de Camiguin from the famed Vjandep Pastel shop, and try the flat cassava snack called kiping at the palengke.

Our lunch stop is Guerrera Fine Asian Street Food, a restaurant located between a rice paddy and the beach, where we manage to sneak in a pre-meal swim at its black sand beachfront before trying their selection of Southeast Asian favorites.

A view of Mt. Hibok-Hibok from Guerrera, a resort and restaurant in Mambajao. Photo by GABY GLORIA

Back at the hotel, the afternoon breaks our streak of sunny weather, bringing with it intermittent rains. I use this time to explore the resort’s facilities (shoutout to the mini-golf course and electronic mahjong table) and head to the spa for an hour-and-a-half long massage.

Born from a volcanic eruption, Camiguin’s allure comes from its status as a hidden treasure that has yet to be run over by tourists. My last day on the island was a lot more chill than I expected it to be, but I guess that’s the sort of place Camiguin is. From swimming with turtles and dancing with the dead at an underwater cemetery, there is so much that a two-hour flight can lead to. And it’s precisely because of this that I will, as the locals like to joke, be coming again.