Gretchen Filart Dublin / Story & photos
Some say you have never been to La Union if you did not surf. Understandably so, many of those who travel to this coastal province are drawn to its clean, soaring waves—notably those in the neighboring towns of San Juan and Bacnotan.
But beyond the great swells pounding on its coasts await a bevy of untapped adventures, all as pulse-quickening and as refreshing as its 8-foot waves. And we discovered them as we, the small community of media practitioners, journeyed aboard an animated bus for The North Luzon Expressway (Nlex) Lakbay Norte 5. Now on its fifth year, Nlex Lakbay Norte is an annual media-familiarization tour that aims to showcase less-trodden destinations in northern Luzon. It is hatched by the North Philippines Visitors Bureau, Manila North Tollways Corp., and North Luzon Expressway, in partnership with Department of Tourism Region 1, local visitors bureaus, Petron, Victory Liner, and sponsoring hotels and restaurants
Appreciate local art at La Union Art Gallery
Resting quietly in the Lupac building amid the bustling streets of the capitol, Silidti Adal ken Laing ti La Union, or simply La Union Culture and Art Gallery, cradles La Union’s thriving art scenery. Here, visitors can marvel at a plethora of wood sculptures and paintings handcrafted by La Union’s artists. The nonprofit gallery houses a beautiful mix of sunset and mother-and-child paintings, as well as a gigantic 3D shark painting, previously of Surf Break fame.
San Gabriel’s outdoor gems
Set deep in the lush forests of San Gabriel, Tangadan Falls can be accessed after a breezy 20-minute jeepney ride through the Caraballo mountainside, and another 20-minute trek through tree-lined trails. On weekends, locals and tourists tread this lesser-known road to take a refreshing dip, ride a bamboo raft, or simply enjoy home-cooked meals in thatched huts.
Tangadan Falls’ 40-foot twin cascades plunge through a glassy and wintry basin. Atop these towering cascades is a smaller 7-foot-deep basin, which also serves as a jump-off spot for cliff diving.
Hearty Ilocano fare across towns
An underrated gustatory treat, we found out that La Union is home to many kitchen secrets—salty crab paste and charcoal grilling included. San Fernando, in particular, holds secrets that stay in memory and tug the heartstrings long after tasting what it has to offer.
Among these is Mommy Lu’s, a 15-year-old family-owned culinary institution. Arguably the most popular restaurant in the capitol, it serves sumptuous pinakbet generously topped with crispy bagnet, and the best lengua in town, which is a melt-in-your-mouth goodness lingering long in the palate.
Just a few minutes away from Mommy Lu’s is L.U. BBQ, a casual diner that doubles as a performance arts venue for local artists. A play on lutonguling (charcoal), L.U. BBQ’s house specialty is its affordable, moist and charcoal-grilled meats, from Insarabasab (liempo) slabs to charbroiled barbecue burgers.
Along the seaside restaurant row in Barangay Pagudpud lies the charming and earthy Natalna Grille, whose house specialty pulpog marries the smoky flavors of char-grilled liempo and the tanginess of sisig. For appetizers, be sure to order nachos, kanifurai and chicharon bulaklak.
A play on the signature Filipino kubÔ, Cube-O Grill in farther San Juan is fashioned in native-themed elements—both in design and food offerings. The Cube-O Salo-Salo —a platter of dinakdakan, bagnet-sprinkled pinakbet and fried fish fillet laid on fresh banana leaves—is a delectable grub that should rank high in your food choices, especially if you’re a party of six.
Hit the sweet spot at The Honeybee Center
Apart from beginner-friendly swells, the town of Bacnotan—a 20-minute drive from San Juan—also hosts the region’s largest honeybee. The La Union Honeybee Center takes visitors on an insightful journey of apiculture, from bee to bottle, culminating in a taste-test of pure, raw honey fresh off the honeycomb.
Surfer-inspired bar crawl experience
The epitome of laid-back, a tour of San Juan is best capped off with an after-sundown bar crawl. Among the glowing trail of street bars is Mad Monkeys, a modest joint serving ice-cold beer; thick, juicy burgers and cupped fries, both deliciously paired with Mad Monkeys’ special sauce.
Next-door neighbor Surf Shack is a place for enjoying bespoke cocktails, local craft beers and thin-crust pizzas with a local flair, like tuyo and longganisa pizzas. Monochrome portraits, graffiti, mounted surfboards and crochet-donning trees provide an interesting backdrop as one listens to live music in this artsy space.
Part of the dizzying collection of food hubs in Planet G, Click caters to party-frenzied bar hoppers who prefer funky trip-hop and electronica in a clubbing atmosphere (and awesome card tricks, courtesy of the resident barista). If you want to stay close to the party, book one of newly installed rooms at G Hotel on the third floor.
Home right on the beachfront
On the other hand, if you’d rather come home to the sight and sound of ebb, the seafront resorts at San Juan are the perfect spot.
Kahuna Beach Resort and Spa features opulent Balinese-themed accommodations, some with their own infinity pools and walk-in closets. One of the more up-market hotels along the Urbiztondo strip, the resort sits at the heart of surfing action where sand, swell and sunsets converge.
For more intimate accommodations, head to nearby La Roca Villa Resort. Reminiscent of Spanish architecture, this two-story hotel offers roomy, well-equipped villas and quirky spaces filled with cacti and Spanish art, perfectly complemented by beautiful rock pools along the beach.
Some say that you have never been to La Union if you haven’t surfed. For a time, I believed that.
But I know better now.