Friday, May 16, 2014

Sea Urchins on a Sandbar -- Bingeing on Uni Sashimi at Virgin Beach, Bohol

Aside from the big island of Panglao, where the famous Alona White sand beach is, there are other  smaller islands around Bohol.  One is the protected fish sanctuary of Balicasag where you can snorkel with the fish and the pawikan or sea turtles (check, been there, done that) and the other is Pungtud Island, popularly called Virgin Beach by the locals.

After enjoying the delights of swimming with the fish in Balicasag, Jay and I headed out to Virgin Island the next day.  We hired the same bangka (motorised outrigger canoe) to take us from Amorita Resort to the island.  Do you see that small green land area on the picture above?  
That is where we were headed for on this brilliantly hot and sunny May morning.  
On the left side of the island, you can just about make out the row of bangkas that are parked on the sandbar that stretches out from the island.

Virgin Island is a well liked tourist destination precisely because of this sandbar.  At its widest, it's about 30 meters wide and perhaps a few hundred meters long.  This being low tide,  boats carrying tourists like us,  parked right on the sandbar.  
The water was  a few inches deep in some areas and up to knee deep in others.  
 Our boatman said the sandbar was submerged in waist to chest deep water during high tide.

I thought that Virgin Beach was government or public property.  But no -- it is privately owned.   I was also surprised to find a large bronze statue of Padre Pio on the island -- there is ongoing construction for the small chapel that houses the statue.

This place  is gorgeous -- the sand is fine,  dazzlingly white and perhaps thanks to the caretakers, free from trash and debris.  While there is a fence around the main portion of the island,  the beach is there for visitors to enjoy.  

Even with the sizeable crowd on Virgin Beach, all I had to do was walk a few paces away to enjoy the sand, the sun and the sea -- in relative peace and quiet.

Where there's  a crowd,  you will find an enterprising Pinoy selling food.  
We should have been there when Jesus fed the 5000.
Right in the middle of  the sand bar was this makeshift little sari sari store cum carinderia selling boiled eggs, chips, cold canned Coke, the ubiquitous fresh buko and even piping hot, cooked-on-the-spot banana que!

But the little sari sari store on the sandbar was not what caught my eye.  When we first landed on Virgin Beach, I had already seen this bangka where a more interesting  culinary treat was being sold.

This is exactly what I had hoped to see -- a tub full of the spiny black sea urchins that abound in the waters off Panglao Island.  Sea urchins or uni are a seafood delicacy that I really enjoy. 
In the Visayas, uni is called suaki or swaki. 

I'm sorry I never asked for her name but the uni vendor was very nice and happily posed for photos.

Uni is an expensive treat in Japanese restaurants, whether in Manila or even in Japan.  So, when the lady said that one sea urchin was P20, I told her to start opening them up until I said "stop".

Crack open a sea urchin and you find this creamy, delectable, ambrosial roe.  The first time I had uni, I thought I had died and sunk to the bottom of the ocean. For me, uni tastes of the deep blue sea.  
In the Visayas, they eat uni with a drop of vinegar.   The vendor had a small bottle of pinakurat or fermented coconut vinegar, spicy hot with siling labuyo (bird's eye chili) garlic and onions.  

This is the roe from one sea urchin.   Here's how to eat it Virgin Beach style  -- hold out your palm while the vendor scrapes the uni into your hand.  Don't eat it just yet, wait for the few drops of spicy pinakurat then ... slurp!  What an amazing and peerless taste experience. 
Certainly fresher than any I had ever had in the fanciest sushi place.
The pinakurat worked wonders ... not that uni ever needs any help but still,
hot and sour is a perfect foil to creamy and briny.
Eating uni while standing on a sandbar in the middle of the sea ... to quote  Mastercard,
it was just one of those priceless moments.

After that first mouthful -- I had to have more.  The sea urchins never stood a chance!  

Here is proof that on that hot sunny morning, in the middle of the sea, I added to the  decimation of the sea urchin population of Bohol.

Deceptively simple and basic, is it a plant or is it an animal?  Whatever a sea urchin is, I bow down low before it and thank it for its singular gift of flavour -- elemental yet complex, impossibly indulgent, decadently divine.  

Before I singlehandedly laid waste to Bohol's sea urchin resources, Jay had to pry my greedy little paws from the sides of this little bangka .  I really regret not having asked for their names but  I will forever remember and be grateful to the husband and wife who run this little "uni bar on the sandbar" for  giving me this exceptional, extraordinary experience.  
I hope this is not the last we'll see of each other.  
Sea urchins of Bohol ... I shall return!  

Monday, May 12, 2014

Good buys at Grace Dried Fish at Tagbilaran's Public Market

It was time to leave Bohol but not before a pit stop to bring back some tangible and edible memories of the place.  Like Cebu,  Bohol is also a source of danggit, pusit and other varieties of dried fish, all of them "dilis-cious" (pardon the pun).

A quick detour before the ride to the airport takes me past Bohol's biggest and only mall -- known to the locals as "ICM".  But mall shopping isn't my thing specially when an even better attraction awaits.

The Tagbilaran Public Market in Dao is right smack in front of ICM.  When I go outside Manila, my favourite place to shop is at the palengke or the local market.  The palengke gives you a feel for the place that no generic, antiseptic mall can.

It's heartwarming to see this altar right at the entrance to the market.  I don't remember seeing an altar in other markets I have been to.

I'm impressed by how clean and orderly the palengke is.  The aisles are wide and spacious and the floors are not wet and slippery -- this is definitely one of the cleanest markets I have seen.

There is obviously regular mopping and cleaning going on during the day to keep it this clean.  I also noted the lack of strong smells -- no pungent smell of raw and fresh fish or meat, which is usual in other wet markets.

Aha - dried fish!  Just what I had been looking for.  Grace Dried Fish was right at the corner and seemed a good place to get everything that I wanted.

I have to admit, I got a little crazy!  How could I resist the variety and quality of Grace's dried fish?  The smaller and slightly more expensive pusit is the better buy as it's crunchier, a bit sweetish and less salty.  Boneless dilis is also a must-get.  When properly fried, it's almost like eating chicharon!

You may find the prices high but these are much cheaper compared to Manila prices. The quality and variety are also much better when bought at the source.  I also bought some bawodnon, tiny and shredded -- perhaps I'll cook it with fried rice.

Sisi or small oysters pickled in brine are a favourite of mine but on this day, only dayok or salted fish entrails were available.

I have never tried dried salted pagi or manta ray.  They look like tapa or dried meat and I was told they need to be pounded before cooking or else it's too tough and sinewy -- again, much like tapang usa (dried venison) or tapang kabayo (dried horse meat).

Boholanos are naturally friendly but quite soft-spoken and shy.  This is Ken, who works at the store and helped me by weighing my orders,  then heat sealing them in plastic bags and finally, expertly packing them all into two boxes... yes, two boxes.  I bought enough dried fish to last me for a year!

And this is Grace, who owns the store.  Along with her staff, they very gamely posed for this photo before I left.  If you're ever in Bohol and are looking for pasalubong, do yourself a favour and discover the delights of the local palengke!
Don't buy at the mall or at the airport -- drop by and visit Grace at the Tagbilaran Public Market in Dao.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Disconnecting from the world at Amorita Resort, Panglao Bohol

Amorita Resort in Panglao Island, Bohol had been on my "to go to" list for quite a few years -- friends, colleagues, clients who had been to Amorita inevitably came home with nothing but superlatives about the place.  I finally got to go last week-end.  And it was certainly everything that everyone had said it would be.

Amorita sits high above the white sands of Alona Beach.  From a vantage point, you get this sweeping panorama ... blue sky, bluer sea, a white sand beach.    It was a view I knew I would never get tired of.

My Amorita experience started with the full on Boholano charm -- the service at the resort,  while charming and gracious is also very efficient and completely professional.  No wonder the foreigners I had a chance to speak with during my stay were all praises for the resort staff.

The main building which houses Saffron, Amorita's excellent restaurant is spacious, expansive and well ventilated.

There are few walls to cut the flow of the fresh breezes coming in from the sea.  

Choose a table by the pool and you're almost dining  al fresco.  For those who want a more romantic meal, the staff can set up a table for two --  overlooking the beach.

Wooden decks by the pool are perfect for sunbathing while enjoying some cloud porn.  The infinity pool is a front row seat to this amazing view.

Amorita has preserved and made good use of the existing greenery which helps give the resort its natural, unaffected feel.

Should you wish to explore the delights of Alona Beach, a stone staircase leads down to the exit.  This is a well guarded point to ensure security for  the resort's guests.

Alona Beach has white sand and clear blue waters -- it's Boracay's mini-me.  While there are bars and restaurants that are open till the wee hours of the morning, I felt that Alona Beach had a more relaxed and less commercialised vibe.  

Amorita is truly a  luxury resort.  Nothing has been spared in ensuring one's complete delight -- the ocean and garden view villas that are the most coveted accommodations are spaced well apart, ensuring peace and quiet at all times of the day.

I was very lucky to have an ocean view villa.  A wooden gate with an iron latch locked out the rest of the world.

This very comfortable bed guaranteed hours of blissful slumber -- be it nap time or bed time.  A flat screen tv is conveniently placed on a table across the bed.  But who wants to watch when you can lie back and just dream?

I found this little day bed to be very convenient -- it was an ideal reading nook!

The outdoor bathroom is almost as big as the bedroom.  I loved the rain shower!
And don't worry about the neighbours, it may be an open style bath but it's completely sheltered and private. 

The best part about the ocean view villa was this outdoor plunge pool which directly faces the sea.  Apres-sun, apres-beach -- this little pocket of cool shaded comfort was just the thing to unwind in. 

There are a couple of lounge chairs if you want to sunbathe away from the crowds of Alona Beach

My favourite part of the day was mid afternoon.  Away from the glare and heat of the sun, 
I sat in my private little pool feeling completely disconnected from everyone and everything.  Contemplating my toes, enjoying the solitude that is so hard to come by .... 

Excuse me, but I'd like to be alone now ...