It was late afternoon, but the sun was still high in the sky. Walking allayed the sense of heat, but I soon tired and sat on a driftwood. Squinting against the glare reflected off the waters, I watched grownups and children take turns on hired jet skis, laughter and the roar of the skis breaking the quiet. A group of teenage boys meandered along the beach. Occasionally, they stopped and hunched over the sands, poking and digging. They’d straighten up with something in hand, delve into deep discussion, then move on. It looked like they were working on a project.
At the turn of 2016, Sailorboy and I were in the Philippines. It was his work trip but I tagged along, my first visit to the nation. We flew into Manila and headed straight for Subic Bay, some 2 hours away on a good traffic day.
A bay for water sports
The bay was once a US naval base from 1899 until 1991. So it carries a unique kind of history, a blend of Western and Asian. The spacious lots, squared off streets and buildings no taller than six storeys high are in stark contrast to the high-decibel crowds and narrow streets of the neighboring town Olongapo. Today, it is a tax- and duty-free zone, and still carefully guarded and cordoned. That’s why it’s still a quiet area.
Though the waters are clear, the beach is not pristine white nor expansive. From what I’ve seen, families go there for evening strolls and water sports. Water sports is the main draw. Some bring their own jet skis. Others hire skis or go parasailing and flyboarding. Jet skis are available worldwide, but I’d never seen such mass enthusiasm for the sport until now.
Tourists also stay at Subic Bay because it’s a good hub for the many adventure programs in the vicinity. There’s a treetop exploration 100 feet above ground; tours to Mount Pinatubo Crater Lake; the only open-water marine park in Southeast Asia (dolphins!); and a safari park. Oh and there are some 20 wreck dive sites in the bay.
Strolling through history
We didn’t get to do any of those exciting things. Sailorboy had to work every single day including Christmas and New Year. So I was mostly on my own. I could probably do some of those things, but I had my reservations on travelling solo.
Thankfully, the bay’s central area was safe enough to walk around by myself. So I wasn’t exactly stuck in my hotel room. Some afternoons, I went out to walk and explore. There were resorts and hotels that had fallen into disrepair, ghosts boasting of grand parties and special guests of old.
Then there were the memorials, each commemorating a different point in history. Several marked the handing over of the bay from the Americans to the Philippine government. Few were of the Second World War, when the naval base was particularly active. One of these were on the “Hellships”, Japanese vessels that transported prisoners of war for various reasons. Thousands died from murder, starvation, sickness, neglect, or when friendly forces unknowingly attacked the unmarked ships. It was a small monument, but I found this the most solemn of all.
Behind the memorials was a navy ship in berth. Apparently, the US supply ships still make port here sometimes.
A chapel was in the center of the bay. It was of moderate size, but its grounds were pretty, with garden shrubs, giant fake flowers, and benches under trees decades if not centuries old. On Christmas Eve, the quiet streets overflowed with cars as people flocked to the chapel for mass.
The view of the bay itself is breathtaking. Green mountains embraced the bay all around. And though the sun was too bright and hot for the most part of the day, at sunset, it transforms the bay into a multicolor painting.
Another highlight was the New Year’s celebration, which was surprisingly more festive than Christmastime! We later learned that Subic Bay is a popular spot for New Year’s Eve because of the fireworks, which I managed to catch. I also managed to watch the Olongapo Day parade a few days before.
The other exciting thing that happened was the hotel’s restaurant catching fire! It was a small fire, but the smoke was black and acrid, filling the lobby and stairway. Thankfully, it was quickly contained with no casualties. But it did reveal how real and dangerous fires can be, and how vulnerable one can be in a high floor with only a stairway for escape.
It was enough
As I sat on the driftwood, I reflected on our stay. It’s true that I didn’t do a lot of things. But I caught beautiful sunsets, fireworks and a parade, some history, and a glimpse into the holiday festivities of the locals, away from all the generic “touristy” things.
A list which wasn’t too bad, if you ask me.
I bore it as long as I could, but the sun was searing through my shirt. I drank some cool water, stood up from the driftwood and plodded on. It was my final walk in Subic Bay on my last day here.