Fun by the bay

Spectacular theme parks, trekking trails and exotic freshwater marine life make this embayment in Philippines irresistible, writes Shalini Mitra

The Subic Bay area; a boat at the Bay. photos by author

Crescent-shaped beaches dusted with talcum powder-like sand, uninhabited tropical islands, lush impenetrable jungles, historic cities, a diverse local cuisine and a unique culture —­­ the Philippines has it all, which makes it truly a must-visit destination. But after visiting the Subic Bay Freeport Zone, I wondered why it doesn’t figure in a tourist’s itinerary who is visiting the country for the first time.

I found it to be a very fascinating place with its buzzing commercial and trading atmosphere set against an exquisite natural background. Only a three-hour drive from the capital city of Manila and 55 km northwest of the mouth of Manila Bay will bring you to this embayment of the South China Sea which offers a wide array of activities, attractions, conveniences and experiences to its visitors. Subic Bay is a small coastal municipality that falls in the province of Zambales. In fact, Subic is like a sweet spot between a city and a province.

Subic Bay is a creation of the United States who made it their naval station from 1901 to 1992, the largest naval installation in the Philippines. During World War II, the area suffered tremendous damage; Japanese captured the area in 1942 and then the Allied Forces captured it in 1944. During the Vietnam War (1955-75), the area became a major supplying base for the US due to its proximity to South East Asia. But after the Americans handed over the zone to the Philippines in 1992, it was redeveloped as a free port and as an international airport. Tourist facilities were built in the coastal area and many manufacturing plants also came about. About 700 investment projects are running here today, including the fourth largest ship-building facility in the world.

Swim with dolphins.
The dolphin show.

 

Swim with dolphins

As a wildlife enthusiast, I chose to visit the Ocean Adventure, the first open-water marine observatory in Southeast Asia. The motto of the owners of this park is animal care and welfare. A team of environmentalists and conservationists run this amazing park to protect marine life. Dolphins are one of the most inspirational creatures known to man, and to be with these sleek and graceful creatures and obedient sea lions in this theme park was a memorable experience.

Several children experienced their cutest moments with dolphins rarely seen before. I also visited the headquarters of the Sea Lion Marine Patrol where you see how the soldiers train and tutor the sea lions and tease their way into your hearts. It was sad to know that such cute, playful and amiable creatures continue to be threatened by hunters. An option to swim with dolphins or sea lions is also offered here and children are seen making the most by riding, hugging and clicking pictures with them. The mission to enlighten, entertain and empower communities to care for animals and to conserve and protect nature was sincerely pursued in the theme park.

In Subic Bay, besides marine life, you also get to see some exotic wildlife in Zoobic Safari which is a huge 25-hectare area built around a forest, dedicated to showing, entertaining and educating people about wild and farm animals. I had never seen a tiger so closely that I could actually count its teeth! Here I did, when I took the Adventure Ride using the Zooper Train which is a well-protected vehicle to enter the Tiger Safari. You can feed the tigers chicken while you’re inside the caged vehicle. Tigers come to you as close as can be to snatch and gobble up the chicken, jump on top of the vehicle and also wait to get clicked for pictures. Earlier, I had seen animals in cages. Now, it was the other way around. I was in a mobile cage to get to see them from close quarters. It was truly an unforgettable experience.

In this amazing park you can watch hundreds of Philippine freshwater crocodiles at the Croco Loco. They look like statues because they barely move. One can also buy cute little Abyssinian Guinea Pigs and watch ostriches and other birds roaming around freely at Savannah.

I saw a cassowary, a rare flightless bird from New Guinea, within the same area where bearcats and otters were roaming.

 

Subic Bay area
The bay area.

Mango province

Foodies too can have a great time at Subic Bay. There are all types of restaurants offering Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and American food. Since Zambales is a mango province, I got to eat many varieties of mangoes and drink fresh juices and mango shakes. Zambales mango (the carabao variety) has been confirmed by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s sweetest. I also tried the local Kare Kare dish cooked with meat, rice, egg plant and other seasonal vegetables, and served with peanut sauce at Happy Cow restaurant. Being a pure vegetarian, I got it cooked without any meat. It was indeed delicious.

Once you are done with Subic Bay, try visiting the nearby Olongapo town just a few kilometers away from Subic. At the Olongapo Public Market, you will find many local Filipino fruits which you will not get anywhere else, such as Rambutan which looks like the skin of a hedgehog on the outside but is very sweet from inside. It tastes just like a lychee. It is known as the ‘exotic fruit of Southeast Asia’. Lanzones, Sapodilla, Aratiles, Soursop are the other local fruits. To get the local feel, go to the market by a jeepney which is the typical transport in the Philippines, and there are hundreds of them in Subic Bay.

Subic Bay is a good escape from the urban noises and the busy city life that we all suffer from. Have a zoo-per, I mean ‘superb’ time at this wild and mild place.

 

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