Hungry for Honda Bay

The Santa Lourdes Wharf needed some sprucing up. After being closed for two years, the facilities have fallen into disrepair. The island province of Palawan had just reopened to tourists last 10 February and visitors were starting to trickle in.

There were a few excursionists at the wharf, the jump-off point to Honda Bay, one of the most popular tourist attractions of Palawan’s capital, Puerto Princesa City.

Tarab in garlic and butter.

Honda Bay is on the eastern coast of a 28,000 hectare property, facing the Sulu Sea. Dotted with several islands, it is a well-known island-hopping and swimming destination. It comprises 12 islands — Bat, Cowrie, Meara, Starfish, Luli, Señorita, Pandan, Snake, Frazier, Fondeado, Paron and Arreciffe — many of which are open to visitors.

A sumptuous beachside lunch on Cowrie Island.

I have fond memories of Honda Bay. It afforded me intimate encounters with marine environment and animals, which I had only read about, during trips to Puerto Princesa.

In Pandan Island, a popular stopover, I saw a horseshoe crab for the first time, a large and old specimen, along the shore, and fished out a string of squid eggs, translucent globules with squiggling paralarvae inside.

On Snake Island, jacks and other fishes circled around me and pecked on bread in my hands.

Cowrie Island, a popular destination in Honda Bay. | Photographs by Roel Hoang Manipon.

I scoured for curious shells, sand dollar skeletons and starfish on beaches.

Aside from the UNESCO-inscribed underground river on the western coast, Honda Bay is top of mind when I think of Puerto Princesa.

I had not revisited the bay for several years until the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions and the holding of the Baragatan sa Palawan Festival. Excitement mixed with nostalgia bubbled up as I stepped into the boat.
After being cooped up in Metro Manila for more than two years, I realized I missed crisscrossing the country on boats.

Spotted reef crab.

For this visit, we went to three islands — Cowrie, Luli and Starfish — which I have never been before and I was ready to be surprised.

Cowrie Island is one of the islands closest to the mainland shore and recognizable by its big sign. It is named after a common conch, whose shells are made into necklaces and other crafts, called sigay in Filipino.

Privately owned and managed, it charges an entrance fee and there are facilities for rent such as huts and a hall for team activities, as well as a store and a bar. Cowrie was busy that day with many guests.

Luli Island.

We had a beachside lunch, which can be arranged with island management or a local tour operator. The wonderful spread included crabs, shrimps and grilled surahan or unicornfish, so called because of a single horn on its head. The short-nosed and the bluespine are the common species caught in the Philippines. I usually encounter surahan in the Visayas and Mindanao. It is also called sungayan. In Surigao, I was served a big one, called gangis. It is called ganga in Tawi-Tawi.

Fresh tarab.

After lunch, we went northward to the crescent-shaped Starfish Island, so called because of the abundance of starfish, the horned starfish usually. The island had a dining hall and a store for visitors.

The sea was very inviting but we chanced upon Arlene Mulato tending a shack that served as a “dirty kitchen.” We were so full from the lunch but were hungry to know what she was offering. She sells fresh catch from the sea — abalone, fish, conches, lobsters, crabs, etc. — and cook them for visitors.

Manang Arlene, with the ponytail hair, and swarthy complexion, perhaps from sun, wind and kitchen smoke, had freshly harvested abalone, something I thought did not thrive in the Sulu Sea. I had my first taste of the gastropod in Korea, where it is highly prized. The abalone is called curiously sobra-sobra.

Starfish Island. | Photographs by Roel Hoang Manipon

She took the meat out of the shells which had beautifully iridescent undersides and neat rows of holes. She sliced the abalone, and sauteed it with chopped garlic, onion, chilies and lots of cracked black pepper. The texture of the dish was soft and chewy and the flavor spicy, tamed by a dash of kalamansi juice.

Manang Arlene also had tarab, a kind of oyster, its fan-shaped shells large and black, so black like obsidian. I was enthralled. Inside, the meat is medallion-shaped, similar to the scallop’s.

The cook placed the bivalves in a pot of boiling water to open the shells. The meat was extracted stir-fried in garlic and butter. Manang Arlene served the dish on its own shells, steaming and fragrant.

Already delighted, we were amazed when Manang Arlene brought more seafood from her pantry — the bamboo lobster, spiny lobster the color of bamboo, and a spotted reef crab.

Manang Arlene prepares a seafood meal.

The spotted reef crab was the most beautiful crab I’ve ever seen with its 11 spots the color of aubergine and its carapace almost like mauve. Underside is the color of cream or lemon. Manang Arlene called it the 11-spot lazy crab. Others call it seven-eleven crab. She said it is tastier than the usual crabs, which are, in the Philippines, the mud crab or alimango and the blue swimmer crab or alimasag.

She cooked the crab for free so we could have a taste. She just tossed the stout crab in the boiling water and made a dipping sauce of vinegar and soy sauce with chopped garlic. Indeed, the crab was yummy!
It was late in the afternoon and we had to say goodbye to the star of the island. We boarded the boat for our last island of the day — Luli, one of the smallest in the bay. It could be a shoal with a growth of mangrove and a sandspit.

A placard planted on the shore said that the island is owned by Jun Marcelo and his wife Cely, who named the island thus because “it is the only island at Honda Bay that sinks and rises with the tide.” The name is a portmanteau of “lulubog, lilitaw,” literally meaning, “sinking, rising.”

“During high tide, you will only be seeing the structures built on it, which would seem like they are floating. Likewise, everything would surface during low tide,” the sign said.

Among huts built on the sandspit was a shed with rows of hammocks, perfect for contemplation and letting new memories sink in as the sky turned a little russet behind the lush wall of mangrove.

Honda Bay always has something to surprise me. I look forward to the next visit.

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