DUMAGUETE CITY, PHILIPPINES – If you’re looking for a tropical adventure to add to your bucket list, a trip to the island of Negros in the Philippines might be just the ticket.
This is where the clear blue southern sea nips at the white sand and corals. This is where the coconut trees stand tall and where the local hospitality is warm and endearing. Beautiful can only begin to describe its rolling hills, vast valleys of sugar cane fields and towering volcanic peaks.
Whether your idea of adventure is diving down colorful reefs or hiking mountain trails or tasting exotic cuisine, this emerald isle about an hour flight south of Manila is a worthy destination.
Best of all, the people here may just be the nicest people you’ll ever meet.
“You can be here for five minutes and you’re already an insider,” said Gavin Hughes, formerly of Blaine, Wash., who now lives in Dumaguete City with his wife and two children. “Everywhere else people make you feel like a foreigner. Here we have nice people.”
And according to lifelong resident and provincial council member Jessica Villanueva, people come to Dumaguete for “its laid back kind of life (that has) a little bit of everything, its perfect location (with) access to other big cities” and its climate.
Because of its location, Negros is sheltered from most typhoons by its neighbor islands. Pair that with temperatures in the mid-80s in February and March, and a trip to this sock-shaped rock makes for a welcome getaway from the gray skies and rain of the Pacific Northwest.
Worried about the language? Don’t be. “Everybody speaks English around here,” Hughes said smiling, clearly enjoying a pedicure at a park on the waterfront.
GETTING AROUND IS EASY
This is an easy island to explore with an abundance of options in getting around. There are buses and “jeepneys” – a homegrown vehicle that has the nose of a military jeep and the bed of a truck. Then there are the pedicabs or tricycles, which are motorcycles with a side car attached and are popular with the locals. Or, if you want to be a bit extravagant, rent a car and it comes with a driver.
Long stretches of the highway are lined with banana trees and dotted with palm-frond huts. Here stately old plantation mansions share space with bamboo houses on stilts along miles of beaches through little towns named Sibulan, San Jose, Amlan and Tanjay (pronounced tan-high).
It is a trip back to a simpler time. An hour drive north will take you to Bais (pronounced bah-ease) City where you can catch a 15-minute ride on a motorized outrigger canoe to a sandbar in the middle of the Tanon Strait, the channel between the islands of Cebu and Negros.
If you’re lucky you might witness your boat captain grab a large squid – called “nokus” by the locals – with his bare hands.
“Now that’s what I call lunch and a show,” said a chuckling Lionel Tayko, a local attorney playing tour guide for visitors to the sandbar.
If scuba diving is your thing, then a quick drive south of the city to the town of Dauin (pronounced duh-win) is where you will want to be. The beaches in this growing municipality are lined with dive resorts that cater to visitors eager to experience the reefs around Apo Island. This volcanic island’s coastline is a designated marine reserve and is home to 650 species of fish and about 400 species of corals, according to research from the Silliman University Marine Laboratory.
Or you can choose to stay in town, sample the local cuisine and immerse yourself in the local culture. Its Old World charm can still be seen as you walk around the city. Street vendors sell fried plantains out of wooden carts. Fruit-and-vegetable vendors camp out at every corner. “Manukan,” or chicken houses, are everywhere serving a local delicacy: chicken marinated in lime and chili, grilled to charred perfection.
A BLEND OF OLD AND NEW
Dumaguete, a city of about 120,000 people, is home to four universities, earning it the moniker “university town.” The largest and most prestigious of these schools is Silliman University, an institution founded in 1901 with a grant from New York philanthropist Horace B. Silliman to the American Presbyterian mission to the Philippines.
Dumaguete is also the seat of government for the province of Negros Oriental, the eastern half of the island.
Its dramatic geologic profile is dominated by two of the region’s tallest peaks: Mount Talinis on the southern end at 6,243 feet and Mount Kanlaon to the north at 7,989 feet.
Old and new just seem to blend seamlessly in this place locals fondly refer to as “The City of Gentle People.” Ask anyone and they are liable to give you a history lesson.
At the heart of downtown Dumaguete sits St. Catherine of Alexandria Church, a stone structure built in 1754 that underscores the island’s Catholic heritage and epitomizes Spanish rule of the island. By the waterfront sits Silliman Hall on the campus of Silliman University. It is one of the original buildings on this sprawling campus built at the turn of the 20th century, an icon of the American mission of education.
A stroll along the seawall, referred to locally as “the boulevard,” is a must. This is where the locals cool off after the sun goes down. It is also where most of the restaurants and bars that cater to visitors are located. This is the place to be to sample local life.
A CENTER OF BUSINESS
But do not let this town’s gentle island character fool you. This is a bustling business center for the region.
Six years ago, a handful of companies running call centers opened locations in the city, fueling an economic boom. The impetus for picking this out-of-the-way location is its surplus of highly educated workers who are comfortable with the English language. Today, internet cafes dot the city’s narrow avenues and sit next to McDonald’s restaurants – a clear sign that a professional class has emerged.
“In terms of personal and professional development, (call centers) offer a relatively high pay and facilitate a better understanding of foreign culture and the working environment abroad,” said Silliman University President Ben Malayang III in an email. “The presence of call centers is indicative of the competitiveness of students in the city.”
The city’s rapid growth is a point of contention for both residents and officials alike. But what is not debatable is the fact that on any given day Dumaguete’s population can double as visitors from neighboring islands come to town for business.
Regardless of where they stand on the issue of development, there is agreement that the primary reason a growing number of foreigners call this place home is its simple lifestyle.
“I am very happy,” said Terrence Green, formerly of Darwin, Australia, now living in the foothills above the city. “I love where I live. It is very quiet. I only hear my cows, my goats and my dogs.”
David Montesino: 253-597-8265