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Sweet returns and sad bye-byes

Baybay City's 16,000 Blossoms Park

Discover the myriad of sights to be enjoyed in Leyte, and why it always entices promises of a return

Gen. Douglas MacArthur is rumored to have fulfilled his “I Shall Return” promise via the Pacific province of Leyte during World War II not just for its military significance, but because of its charm – a place where he felt he can linger a little bit longer after kicking out the Japanese. This 74-year-old story could have been an urban legend, but the undisputable fact is that this coastal Visayan idyll is worth returning to, for reasons that go far beyond the larger-than-life bronze tableau that memorializes the historic 1944 Leyte Gulf Landings. While the postcard-pretty war memorial is a must-see for every visitor to Leyte, it is best to explore beyond it to discover the province’s bucolic charm.

Battle lines

Just a few minutes away from the MacArthur Park is the neo-gothic Palo Metropolitan Cathedral, the seat of the Catholic Archdiocese, and host of Pope Francis in 2015. Restored to its former glory after being damaged by super typhoon Yolanda, the church is home to a rare Good Friday rite called the tais dupol, a group of barefoot penitents who don Spanish-style conical “dunce” hats and masks.

More than an hour away further west is Ormoc, a port city that can be reached via the telltale “Yamashita Lines,” a 50-kilometer national road, which saw the most hard-fought battles between Allied and Japanese troops during the war. Japanese veterans and their descendants occasionally retrace these roads to pay tribute to the fallen Imperial warriors.

The city boasts of a hidden natural wonder—Danao Lake, a scenic and placid guitar-shaped mountaintop lake that has become a go-to place for rafting, kayaking, boating and other eco-tourism recreational activities. It is also noted for the Formosa pineapple, the Universitysweet-tasting variety of the fruit.

Lake Danao Natural Park in Ormoc

Lake Danao Natural Park in Ormoc

Sibugay Mountain Resort zipline

Sibugay Mountain Resort zipline

The neighboring municipality of Albuera is a worthy pit stop thanks to Sibugay Mountain Resort, a recreational and adventure park located in the mountain’s bosom. It has a swimming pool, picnic gazebos, a small river dam, and a 270-meter zipline that provides a thrilling panorama above the lush greeneries.

Growing devotion

But perhaps Leyte’s best-kept secret is Baybay City, an emerging a heritage, farm and religious destination away from the madding crowd. Its spic-and-span poblacion area takes pride in its heritage lane, where you can visit colonial-era homes and the Spanish-era Immaculate Conception Church that still proudly stands despite having withstood the ravages of time.

A current hotspot is the Lintaon Peak, Baybay’s highest point whose main come-on is 16,000 Blossoms Park, which lights up evenings with thousands of mesmerizing red and white LED light flowers spelling “I Love Baybay.” Developed by the city government into a mixed-use eco-park, this promontory offers a commanding view of the settlements and islands in the Camotes Sea.

Baybay City's 16,000 Blossoms Park

Baybay City’s 16,000 Blossoms Park

Ancestrl house at Baybay Heritage Lane

Ancestrl house at Baybay Heritage Lane

The Diocesan Shrine of San Antonio de Padua in Pomponan village lures Catholic pilgrims from all over the Visayas to venerate the century-old image of the saint every 13th of the month, an act of religious devotion starting the eve of. Devotees perform a liturgical dance called sirong, a show of gratitude for the miraculous healing of illnesses attributed to the saint’s intercession.

The parish church receives over 300,000 devotees annually, and ranks as the top cultural attraction in Eastern Visayas based on data from the Department of Tourism.

Baybay smorgasbord

Beach bums will be delighted with Baybay’s vast expanse of sleepy shores, the longest stretch in this side of the province. It is far from the talcum white sands of the Instagrammable ilk, yet the serenity and kaleidoscopic sunset it offers will take you back to the nostalgic days of lazing in the troika of sun, sea and sand.

Motorists, riders and cyclists will be thrilled by the newly-opened panoramic diversion road that cut through the hills, bypassing the downtown area. Situated along a fringe barangay, the vicinity of the undulating five-kilometer four-lane road is being eyed as the site of a new government center because of its spacious location.

And when it is time to settle down, you can feast on the city’s sought-after charcoal roasted chicken, perhaps the most tender barbecue you can sink your teeth into—a favorite of both the hoi polloi and the well-heeled.

Barbecue and puso in Baybay City

Barbecue and puso in Baybay City

Visayas State University

Visayas State University

For a truly countryside interlude, you can lay your head at the Visayas State University, which offers comfy and no-frills beach cottages that have hosted countless VIPs.

Guests can also be toured around the sprawling agricultural campus to rekindle their relationship with the earth as farmers. The school is also being groomed as a showcase for sustainable agriculture and farm tourism, a growing trend in the country’s tourism sector.

Beyond Baybay, there is a virtual infinity of sights to explore, depending on the time and money you wish to spend. Whether it be a road loop of the whole province or a sampling of select pit stops, the destinations make bye-byes sad thing to utter and makes a MacArthur-style vow of “I shall return” inevitable.

 

Words and photos by BERNARD L SUPETRAN