San Fernando City and San Juan, La Union, the Philippines

April 11 – 12, 2015

It is high time for La Union to step out of the shadow of its more popular neighbors. Its day in the sun has come, and the beacon that shines on it emanates from Poro Point, an erstwhile American base on a peninsula within San Fernando City. The province does not lack in sights and delights, after all.

Sillag Festival 2015 @ Poro Point, La Union
Sillag: Festival of Lights 2015 @ Poro Point, San Fernando City, La Union

Thunderbird Resort @ Poro Point, La Union
The Team @ Thunderbird Resort, Poro Point, San Fernando City, La Union

At the invitation of BCDA (Bases Conversion and Development Authority), I pay La Union a weekend visit. A short drive from the city center leads us to Poro Point, a strip of land, still mostly barren, jutting out to the West Philippine Sea. A complex of stucco-white villas topped with blue domes breaks the horizon. My introduction to La Union starts at the lap of luxury, the upscale Thunderbird Resort that evokes the sun-drenched, seafront splendor of Santorini.

Thunderbird Resort @ Poro Point, La Union

Not all is hoity toity. Beyond this posh enclave, La Union gets down to earth with bamboo huts lining its gentle coastline. Long stretches of sand lapped by tunneling swells rolling uninterrupted from the open sea attract surfers, artists, and backpackers. On a drive through the town of San Juan, we find a surf school in Kahuna Beach Resort & Spa and a beachfront picnic ground strewn with throw pillows in Flotsam & Jetsam Artist Beach Hostel, which, as night falls, turns into a bar where beach bums jam with live bands.

La Union Surf School @ Kahuna Beach Resort & Spa, San Juan, La Union
Flotsam & Jetsam Artist Hostel @ San Juan, La Union

La Union knows the way to a foodie’s tummy as well. Halo Halo de Iloko, home of Ilokano cuisine in San Fernando City, offers not only the famous dessert but also Ilokano fusion dishes. Pasalubong goodies can be had on the drive out of the city. Dried fish, creatively arranged like a flower, is a staple in this coastal province, espada (beltfish) its iconic fish product.

Halo Halo de Iloko @ San Fernando City, La Union
Espada or Beltfish (top) @ La Union

More than these delights, it is the light of Poro Point that has brought me here. That expanse reaching out beyond the city is wide as it is empty, signifying Poro Point’s potential: 236 hectares of largely untapped land. Although the smallest among former American bases, including neighboring Clark (3,000+ hectares) and Camp John Hay (600 hectares), it is the only one with both an airstrip and a port.

This peninsula of possibilities is the perfect place to hold the Sillag Festival, an annual event that highlights the people and culture of La Union. Since its inception four years before, the festival has drawn increasing number of visitors and potential investors in the newest frontier near Manila. Booths showcase local products; local youths present dances with creative use of color and lights. As a nod to Wallace Air Station previously located in the peninsula, an air show takes part in the festival’s closing events.

Sand and Black Rocks of Poro Point, Site of the Future Promenade by the Bay @ San Fernando City, La Union

TTT with PPMC Chairman Ives Nisce (center) and Oji Sanchez @ Poro Point, San Fernando City, La Union

Ives Nisce, chairman of PPMC (Poro Point Management Corporation) and prime mover of Poro Point’s development, shines a light on the word sillag, Ilokano for “bright moonbeam.” As the full moon lights one’s way through the night, so does the Sillag Festival light up Poro Point and the province.

In time, a baywalk will trace the seafront on which both locals and visitors can bask in the brilliance of sillag. Even moonless nights will be romanticized by city lights across San Fernando Bay. Hinged on the if-you-build-it-they-will-come concept, the promenade is envisioned to draw tourism and local commerce, allowing the people of La Union to participate in this freeport zone and reinventing Poro Point as a place fit for the public, not merely an exclusive club.

Flight of Balloons of Light: Finale of Sillag 2015 @ Poro Point, La Union

At the peninsula’s edge stands the 96-step Poro Point Lighthouse that has become a symbol of Sillag. While the restored lighthouse was originally built by the Spanish in 1885, the light keeper’s cottage under its shadow is a leftover piece of Americana architecture. A wind generator, the oldest in the country and a relic of bygone technology, used to power the lighthouse, now generated by a LED lamp whose searchlight reaches further out to sea. Everything conveys the historical influences and technological innovations in this former military base.

The parola has lit up the dark curtain of the sea, as one of luces locales dotting the Ilocos coastline, and of this land, as “a beacon of hope” for La Union.

Poro Point Lighthouse and Wind Generator (the country’s first) @ Poro Point, San Fernando City, La Union
Light Keeper’s Cottage @ Poro Point Lighthouse, San Fernando City, La Union
Poro Point Lighthouse and Wind Generator (top), LED Lamp, Wind Generator, and View of Poro Point (bottom) @ San Fernando City, La Union

As the festival draws to a close, revelers with LED-lighted balloons in hand gather in front of a makeshift stage. At the host’s countdown, these hope lanterns on helium are released to the air en masse. Darkness may have fallen, but lights and colors ushering in the hope and promise of La Union, the veritable gateway to Northern Luzon, ascend to illuminate the night sky.