Manila and Cebu City, the Philippines
December 30 – 31, 2018
Sailing used to be the cheaper alternative to flying. But in the advent of LCCs, it mostly cost less – and for less travel time – to take a plane than a ship. One December day, though, we decided to welcome the new year in Cebu. The holiday rush shot flight fares through the roof; that was a given. What was not was going by boat, which basically meant going by 2Go, the country’s largest passenger ferry fleet.
It had been years since I last rode a boat. Even as a child, I regarded the perennially wet, muddy, slippery, crowded Pier 4 of Manila North Harbor as the epitome of all things third world. I did not have fond memories of it.
And who were there in 2018? Ki and I. And were we pleasantly surprised! North Port Passenger Terminal was an actual building, not the makeshift tent in our childhood.
Built seven years prior, the terminal was a spacious lounge. It was still packed with people, but there was order in this chaos. All it lacked was an efficient PA system and industrial-strength air conditioning. Seated at the far end of the hall, we could barely hear boarding announcements. But I wasn’t complaining. Finally, dignity in maritime travel achieved.
MV St. Pope John Paul II, 2Go’s biggest and longest vessel, was massive for an inter-island passenger ferry. It towered over passengers marching in a single-file ant trail through the dock to the starboard gangplank. I had to take a selfie at a distance that could still fit the ship within the frame. Then we were good to go.
The reception area sported a sleek look, newly refurbished and brightly lit. Although the ship was more than 20 years old, its age did not show. We collected our key from the front desk and hurried up to our room one level above. I expected it to be a claustrophobic cabin with a tiny porthole.
I was in for another surprise. The stateroom, the middle child sandwiched between spacious suite and cramped cabin, was practically a hotel room outfitted with a queen-size bed, mood lighting, a mini fridge, its own toilet and shower, and a wide rectangular window. I scurried back downstairs to recreate a more dramatic entrance for a vlog post. I could only imagine how much fancier the suites were.
The window was at deck level opening up to the view of the sea and distant islands, interrupted by passersby oblivious to our people-watching gaze from the inside. A girl stopped and checked her lipstick right at our window. It was a one-way glass unless we turned the lights on, which would turn the tables and turned our room into an aquarium from the outside.
For the 22 hours we were at sea, we had intermittent internet data – connecting only when we passed by a major island. We would be alerted of this by notifications that pinged in frantic succession. Without Wi-Fi, I mostly settled on the wide windowsill, wrapped in my soft and cozy bleeves, alternately reading and dozing off.
We took our pre-paid meals at Horizon Cafe, each time showing our ticket print-out. For a small eater like me, servings were filling enough. Our fare was inclusive of three meals – lunch, dinner, and breakfast for the following day.
Our late morning departure from Manila was delayed by a typhoon warning; ergo, lunch was served past 4 PM shortly after the ship left port. Consequently, our ETA the next morning went beyond noon. The ship docked at Cebu by 2 PM, several hours after breakfast. We had already used up our free meals by then. It turned out mealtimes were not adjusted to delays.
The ship was tracing half the length of Cebu Island the entire morning. I didn’t care for any amenities outside our comfy, cozy room, but we, at least, explored the sun deck. The sea breeze was cool and fresh until I sniffed the black smoke from the ship’s twin side funnels. We could literally see our carbon footprint blowing on the ship’s wake.
Passengers lined the railings at the stern, not so much for the view as for the internet signal. As the ship slowed down for berthing at the Port of Cebu (also Pier 4), a Titanic scene presented itself and I was compelled to belt out that cloying Celine Dion song. Nobody looked up from their phone. Absolutely zero audience impact.
We decided to chill in the comfort of our room as the rest formed a snail-paced line for disembarkation. The tourist and economy sections were in full capacity, after all. We had walked through a hall of bunk beds crammed with passengers and their luggage. Perhaps they were travelers that carried more baggage for the holidays than what was permissible by air. But was business as brisk during off-peak season?
Nevertheless, it was reassuring to know that ocean liners remained afloat despite the democratization of air travel, that there was still this slower but more chill alternative mode of transportation – one that was as much an event as the destination. Indeed, our vacation started in that stateroom, not upon arrival. Way to go, 2Go!
I remembered Dad who developed the fear of flying after experiencing a near-crash. The last time I was on a ship was with him and Mom 15 years before. It dawned on me that, even then, we were billeted in a family room, perhaps a suite.
That ship was a SuperFerry from Manila to Bacolod. How cool it would be if MV St. Pope John Paul II was that same SuperFerry, only renamed by 2Go Group when it acquired the vessel from the defunct Aboitiz Shipping Lines. Traveling by boat was after Dad’s chill heart.