Northern La Union Province with kids
If there's a province I want to live in, it's La Union. Driving distance from Manila, on the coast, cooler weather, drier heat, arid landscape, less traffic, fresh produce from the mountain provinces nearby, and a very chill pace of life. I love visiting up there because in one trip we get relaxation, adventure and LOTS of culture. It's a 5-hour drive away, but it's unique location in the North West Luzon gives it a different feel that's as if you've taken a flight to get there- but you haven't. You've just survived a 5-hour drive with kids, is all :)
So what do we love about it:
1) We love the unique beaches. La Union is known for it's surfing, particularly in San Juan. There are two surfing seasons July to October and November to March... making for impressive waves! Most popular place to surf is at San Juan Beach, lots of info at the San Juan Surf Resort website. Note that this can be a difficult place to take young kids to enjoy the beach, as the waves can get high and undercurrents strong (if this is the case, thankfully a protective and knowledgeable local will come running to tell you it is NOT a good idea to take your kids swimming here-- just ask them to point you to where kids can swim). With children/beginner level surfers, the waves when we went in late Jan were too high. We learned that there can be gentler waves at Taboc Beach (access through the resorts, like German Sunset resort). We were also able to surf with kids in the next town north, Bacnotan (more about that below).
During a different visit in November, waves in Luna, La Union (30 min north of San Juan), were very gentle- too gentle to go surfing. But, what's unique about Luna beaches is that they are not sandy beaches, but pebble beaches. Pebbles in different shades of gray, red and green! In fact, a major export of Luna are pebbles and you will see locals collecting them and organizing them to be transported. If you are looking for an inexpensive, but clean place to stay in Luna- we've stayed at Pebble Beach resort, which has big, clean rooms (about 3K for a room with two queens). Amenities are basic but they have a great, quiet beach.
The beaches in San Juan, Taboc, Bacnotan and Luna are all public, no part owned by a resort or anything- you can walk on any stretch of beach you like... and it's all fantastic.
2) We also love how each town has its own culture and sights to offer. And that we can drive between these towns easily ("Country roads, take me home, to the place, where I belong"... rang through my head as we drove). I don't really want to compare it to another place because it has it's own authentic character, but in my heart, it reminds me of the summer vacations of my childhood in the South of France- where we'd stay in one town, and embrace it, relax pool- or beach-side there, and make it our home for the week--- but then venture to other quaint towns to explore them and their unique characteristics. First of all, here's a pic from the road in LU. The arid landscape also adds to the South of France feel... and oh yeah that's one other thing we love about LU- the weather! Drier! And also cooler (dropping to 72F/22C in the evenings and mornings- sweatshirt weather!). And also, so breezy! Okay... following is a list of the things to enjoy in each of the towns in this area.
Is the capital of La Union province. It's where your grocery stores are as well as an awesome, big palengke/wet market. We got beautiful produce here as well as fresh fish- in fact we threw it all together for a boodle fight style dinner, since we also found banana leaves there. Of note, is delicious buko all sold along a line of buko stalls- have you ever seen one so big?
Is a 15-minute drive along the coast north of San Fernando. It is a colorful, hip, hippy surfing town, with cool hang-outs and trendy, artsy places to eat (I got my tips from amommabroad amd carlosandveronica), and a a fierce beach to enjoy! As you leave (going north) the town of San Juan, there are lots of pottery stalls like the one pictured below.
Is a 10-minute drive north of San Juan, also along the coast. Less touristy than San Juan, it's beaches are quiet (of people, not of wind and waves). It's where we stayed in a choice airbnb house, more of that below.
Is a 30-minute drive north of Bacnotan. Sites to see here are:
a) Fishing at dusk, it's an experience. We've done it 4 times now and it's so cathartic to watch the local boys and men go out on boats to fish, and then the neighbors run onto the beach to help pull in the nets for the daily catch. Those who help get a share of fish, and the rest goes to market. The fishing is at 5pm everyday (unless waves are too big) in barangay Rimos No. 5.
b) See how Luna's specialties of bibingka (cassava cake) and tupig (sweet glutinous rice roasted in banana leaves) are made at Orang's bakery in barangay Sto. Domingo. The whole process is fun to watch, and the results, a delight.
c) Visit Baluarte- an old watch tower from pre-Spanish times to protect La Union from Spanish, Chinese and Moro pirates. There's something about it's story that is stirring- it gave protection and defense to La Union and yet is so weak (due to its building materials of coral bricks and egg whites, and poor foundation) that it collapsed in a typhoon in 2015. It's considered a national treasure and has since been reinforced.
d) Visit Bahay Na Bato in barangay Nalvo Norte. It is a private family house turned open-to-tourists for a visit. It's basically a very tasteful house on the beach with stone sculptures by Korean artist Bong Kim. It feels a little tourist trappy, but the sculptures are impressive, and the ambiance of the breeze and pebble beach isn't something you can regret too much.
Is 15 more minutes from Luna, or 30 minutes directly from Bacnotan. What it's got? WEAVING! Visit De Castro's Weaving (at Central West #3) to see and be inspired by loom weavers making Inabel fabric, blankets, and towels characteristic of this region. De Castro Weaving is a large factory where no machines are used- just hands, looms, manual sewing machines, and hard work. You can buy products here, and even order customized and personalized ones. All for inexpensive prices (120 pesos for a bath towel, 350 pesos for a queen-size blanket, 20 pesos for a dish towel, 120 pesos for a pair of pillow covers). The hard work is beautiful to behold, as well as the looms and materials themselves, and of course the products- you just want to take everything home and take care of it. On the same street are two other vendors of woven products, C-something Weaving and Nuguer's Weaving. Both of these sell products woven by women in the neighborhood.
3) We really loved the beautiful, relaxing, perfect-for-families-and-friends beach house in Bacnotan on Airbnb where we stayed. See the listing here.
What's so great about it:
-Has two bedrooms upstairs with queen beds in each and a shared bathroom, two bedrooms downstairs (one with a twin bed, one with a queen bed downstairs) also with a shared bathroom, and then a living room/dining room area and full kitchen with oven, stove and fridge. There's also an outdoor patio for outdoor eating and lounging and enjoying that breeze! This was a great house for sharing with another family.
-It's native character thanks to the thatch roofs and wooden furniture, some of it antique, from the Phil
-There's a pool
-It sits ON the beach and has a glorious view. The beach isn't private but might as well be with hardly anyone walking by. The beach is entertaining- black volcanic sand, large expanse of it to play on, and fun fun waves! We were able to surf here.
-Kid-friendly: there are great family board games and children's books stored in the living room, my 3-yr-old could stand in the shallow third of the pool, there's a nipa hut on the beach for kids to hang out in, and the kids who we didn't have a bed for slept on futon mattresses in the bedrooms which were provided.
-The hosts are a kind and very on-the-ball couple, Gena and Ignacio, who are in their late 70s. They have lived in the US for 30 plus but retired in Phil. Not really retired though, as they are busy working on a hospital board and doing community social work. They were wonderful hosts, welcoming our group with open arms and not afraid of the 4 adults and 8 kids we were. In fact, Gena was so great in making sure the place was comfortable for the kids. Look at the cute beach chairs she set up. She also organized a helper for us to have there (500 pesos per day). She, Lila, turned out to be so valuable in helping us to keep track of our kids going between the pool and beach. The Ignacios live in a part of the large rental house, in their own bungalow. So we'd see them going in and out and it was always a pleasure to see them and feel at home with them (for me, it was very familiar and like having my parents nearby, helping me out and being so kind to the kids). Gena is extremely available for any questions I had during the day. The Ignacios also have some staff on the compound who were also wonderful and available to answer questions.
-The house is secluded but safe, just a few minutes drive from the main road. And a 2-minute drive away from Bacnotan town where there's a wet market, bakeries, a supermarket for dry goods, and an Andok's (roasted chicken) should you need a ready-made dinner.
-The house turned out to be where we wanted to be all day! Enjoying the view and relaxing in the very comfortable space that it was.
We spent 3 full days in La Union with a half-day on each side. This made for a great balance of enjoying the house/pool/beach and exploring the nearby towns. Finally, something to keep in mind is that a stay in La Union could be paired with a trip to Baguio (about 2.5 hours away), Sagada (about 4.5 hours away), or Vigan (about 2.5 hours away).