INQUIRER MINDANAO

The incandescent Britania Islands

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THE BRITANIA islets. OLAN FERNANDEZ EMBOSCADO/CONTRIBUTOR

SAN AGUSTIN, Surigao del Sur—The panoramic view of 24 islets dotting the horizon like half-submerged domes gives the impression that Britania is where Poseidon once held court. And the god of the sea must have made sure to position the floating charmers such that they kiss, hug and part as one sails past them.

Britania is famous for its group of islands. But the fact is, it’s an assemblage of islets, sandbars and promontories in varying degrees of landmass and protrusions. All these are uninhabited, with minimal or no vegetation, surrounded by water of the clearest glass, and carpeted with sand the color and texture of Goldilocks’ “polvoron.”

Long before Britania became a magnet for tourists that it is now, it was called Alepanto. And to this day, old folks differ on who gave this rich fishing village its original name. Some say it was a band of nomads looking for a place to stay and earn a living during the Spanish period; others say it was Gregorio Lamela (aka Kapitan Golong), then a highly respected local.

Alepanto was later renamed Bretania by Eufemio Darunday, former mayor of San Agustin, who likened its distinct island-beaches to those of Great Britain’s. It was only recently that the spelling was changed to “Britania.”

A visit to Britania must include hopping to its premier quartet of islets: Buslon, Naked, Hagonoy and Hiyor-hiyoran. Boat operators offer aquatic tours with standard rates for unlimited time: P1,500 for 15 passengers or less, and P2,000 for 20, with extra passengers going for P100 each.

Buslon: A natural studio

If one can visit  only a single islet, Buslon should be it. It’s the nearest but still, like the rest, it’s a natural studio for taking pictures that would make  good cover photos on Facebook and guarantee to make one’s friends weep with envy. It also has two subsidiary islets that one can access on foot if one is brave enough to wade in waist-deep waters.

The twin rock promontories, both named Panlangagan, hold a secret cave and a pocket forest.

Hiyor-hiyoran is the islet with the most vegetation. And if one is lucky to meet fishermen there with a catch to spare, one gets to sample shellfish cooked in saltwater or try one’s hand at gutting fish and collecting roe from sea urchins.

The rocky portion of Hagonoy provides a textural contrast to its incandescent sand. And with huge slabs of stone strewn everywhere, it’s easy to visualize the Little Mermaid doing a “selfie” in her iconic pose.

Naked Island is actually a sandbar that stretches and shrinks with the tide but never vanishes. Because it resembles a fallen cloud that God never bothered to pick up, this ridge of sand is the closest one gets to walking in the clouds. That said, it should be made the high point of one’s Britania experience.

Savor, not capture

One doesn’t capture Britania; one savors it. And it’s a pity that most tourists go there just to earn bragging rights on Facebook instead of living in the moment of the hard-to-beat experience. These people don’t realize that no matter how many times they click their cameras, they couldn’t upload the sea-scented breeze that caresses like a cold spirit of a forgotten loved one; or the splitting of the glassy water by the boat’s hull; or the sensation of fine sand stroking the feet in ways much gentler than the softest rug could ever do; or the heady feeling one gets from braving the current as one goes islet-hopping on foot.

To get there, one takes a bus to Tandag but alights at the Salvacion junction where there’s a tourist assistance center. Because Britania is still 2.8 kilometers away, one has to ride a motorcycle and pay a minimal environmental fee.

Just a few caveats: Food and beverages are not sold in all four islets, and so one should bring one’s own provision. However, there are hotels and restaurants in the mainland, the most famous of which is La Entrada because of its above-average facilities and amenities. Nobody is allowed to stay overnight in any of the islets.

If one intends to go island-hopping, one can hire a boat until 2 p.m. The usual route is Naked-Hagonoy-Hiyor-hiyoran-Buslon. But if one wants to visit Buslon only, which is good enough, one should do it before 4 p.m.

While on tour, some boatmen may turn devious, saying they can’t park at Buslon because it’s too crowded, or it’s difficult and risky to go to Hagonoy because the wind has shifted and the tide has changed. One must insist and not allow to be tricked this way.

The best time to hit Britania is early morning, when available boats are still plenty and one can choose which to hire. This way, too, one has a longer time to enjoy the islets and take all the “selfies” one wants.

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E-mail the author at romeloribe@yahoo.com

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