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La Union Saw Me Through the Best and Worst of Times

by Dyan Zarzuela

It’s the first month of 2015 and my heart is pounding as a tiny swell of a wave approaches, my surf instructor’s voice booming, “Tayo, tayo, tayo!”

INSTAGRAM: dyanzarzuela

Despite his best efforts to teach me to stand on the board, I wobble hopelessly for a few seconds before the water swallows me up, gently, like it knows it’s my first time. Like it knows that I can’t swim. I grab my board and paddle back, along with other beginners in the popular patch of ocean near San Juan Surf Resort in La Union.

INSTAGRAM: adedace

As another wave approaches, I steel myself, shake off the doubts, and trust my limbs to know what to do. I look up from my board and focus on the shoreline. Before I know it, I am up on my feet, shaking but standing. Expert surfer I am still not, but those few seconds sealed the deal for me.

INSTAGRAM: karl_rian

To this day, I find myself coming back to the sleepy-turned-bustling surf town of San Juan, La Union again and again. For one, it’s easy to get there: just one bus ride from Pasay or Cubao (always the Partas line for me). If I spontaneously decide to pack my bags for Elyu, I can just head to the station before 1 AM and try my luck as a chance passenger—easy if you’re traveling by yourself or with one to two friends. The bus rolls out around 2 AM and drops you off in the heart of the surf town by sunrise. Recently though, I tried booking a two-way ride two days ahead using Biyaheroes. The minimal service charge was worth it if only for the convenience of having tickets to Manila on a Sunday afternoon, primetime for tourists heading back to the city.

INSTAGRAM: mari_jasmn and wannederful

Second, finding accommodations is easy with a growing number of hostels and resorts to choose from. I’m a creature of habit so I tend to stay in the same places along MacArthur Highway. If I’m traveling by myself or with a group of friends, I go for dorm-type accommodations. Made of stacked shipping containers, the meticulously designed Vessel Hostel has fully equipped bunk beds (sockets, storage, the works) for groups of four or six.

Meanwhile, Flotsam and Jetsam Artist Beach Hostel offers bunk beds in dorm-type rooms and nipa huts, as well as private rooms decked out in their signature bohemian style. I find the mix of bunk beds and private rooms great for groups with couples who want a room of their own. Traveling with a partner or with family? Urbiz Garden is a private home turned bed and breakfast that offers cozy rooms and romantic cabanas.

INSTAGRAM: harveyoutiful and flotsamandjetsamhostel

But beyond these transpo and lodging conveniences, what keeps me coming back to Elyu is all the ways it pushes me to learn something new.

INSTAGRAM: curiouscreatures.lu

I remember experiencing a different kind of wipeout on my second visit. It’s 2015 and I’m back for Craft Camp, a weekend of arts and crafts workshops held in Urbiz Garden that season. It’s immediately, painfully obvious that I’m the least visually creative participant. I struggle the most with painting and drawing, but find joy in weaving and journal writing. The latter reminds me why I signed up in the first place—to push myself out of my comfort zone.

INSTAGRAM: elunion

It’s 2016 and I return to Elyu as I stand on the brink of a career change. As my friends and I stuff ourselves with S’mores and Grilled Cheese with Bacon Jam at El Union, we see a sign for a yoga class upstairs that night. They somehow convince me, a person who does not do yoga, to practice yoga in public. Sensing our friendly competition in class, the instructor repeatedly tells us beginners to take it easy, to “listen to our truths”—something that stays with me long after the savasana.

INSTAGRAM: madmonkeyslu

It’s 2017 and I’m a walking rom-com cliché as I hop on a bus to La Union by myself, running away from heartbreak in the city. I eat my feelings: the Classic Burger at Mad Monkeys, Pad Thai and Satay at Seawadeeka, Scallop Roll at Great Gamble, and my favorite Dirty White paired with Grilled Cheese and Bacon Jam at El Union. I find that there is no shame in being that girl—the girl getting a table for one, swimming alone, enjoying her own company. A friend eventually comes to stay with me for a day, and when we go for a dip and get stung by jellyfish, I take it as a sign to stop running.

INSTAGRAM: charmfull

It takes more than a year until I come back, and this time I’m not alone. This time I eat my way across town, not to forget but to make new memories. He introduces me to Barefoot at Le Point in Monaliza Surf Resort, where they bake bread daily, making for the most scrumptious shakshuka, burgers, and other brunch dishes. In the afternoon, we head to The Great Northwest Philippines Travel Stop & Viewing Deck for a couple of rounds of Surf Town craft beer at Curious Creatures Taproom, then dinner at the newly opened Chu’s Diner. The fresh sashimi, sushi, and poke bowls made by the eponymous Japanese surfer are the perfect way to end a day of eating well.

INSTAGRAM: hannahthebaptist

After dinner, we head to Charlie’s Hangar Surf Hostel, where his friends are staying. It’s cold and drizzling, and we take refuge under the wing of an empty plane, sipping shots of their own stash of gin. Tanqueray is not meant to be taken as a shot, and while every gulp stings, I find that I don’t mind. I find that in that moment, life is pretty sweet.

INSTAGRAM: camillerdp

It’s the eighth month of 2018 and I’m wrapping up this story a few hours before we head back to La Union for the second time together. I haven’t surfed in a while and I’m afraid I’ve forgotten how to—a feeling that echoes in me as I stand on the brink of another major life change. I feel it coming, a much bigger, scarier swell of a wave than my first ride, but I trust that my favorite surf town can help me get up on my feet once more, the way it always has.

Want to have your own Elyu story, too? Find La Union travel inspiration in our comprehensive Travel Guide.

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About Dyan
When she’s not on the way to yet another beach, Dyan Zarzuela is in the city, trying to make it as a freelance writer, editor, and producer. You can find her on Instagram at @dyanzarzuela.

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