Volcanic Pleasures

One day half a million years or so ago, a 5,500-meter volcano on Luzon in the Philippines exploded with what must have been a tremendous bang, throwing volcanic debris all the way to where Manila sprawls now, 80 kilometers away. Then it exploded three more times over the next few thousand years before ultimately collapsing into itself in what must have been an astonishing display of pyrotechnics.

Today only the eastern rim is still standing, some 650m above sea level. The rest of it disappeared into a spectacular caldera 30km across and filled with fresh water. In the middle of the caldera is a new volcano, a 20-square-km island that is beginning to grow again. It has erupted at least 34 times since 1572, most recently in 1965, creating a surge of gases that blew across the lake, devastating villages and killing about 100 people. On a prior explosion in 1911, it killed about 1,000 people.

Taal is one of 15 volcanoes on the planet classified as so-called "decade volcanoes" because of their ability to deliver up a whole panoply of hazards — pyroclastic flows, lava flows, lahars, lava dome collapses, hazardous gases and more in a populated area. It is a part of Luzon's own ring of fire, formed as the Eurasian Plate slides under the Philippine Mobile Belt. According to the VolcanoWorld website, there have been periodic eruptions of Taal twice as large as those of the Philippines’ celebrated Mount Pinatubo, which blew a mere 125m off its top in a 1991 flare-up. Today, perhaps 30m down in the new crater's lake, Taal bubbles ominously away, sending up vapor and gently boiling the water along one side, spewing up the occasional two-meter geyser of boiling mud.

That hasn't stopped Filipinos from cuddling up to the caldera's flank and even building right down to the water. Considerable controversy broke out in early July, in fact, when a Korean business group somehow swung the political clout to build a health spa on the crater itself a protected area administered by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. After heated protest, the project was cancelled. Hundreds of people live in villages lining the lake, and a handful live on the volcano island itself. Floating fishing shacks cover considerable expanses of the lake. The southern flank is home to Fantasy World, a humungous multi-turreted and multicolored castle complete with cement dragon and a real estate development. Other developments, some of them with amazingly luxurious houses, crawl up the side of the volcano wall.

That is because the area has been the long-time playground of a flock of Filipino movie stars and politicians who have built grandiose homes along the cliff, and of ordinary people as well who want to escape the heat and humidity of Manila, down an almost-straight road to Manila Bay. The rim of the crater, thronged by every conceivable kind of commercial enterprise, is often shrouded in mist. Tagaytay City, a strip town about 20km long, is relatively unlovely but it's cool, and there are lots of places to sit outside. One of the unanticipated rewards is the intense color in the form of flower vendors' stalls thronging the roadway.

Assuming it isn't going to re- explode any time soon — and the Koreans seemed confident that it wouldn't — the scenery is spectacular enough to warrant a visit, and there are scores of restaurants, guest houses and hotels, ranging from the simple to moderately upscale. Serious hotels include the Taal Vista Hotel at the top of the crater rim with 128 rooms priced from some about a $100 to $300 with spectacular views of the lake. At the other end of the scale are cheap and cheerful guesthouses like the Leynes Resort on the water.

Along the way is People's Park in the Sky, yet another of former strongman Ferdinand Marcos's unfinished dreams — a summer home for his wife, Imelda, that was left incomplete when the couple was booted out of the country in 1986. Occupying the highest spot in the area, the site has been turned into a theme park with horses to ride and great lake views.

It's more rewarding, however, to go down the Talisay road to the lake itself, along a two-lane road from Tagaytay City that leads down the cliff face from the Aguinaldo Highway. It is steep, twisting and lovely, traversing a riot of variegated flora. Blossoms of amazing hues and scents line the road. Most of the guest houses, which serve simple meals, have colorful bancas — outriggers with pointed prows and sterns — that bear fanciful names like "Eurostar" or "Londoner" or, for variety, "Baby Ivesly."

Eurostar's trip across the lake to Volcano Island itself, a half-hour ride, cost 1,000 pesos. It's an idyllic trip through spectacular scenery including a pass by what looks like it ought to be the volcano that is being rebuilt through volcanic activity. It isn't. It's the bigger but flatter island next to it. There are said to be 47 cones and craters on the island itself, according to Ecotourism Philippines. There, a handful of small farms and a predatory flock of entrepreneurs descend on you, offering to sell water and face masks for the dust (not really needed). Renting a straw hat, for 20 pesos, is a wise idea. The lake is down almost to sea level, and it can get very hot.

Getting to the volcano requires a horse, which the locals are eager to rent to you, along with a chauffeur, for 1,200 pesos for two. You could walk, but a horse is wise. It is a four kilometer walk from the beach up some 182m in elevation to the rim of the crater, which takes about half an hour, through tracks that are worn down considerably. Volcano Island contains a lake about two kilometers across, called Crater Lake. Within Crater Lake is yet another volcanic island called Vulcan Point. Vulcan Point is said to be the world's largest island within a lake on an island within a lake on an island, if that doesn't get you dizzy.

You can either ride your own horse, or the denizens will tow you up. The horses are tough, wiry and small, and so are the people who guide them. But they make the trip to the top several times a day and often, on the steepest parts, will break into a trot going up the hills. There are cold beer, coconuts and soft drinks sold at the top, which can be very welcome.

Many of the guest houses along the Talisay side of the crater serve simple lunches that are quite delicious - fresh fish, barbecued chicken and pork.

But there are restaurants at the top of the rim that are worth saving your appetite for. One is RSM Lutong Bahay in Tagaytay City, with a wide variety of Filipino cuisine and a whimsical patio with great views of the volcano itself — or at least the one everybody thinks is the volcano, the 50-m stub sticking up out of the lake that looks like a volcano ought to look. There are rocking horses for the kids and, in some incongruity, a wonderful natural wood rocking lion that is almost worth the trip. The occasional adult will sit on it for a picture after a few bottles of beer.

Besides three floors of open-air tables, the restaurant has a series of bahay kubos, or native open-air gazebos, on an extensive back patio where it's great to sit and eat chili crab or blue marlin steak with lemon butter sauce or tuna belly with onion and tomato. The traditional dishes — adobo, sinigang and caldereta are all there — but the seafood is fresh, simple and tasty.

We would also recommend La Trobadora, a little further up the Aguinaldo Highway towards Tagaytay City itself, where the Spanish paella is a good deal, and once again the bahay kubos beckon. It features strolling guitar players, three amiable guys who will happily knock out Happy Birthday or Lady of Spain, I Adore You, but will disappear with the wave of a hand if you choose.

Getting there isn't easy, given the Philippines' shambolic infrastructure. The closer you get to Manila, the more Aguinaldo Highway, on any given day, resembles the Highway of Death, the road the fleeing Iraqi army took out of Kuwait in 1991, only to be destroyed by American warplanes. It can take two hours to go 40km. The South Luzon Expressway out of Manila gets you closer, but eventually you have to peel off on to crowded country roads. And you start to have diabolical day dreams that the Air Force might come to clear them out.

The best thing about the ride, aside from getting to the top and peering down into the crater, is the looks on the faces of the riders coming back down. They are mostly Taiwanese and Korean tourists and the guides, sinewy and lean, often jump on the back behind the saddles to ride down. At precipitous parts of the trail, they are likely to urge the horses into a gallop, producing looks of sheer terror from tourists clutching their rented hats with one hand and the saddle pommel with the other.

It's wise to go in the morning, partly to avoid tourists, but also because it can get hellishly warm. The heat and the humidity are what produce the riotous vegetation. The horse ride brings you face to face with much of it, including tiny yellow flowers that are worth a stop, if the horse can be talked out of his sprint back towards a rest.

An earlier version ofthis article appeared in the now-defunct Weekend Standard of Hong Kong.