Island indulgence: A summer getaway at Hermana Menor

The radiant sun has yet to rise and shine, but I was already up and about on Black Saturday. It was five in the morning when I finished my start-of-the-day ritual, and was all ready to set off to my quiet town’s only 24/7 convenience store. There, I filled my grocery basket with chips, drinking water, and picnic utensils. After making sure I have bought all the things I need, it was time for me to meet some of my high school buddies in the next barangay, and catch our boat ride to Hermana Menor Island, Santa Cruz, Zambales.

In light of the forthcoming temporary closure of Boracay this year, tourists undeniably are on the search for the next summer go-to. Of course, white sand shores and crystal clear waters are on top of the criteria. Many a man explores the coast of Batangas for a slice of paradise, but I dare return to my hometown. There, I am very much glad to have found one place that ticks off the list.

Hermana Menor (Spanish for “Younger Sister”) is the smaller one of two neighboring privately-owned islands off the coast of the northernmost town in Zambales (the other being Hermana Mayor which translates to “Older Sister”). For years, access to this island, which is also known as Makatira Island by some of the locals, has been restricted – I have only been told of its grandiose beauty by my elders. Fortunately, the owners of Hermana Menor began to allow guests to set foot on the island’s pristine shores; and I am one of the lucky ones to have my breath taken away by the island itself (note that Hermana Mayor belongs to a different family, and remains off-limits to visitors).

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Strolling along Hermana Menor‘s shoreline feels like walking on the moon due to its powdery, white sand.

Because of the Holy Week break, it was expected that the once-mysterious island would attract a humongous crowd. Hence, our boatman advised us to come before six in the morning on the day of our escapade so we can still be accepted to enter the island (access may not be granted to visitors once the island is deemed full already), and be able to rent a cottage for ourselves (there is only a very limited number of which offered by the island). To avail of cheaper boat fares, we opted to join another tourist group or two, and altogether fill a big boat to its capacity. The downside to our decision was that we had to wait for the other groups so we can all set sail together. They arrived way beyond our call time – we left the shores of the mainland at around half past seven. That is more than an hour of idling! Talk about courtesy with your fellow island-goers.

The boat ride lasted for roughly half an hour. It was a long trip indeed, but we were rewarded with a spectacular sight of a clear emerald-to-azure sea. You can actually see the corals underwater, especially as you come closer to Hermana Menor.

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A picturesque view of the sun rising from the Zambales moutain range.

Upon arrival, it was undeniable that the island is already jam-packed with visitors. Luckily, we were still allowed to set foot on the island. Earlier, our boatman told us that another guy already had a cottages reserved. However, we soon found out that only one was secured for all of us, including the other groups we arrived with. Right then and there, we had to compromise – the biggest group was given the cottage, and we had to settle with a table with benches for Php 350, and a separate bamboo bed for Php 150 (total of Php 500 which is equivalent to the price of renting a cottage). Yes, the latecomers had the better end of the deal. Congratulations to them.

(By the way, there is also a separate entrance fee of Php 100.)

Since our table had no roof, we had to adjust its position a number of times throughout the day to make sure that we were all under the shadow. Thanks to the friendly trees who provided the shade we needed.

We were already starving the moment we arrived. Well, we all did not have our breakfast prior to this travel. Thus, the first thing we did after settling down was heading to the common grilling station. At half past nine, the table was already set for a boodle fight. We had hotdogs, eggplants, salted eggs, green mangoes, liempo and bangus on top of steamed rice.  Since I only brought drinking water for all of us, we had to buy a big bottle of soda for a whopping price of Php 80 from the only store on the island. Nevertheless, we all had a satisfying meal.

We then played cards to kill time. The winner for each round had to smear pulverized, unused charcoal on the face of the loser. Thank heavens that I only lost once, and the champion for that game gave me a goatee. He-he.

In the middle of our playtime, a halo-halo stand was set-up nearby. We treated ourselves to this refreshment for a price of Php 25 each.

By noontime, someone had the brilliant idea to take a dip despite the scorching sun. Because we were all aching for a swim (despite me not really knowing how to), we arrived at the consensus of doing so. Luckily, the waters were cool even if the land was prickly hot. We had our life jackets on because we were warned that the sea tends to go deep without warning. This allowed us to float around easily.

After spending an hour in the sea, we returned to our table famished. Our early brunch failed to keep us full for the rest of the day. Thankfully, there were still some rice and food left, including a handful of untouched fried GG which we forgot about earlier. We also devoured the chips that I brought with me. However, our drinking water was insufficient for all of us. I did not know we would be so thirsty! We decided to head to the hilltop store once again to purchase some drinking water, however they already ran out of drinks to sell. They only had tiny bottles of soft drinks for Php 20 each. Since we were eight, the amount would total to Php 160; and we felt that it was too expensive a price. Our Mister Congeniality saved the day when he was able to have our water jug  refilled by a neighboring group of beach bums.

At around three in the afternoon, we decided to go swimming once again. This time around, I carried along with me my lightweight-yet-powerful Canon EOS M3 to take portrait shots by the island’s immaculate shores, and my water resistant (IP68) Samsung Galaxy S7 for groufies while in the sea. What I really loved about Hermana Menor is its stretch of ivory sand, and crystal waters that transition from clear to green-and-blue as it goes farther away from the shore. These make the island worth one’s admiration.

As the sun began to set, it was time for us to leave the majestic island. But before that, we wanted to take a shower with fresh water first. However, there was only one public restroom for each gender on the island, thus the queue was always long. Also, water supply was awful. There were many times during the day when the faucets would expel only a few drops of clean water; and at this time, it seemed as if the water supply was experiencing a dry spell. Because of these, we had no choice but to head back to the mainland without rinsing ourselves.

Nonetheless, Hermana Menor is one place I would definitely love to return to. Its jaw-dropping shoreline is worth it. Also, I liked how the owners want to keep the island as virgin as possible, unlike Boracay and the nearby Potipot Island which have been over-commercialized through the years. This makes Hermana Menor a true escape from the busy world. I would love to doze off on a hammock while enjoying the peace that the island offers. Well, probably I would be able to do that if I come back at a non-peak season; and I am very much looking forward to that.

My Advice

Because the island offers very few facilities such as restrooms, stores and cottages, I recommend that you do not go there on long weekends and holiday breaks. This allows you to enjoy the serenity of the island way better. Also, I advise you to really prepare beforehand – make sure you have all the food and drinks you will need throughout your island escapade as there is only one store on the island, its prices are costly, and its supplies easily run out). Furthermore, do not be maarte as the only public restroom is a basic one, and water supply is not really good.

Ever since the island has been opened to visitors, a number of travel companies have begun offering tours to Hermana Menor. If you do not want to burden yourselves with planning your vacation, then take any of the deals they offer. If you are more of a DIY traveler, then I advise you to head on to Facebook and search for “Hermana Menor. Among the results, you can find public posts of locals who are offering boat rides to the island – we availed one of these. Arrange a ride with one of them beforehand so your trip will be less hassle and less expensive. Also, they can reserve your cottage for you before you arrive.

Further tip: try to arrange a boat ride to yourselves. Going there with somebody else can be stressful, like in our experience.

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Remember how we had to settle for this picnic table because of our unmindful co-boat riders, and the huge Holy Week crowd.

To get to Santa Cruz, Zambales ride a Victory Liner bus bound straight for this town from its Caloocan, Pasay or Sampaloc (Manila) terminal. Fare is around Php 450, depending on where you are coming from (slightly higher fare from Pasay terminal). Travel time is more or less seven hours. This is affected by several factors such as where you are departing from (longer travel time if from Pasay), time of day (longer during day time), and season (longer on long weekends and holiday breaks). For your convenience, you can book your bus tickets online at least a week before your intended travel.

If you are choosing to visit the island the moment you set foot on Santa Cruz, I recommend that you arrive early, especially on peak seasons. To be able to do so, ride a late night or midnight trip from any of the aforementioned Victory Liner stations, and get off at where the person you arranged your island trip with told you to (usually at a gasoline station in Lipay, Santa Cruz, Zambales). Ensure that you have all the things you need, including your food and drinks, prior to leaving Manila as Santa Cruz is a rural town – stores will normally still be closed when the sun has not yet risen (the only 24/7 convenience store is in the town proper).

Get ready to pay for an entrance fee of Php 100 upon arrival at Hermana Menor. Cottage prices range from Php 500-1000 depending on size. You may also settle for a bench for Php 350.

Overnight stay in Hermana Menor is NOT allowed. Hence, you will have to get back at around five in the afternoon of the same day you arrived. If you are choosing to go back to Manila right then and there, you may ride a tricycle to the Victory Liner station in the town proper. Alternatively, you may catch a bus bound for Santa Cruz, and get off at the Victory Liner terminal. As of time of writing, only trips to Pasay can be booked online.

If you wish to stay somewhere else before or after your island day tour, there are different accommodation options nearby which you can check online. One of which is Dawal Beach Resort in the neighboring town of Candelaria. To get there, just tell the bus conductor to drop you off at Dawal in Barangay Uacon. From there, you can get to Santa Cruz by bus, and vice-versa.

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“Happy trip!” from the complete Hermana Menor squad.

More photos here:

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