Strong winds lash the coast at the Dipolog Boulevard, where locals converge and do various activities in the afternoon.

THE SKY IS gray, occasionally spitting rain. Palm trees by the shore are swaying to the strong winds. The waves, not really big but strong, are crashing to the shore. I climb the ledge overlooking the sea and try to gain a wide-angle perspective of where I am. Except for a couple of souls strolling, the oceanside boulevard feels desolate. Pop music blares from the restaurant row fronting the beach but they’re practically drowned by the howling winds.

Palm trees line Dipolog Boulevard, where locals converge and do various activities in the afternoon.
Palm trees line Dipolog Boulevard, which becomes a picture of tranquility on a sunny morning.

I’m in Dipolog City, a place that isn’t exactly a destination, with many of the visitors who find their way here either visiting the nearby Dapitan City or spending their days in hotels and conference halls. But as the capital of Zamboanga del Norte, I’m certain the city has plenty of trappings – restaurants and a couple of sights, in particular – that should preoccupy me for the two and a half days I’m here. And I know that there’s a sense of that Filipino warmth that’s always magnified outside the large cities. Especially outside Metro Manila.

The Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Cathedral near the eastern end of the city features an altar designed by Dr. Jose Rizal.
The Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Cathedral near the eastern end of the city features an altar designed by Dr. Jose Rizal.

On a stroll about the city that evening, Dipolog shows more of herself. A grill house a couple of blocks from the hotel is filling with crowds as the night deepens, but it’s small enough for me to get a table for myself, and nurse a can of soda, a burger and fries for an hour. Even with the loud soundtrack, I’m never stressed out and I don’t have to shout to say my order to the staff.

Locals flock to a restaurant serving cheap grilled food in the evening.
Locals flock to a restaurant serving cheap grilled food in the evening.

You can say the same for much of the city. It’s dense and noisy but it’s never crowded and chaotic. Even during the day, the streets are walkable and retains much of a quaint vibe – compact buildings, tricycles, and the occasional cars. Tonight, it’s just 8pm but many of the stores have closed and it feels later than it really is.

A cross commemorates the safe arrival of Boholano settlers in 1905. Drawn in part by the region's fertile resources, many of Dipolog City's residents were migrants from the Visayas.
A cross commemorates the safe arrival of Boholano settlers in 1905. Drawn in part by the region’s fertile resources, many of Dipolog City’s residents were migrants from the Visayas.

The next afternoon, back in Dipolog’s seaside boulevard, I’m entranced once more by the present. With better weather, much more people are arriving. Just a few minutes before sunset, I see couples with arms linked, teenagers taking pictures with their tablets, children playing in the black sand. I can spend more days here walking the same streets, taking in the same views, and eating at the same restaurants. Like most cities brimming with context, Dipolog rewards familiarity. A cute book-themed cafe with kitschy yet enticing interiors make me reconsider my dinner plans.

People are drawn to the picturesque sunset of Dipolog Boulevard.
People are drawn to the picturesque sunset of Dipolog Boulevard.

Why not? A sugary milk tea seems a nice way to start the evening.

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