At any given day, tens of thousands of motorists pass through Metro Manila’s south of the border. And with the countless hours in traffic jam along the South Luzon Expressway and arterial roads, we think we know it so well.

When community quarantine protocols allow local travel, Laguna is a hands-down choice for family trips as tourism opens up gradually. More than hot springs, century-old churches and the ubiquitous buko pie and espasol, the province is a treasure trove of culture and adventure worth driving for.

And despite the rapid urbanization and road widening projects, most of the towns have retained their Old World charm with their Spanish-style urban planning and vestiges of a bygone era.

The writer kayaking at Lake Caliraya

Pit Stop 1: Calamba. The hometown of national hero Dr. Jose Rizal, it is surprising to note that a huge number of people haven’t been to his reconstructed ancestral house in the poblacion. Across it is the St. John the Baptist Church where he was baptized, and the “kalambanga” (claypot and stove) landmark where Calamba was named after prominently stands.

At a nearby hill at Brgy. Lecheria is the Iglesia Watawat Ng Lahi, a folk Catholic group which regards Rizal as the “Brown Christ” and one of the first Rizalista cults.

To the city’s outer barangay near Los Baños is Laresio Lakeside Resort, a fancy recreational getaway which uses Tadlac Lake as its oversized pool for slides and an assortment of watersports.

Laresio Lakeside Resort

Pit Stop 2: Los Baños. For a highland retreat, there is Mount Makiling Forest Reserve, one of the metro’s nearest and cheapest mountain treks. Named after a legendary fairy Maria Makiling, the 1,090-meter peak is an Asean Heritage Park because of its lush biodiversity, and hikers will surely be delighted by its flora and fauna, and the commanding view of the Laguna Lake.

At Makiling’s foot is the sprawling University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) and various agricultural agencies which have made the country the Asian learning center for farming dating back to the 1970s.

At the town’s población are remnants of the Spanish governor general’s bath house and summer retreat where Los Baños got its name.

Pit Stop 3: Bay. The former capital where Laguna De Bay was named after, this junction town is known for its roadside gardens for ornamental plants, tasty monay bun, and cozy lakeshore panorama.

Pull over for a meal at the roadside Isdaan Floating Restaurant or at Lotuspod Bed and Breakfast, a cozy lotus garden tucked in the interior streets.

Lotuspod Bed and Breakfast in Bay

Pit Stop 4: Pila. Dubbed Laguna’s “heritage village,” travel back in time as you admire the well-preserved ancestral homes, many of which have been given a new lease on life as commercial spaces.

A very notable adaptive reuse is La Cosina Antonio, a restaurant bar ideal for special events and acoustic music, and place-to-be-seen watering hole. Owned by a prominent elite, it serves all-time Filipino favorites, regional dishes, fusion cuisine, desserts, and a wide variety of spirits.

La Cosina Antonio in Pila

For a consummate outing, it will soon open its four-room resort with a swimming pool for those who want to spend the night away from the crowd.

For a feel of Pila’s genteel aura, walk around the compact town center, interact with the friendly locals, and chance upon familiar sights you might have seen in a period movie or teleserseye.

Pit Stop 5: Lumban. Known for its exquisite hand-woven barong fabric, it boasts of the sought-after Lake Caliraya, a panoramic man-made hydroelectric reservoir. This mountain hideaway is the only spot in the archipelago which rewards you with the breathtaking vista of two lakes and an infinity of peaks—Banahaw, Makiling, and the Sierra Madre ranges.

Lumban’s handwoven Barong Tagalog

A tropical home where you can spend the quiet night is Bali Raya Resort and Spa, a seven-room private vacation house which approximates the famed Indonesian beach colony with its architectural and design motifs. With villas by the lakeshore, you can enjoy crisp mountain air and commune with nature. It has an intimate receiving area and a mess hall which opens into a swimming pool framed by a mesmerizing lakescape vegetation.

Flex your muscles and navigate the placid lake aboard a kayak or the more challenging stand-up paddle board, and match it with fishing for fresh water fish for added fun. Nearby resorts offer jetskis, windsurfs, a zipline, team-building facilities, and even a floating cottage suite.

Bali Raya Resort and Spa in Lumban

From here, you can return to Manila via Rizal province, thus circumnavigating the panoramic Laguna Lake road loop. With moderate slopes, paved highways and attention-grabbing roadside attractions, the trip back home will surely be a safe drive and filled with quality bonding moments with the family.

This article was first published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Motoring section.