Since the closure of Subic Bay Naval Base in 1992, the Subic Bay area has been re-invented as a gate-guarded playground for the rich, with golf courses, a yacht club, a casino and smart hotels. For most foreign travellers, the main appeal is the wide range of watersports, diving and tranquil beaches on offer. Subic Bay is vast, and is best thought of as four distinct areas.
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The Subic Bay Freeport Zone (a tax- and duty-free zone) encompasses the old base, accessed by “gates” manned by security guards, and comprises two parts. Most of the banks, restaurants, shops and hotels are located on a small island known as the Central Business District. On the mainland to the south lie the beaches and most of the outdoor activities, theme parks and attractions.
To the north of the CBD, linked by gates and bridges across the drainage channel (the Main Gate is also known as the Magsaysay Gate), Olongapo City lies outside the Freeport Zone but is generally considered part of the Subic Bay area. It is a typical Philippine provincial town, streets crammed with stalls and smoke-belching tricycles. This is where the bus terminals are located, but you won’t spend much time here otherwise.
Finally, around 5km north of Olongapo along the coast (also outside the Freeport Zone), Barrio Barretto is gradually shaking off its go-go bar days, though it still attracts its share of the ageing expat/Filipina “girlfriend” scene. Nearby Baloy Long Beach is a better place to crash, a laidback row of bars and hotels right on the sand.
Most travellers come here for the wreck diving, which is superb, but there are plenty of peaceful, clean beaches inside the former base if you just want to chill out. Dungaree Beach (t047/252-4032) on the southern side of the airport is closest to the CBD, a tranquil stretch of sand and beach huts (P1500/day) shaded by trees; during most weekdays you’ll have it to yourself. Popular Nabusan Beach further to the south is being developed into a posh resort by businessman Antonio Tony “Boy” Cojuangco – day visitors may be allowed access for a fee, but check with the tourist office on the latest. The best beach in the Freeport Zone is Camayan Beach (formerly Miracle Beach) and now part of the Camayan Beach Resort (t047/252-8000, wwww.camayanbeachresort.ph) offering diving, snorkelling, kayaking and swimming; day visitors can access the beach for P300 (children P250).
Barrio Barreto has a scrappy beach that leads into the much nicer Baloy Long Beach, one of the better strips of sand in Luzon; locals charge a nominal entry fee of P30, but you can skip this if you stay the night.
Subic Bay is a popular diving site, and has nineteen wrecks in still waters, all no more than thirty minutes by boat from the waterfront area. The USS New York, is the star attraction of Subic’s underwater world, a battle cruiser launched in the US in 1891. When World War II broke out, she was virtually retired, and when the Japanese swept the US Marines out of the Philippines, the Americans had no choice but to scuttle her as they departed from Subic in early 1942. The ship now lies on her port side in 27m of water between Alava pier and the northern end of Cubi Point runway. For experienced divers, the 120-metre-long hull presents excellent opportunities for what scuba divers call a “swim-through” – an exploration of the inside of the wreck from one end to the other.
The El Capitan, a Spanish-era wreck lying 20m down in a pretty inlet on the east coast of Subic Bay is a much easier wreck dive, suitable for novices. The San Quentin (16m) is the oldest known wreck in Subic, a wooden gunboat scuttled by the Spanish in 1898 in a futile attempt to block the channel between Grande and Chiquita islands against invading Americans. Other Subic wrecks include the Japanese POW ship Oryoku Maru and the Seian Maru, a Japanese cargo vessel sunk by the American Navy in 1945.
For diving trips try Johan’s Adventure Dive Center (t047/224-8915, wwww.subicdive.com), right on the shore at Baloy Beach; Moby Dick Watersports (t047/252-3773); or Subic Bay Aqua Sports (t 047/252-6048) on Waterfront Drive at Building 249. Boardwalk Dive Center (t047/252-5357), is at Building 664, Waterfront Road, in the same building as the Boardwalk Inn. Two-dive packages start at around P2200 at each place.