January 22, 2013

Travel Bites: One of the world’s best beaches, at your doorstep

The sun begins to set in Boracay, voted as the World’s Best Island in 2012 by readers of the prestigious Travel+Leisure magazine. 

BORACAY Island in the province of Aklan consistently rates as one of the best beach destinations in the world. 

Last year, tourist arrivals were expected to have reached 1.2 million despite the unofficial ban on Chinese group travels. South Koreans continue to account for the largest group of foreign tourists in the island paradise, but the bulk of visitors are still domestic tourists. 

So I find it incredulous when I meet, as I have over the last couple of years, new friends or acquaintances who have yet to swim in the island’s cool clear waters, or wiggle their toes in its powder-white sand. I’ve always thought that if one must travel outside one’s provenance for leisure for the first time, Boracay has got to be one’s first destination, or at least on the top list of go-to places in the country. 

And with the stiff competition among local carriers driving down airfare, one no longer needs to spend a humongous amount of funds just to fly to Boracay, and enjoy the many pleasures it offers. 

There is also an overwhelming number of choices of accommodations for every type of tourist—from the seriously bare one-note cottage that attracts the backpacking set (usually at Station 3), to the high-end-$1,000++ a-night villas that exude luxury for the pampered leisure traveler (Station 1). 

And if you have a phobia of crowds, this is absolutely the best time of year to go to Boracay. The air is chilly especially in the morning, and while the sun is usually out, the heat is quite tolerable. 


The beaches. While the 4.5-km stretch of white beach is the main attraction of Boracay, and is the central area where revelers sunbathe and hang out before taking a swim, there are other beaches on the island that are worth a look-see. 

Yapak Beach, commonly called Puka Shell Beach, is located on the northern tip of the island and accessible by motorized bancas or pump boats. The beach is literally littered with the bead-like cone snail shells that are usually made into necklaces and bracelets. (Puka shell jewelry became popular in the 1970s when actress Elizabeth Taylor started wearing her pieces made in Hawaii.) 

The main white beach of Boracay is famous the world over as one of the best beaches in the world. 

Bulabog Beach is every windsurfer or kiteboarder’s paradise, with strong winds from January to June encouraging amateur and professional competitions among locals and visitors. From the main white beach, one can reach Bulabog by crossing to the opposite side of the island via several pathways. 

For amateur spelunkers and wildlife enthusiasts, Ilig-Iligan Beach is a good place to explore caves and see fruit bats hanging from trees. Located on the east coast of Boracay, the beach is accessible by motorbikes or on foot although the hike will probably take about 30 minutes or longer, depending on one’s pace. It is also a favorite among snorkelers. 

The mountain. To further appreciate the beauty of Boracay, one can rent an ATV or motorbike and drive to the top of Mount Luho. It is the highest point on the island and will reward the hardy trekker with stunning views of the island and the surrounding sea. There is a viewdeck, a mini-zoo, as well as zipline that will please both the animal lover and the thrillseekers. There is an entrance fee of P60. 

The mall. Or D’Mall as it is called on the island. This is ground zero for the enthusiastic shopper. Here there are a hundreds of sarong (the tie-died and batik varieties) to choose from, as well as the gamut of native handmade jewelry, bathing suits, souvenir T-shirts, even furniture and home accessories. The spot is also famous for bars and restaurants offering a variety of international and local cuisine although the entire white beach is riddled with numerous restaurant and café choices to please even the most discriminating of palates. 


Ride the waves. One of the newest activities on the island is Wavepool Surfing. The pools are at Crown Regency Resort with the Philippine Surfing Academy conducting basic surfing lessons in a safe environment. (You attend a class first where you are taught how to handle and balance on a surfboard on land, before you are actually set free on the wave pools.) While the activity is in a controlled environment, one cannot underestimate the thrill and rush of popping on the surfboard and riding the waves. If you fall, just get back on your board and skim the waves again. (Call PSA at 631-2805 or 0917-894-6767 or e-mail philippinesurfingacademy@gmail.com. Web site: www.philippinesurfingacademy.com.) 

Like pretty mermaids, all in a row. (Photo from Sailorgil.tumbler.com)

Swim like a mermaid. Indulge your fantasy and get a workout as well—mermaid swimming offers tourists a fun way of keeping fit. Two-hour swimming lessons are conducted at Ti Braz restaurant between Stations 1 and 2, and yes, you do get to slip into a mermaid tail. Basic swimming skills are required. The classes are run by the Philippine Mermaid Swimming Academy, composed of expert swimmers and divers. Mermaid fitness workouts will soon be offered. (For bookings, check out https://www.facebook.com/PhilippineMermaidSwimmingAcademy/info). 

Party during the full moon. The newest place to party or chill to the island vibe is at Area 51, located at a secluded spot in the southernmost tip of Bulabog Beach. Set up by the former owners of Hey Jude!, Area 51 hosts new moon and full moon parties where patrons can just let loose and dance to the trendy sounds of resident DJs Manster and Reo. (For reservations, call Jude at 0917-3274824 or Karen at 0917-7161626, or click www.facebook.com/area51boracay.) 

Gorge on seafood. Name it, Boracay has it. Whether you are hankering for lobsters or oysters, mud crabs or sweet shrimps, prawns as well as a variety of reef fishes, D’Talipapa assures that your favorite seafood is available at the most reasonable price. 

After buying your seafood, take them to any of the nearby eateries and for a minimal charge, have them cooked any which way you want, and enjoy a tropical feast. 

Though seafood is top of mind in beach destinations, Boracay is also home to some of the best international cuisines offering meat-based dishes and fabulous desserts. Some choice restaurants and cafés include Caruso (Italian) at The District along Station 2, Kasbah (Moroccan) at Station 1, Lemoni Café at D’Mall for the best lemon tart. 

Where to stay

Seafoods are aplenty at D'Talipapa. You can buy them and have them cooked at the nearby restaurants, or in this case, order them at Sun Villa.

Sun Villa Resort & Spa (back of D’Talipapa, Station 2) is one of the island’s little known secrets for bang for the buck spa treatments. The resort is a haven of calm and tranquility. Sleep all day, dine on lovingly prepared home-cooked meals upon waking, then just laze about in the pool area with the iPod playing away while you leaf through a book or magazine. (For reservations, call 036-288-5541, 036-288-4410, or 036-288-1306. For more details, check out its web page at www.facebook.com/sunspaboracay.) 

For luxurious accommodations and professional caring staff, Discovery Shores Boracay (Station 1) is the obvious choice. The rooms are spacious with an oh-so-relaxing bed that immediately lulls one to sleep. But what is really endearing about Discovery Shores is its friendly, courteous and efficient staff ever ready with a smile for guests and a warm greeting to perk up one’s day. Everyone speaks English fluently and will answer with their de riguer “Certainly!” when asked to perform a chore, or when responding to a request. Its mojitos are also the best on the island. (For more details, click http://www.discoveryshoresboracay.com/discoveryshores/

(Travel Bites is published every Monday on the front page of the BusinessMirror. This piece was published on Jan. 7, 2013. All photo copyrights owned by this blogger, except for the mermaid photo.)

January 21, 2013

Looking forward with hope

HAPPY New Year, dear readers! 

I hope all your New Year celebrations went well. All your fingers intact, yes? Splendid.  

And if it didn’t go all that well, then, hey, you have an entire year to plan and make your next celebration better! 

Whew, 2012! You went by so fast! Didn’t even have time to catch my breath. 

I feel exhausted just thinking about it. It’s as if so many things happened, yet, strangely enough, it’s as though I didn’t accomplish much. 

Perhaps it’s because I found the past year extremely challenging, with illness high up there on the list for me and the family. 

I guess it’s just human nature to focus on the negative. 

Most of the time when challenges arise, we tend to dwell on the gravity of the situations they create. These issues can overwhelm us and make us focus on every tiny detail of their impact on our lives. Sometimes a bit too much. 

When in reality, when we zoom out and look back on the entirety of that one single year, we probably would find more causes for celebration. 

So I sat down and assessed the year that was with more serious reflection this time, and realized that even through the tough times, there were quite a number of positive developments that unfolded as well. 

For instance, even though I lost one outlet for foreign writing projects last year (which really bummed me out considering how long I had worked for that company), almost immediately after I was granted more job opportunities and the chance to expand my readership. 

Or despite Mama’s hospitalization, I met a number of people who were surprisingly sincere in caring for her, no matter if their government salaries didn’t quite measure up to their competence and professional efforts. 

We sometimes forget that amid the downs, there are a lot of ups as well...moments that may not be outstanding or awesome, but positives nevertheless. 

We can’t lead all perfectly happy normal lives where no setbacks occur. 

It’s important to remember that it is because of these obstacles that our lives are enriched, and that our worth as a person is tested and measured. 

A good analogy is golf. The golf course is designed in such a way to test how a golfer addresses the hazards put in his path on his way to completing a game of 18 holes. And many golfers do like a challenging course, that they try out every new one that opens up, or travel to the farthest places just to play the tough ones. 

We know there are golfers who work hard in perfecting their swings, or those who keep buying a new driver, a new wedge, or putter thinking all these will improve their game. 

Then there are some who cheat in their scores when no one is looking, or a few who are so pathetic at the game, but make up for it with the high-end designer clothes and shoes they wear on the greens. (Well, at least they still look fabulous even while playing an atrocious game!) 

As in life, it is not the enormity of the challenges put before us that really matter, but how we overcome them. And, yes, while we sometimes feel overwhelmed by these tests to our endurance and determination, we all know we are better people because of we handled them. 

Last, the New Year is a chance for us to start over fresh. 

So it’s time to let go of the old habits, release the feelings of regret for wrong decisions made, or relinquish the hold some past grave mistakes may still have over us. 

Every new year is an opportunity for improvement and to appreciate the world and our experiences in a more favorable light. 

Let’s liberate ourselves from the past, and look forward with hope that 2013 will be kinder to us. And if it isn’t, at least let us pray that we will have the gumption and the courage to stand up to whatever trials it will bring. 

* * * * 

ON the first day of the new year, I read this thought-provoking piece by Fr. James Martin, SJ, on the "Five Easy Things You (Really) Can Do for a Happier Year" published by The Huffington Post. 

We usually make such impossible demands on ourselves in the New Year, drawing up a list of resolutions that we will probably quit before the week is over. 

It runs the gamut from: “Lose 20 pounds” to “Exercise every day.” Then there’s, “Drink less coffee and soda.” Or how about: “Reduce Facebook time.” (Haha. Good luck with that last one!) 

Father James says, maybe we should consider these: “Be kind. Relax a little bit. Enjoy nature more. Be a little more grateful. Pray just a tiny bit more.” 

In the first resolution, he notes: “I think that 90 percent of the spiritual life is being a kind person. No need to have any advanced degrees in theology or moral reasoning, and no need to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the world’s religious traditions, to get this: Be gentler and more compassionate toward other people. In other words, say ‘Thank you’ and ‘Please.’ Ask people how they are. Listen more carefully when they speak to you. Don’t say snotty things about them behind their backs. Basically, give them the benefit of the doubt. I know that sometimes you feel like acting like a jerk—you feel justified because of the way you’re being treated—but you don’t have to. Most of the time you have a choice: I can be a jerk or I can be kind. Be kind. You’ll find that you’ll be happier with yourself at the end of the day. And, as an added benefit, everyone around you will be happier.” (Read the rest at "Five Easy Things You (Really) Can Do for a Happier Year".)

(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror. This piece was published on Jan. 4, 2013. Illustration from 1080 HD Wallpaper.)

EXCLUSIVE | Conservation experts aghast at Paoay Church 'desecration'

International cultural tourism experts have taken issue with the apparent 'desecration' of Paoay Church. In their visit to the church last November, they saw ongoing construction of an arcade in a designated buffer zone, and the improper landscaping and construction in the core zone. (Photo copyright owned by this blogger)

International cultural tourism experts decried the apparent “desecration” of the Paoay Church in Ilocos Norte, with one noted local heritage conservation advocate laying the blame squarely on the local government’s shoulders. 

This developed even as the community-based conservation projects in the Philippines were finally getting international recognition, thus raising its chances of attracting even more tourists. The Department of Tourism is eyeing 10 million tourist arrivals by 2016, by the time President Aquino steps down from office. 

In June, the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (Unesco) World Heritage Center finally removed the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras from its World Heritage in Danger List. Last October, the same UN body awarded Vigan, Ilocos Sur with the Best Conservation Management of World Heritage Properties award. 

The Rice Terraces became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1995, while Vigan, with its well-preserved Spanish-era city architecture, was inscribed on the list in 1999. 

“With the Unesco award for the City of Vigan and the delisting of the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras from the list of World Heritage in Danger, the Philippines is now a trailblazer in community-based conservation worldwide,” said travel blogger and heritage conservation advocate Ivan Anthony Henares in an interview with InterAksyon.com. (Read the rest here. This piece was published on Dec. 30, 2012.)

The Christmas Buzz

(Last of two parts)

Hotel publicist Sharon Samarista and her husband Oliver Beigel in Germany.

WHEN you are many miles away from your homeland, you can’t help but feel somewhat nostalgic and start missing the many things that make the Christmas season so special and festive in the Philippines. Of course, there are a few who say that because they are with their families with whom they practice Filipino Yuletide traditions—like attending Simbang Gabi or dawn masses or partaking of the usual holiday dishes—they rarely miss the Christmas rush back home. 

Here, we conclude this two-part series with some more kababayan scattered around the world talking about how they now spend the holidays, and what they yearn for about Christmas in the Philippines. 

SHARON SAMARISTA (Muscat, Oman, since 2011) 

CHRISTMAS is always about being with family and friends. Because I have been away from home for many years, I try not to be sentimental during Christmas. I keep the celebration simple and use the entire day calling family at home and friends all over the world. In the recent years, I celebrated Christmas by going to church and having a lovely dinner with my husband, Oliver, in a hotel or restaurant. 

Writer/artist Mar-Vic Cagurangan (far left) and family.

I certainly miss the Christmas rush in Manila. I used to have a long Christmas list and shop for so many friends and family members. I love the Christmas bazaars and late-night shopping. These days, I write cards and e-mails. I miss going to the traditional family get-together in my uncle’s place and listen to screaming nieces and nephews who are now grown up. 

And there were so many Christmas reunions and get-togethers, staff parties and preparations for dance numbers where I would always end up embarrassing myself. 

Above all, I miss my family. I miss cooking a big Noche Buena feast together with my siblings in our home in Legaspi and attending Christmas evening mass. I miss my ate’s pastel de lengua and my mom’s macaroni salad. Next year, I have to go home. 

MAR-VIC CAGURANGAN (Guam since 2003) 

A very young May Agaran (far right) and her siblings.

I WOULD’VE said I miss spending Christmas with my two sons, but since they have joined me in Guam, I can’t say that anymore. I have been in Guam for nine years and this is the first time I am actually celebrating a traditional Christmas. The first time I bought a fresh pine tree and decorated my house with lots of Christmas lights and other Christmas stuff. 

My Filipino friends who have no families here are joining my boys and me on Christmas Eve. I have also arranged to spend Christmas with my mom, brothers and sister via Skype (the wonders of technology!). Guam’s Christmas celebration is pretty much like in the Philippines. We have Simbang Gabi, bibingka and the holiday rush at the department stores—minus the horrendous traffic which I don’t miss at all—and other adorable Christmas clichés. I totally feel at home. But I guess I miss Susan Fuentes’s song: “Ang Disyembre ko ay malungkot, pagkat miss kita...” 

Former Manila-based journalist Dennis Serfino, wife Portia, and their cute toddlers in Phoenix.

MAY AGARAN (Hong Kong since 2007)

I MISS going to Simbang Gabi and singing with the choir, eating goto, puto bumbong or bibingka after Mass, seeing parols twinkling outside homes, the sound of Pinoy Christmas songs (not the cheesy or recycled ones though). Most of all, I miss having a complete family—my two nanays, tatay, tiyo and my four siblings. I miss us having Noche Buena together and the little traditions we used to keep. I haven’t really celebrated Christmas since 2004, because I will always associate it with the loss of my nanay who died of leukemia and passed away just before the New Year. 

DENNIS SERFINO (Phoenix since 2006) 

WE can replicate family, kris kringle and Noche Buena here in the States, but only in the Philippines can one quite literally feel Christmas in the air—the weather is pleasurably cooler, the surroundings livelier, businesses busier, and the people just generally happier. 

Publicist/PR specialist Popoy Los Baños, wife Elle, and their son Yuji in Dubai.

And, of course, there are a few Christmas traditions back home that Filipinos in America like me can only yearn for. On top of my list are those that usually involve children, such as caroling. I have always loved seeing neighborhood kids, with rudimentary musical instruments fashioned out of tin cans and rubber tires, go from house to house to sing Christmas songs in exchange for a few coins. It’s even more fun if they sing out of tune or mispronounce the lyrics! Oh, I can still hear it in my head: “Joy to the world, the Lord has come. Let earth receive her King. Ambre-embre-embroooom, Ambre-embre-embrooom...” 

ART 'POPOY' BAÑOS (Dubai since 2001) 

IT was raining this morning (December 17), a rare occurrence in Dubai. Last night was the second Simbang Gabi in our parish. Since I am with my wife and son, we don’t really miss Christmas back home. Dubai has changed in the past decade. Back in 2001, almost all malls and hotels did not display Christmas trees. Now even commercial buildings and small grocery stores have Christmas decorations. 

ROD AND GAIL ATIENZA (Delaware since 1992) 

WE remember the unique ways we celebrated Christmas back home. 

Dentists Rod and Gail Tanchanco, with their kids in Delaware.

It began with the distinctively Filipino parol that would begin to adorn every home and create a festival of vibrant, colorful and animated lights and shapes. Every year we would vow to complete all the pre-dawn masses of Simbang Gabi. Every year, we would fall short. But on the drowsy mornings that we did manage to attend, the aroma of freshly made bibingka and puto bumbong would waft in the air and make that early morning ritual worth the effort. We remember caroling at friends’ houses and singing Filipino carols, as well as classic Christmas canticles. Christmas Eve culminated in the Midnight Mass followed by Noche Buena. This meal would include Chinese ham, queso de bola, chicken macaroni salad and fruit salad. Extra treats would include special holiday fare such as roasted castañas, apples and grapes. Christmas morning was always a frenzy, and it seemed to worsen the older we got as we impatiently ripped open our presents, followed by good-natured bashing of each other’s gifts. 

We may be 18,000 kilometers and 20 years removed from the Philippines, but at least we still have a parol, still eat chicken macaroni salad, queso de bola and ham for Noche Buena; we still go to Midnight Mass, and still get delirious on Christmas morning. This holy season remains special in our adopted country, and it will always have a Filipino flavor in our home. 

(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror. This piece was published on Dec. 28, 2012. Photos provided by the interviewees.)

Christmas...only in the Philippines!

(First of two parts) 

CHRISTMAS can be the most poignant time of the year for many Filipinos working and living abroad. 

Banker-turned-microfinancier Joey Bermudez (standing) with his brood in Ontario, Canada.

While they have established themselves in their host countries, becoming successful professionals and gaining acceptance among their foreign peers, most admit that when the Yuletide season comes around, they can’t help but long for the Christmases past spent in the Philippines. 

After all, the celebration here is probably the longest in the world, and maybe the most unique. As soon as September rolls in, Christmas carols start playing on the radio and in the malls. Sidewalks start teeming with puto bumbong and bibingka vendors, and their sweet smells just fill the nighttime air. 

There will be endless parties and reunions in companies and among families by December 1, and by the 16th most homes will be brightly lit with their festive lanterns (parols) guiding the way of sleepyheads trying to complete the nine-day Simbang Gabi (dawn Masses), then culminating in the Misa de Aguinaldo on Christmas Eve and after, a massive Noche Buena feast. 

The celebration officially ends by the first Sunday of January, the feast of the Three Kings. Only then will families take down their Christmas décor and start going to the gym to burn the fat accumulated from all the Yuletide feasting. 

My old pal from San Miguel, Chec del Mundo, in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. 

While Filipinos abroad have created their own unique Pinoy Christmas in their new homelands, many of them agree, the Philippines is still the best place to celebrate the holidays. There’s just something magical in the air that lifts our spirits and moves us to give joy to others, in a warm and caring way most unique to our country. 

Here, a few friends based overseas share their thoughts about what they miss most about celebrating Christmas in the Philippines: 

JOEY BERMUDEZ (Oakville, Ontario, since 2009) 

I MISS the Simbang Gabi and the puto bumbong after Mass. I miss the stream of fruitcakes, prune cakes, brownies, pies, cheese, chocolates and all sorts of delicacies that people give each other during the season. I miss the bright lights of Ayala Avenue and the illuminated fountains of Ayala Triangle. I miss our dry roads at Christmas time unlike the wet and snowy roads in Canada. 

I miss the big party at home on Christmas Eve where my parents-in-Iaw, our househelp and some guests join us in a sumptuous feast. In Canada we have the usual Noche Buena and opening of Christmas gifts, but it’s just my family that gets together after the Christmas Eve Mass. 

Lit. major, now tech solutions provider, Susan "Swannie" Morrow (right), with her husband Jesse Avraham and her late mother, Tessie Vasquez, in Brooklyn, New York.

I do not miss the intolerable traffic in almost all roads any time of the year, the inebriated drivers on the road going home from Christmas parties, the overcrowded shopping malls and Christmas bazaars, the long lines at the cash registers of stores, and the jacked-up price tags in restaurants and department stores. 

There is no Christmas like Christmas in the Philippines. About that, there should be no argument. 

CHEC DEL MUNDO (Brisbane, Australia, since 2004) 

THERE are three things I miss the most about Christmas in Manila. 

First is my family and friends and in knowing that you share the same sentiments and joy of the season. Second is the Christmas spirit that you feel as soon as September sets in. Everyone is on Christmas mode leading up to the day of festivities. People shopping in bazaars and in stores, traditional matriarchs shopping in Quiapo in the hunt for dried fruits for their homemade fruitcakes and Chinese ham, and some others making their vows to complete the nine days of Simbang Gabi. Third is the food. I miss most the puto bumbong that you team up with ginger tea, bibingka, queso de bola, and Chinese ham. Well, you can probably have them overseas, but there is so much that go into it that you can’t find here. For example, the smell of Christmas in the air, the traffic, the buzz. 

Graphic designer Chet Vergara in Los Angeles since 1987.

SUSAN MORROW (New York since 1995) 

CHRISTMAS to me is really not the glitter and gold but the simple joys of Christmas the way I knew it as a child growing up in Manila, like having puto bumbong in slightly burnt banana leaves complete with sugar, Star margarine, and coconut shavings; my grandmother’s hot pancit molo on Christmas Eve; and the excitement of waking at dawn with my mother to join her on her Simbang Gabi vigil. Then on Christmas Day itself, scrambling into my new dress to go to Church to hear Christmas Mass. After which, most unforgettable of all, is lining up in long queues to get my aguinaldo from my lolo and lola, titos and titas! P1 from each one of them! 

A semblance of this kind of Christmas was still possible here in New York when my mother was alive and my siblings and our better halves gathered around her. She would spend all week cooking our favorite Filipino dishes—beef caldereta, embotido, pancit bihon, and my only contribution to the feast, mocha chiffon cake. She passed away in January 2011.  

CHET VERGARA (Los Angeles since 1987) 

OF course, there’s the FOOD. Nothing like puto bumbong straight out of the bumbong. Aling Mameng’s lengua, Estrella’s caramel cake, countless variations of lechon, morcon, pancit Malabon—shall I go on? 

Journalist Jojo Dass in Dubai, UAE since 2008.

I miss the impulsive gift-giving and receiving gifts without judgment or suspicion. (OK, I will judge your gift but I really do appreciate it regardless!). Over here, I have stopped giving gifts at work after all the puzzled looks and outright indifference I got distributing gifts one year. 

I guess the thing I miss most is the warmth. The genuine expression of caring and sharing the joy of the season no matter what emotional or financial situation one happens to be in. To feel the collective excitement that elicits smiles from family, friends and even strangers. The thought that life can be good, love can be found and everything will be alright. 

JOJO DASS (Dubai since 2008) 

I MISS the big family gatherings with the big buffet spread—a reunion of sorts with the people you rarely meet during the year, or almost don’t see anymore. Of course, I miss Makati’s tinseltown, the dawn Mass at UST, puto bumbong and the carolings. 

JAMES ONG (Singapore since 2007) 

When we were younger, the most exciting part of Christmas was buying everyone gifts. A few days before the Eve, we’d be given a gifts allowance and we would join the mad crowds at Philcite or Harrison Plaza to look for cheap presents. After I moved to Quezon City as an adult and living with fellow bachelors, I counted on others to feed me. Inspired by Gilda Cordero Fernando’s “leftover party,” I would ask close friends (most of them single) to come to the house on the 25th and bring highlights of their Noche Buena. 

Lifestyle editor James Perez Ong in Singapore since 2007. (Photo by www.style-anywhere.com)

One time I set up a 20-seater Italian-style dining table al fresco and guests were arriving hour after hour. It was a magical night, everything was makeshift, nothing fancy at all, but for me it captured the essence of Christmas: love, friendship and togetherness. Until now, friends ask me when I plan to do another leftover party. I can’t wait to host the next one. Most of these friends are now married with kids so it should be exciting. 

(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror. This piece was published on Dec. 21, 2012. All photos provided by interviewees.) 

Travel Bites: It can get only warmer in Iloilo

The Miag-ao Church, built in 1786, is on the Unesco list of baroque churches in the Philippines. (Photo from http://myphilippinelife.com/)

MAAYONG aga! (Good morning!) 

The first thing you will notice as soon as you arrive in Iloilo is that sing-song, caressing dialect of Ilonggos. It envelops you like a warm hug, making you feel like a long-lost friend. It makes you eager to find out what everyone is talking about. 

That warmth translates to the service in Iloilo’s hotels and resorts, its cuisine and its people who are keen to take visitors around town, and to the remarkable concern that Ilonggos have for many of its heritage homes and historical landmarks. (Iloilo is one of the few cities in the country that has a very active cultural heritage and conservation council.) 

Although I must admit that while the centuries-old churches, heritage homes and the beach are quite remarkable places to visit (especially for first-timers), tourists like myself are most excited to return to Iloilo just to soak in the pleasant, laid-back atmosphere of the province, the feeling of family and familiarity among its people and to feast on its delectable and sincere, home-cooked dishes. 

A good time to visit Iloilo is during its Dinagyang Festival in honor of the Señor Santo Niño and the welcome by the indigenous Atis of Malays who soon settled on Panay Island. It is celebrated on the fourth Sunday of January. (Check out the festivities in January 2013 at http://dinagyangsailoilo.com/


History unfolding. Drive down the bustling Calle Real (now called JM Basa Street) in Iloilo City, and you will see many buildings retaining their Spanish-era baroque designs, Parisienne art-noveau sensibilities, as well as modern American details. Still a center for commerce, many of the buildings are used as stores and retail spaces to this day. (Even the nearby public market is an architectural marvel featuring a ziggurat in the center of the façade.) 

Nelly Garden in the town of Jaro was built in 1928 by Don Vicente Lopez and his wife, the former Doña Elena Hofileña, and named after their eldest daughter. With its extensive manicured lawn and florid American art-deco architecture, the stark white mansion transports visitors to the time of affluence when Iloilo was booming with sugar export revenues. 

The Angelicum School (Tabuc Suba, Jaro) is no ordinary educational establishment--it was once the estate of the Lizares family. The mansion was built in 1929 during the excesses of the sugar-industry boom, and for a time acquired a spooky reputation, having been reportedly used as torture chambers during the Japanese Occupation. Since the takeover of the Dominican Order, the mansion has been festooned with colored lights and ornaments every Christmas. 

The Lizares Mansion, now known as the Angelicum School, is lit up every Christmas. (Photo from Redlan's Web of Arts)

Religious sites. The Miag-ao Church (Santo Tomas de Villanueva Church) in the municipality of Miag-ao, southern Iloilo (about an hour away from Iloilo City) was built in 1786 by Spanish Agustinian priests and is on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization world heritage list of baroque churches in the Philippines. The church functioned as a lookout for marauding Moro pirates and was built like a fortress with secret passages.  

The Molo Church (Saint Anne’s Church) in Molo, Iloilo, is every feminist’s dream church. Built in 1831 in the Gothic-Renaissance style, the church pays homage to 16 female saints with its main retablo focused on Saint Anne. Its two separate spired belfries were said to have once housed 30 bells of varying sizes that once tinkled in various musical tones. 

Other distinctive Spanish-era churches in Iloilo are: San Juan de Bautista Parish Church in Dingle, eastern Iloilo; Saint Jerome Parish Church in Dueñas; Santo Nicolas de Tolentino Parish Church in Guimbal; Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage Parish Church in La Paz; and the San Jose Church in Iloilo City, which houses a 17th-century statue of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary. 

Local weaves. Due to the onslaught of cheaper textiles from abroad, sinamay weaving is practically a dying industry in Iloilo. Hand-loomed from piña or the fibers of pineapple, sinamay cloth and products can be purchased as pasalubong (gifts for family and friends that are usually bought during one’s travels) from the House of Sinamay along Osmeña Street. 

Cool it down. Iloilo’s coastline is home to some of the cleanest beaches in the province. Whether white, dark grey or black sand, the province’s beaches still provide locals and tourists a quick break from their harried lives. 

The Dinagyang Festival honors the Señor Sto. Niño (infant child Jesus) and is celebrated every fourth Sunday of January. (Photo from the Phil. Daily Inquirer.)

The most accessible beaches are those located in Oton, Tigbauan and Guimbal, which are still within Iloilo City. There are a number of resorts providing clean, basic amenities to beach bums as well as seafood restaurants to satiate those hungry tummies after having gone for a swim. 

In the towns of Ajuy, Concepcion, San Dionisio and Carles in northern Iloilo can be found white-sand beaches that can rival Boracay’s tropical treasures. Also in the north is Sicogon Island, with its pristine off-white beach; due to limited accommodations available, locals usually just go there for overnight trips. 


Eat! A visit to Iloilo is to fall in love with its cuisine. Many of the dishes—whether they are cooked in someone’s home, or found in the public market or restaurants—are extensions of the Ilonggos’ yearning for the languid life of comfort. It’s no wonder that some of its well-known dishes are actually heartwarming broths like the la paz batchoy, pancit molo and chicken binakol. 

Go to Sarabia Manor Hotel’s Café Salvatore for a steaming bowl of pancit molo (pork dumplings soup) or if you feel adventurous enough, check out Kapitan’s old-style version in his house near Asilo de Molo. (Everyone calls him Kapitan because he’s a barangay captain, so everyone in the area knows him and can easily point out his house to you.) He is one of the best-kept secrets of Iloilo because local politicians and VIPs order from him whenever they have parties and they want to impress their guests. Each dumpling is lovingly handmade, with the broth so umami you just know there are no extenders. 

The best la paz batchoy (noodle soup with pork innards and cracklings) can be found in the La Paz public market. Take your pick from a multitude of stalls that all serve the soup with some deadly but delicious bone marrow. It is best eaten with fresh Puto Manapla (steamed rice cake from Manapla). 

Most chicken inasal (grilled chicken on skewers) in Iloilo are equally good, whether these be found in the restaurants or in the streets. At Tatoy’s Manukan and Seafood House (Villa Beach)—an excellent restaurant serving a wide array of seafood—they use native chicken for its chicken inasal, thus raising the bar higher for the grilled delicacy. 

Of course, if you are lucky enough to get invited to someone’s home for dinner, you can be sure that the traditional Ilonggo dishes served there will be genuinely authentic and even more superb. 

A steaming bowl of kansi – tender beef shanks in a broth soured with batuan seeds – is one of the well-loved dishes of Iloilo. (Photo by the author)

Shop! The best pasalubong from Iloilo are biscuits, cookies and sweet treats. Panaderia de Molo (Avanceña Street in Molo, with branches on Jaro Street and Rizal Street across the University of Iloilo) is probably the oldest bakeshop in the province and serves Spanish-style biscuits and cookies. Its best sellers are the kinihad, biscocho, merengue, hojaldres and bañadas. 

Biscocho Haus (8 Lopez Jaena Street, Jaro) also serves various cookies and biscuits, but its best product for me is the butterscotch, which tastes close to food-for-the-gods. 

For dried-fish goods, go to the Iloilo City central market on Rizal Street. These tabagak, guma-a, dried squid, danggit, etc. are must-eats for a great breakfast. Also at the market are ginamos (shrimp paste), which is the Ilonggo’s version of the bagoong.  

Party! While steeped in their laid-back ways, Ilonggos are also party animals. Check out Smallville (Diversion Road, Mandurriao, Iloilo City) a complex composed of a hotel, bars and clubs and restaurants. Flow Superclub is the place to let loose, drink and dance your cares away. 

Where to stay 

THE best budget-friendly hotel is Century 21 Hotel along Quezon Street, Iloilo City (033-335-8821 to 23 or click http://www.ann2.net/hotels/century21/). Aside from its great affordability, the rooms are clean, and the hotel itself is in an area where public transportation is always available. 

Sarabia Manor Hotel along Gen. Luna Street, Iloilo City, (click http://www.sarabiamanorhotel.com/) is a mid-priced hotel designed with old-world elegance. It has an excellent friendly staff and a good location as it is near shopping malls and only 40 minutes away from the airport. Its breakfast buffet has a wide selection of entrees. 

Getting there 

MOST airlines­­—Airphil Express, Cebu Pacific, Zest Airways and Seair—fly daily to Iloilo City from either Manila, Cebu or Davao City. It is also accessible by sea via Negros Navigation (from Manila, Cagayan de Oro, Ozamis, Iligan, Zamboanga City); Cokaliong from Cebu; and the Superferry (from Manila, General Santos, Davao, Ozamis, Zamboanga, Cotabao and Cagayan de Oro). 

(Learn more about Iloilo from http://www.exploreiloilo.com/ and http://iloiloilove.com/).

(Travel Bites is published every Monday on the front page of the BusinessMirror. This piece was published on Dec. 17, 2012.)

Travel Bites: Hot and spicy Albay

The Daraga Church (Our Lady of the Gate Parish Church) was constructed with volcanic stones, a number of which have been etched or carved with religious images.

ONE of the most spectacular welcomes that I have ever encountered in all my years of traveling around the Philippines or abroad is the majestic Mount Mayon Volcano coming into view of a plane’s window. The sight of the sweeping curvaceous slopes rising to a near-perfect cone puffing white wisps of smoke is enough to take one’s breath away. 

And while you cannot escape its colossal presence—Mount Mayon is visible for miles around even as far as the neighboring provinces—there are several other spots in Albay, even in its capital city of Legazpi alone, that are worth visiting. 

Two of the best times to visit Albay are during the Magayon Festival in April and the Ibalong Festival in August. The Magayon Festival showcases the culture and artistry of Albayanons (as Albay folk are called), and features beauty pageants, food festivals, trade fairs and street dancing. At the Ibalong Festival, people wear masks depicting the ancient heroes and villains in the folk-epic. 


A bit of history. Explore a tunnel that was carved out during World War II and where the Japanese military hid their ammunition, located at the Ligñon Hill Nature Park. Aside from its historical background, the park also offers a panoramic view of Legazpi City, Mount Mayon and its environs, the town of Daraga and the shimmering Albay Gulf. Try other activities in the park such as ziplining, running or jogging along its winding, rising incline, biking or rappelling. 

Waterworks. Busay Falls (Barangay Malilipot) is said to be one of the highest in the country, cascading from 250 meters in seven levels into seven different pools. The last waterfall, a single cascade from 40 meters, is the most popular among tourists who usually come during the sizzling summer months and rent the available huts in the area. Refreshments and snacks may be bought from vendors in the vicinity. 

One has to hike about a kilometer through lush vegetation to get to the gushing Vera Waterfalls (Barangay Bulang). Located in a ravine, the water streams from several points in the bedrock spraying into the pool down below. Bring your own food and beverages for a picnic but make sure to clean up after. The hike back up from the ravine may be quite difficult for inexperienced hikers so it’s best to rest periodically to catch your breath. 

Pilgrimage. Marvel at the baroque architecture of the Daraga Church (Our Lady of the Gate Parish Church), built by Franciscan missionaries in 1773, in Barangay San Roque. Volcanic stones, with engravings and carvings, were used in the construction of the church, making it one of the rarest in the country. It has been tagged a National Cultural Treasure by the National Historical Institute of the Philippines. 

Mt. Mayon, the enduring icon of the province of Albay, as seen from the Cagsawa Ruins, which are remnants of an old Franciscan church buried during the eruption of the volcano in 1814. About 1,200 residents in the town of Daraga died from the eruption, hundreds of whom had taken refuge at the church. 

The Cagsawa Ruins (Barangay Busay, Cagsawa) is what remains of an old Franciscan church that was damaged during the eruption of Mount Mayon in 1814. The old church’s belfry still stands, a constant reminder of the dangers of living near the still active volcano. Outside the park are stalls selling popular products made from abaca such as slippers, hats and bags. 

Other churches worth visiting are the Saint Dominic Guzman Parish Church in Santo Domingo; the Albay Cathedral (Cathedral of San Gregorio Magno) in the old Albay District; the Our Lady of the Assumption Parish Church in Guinobatan, Albay; and Saint Raphael’s Church in Legazpi City. 


Cave exploration. Albay is a haven for spelunkers, with a number of caves found all over the province offering varying degrees of difficulty. 

Pototan Cave (Barangay Tinucawan, Batan Island, Rapu-Rapu) is accessible from the island’s beach via stairs and one of the easiest to traverse. There is an underground river inside that flows into different caverns, while multiple rock formations abound along with a generous number of stalactites and stalagmites. 

Also on Batan Island is the Minaroso Cave (Barangay Villahermosa), which provides a natural sanctuary for seabirds and swallows, while the Hoyop-Hoyopan Cave (Barangay Cotmon, Camalig) has remnants of coral embedded in its walls and on the ground, having once been below sea level. 

Eat up a storm. If spicy food is your thing, there is no better place in the country to feast on such dishes but Albay. 

Sibid-Sibid Food Park (328 Peñaranda Street, Bonot, Legazpi City) is where one goes for an introduction to authentic Bicolano dishes that are hot and cooked in coconut milk. Specialties include bicol express, tinotungang manok sa gata, crispy fish sisig, and homemade ice cream. 

For merienda, drop by DJC Halo Halo (across the Gaisano Mall in Legazpi City) for its grated-cheese-topped halo-halo, which come in special or supreme (with a scoop of ice cream). 

One shouldn’t miss eating the “new look,” a fleshy dried fish only available in Legazpi. Buy at the Legazpi Market to take home, or order it for breakfast at Hotel Venezia or Misibis Bay Resort. The Legazpi Market is also a haven for pako (fern) lovers. 

Suntan and a swim. Beaches abound in Albay, though these are of the grainy black-sand variety, pulverized over the centuries from the volcanic rocks spewed by Mount Mayon. Check out Barangay Sogod in the town of Bacacay; Kaluyukai beach in Santo Domingo; and Joroan beach in Tiwi. 

Misibis Beach on Cagraray Island offers guests at the private Misibis Bay Resort (T# 052-487-1540/+63917-599-1590/http://www.misibisbay.com/) a white-sand beach for tanning and engaging in water sports. (See http://tourism.albay.gov.ph/destinationpage.html for details on resorts.)

Busay Falls is one of the more popular destinations in Albay even for locals who enjoy a splash in its cold pool during the sizzling summer months.

Where to stay

IN downtown Legazpi, check into Hotel St. Ellis (Rizal Street, and Gov. Forbes Street/www.hotelstellis.com.ph/), which has an elegant lobby washed in white, spacious rooms and a generous breakfast buffet. Value for money, considering its strategic location—about 10 minutes away from the airport, and a short tricycle ride from the mall. 

For great views of Mount Mayon, book a room at the Casablanca Suites (Benny Imperial Street, Legazpi City/T# 052-481-0788/http://www.casablancasuites.ph/). It has Wi-Fi access in its rooms, making it the perfect hotel for business travelers. The food is simple and overall service by the staff can be sluggish especially when the hotel is fully booked, but they make up for this with their friendliness and accommodating nature. 

Getting there

BY air, Legazpi City is accessible from Manila and Cebu via Airphil Express and Cebu Pacific, and from Manila via Zest Airways. Check their web sites for daily schedules. 

You can also drive to Legazpi by hitting the South Luzon Expressway and exiting at Calamba City. You pass through San Pablo, Lucena and Quezon then turn to Quirino Highway that will take you to Bicol. It’s a long albeit scenic route, so take frequent stops along the way to stretch your legs and back, as well as to eat and use restrooms. 

There are also various bus lines that ply the Manila-Legazpi-Manila route: Raymond (Cubao terminal), DLT Co. (Pasay), Philtranco (Cubao) and Peñafrancia (Cubao) are just a few of them. (Click on http://wowlegazpi.com/travel-and-transport/by-land/ for particulars.) 

(Travel Bites is published every Monday on the front page of the BusinessMirror. This piece was published on Dec. 10, 2012. Photos copyrighted owned by the author.)

January 20, 2013

Travel Bites: Batanes bliss

The resplendent view of the unusually calm sea from Radar Tukon, a lighthouse in Basco, Batanes.

The first time I went to Basco, on the main island of Batan in Batanes, none of the major cell-phone providers had reached it yet. And so, for four days, with my cell phone switched off, my friends and I were able to enjoy the quietude of this northernmost province of the Philippines. (Since that vacation, I haven’t switched on the SMS ringtone for my cell phone ever again.) 

The weather in Batanes is usually cool and breezy even during the summer months. And the air is so pure and clean, the joke is when Manila folk go to Batanes and breathe it in, they will likely suffer a choking fit—what with our lungs being so used to pollution in Metro Manila. 

The capital of Basco is where most of the population congregate, but it is hardly crowded. So cars are still few and far between. The common modes of transportation are tricycles and jeepneys. 

Walk around the neat and narrow streets, or take a bicycle or motorbike and drive around the paved national highway to the coastal areas and rolling hills. Every site will usually make one pause and give a silent prayer of thanks to the artist who painted the beautiful scenery before him. 

There are steep cliff drops into swirling wisps of crisp white water. Also, wide open spaces with lush greenery eventually invite comparisons to Scotland. Scattered around the main town, as well as the nearby Sabtang Island, are old churches swathed in colors, and dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries. 

What’s more, the people are gentle, honest folk who seem shy at first, but are eager to talk with and accommodate the needs of visitors from the mainland. 

It may be a bit expensive to fly there, but believe me when I say that it’s all worth it. For how can anyone put a price on bliss? 


The hills are alive. One of the most popular sites in Basco, the capital of Batanes, is “Marlboro Country,” so-called because it is grass-covered hill with horses and cows pausing to feed, you have a feeling the hot Marlboro Man with his trademark cowboy outfit, astride his dark horse, is about to ride up to you and offer you a pack of smokes. 

In the Ivatan dialect, it is called Racuh a Payaman, and from here, tourists can either gaze at the coastline with the strong waves crashing on the shore, more grassy, rolling hills and a lighthouse in the distance. It’s a great place for tourists to take photos of each other making those wacky jump shots aka “jumpologies” that have become such a fad. 

SONGSONG RUINS. In the 1950s, a hugal tidal wave wiped out this entire village leaving only the frames of the stone houses standing.

Church pilgrimage. There are Spanish-era churches here mostly built in the espadaña-style, with façades using bell gables (espadaña) instead of a full bell tower, as these were less expensive to construct. Among these are the Basco Cathedral (Santo Domingo de Basco) first put up in 1787, the Mahatao Church (San Carlos Borromeo Church) founded in 1789 and considered by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts as a “national cultural treasure,” and the San Vicente Ferrer Church on Sabtang Island (1844). 

On the other hand, the San Jose de Ivana Church founded in 1755 has a separate bell tower to its right. Climb it and you can look out into the savage sea and catch a glimpse of Sabtang Island. (The other inhabited island is called Itbayat.) 

Ivatan lodging. If you can take a seasickness-inducing ride from the port of Ivana using the falowa (outrigger-less banca) to Sabtang, drop by Savidug, a village of traditional Ivatan houses constructed from limestone, coral and cogon grass. 

As your grade-school teacher probably told you, the houses in Batanes use such materials and are built low to withstand the raging typhoons that regularly visit the province. 

Tsunami’s wrath. Sometime in the 1950s, a humongous tidal wave wiped out an entire village in what is now known as Barangay Uyugan. All that is left today of the village—the so-called Songsong Ruins—are the frames of the stone houses that once stood there. Yes, it can be quite eerie walking through the ghost town, so say a silent prayer to calm the restless spirits that may still inhabit the area. (Awoooo!) 


Hike up the volcano. Those into mountain climbing can hike and trek up Mount Iraya, an active volcano on Batan Island. Located near the Basco Airport, the volcano’s summit is usually enveloped in clouds—an indication that someone has passed away, according to local folklore—so climbers are advised to do their hikes in September when the Indian summer rolls around. 

Have a picnic and get a tan. While in Sabtang, drive down to the Nakabuan beach with its white sand and interesting geological formations. Most tour packages to Batanes (if you choose to include a trip to Sabtang) can provide lunch picnics to the beach with Ivatan dishes like the turmeric-enriched yellow rice, coconut crabs (a local delicacy), lobsters and pork adobo with veggies—all served usually with seaweed soup. (Check out http://www.batanestravelandtours.com for hotel-tour-meal packages.) 

Watch the sunset. One of the best places to view the sun set amid a panoramic setting of the rampaging sea is the lighthouse on Naidi Hills in Basco. Climb the lighthouse for a better view, or take photos from the ground as the sky turns pink, then a deep midnight blue as dusk finally sets in. 

Beside the lighthouse is a row of bunkers one of which has been turned into a restaurant called Bunker Café. With its flaming red interiors and fake stone fireplace, the café offers a limited choice of Ivatan dishes. But it’s still a pleasant venue for dinner, even more so if you dine outside—that is, if the winds haven’t been whipped to a frenzy yet. 

Get coffee. Honesty Café (Radiwan, Ivana), has become the most iconic example of how Ivatans are simple, trustworthy folk, that they treat visitors there similarly. The store is usually unattended, but you can buy souvenir T-shirts here, get a cup of coffee and some biscuits, or drink bottled water. You go to a counter and just pay for the items by dropping your money in a wooden box with a slit. The only operating principle here is, as its name implies, honesty and it is a refreshing dose, in a world of malice and untruthfulness. 

Cottages at the government-run Batanes Resort are built to resemble the Ivatan houses. From its rooms, one can get a glimpse of the rampaging sea. 

Where to stay: Batanes Resort is a 10-minute ride from the capital, and sits on a hill overlooking the sea. The beach at the back is a bit wild and rocky, but quite photographic. (I really can’t think of any place in Batanes which doesn’t yield well to the camera.) 

Its cottages are built to resemble the Ivatan stone houses. The establishment is clean and inexpensive, with basic amenities, such as hot and cold water. They also serve local Ivatan cuisine; this is where I got my first taste of crispy fried flying fish—delish! (For inquiries and reservations, call 927-2393, 0927-5829078.) 

Fundacion Pacita Batanes Nature Lodge, was the home of the late great tapestry artist Pacita Abad, and, as such, has been uniquely designed with her own touches, as well as furniture by her brother, the current Budget Secretary Butch Abad. The lodge also houses the works of young Ivatan artists as well as art pieces by reputable Filipino artists like BenCab and Araceli Dans. 

A stay here can set you back by P7,000+ a night, but the lodge is professionally run, providing the most comfortable luxe accommodations on the island.(Click http://www.fundacionpacita.ph for inquiries and reservations.) 

Getting there. The newly-formed Skyjet Air will be launching its thrice-weekly Manila-Basco flights on December 14. (For bookings, call 823-3087/635-4810 or see http://skyjetair.com/). 

Skypasada offers trips from Tuguegarao-Basco or Itbayat. Manila-based passengers can fly to Tuguegarao via its partner Airphil Express—which then feeds into the Skypasada route to Basco, four times a week. (For particulars, call 912-3333 or click on http://www.skypasada.com

Seair-International will be launching its Manila-Basco flights on December 7 but is yet to announce its hotline numbers. In the meantime, keep checking your newspapers for announcements.

(Travel Bites is published every Monday on the front page of the BusinessMirror. This Batanes feature was published on Dec. 3, 2012. Photos copyright owned by the author.)