February 17, 2014

Travel Bites: Pangasinan–not just another pit stop

I must admit, as a kid, the province of Pangasinan meant nothing more than a pit stop on the way to Baguio City or the Ilocos region. It was only when I was working for the government in the late 1980s that I started discovering more interesting places to visit in Pangasinan, and I’m not just talking about the Hundred Islands there.

Every city or municipality in Pangasinan has its own unique product or stunning spots that make the province an attractive end-destination for out-of-towners.
It has white beaches and historical sites, as well as great eats like the longganisang Alaminos and Calasiao puto. Accommodations all over the province may lack a certain sophistication that urbanites are used to, but most are clean and simple, and reasonably priced.

Drop by during its annual Bangus Festival (usually starting the third week of April until the first week of May) and enjoy the province’s famous Bonoan bangus and other seafood, while catching the streetdancing, trade fairs, beauty contests and beach parties.

TO this day, there is much debate about where American Gen. Douglas MacArthur exactly set foot first along the Lingayen Gulf, as he and the Allied forces tried to reclaim the Philippines from the Japanese during World War II.  Although San Fabian, Dagupan and Lingayen all claim to be the site of MacArthur landings, the largest marker in remembrance of the historic event is installed at the Bonoan Blue Beach in Dagupan.

Our Lady of Manaoag is a popular destination for
religious tourists. Many bring their vehicles to the 
Shrine to be blessed. (Photo blogger's own. All rights 
Heritage churches abound in Pangasinan with the most popular being the Shrine to Our Lady of Manaoag. This shrine attracts a lot of pilgrims because of reported miracles attributed to a 17th century ivory image of the Blessed Virgin Mary (patroness of the sick, the helpless and the needy). Here, devotees bring their new cars to be blessed, or climb the stairs to the alcove built at the back of the Lady where there is a separate kneeling room, and touch her bejeweled gown through a small rectangular peephole.

(Other heritage churches in Pangasinan include the Saint Raymond of Peñafort in Mangatarem built in 1851; Our Lady of Lourdes in Salasa, Bugallon built in 1720; Saint James the Great in Bolinao in 1609;  Saint Dominic de Guzman, the oldest church in Pangasinan, built 1587; and the Calasiao Church, with it original retablo still intact.)

Built in 1905, the Cape Bolinao Lighthouse (Abac, Patar) is the second tallest in the country standing at 351 feet above sea level. At the top of the lighthouse, one can have a panoramic view of the sea, rock formations and lush hills. For safety concerns, however, visitors are no longer allowed to climb the stairs to the top of the structure.

The Colegio del Santissimo Rosario (Lingayen) was constructed in 1890 as an exclusive school for girls with a dormitory and a nun’s convent. It now lies in ruins after the structure was bombed during the Lingayen Gulf landings in World War II.

Considered a National Historial Landmark, the Casa Real, constructed in the 1840s, was the residence and office of the town mayor during the Spanish occupation, and later became the provincial capitol where the governor held office during the American period. The Pangasinan government said in 2012 that it would restore the Casa Real. (Click http://www.pangasinantourism.com for more information on historical landmarks in Pangasinan.)

  • Hit the beach. Pangasinan has a number of beaches that continue to exist below the radar of most local tourists. The best are said to be Patar Beach in Bolinao and Tondol Beach in Anda, both of which have fine white sand, and where great sunsets can be viewed. Unfortunately, there are very few choice resorts in both beaches so travelers should temper their expectations. (Other public beaches can be found in San Fabian, Lingayen and Dagupan.)
  • Boat trip. The Hundred Islands National Park (Alaminos) is composed of some 128 coral formations that jut out from the water as a result of sea level dropping over millions of years.  Boats  at the Don Gonzalo Montemayor Wharf (Barangay Lucap) will usually take you to three of the islands that have been developed for the public. Quezon Island has a white beach where one can go swimming, snorkeling (check out the giant clams or taklobo) or kayaking. The other two are Governor’s Island and Children’s Island.
Casa Real, built in the 1840s, was the seat of government of the province  during the Spanish regime.  It  has been declared a National Historical Landmark by the national government. (Photo from pangasinan.gov.ph)
There are also spectacular caves among the islands as well as a bat sanctuary.
  • River cruise. Take a languid cruise down the Dawel River and marvel at the fishponds and mangroves by the banks, while enjoying cool river breezes. The hour-long trip on a flat-deck catamaran starts at the wharf at the foot of the Dawel bridge in Catacdang, Bonuan Gueset in Dagupan. Guests can feed large milkfish at a designated pond, and can see what remains of an old railroad track constructed in 1935. (For inquiries, call the Dagupan City Tourism Office at 075-515-6196.)
  • Seafood and more. Visit the Magsaysay Fish Market in Dagupan and buy cheap seafood like the famous Bonoan bangus, squid, shrimps, crabs and other fish. Pangasinan is also famous for its Calasiao puto, sweet and earthy because of its fermented rice/glutinous rice mixture. Travelers can buy this anywhere in Calasiao.
Another popular delicacy is the Alaminos longganisa, with its garlicky-salty taste; tupig, made from glutinous rice and coconut strips wrapped in banana leaves and roasted over charcoal; and Bolinao’s binungey, made from glutinous rice and coconut milk and roasted in a bamboo tube. Most of these are available in the town’s public markets or along the national highway.

Check out local restaurants such as Silverio’s Seafood Restaurant (Arellano Street, Dagupan City) and Matutina’s Seafood Restaurant (National Highway, Urdaneta City) for their fresh seafood and grilled dishes.

A view of some of the Hundred Islands. (Photo from Wikipedia)
Where to stay
Star Plaza Hotel (http://www.starplazadagupan.com) is one of the better-rated hotels in Dagupan because of its central location, spacious rooms and reasonable prices. The royal suite with veranda can accommodate four persons.

Puerto del Sol Resort (http://www.puertodelsol.com.ph) in Bolinao is a bit remote but gives travelers the privacy they covet. It sits on a white beach, and has generous suites, a swimming pool and massage area.  The view of the sea from the restaurant is quite stunning.

Getting there
BY private vehicle, take the North Luzon Expressway, exit at the MacArthur Highway, turn into the Urdaneta junction on  Dagupan Road. Signs are posted along the highway/road pointing to other municipalities in Pangasinan.

Buses that go to Pangasinan are the Dagupan Bus Line (T# 929-6123, 727-2330), Victory Liner (T# 929-6123, 727-2330), Five Star Bus Line (T# 833-8339, 833-3009) and Philippine Rabbit (T# 734-9838, 734-9836). Take tricycles or jeepneys to move from one municipality to another. Locals are very helpful in making sure you get on the right transportation.

(For more information on Pangasinan, click www.pangasinan.gov.ph. This piece was originally published on Feb. 25, 2013 in the BusinessMirror.)

Travel Bites: Hip and historic Quezon City

MOST folks have never thought of Quezon City as a tourism destination. I don’t blame them. It is mostly known as a shopping and dining capital, not to mention the location of most government agencies and educational institutions.

Then, not too long ago, I read a newspaper piece quoting a Quezon City government official announcing that the city was targeting to become the “main tourist destination” in Metro Manila.  So, of course, I couldn’t help but take a closer look at the resources Quezon City has that would entice tourists to come and visit it. And true enough, when viewed from a sightseer’s perspective, Quezon City does have a lot of interesting places and fun-filled activities that would surely delight any out-of-towner.

Quezon City has history, art, health and wellness spaces, as well as areas to commune with nature—or with other people if you wish, in hip, modern gathering places.

The Quezon Memorial Circle at night. (Photo from Kuranges/
Wikimedia Commons)
Historical landmarks. Melchora Aquino, or Tandang Sora, is known as the “Grand Old Lady of the Revolution.” Her remains are interred at the Tandang Sora National Shrine on Banlat Road (near Tandang Sora and Mindanao avenues) believed to be her actual birthplace.

At the shrine is  a towering brass statue of Aquino caring for a sick Katipunero with two other compatriots, sculpted by artist Abdulmari de Leon Imao Jr. The shrine, open to the public only on weekdays, also features six brass murals depicting the revolutionary’s life.

The 90-year-old heritage house of President 
Quezon, now at the QMC. (Photo from QC Hall site) 
The Quezon City Memorial Circle (along Elliptical Road) is both a national park and shrine dedicated to the memory of Manuel L. Quezon Sr., the president of the Philippine Commonwealth.

Rising at its center is a tall, three-pronged, 66-feet monument that houses a museum containing the late president’s memorabilia, and a mausoleum where his remains and those of his wife, Doña Aurora Quezon, rest.  In the morning, the park is a favorite among bikers and joggers; in the evening, visitors are drawn to the lit-up monument and the surrounding dancing water fountains. (UPDATE: The heritage house of President Quezon along Gilmore St. has been transferred and reconstructed at the QMC. October 2014 marks the 75th founding anniversary of Quezon City.)

Religious significance. The Sanctuario de San Pedro Bautista (69 San Pedro Bautista Street, San Francisco del Monte) was founded in 1599 by Fray Pedro Bautista, superior of all Franciscans in the Philippines, as a retreat house and novitiate in what was then a secluded part of town.

While the original structure itself has undergone many renovations, the church became a sanctuary for Katipuneros and American military forces in the 19th century. There is a cave—still open to the public—which was used by the Franciscans so they could pray in silence.

Constructed only in 1954, the Santo Domingo Church (537 Quezon Avenue) and its liturgical objects have been declared National Cultural Treasures by the National Museum.

Although its centuries-old religious artifacts, like ivory statues of saints and gold crucifixes, are hidden in the church’s vaults, on permanent display is the oldest Marian image in the country—the Our Lady of the Rosary of La Naval. Other interesting features of the church are the magnificent stained glass windows created by Filipino artist Galo Ocampo, and eight murals by National Artist Carlos “Botong” Francisco, depicting the life of Saint Dominic de Guzman.
The magnificent stained glass windows of Sto. Domingo Church by Filipino artist Galo Ocampo. (Photo from tanawin.wordpress.com)
Artistic endeavors. The Ateneo Art Gallery (Rizal Library Special Collections Building, Ateneo de Manila University, Katipunan Avenue, Loyola Heights) is home to Philippine modern artwork, including a collection donated by the late artist Fernando Zobel de Ayala, now part of the permanent exhibition.
In the gallery’s collection are works of Filipino post-war artists such as Ang Kiukok, Vicente Manansala, Napoleon Abueva, Anita Magsaysay-Ho, etc., as well as fine prints and drawings by Rembrandt, Goya, Delacroix, Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso. (The gallery is open daily except Sundays.)

The Vargas Museum (Roxas Avenue, University of the Philippines Campus, Diliman) has a permanent exhibit of artwork from the 19th century (Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo) to post-war modernists (Vicente Manansala), as well as works of invited guest artists. Current exhibits are Curiosities by Geraldine Javier (until April 20) and Walang Sinasanto by Emmanuel Garibay (until March 15).

Shop. Other than its myriad of malls, there are other places in Quezon City that will attract offbeat buyers and bargain hunters.

The Sidcor Sunday Market at Eton Centris Mall (Edsa and Quezon Avenue) is a haven for cheap dry goods, fresh seafood, fruits and vegetables, and new foodie finds. Choice items include reasonably priced tapang usa (deer jerky) and tapang baboy damo (wild boar jerky), live suahe (greasy back shrimps), haricot vert (French beans), organic vegetables and plants.

Cubao Expo (or simply Cubao-X) is a community of shops and dining establishments mostly run by local artists. There are quite a few fascinating finds like vintage clothes, quirky comic books, artwork, secondhand books, furniture and antiques, handmade novelty items, as well as bars and restaurants. (Location: the former Marikina Shoe Expo, General Romulo Avenue, Araneta Center.)

The Dapitan Arcade (Dapitan and Kanlaon streets) is a virtual treasure trove of low-priced export-overrun furniture, shoe accessories, ceramic items and Christmas gee-gaws. It’s a great place to spend one’s afternoon and buy up stuff that can enliven any part of one’s home. There are wrought-iron chairs in antique finish for less than P1,500; assorted white ceramic dinnerware starting from P35; Moroccan hurricane lamps cost about P150, to name a few.

Kamuning Road (from Edsa to Tomas Morato Avenue) is also an area where stores selling antiques, secondhand hardwood furniture and vintage lamps are located. Haggling is the order of the day.

Wine and dine. Maginhawa Street in Teacher’s Village and Katipunan Avenue are new magnets for food enthusiasts.

Along Katipunan Avenue, your best bets are Wooden Spoon (329 Katipunan Avenue) owned by Chef Sandy Daza, which serves up reworked native Filipino dishes (try the stuffed pechay with smoked tinapa, crab pancit and adobo flakes); and Gino’s Brick Oven Pizza (341 Katipunan Avenue, above Mercury Drug Store), which serves Italian dishes with a sincere touch. The pizzas use localkesong puti. (Order the Bianca Verde Pizza, Pesto Raviolo and the sinful Crack Pie.)
Ornamental plants, fresh seafood and meats...
Along Maginhawa Street, notables are The Burger Project (12 Maginhawa) for customized burgers, Crazy Katsu (81 Maginhawa) for chicken katsu, and The IScreamist (46-D Magiting Street) for the Dragon’s Breath S’mores.

Breathe and relax. Go to the La Mesa Ecopark (East Fairview) for a picnic, a swim, or a hike. The park with its lush surroundings has been spruced up and cleaned, and is now a quiet area to bond with one’s family, like the pasyalan of old. (Open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.) 

...and cooked food, are some of the many productsone can purchase at the Sidcor Sunday Market. (Sidcor photos by the blogger. All rights reserved)

Where to stay: For visitors staying more than a day, the Cocoon Boutique Hotel (61 Scout Tobias and Scout Rallos, Barangay Laging Handa) has all the amenities of a five-star Makati hotel, at more reasonable rates. It is also a 100-percent green hotel, using repurposed furniture and wood from old houses, organic bathroom toiletries, and is committed to recycling. (For reservations:www.thecocoonhotel.com/index.php)

Getting there: Quezon City is accessible via private vehicle, bus and FX shuttles (mega taxis), which normally pass through Edsa, the main artery in Metro Manila that connects most major cities. You can also reach Quezon City via mass transportation using the LRT 1 and 2, and MRT 3.

(For more information on Quezon City tourist stops, click www.quezoncity.gov.ph. This piece was originally published on Feb. 18, 2013 in the BusinessMirror.)

Travel Bites: The pleasures of Pampanga

PAMPANGA is not just your destination for the annual Good Friday procession of penitents, bloody from flogging their own backs with sharp bamboo sticks, before being crucified just like Christ Jesus (Barangay San Pedro Cutud, Mabalacat City).
The province has more entertaining festivals, lots of recreational spaces, a wide array of shopping possibilities, hotels and resorts for that quick getaway and, more important, a sumptuous selection of native dishes readily available at decent establishments.

  • Up, up and away. The Hot Air Balloon Festival, now on its 18th year, will be held from February 21 to 24 at the Omni Aviation Grounds at the Clark Freeport in Pampanga. (UPDATE: The Hot Air Balloon Festival has been postponed this year, 2014.)
This annual event attracts balloon enthusiasts from all over the world, showing off their creative and colorful hot-air balloons. Lift-off is usually at 6 a.m., so it’s best you travel down the night before, check into a hotel, and drive down to the staging grounds the next morning. It’s advisable that you secure your entrance tickets (P250 each) days before, as demand for these is high. Last year there was an estimated 100,000 people who attended the event. (For more details, call the Clark Subic Marketing Office at 0917-3923759, 0928-5046769, 045-499-0695, 045-499-1179, or click http://bit.ly/1bTYqn5)
Brightly colored balloons prepare to take flight at the opening of the 18th Hot Air Balloon Fiesta in Clark, Pampanga, February 21, 2013. (Photo from InterAksyon.com)
  • Christmas Capital. Another festival one shouldn’t miss is the Giant Lanterns Festival (usually held on Saturday before Christmas Eve) in San Fernando City, the provincial capital,  where a competition among makers of the traditional festive parol from the city’s barangays is held.
First made using papel de japon (Japanese paper), the unique Christmas lanterns of San Fernando are now made from capiz shell, resin or plastic and fiberglass, lit up by hundreds of lightbulbs, and with sizes as large as 20 feet.
  •  Heritage visit. The Betis Church (Saint James the Apostle Church) in Betis, Guagua, is a baroque edifice completed in 1770 by the Augustinian Order. It has been proclaimed a National Cultural Treasure by the National Museum.
Its walls and ceilings are adorned with murals and paintings by local and international artists, while Renaissance-like frescoes depicting the Holy Family or Biblical themes adorn the ceilings, evoking a Sistine Chapel mood.
There are intricate carvings in gold leaf, and detailed wooden sculptures—just fine craftsmanship that makes this church a true artistic haven. Several images of saints fill the magnificent retablo behind the equally ornate altar.
A number of heritage homes designed in the Spanish-era bahay na bato (stone house) style can be found in Angeles City. Thanks to the new owners, these have been restored to their former glories. Among them are the Balé Herencia (Santo Rosario Street and Lacandula Street), built in 1860 by a Spanish friar supposedly for his mistress; Balé Cuayan (Santo Rosario Street) constructed in 1892 and later used as the quarters for officers of the Japanese army in World War II; and Founder’s House (770 Santo Rosario Street), the oldest structure in Angeles City as it was built in 1824. (Click http://bit.ly/1glIJtq for other heritage sites to visit in Angeles.)
The altar and retablo of the Betis Church in Pampanga. (Photo from www.localphilippines.com)
  •  Eat to your heart’s content. Capampangan dishes represent one of the more well-known native cuisines in the country. They are unique as the dishes are either created from offal, or ingredients normally not eaten by the squeamish among us.
Everybody’s Café (MacArthur Highway, Del Pilar, San Fernando) is popular for its authentic Capampangan cuisine, friendly staff and overall cleanliness. The prices can be on the high side, but I think worth it, considering their superb taste. I personally love the fried catfish, fried crickets, duck adobo, to name a few. For the adventurous, try the betute (stuffed frogs) and camaro (fried crickets).
Aling Lucing’s (Glaciano Valdez Street, Angeles City), the original purveyor of sisig (made from pig ears, cheeks and snout), has attained cult status among foodies especially after Chef Anthony Bourdain featured it in a “No Reservations “episode on the Philippines. (Photos of Bourdain now line the wall of the establishment.) Its sisig has chicken livers and is loaded with onions and served sizzling on a hot plate, with crunchy and soft bits thrown together—all perfectly seasoned—and naked, meaning no mayonnaise (thank God!) nor fried eggs.
For halo-halo, try Kabigting’s (Poblacion, Barrio Paralaya, Arayat). It’s thick and rich with pastillas de leche (made from carabao’s milk), sweetened beans boiled for hours, thus taking on a halaya consistency, and cream of corn. This is definitely not your typical halo-halo, but a worthy alternative.
  • Climb every mountain. Mount Arayat rises over 3,500 feet and will take about an entire day for hikers to reach the summit. Hikers are advised to check  with the ranger station first before making the climb that takes them through lush foliage on clearly-marked trails.
At the foot of the mountain, declared a wildlife sanctuary, is a national park where natural waterfalls, a swimming pool, park benches and huts are available for picnics. It is about 30 minutes from San Fernando, or less, depending on your vehicle.
Mount Pinatubo, whose infamous eruption in 1991 wreaked havoc on the global atmosphere, is now a major tourist destination in Pampanga. One can hike to the crater lake and have breakfast there, and then visit a spa, which uses the ash spewed by the volcano in a treatment designed to flush out toxins from the body. (For inquiries, check http://bit.ly/1g7iFQB)
  • Watch the birds.  From October to February, migratory birds from China, Siberia, Japan, the Korean peninsula and New Zealand make a pit stop at the Candaba wetlands on their way to warmer climes. A portion of the wetlands (Barangay Doña Simang), actually owned by town mayor Jerry Pelayo, has been declared a bird sanctuary.
The Giant Lantern Festival heralds the Christmas season in Pampanga. (Photo from http://naiahlaxa.wordpress.com)
The best time to go is either very early in the morning (before 6 a.m.) or late afternoons (after 4 p.m.). According to the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP), some of the rare birds found at the sanctuary are the Purple Swamphen, Chinese Pond Heron and Black-crowned Night Heron. I suggest joining the WBCP (www.birdwatch.ph) on its visits to Candaba for a more organized and educational point of view on the birds. (For other inquiries, call the Candaba Tourism Information Center at 045-6321-299.)
  • Buy furniture. You can drive all the way to Betis, in Guagua for export-quality intricately-carved wooden furniture where several factories are located. Betis Crafts Inc. (www.betiscrafts.com) is the most well-known among the local furniture makers.
There is also a Furniture Village in Barangay Cauayan near Clark Field in Angeles City, where high-quality rattan and wrought iron furniture are sold.  (Call the Clark Subic Marketing at 045-499-0695, for details.)
  • Getting there: A private vehicle is still the best mode of transport to Pampanga, especially if you’re visiting several sites or cities. Take the North Luzon Expressway; Pampanga is about 2-3 hours from Manila depending on your final destination. Bypassing the Balintawak Cloverleaf and using the Mindanao Avenue-NLEX interchange cuts down the travel time by at least 30 minutes.
Buses that go to several points in Pampanga are Genesis Transport (www.genesistransport.com.ph), Bataan Transit Co. (www.bataantransit.webs.com), Victory Liner (www.victoryliner.com), Dagupan Bus Co. (T#727-2330/929-6123/928-5639), Philtranco (www.philtranco.com.ph). In most cities in Pampanga, you can either take a jeep or tricycle from the bus terminal to your end destination.

(This piece was originally published on Feb. 11, 2013 in the BusinessMirror.)

February 14, 2014

Running out of Valentine’s Day ideas? Don't hit the panic button just yet, men...

AHH, VALENTINE’S Day. That most dreaded time of the year…for men.
Oh yeah, we gals just love Valentine’s Day. Trust me guys.
Even if she says, “Oh I don’t care about Valentine’s Day. It’s just another commercial holiday thought up by merchandisers and retailers to get us to buy stuff and boost their sales after Christmas,” she doesn’t mean it. She expects you to give her a present, today. And if you do, she’ll be secretly thrilled.
So maybe she’ll say something like, “Ohh, you didn’t have to. I told you not to get me any gift.” DO NOT believe her. You WILL get added pogi points in that scorecard she keeps in her head, if you give her a cute or thoughtful present.
Even higher pogi points goes to the man who brings his lady out to dinner, or better yet, cooks her a meal. Why? Because food and romance are tied together like a happy couple. When you are satiated with a meal, your body releases dopamine, exactly the same neurotransmitters released by your brain when you are in love.
"Falling in love causes our body to release a flood of feel-good chemicals that trigger specific physical reactions," said Pat Mumby, PhD, co-director of the Loyola Sexual Wellness Clinic and professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences, at the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. "This internal elixir of love is responsible for making our cheeks flush, our palms sweat and our hearts race." (http://bit.ly/1cuOjFo)
Chocolates, for instance, also release dopamines in your brain, which is why when you eat it, you just feel good all over. It’s like a happy pill that makes you feel warm, content, and secure. (Royce’ Nama dark chocolates are just the best for me. But if you’re in the mood for more after-romance romancing, studies show that white chocolates release more dopamines in the brain, than ordinary milk or dark chocolates. Try out the Potato Chip Fromage Blanc for a whimsical sexy treat.)
Falling in love, eating chocolates - your brain releases the same kind of feel-good chemicals in your brain called dopamines. For that feeling of euphoria and added romance, get her some Royce' chocolates. (Photo from http://chocolateihaveknown.files.wordpress.com)
An alternative is to prepare a picnic dinner and spend the Valentine evening at Fort Santiago in Intramuros where the world-famous Philippine Madrigal Singers will be performing at 6:30 pm in “Sining sa Muling Pagbabago.” It’s also an art and photo sale to raise funds for the survivors of Supertyphoon Yolanda. The best part is, it’s free admission! (Uncouples, dateless individuals, barkadas, and families are welcome as well!)
If you’re already in that stage where you go on vacations together, bring her to Tagaytay where the cool weather is conducive to lots of hugging and snuggling. (Discovery Country Suites is a favorite of mine. Aside from the awesome individually decorated rooms, the cuisine served at its Verbena restaurant has never failed to excite me.)
Or go for a staycation in the metro – I’m pretty sure there are a number of boutique hotels around your area just dying to host you and your honey.  (My personal getaway in Quezon City is Cocoon Boutique Hotel with its warm wood interiors and green theme. It’s also right in the heart of the food and dining area of Timog/Tomas Morato Ave. So you can check in early, park there, walk to a restaurant for your Valentine meal, then go back to your room for a late-night swim before uhm, bed.)
What about presents?
Treat her to a massage at home. (Photo from
We gals love jewelry.  The sparklier and more expensive, the better.
Of course, if you’re still in the dating stage and not yet quite “a thing” with the girl in the accounting department, a cute bracelet with a set of charms will do the trick. (Check out Silverworks for their affordable silver jewelry or Promod, a clothing store which carries a lot of tasteful and chic bracelets, necklaces, and earrings. I love shopping there especially during sales.)
If you’re already “a couple,” a set of siopao pearl earrings would make a nice statement. It’s still easier on the pocket than jewelry from Tiffany’s – she will have to wait ‘til you’re married for that, or if you win tonight’s Superlotto – but tells her that you’re in this relationship for the long haul. (Go to your friendly Muslim alahera in Greenhills.  Ask your sister or gal pals for a personal recommendation.)
If you’re gifting your wife, please don’t give her a new frying pan, or a new washing machine unless she asks for it. I know husbands are already in the practical mode when they get to a certain point in their marriage, but trust your wives enough that they will tell you when they need those things.
For Valentine’s Day, however, aside from a big bad bling! you can also give her the gift of health. Why not treat her to her very own spa massage at home? She works hard at her job, she takes of the kids, too (as well as you, you big baby!), and thus, deserves to relax. Bundle up the kids and take them to your mother-in-law, and arrange a real therapeutic massage for the wifey. (Call Spa Works at 975-3255, 394-8674, (0917) 596-0011, (0922) 8320111. They bring everything, the massage bed, the spa music, and the therapeutic oils. Very efficient.)
Give her that youthful glow-present her with some
Blooming-G from Bausch.
While you’re at it, give her food and beauty supplements to keep her healthy and radiant. Lately, I’ve been hearing the ladies rave over Blooming-G, which was popularized by actress-singer Sunshine Cruz. I’ve always admired this girl for managing to smile and radiate positive energy even under the most trying of circumstances. And notice how her skin glows?!    
Blooming-G apparently is made of Borage oil, a type of essential fatty acid that contains high amounts of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), also known as omega-6. Basically it helps a woman retain skin moisture and protects skin cells from damage.
Florinda San Antonio, founder of Bauch Laboratories, underlines the effects of Blooming-G, not only on physical wellness, but on a holistic approach: “Blooming-G was developed to help today’s women live happier, more meaningful lives through its health and beauty benefits. When a woman feels good about herself, she gains the confidence to do more and standout. That is our goal; to improve the quality of life through products that are trustworthy”.
So remember that men - the key is to make your woman feel good about herself. And if she’s happy, obviously she will strive to make you happy as well. Ahem.
So ladies, enjoy this day. Say thank you to the men or significant other who make you feel wonderful crazy and in love. Be glad for the present and more time with your beloved.
Happy Valentine’s Day to all! 

(This piece would've been in the BusinessMirror today, Feb. 14, 2014 in my Something Like Life column, but due to a huge volume of ads, was displaced. Anyhoo, thank you for always supporting us, dear advertisers! We love you!)

Travel Bites: Zamboanga in bloom

ZAMBOANGA City is one of those areas in Mindanao that constantly gets a bad rap, and unfairly so. We are inundated by travel advisories by foreign embassies warning of the dangers of traveling to the region due to Muslim separatist rebels (or bandits), as well as election-related violence that seems to be erupting in several areas down South.

Googling, in fact, turned up several questions from Filipinos and foreigners alike on whether it was safe to travel to Zamboanga City. In reality, however, the city is just as safe as heck, traveling around Metro Manila!

Dubbed the City of Flowers due to the profusion of colorful blooms grown in home gardens or in parks, Zamboanga City offers a rich cultural heritage of Spanish and American colonial influences, as well as touches of Muslim culture.


The Nuestra Señora del Pilar (Our Lady of the Pillar) at Fort Pilar is the patron saint of Zamboanga City. (Photo from http://www.zamboanga.com)

Going to Zamboanga City is like traveling back in time. Chavacano, the dialect spoken there, is about 70 percent Spanish with some local native words mixed in. That, and most Zamboangueños’ devotion to the Church, are examples of the  lasting influences of Spain, which made this city its southernmost outpost.

It also has one of the few remaining examples of American colonial architecture, with such buildings still being used to this day.

Fort Pilar was originally founded as a garrison in 1635 to defend the Spanish colonial government from attacks from Moro pirates and the forces of the Sultan of Sulu. Built from stone, the fort is now a museum featuring a permanent exhibit on marine life of Zamboanga, Basilan and Cebu. It also houses paintings, cultural artifacts from the tribes in Zamboanga and geological collection, among others.

The fort is a peaceful place to visit with its well-manicured lawns and landscaped garden. It is also an outdoor shrine dedicated to Our Lady of the Pillar, which is said to be miraculous.

One of the favorite American landmarks is the Pasonanca Park (Santa Maria Road) It was established by Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing, once the governor of the Moro Province (and yes, after whom US ballistic missiles are named). It was said that he had a park expert actually come over from the United States, just to plan and design Pasonanca. It is one of the beautifully designed open spaces in the city. Check out the aviary and the Butterfly Sanctuary.

Plaza Pershing, constructed to honor the general’s defeat of Muslim insurgents in his time, is also another place for tourists who just want to relax and commune with nature. During Christmas, the plaza hosts a giant Christmas tree and is festooned with multi-colored lights as the Zamboanga City Hall (Valderoza Street), which was also built during the American Occupation. The city hall stands out from the rest of the architecture in the area, being  made from adobe stones topped by red terracotta roof. Inside is an antique chandelier with the city hall’s interiors all constructed from hardwood.

The Western Mindanao State University (Normal Road) is also a fine example of American colonial architecture with its high ceilings and large windows.

Zamboanga is known as the 'City of Flowers' because of the numerous flowering plants in private and public gardens. (Photo from http://www.zamboanga.net)

While the Metropolitan Cathedral of Immaculate Conception (La Purisima Street) is of modern design, it stands as one of the visually arresting symbols of Spain’s religious hold over the country. Shaped like a cross, the spacious cathedral has two chapels—one for  daily Masses and the other for Sunday Masses, weddings and other religious celebrations. A marble statue of the Immaculate Conception sculpted by National Artist Napoleon Abueva stands in the main church.

While off the usual tourist track, Rio Hondo, just northwest of the Santa Cruz Island ferry terminal, is another fascinating destination to explore. It is a Muslim village with houses and a mosque on stilts built over water. The labyrinthine inner passageways and paths can be confusing so it’s best to talk to members of local village councils to help take you around. The residents are actually warm and welcoming, and show visitors a more exotic side of the city.


Fun in the sun and surf. The Great Santa Cruz Island with its unique pink-sand beach is quite a revelation. Now a marine sanctuary, there are huts that visitors can use for day trips of swimming and picnics. One must also try the local tour of a Badjao village. The island is accessible by outrigger or pump boat from the Lantaka Hotel just 10 minutes across. Trips are coordinated through the Department of Tourism desk there.

Because it is a coastal area, Zamboanga City hosts numerous  often-unspoiled beaches such as Bolong Beach to the north, and the Eleven Islands with its powdery white-sand beaches. Day trips are recommended at the Eleven Islands as there are no facilities onsite for accommodations, food and showering. The area is popular for snorkeling and scuba-diving.

Those in for some serious trekking and outdoor fun should visit Merloquet Falls (Barangay Sibulao), which is about two hours away from the city proper. It is a dramatic two-tier waterfall with a pool below to wade in. Visitors are not allowed to eat or drink there, as the local government tries to keep the area pristine.

The pink sand beach of Sta. Cruz Island. (Photo from http://www.zamboanga.com)

Snap up a bargain. The Yakan Weaving Center (National Highway) is a visual feast with its artistic handwoven textiles by the Yakans of Basilan.  The women are eager to narrate the stories behind the design of the textile. Unfortunately, this is a dying industry and very few young Yakans take up the trade. The textiles they sell are less expensive than at the Barter center or souvenir shops.

For batik textiles and products from Indonesia as well as Malaysia food delicacies, chocolates and coffee, drop by the Barter Trade Center (Barangay Canelar). Haggling is the order of the day, and one can often get a bargain for half the price initially quoted by the vendor.

Go on a diet. A seafood diet, that is. Zamboanga has some of the most unusual and palate-pleasing seafood in the country. There, one finds the curacha, a spiny crab, that is the house specialty of Alavar’s (Don Alfaro Street, Tetuan)—one of the oldest and still popular seafood restaurants in the city—and cooked in a lip-smacking coconut and crab fat sauce.

Another popular seafood is the imbao, a mussel with a plump meat often  baked or grilled with butter and garlic. You can drop by any of the waterfront restaurants at the Paseo del Mar (Valderoza Street, beside Fort Pilar) and choose from a wide array of seafood dishes. (It looks like the old Baywalk along Roxas Boulevard in the evening, complete with the strombotiko street lamps.)
 Where to stay
The Garden Orchid Hotel (Gov. Camins Avenue/http://www.gardenorchidhotel.com/) is the most popular in the city. It is close to the airport and has a new 10-story wing with almost five-star hotel amenities. Service can be spotty, but overall, it offers excellent value for money, with its spacious rooms that are comparable to a number of Metro Manila hotels.

For those on a shoestring budget, CA Atilano Pension House (Km 4, corner Toribio Drive, Pasonanca (T# 062-985-1801/926-2761/0919-4357819) is a good choice. The rooms are air-conditioned, with hot and cold shower. The property itself is very clean and quite near a lot of food stalls and eateries.

Getting there
Most major airlines fly to Zamboanga from Manila or Cebu.

Want to know more about Zamboanga City? Drop by or call the Department of Tourism, Region 9 office, at Valderrosa Street, Zamboanga City (T# 062-992-6242/993-0030).

(This piece was published on Feb. 4, 2013 in the BusinessMirror.)

Travel Bites: Surf’s up and more in La Union

IN the 1970s until about the mid-1980s, La Union in the Ilocos region was one of those provinces where Metro Manilans would flock to during the summer for their beach escapades.
Straddling Ilocos Sur in the north and Pangasinan in the south, La Union has an amazing coastline facing the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) that has spawned a number of fine white to gray sand beaches.
I particularly remember going to  Bauang, La Union, as relatives had a resort there. Accommodations in the area were simple and neat, not like the boutique-style luxury offerings resorts we have in most parts of the country today.
But what I will never forget about Bauang is its glorious blazing sun setting on the horizon, one of the best that I’ve seen. As dusk falls, the sky is painted in an exhilarating palette of striking oranges and golds, with dark bluish grays toward the edges of the upper sky.
As the 1990s rolled around, Metro Manilans eventually found other go-to summer places in the south, where the beaches had pristine powder-white sand, and the partying went on from early evening to the wee hours of the next morning. I assume the five-to six-hour drive, which includes the rapidly growing traffic going out  and along the North Luzon Expressway, has also become challenging to tourists making their way to the north. After all, it’s much faster to hop on a plane and be in Boracay in an hour and half, than to sit in the car or bus for a butt-numbing road trip.
La Union is a popular location for surfers. (Photo from http://launionsurfing.blogspot.com/) 
Amazingly enough, things have turned around for La Union. The tourists are back in droves, specifically drawn to the municipality of San Juan now recognized as one of the three major surfing capitals in the country. (The other two are Aurora in Baler, and Siargao, Surigao del Norte.)
Of course, we’re not talking about Big Kahuna waves or the tubes Hawaii is famous for (check out Hawaii 5-O’s opening billboard sequence). Still, the waves in San Juan reach about shoulder high, giving enough lift, power and speed for the average weekend surfer. There are also spots of 15-foot waves that make their presence felt enough for the occasional professional to practice his moves.

Aside from the numerous beaches along the coastline of La Union, there are other places that tourists might find interesting in the province:
Got silk? About 10 minutes away from the provincial capital of San Fernando, is the first-class municipality of Bacnotan, which hosts the Don Mariano Marcos State University (DMMSU). Tourists can drop by the university’s Sericulture Research and Development Institute, which raises silkworms. As the silkworm goes into the pupa stage, it weaves a cocoon around itself  which can produce about 1,000 yards of silk thread. DMMSU also has honey-bee making facilities. (Call the university at 072-242-5641, to arrange a visit.)
A look at the past. If Italy has its leaning tower of Pisa, La Union has its leaning watchtower along the Pebble Beach of Luna (formerly called Namacpacan). The watchtower is now split in two as it continues to be exposed to the elements and left to deteriorate with time. It is just one of the baluartes that dot the Ilocos region’s long coastline from Ilocos Norte, until La Union. The Spaniards built these to keep watch and alert the locals on marauding pirates.  Other watchtowers in La Union—often built from adobe and coral—can be found in San Fernando, Bacnotan and San Juan.
The Pindangan Ruins (Barangay San Vicente, San Fernando) is what remains of a church built in 1764, which locals say was destroyed by an earthquake sometime in the 19th  century. Now under the care of Carmelite nuns whose monastery just stands behind the ruins, the area is now covered with grass and other vegetation (snake alert!), but one can still make out the buttresses and the church walls. According to local folklore, the ghosts of a beheaded priest and a nun in white are residents of the ruins, which I would think makes it an attractive destination for ghost hunters and thrill seekers during Halloween.
The Don Mariano Marcos State University in Bacnotan host a sericulture research center. Above, are silkworm cocoons. (Photo by http://www.dmmmsu.edu.ph)
One’s history trip won’t be complete without visiting the Our Lady of Namacpacan shrine in the Saint Catherine de Alexandria Parish Church in Luna. Built in the 19th century, many miracles have been attributed to the image which planted itself in the area, it is said, under divine guidance. Another unique church in the province is the Saint Christopher Parish Church in Bangar, which was completed in 1697.  Unlike most old Spanish churches in the country, this one has three bell towers.
Cottage industries. Visit Taboc in San Juan to see how clay products are made using techniques handed down through generations. In Bangar, homemakers weave wide Ilocano blankets in rayon, cotton and polyester, and tinagudan yarn. (Call Evangeline Dadat of the Department of Tourism regional office at 072-888-2411 to help set up personal visits to the craftsmen and weavers.)

Hike. The Holcim Cement Plant in Bacnotan initially developed the eco-trail for their employees’ recreational activities, then later opened it to the public who want to surround themselves with the lush greenery of the forest. The most popular spot along the eco-trail is the so-called viewpoint, which offers a panoramic view of the Bacnotan Coast. (For team-building seminars and other corporate activities, contact Holcim La Union at 072-888-4252.)
Drink up. The town of Lioac, Naguilian, which is less than 20 minutes from San Fernando, is most famous for its basi, the Ilocano native wine made from fermented sugar cane juice. The dark color is from the bark of the duhat (java plum) tree.  You can just ask any tricycle driver to bring you to the home of a basi maker and see the age-old process of developing the wine.
Most probably don’t know that the basi inspired a revolt among the Ilocanos in 1807 as the Spanish government tried to take over the manufacturing of this fruity but intoxicating wine, forcing locals to buy only from government stores. Today, Naguilian commemorates the Basi Revolt in a festival every first week of May, holding activities such as a parade, street dancing, and agri-trade fair, sports competitions, etc.
Swim and surf. San Juan is ground zero for surfing in La Union, with a host of schools and instructors available to teach anyone the fine points of balancing and riding on the long boards. The most popular is the Billabong Surf School (San Juan Surf School) operated by Luke Landrigan, a silver medalist at the Bali Asian Games in 2008, and son of Australian surfer Brian Landrigan  who had settled in La Union in the 1980s, and introduced surfing to the local community. (Call 0917-8008004/0916-7442229 or e-mail billabongsurfschool@gmail.com for inquiries.)
For an even more unique vacation, try Flow—a three-day weekend workshop that combines surfing, yoga, samba dancing­—usually held every  November by Manila-based yoga instructor Monica Eleazar-Manzano and percussionist Toni Bernardo. (For particulars, click http://www.flowsurfyogasamba.com.)
October to March is the best period to enjoy the surf in San Juan.
If you just want to swim and lie under the sun all day, Bauang and Poro Point are the most popular destinations for beach bums. The reef area around Poro Point is also a go-to area for snorkelers.
Needless to say, there is a rollicking nightlife in La Union especially with many resorts hosting its own bars and restaurants. Locals underscore the safety and security of guests and partygoers even in the evening as tourist cops regular patrol the beaches.

Where to stay
The Kahuna Beach Resort & Spa (Barangay Urbiztondo, San Juan)  has Balinese-inspired cottages and an infinity pool, with its beachfront dotted with lounging beds that make watching the sunset with drinks in hand quite exhilarating. Guests laud the professional massage therapists at the spa, as well as the breakfast experience—generous delicious dishes and good coffee in an open air setting, fanned by the sea breezes. Now who wouldn’t want to wake up for that? (For reservations, call 817-5592/0917-6695353 or click the web sitehttp://www.kahunaresort.com/.)
For budget guests, check out the Coconut Grove Resort (Paringao, Bauang, La Union (072-888-4276 /242-3222/888-5381/http://www.coco.com.ph). The rooms are basic but clean, with a friendly staff. It also has a swimming pool, restaurant, dive shop and a bar. As an alternative to the beach, guests can go lawn bowling or play billiards.
(Click http://www.sanfernandocity.gov.ph/ for a list of hotels and resorts in La Union.)
Getting there: By private vehicle, take the Nlex then go via SCTEx to Tarlac, and head on to Pangasinan, and La Union via MacArthur Highway.
You can also take the bus directly from several points in Metro Manila then get off at San Fernando: Autobus Transport (Sampaloc, Manila); Dominion Transit (Cubao, Quezon City); Fariñas Transit (Sampaloc, Manila); Genesis Bus Lines (Rizal Avenue, Manila); Maria de Leon Transit (Sampaloc, Manila); Partas Transportation (Cubao, Quezon City); Philippine Rabbit (Edsa, Quezon City); RCJ Transit (Sampaloc, Manila); Viron Transportation (Sampaloc, Manila).

(This piece was published on Jan. 28, 2013 in the BusinessMirror.)

Travel Bites - Marinduque: Heart of the Philippines

THE heart-shaped island of Marinduque comes to mind whenever Holy Week approaches.
The destination is most famous for the colorful Moriones Festival, where locals—usually farmers and fishermen—wear painted masks (moriones or moryones) and don elaborate Roman centurion costumes of their own crafting, in a re-enactment of the search for the centurion Longinus. (According to Biblical lore, Longinus, who pierced the side of the crucified Christ with his spear, converted to Christianity after Christ’s blood dropped on his blind eye and restored his sight. The centurion was later caught and beheaded.)
 Marinduqueños participate in the annual festival as a form of panata or religious devotion, in exchange for divine favors. This year the festival will be held from March 25 (Holy Monday) to March 31 (Easter) and will feature several parades of the moriones, culminating in the chase and beheading of  Longinus at Easter.
(The Moriones Festival is the most popular fiesta in Marinduque. It depicts the search for the centurion Longinus, and is held during the Holy Week. Photo from http://www.visitmarinduque.com)
During the week, other Lenten traditions are also practiced and staged such as  the senakulo(play depicting the life and sufferings of the Christ Jesus), pabasa (singing/chanting of a narrative on the passion, death and resurrection of Christ), and the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross).
Those planning to travel to Marinduque to enjoy the festival should book their flights and accommodations this early as most Marinduqueños go home in droves for their first long vacation of the year.
The rest of the year, Marinduque offers a quiet respite from the daily hassles of modern, urban living. Although quite accessible from Manila by air and water, the island has not yet lost its rustic charm with the locals known as among the friendliest, and always eager to lend tourists a helping hand.
In 2010 the international broadcasting network CNN named the island as among “the next-gen [generation] Asian tourist spots,” highlighting the opening of the luxurious Bellarocca Island Resort and Spa and local-government efforts to elevate the province’s profile in the international tourism arena.
Other than the pleasures that the resort promises, Marinduque also offers serene white beaches, a diverse marine life and hot springs still veritably untouched by the tourist hordes.
TRAVEL back in history. Travel blogger Ivan Henares was first to have noted the potential of Marinduque’s capital, Boac, as a heritage town, in similar fashion as Vigan, Ilocos Sur or Carcar, Cebu.
In downtown Boac, there are still quite a number of ancestral homes designed in the bahay na bato style, combining wood and stone and are usually two-story affairs. Many of these houses are still well-preserved, with the sliding windows, for instance, still retaining their capiz shells inlay, and with the ventanillas at the bottom in intricate grillwork or short wooden posts.
Most of the homes now use the ground floor for commercial uses, while the upper floor consists of the living area of the homeowner’s family. So far, Casa Narvasa is the only ancestral home in Boac that has been declared by the National Historical Institute as a heritage house.
The Boac Cathedral (Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception) is another historical landmark that harks back to the Spanish era. Built in 1756, the fortress-church with its red-bricked façade and ornate retablo was often used as sanctuary from marauding pirates of the time.
The Boac branch of the National Museum features old agricultural tools, ancient pottery, stoneware and ceramics from the 10th century. The museum itself is housed in an old Spanish building that was also used as a garrison during the Japanese Occupation.
A VIEW of Mount Malindig, an active volcano and the highest point in Marinduque, from a seaside villa at Bellarocca Island Resort and Spa. (Photo copyright Stella Arnaldo)
White beach. The 1-kilometer Poctoy’s white beach near the town of Torrijos has fine white sand and crystal-clear waters. There are quite a few resorts in the area offering basic accommodations and amenities. Swimming and snorkeling are the common activities there.
To your health. Mount Malindig, the highest mountain in Marinduque and which is also an active volcano, feeds the Malbog Sulfur Springs and Marinduque Hot Springs Resort in Sitio Mainit. The hot springs are reputed to be therapeutic, helping ease hypertension, salving skin ailments and eliminating toxins from the body.
The hot springs flow into pools with both establishments offering visitors on-site accommodations.
HIKING. Located in Barangay Sihi in the town of Buenavista, Mount Malindig is considered an easy climb for regular mountain trekkers. At 1,157 meters above sea level, the climb to the summit takes about one to two days depending on the pace of the climber.
At the peak of this still-active volcano, one gets panoramic views of the province’s surroundings like the nearby Tres Reyes Islands, named after the Three Kings (Melchor, Gaspar and Balthazar) who visited the infant child Jesus.
Spelunking. The Bagumbungan River Cave (or San Isidro Cave) is a local popular destination in Barangay San Isidro, Santa Cruz. Considered a delicate fragile geological formation, exploration permits have to be secured from the municipal office and local barangay, which have joined forces with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in conducting educational tours.
Other caves worth exploring are the Bitik and Tarug Caves in Santa Cruz and Mogpog, respectively, and Bathala Caves also in SantaCruz that consists of eight different caves. Local guides are available to help visitors explore the areas.
Snorkeling/diving. Not quite as popular as Tubbataha Reef in Palawan or Anilao in Batangas, Marinduque also offers a tremendous wealth of marine life and World War II shipwrecks. Banton Island is home to barracuda, sharks and numerous pelagic fishes, while ship wrecks dot the surrounding waters of the Maestre de Campo Island.
Where to stay
BELLAROCCA Island Resort and Spa offers guests luxurious accommodations with a Santorini theme. There are villas and a hotel that gives guests awesome views of Mount Malindig or the sea. Villas have their own plunge pools, while the hotel has its lap pool. Staff are excellent, accommodating the requests of guests. (For inquiries, click http://www.bellaroccaresorts.com/)
Chateau Du Mer Beach Resort (Barangay Amoingan, Boac) is a two-story beach house facing the Amoingan Coast, where guests are able to bask in the setting sun from a view deck.
With only two bedrooms, the property offers guests privacy and can accommodate up to six persons. It is great for small families and barkada outings. Maid service is available during the day, while management can arrange for massage services and diving trips for the guests. (For bookings, call 042-332-1338 or 042-332-1754.)
Getting there: ZestAir flies to Marinduque daily (the flight takes 45 minutes), while there are six Roro trips daily offered by the Montenegro and Starhorse Shipping service at the  Lucena Port (Talao-talao)-Balanacan and Cawit Ports in Marinduque. The Roro can accommodate vehicles of visitors.
There are daily outrigger boat trips between Pinamalayan, Oriental Mindoro, to Gasan, Marinduque, which take about four hours, as well as two-hour boat trips between Buyabod Port in Santa Cruz and General Luna, Quezon.
For more on Marinduque, check out http://www.visitmarinduque.com/
(This piece was published on Jan. 21, 2013 in the BusinessMirror.)