Wednesday, January 18, 2012

What To Do Around Malate

Travelers to the Philippines invariably have to spend a night or two in Manila on their way to and from the outer islands, the tourist destinations and the eco-adventure destinations within the archipelago. Most globe trekkers and lonely planetoids spend this layover time in Malate.

Malate is a bayside district of Manila with a reputation of being a Bohemian enclave. In the 60’s at Los Indios Bravos, a café-cum-art gallery-cum-music venue, poets, painters, film people, musicians, writers and moonlight philosophers would gather regularly. Los Indios, located at the heart of Malate, was where the avant-garde set of Manila would hang out. Nearly half a century later, Malate is still the place where the fringe and artsy milieu like to congregate. One finds budget-friendly hostels and B&B’s in Malate; everything worth seeing or doing here is within walking distance from the accommodations.

The bayside promenade called Baywalk stretches from Rizal Park to the north all the way to the Cultural Center/Folk Arts Complex. This is a great spot to catch the world-famous Manila Bay sunset. Grabbing a bite to eat and/or a cold San Miguel beer is no problem in Malate-cruising along Adriatico, Nakpil, Mabini or Remedios Streets, one finds an array of bars, bistros, clubs, al fresco eateries & rectos. 

In the mood for Korean, Chinese, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, Continental, American, Filipino and, yes, even Cuban fare? You will find it within a 4-square block area within the heart of Malate at the streets mentioned above. Of note, on the corner of Remedios and Adriatico, is Café Havana, a cigar bar bistro with excellent Cuban fusion cuisine and live Latin music – oh, and a cigar bar with, yes, real Cohibas and other fine cigars from Cuba. And they serve the best mojitos in town.

Across the street is Bistro Adriatico, with its elegant 19th-century ambience and its fine Filipino/Spanish/European cuisine, and a creamy, thick old-style hot chocolate to die for. Around the corner on Mabini St., is the Hobbit House – a live music bar that has dwarfs for servers, a rather endearing touch. The Hobbit has live blues, rock or folk music, depending on the day of the week. Beware the karaoke bars and Top 40 clubs that have started to proliferate in Malate, unless of course you’re into that sort of thing.

A Malate institution is the Penguin Café and Gallery. Although it has changed its name a few times over the decades, people will always call it Penguin. On any given night, one may find an eclectic mix of Manila’s artists, intelligentsia, filmmakers, culture vultures, neo-tribal’s and whatnot hanging out and slamming down Penguin’s notorious lambanog(coconut liquor)/Red Horse(strong beer) concoction. There is always live music at least a few nights a week – jazz, world, blues, tribal, fusion etc. – and there are always interesting photographs or works of art on exhibit. While the ultra-cool Malate hangs of the 90’s – Blue Café, Iguana, Caribana, Insomnia et al – are now a fond hazy memory, Penguin continues to survive well into the new millennium against the odds.

It is a Malate tradition (on weekends anyway, but sometimes weekdays too) to party till the sun comes up. One can witness al fresco tables full of raucous revelers at 7 am, all ready for breakfast. And sometimes, some of them head half-a-block towards the sea, right to the 400-year-old church, Our Lady of Remedies, before plunging into bed.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Somewhere in Northern Samar

Separated from Luzon Island by the San Bernardino Strait, Samar is way off the beaten path. While Palawan is touted as the ‘last frontier’ in Philippine tourism, Samar, especially Northern Samar, may very well be ‘beyond the last frontier’.

Travelers may fly to Northern Samar’s main town, Catarman, by jet from Manila – the flight takes approximately an hour. An overland trip by bus is possible (and much cheaper); however, the trip takes 12 to 14 hours and the last section is by ferry from the southern tip of Luzon in Bicol to Northern Samar. By whatever means travelers take to get here, they will be amply rewarded by some of the most picturesque and seldom seen places this side of Paradise.

Biri Island is a short boat ride away from Catarman. It is the site of awesome rock formations, huge honey-comb like steps and cavernous natural amphitheaters, arches and caves that have been carved into the rocks by unrelenting winds and pounding surf through the centuries. The Pacific Ocean’s natural tools have created an incredible array of giant sculptures along Biri’s northern shore in a spot called Magasang.

Nearby is Bel-ot, reputedly the best natural saltwater pool in the Philippines. Expectedly, Biri also has great surfing for those adventurous enough – there are no crowds here at all. When we visited, it was so quiet as we were all speaking in hushed voices, dumbstruck by the amazing rock formations. Only the sea birds were heard above the pounding surf.

Northern Samar is composed of small, quiet villages and full of pristine nature. Besides Biri, there are several offshore islands which merit exploration; most are a short banca (outrigger) ride away. One of these is Capul Island, a history-laden place with its own exotic language.

In the days of the Galleon crossings, Samar was the first landfall Spanish ships would encounter after the perilous months-long journey from their port in Acapulco, Mexico en route to Manila. The galleons would dock in Capul’s sheltered shores, bay and coves for repairs and respite from the mighty Pacific and then continue on northward to Manila. The island’s name itself is an abbreviation of ‘Acapulco’, supposedly derived from the natives’ inability to pronounce the full name of the Mexican port.

From the municipality of Las Navas, travelers can go upriver on the Catubig River and meander several kilometers along incredible tropical scenery, ending up at the gorgeous multi-layered cascades of Pinipisakan Falls. There is also a subterranean natural pool in the area along with the Ginagatusan Caves, definitely worth a look.

Another offshore island near Catarman is Dalupiri (sometimes called San Antonio) Island. There’s not much to do here except swim and snorkel in pristine waters off the nearly white-sand beaches and laze around underneath the coconut trees. One may also trek along the coastal trail for several kilometers along the shore of this very peaceful island.

The Haven of Fun Beach resort has beach cottages for around $10 a night or $20 with air-conditioning, but who wants noisy cold air when you’re on a beach with tropical breezes and lapping waves? At night, over bottles of San Miguel beer, we were regaled with wide-eyed stories of “kabogs” or flying foxes (fruit bats) and “sea monsters” (presumably whales).

Speaking of mysterious creatures, the locals of Northern Samar enchanted us with tale after tale of forest ‘entities’ who would spirit away children and deposit them back after a few hours or days dazed and confused, of a good-sized meteor that once fell into the earth behind the town of Victoria affecting the soil so that decomposition of matter (including buried corpses) was measurably delayed, of mysterious lights up in the hills that would disappear and re-appear even in the daytime, and so forth and so on.

But what really enchanted us, everywhere we visited in Northern Samar, was the rugged and savage beauty of this untrammeled corner of the archipelago.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Palawan, My Beautiful Palawan

The Last Frontier 

Within the Philippine archipelago is a group of islands collectively known as Palawan. This mini-archipelago is alternatively called the “Last Frontier” or the “Wild Country”. Northern Palawan’s main island is Busuanga where the intrepid traveler will find enough adventures in remote and wild locales.

Like white-laced emeralds shimmering in the deep blue sea, Busuanga’s offshore islands dot the horizon as far as the eye can see. One of these is the island of Calauit, where an exotic mélange of African and endemic animals in the wild can be found. Over thirty years ago, a wildlife sanctuary was created in Calauit that would be home to hundreds of imported African animals and rare, endangered Philippine species.

From the savannah grasslands to the gently rolling hills, from the mangrove swamps to the inland lagoons, the panorama is best viewed from Balatbat Hill, rising some 200 meters above sea level. From here, the neighboring Turtle Island also comes into view - a migratory breeding ground for endangered marine turtles.

Visitors can observe the very timid mouse deer, an endangered species. These frisky rodent-like animals eat the fruit of the ‘tibig’ or fig trees. The local porcupines here are even shyer than the mouse deer. Cute and cuddly, the Palawan bearcat is arguably the friendliest creature on the island. There are giraffes too, descendants of the originals from Kenya.

The graceful long-necked mammals have adapted well to their Calauit habitat. While the average lifespan of giraffes is 25 years, they have reached up to 29 years old on the island, which may say something about the lack of stress or poachers here. Also descended from the originals are dozens of zebras scampering about the island Spiral-horned eland can be seen bounding over the savannah, sometimes leaping over 10 feet in the air!

Calauit is also home to migratory bird species that lay their eggs here and then fly back to Indonesia. The indigenous Calamian deer are also faring quite well here, expanding their numbers from 30 to a thousand thereby taking them off the endangered species list. Impala, wild jungle fowl, monitor lizards and even squirrels, all are at home in Calauit, a little piece of Africa in the remote wilds of Northern Palawan.

Calauit is accessible by outrigger boat from Dimakya Island, home to the aptly named Club Paradise Resort. Picture a nearly kilometer-long white beach with soft powdery sand, turquoise waters with picnic-ready sandbars, an array of unique flora and fauna – in other words, tropical bliss ala Robinson Crusoe with creature comforts. Club Paradise is one of our favorites, a perfect hideaway for those weary city-bound souls.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Next Travel Destination-Zambales!

Zambales, whose entire western stretch is rimmed by the crystal-clear waters of the South China Sea, is off-the-beaten path of Philippine travel destinations. Its land area was separate from the mainland in prehistoric times. Violent tectonic and volcanic upheavals joined it with the main island of Luzon. The resulting topography- undulating mountain ranges, coastal plains and valleys, and lush virgin forests – makes Zambales one of the more panoramic provinces on Luzon.

The outflow of lahar from Mt. Pinatubo’s eruption in the 90’s cut a wide swath through central Zambales giving this area a stark and surreal beauty. The eruption forced the aboriginal Aetas to abandon their mountain domain and seek refuge in the lowlands.

Perhaps Zambales’ most well known attraction is the former US naval base in Subic Bay, now an all-in-one tourism destination. Water sports, wreck diving, surfing, bay cruises, wildlife adventures, jungle trekking and other eco-adventures await the Subic visitor. Here you can see tigers in the wild and a marine show with whales, dolphins and seals; wild monkeys often scamper out of the tropical rainforest cover and hang out by the side of the road. You can go deep into the jungle and learn survival techniques from the Aetas who trained the Green Berets during the Vietnam era.

For the more urbane, there are duty-free shops, fine dining restaurants featuring global cuisine, classy casinos and Vegas-style shows. Those who prefer their nightlife on the raunchy and rowdy side can cross Subic’s gates over to Olongapo town, where there are bars, bars and more bars featuring live cover bands that sound just like the originals. Other nocturnal delights await party animals in Olongapo, a 24/7 kind of place.

From the northern tip to its southernmost end, the coast of Zambales is virtually one long beach. Some of the finer public swimming beaches are in the Iba area. Along the way to Iba, one passes orchards of mango trees heavy with fruit. Zambales mangoes are famous for their sweetness and succulence. North of Subic is one long coastal stretch with many surfing spots. San Miguel and San Antonio towns have several breaks along its beaches. Nearby Pundaquit has a little bay with great waves when it gets too big on the outside reefs.

A wonderful day trip is an outrigger cruise to the Capones Islands, just a couple of kilometers offshore from Pundaquit. These are two completely uninhabited islands with absolutely no facilities. All you get is its pristine little coves and beaches and the surrounding coral reef.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Let's See Cebu!

It was mentioned in Enya’s enduring hit song, “Orinoco Flow”. It has its own international airport with direct flights here from most Asian capitals. It is one of the most popular destinations in the Pacific Rim. Simply dubbed, “An Island in the Pacific”, Cebu is the Philippines’ premier southern island, a crown jewel in the 7,000-island archipelago.

Cebu has everything: dazzling tropical beaches, centuries-old historical landmarks, great cuisine, fabulous nightlife, adventures in the wild-underwater and topside, over all a truly exotic getaway destination.

One lands in Mactan when visiting Cebu. Just minutes from the airport, the Shangri-La Mactan, a five-star world-class resort, lives true to its name. This lush white-sand beach oasis caters to travelers far and wide, from families to business people to the independent traveler. It also has what is arguably the region’s largest and most luxurious spa.

Across the channel spanned by two bridges lies Cebu City, the island’s bustling capital. Nightlife aficionados, foodies and shopaholics will get their fix here, a 24/7 hedonist’s delight! Those who prefer more bucolic scenery and a languid pace should head out of town northward for a scenic drive to the northeastern side.

Alegre Beach Resort in Sogod is secluded but complete with well-appointed individual cabanas. Each spacious abode is warm and elegant with native wood furniture and wooden floors. The cabanas have large and luxurious marble bathrooms as big as my studio apartment! And the cabanas sit atop limestone cliffs overlooking the ocean. The view is mesmerizing from your own private terrace.

Off the northeastern tip of Cebu, 8 kilometers offshore, is the island of Malapascua. This is truly an idyllic island escape for the independent budget traveler; you will not see crowds of tourists nor beachfront hotels here. There are neither roads nor cars. Instead, there are sleepy fishing villages, deserted coves, sandy pathways; a palm fringed white beach and lush tropical fauna.

Malapascua is small - you can walk around it in about three hours. Hike to the lighthouse for spectacular views. Meet friendly locals and sample freshly caught seafood grilled right on the beach. Surrounding Malapascua are coral gardens and superb dive spots with abundant marine life to titillate avid snorkelers and scuba divers.

A bit bigger than Malapascua is Bantayan Island, off the northwestern tip of Cebu. Once considered Cebu’s best kept secret, Bantayan is now a popular summer destination for beach-aholics from all over. Santa Fe town has the best beaches and the most accommodations on the island. History buffs can explore the ruins of an old Spanish fort right on the beach in Kuta or check out the four-century old church in the middle of the island.

And, there is a secluded little cove with a powdery white sand beach and sparkling turquoise waters to die for. No overnight accommodations here and only accessible by boat, this is truly the quintessential tropical paradise spot! Sssshhh…clues are in the sentence before.

Monday, September 26, 2011

More Of Bicol

Since we got a lot of the cuisine-tripping out of the way on Day 1, the next couple of days in Bicol was devoted to checking out the sights. We were in the heart of Bicol in the province of Albay, in its capital city, Legazpi.

MAYON VOLCANO, at 8,000 feet, looms majestically over the city. Depending on where you stand, it starts taking over the sky itself. Mayon has been called the world’s most nearly perfect cone and as I stood on the steps of DARAGA CHURCH, built atop a hill in 1773, gazing at the still-active volcano in awe, I would not dispute the claim; it truly is a magnificent mountain.

Daraga Church is a bit of a historical relic itself. Built from volcanic rock, it was designed with Baroque architecture in mind and has articulate religious carvings on its façade. Nearby lies the awesome CAGSAWA RUINS, an 18th-century church buried in lava from Mayon’s catastrophic eruption of 1814. Only the belfry of the bell tower remains visible above ground, mute testimony to Mayon's fiery temper.

Near the town of Tabaco, up on the on the eastern slope of Mayon at an altitude of 3,000 feet, stands an excellent vantage point known as “Heaven on Earth” because of the low-hanging clouds and the cool, invigorating air in this spot. From here you can see a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean, offshore islands, different towns, lakes, villages, fields, and the other mountains of Bicol. It is an incredible 300-degree visual tapestry of nature and creation

This part of Bicol has its fair share of nice beaches (mostly black sand) and jungle waterfalls.
SOGOD Beach and SAN LORENZO Beach are the local favorites. Just don’t look for a Boracay kind of vibe….nah, these beaches are quieter and simpler. Just the way some folks like it. BUGSUKAN Falls and PALELE Falls do their cascading waters thing amidst lush mountainside vegetation.

On the shores of Albay Gulf at the outskirts of Legazpi City, are the PORTA AZURE VILLAS. Set against a backdrop of magnificent Mayon Volcano and a unique beachfront of black volcanic sand, Porta Azure is an oasis of serenity in the heart of Bicol. While there were somewhat decent hotels and other beach resorts in Legazpi, Porte Azure was our accommodation of choice, hands down.

The painted art on the walls, tropical façade, non-kitschy décor, cogon grass roof, ironwood trees, lava rock wall…all blended together to give a somewhat Bali-Yucatan-Thailand-Caribbean kind of feel. Oh and….got a great coconut oil massage here!

For those who want to check out the local artisans and their handicrafts and wares, head to: HABI, PHILCERAMICS CENTER, NAPA’S HANDICRAFTS.

At the City Market of Legazpi, beautifully crafted local products are a bargain….costing a fraction of what you’d pay in Manila! Hand-woven abaca slippers, bags, Christmas décor, yummy local snacks….and, of course, that well-known Bicol product pili nuts. In the town of Tiwi, our culinary travelers discover another Bicolano talent. Pottery-making at the PHILCERAMICS Center is a joy to behold.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Experience the land of Fiery cuisine-Bicol

The Bicol region lies some 500 kilometers south of Manila, the Philippine capital, and is composed of six provinces. While a bit off the beaten path – most travelers to the Philippines opt for Boracay, Cebu or the Banawe Rice Terraces - Bicol surprisingly offers many options for the adventurous traveler. Recently exploring this land of fiery cuisine and majestic vistas, I was amazed at its diversity.

We rented a van and hit the national highway from Manila at 3 a.m. on what the driver claimed was to be a 7 to 8 hour road trip (wink, wink). Well, it was more like 10, pit stops and all. Nobody seemed to mind, however, as they admired the lush tropical vegetation and bucolic rural scenery along the way. At one point, of course, everyone (even almost the driver) in the van was asleep.

We reached Bicol’s main hub of commerce, culture and cuisine, Legazpi City in Albay province, a little past noon. With everybody famished, it was a good time to start with the cuisine portion of our tour.
The Bicolano culinary tradition centers on the use of coconut milk-based concoctions and the demonic “Siling Bikol” (see-leeng- bee-kohl), red hot, super-hot, chili peppers. Prominent staple dishes are “Laing” (lah-eeng), taro leaves cooked in fresh coconut milk mixed with peppers, fish, shrimp or meat and the fiery and popular “Bicol Express”, a strong mixture of hot peppers, pork, shrimp and coconut milk.
We stopped in the municipality of Camalig, just outside Legazpi City, and lunched at a roadside diner in true Bicolano tradition. The “Camalig Special Pinangat” diner specializes in what they claim is the true “Laing”, which they call “Pinangat” down here.

Their version has garlic, ginger, sea salt, coconut milk, lemongrass and either fish, pork or shrimp – irresistible with some steamed rice and a teaspoon of “Dinailan”, the ubiquitous Bicolano caviar-esque fish paste. After lunch, it was down to the fruit stalls for some sweet and juicy treats from Legazpi’s northern neighbor Naga – locally grown Formosa pineapples. Someone suggested we ought to continue with the food trip and check out the local market for more dessert options.

We found delightful rice-based delicacies with varying sweetness; there were “Putong Bigas”, “Kalamay”, “Suman sa Ibos”, and a local favorite, “Puto de Oas”. These delectable rice cakes are organically made from an original local family recipe handed down through generations and are rich in protein, iron, phosphorous, thiamine and riboflavin. We washed these down with just-crushed-five-minutes-ago sugar cane juice….heavenly!

Some travel mates who had stronger constitutions took a peek at the wet side of the market. Since Bicol is surrounded by bountiful waters, a variety of fresh-catch seafood is always available here. Our friends witnessed the proper way to cut up a “Pagi”, or local stingray.

We had been in the heart of Bicol for just two hours and everyone was happy, full, burping, and eager for more.