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.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Visit the world-class Taal Lake and Volcano

An hour’s drive south of Manila is an awesome natural attraction - Taal Lake and Volcano. It is the deepest lake in the Philippines, a crater remnant of an immense prehistoric volcano with an estimated elevation of 18, 000 feet.

This caldera lake has an island in its centre containing, in another smaller lake, the smallest active volcano in the world. It is thus an island within a lake within another island within another lake. In the last four centuries, Taal has had 41 eruptions with its most devastating, the great eruption of 1754, lasting close to six months, burying entire towns along the lakeshore.

From Tagaytay ridge, 2,000 feet up on the north side overlooking Taal Lake, the view will take your breath away. Resorts, hotels and retreats dot the ridge for this million-dollar view. The rustic town of Talisay, accessible from the South Luzon Expressway or from straight down the mountainside from Tagaytay Ridge, is the jump-off point for the many adventures to be had in Taal Lake. Several resorts dot the lakeside and most offer boat tours to Volcano Island and hikes to the crater.

There are also horseback tours on Taal Island for the non-hiking fans. The San Roque Beach Resort has cozy, native-style cottages, home-cooked native cuisine, a black sand beach, and of course, a great lake-level view of the Volcano. The Taal Yacht Club has kayaking, sailing lessons, Hobie cats and more elaborate sailing rigs. Then, there’s the simple cruise in an outrigger to soak up the fresh breezes and wonderful views. A nice spot to have a lakeshore picnic is the Spring Lake Resort with its tree houses for a better view of the grand volcano.

No visit here is complete without sampling the fruits of this fertile volcanic land. Pineapples, bananas, mangos, and other exotic varieties of tropical fruit are abundant and inexpensive. Coconut cultivation is big here – we just about overdosed on fresh young coconut juice straight from the tree! Additional crops such as coffee, cocoa and cassava are grown underneath the coconut trees. And whatever you do, do not leave here without sampling the robust and aromatic local-grown coffee….definitely world-class!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Corregidor Island Rocks!

If you happen to be in Manila for a day or two while waiting to connect to the Philippine island of your choice, there is one day trip you cannot miss. Corregidor Island, also known as the ‘Rock’, stands like a lonely sentinel at the entrance of Manila Bay from the South China Sea, 26 nautical miles from the busy metropolis.

But you may as well be 200 or 2,000 miles away because here, the solitude and solemnity, the sweeping vistas, the awesome relics of war and the constant blowing of monsoon winds will transport you to some other time, some other place.

Because of its strategic location, Corregidor was the first line of defence for the Spanish colonizers against would-be invaders like the British, the Dutch, and the Americans. By the beginning of the 20th century, the US had taken over the Philippine Islands from Spain and fortifications and artillery were beefed up on the island.

In the summer of 1942, the remaining American and Filipino defenders were holed up on Corregidor in a last-ditch attempt to repulse the Japanese invaders. Unfortunately, no reinforcements came for the valiant defenders.
Under constant bombardment from superior enemy forces, the big guns of Corregidor fired their last shots and General Wainwright surrendered the island to prevent a slaughter of his forces. General Douglas MacArthur quietly slipped away by boat to Australia from here, one day to return.

The ruins of the bombed-out Middleside Barracks are an awesome sight. 60 tons of bombs were dropped here, decimating the ranks of 6,000 soldiers. At Battery Way, completed in 1913, stands with 4 12-inch mortars capable of firing in any direction.

The huge cannon at Battery Hearn had a range of over 29,000 yards. It was captured nearly intact by Japanese forces and was where the famous “Banzai” shot was taken. The Mile-Long Barracks sits on higher ground; this was the nerve centre of the war effort, where officers and their families were housed. Across the street, the Cine Corregidor was showing “Gone With the Wind” when Japanese bombs silenced it forever.

The Pacific War Memorial is an inspiring monument to soldiers who gave their lives in the Pacific Theater to defend freedom. Nearby is the Lighthouse, originally built by the Spanish in 1836. Pause and reflect at the Japanese Memorial Garden of Peace, a reminder of the horrors of war and a fitting tribute to the thousands of American, Filipino and Japanese soldiers who died on the ‘Rock’. Perched on a high cliff with breathtaking views are Japanese-built anti-aircraft cannons complete with bullet mark hits from attacking aircraft.

Here stands a statue of the Japanese Goddess of Peace facing in the direction of Japan. Do not miss the thrilling light and sound show at the Malinta Tunnel, a bomb-proof underground hospital and arsenal during the war.
The island’s only hotel was built before the war. If you want to stay overnight, be prepared to hear many stories about the departed soldiers’ ‘ghosts’ and ‘spirits’ still lurking about on the Rock.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Exploring Boracay

Imagine some of the world’s best islands like Bali, Ibiza, Samui, Tahiti….all rolled into one. What do you get? BORACAY! I’ve been to this island at least 9 times and I never get tired of it. It is truly a beautiful island with one of the world’s best beaches!

Boracay is a fantasy come true to avid sun-worshippers and travelers looking to unwind. Life in the island proceeds at a languorous pace…what’s the rush when you’re in Paradise right? Boracay is a place where you can gaze at the shifting blues of sky and sea for hours; or watch the sun go down in a blazing display of colors, or go exploring the island’s many natural wonders like bat caves, 32 white-sand beaches including the 4-kilometer long palm-fringed White Beach with its powder-fine white sand and a Puka shell beach, kaleidoscopic coral gardens, rock formations, hidden subterranean coves, the flying fox armada at dusk, hiking to Mt. Luho, exploring Crocodile Island’s caves and more.

You can sample cuisine from all over the world right along the beach – English, Korean, Indian, Portuguese, Thai, Italian, Vegan – you name it, it’s here and it’s yummy. For adrenaline junkies, there’s no shortage of activities like scuba diving, trekking, cliff-diving, beach-hopping, windsurfing, parasailing, water-skiing, jet-skiing, banana-boat dipping, exploring the island on motorbikes and scooters, bowling, outrigger island cruises, and more….fun galore! There are world-class fairways, an Ayurvedic spa retreat, great massages on the beach, holistic wellness and meditation centers, cool and hip shops, bistros, cafes……and beautiful people from all over the world!

There are so many places to stay in with accommodations ranging from the no-star shacks in the interior to 5-star beachfront opulence. But somewhere in between and away from the action of White Beach are tranquil cliff-side villas high atop the promontory overlooking Diniwid Beach. Here, from the balconies of Nami Private Villas, is Boracay’s most magnificent view – an endless panorama of sky, surf and distant mountain ranges that is more than eye candy, it is nirvana for the senses. We lucked out and managed to stay here once. Book way in advance….months. It’s that desirable.

When you’re done being serene and rejuvenated, head down to the main beach for some serious nightlife at the trendy bars, down-home watering holes, open-air dance halls, folk pubs, and reggae joints. There’s even an underground disco. It gets wild as wild gets!

Ways to get to Boracay: the leisurely way is by boat - leaving Manila at dusk, one arrives in Boracay just after dawn, ready to start a full first day at the beach; for those on the go, there are direct flights to Caticlan by turbo-prop plane, a mere hour away from the big city and you’re in Paradise…there also jets to Kalibo from where a scenic hour and a half drive takes the traveler to Caticlan….from Caticlan, it’s just 20 minutes by outrigger banca across the channel to Boracay.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Mindoro Adventure

Just a few hours south of Manila, the capital city on the main island of Luzon, lies the beguiling island of Mindoro - a lush, exotic haven for the truly adventurous. Tropical rainforests, white-sand beaches with clear calm waters, coral reef gardens, natural springs, waterfalls – these are just some of Mindoro’s attractions which make the island a mecca for eco-tourism enthusiasts. Hikers, mountaineers, divers, snorkellers, beach bums and foodies will feel right at home in Mindoro.
Off the coast of western Mindoro lies the Apo Reef Marine Sanctuary, acclaimed as the best dive site in Asia and the second largest reef eco-system in the world. Also off-shore western Mindoro, the tranquil and peaceful Pandan Isle will calm the weary traveller’s spirits with its mile-long powdery white-sand beach, turquoise waters and its spectacular sunsets. Upland on the coast, the Calawagan Mountain Resort offers cooling natural springs, waterfalls, rock formations, a hanging bridge, cottages, a campsite – all underneath a rainforest canopy. Oh, and there’s monkeys, exotic birds and butterflies too.
For the traveller who cannot be away from creature comforts and some semblance of nightlife, there is Puerto Galera – a town in eastern Mindoro that is the center of tourism on the island. Puerto Galera has maintained a native and rustic simplicity (there are no multi-storied hotels here), while offering a bit of nightlife for those so inclined. The bars along Sabang beach should be ample enough for the inveterate party animal. However, if you are looking to swim and lay on a quiet beach, forget Sabang. Go instead to Big Laguna Beach (there’s a Small Laguna too), Coco Beach, White Beach or Tamaraw Beach.
Nestled in a sheltered cove and secluded within a rainforest and lush tropical gardens, the Encenada Beach Resort has beachfront (white sand) cottages and ample amenities including island-hopping cruises, fishing trips, beach barbecue dinners, a PADI dive shop, free shuttle service into town, to name a few.
Franklyn Highlands is a bucolic native-style resort just five minutes from the Muelle Bay pier in Puerto Galera. This peaceful hillside oasis welcomes the traveler with comfortable cottages, balconies with spectacular views and savory home-cooked local cuisine!
Feeling a bit upscale? The plush Marco Vincent Resort Hotel, located at White Beach, is the crème de la crème of accommodations on the island. With 38 Mediterranean-style rooms offering complete first-class amenities, the Marco Vincent conjures images of seaside villas in Monaco at a fraction of the European rate.
Our personal favorite place to stay in Mindoro is the Moorings. High up on a hill overlooking the beautiful bay of Puerto Galera, Moorings has 16 suites and villas, all the creature comforts you want, plus great home cooking! It is definitely a home away from home where you can chill to your heart’s content after all those Mindoro adventures.