A NON-DIVER IN A DIVER’S PARADISE: A unique perspective on Palau, the Rainbow’s End

 

Destinations are packaged like any other capitalist venture, advertised with a slant determined by the sharpest creative mind. Slogans are made to entice, crafted to make the wanderlust bitten traveler believe that the place is their own personal heaven, an answer to everything they would ever need or want.  But because hardly any place can cater to the differing whims and fancies of every individual, places are typecast according to the best they have to offer. Lovers troop off to Paris, where towering spires and cobblestone streets seep romance into the banks of the river Seine. Las Vegas, with its cabaret shows, lurid nightlife and glamorous casinos is the City of Sin. In Bangkok, a heady combination of exotic spices and a foot massage can send any food junkie into gastronomic heaven.  And so it was with a bit of trepidation that I found myself on a trip to Koror, Palau whose claim to fame lay in the richness of its marine diversity and the endless wonders of its underwater kingdom.

 

The Republic of Palau, an integral part of the Micronesian islands, is perhaps best known among scuba aficionados as one of the world’s best dive sites, and with good reason. Ringed with two deepwater trenches, the waters in Palau teem with an amazing variety of marine life, some even yet to be discovered science.

Having diagnosed myself with an irrational fear of the open sea and the creatures that lived in it, I was worried that I would not be able to properly appreciate the place. But fortunately, I have never been more wrong.  There is a reason why Palau is called the rainbow’s end. And you don’t have to be a diver to realize why.

 

A laid back vibe permeates the islands. From day one, it felt like a crime to rush.  Even a car ride on Koror’s main roads should be a leisurely activity, what with a view of the clearest aquamarine waters everywhere you look.  There are no skyscrapers here.  Simple wooden dwellings that house smiling local residents, quaint boutique shops and small convenience stores line the paved roads.  Formerly administrated by the United States, the American influence can be seen in its infrastructure. The countryside is almost reminiscent of the most rural parts of America.  But quaint and bucolic do not mean backward in Palau.  With tourists flocking in from every corner of the globe, it was a must to catch up with the requirements of a modern world. And with the US dollar being the local currency, changing money is hardly a problem for most travelers. The only question becomes how to spend it. While nature lovers reign supreme here, the busy executive will not feel disconnected from the hustle and bustle of city life should he choose to check in to the world he’s left behind.  But why one would want to do that is anyone’s guess.

 

World-class accommodations have quickly sprouted in Palau.  The Palau Pacific Resort for example is a destination in itself. I deeply regret that I did not have the time to swim leisurely in the infinity pool that lay just steps away from my ocean view room. A full service resort complete with its own private beach, restaurants, tennis courts, fitness center, beauty salon and shops, there didn’t seem to be any reason to leave. Already impressed with the generous fruit basket and the complimentary wireless internet access, the resort seemed to have thought of my every possible need. True that the price for the princess treatment was quite steep, but for those who could afford it, it is definitely worth the expense. If my schedule were not packed to experience the most of what the islands could offer, I would have gladly stayed in my home away from home. But if I did, I would have missed out on a multitude of firsts in my life.

 

While being a certified diver is not a requirement to experience Palau, it would help to have an adventurous spirit and at the minimum, a curiosity for what lies beneath the calm waters. Scared as I was, I could not pass up the opportunity for an intro dive with the pioneer dive shop on the island.  Tova and Navrot Bornovski, the charming Israeli couple who ran Fish ‘n Fins were the perfect hosts. Settling down in Palau after sailing for 4 years through the Panama Canal, to me they symbolized what Palau has become since 1994 when the islands became independent and self-governing.  While young Palauans leave the island for better education and bigger opportunities, foreigners have come and come to stay.  The result is an international and multi-cultural community whose appreciation for their new home expresses itself through their deep concern for the environment and the natural beauty that welcomed them.

My dive instructor Steve was British and shared that so far, Palau was the best place he has worked in.

 

Steve and the rest of our team sped off to a beginner’s reef on a speedboat powered aggressively by a four-stroke engine. It seemed to me that there were more speedboats in Palau than there were cars! Moses, our betel-nut chewing Palauan captain, flashed a smile with his crimson stained teeth as he maneuvered like a maniac through the deep blue waters. After a thorough briefing, an introduction to the equipment and some skills practice, it was time to jump in the water and sink to the depths. 

 

Only a few feet down, my ears began to give me problems. I could not equalize. I had to go back to the boat to wait while the others enjoyed the dive. Disappointed with myself, I put on my fins and snorkel and swam near the shore.  So close to the beach my belly could almost graze the sand, there was already an amazing array of fish to appreciate.  Small reef fish swam in schools right in front of my mask. Entertained, I ventured just a little farther and was rewarded with a group of colorful parrotfish and Moorish idols.  And just when I turned to go back to the boat, there it was — a one and a half meter long black tip reef shark that I imagined was headed straight at me! Many divers don’t see sharks that often, and there I was, a failed first time diver meeting one while snorkeling. It was a thrill!

 

After a hearty lunch packed from Tova’s busy kitchen, we went on our second dive. My ears cooperated this time and I was able to join the group. At Cemetery, so named because the huge blocks of coral that made the shallow reef resembled tombstones, novice divers are guided by ropes that plunge down to the depths.  I was told to look out for white tip reef sharks and some octopus that were quite common in the area. I was lucky enough to spot a few huge Hump head Napoleon Wrasse and yes, a juvenile spotted eagle ray that quickly plunged into the depths.

 

Those who could not be coerced into trying an intro dive need not fret. Anybody who can don a life vest and wear a mask and snorkel can already sample the beauty of Palau’s underwater magic. The shallow reef provides for great snorkeling and with the boatmen sprinkling bread in the water, one can practically hold pyramid butterfly fish as they dash madly in a harmless feeding frenzy, oblivious to the humans gaping at them in awe.

 

A popular spot for snorkelers is Clam City where a great concentration of the world’s largest bi-valve mollusks can be found. Wreck diving is also a main attraction of Palau. Serving as a main Japanese military base before and during WWII, more than 30 sunken ships and airplanes can be visited and explored.  Non-divers can explore a zeke fighter that can be found only under a few feet of water. In low tide, the propeller can actually be seen sticking out of the water. An additional trip to Milky Way should not be missed by spa aficionados.  Just a few minutes ride from the zeke fighter is a quiet lagoon where the porous limestone karsts and volcanic rock have eroded through time to a creamy mud believed to be good for the skin.  This is a popular tourist spot, where people become barely recognizable as they cover themselves from head to foot in the mineral rich mud. Dive shops would gladly customize great tours for non-divers. Fish n’ Fins offer snorkeling and kayaking tours around the rock islands for a little over a hundred dollars.

 

Palau can also be a great destination for kids.  Aside from having picnics on the numerous white sand beaches, both adults and children can have an interactive experience with marine life at the Dolphins Pacific facility.  Billy Watson, the handsome Palauan-American marine biologist who supervises the place informed me that their 6 dolphins are all rescued from fishermen who were about to slaughter them for their meat. Instead, they were brought to the facility to help educate people on marine conservation.  For a fee, visitors can take a swim with the gentle mammals or be a trainer for a day.

 

One of the most amazing of my firsts was a trip to Jellyfish lake. A word of warning though – a short hike through the forest is a must to get to the lake. While a rough handrail has been constructed along the natural staircase of tree roots and rock, the going can be a bit slow for the unprepared.  But the millions of stingless jellyfish make it worth the trip.  The feeling is surreal.  Imagine floating in a primordial soup of marine creatures relatively unchanged by time except for the fact that decades of isolation in the closed marine basin and the absence of predators have made them lose their venomous sting, allowing tourists like me to come up close and personal.

 

A day full of activity is sure to whet the appetite and I’m glad to discover that there is no wanting for good food in Palau.  Sam’s Tours, one of the biggest dive operators in the island, treated us to a sumptuous buffet dinner with an endless stream of fresh seafood. I overheard the caucasian chef telling a diner that he serves tons of fresh fish daily, most of it served raw. Bottom Time Bar and Grill at Sam’s tours is a great place to unwind as it is open as long as there are customers still chugging the local brew. Red Rooster beer is the staple of the islands and is made fresh to complement the food.

 

Fish n’ Fins Barracuda bar serves some of the best freshly baked breads and Meditteranean cuisine on the island.  While the high quality and profusion of international restaurant choices in the island are surprising for such a small place, local Palauan cuisine is not easy to find. Perhaps this is because Palauan cuisine, Tova explains, is simple and unadorned. Since ingredients are always fresh, locals rely on the natural flavor of the food rather than sauces.  Beldakl, the local fish soup for example is simply a fish boiled in water with onions, leaves from the local titimel tree and seasoned with salt and pepper.  Taro, a root crop similar to the purple yam, is a popular ingredient in Palauan cooking. After 15 years in palau, Tova has published a collection of recipes from Palau called taste of Rainbow’s End.

 

As I sipped a comforting cup of hot chocolate talking to Tova, it occurred to me that

aside from the ever-changing attractions beneath the ocean, it is the people of Palau that make it a place worth coming back to. Foreign or native, all Palauan residents have an appreciation of human interaction. And while visitors are their bread and butter, the warmth exudes not from a economic need but from an insatiable curiousity about the people they meet and a deeply rooted pride in what their place has to offer.

 

Indeed, there might be some truth to the legend that treasures are found at the end of a rainbow. And if Palau is indeed the rainbow’s end, then there is no doubt that I’ve discovered a pot of gold. Diver or not.

REDISCOVERING YOUR INNER CHILD

It is almost painful how quickly the years pass us by.  I sometimes wish that the earth would revolve around its axis a little slower, adding at least another hour or two in each day.  It seems hardly logical that the days have become shorter, since the last time I checked, an hour is still made up of 60 seconds and the time span of a second has not changed since it has been defined.  And yet, with the frenetic pace of today’s world, I can see the telltale signs of time’s passage each time I see my weary reflection.  On working weekends, as has been my routine, I see my nieces go about their day hard at play while I hunched over my laptop praying that inspiration hits me before my deadlines do.  I am green with envy at their carefree play while I am blue in the face trying to catch up with my adult responsibilities, all the while waiting for that unicorn of a vacation — a break which is, like the beautiful mythical creature, something you glimpse and yet always magically seems out of reach. Ahhhh… it would be great to be like child again wouldn’t it? Thankfully I finally got my chance at a mini-vacation one Saturday afternoon when my family yanked me away from my keyboard and brought me with them to Enchanted Kingdom in nearby Sta. Rosa, Laguna.

        What better way to escape from the stress of adult responsibilities than a day spent at a theme park?  Enchanted Kingdom, only an hour’s drive away from the city center is the first and only world-class theme park in the Philippines. And while it is much smaller in scale than the various permutations of kiddie paradise created by Walt Disney, I am happy to announce that it truly doesn’t disappoint.  A burst of color greets all visitors upon arrival. Friendly staff in bright green uniforms contrast in wild abandon with the bright purple hues of the theme park’s main mascot, The Wizard. An amazingly beautiful grand carousel is the centerpiece attraction of the first area behind the gates.  Victoria Park as its name suggests, is fashioned after the Victorian era with English manicured pocket gardens, ponds and fountains.  Strolling park goers will find themselves mingling with performers in turn-of-the-century finery.  The carousel is decadent, bedecked with gold and silver banisters; horses harnessed with jeweled plumes are attached to crimson carriages. Riders can view themselves on intricately carved mirrors hung on walls with painted murals.  Beside the park are rides created especially for small kids. Aptly named Boulderville, the prehistoric theme rests well with such rides as Bumbling Boulders, Air Pterodactyl, Stone Eggs and Dinosoarus.  Play facilities such as the Rock Quarry and the Petreefied Treehouse are sure to keep smaller kids entertained while us bigger kids roamed the park for more adrenaline pumping action.

        A short walk left of the carousel brought us to Portabello, a section designed to be reminiscent of Panama and the Caribbean Sea.  It is best to keep this section for last though, as the biggest ride of the park, the Rio Grande is sure to get you wet and wild!  If wet clothes are not your idea of fun, then you can opt to skip the ride altogether and instead blast your friends and family with colorful paint in the paintball war zone.  For those who are less active, you can experience vicarious thrills from the 4-D movie theater that definitely takes movie watching into a different dimension.

        Brooklyn Place was a favorite for my mom and I. Entertainers garbed in authentic 1940s costumes put on dance numbers that remind us of an era when silent movies, Charlie Chaplin and slapstick comedies were all the rage.  Not that I am that old in years, but I have always been described as an old soul and the area, made to look like one of the five New York boroughs in years past is remarkably romantic. I especially loved the souvenir shop, which was designed to be an old soda fountain complete with strawberry shakes and old-fashioned chocolate malts!  Those with less affinity for all things old will have a kick out of the Space Port which houses the first and only triple loop roller coaster in the country. I found there was no time to stress as the coaster navigated the loops – thrice forward and thrice backward!  What a release there is to be had from screaming at the top of your lungs to your heart’s content!

        Simply walking around the park is sure to make you hungry and as with all theme parks around the world, food carts and restaurants are never more than a few steps away from any of the park’s attractions.  To me, eating in such a setting is enough excuse to put your diet on vacation as well and enjoy gustatory treats that we used to love back in the days when our metabolisms were fast and friendly.  Predictably, pizza, hotdogs, fries, sundaes and nachos dripping with chili and cheese are stars of the food fare. On weekend evenings, you can listen to bands belt out popular songs while you wait for the food to settle so you can move on to more gut-wrenching rides.  Make sure your food is digested before you get on the Amazing Log Jam that is the main attraction at the Jungle Outpost.  An exhilarating 60-foot drop into a manmade Amazonian river is sure to set your belly on fire.  I enjoyed immensely the performances of the fire-eaters and tribal dancers that make the setting feel truer to its Central American inspiration.  

        The most number of rides can be found at the midway boardwalk that draws inspiration from Coney Island circa 1930s.  My niece loves Anchors Away, a huge galleon, which is swung like a pendulum.   It is quite fun to hear the symphony of jittery screams get louder as the pendulum is swung higher.  Her 3 year-old sister who cannot enjoy such rides was content to be driven around by her mother on the motorized animals near the arcade area.  From there, she could see the lights of the giant Ferris wheel and see the line of people waiting to get there chance to ride pedal powered swans on the man-made lake at the middle of the park.  The Roller Skater is a cute ride that has giggly teens sitting on compartments shaped like roller skates while the train navigated a much scaled-down version of the huge roller coaster — no 360-degree loops here!

        The park comes even more alive in the evening, with the tivoli lights strung around the trees all aglow.  Flashing bulbs and colorful neon signs make sure that the park is well lit and achieve a perfect balance between utility and a sense of fun and romance.  Indeed, couples must join families in waiting for the spectacular fireworks show that highlights all weekends and holidays in Enchanted Kingdom.  The fireworks display, choreographed to match the rhythm of the parks’ festive theme song is a fitting ending to day of childlike wonder and yes, enchantment.

        The joyous peals of laughter and the roller coaster screams that speak of utter delight are the kind of noise that is a welcome change from the clickety-clack of computer keyboards and the irritating whir of laser-jet printers.  The smiles of children are infectious, and remind us never to forget that there is joy to be found in an ice cream cone, in sticky fingers blue with colored sugar or in the wind on your face high up on that giant carousel. That day, at least for a few hours I rediscovered my inner child and took a daytrip away from adulthood.  And what a simple joy that was.

SIDE BAR:

Park Schedule:

Non-Peak Season

Mondays to Wednesdays                CLOSED
Thursdays and Fridays                12 noon – 7pm
Saturdays and Sundays                11am – 9pm

Peak Season

Monday to Sunday                        10am – 12 midnight

How to get there:

Enchanted Kingdom provides a shuttle service from the parking area of the Glorietta restaurant row (in front of Goldcrest), Makati City. Should you choose to drive, get on the South Luzon Expressway and get off at the Sta. Rosa Exit. Turn right after the toll gate and follow the signs until you reach the park.

The park also gives discounts for large groups.  Call them to be advised of rates and other promos. Schedules and Rates are subject to change without prior notice.  

You may call (632) 8302111 – 16 for inquiries.

Tips for an enjoyable visit:

Get a Park Map at the Park Relations Office and you’re all set to enjoy the rides and attractions.
The best time to visit the park is Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and in the months of February, March, August and September when crowds are lighter.
Read the waiver signage on each ride before queuing up for important health and safety reminders you should know.
Go on the rides during the traditional meal times usually between 12:00 and 2:00 PM and 5:00 and 7:00 PM, as this is when most guests stop to eat. Plan your meals before or after the above times. Go to the Park Relations Office should you have any inquiries or need assistance.If you’re taking the shuttle service back to the Ayala Center Terminal, be at the Front Gate at least fifteen minutes before the departure time.

SILENCE IN THE CORDILLERAS

SILENCE IN THE CORDILLERAS

 

 

 

            SILENCE — it’s a hard-to-find commodity when you live in the middle of a capital city. And when you’re a heavy thinker like me, the mental cacophony combined with the constant hum of metropolitan traffic can drive anyone positively mental.  During times like this, a long trip out of the city becomes a necessity rather than an option. On one such moment, I packed a bag in the middle of the night and headed off to the AUTOBUS station in España and took the midnight express to the far north.

 

            The ride to Banaue is a long one, which is why traveling in the dead of the night is probably a good idea. Aside from the streets being devoid of traffic, you can get your hours of sleep while traveling; which is good if you can’t extend your weekend too much before your boss notices your absence.  The sun would have just yawned its way into the sky when you arrive at Banaue, and the cool, crisp air is enough to make you grateful for leaving the hot, dusty metropolis.  It was my first time this part of the Philippines, my northern Luzon exploits having then been limited to the more tourist-friendly destination of Baguio City where city folks rush when the summer heat begins to take its toll. By tourist-friendly, I mean only that Baguio seems to have the lion’s share of hotels, restaurants and creature comforts.  Banaue, while famed the world over for being the home of the agricultural marvel known as the rice terraces, seems to have retained its bucolic charm, which in the Philippines means an obvious lack of visitor luxuries.  The requisite thing to do in Banaue is obviously to take a tricycle to the viewpoint to see the terraces.  The ride up is dotted with numerous viewpoints, any one of which can give you a breathtaking view of what is considered to be one of the world’s wonders.  The rice terraces, built by hand and farmed by generations of Ifugao families are awe-inspiring to say the least.  But while Banaue is home to the most famous of the terraces, the smaller terraces in surrounding towns are to me, even more deserving of a look-see.  Shops full of souvenirs and tribal arts and crafts predictably punctuate the top of the mountain road.  If you must purchase a memento, it is a good idea to buy a blanket or any other item showcasing the skill of the Cordillera weavers. Bargain wisely though, as tourism seems to be the main source of income for most locals.  It was immensely satisfying to take a walk along the town’s main road, as Banaue is a picturesque town.  There are quite a number of places to stay in Banaue, most of them pretty basic. Drinking seems to be a local pastime and apart from the hearty laughter of merry men and the obtrusive sound of songs being belted from the karaoke machine, there is not much to do in Banaue for those looking for activity.

 

            From Banaue, I rode a jeepney to Bangaan, a small farming community where solitude and silence seems a way of life.  The Bangaan Family Inn where I stayed for a couple of nights delivered exactly that — family style service in a clean, homey atmosphere.  I rented an authentic Ifugao hut perched on the side of the mountain.  I spent hours of soul searching on a hammock strung on the rafters beneath the hut’s wooden floor.  You almost forget the freezing cold water you have to take your bath with when you look out and see what seems to be your own personal view of the Bangaan terraces.  Many backpackers choose to make a quick stop at Bangaan then move on to Batad.  I took my sweet time and stayed for a while, reading and eating vegetable curry to my heart’s content.

 

            The village of Batad is accessible via a 2-hour hike depending on your level of fitness.  It’s quite an easy climb but you have to be reasonably fit to enjoy the hike.  I set out early in the day to avoid the scorching sun and was joined by a lone foreign hiker.  Drinks are sold at a few stops along the way but it is of course always best to bring your own water.  By the time I reached Batad, the view of verdant rice paddies was no longer a novelty and yet, each place I arrived at in the Cordilleras wove its own enchanting spell.  It is perhaps at this point in my trip when I started to yearn for a companion – if only to share the beauty of the natural environment for which I am at a loss of words to describe.  I met many Europeans and Westerners in Batad and I couldn’t help but silently wonder why it is that very few Filipinos make the effort to visit these places but find ways to leave the country to marvel at the jewels of other countries.  There are quite a number of quaint restaurants and places to stay in the village. The range of cuisines available are surprisingly diverse, perhaps a testament to the number of foreign tourists that find their way to Batad.  Aside from the amphitheater of rice terraces that are carved around the bowl shaped valley, another 45-minute walk down the terraces from the heart of the village will bring one to the Tappia waterfalls.  You must visit it to appreciate just how spectacular it is.

 

            While it was extremely tempting to stay where I was, I eventually found my way back to Banaue and took a small bus to Bontoc, from where I was planning to end my trip with a visit to Sagada.  Bontoc is another 2 and half hours from Banaue and the trip via public bus could be a little uncomfortable. I shared my seat with a few live chickens and a crying baby, both of which made me wonder if I should have joined the men folk who chose to ride on the roof of the mini-bus.  But the discomfort is worth it as the views are fantastic on this part of the mountain range.  Bontoc is the trading and business center of this part of the province and is perhaps the most “citified”.  Near the big market, many stores sell 2nd hand clothing and goods, mostly from donations to the Salvation Army.  If you are going short on cash it is advisable to get some money in Bontoc as many banks have their offices here.  Just ask any of the locals and it is an easy task to find the jeepney stop where one can get a ride to Sagada.

 

            Sagada by itself deserves a separate write up.  As I discovered, it takes some work to get there and yet, those who have come find themselves finding ways to return as soon as schedules permit. A backdrop of indigenous pine trees combined with limestone outcrops, lush valleys and tasteful architecture make Sagada a refreshing sight in a tropical landscape.  The cold climate and altitude, which allows for the constant fog and mist that shrouds the community, deliver an atmosphere of utmost serenity.  Noise seems almost criminal here.  The presence of St.Mary the Virgin church in the middle of town seems to set the tone for a solemn and sober sojourn.  While a lively nightlife is obviously not to be expected here, there are many things to see and do in Sagada.  A heavy breakfast of pancakes, served with yogurt and fresh honey is a great way to start the day.  Perhaps the most popular tourist sight are the hanging coffins, most of which were carved by the elderly themselves before their deaths.  Tourists can hike down Echo valley and enter the caves.  I found it most distressing to note that anyone can pretty much do anything they like, which meant many of the coffins had been looted and desecrated, with many bones being taken home as souvenirs, gruesome as that may sound!  Taking walks is the happening thing in Sagada and it can give you the chance for some exercise without you even noticing it. You can follow the mountain ridge and inhale the fresh mountain air towards Mt. Ampacao, or walk from Bang-an to Lake Danum.

 

            It is easy to get lonely during trips like this, although people like me derive a sort of perverse pleasure in momentary loneliness.  It is rewarding for me to lose track of time every once in a while, to get lost in my thoughts and to take pleasure in the silence of beautiful surroundings.  A trip to the Cordilleras is the perfect escape from the noise of my daily affairs. It is when the silence gets most deafening, that you can hear the whispers of your soul and recognize just how wonderful the world is.

           

           

Back to Baguio and Back Again

BACK TO BAGUIO AND BACK AGAIN

 

 

Through the years, the refreshing scent of pine and unpolluted mountain air has all but disappeared from the Summer Capital of the North.  It doesn’t surprise me in the least, considering that Baguio is arguably the most visited vacation spot for people this side of the islands. Tourism infrastructure is always quick to follow where money is likely to be spent, and what is perhaps the only easily accessible bastion of cold temperature, is predictably the draw for denizens of a humid tropical country. But while the idea of a Baguio vacation may sound novel in a country of bountiful sunshine, it is so often visited that many returnees would complain that there is nothing new to see or do in Baguio. 

 

            It is sadly true in a way.  Burnham park, which used to be the centerpiece of the city has lost a lot of its charm.  The manicured gardens are littered with beggars and vendors, bike rides and boating in the lake which used to be all the rage are now less appealing due to the thick smog delivered by the exhaust pipes of hundreds of vehicles driven by the vacationing hordes.  The “ukay-ukay” stores which used to be a haven for second hand designer goods are no longer cheap, their consequent discovery by the happy tourists have driven prices so high that even those with cash to spare tend to have an eyebrow or two raised after much haggling.  And yet, people do return.  And yes, even more people come.  And so do I.

 

            Perhaps it is because it takes more to destroy a destination than the mass murder of hundreds of century-old pines to make a humongous mall. Or maybe, there is something left in the air of the fierce resilience of the Ifugao natives despite the painful site of hunchbacked Igorot women, backs horribly disfigured from hard work in the fields.  Or for people like me, it might be that there is a peculiar sense of nostalgia left lingering in places already been.  I have no love for the sparkling new shopping complex put up for those who cannot take a vacation without an assurance of creature comforts.  But each time I walk along busy Session road, I smile at the stoutness of the small boutique shops that survive despite the commercial giants.  I take comfort in the familiarity of my returnee’s routine and know that vacations had are still vacations to be had, and the journey renews itself.

 

            The Baguio market holds a special place in my list of always must dos.  It is incredulous to go this close to where greens are grown and not help oneself to the freshest produce.  In the metropolitan center where I grew up, vegetables seem to be the extras in a meal starring pork, beef, or chicken. But here, where they are bright and green, unadulterated with blemishes and pock-marks brought on by the long travel to the metropolitan markets, I can appreciate my veggies — crisp, fresh and not overly cooked.  Besides, food seems to be more enjoyable when consumed in cold climates. 

 

            I have a war with my dieting conscience each time I visit Baguio.  There don’t seem to be enough meals in the trip to accommodate my list of gastronomic habitués.  There is the quaint Café by the Ruins where I must have my freshly baked potato bread and muffins with rhubarb jam and native hot chocolate.  For lunch, there is no passing up on Rosebowl, a Chinese restaurant with a history of good food so far back that my dad claims it has been a Baguio landmark long before he was born.  On visits where budget is a consideration, I would frequent the stalls offering grilled meats and seafood that line the street between the 2nd hand stores and Burnham park.  Grilled catfish dipped in bagoong made even more sinful by a dash of mouth burning siling labuyo and a dash of local lemon. For dinner, I would take a vote among my company if palates prefer the Mongolian joys of “O Mai’ Khan” or the eclectic fusion food of PNKY Bed and Breakfast along Leonard Wood road.  At night, it would surely be drinks at the Manor hotel lobby at Camp John Hay, where the entertainment is sure to keep me singing and dancing until the wee hours.  And of course, I could never visit Baguio without my take-home stash of Baguio delicacies — Peanut brittle by Romana, Purple Yam “Ube” jam religiously made by the sisters of the Good Shepherd Convent, and jam — bottles of fresh strawberry jam made special with whole fruit. 

 

            I also find that I discover something new in the old.  As a kid I had never paid much attention to the pots of cacti and everlasting sold at the stalls that pepper Mines View Park.  And yet during my last visit, while my heart shouted its disgust that the view for which the park has been named had all but disappeared under the tin roofs of unsightly homes, I giggled in juvenile delight as I searched for the perfect golden cactus flower.  My interest for silver jewelry had waned, but now I shop for the high quality brooms that Baguio has long been known for.  With each return I find renewed interest in the old houses that line the roads that snake around the country club and the reputedly haunted Teacher’s Camp.  And lately, with my renewed passion for rock climbing, I found myself spending a day or two climbing the boulders along the Lamtang riverbed, a few minutes jeepney ride from the city center.

 

            Each time I visit I still get a whiff of fresh pine, albeit farther and farther from the city center with each return.  And I always still exclaim how much I love Baguio alongside snide comments about how overdevelopment is threatening to destroy the place where so many of my childhood memories were made.  Indeed, the changes in the city of Pines may not all be welcome.  Yet, people change as places do.  And perhaps that is why we return.  To hold on to memories of places visited, we make new memories that give meaning to our changing lives.

 

 

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Sanctuario San Pablo, Casa San Pablo and Cafe Salud

Being a tropical country, we tend to plan our vacations around the need to be basking in the heat of the sun or running away from it.  But if we limited our vacations under those terms, we would be sorely limited by work, funds and the pure stress of having to plan them.  Dying to get away for an overnight break from the city, we decided to revisit the sleepy sylvan town of San Pablo in the south.  After a few phone calls, we had booked ourselves for an overnight stay at Sanctuario San Pablo, a new spa resort right on the national hi-way. The pictures on its website were beautiful enough, although one really has to call them to get more information. I mentioned this as a minor suggestion to the manager when we arrived and she said that they intentionally want potential guests to call them first hence the absence of the information on their page.  (www.sanctuariodesanpablo.com).

The place was a pleasant surprise. Still on its soft launch, the place was blissfully quiet. The landscaped lawns, although not as expansive as I expected, were instantly relaxing.  Upon arrival we were brought by golf cart to our casita, one of only 5 in the entire compound.   An overnight stay would set a couple back P4,500.00 for a one-bedroom casita (They have 2 casitas with 2 bedrooms for groups of 4). A bit steep in general but one tends to be forgiving of the rates once you enter the accomodations.  Each casita is furnished in modern tropical style, with a sala and dining area separated from the bed and bath.  Floor to cieling glass invite the outdoors in with white muslin curtains drawn to give occupants much needed privacy.  A sliding door opens to a good sized veranda overlooking a manmade fishpond filled with a variety of japanese coy.  The overnight rates include a one-hour massage for each of us and breakfast for two.  Each casita is furnished differently and we were given a choice between the last two available. We made our choice and settled in.

Admittedly there is not much to do in such resorts but lounge around and relax, eat or swim.  But if your goal was simply to get away for a little while, read a book, get some fresh air, talk and have meaningful conversations, it truly does fit the bill.  The pool was huge and still very clean.  A small raised area serves as a jacuzzi and a huge water slide is available for adventurous souls over at the deep end of the pool.  It was all well and good when we went since there seemed to be only one other family staying at the complex but I can’t imagine how fun it would be if the resort’s day trippers reached bigger numbers.  We especially liked the capiz lamps that lit each of the poolside huts.

The Capiz chandelier was perhaps the best feature of the in-house restaurant. As for food, we though it was horrendously priced for what they offered.  Ala Carte was not available and they served a sad-looking buffet. Thankfully we had no intention of eating there and we set off for Cafe Salud.

Cafe Salud, or what used to be known as Kusina Salud, has already had a reputation for being part of the Viaje del Sol.  A southern sojourn itinerary put together by the establishments around the laguna-tiaong area as part of their efforts to encourage people to visit their towns.  The place was bought by the Tesoro family as a retirement haven and was converted into a restaurant run by Chef Paul Poblador who married Nina Tesoro, an old friend of mine.  I had been there before and was a bit saddened that the house is now off limits to casual diners and is only open for large groups and pre-arranged functions.  The restaurant has been downscaled to a cafe serving only a handful of Filipino fusion dishes and a few souvenir items. Their website is www.kusinasalud.com but is unfortunately no longer updated at this time.  The few dishes that remain are still quite interesting though. Beau thoroughly enjoyed his Ensaladang Manggang HIlaw with crispy dilis and sweet chili bagoong. And the combination of the adobong antigo and the crispy basa fillet and mango chili salsa was a delight. Heavy eaters should be warned though that servings are not hefty.

Upon our return to Sanctuario San Pablo, we took a very cold dip in the pool and I experienced my first huge disappointment finding out that our shower heater was not working.  The management apologized and promptly sent merienda on the house and also gave us a 20 percent discount upon check-out. Appeased, I took my gripes to the next door bathroom (with a working heater) and readied myself for the included massage.  The spa located at the entrance of the property is clean and well appointed with vichy showers and a small sauna.  A massage connosieur, I must say that the deep tissue massage I had was extremely enjoyable.  The front desk informed me that they have Spa day trip packages for 750 only which included lunch, use of the pool and a one-hour massage! Now that seemed like a fantastic deal!

On our way back to Manila the next day, we went to visit Casa San Pablo, a quaint bed and breakfast type of establishment that we had originally wanted to visit but was told was fully booked that weekend.  We found amiable owner Boots Alcantara busy setting up tables in the beautiful garden for a wedding that evening.  The bed and breakfast concept is still quite an unappreciated concept in a country that defines good accomodations by the number of stars appended to the various hotels and resorts in the country.  But for those with a taste for the quaint, quirky and eclectic, there is lots to love at casa san pablo.  The rates are truly affordable and charged per head instead of per room.  The various rooms are found at odd locations within the various buildings of the B&B. The result of subsequent additions to the property after the first set of rooms were constructed.  The feel is shabby chic country, if there is such a thing.  Meals are always served fresh according to Boots, who graciously accomodated our request for a tour of the property.  He doesn’t even have a freezer he confides, as ingredients are all bought fresh from the market and cooked home style.  There are no menus here, accentuating the feeling that one has just dropped by a friend’s home and sat down at the family table.  I commented that Casa San Pablo has the best website I have visited during my search for places to visit in San Pablo.  Part of the site includes information on the various places of interest in the area which are part of the Viaje del Sol.  Lovely!

For those interested in visiting San Pablo, I would say Casa San Pablo is the best place to start.  Check out their website and start planning your southern sojourn! 🙂 www.casasanpablo.com.

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