Pugo’s 3 in 1 Adventure Tour

La Union is popularly known for its fine, gray-sand beaches and its moniker as the “Surfing Capital of the Ilocos.” However, it is fast becoming more than just these. One reason for this transformation is the fifth-class municipality (La Union’s smallest) of Pugo (named after the “quail” bird), the site of Pugad Pugo Adventure Park, a newly opened (it only had its soft opening on September 18 last year), 3-hectare adventure and recreation destination in the town. The five-day North Philippines Visitors Bureau and Manila North Tollways Corporation (MNTC)-sponsored “Lakbay Norte 2 Tour”, officially launched  from the Victory Liner Terminal near Kamias Street in Quezon City, with members of the media (including yours truly), travel bloggers and cameramen, included this destination in our itinerary.

We were now in our tour’s second day and we left Hotel Elizabeth in Baguio City very early in the morning for Pugo. Our special Victory Liner tour bus, its body sticker-wrapped with the tour’s sponsors, arrived at the Flying V (incidentally also a Lakbay Norte 2 tour sponsor) station along Marcos Highway in Brgy. Cares in Pugo after a 30-min. drive. Here, a smaller Pugad shuttle bus and Department of Tourism Region 1 representatives Evangeline M. Dadat (senior tourism operations officer) and Reynaldo Gesmundo (tourism operations officer II) awaited us. After all transferring to this bus, we all proceeded for 300 m. over a narrow road (unfit for big buses) to the resort itself.

Pugad, which means “bird’s nest” in the vernacular, is actually a hybrid of the words pugo and “adventure.” Located in sito Kagaling, barangay Palina, this resort has 2 crystal-clear outdoor swimming pools for children and adults, picnic cottages, clean toilets, shower rooms, conference halls and a hanging bridge over a clean river, typically what you would find in an inland swimming resort.

However, what sets this resort apart from all the others is the extreme adventure it offers, one of the reasons for my joining the tour. For instance, one can fly high like a bird with its three zip line facility (PhP900 per pax and PhP1,000 if it includes wall climbing and rappelling). These days, Filipinos are getting more adventurous and there has been a rise in the number of adrenalin junkies. The sudden emergence of numerous zip lines all over the country, from Luzon down to Mindanao, is a testament to this boom.

Pugad’s famous 380-m. long and 240-ft. high Super Man Zip Line 1 stands out as the longest zip line in Luzon and is reportedly the second longest in the country. The resort also offers breathtaking rappelling and wall-climbing facilities, four-wheel, all-terrain vehicles and dune buggies for rent, and a paint-ball area. It also caters to team-building and small-group activities. Guests can stay overnight at the nearby Travellers Inn, a 10-min. drive away, which has 2 family rooms.

As the zip lines can be availed of by only five participants at a time, we opted to first try out the ATVs at its well-designed, 2.5-km. long course with its numerous bumps and turns. My other companions drove like racers but I started the race-track with caution, especially when I fell into a ditch, only speeding up midway round the course, then slowing down again as I tackled the final 4-ft. high and steep hill back to our starting point.

After this initial adrenalin rush, it was time for some state-of-the-art zip lining. There were only three of us left in the final batch, and the other two, Studio 23’s  Hannah Barrios and Joshua “Red” Nietes, were reluctant and scared first-timers. After filling up the necessary waiver forms, the well-trained staff of Pugad suited us up with the necessary Petzl C29 Pandion harness and Petzl helmets for our safety.

Then we rode at the back of a pickup truck for a drive up the cliff, then a short hike, up a concrete stairs, to our first zip line—the Super Man Zip Line 1, so named because we had to do it in a flying Superman pose (you are harnessed parallel to the ground). Aside from being highest and the longest in duration (30 seconds), it also had the most picturesque views—smooth flowing, boulder-strewn river, small rice terraces and lush, forested mountains.

However, convincing Hannah and Red to try it was easier said than done, so I tried it first to quiet their fears. The ride was everything it was hyped up to be. From the other side, I waited patiently for the others to follow. It was sometime before Red took the plunge and it took an eternity for Hannah to follow suit. Both liked it so much that they were both first at the succeeding 2 zip lines. The 280-m. long, 160-ft. high and less picturesque Zip Line 2 was the fastest among the three (10 seconds with its 100-m. descent) and was done in the sitting position.

The 250-m. long, 60-ft. high and relaxing Zip Line 3, the basic and beginner’s zip line, also done in the sitting position, took a little longer (20 seconds) and passes over the swimming pool and the river before ending at the campsite.

It was drizzling when I finished the last of the zip lines, making rappelling and wall climbing out of the question as the wall had become quite slippery. Besides, all this adrenalin rush had made me hungry and we were invited by Pugad Pugo Adventure Park owners Eugene Martin, a retired police director, and his wife Pricilla, a Pugo councilor, for a catered lunch at the resort’s restaurant.

We were still scheduled to observe some patupat (a delicacy made from sticky rice calledmalagkit and wrapped in coconut or banana leaves) making at a factory in Pozzorrubio (Pangasinan) as guests of Mayor Artemio Chan and Pangasinan Visitors Bureau representatives Marion Puzon and Montserrat Escano, so we all conveyed our thanks and said goodbye to our gracious hosts, our stomachs filled and our craving for high-flying adventure fulfilled.

Camp John Hay: Haven For Rest, Recreation and a Bit of Nostalgia

People visit the much-loved, cloud-wreathed and pine-clad mountain retreat called Baguio City for its pleasantly cool and salubrious climate. The city is also a favorite honeymoon destination among Filipino newlyweds as well as stepping stone for those en route to the world-class tourist destinations of Kabayan (Benguet), Sagada (Mountain Province) and Banaue (Ifugao).

However, most just go here for some rest and recreation and their favorite venue for such is Camp John Hay. This former 690-hectare (1,718-acre) U.S. military recreation camp, off Loakan Road, was established on June 1, 1903 and named after Pres. Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of State.   The war in the Philippines began here when the first Japanese bombs fell here on December 8, 1941.  The camp was later garrisoned by Japanese troops and part of it was a concentration camp for American and British nationals.  The war also ended here when, on September 3, 1945, during the liberation, Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita (the “Tiger of Malaya”) formally surrendered at the Southern American plantation-style U.S. High Commissioner’s (now U.S. Ambassador’s) Residence to Maj.-Gen. E.H. Leavey (Deputy Chief of Staff, Western Pacific) and Lt.-Gen. William Styler.  After the war, reconstruction was begun on May 1945 by Col. Frank Smith and the camp was given back to the Philippines on July 1, 1991.  In 1996, a 50-year contract was awarded to Camp John Hay Development Corp. (CJHDevCo), a private consortium, to develop, manage and operate the facility.

My last visit to Baguio City was just over 10 years ago.  Then and now, Camp John Hay was always part of my visit. Camp John Hay is an attractive, quiet place, offering an abundance of rest and recreation activities.  You can hike a 1.8-km. eco-trail. Scout Hill offers biking, horseback riding and kiddie rides.  There is also a Butterfly Sanctuary, the CAP-John Hay Trade and Cultural Center, a post office, a children’s playground, camp site and views of the surrounding hills.  Its 5,330-yard, 18-hole, par-68 golf course is one of the best in the country.

The club also adjoins the exclusive Baguio Golf and Country Club.  The Camp John Hay Mile-Hi Center, a former recreation center of the Americans, offers local and exported crafts and garments.  Within the CJH Commercial Mall, located at the former Administration Bldg., is the John Hay Commissary (a duty-free shop), Strumms, Dencio’s Bar and Grill, Side Bar and Nike Stadium, plus a billiards hall, business center and an internet cafe.

Within the camp, there’s a regular shuttle jeepney service (6am-11pm).   You can stay at Camp John Hay Manor, the Camp John Hay Suites and the 200-unit Luxury Hotel.  For nostalgia lovers, a 3-hectare slice of the camp, called the Historical Core, was set aside to preserve the camp’s timelessness and allure.  Deemed inviolate to the whims and winds of change, this living museum was envisioned as more than just a window on time.  It consists of the Bell Amphitheater, the History Trail, Honeymoon Lodge, Our Secret Garden, the Cemetery of Negativism and Bell House.

Near the entrance is the Cemetery of Negativism, built during the term of camp commander Maj. John Hightower (1979-1982).  It offers a glimpse into the homespun American philosophy of living.  Here, we strolled among the tombstones where bad habits and the scourge of productivity are buried, its touch of whimsy doing little to negate the truth of its message.  Among them are the inept Kant du Nutin Wright, the defeatist Ben Trid Bfor and the notorious General Neg A. Tivism (whose epitaph reads “Died of positive reaction to enthusiasm”).

The Bell House, now the Camp John Hay Museum, was opened on October 25, 2003. Named after U.S. General J. Franklin Bell, it was initially built as the vacation home of the Commanding General. Today, it is the repository of the artifacts and other indoor exhibits. Its interiors, consisting of three spacious bedrooms, a living room, dining room and kitchen, are tastefully decorated with period furniture showcasing the traditional American country style typical of old American homes.

From the house’s porch you can look down into the Bell Amphitheater.  Designed by Gen. J. Franklin Bell, the amphitheater was once a venue for social and cultural gatherings known for its perfect acoustics.  Anything said under the gazebo at the center is amplified, audible from any point within the amphitheater.  Its rows of chairs have since been replaced and it is now a multi-level landscaped garden with rare flowers.  The amphitheater is now available for concerts, weddings and other special occasions.

The History Trail, designed to wind its way amidst pine trees, offers landscaped resting areas.  Our Secret Garden is planted to blooms that add a splash of color and scents. It also has a gazebo. The Honeymoon Cottage is rented out to newlyweds.

Kayaks Away! Anvaya Cove to Subic Bay

Nowadays, the recreational sport of kayaking is popular among thrill-seeking individuals, as well as families, out for relaxation in the seas, rivers and lakes that surround or are enclosed by our country’s 7,100 islands. This environment-friendly sport is not new to me as I have explored, using kayaks, the Marabut Islands in Samar (with my son Jandy) and crossed over to Malipano Island in Pearl Farm Resort, Davao (with the whole family). It’s small wonder then that I accepted an invitation to cover the first leg of Philippine Kayaking Series (where the Business Mirror is a media sponsor) held on May 29 and 30 at the exclusive Anvaya Cove Beach and Nature Club (a 320-hectare leisure development by Ayala Land in Morong, Bataan) and Subic Bay Freeport Zone. I again brought along, as kayak partner, my son Jandy.

Dubbed the “Canon Powershot Kayak Explore Anvaya Cove-Subic Bay!,” this kayak marathon, organized by Val Camara (Philippine Kayaking Association president) and wife Didi, played host to 150 elite athletes, including co-organizer Kayakasia Singapore’s Cher Huey and his 10-man delegation. Aside from organizing major kayaking events and adventure packages and pushing awareness of the sport, Val and Didi are pioneers in the manufacture of polyethylene sit-on kayaks in the country. According to Val, the Philippine Kayaking Series aims to professionalize kayaking (from being leisurely and recreational activity enjoyed only by vacationers or tourists, it has now evolved to a distance and channel-crossing sport) by creating a rating system for the athletes.

After a 4-hour trip (via NLEX and SCTEX), we arrived at the Subic boardwalk in time for the arrival of 40 advanced-class kayakers who took off for the 25-km. first leg (estimated time of completion was two to two-and-a-half hours) from Anvaya Cove. Once all kayakers were in, lunch was served. Later, an Aeta group, led by Tata Kasoy, did a native-dance number and a jungle-survival training demo (including how to start a fire, make cooking utensils, cooking food, etc.) using the versatile bamboo. Next on the agenda was a kayaking clinic (teaching the basic skills) hosted by Val, and the novice race, done in two heats, for first-timer kayakers (including car-racing driver Gaby de la Merced) on tandem sit-on sea kayaks. Jandy and I joined the second heat which included Fr. Stephen Olario, a 46-year-old priest from Cagayan de Oro. The novice race was won, with a time of 9 minutes and 33 seconds, by Alfie Argana (a beauty-and-wellness spa manager from Cagayan de Oro City) and her 10-year-old son Lance. Second were Karem Miranda and Neil de la Merced (brother of Gaby), followed by the pair of Kate Edrosolam and Patrick Hong. As expected, we finished last. Well, good guys finish last

After this, the second 25-km. leg, from Subic Bay back to Anvaya Cove, was on its way. To meet them, we drove all the way to Anvaya Cove. First in was the duo of Romeo Castro and Alexis Atutubo (clocking an impressive time of 3:48:35), followed by Edward de Vera and Raven Qua, while in third were Ranessa Santos (Anvaya Cove activity manager) and Mark Broncales (Anvaya lifeguard). Cher Huey (who arrived an hour late for the race due to an oversubscribed plane booking) and his Filipino partner still managed to place a respectable seventh (with a time of 4:37:14).

The day’s culminating activity was the Anvaya Cove Barrio Fiesta, which featured a dinner buffet of local cuisine and Filipino dances and music. This was followed by the awarding of prizes, emceed by Lito Cinco, for the top three finishers, which included Canon underwater cameras, airline tickets from Cebu Pacific, Red Bull gift packs, outdoor items from ROX and the Primer Group, David’s Salon gift certificates, Mojos sandals, magazine subscriptions from Action Asia, and overnight accommodations at Subic Bay International Hotel (where we stayed overnight) and Caylabne Bay Resort. Later, five locals did some brave kayaking, in the moonlight, over Subic Bay.

The next day was the ecotour, which featured more kayaking, this time leisurely. Again, with Jandy, we kayaked all the way to SBMA Mangrove Beach, making landfall ingloriously, though, as a freak wave capsized our kayak. Our mangrove tree-planting here did not push through as the low tide marooned all participants on the beach.  Too tired to kayak, we were, instead towed by motorboat to Barangay Sabang (a favored hatching area of sea turtles, or pawikan) in Morong, where the local fishing community feted our group with homemade galunggong cuisine. Later, an environmental presentation by Ka Resty, who heads the local association of fishermen, on saving the coral reefs and sea turtles highlighted the conservation program being undertaken by nongovernment organizations in Sabang.

Lingayen: Land of War and Peace

Pangasinan has always been a favorite holiday retreat of mine, being home to the Hundred Islands, beautiful beaches and, on an architectural and religious note, Spanish-era churches including the often-visited Shrine of Our Lady of Manaoag. It is also a place rich in history. World War II history is especially prevalent, more so in its sprawling provincial capital Lingayen, situated on the Agno River delta. The town was founded by Augustinian friars in 1614 and its name was derived from the word meaning “looking back.”

My Holy Week visit to this town, as a guest of El Puerto Marina Beach Resort and Spa owners Roland and Flordeliza Versoza, was a first for me and my accompanying children Jandy and Cheska. My 227-km. trip, normally a 4-hr. plus drive, took all of 6 hrs., it being a holiday. We arrived at the resort by 8 am and were welcomed by Flor, who billeted us at one of the resort’s rustic air-conditioned bungalows resting on stilts, cantilevered over a fishpond and reached via an S-shaped wooden footbridge.

Quite famished, we dined at its equally rustic pavilion with its menu of Asian, Continental and Filipino favorites, including the healthy pinakbet, honeyed-crispy chicken, sizzling bangus belly and cholesterol-rich binagoongan pork or lechon kawali). It also has a bar with Wi-Fi and satellite TV.

This quiet, family-oriented resort, on Don Martin Domingo St., Pangapisan North, and opened in 2005, is also a haven for fast- and slow-paced activity with its two swimming pools, (adult and kiddie with jacuzzi), an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) track as well as other indoor (billiards, Ping-Pong, chess, darts, etc.) and outdoor (fishing, beach volleyball, surfing, kayaking, skim boarding, etc.) facilities.

Tours to Hundred Islands (which we availed of), Bolinao and the Manaoag Shrine can also be arranged here. After a full active day, a steam bath and a soothing full body massage is highly recommended at its spa. A nice touch is its minizoo and koi pond, also home to two big South American arapaimas.

The adjoining, gently-sloping beach is something else, with its clean, fine and gray sand, cool breeze and picnic huts. Our second night at the resort was spent camping along this cool, quiet beach. It was not always this quiet here, as 70 years ago it resounded with the echoes of war when Japanese Lt.-Gen. Masaharu Homma and his 43,000 troops invaded Luzon, via Lingayen Gulf, on December 22, 1941. A little over three years later, on January 9, 1945, Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the 68,000 American troops of the US 6th Army followed Homma’s lead, also making landfall here.

From the resort, we also got to explore the town in detail, tugging along two resort guests; Malaysian-American Janet Jun Siew Loh and Filipino-American Katrina Nogoy, both teachers in Japan. Lingayen has two architecturally distinct and culturally disparate districts, one Spanish and the other American.

The older, more populous Spanish section escaped the destruction of World War II. It was built inland and clustered around the plaza with its municipal building and the market. Its Cathedral of the Epiphany of Our Lord, the seat of the Lingayen Diocese (made into a cathedral on May 19, 1928), was built in 1712, later destroyed by fire and rebuilt in 1892. It was damaged during the July 1990 earthquake and later repaired. The dome was built by parish priest (1826-1834) Fr. Miguel Aparicio. Its interiors have fine specimens of religious art in wood and metal, and its belfry is said to be the tallest in the country.

The newer American seafront district is more spacious, with a promenade and wide-spreading flame trees. Located here is the Provincial Capitol, built in 1912 (one of the first to be built in the country) during the term of Gov. Daniel Maramba. This imposing “Potomac Greek” building, for me the most beautiful in the country, has stately marble columns which are beautifully lit at night.

Surprisingly open during this holiday, we got to climb its exquisite spiral staircase to visit the Governor’s Office, the Provincial Board Room (where we got to sit in the Vice-Governor’s chair, handle a gavel and “preside” over a meeting) and its roof deck where President Manuel L. Quezon used to host elegant receptions and parties before World War II. Its west wing was restored after destruction by shelling in 1945. Nearby is the Lingayen Gulf War Memorial.

It has a covered display of photos and artifacts of the 1945 landings. The open-air War Museum has other relics of this period, including a Japanese Nakajima “Kate” torpedo bomber, antiaircraft guns and two repainted US tanks.

The pre-World War II Sison Auditorium (now the Sison Cultural and Heritage Center), built in 1927 and formerly known as the Grand Provincial Auditorium, was later renamed after the late governor Teofilo Sison, the first Pangasinense to become Secretary of National Defense. It has been restored and refurbished and is now a venue for cultural activities. The town is the birthplace (March 18, 1928) of AFP Chief of Staff and 12th Philippine President (1992-1996) Fidel V. Ramos whose restored house we visited after a filling lunch at Hotel Consuelo’s restaurant.

Too bad we forgot to buy, on our way home, sweet bocayo (coconut candy), tamales (steamed cake filled with pork, chicken and spices), native bibingka and the town’s famous bagoong (fish paste), also known as maniboc (referring to its place of origin, Brgy. Maniboc), said to be the best in the market.

Virgin Laiya

The so-called perpetual summer of the Philippines—give or take a few weeks’ worth of rain in the middle of the year—means so many things to so many people. For some, it means oppressive heat, lots of sweat and water shortages (and, as a consequence, power shortages). For most, however, it means beaches, and this country has lots of it. Because of its proximity to Manila, Laiya Beach, at southeastern tip of Batangas in San Juan, is a popular destination for weekend and holiday beach lovers retreating from their frenzied daily life. This, however, does not take away its appeal.

Situated along the coast of Sigayan Bay (one of the cleanest bays in the country) and Verde Island Passage, Laiya is nestled behind the peaks of Mt. Daguldol and is home to several hiking destinations such as hidden coves, waterfalls (Naambon Falls), Mainit Pulang Bato and thick forested mountains with trails ideal for mountain biking and trekking. The very gradual slope of this 7-km. long, slightly coarse, white-sand beach and its calm, clear waters make it an ideal swimming area for people who simply want to enjoy a good swim on a beach or go snorkeling, boating and kayaking. It was only recently that I got a taste of Laiya, after Joey Cuerdo of Powerup Gym invited me and fellow travel writer Lito Cinco to join him and his kids (daughters Frankie and Kitkat, and son Kobe) as guests of Butch Campos, owner of Virgin Beach Resort in Brgy. Hugom, San Juan, Batangas (sunkisd@pldtdsl.net, www.virginbeachresort.com). To record the moment, I brought along my daughter Cheska, a photography buff.

Normally, the trip, via Slex and Star Tollway, even on a Saturday (the day we left), would be just two to three hours but, hey, it was the eve of the May 10 elections and last-ditch efforts by candidates to woo voters, via rallies and miting de avance, ruled the day, causing long traffic waits. We left early in the morning but only arrived at the resort just in time for lunch. Still, we were lucky. Other invited guests, skim boarders from Nasugbu who left after lunch, arrived at the resort at 7 pm.

It being noon, the more than kilometer-long beach at the resort was at its whitest and, as lunch was still being prepared, we took time to explore the place. Very noticeable was its high level of cleanliness, which sets it apart from the others.  Mr. Butch Campos, the owner and our host, sees to it that it remains such, personally picking up trash and cigarette butts and dumping them into ashtrays and trash receptacles provided specifically for food and nonfood items. This 40-hectare (6 hectares developed) Class “A” resort, opened in 2005, is also noted for the oversized proportions and sprawling layout of its facilities which consist of 16 cottages, a new, spacious and well-maintained shower room and a huge Balinese-style restaurant/pavilion, most built with simple, organic and natural bamboo. The majestic Mount Lobo serves as a tranquil backdrop to its beautiful beachfront area, truly a fusion of land, sea and sky. The cabanas have electric fans and two queen-sized or one king-sized bed. The larger, stylish casitas, on the other hand, are air-conditioned and come with two double beds. All have a private toilet and bath and a spacious veranda with bamboo sofa. Right on the powdery, tree-lined beachfront are the so-called parasols, canopied bamboo beds enclosed with cheesecloth drapes and come provided with their own mattresses, pillows, bed sheets and blankets for overnight stays. These are huge enough to accommodate four to five people, plus all our bags. All these provide guests with an “exclusive” feel on account of a strictly implemented maximum number of guests, thus ensuring privacy and a bother-free and enjoyable stay. Plans are also afoot to build an infinity pool set on a hillside.

After this guided tour by Mr. Campos, we all walked back to the pavilion where a scrumptious set lunch of salad, soup, main course (with a choice of chicken, beef or pork and seafood) and dessert awaited us. Thus satisfied, Joey then proceeded to set up the resort’s newest attraction: winchskating. This is not new to the country as Camarines Watersports Complex (Naga City, Camarines Sur) and Lago de Oro (Calatagan, Batangas) offer cable wakeboarding, wake skating and water skiing in manmade, freshwater lakes. However, this will be the first time that cable wakeboarding and wake skating is being done along a seashore, and this resort will be the first to offer such. This recent concept is simpler but safer and more affordable, using a US made, 9 HP, 4-stroke portable, lightweight wakeboard winch (manufactured by Ridiculous Winches and distributed here in the country by Outward Bound Gear), anchored and held stationary by stakes on a sand spit, to pull, using variable speeds, a wakeboarder via a sturdy, 200-foot-long rope along the shallow seashore. Joey, a professional surfer, took first crack at it using his own surf board and, finally, a wakeboard (more suitable because of its shorter fins). Soon, he was riding the waves of the shore like the professional that he is. Frankie and Cheska took unsuccessful cracks at it. Joey hopes that with the introduction of this winch, the wakeboarding domain will be revolutionized to some extent and more venues will be opened as wakeboard winches have made wake skating accessible to a large number of spectators as one can fix them anywhere.

Silay City: The Paris of Negro

Silay City, known as the “Paris of Negros Occidental,” was once the foremost cultural center in the region, and its Kahirup Theater was the center of these activities. The city is also the birthplace of noted artists including architect and 1990 National Artist Leandro Locsin (1928-1994) and 1920s Hiligaynon playwright Miguela Locsin Montelibano (1874-1969).

It is also the birthplace of my late mom and my maternal grandfather, the late governor (1925-1928), secretary of Health and Agriculture, and senator (1951-1957) Jose C. Locsin (1891-1977). I have always long wanted to visit my mom’s hometown, and an opportunity to do so came during the eighth Locsin family reunion. Bringing along my wife Grace and my children Jandy and Cheska, we easily got there via the New Bacolod-Silay International Airport, now conveniently located within the city.

Silay was founded in 1760. In 1846 the cultivation of sugar cane made the town prosperous. Silay’s newfound wealth from sugar cultivation translated into the construction of many opulent ancestral homes, located mostly along Rizal Street. A total of 29 (some well-preserved) have been identified by the National Historical Institute (NHI) as National Treasures, my grandfather’s house (built in the 1930s, it is locally called Balay Daku or “Big House”) being one of them.

Because of these, Silay is now one of the country’s top 25 tourist destinations. Three of these have been turned into museums. During breaks in the reunion, with my Silaynon first cousin Neil Solomon “Solo” Locsin as guide, we got to visit all three. Before doing so, we dropped by the beautiful domed San Diego Pro-Cathedral, built from 1925 to 1927 by Italian Architect Lucio Bernasconi. It was elevated to procathedral in December 1994, the second in the country to be so declared. Behind it are the ruins of the city’s original church, now a grotto.

Balay Negrense, along Cinco de Noviembre Street, is one of the largest, if not the largest, ancestral houses in the city. It was built in the Neo-Renaissance style (1898-1912) by Yves Gaston, son of 19th-century sugar baron Yves Leopold Germain Gaston of Lisieux (France) who generated wide-scale interest in commercial-scale sugar cultivation with his horno econonmico, the precursor of today’s sugar mills. The 12-bedroom house, said to have been occupied by Japanese military officers during World War II, was later a venue for a ballet school run by one of the descendants until the early 1970s.

Abandoned shortly thereafter, it was later restored and opened as a lifestyle museum in 1987 by the Negros Cultural Foundation. Now a showcase of Negrense art and culture, it displays antique furniture and Gaston memorabilia. The museum boasts of a grand W-shaped stairway, calado, or carved, panels that served as ventilators between rooms, etched window glass, fancy-grilled ventanillas and sprawling gardens.

On the other hand, the two-story Bernardino-Ysabel Jalandoni Museum, at the corner of Rizal and Severino streets, is cared for by the Silay Heritage Foundation. Also called the Pink Museum, it was built from 1908 to 1912 and was declared, on November 6, 1993, as a National Historical Landmark by the NHI. Built with durable balayong, a hardwood coming all the way from Mindoro, it displays embossed steel trayed ceilings imported from Hamburg, Germany. It also features a fine collection of books, glassware and lace supplied by the Silay Heritage Foundation members.

The Ramon Hofilena Museum, a typical turn-of-the-century ancestral home near Balay Negrense (built in 1934), is our personal favorite. On hand to greet us was Solo’s friend, the 72-year old Ramon Hofilena himself. He personally gave us a two-hour guided tour of his collection of more than 1,000 works by Goya and Picasso, Dr. Jose Rizal and local artists Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, plus imported Chinese pottery, silver picture frames, antiques and a collection of small dolls (said to be the smallest in the world, you need a magnifying glass to appreciate them). The museum also houses the oldest printmaking workshop outside Manila, Silay Printmaking, founded in 1970.

On our last day, we visited Patag Valley, located in a valley 1,034 feet above sea level. Throughout the one-hour trip, we passed huge expanses of sugar fields. Sugar harvested here is processed at the Hawaiian-Philippine Sugar Co., the city’s lone sugar central. It has a 180-km rail network and some excellent old steam locomotives nicknamed the “Red Dragons” going back to the time when they were painted bright red (they are now blue-black in color). During World War II, they were hidden from the Japanese by running them on special rails into the forested mountains.

They include one 1920 Henschel 0-6-0 and six Baldwin 0-6-0s (built in 1919, 1920 and 1928). According to Solo, a whole-day ride on one of these would cost you P15,000.

During World War II, the valley was the last Japanese stronghold in the whole region. Here, 15,000 Japanese and hundreds of Filipino-American soldiers died. The Japanese surrendered after five months. Today a wide Japanese altar commemorates the last battle between the two forces, and underground, manmade Japanese tunnels can still be found. The valley is also ideal for ecotours. Dinky and Milou (our first cousin) von Einsiedel built a beautiful resthouse overlooking the verdant valley and mountains.

This was to be our base in exploring stretches of rain forest and some of its 300 waterfalls (which includes Pulang Tubig Waterfalls). The valley is also home to sulfataras (sulfur geysers) and endangered species of wildlife (including the Negros spotted deer). After lunch at Balay Daku and prior to our departure for Manila, we walked over to El Ideal Bakery for pasalubong shopping of Silay’s famous dulce gatas (Cheska’s favorite), sugar cookies, broas, guapple pie, pilarica, rosquillos and angel cookies.

The Marriott Comes to Manila

The Marriott Comes to Manila (4)

Whenever I would head for Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal (NAIA) 3, Manila’s newest airport, I couldn’t help but notice the massive hotel edifice being built right across it, wondering what this new kid on the block was all about. Well, I ceased to wonder when I accepted a media invitation from Ms. Michelle “Mitch” Garcia and Mr. Indraneel Benadikar, marketing communications manager and director of sales and marketing, respectively, of Marriott Hotel Manila. Located within the 25-hectare, mixed-use Newport City (which includes the world-class tourism complex of Resorts World Manila) project of property giant Megaworld Corp., this 8-storey hotel is the first in Metro Manila to carry the Marriott name and the second in the Philippines after the 301-room Cebu City Marriott Hotel.

Not many people know this but, according to Mitch, the Marriott name had its beginnings in food and beverage when, in 1927, J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott opened their first A&W (after Alice and Willard) Root Beer stand (with nine stools) in Washington, D.C. During the next decade, Marriott expanded its food-service business to include “in-flite” service (later to become the world’s largest airline catering business). By 1957, its business extended to hotels when it opened their first Twin Bridges Motor Hotel in Arlington, Virginia. Today Marriott International Inc. is a leading worldwide hospitality company, with over 3,100 operating units in the United States and 67 other countries and territories. Mr. Richard Saul, Marriott Hotel Manila first general manager, sums it all up when he said that “Marriott represents a five-star international product that customers can rely on.”

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This five-star international standard, plus the best of Philippine hospitality and a distinctive touch of Philippine flavor and color, makes this hotel unique among other Marriot hotels. As one enters the lobby, guests are presented with a unique, not-too-stiff and living room-style zoning arrangement that defies convention and emphasizes convenience, rest and creation: a front desk (and the panic-and-frantic pace associated with it) that is almost hidden from view; an  interactive social zone with television sets on both ends (allowing guests to be both social and business-like at the same time), and the Lobby Bar with its high tables and communal tables (for groups that may want to enjoy snacks and canapés) and, for the private person, an individual zone where one can sit down, read a book or enjoy his cake, salad and cool drink.

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From the grand lobby, it is impossible not to be drawn to Marriott’s seamlessly integrated restaurant outlets (all with splendid views of the Villamor Golf Club’s fairways) that literally flow from one to the other, each offering something distinct and different for the guests.

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The casual Marriott Café, a bright, bold, upbeat and modern version of an all-day dining buffet restaurant, features live and engaging open-theater kitchens and a vast, sumptuous buffet of local and international favorites from the Western world all the way up to China, plus an equally irresistible à la carte menu to order from.

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The sophisticated Cru Steakhouse, a paradise for meat lovers, serves the finest dry-aged, prime cuts of succulent steak (you can choose your cut and see how it is prepared) perfectly paired with the freshest seafood (oysters, lobsters, etc.) and fine red wine.

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Meanwhile, the Velocity Sports and Entertainment Bar, an updated and upgraded version of a contemporary sports bar (with multiple, giant flat-screen TVs showing the hottest sporting events from around the globe), offers a central bar, live entertainment, local tap beer and cocktails (complemented by a simple finger-food menu), private zones (for guests who want to watch sports at a corner all to themselves), ample open space for moving around, and distinctive but complementary pieces of furniture.

Java+Coffee Shop specializes in excellent grab-and-go choices of energy-boosting gourmet coffee, freshly baked pastries, breads and other wholesome refreshments and snacks.

Of course, what is a hotel without its rooms.  The 342 exquisite deluxe rooms and suites are all first-rate, all exuding class and comfort, with luxurious bedding, high-speed Internet, 40-inch, full high-definition LCD TVs with IPTV,  new jack pack plug-and-play systems, in-room safe, minibar and spacious work areas.

The two top floors house executive-level rooms and 19 deluxe suites. From the Executive Lounge, guests can enjoy a spectacular view of the Villamor Golf Course.

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To relax and unwind, there’s Marriott’s signature Quan Spa, a full-service spa that offers various treatments and services to pamper guests. The spa has four single treatment rooms, one couple’s room, one bathing suite and a reflexology lounge.

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The hotel also has a fully equipped health club (offers cardio equipment, free weights, fitness classes and a pool), grand ballroom, six meeting rooms, business center plus a swimming pool.

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Corregidor: Adventure Island

When one mentions Corregidor (nicknamed “The Rock”), the first thing that goes through your mind is the heroic World War II defense of the Fil-American forces of Gen. Douglas MacArthur (and, later, by his successor Lt. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright) against the invading Japanese forces. It is for this footnote in history that most tourists go to Corregidor for. However, the island also offers a variety of adventures to complement the historical tour, and this I found out when I was invited to attend the soft opening of the Rocket Zipline.

This would be my third visit to the tadpole-shaped island (the first was via a Philippine Navy LST during a high-school bivouac in 1975 and, 20 years later, in 1995).

We left the CCP Ferry Terminal at 8:30 am for a 48-kilometer cruise, through Manila Bay, to Corregidor, via the MV Sun Cruises II, a 293-foot catamaran fast ferry of Sun Cruises Inc. (SCI), our host. SCI, which traces its beginnings in August 1988 as a ferry service, now brings 70,000 tourists to the island annually, making the island one of the most visited tourist spots in the country.

We arrived on the island by 9:30 am and proceeded, via tranvia tour bus, to the SCI-managed Corregidor Hostel’s conference room for a presscon. According to SCI general manager Roland Portes, the zipline was added so that tourists who stay overnight would have something to do aside from the usual historical tour. The zipline is 40 feet high and over 655 feet long, and stretches from the Corregidor Inn area to South Beach. It follows a double-standard system (two cables and two double pulleys). It is hoped that, with the support of the Corregidor Foundation, another zipline, connecting the Malinta Tunnel to the Topside would be built this year.

SCI marketing manager Kristine Castro also added that SCI would launch Corregidor not just as a historical island but also as an adventure island, sponsoring, aside from the zipline, other sports activities, such as a marathon, beach football and volleyball, the Corregidor aquathlon challenge, a kayaking race, sport fishing and wakeboarding (South Beach); as well as quieter activities, such as birdwatching (White-Collared Kingfishers, Zebra Dove, Blue Rock, Asian Glossy Starlings, Eurasian Tree Sparrows, Black-Naped Orioles and, just recently, Philippine Cockatoos) the ephemeral, short-lived art of rock balancing (often linked to photography and landscape art) and sunset watching (at Battery Grubb). Portes assured us that, despite these innovations, preserving history and the environment remained top priorities, their corporate social responsibility being to clean up the beach quarterly, as well as using solar-powered electricity on the island.

Following the presscon, we all proceeded, again by tranvia bus, to the SCI-managed, 31-room Corregidor Inn for the Rocket Zipline launch and our free trial. Our worries about the sturdiness of the cable were allayed by Joey Cuerdo of Powerup (they helped install this new adventure facility on the island), who assured us that the zipline can carry up to 250 pounds.

Thus assured, we all took turns screaming our lungs out for 25 seconds as we zipped from the jump-off point to the other end. I tried the zipline twice. After this adrenaline rush, we next partook of a buffet selection of foreign and local dishes at the inn’s La Playa Restaurant.

After lunch, it was back to our tranvia bus, this time for a guided tour by Armand Nildawa of the bowels of Malinta Tunnel, the tunnel’s unexplored side.

With us was tall (6’6″), bespectacled Steve Kwiecinski and his wife Marcia, both retirees who, sometime in October 2008, came to live in the Philippines. Steve’s father, Walter, was the commander of the last functioning 12″ mortar (one of the four of Battery Way) which was finally silenced by enemy shelling on May 6, 1942. Walter survived the siege and was able to share his personal exploits on Corregidor with Steve.

Steve grew up to love and admire the island and, by staying in Corregidor and recounting war stories to the visitors of the island, he hopes to honor the memory of his father, who passed away on May 8, 1988 (two days after the 46th anniversary of the island’s surrender).

Outside the tourist trail and the regular tour, we visited the different laterals, including the Fort Mills Hospital and the headquarters of Gen. George Moore. The tunnel’s pitch darkness gives one an eerie feeling, especially when Armand asked us to switch off our flashlights for 20 seconds, reliving, for this short span of time, how the tunnel’s occupants lived in the dark during the siege as the hospital laterals had no lights. In this pitch darkness we walked, sensing where the others were heading by just feeling and touching the tunnel walls.

Armand showed us vents where gasoline was poured in and grenades tossed to dislodge the Japanese defenders during the island’s February 16-March 1945 liberation (costing 210 American lives). Potholes on the floor marked the spot where Japanese, in groups, blew themselves up rather than surrender. Fewer than 50 of the 5,200 Japanese defenders survived.

Out of the tunnel and back in welcome daylight, we also toured the island’s Middleside Barracks, the 800-meter long, three-story-high Mile Long Barracks (reputedly the world’s longest military barracks) and explored, in detail, Battery Hearns (a 12″ seacoast gun with a maximum range of 29,500 yards) and the aforementioned Battery Way (with its maximum range of 14,610 yards). Steve pointed out the battery commanded by his father. Too bad we missed out, due to time constraints (we had to catch the 3 pm ferry back to Manila), the Pacific War Memorial.

Calicoan: Hidden Paradise Revealed

The highlight of our—or any—trip to Guiuan was our visit (and subsequent overnight stay) on Calicoan Island, the “Sleeping Beauty of Eastern Samar.” And with good reason, as the island is blessed with long stretches of unspoiled white-sand beaches, crystal-clear blue waters, 20 isolated and romantic coves, six huge and unexplored saltwater lagoons, and nature trails inside tropical virgin forests (50% of the area). After paying an evening courtesy call to Vibina Jauacon at the town proper, my son Jandy and I made our way to the island via hired tricycle (P400), getting to the island, not by boat but via a short concrete causeway, then traversing a dirt and gravel road which runs the length of the island. Our home on the island was its best: the luxurious Surf Camp. This hideaway, reason enough to explore Calicoan, was developed by Cebu-based lawyer and pioneer developer Maning Go (who owns about 500 hectares of the island’s 1,600 hectares) and designed, with distinctive Asian-inspired lines (Thai, Balinese, Indonesian and Filipino), by Frenchman Nicolas Rambeau, owner and creator of the highly acclaimed high-end Pansukian Resort in Siargao (Surigao del Norte).

Here, we stayed in one of its seven well-appointed, spacious bungalows with its soaring roof lines, the beach just a few steps away. Each bungalow has a native feel, with its own deck and floor with alternating dark and light wood stripes. Modern amenities include air conditioning, compartmentalized bathroom with hot and cold shower, satellite TV, minibar and safety deposit box.

Come morning, after a hearty Filipino breakfast, we opted to burn calories by exploring the island on foot (for me still the best way), bringing along resort staffer Marcial Orocay as guide. From the resort, we cut across the 3-km. width of the island, to the western side which faces the calm waters of Leyte Gulf, its 8-km. long beach ideal for swimming, snorkeling, picnics and watching magnificent sunsets. The forest along the way is said to be home to mischievous monkeys, monitor lizards and colorful birds. Though we didn’t get to see any up close, we did get to see a snake crossing our trail. Skirting the western coast, we visited Sulangan Beach, the habitat of the world-famous and rare Golden Cowrie (Conus gloriamaris) shell.

These shells were being sold (at a whopping PhP1,500 per piece) at souvenir shops at nearby St. Anthony of Padua Church, also a notable pilgrimage site. With its schools of multicolored fish, Sulangan Beach is also an ideal site for scuba diving (other dive destinations include Pearl Island, Binabasalan Island and Baul Island). As with many of my explorations, I still missed out on many of the island’s isolated coves, limestone cliffs (tempting for rock climbers), alien abstract rock formations (great for camera buffs) and numerous, cathedral-like caves for spelunkers (the large Buro Cave is accessible during low tide) with stalactites along the seashore.

Tired, we made our way back to the resort and dipped our tired bodies at the resort’s inviting 300-sq. m. saltwater infinity pool bordering the 3-km. long white ABCD Beach, the island’s prime surfing area. Verdant pandamus trees (locally called bariw) grow through the pool’s uniquely designed wooden deck, embracing it and providing cool shade, thus binding nature with design.

Here, we watched the surging, breathtaking surf (boasting perfectly shaped left or right reef breaks) as the island’s eastern side juts out to the rolling surf of the Pacific Ocean (its powerful swells tirelessly rolling in over the 10,000-m. Philippine Deep), making it a surfer’s paradise. The best surfing months, according to resort general manager Danilo Molina, are March, April and September to October, when southwesterly winds blow offshore, piling up incoming ocean swells and carving them into glassy shaped hollows. Surfboards are rented out for a small fee and beginner’s lessons can be provided, on request, by the resort staff. Surfers must wear booties as protection against the sharp rocks. Although the currents are strong here, the island offers opportunities for big game fishing along the “Tuna Highway,” the migratory route for tuna to Japan.

Also quite famished after such a long trek, we later indulged ourselves at the resort’s restaurant, which offers international and Filipino cuisine, including seafood such as freshly caught, fleshy, sweet and delicious lobster, prawns, scallops, abalone, crabs and fish. After a filling lunch, we packed up our gear, checked out, thanked the resort staff and hired a tricycle to bring us back to the bus station at Guiuan town proper for our trip back to Tacloban City. Along the way, we made a brief stopover at Calicoan Island Ocean Villas, another of Maning Go’s development projects. Go enlisted the multiawarded architectural firm of Francisco “Bobby” Mañosa to prepare the island’s master plan. He envisions a zoning development where visitors can make nature treks to large areas of the island without encountering any bar, souvenir shop or billboard, thus offering more natural attractions and leisure activities with less of the hustle of the better-known Boracay.

With continued but controlled growth, may it stay that way, making Calicoan truly a diamond in the rough.

Reminiscing in Guiuan

My son Jandy and I had just had our fill of fiestas, having just attended the star-studded and colorful Sangyaw Festival of Tacloban City. For a change of pace, we were yearning for some adventurous “rest and recreation,” this time opting to visit the progressive town of Guiuan in Eastern Samar, our first in the province. To get there, we left the city after lunch, onboard an air-conditioned Van-Van van at downtown. The trip took all of three hours (the opening, in the late 1990s, of the South Samar Coastal Road cut land travel time to Guiuan by about two hours), crossing the beautiful, S-shaped San Juanico Bridge (the country’s longest) into Samar, traveling along a coastal highway which runs past mountains, steep cliffs, distant rock islands and boat-filled bays, then making a right at a T-junction (the left goes to Borongan) to an occasionally potholed asphalt road all the way to Guiuan.  We arrived there by 4 pm and were guests at the house of Vibina “Bebeng” Juaban.

The 175.49-sq-km Guiuan, located on a narrow peninsula that juts out of southernmost tip of Samar like a tail, is a town steep in Spanish- and American- (notably World War II) era history. At the entrance of Leyte Gulf is the quiet and pretty, 105-sq-km (the largest in the province) Homonhon Island where, on March 16, 1521, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan first made landfall in the Philippines. Cantilado, a deep stream believed to be Magellan’s landing site, is located 100 meters from the shore.

THE new airport terminal(above), THE Guiuan Airport Runway(below): The Enola Gay took off from here.

The Philippine Historical Committee has erected a marker on a rock bearing inscriptions thought to have been chiseled by Magellan’s party. The island is a two-hour boat ride from the town and from Loreto, Dinagat Island. About 16 km east of the island is the 5-sq-km Suluan Island, believed to be where the first Filipinos to make contact with Magellan came from. Guiuan was officially founded by Augustinian friars in 1585 and its name is said to have been derived either from the Waray words giwang (meaning “hole” or “cavity”) or gibing (meaning “broken,” “rugged” or “chipped off”).

The best way to explore this coastal town is by hired tricycle.  Vestiges of Spanish-era history can be seen at the “fortress Baroque” Church of the Immaculate Conception, considered to be the finest in the Eastern Visayas.  Started in the 1630s, it was rebuilt in stone in the early 18th century. From 1844 onward, Fr. Manuel Valverde and Pedro Monasterio renovated the church, covering the roof with tiles. In 1854 Franciscan friars added a transept and baptistery and built a massive belfry (which once served as a watchtower) on top of a seaside bastion of the fort.

The church’s façade has triple but slim engaged columns, arches and carvings at the pediment’s borders and three entrances with elaborately carved, hardwood doors. Inside are a single nave with a main altar and two side altars, a beautiful retablo from Franciscan times, a Rococo frontal with the Augustinian emblem and old santos. The church is enclosed within the partially preserved quadrilateral fort of cut stone, said to be the best and most regularly planned in all the Visayas. Today this church has been declared as a National Cultural Treasure (unique structures that possess outstanding artistic, historical and cultural values that are significant to the nation), one of 26 named as such by the National Museum in 2001.

THE Church of the Immaculate Conception(above), a National Cultural Treasure, THE massive belfry(below) once served as a watchtower

Homonhon and Suluan islands were also sites of the first landings by liberating US forces in 1944. Caliocan Island, a low coralline island in barangay Ngolos, 23 km from the town, was during World War II the site of the US Navy’s 3149 Base. The base’s original flagpole still stands. The late US President John F. Kennedy, a PT boat commander during the war, was also stationed here.  After the war, Tubabao Island, a 20-minute boat ride from the town, was the temporary stopover of White Russian refugees who, after the Communists took over in 1949, escaped from China with the assistance of the International Refugee Organization.

The runway of the former US Navy airbase, located on the eastern edge of the town, was once one of the biggest US bases in the Pacific and was also used actively until the Korean War.  Its 60-meter wide and 1.9-km-long runway was built, during the liberation by US Army engineering battalions in December 1944.  Here, the B-26 Superfortress bomber Enola Gay, which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan (August 6, 1945), was launched.

THE original flagpole of US Naval supply depot

Disused for some time after its turnover to the Philippines, it is now undergoing a P142-million rehabilitation (its runway, now with an overlay of asphalt, is now 2.134  km long) and will be opened this October as a feeder airport for chartered or regular flights. Its opening would be heaven-sent, as it would make Guiuan easily accessible by plane (cutting its dependence on Tacloban City’s airport), thus supporting the commercial and tourism industry in the region, most especially Calicoan Island, an upcoming island-resort which boasts of miles of white-sand beaches, as well as powerful swells rolling in from the Pacific over the 10,000-meter Philippine Deep, making it a surfer’s paradise.

A P38-million water system that would supply the island-resorts’ operational requirement is also nearing completion. All these aim to promote Guiuan as the next ecotourism hub in the country, a place that offers visitors a lot when it comes to cultural and historical heritage sites, natural beauty plus the warmth and hospitality offered by its 38,694 Guiuananons.