An Island Paradise’s Private Hideaway

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Breathtakingly beautiful Boracay, the No. 1 tourist destination for foreign and local travelers in the Philippines, is noted for its turquoise waters and gradually sloping, sparkling white-sand beach, voted as one of the best in the world by Beach Bum, BMW Tropical Beach Handbook (1990), London’s Harpers & Queen (August 1990) and the British publication TV Quick (December 21, 1996). Through the years, rapid development along its 3.5-km. long, palm-fringed White Beach has left no room for privacy-seekers like myself.

However, all is not lost, as on the northwest tip of the island, along secluded Punta Bunga Beach, stands The Panoly Resort Hotel, a four-star enclave which possesses its own private beachfront. A personal favorite of mine, having stayed there twice, this Singaporean-owned and -operated resort opened its doors in 1990 (as Club Panoly Resort) and is the first Triple A-rated and the only Gold Crown-awarded (in 2001) resort in Boracay. This getaway from the grind of urban life nests on a four-hectare property hidden from the hustle and bustle of White Beach, yet is just a five-minute boat ride away. Renamed The Panoly Resort Hotel in 2004, it brings the best elements of nature, privacy, comfort, service and fun, creating a totally redefined island experience. Its hospitable staff, more than 50% of which has had more than 10 years of service with the hotel, has always provided personalized, intimate and refined service to all its guests.

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The Panoly consists of a mix of native and contemporary-styled accommodations to suit any guest’s preference. Sprawled throughout the luxurious resort are eight octagonal clusters with five cottages and a four-story hotel with 47 deluxe rooms and eight VIP suites. Each room has a private veranda where one can wake up to see the panoramic view of the resort’s landscape and the beach. The VIP suites have additional amenities such as living room, kitchen facilities, built-in jacuzzi, an in-room safety deposit box and Internet connection, providing total relaxation and security. The custom-designed furniture, made with indigenous creativity and materials, offers guests a truly native experience. Cottages and deluxe rooms are all fully air conditioned, with hot and cold shower, cable TV, minibar, complimentary coffee and tea, and 24-hour IDD telephone facilities, all standard features in all rooms. Internet access is available in the de luxe rooms and suites in the Garden Wing. For conferences, the resort has sheltered outdoor conference/meeting facilities.

For gastronomes, The Panoly has a number of food and beverage outlets. The Yum Yum Asian Seafood Restaurant offers fresh, delicious seafood including crabs, lobsters, oysters and fish. The al-fresco Café Havana, located beside the beach and inspired by the warm and passionate Cuban culture, offers an à la carte menu of Filipino, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Singaporean and Continental cuisine coupled with a relaxing ambiance and beautiful sunset views. Also along the beachfront is the Voodoo Bar. Here, guests share travel experiences, sip unique blends of cocktails and, later, dance the night away, shoeless, to the beat of engaging salsa and Caribbean music.

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For fun under the sun and to keep the guests busy, The Panoly offers a number of sea sports activities. It has its own swimming pool and a dive shop, with trained professional dive instructors and divemasters on hand for beginners and advanced divers. The resort also offers parasailing, banana boat rides, paddleboats, plexi-paved tennis courts, a basketball court and beach volleyball. Indoors, there’s table tennis, billiards and darts. For the more adventurous and for those who want to soak up more of the sun’s rays, The Panoly also offers island-hopping tours, bat cave adventures, picnics at Mount Luho, all-terrain vehicles, horseback riding and jungle trekking, and arrangements can be made for golf at Fairways and Bluewater Golf Club.

After all these activities, you can rest your tired muscles or recharge one’s mind, body and soul at the Panoly Spa, an authentic Thai-style haven located on a cliff overlooking the beach. Here, or on the beach, you can enjoy first-class massages and spa treatments.

Unspoiled Calaguas

Part of my itinerary during my first week of February visit to Camarines Norte was to camp overnight at the famed Calaguas Islands, a group of 17 islands northeast of Daet under the jurisdiction of the town of Vinzons.  This was not to be as three days of continuous rain prevented us from doing so.  Two months later, I was again invited back in the province during the peak of summer, covering the 4th Bagasbas Summer Festival in Daet (held in line with the province-wide Bantayog Festival, the provincial foundation day) with travel blogger and good friend Mark Vincent Nunez.  This time the weather was perfect, with bright sunshine, clear skies and calm seas, and Mark and I were again invited by Provincial Tourism Officer Atty. Debbee Francisco to visit these islands  famed for their Boracay-like (minus the commercial development) white sand beaches.

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Aside from, Debbee and Mr. Amable Miranda, a member of her staff, the boatmen and ABC TV 5 crew Ms. Justine Santos and cameramen Mr. Amor Casiano and Mr. Dencio Suing; Mark and I were joined by participants of the summer surf festival who availed of the special, hassle-free participant’s price of PhP1,350 per person (normal rates range between PhP1,800-2,300) which included the boat ride to and from the island, tents and two meals (dinner and breakfast) with snacks. They include Ms. Joie Lacson, Ms. Iya Yujuico, Ms. Katrina Cruz, Ms. Lei Reinares and Mr. Philipp Cabales of www.pakyaw.com; Mr. Arnel Pahuway of World Vision; and Mr. Darryll Montebon of Jubilee Christian Academy.

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From Daet, we all boarded a van for the short 38-km. drive to Paracale fish port, arriving there by 2:30 PM.  Here, we all boarded a large, 25-pax outrigger boat chartered for us.  Provisions for our overnight stay were loaded as well.  The boat ride took all of two hours, passing by, and viewing from afar, a number of rocky outcrops and beautiful islands with patches of white sand.  We landed on a beautiful cove called Mahabang Buhangin (loosely translated as “long sand”) at the 8 km. long Tinaga Island, the most frequented camping and swimming site for tourists.

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The beach was everything it was hyped up to be: powdery fine and gently sloping white sand, crystal clear waters and blue skies.The beach front, however, are not without owners and one of them is Dr. Orlando Sacay, owner of Waling-Waling-Waling Beach Hotel in Boracay.  Luckily, the owners have refrained from setting up resorts on the island opting, instead, to leave it in its pristine state, possibly because of the great distance of the island from the mainland and the absence of electricity and a substantial water supply.  The island, though, has a village (Barangay Mangcawayan), about a kilometer hike, through a thick forest, to the other side of the island.  Here, you can buy basic supplies.  What it lacks in utilities the island more than makes up with its great beauty and quiet surroundings.  The cool sand was as fine, if not finer, than the powdery white sand of Boracay.

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It was now late in the afternoon (4:45 PM) when we landed on the island and, once the provisions were landed, we all set up our respective dome tents in a shaded area, Mark and I staying in one of the seven tents provided for us.  A comfortable hammock was already in place between two trees.  As the beach faced the west, we were in for a magnificent sunset show.  After a delicious dinner of grilled fish and chicken, we all shared a good chat and laughs while toasting marshmallows over a bonfire. Later, Mark, Amable and I walked along the beach, amply lit by moonlight.  It was already late in the night when we decided to call it a day and retire to our tents, sleeping to the sound of sea waves and cooled by a gentle ocean breeze.

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Come morning, we awoke to a delicious Filipino breakfast, prepared by Amable (it was his birthday that day), of fried rice, fried egg, hot coffee and crispy dilis (anchovies) and espadawhich we all indulged in, kamayan style.   Dabbing on a lot of sunblock, we all savored the sand, sun and sea, doing snorkeling, sunbathing as well as swimming.  Later, some of us tried to burn our excess calories by walking along the beach and then climbing, along a well-marked trail, up a nearby, moderately-sloped hill.   The view up there was truly fantastic, with a bird’s eye view of Mahabang Buhangin Beach on one side and the nearby islands on the other side.  A photographer’s dream, it was truly beauty from every camera angle.

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Our cameras also espied boatloads of tourists coming in from the mainland, it being a Sunday weekend.  It somehow signaled to us that it was time to go and, it was with deep regret that we went down the hill.  Back on the beach, many boats were now unloading their cargo of tourists, surfer friend Mr. Oween Andrade and his family among them, plus their provisions.  It was just fitting that we left by 10 AM, giving up our campsite to these tourists, as we wanted to avoid the influx of this maddening crowd out to savor what we have felt, minus the solitude.  Thus, we left the island with bittersweet memories, hoping one day to again savor its beauty.

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Paradise by Any Other Name

Half of our North Philippines Visitors Bureau (NPVB)/Manila North Tollways Corp. (MNTC)-sponsored Lakbay Norte 2 Media Tour was to cover Cagayan province (the other half being Ilocos Norte), and one of this province’s major draws is the second-class fishing municipality of Sta. Ana, located 158 kms. from Tuguegarao City (a 2-hr. drive) and 651 kms. (an 11-hr. drive) from Manila.  The town is home to the 125-hectare Cagayan Special Economic Zone and Freeport, the fastest-growing industrial, logistics and ecotourism hub in the country. The Cagayan Export Zone Authority (CEZA) manages the free port and attracts new locators into the economic zone.

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It was already late in the evening when we arrived at the 7-hectare Sun City Holiday and Leisure Resort. Sta. Ana Mayor Darwin A. Tobias and a delicious supper awaited us at the resort’s fine-dining Chinese restaurant. Owned by Hong Kong-based Sun City International, the resort used to cater to just mainland Chinese, Taiwanese and Hong Kong high rollers. Now to be opened to Filipinos, we were the first locals to avail ourselves of its world-class facilities. Sun City offers five-bedroom oceanfront villas (each with a private pool), a spa and holistic center, shopping arcade, KTV center, lounge and bar. It was now very late in the evening and I, Ferdz Decena and Gabby Malvar were billeted at a plush two-bedroom villa (one of 99, some of which are oceanfront).

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We woke up very early in the morning to overcast skies and rain. After breakfast at the hotel, we all checked out of our villa and boarded our coaster for the fish port in barangay San Vicente. Point Escarpada, in barangay San Vicente, has the best fishing grounds for marlin, being at the confluence of several ocean currents that carry baitfish and the larger pelagic predators that hunt them. At the port, five motorized outrigger boats were chartered to bring us to the undeveloped and seldom visited 3,850-hectare and volcanic Palaui Island, a 7,415-hectare Protected Landscape and Seascape with a shoreline of 20.6 kms., a length of 10 kms. and a width of 5 kms. The island is inhabited by a community of Dumagats administered by a Filipino church group, and is also home to different monkeys, wild pigs, deer, sea turtle, and various endemic and migratory birds.

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The skies were still overcast when we left the port but our 45-min. boat ride was uneventful until we reached open water when the sea suddenly became choppy, creating mild to wild panic among the other boats but childish exhilaration (except for the visibly worried Astra Alegre) from me and my companions with every rising wave. We first made short landfall at gray sand Siwangag Cove for some photo-ops then returned to our boats for our final landfall at a gorgeous bay with a curving white-sand beach and well-preserved coral. The beach looked really inviting but we weren’t here for swimming or snorkeling. Instead, we opted to visit its picturesque old Cape Engaño Lighthouse (Faro de Cabo Engaño), the northernmost Spanish-era lighthouse in the country.

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Located on the windswept headland of Punta Engaño, it was designed by Engr. Magin Pers y Pers, started in 1887 and completed on December 30, 1892. Upon reaching the end of the beach, we began our ascent up a trail of the 92.75-m. high cone-shaped hill, pausing at intervals to admire the Batanes-like scenery of its surroundings. After a 30-min. hike, we finally reached the lighthouse.  Though now rundown and a little eerie, it was obviously a sight to behold during its heyday.  The back of the lighthouse had a panoramic view of the rolling waves of the Pacific Ocean breaking on the beach and rocky shore, the rolling green-carpeted hills below, the two rocky islands of Dos Hermanas beyond and, farther off, the Babuyan group of islands, leaving all of us awestruck by the sheer beauty of nature before us.

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It was already drizzling when we went down the hill and returned to our boats.  The return trip was just as exhilarating as the previous.  Upon arrival at the port, a prepared lunch awaited us at nearby picnic huts. Later, we were picked up by our Ceza bus and brought to Eastern Hawaii Casino and Resort, where we were to spend our second night in the town. Our media group was welcomed by Front Office supervisor Carl Dulay.

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The suite I had, though less luxurious than Sun City’s, was more spacious with a queen-size bed, cable TV, fridge, toilet and bath, and writing desk. I also had free Wi-Fi but my TV only featured Chinese channels except for the Macau Lotus Channel, which featured some English movies, a reflection of its catering to an all-Chinese clientele before.

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Aside from its air-conditioned suites spread out in a number of four-story buildings, the resort also had its own online casino (the first in the town), a Chinese restaurant and, across the street, an infinity swimming pool, ocean-view villas, watersports center (Jet Skis) and private beach. And just like Sun City, it is also opening its doors to Filipino tourists. Since it was still early in the afternoon, some of the ladies went for a swim at the pool while others, including me, had a chat and merienda with Dulay at a picnic shed by the beach.Dinner that evening, served at the nearly finished clubhouse beside the pool, featured a number of ihaw-ihaw (barbecued) dishes, sizzling sisig, grilled prawns in butter, etc. After dinner, Ma. Theresa “Tess” Liwanag, the resort’s assistant general manager and HR head, hosted a number of team-building games for our group. C’est la vie.

A Paradise Place Called Bolinao

A major destination during our 3-day (April 4-6, 2011) Pangasinan Media Tour (with events organizer Bernard Supetran, travel writers Kara Santos and Vince Lopez, travel blogger Mark Vincent Nuñez and my travel photographer daughter Cheska) was the premier tourism town of Bolinao whose  69,568 people speak the unique Bolinawen dialect.  This wasn’t my first visit to this paradise place, having gone there during a 2005 Holy Week break with my son Jandy and two friends at Patar Beach.

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Four years after my first visit, on May 7, 2009, super typhoon Emong (international code name: Chan Hom, packing winds of 150 kph with a gustiness of 185 kph) made a 7 PM landfall in Bolinao and, in less than an hour, damaged 80-90% of its houses, blocked roads with fallen trees, destroyed 95% of its aquaculture industry and killed at least 20 people (with 4 missing), mostly fish cage caretakers who stayed on their makeshift huts.

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However, nothing could really bring a good town down and, through the cooperation of its townspeople, the town has recovered.  We arrived in town in the midst of a high school graduation in front of the town hall and first visited its venerable Church of St. James the Great. This solid, stone church, built by the Augustinian Recollects in 1609, used to double as a fortress against attacks by pirates, the English, Japanese and Americans.  Today, this church (as well as 25 other churches) is listed by the National Museum as a National Cultural Treasure.

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The church’s roof and ceiling were damaged during the typhoon but its roof and its trusses (now steel) have since been replaced though still ceiling-less. However, the impressive High Renaissance façade, with its weathered wooden santos in the niches, the bell tower and the beautiful, intricately carved retablos remain intact. In front of the church is a memorial marker which challenges the accepted historical fact of the March 31, 1521 first Mass held at Limasawa in Southern Leyte. Instead, the town claims that, in 1324, an Italian Franciscan Fr. Odorico, enroute to China, celebrated a thanksgiving Mass there and also baptized natives.

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We made a brief rest stopover at El Pescador Beach Resort before proceeding to the Bolinao Marine Laboratory, the official marine station, started in 1983, of the Marine Science Institute (MSI), University of the Philippines. Here, we observed the laboratory’s propagation of the endangered giant clam (Family Tridacnidae), sea urchins (locally called uni) and sea cucumbers.

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After lunch at the Bolinao Tourist Center, we next drove up a 107–m. (351-ft.) high promontory in Brgy. Patar called Punta Piedra Point, to the century-old Cape Bolinao Lighthouse, built by American, Filipino and British engineers in 1903.  The original apparatus was made in England and its lantern, with three wicks, was imported from France.

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This 30.79-m. (101-ft.) high lighthouse, the second tallest lighthouse (after Cape Bojeador Lighthouse in Burgos, Ilocos Norte) in the country, guards the entrance to Lingayen Gulf and its light, could be seen 44 kms. (26 miles) out.  Too bad we couldn’t climb its 134-step winding stairway as its gate was locked and the caretaker nowhere to be found.  Typhoon Emongunroofed its administration building, destroyed the solar panels which recharged its two beacon lights but the lighthouse still remains an attraction by itself. Spectacular sunsets and the deep blue sea can be watched at its view deck.

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After our lighthouse tour, we made a short stopover at nearby white sand Abrac Beach (where we shopped for souvenirs), then proceeded to 3-km. long Patar Beach where we visited Solomon’s Paradise Bar Grill Resort.  Operated by Australian Brett Solomon and opened last March 2008, the place truly lived up to its name, being located in a short but very private white sand cove between towering rock formations. Both rock formations each had small huts on top where one could do quiet contemplation while enjoying the invigorating sea breeze and admiring the huge South China Sea waves crashing against the rocky shore, a scene truly reminiscent of the movie “Wuthering Heights.”

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We proceeded along the road to Enchanted Cave, one of three caves (the others are Cindy’s Cave and Wonderful Cave) in Brgy. Patar.  Located in a private property it is, however, open to the public but, you’ll have to pay an entrance fee of PhP30 if you’ll just look at the place and take pictures, and PhP40 if you’ll swim.  Along its paved walkway, we noticed, mixed with the garden landscape, fossilized remains of giant clams discovered in the hilltop, 2 kms. from the cave, and estimated to be about 2-3 million years old.

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We then carefully went down, through a small opening with paved steps and railing, to the cave’s 30-m. freshwater (which some say is unusual for a coral cave) pool with crystal clear water. Adequately lit, it was very humid and musty inside.  According to the caretaker, the pool, connected to an underground river, has depths of 3-6 ft., during low tide, and 3-10 ft. during high tide.  Some scenes in the 1996 movie Ang Pinakamagandang Babae sa Balat ng Lupa (starring Ruffa Gutierrez) and the popular 2008 telenovela Dyesebel (starring Marian Rivera) were shot here.

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On the way back to the Tourist Center, we made a short stopover at a bridge to photograph the the now fishpen-free Balingasay River (Brgy. Balingasay),  twice winner of the Gawad Pangulo sa Kapaligiran Award for inland bodies of water and a recipient of the highly prestigious Wetlands Conservation Award in 1994. Set aside as a protected seascape, it has century-old and new growth mangroves areas (home to many fish species), stretches of attap palms and balete trees hanging into the water. Before leaving, we passed by the multi-disciplinary Bolinao Museum, home to some important Balingasay archaeological finds as well as a natural history collection of Philippine flora and fauna and ethnographic and archaeological materials collected from neighboring Pangasinan towns.

The Marriott Comes to Manila

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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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Back to Batad

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My first trip to Banaue, Ifugao, and its showpiece, the stupendous Batad Rice Terraces (the Eighth Wonder of the World), was way back in April 1998 with my then 11-year-old son Jandy. Back then, there were no cell-phone signals (making my cell phone useless) and the camera I brought with me was an instamatic Canon Sureshot Joy that used your standard-issue film. Since then, I have been pining for a return. Well, wishes do come true, and I have returned.

Though without Jandy (he had a cold) or my daughter Cheska (she had commitments), I was traveling with seasoned professionals, all members of the Ayala Alabang Camera Club (Steve Albano, June Bagaindoc, Jules Capucion, Nonie Castillo, Mel Dimapilis, Rene Enriquez, Bebet Gaudinez, Lawrence Bryan Lee and Rosevie Sevilla), master guide Lester Susi, plus some friends (sisters Pearl Giselle and Phoebe Uno, Ivy Belimac and Arvic Camua).  To put on some professional air, I brought with me my Canon EOS 500D digital SLR, which I recently bought in Singapore.

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BATAD Village(top left), THE Batad Rice Terraces(above), the Eighth Wonder of the World

We left Manila on May 22, 9:30 pm, via an air-conditioned GV Florida bus with its own toilet (convenient for this 341-km/10-hour trip, including stopovers). We arrived in Banaue at 7 am the next day, just in time for breakfast at People’s Lodge and Restaurant (nostalgically the same place I stayed in during my first visit). From its balcony, we had a panoramic view of the town, its backdrop of rice terraces and the winding Ibulao River (traversed by a hanging steel bridge). After some souvenir shopping at nearby stores, it was off, via a hired AUV, to the Km. 12 Junction (called the Saddle), takeoff point for the 4-km hike to Batad.  We only made it halfway, as a fresh landslide blocked our way, adding another 6 km to our arduous hike.

Luckily, there were porters to carry our backpacks (at P200/pack). Still, it wasn’t a walk in the park as we had to hurdle, aside from landslides, aching muscles, sore feet, rough mountain trails (sometimes narrowed to footpaths where only one person at a time could pass) and deep, treacherous ravines. Even in the cold mountain air, most were sweating profusely due to the hot sun. Would-be backpackers gave up their backpacks to porters, one had a bout of gout (nice rhyme there), another collapsed from insulin shock and another was on the watch list (having had a quadruple bypass). Just the same, the photo opportunities were great, plus there were about six rest stations offering relief and refreshments (as well as souvenir items) to hikers.

From the Saddle, it was downhill most of the way, reaching our destination, Simon Viewpoint Inn and Restaurant, by 3 pm. At its view deck was the breathtaking amphitheater vista of the Batad Rice Terraces. Tripods were set up and cameras started clicking.

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After a late lunch and a short power nap, I joined the others in exploring the terraces up to the Central Viewpoint, traversing very narrow pilapil (terrace walls) to get there. Once back at the inn, it was all camaraderie, food (pizza, pita bread, highland rice, veggies, fries, etc.), wine (native rice wine called tappuy) and song (provided by the guitar-playing and crooning Jules).  Lights out at the inn was 10 pm and gladly so, as we were all dead-tired.  Sleep came easy to the weary. Come morning, it was decision time. There were two options. For the adventurous, there was the 30-minute (according to the locals) hike to Tappiya Falls, something I never got to do during my first visit (which was just a day tour).  The other was an easier hike down to Batad proper. I chose the former, but half opted for the latter. Joining me were AACC members Jun, Steve and Vi plus Pearl, Phoebe, Ivy, Arvic and local guide Mang Vicente. After a hearty breakfast, we all left by 7 am, taking the same route to the Central Viewpoint.

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A view of Banaue from People’s Lodge

Beyond the terraces, it was a slow, lung-busting and steep (with slopes reaching 45 degrees) hike. A meandering river came into view, indicating how near we were to our destination. Across this river and upstream along the far bank was the beautiful and impressive, 25-meter-high waterfall with its enormous swimming natural pool. We were in luck as running across the falls was a rainbow, making for another beautiful and rare photo-op. While the others went bathing, Jun, Vi, Steve and yours truly started clicking.

After 30 minutes of this bather’s and photographer’s heaven, it was time to go, as we had another long hard climb ahead. A rest stop at the Central Viewpoint provided an opportunity to pose (for a fee) with Apo Ben, an Igorot dressed up in full tribal dress (complete with spear and feathered headdress). We arrived at the inn by 11 am in time for lunch, but with no power nap as we had to pack. Bebet and Bryan had left by then to allow themselves longer rest stops. We left the inn with our porters by 1 pm. The hard part was the hike, now uphill, to the Saddle but from here it was downhill all the way to our pickup point, arriving by 4:30 pm. Our AUV brought us to the town proper in time for an early pancit dinner. We left Banaue by 6 pm on board a similar GV Florida bus and arrived in Manila by 4:30 am the next day.

Again, this rewarding experience helped me gain a healthier respect for the hardworking Ifugao’s ingenuity, the wonders of God’s creation and, in spite of the long hikes, an additional three pounds (thanks to the pizza and nutritious highland rice!)

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Pearl Farm Beach Resort: The Jewel of Southern Mindanao

Even for a seasoned traveler like me, Mindanao remains one of my least-visited destinations, having only been to Zamboanga City in 1976 and Camiguin Island (and its gateway Cagayan de Oro City) in 2001. Opportunity beckoned anew when I was invited by Mr. Alfredo Roca and Ms. Mitch Garcia, managing director and marketing communications manager, respectively, of Fuego Hotels and Properties Management Corp., to see for myself Pearl Farm Beach Resort on the Island Garden City of Samal in Davao, the third property managed by Fuego Hotels in the country. Upon arrival at Davao International Airport, I was whisked, together with other guests, to the Pearl Farm Marina in Lanang, which has four air-conditioned rooms with bath and cable TV, an indoor restaurant and a swimming pool, all exclusive for guests to enjoy while waiting for the next boat service to the resort, their next flight or just to hang around. From its developed wharf, the resort is a 45-min. motorized boat ride. I went there via a 20-min. speedboat ride and was welcomed at the resort by Mitch together with Mikel Villaverde, the resort’s general manager.

This 11-hectare, Class “AAA” resort, located on a secluded cove at the city’s Kaputian District, was formerly the home, since 1958, of the Aguinaldo Pearl Farm, which produced cultured pink, white and gold pearls from white-lipped oysters brought from Jolo. It ceased operations in 1980 but was developed into a world-class beach resort, which opened in 1992. It started out with 10 hillside cottages and two Samal cottages on stilts. Today the main resort has expanded into 70 guest rooms (17 standard Hilltop rooms, 21 superior Samal Houses, six executive, two-story Samal Suites and 19 de luxe Mandaya Houses and seven Malipano Villas) made mainly with bamboo and wood and harmonizing with the clear blue sea, the white sand and its backdrop of impressive greenery. All rooms, cottages and villas are air-conditioned, with cable TV, minibars, coffee and tea facilities, safety deposit boxes and hair dryers.

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Noted architect Francisco “Bobby” Mañosa designed the cottages and villas as close as possible, in both materials and form, to the Maranao and Samal tribes they were named for. For its depiction of regional traits, the resort received the Kalakbay Award for Best Resort for two consecutive years (1994 and 1995) and was one of the venues of the 1994 Miss Universe pageant. The Samal cottages, one of which was assigned to me, were patterned after the stilt houses of the seafaring Samal tribes of the Sulu archipelago. Its interior focuses on Yakan, Tausug, Maranao and Badjao culture and craft. During the day, schools of tiny fish frolic between the sturdy poles that support my cottage. At night, the sound of the waves, lightly splashing under the floor, is a soothing aid to slumber. A jar of water and a coconut shell dipper are placed near the entrance to each house so that guests may wash away the sand after a day of barefoot walking on the beach. In local custom, this gesture is also symbolic of a cleansing of the spirit.  Getting around the resort is easy as there are two shuttles, one of them electric-powered.

The Maranao Restaurant, a cavernous dining pavilion replete with tribal motifs, has a menu with an assortment of international culinary influences, all wonderfully prepared by Filipino chef Mr. Edgar Chavez. Cocktails, plus inspiring views of the sea and nearby De la Paz and Malipano islands, can be enjoyed at the Parola Bar. Both restaurant and bar offer free Wi-fi access. The resort also has two swimming pools, one of which was built right on the shore, giving the illusion that the pool water meets the sea, while the other has a jacuzzi. The Ylang-Ylang Spa, located beside a waterfall and beneath swaying coconut palms, offers several indulgent body and beauty treatments based on natural products. They include a relaxing Papaya Body Scrub, a revitalizing Honey and Cucumber Facial Cleansing and the refreshing Floral Foot Soak. Massage therapies, embracing the most effective European and Asian techniques and using the stress-busting and soul-soothing power of coconut oil, include the healthy aromatherapy massage.

An aqua sports center offers windsurfing, fishing, jet skiing, sea kayaking, island-hopping, banana boat rides, Hobie cats, wave runners, snorkeling and scuba diving, while a weaving house has a couple of tribal women making colorful tribal dresses, costumes and jewelries. Pearls, hats, T-shirts and other accessories can be bought at the nearby boutique. There are also two function rooms, two tennis courts, game room (billiards, chess, mahjong, etc.), children’s playground and a mini-aviary.

On my last day at the resort, I crossed over (a two-a-half-minute boat ride) with senior sales manager Ms. Eileen F. Tuanio, to the 7-hectare Isla Malipano. Also part of the resort, it has a white-sand beach, an offshore reef plus seven private luxury villas (five three-bedroom and two four-bedroom), each with a wide veranda and its own butler for food orders and other guest assistance. The 200-pax, octagonal and multifunctional Malipano Gazebo, a perfect alternative for weddings, theme parties and other occasions, is located at the other end of the island.

The wrecks of two World War II Japanese freighters are located 60 meters away and in front of the resort. The 40-m.(132-ft.) long Wreck I is located just a few meters from the resort’s Samal houses, in 35 m. (115 ft.) of water. Here, you can find groupers, jacks, moray eels and others. For advanced divers, an open-bay hatch allows safe penetration. It is also recommended for underwater photography. The slightly smaller, 35-m. (115-ft.) long Wreck II rests on its side at a shallower depth of 28 m. (98 ft.) of water.

Club Balai Isabel: Dive Into Lovely Lakeside Living

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One special summer weekend worth looking back to was my visit to 10-hectare Club Balay Isabel in Brgy. Banga in Talisay, Batangas. This spur-of-the-moment day trip, with events organizer Mr. Bernard Supetran, his son and his niece, again brought me fac e-to-face with Taal Volcano, the world’s smallest and deadliest volcano, and Club Balai Isabel, opened in 2007, was to be our jump-off point. We left Manila early in the morning, got tied up in South Luzon Expressway (SLEX) traffic. We took the Sta. Rosa Exit, drove along the Santa Rosa-Tagaytay Road, turned left along Aguinaldo Highway and drove down Ligaya Drive. We still managed to get to the resort in time for a Filipino breakfast at its full-service restaurant within the clubhouse, with its magnificent view of Taal Lake and Taal Volcano. It also has a business center and a novelty shop.

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We were welcomed by resort owner and Talisay native Nelson Terrible and his wife Cecille.  After breakfast, I still had time to explore the resort’s accommodations and facilities, which include residential houses and two boutique-style clusters: the Sampaguita Manor, with its six hotel-type rooms with minirefs, hot and cold shower and balcony, all nestled on a garden of different trees and ornamental plants; and the Ylang-Ylang Villa, which offers six two-story, kitchen-furnished studio units, all ideal for families. Since the long lake shoreline is not recommended for swimming (because of the murky and deep water), the resort has put up, aside from its free-form swimming pool, the Mobideep, an inflatable swimming pool with separate pools of different depths. Its deepest pool, measuring 21 ft., is even used for scuba-diving training. The challenging Balikatan Course, consisting of five different obstacles, is mostly used for company team-building. Apart from its swimming pools, the resort also has tennis, badminton and basketball courts, and guests can also rent a kayak to go around the lake.

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Then, it was time to go. Aside from the other resort guests, we were with distinguished company, as joining our trek to the volcano were the three Filipino women who conquered Mt. Everest just a year ago. This was to be my third visit to the volcano and my second to the viewpoint (the other was a trek to the crater lake itself).  To get to Volcano Island, we used a number of the resort’s 32 accredited motorized bancas. After a 30-minute trip that took us around the island, past the 311-meter high (the island’s highest point) Mt. Binintiang Malaki (seemingly featured on most Taal Volcano postcards like an island but actually connected to the real Volcano Island), we arrived at the Welcome Center. From there, it was all 45 minutes of hiking, first along the beach, then into a shady forest and, on our last leg, up a steep, dusty and treeless trail up to the viewpoint. The viewpoint was a cool welcome relief for its shade and its magnificent bird’s-eye view of the beautifully azure and seemingly peaceful crater lake with its small island. The trek back to the Welcome Center and our boats was faster but very slippery.

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Once back at the resort, we all proceeded to Kasay-Kasay Hall, one of the resort’s two function rooms (the other is Kasili Hall) for a buffet lunch. After lunch, a press conference was held centering on the three Pinay Mt.  Everest Team members—Janet Belarmino-Serdenia, Carina Dayondon and Noelle Wenceslao—who narrated their trials and tribulations before and during their conquest of Mount Everest.  During the presscon, Mr. Terrible also expressed his concerns regarding the environment. To encourage environment protection and conservation from the community, the resort has started a Solid-Waste Management project wherein Talisay residents can avail themselves of support from the resort in the form of loans or financial backing for community projects on the condition that they turn in a certain amount of recyclable waste materials to the resort. According to Mr. Terrible, this concerted effort will make people realize that nature and Taal Lake should be protected to be able to retain their livelihood, especially fishing and tourism. The resort, on the other hand, also addresses the water shortage problem (one of the biggest environmental problems that the country has to face in the coming years) by using filtered lake water for the swimming pool as well as for Mobideep. They also make sure that they are using low energy-consumption equipment in the resort.

In the near future, Club Balai Isabel will be adding more facilities, including a recreation center equipped with videoke, a movie room, billiard tables, Wi-Fi and Playstation 3 rooms, an Internet shop, a tea lounge and a library. Wi-Fi will also be made available in the public areas. The resort will also be building facilities for skim and wake boarding. A wellness center, offering medical spa and traditional medical facility as well as noninvasive therapies and executive checkups for tourists and guests, will also be opened. Terrible is particularly excited about the opening of the Spa Suites, eight roomy huts which will have a queen-sized bed, private bathroom and a private jacuzzi in a lush garden setting. Club Balai Isabel will soon offer the Taal Lake Cruise using their 20-person Cancun that is equipped with washroom and minibar.

To also get to the resort from the Slex, you can also take the Greenfield/Asia Brewery exit and head toward Tagaytay City. Turn left at Calamba Road, then turn right at Ligaya Drive and head toward Talisay. Turn left at the junction of Talisay National Road and look for the entrance of Club Balai Isabel, which will be at the right side of the road.

Experiencing the Divine in Davao

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Davao City, the fastest-growing city in the country after Manila, is the undisputed center for trade, convention and tourism in Mindanao, and is a prime destination for tourism and investments in the Philippines, the BIMP-Eaga (Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East Asean Growth Area) and the Asia-Pacific region. This 2,443.61-sq. km. city, 7.8 times the size of Metro Cebu and three times that of the entire Metro Manila, is the largest city in the Philippines (in terms of land area) and is said to be the second largest in the world (after Mexico City). Davao is also one of several cities in the Philippines that are independent of any province (though it is usually grouped with Davao del Sur for statistical purposes). It is divided into three congressional districts, which are further divided into 11 administrative districts containing a total of 184 barangays.

Big as it is in size as well as in hype, this sprawling urban metropolis was still recently acclaimed by Asiaweek Magazine as one of Asia’s most livable cities. Why? There are many compelling reasons people—including my good friend and fellow architect Jose “Jay” Mendoza—chose Davao over any other place in the country, as well as in Southeast Asia. As varied as the reasons and factors may be, they still all sum up to one thing: quality of life.

The Best of Everything

Today, the city remains clean and green, its air is fresh, and the quality of potable water is among the best in the world. Davao also has a balmy climate, is typhoon-free and traffic-free (Davao is ranked No. 5 among cities in Asia with better traffic flow based on vehicles per kilometer of city road). Huge as it is, only about 10% of the total land area is used for residential, institutional, commercial and industrial purposes, vast tracts being fertile valleys, rolling hills, lush foliage, majestic ridges and pristine beaches. The city boasts of some of the finest beaches and mountain resorts in the country, plus its proximity to the Philippines’ most captivating diving spots as well as Mount Apo, the country’s highest peak, has made Davao the “Destination of the Year” during Kalakbay Awards (National Tourism Award).

Orchards and fruit plantations that eat up a large chunk of the total land area have also continually made the city livable.  The city’s more than 1,000 sq. kms. of lush tropical forest (about 47% of its total land area) plus its typhoon-free weather have also provided an environment that is conducive for rare plants to thrive and flourish. With its many flower gardens at Baguio, Calinan, Toril and Tugbok Districts, Davao City is specifically known, among florists all over the world, for its famous waling-waling (Vanda sanderiana).  Considered as one of the most beautiful orchids in the world, it grows in natural abundance at the foot of Mt. Apo. Aside from being known as the “Orchid Capital of the Country,” the city also earned the moniker “Fruit Basket of the Country” because of its wide array of available fruits such as bananas, sweet mangoes, juicy watermelons, succulent pomelos, pineapples, avocados, langka, mangosteen, lanzones, rambutan and the downright pungent but heavenly tasting durian.

There are also a variety of reasons the city’s 1,725,355 (2005 estimate) population swells to about 2.5 million people in the daylight hours. For one, the city plays host to 39 schools (universities and technical colleges), offering a system of education that is on a par with the best in the region. From the most basic needs to life’s little pleasures, the city’s shopping scene has become more vibrant with the sprouting of big malls that provide enjoyable shopping experiences and offer more value for money. With its mix of Asian, Spanish and American cultures, Davao dining also offers a variety of culinary delights that will excite even the most discriminating gourmet. Chinese, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Korean and other cuisines are also included in the menu of specialty restaurants. The freshness of ingredients harvested from the sea and the farms have also provided a fulfilling taste that is distinctly Davao. The city is known for its inihaw (grilled) tuna and kinilaw (local version of sashimi using tuna or blue marlin strips), and these delectable dishes could be savored in a variety of dining destinations within the city, on top of hills or  along the shore (offering a panoramic view of the Davao Gulf).

Modern, sophisticated, readily available and state-of-the-art facilities and equipment for conventions and conferences, complemented by the establishment of new (over 2,500 rooms in 1999) first-class hotels and mountain resorts, have made Davao the business, investment and tourism hub for southern Philippines. With a bigger space to accommodate more people than other cities in the region, Davao is also being geared to become a better retirement haven in this part of the region. The city is being primed up to serve as the health- and medical-care center of Eaga.

Davao City is very accessible, with regular air, sea and land linkages to major points in the country. By plane, Manila is one hour and 40 minutes away, while Cebu City is only 30 minutes away. There are also daily flights to Singapore (via Silk Air), twice weekly flights to Manado (Indonesia) and chartered flights (three to four times a week) to Seoul (South Korea). The Francisco Bangoy International Airport (Davao International Airport), expanded (to accommodate wide-bodied jets such as the Boeing 747) and modernized from 1998 to its opening in 2003, is now the busiest airport in Mindanao. By land, the city can also be accessed from Zamboanga City, while Cagayan de Oro City (Misamis Oriental) is linked to the city by the scenic Davao-Bukidnon Highway. Its fine natural harbor and two ports (Sasa Wharf and Sta. Ana Wharf), sheltered by Samal Island, facilitates its role as an international port.

Tacloban City: Gateway to the Eastern Visayas

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My introduction to Tacloban City in Leyte, and to this region for that matter, it being the gateway to the Eastern Visayas, came when my brother-in-law married a Waray and decided to live there. Since then I have become a regular visitor, using the city as a stepping stone to exploring the wonders of the region.

Through the years this 108.56-sq km. city of 178,639 Taclobanons has also grown by leaps and bounds to become the commercial, educational, cultural and social center of Leyte and the premier city in the region. The city’s name was derived from the panaklub, a woven rattan or split bamboo contraption used to catch crabs, shrimps or fish.  Tacoban is worth a longer stay, it being steep with World War II history.

Unknown to many, the Provincial Capitol (built in 1907), along Sen. Enage Street, became the seat of the Commonwealth government when Pres. Sergio Osmeña came in 1944 with the liberation forces of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. The Redoña Residence, along T. Claudio Street, was the official residence of Osmeña and his staff until the reestablishment of the Commonwealth in Manila. MacArthur, on the other hand, stayed for three months at the more spacious Price Mansion (now the College Assurance Plan Building), along Justice Romualdez Street, an American colonial house built in 1910 by American businessman Walter Price.  Here, the general escaped injury when a Japanese bomb penetrated the roof over his room but failed to explode.  The hole left by that attack can still be seen.  The story of the liberation is best seen, in pictures, during a stay or visit to Hotel Alejandro, along P. Paterno Street. Formerly the residence of Dr. Alejandro Montejo, built in 1932, it was occupied by the Japanese Imperial Army and later, during the liberation, by American war correspondents. Displays of original photographs of the Leyte Landing and Gen. MacArthur are everywhere within its halls

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The status of Tacloban as the gateway to the region was further enhanced with the completion of the San Juanico Bridge, which connects Leyte with Samar. Crossing San Juanico Strait (considered the narrowest but most navigable strait in the world) at Brgy. Cabalawan, it is was formerly called the Marcos Bridge and was inaugurated on July 2, 1973.  Located 10 kms. from the city, this impressive S-shaped bridge, the longest in the country (and in Southeast Asia), is a major link in the 3,000-km. Pan-Philippine Highway. Also said to be the most beautifully designed bridge in the country, it is 2,162.4 m (7,092 ft) long, 10.62 m wide with 43 spans and towers 41 m. above the sea at its highest point. The S-shaped structure, on the Samar side, had to be adopted to make use of the importance of the existing islet, the Cabalauan islet that lies in the middle of the San Juanico Strait between the two island provinces of Samar and Leyte.  This islet serves as resting point and provides added support to the massive structure soaring over the swift currents of the strait. Any short visit to the city is never complete without crossing this bridge.

Leyte is identified with former first lady and art patron Imelda Marcos, who was born in nearby Tolosa. In the city, her spirit lives on at the Sto. Niño Shrine and Heritage Museum, along Real Street. This colonial-style structure, built from 1979 to 1981, housed her vast collection of art objects from all over the world. The museum has an image of the Sto. Niño by Fernando Amorsolo, paintings (including the 14 Stations of the Cross by Filipino painters), priceless furniture, musical instruments, fine English, French and Chinese porcelain, wooden bas-relief of the legend of Malakas and Maganda (the Filipino version of Adam and Eve), ivory and wooden sculptures of local, English, Russian, French and Chinese origin, 13 tastefully decorated guest rooms of varied Filipino motifs, a spacious ballroom, chapel and other priceless collectors items.

Another must-see for art lovers is the 40-ft high Crucified Christ, along Magsaysay Boulevard. Designed by sculptor Nemesio R. Miranda Jr. (Nemiranda for short) and unveiled in 2002, it has the map of Leyte interpreted as a sculptural island, shaped by nature into the image of the crucified Christ. Nearby is a symbol of peace between the Philippines and Japan, the Madonna of Peace. Located at the foot of Kanhuraw Hill, near the City Hall, this Japanese-funded multi-tiered landscaped garden has a lovely statue of the Goddess of Peace called Maria Kannon, fashioned by a famous contemporary Japanese sculptor from a rare piece of miyagi stone. It has a panoramic view of Cancabato Bay.

For those who want to experience three fiestas rolled into one, visit the city during the Tacloban Festival, held on June 28 and 29 in honor of patron saint Sto. Niño de Leyte. The Subiran Regatta, on June 28, is an annual boat race held within the Cancabato Bay area and is participated in by different fishermen using subirans (a native sailboat with outriggers used in small-scale fishing). The race is done without using the paddle, using only their skill and techniques in maneuvering the sail. The Pintados de Leyte, on June 29, features street pageantry of ethnic dancing to the rhythm of bamboo sticks and a contest focusing on the Leyteños’ old custom of tattooing that signifies courage and status in the community, which earned for the Leyteños the name of pintados. The Balyuan, also on June 29, is an afternoon pageant reenacting the historical exchange of images between barrio Buscada of Basey, Samar, and Sitio Kankabatok (now Tacloban City).