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Batanes: A Year After

Posted on 09 April 2013 by Ariel Vinarao

Me outside one of the stone houses in Savidug.

Me outside one of the stone houses in Savidug.

It’s Holy Week 2013 here in the Philippines. Since work left  me with too little time to book an airline ticket and hotel accommodation for travel during the long holiday, I decided to stay home and write about my Holy Week travel last year. I have been wanting to go to Batanes (the northernmost part of the Philippines and is also the smallest province in terms of population and land area) for the longest time and it has been in my bucket list since the stone age. And the dream became a reality a year ago. The trip was initially planned for two persons but something came up with my companion and it left me with no choice but to travel alone since nobody wants to go with me. Ha! Ha! Hotel accommodation was booked a year earlier and the airline ticket was bought 6 months before I flew to my shangri-la.

Holy Wednesday, 4th of April 2012, the day of my flight to Batanes. I overslept! I arrived at the airport to find the counter closed 30 minutes before the scheduled take off time at 5:15am. I was at a loss. I didn’t know what to do. One year of preparation and there I was feeling numb and about to cry. The ground crew of Seair told me to go to their office next door and have my flight re-booked the following day. And so, that’s what I did. Luckily, there was still a vacant seat for the flight the following day and they were able to accommodate me for no extra charge. I went home, had lunch with a friend and slept the whole afternoon till early evening to make sure I will stay awake hours before my flight. Arrived at the airport at 3am the following day. The flight was slow but it was smooth.

Maundy Thursday, 5th of April 2012. Touchdown Batanes! The airport looks new but it has an old-fashioned attractiveness and charm because of its stone walls, which is peculiar to the island for it is frequented by typhoons. I didn’t know a single soul, but I spotted a few familiar faces in the crowd in the arrival area. They were a group of celebrities from Manila. The moment I went out, I immediately saw my name on a small board being held by a middle-aged man. He’s the driver from Fundacion Pacita, the hotel I was billeted for the next three days. The van ride to the hotel was nothing but magnificent. Hills and ocean as far as your eyes can see. There are occasional cows, too. No high rise buildings, no wide roads, no traffic, no pollution. “This is going to be a very good Holy Week”, I said to myself.

Fundacion Pacita seen from the reception area.

Fundacion Pacita seen from the reception area.

My jaw dropped when I alighted from the van upon arriving at the hotel. The hotel’s exterior is so beautiful. It’s on top of rolling hills and sits at the edge of a cliff almost kissing the ocean below. This used to be the studio of internationally-acclaimed artist Pacita Abad. The hotel is full of her artworks. I was mesmerized! So, I picked up my jaw from the ground only to drop it again when I entered my room. The room I reserved is called the Idawud Room. It is the corner room in the far end of the main building and the private viewing deck is facing the vast ocean. The room has large glass windows that offered a good view of the blue sea. I asked the attendant, ” Is this viewing deck mine alone?” She replied, “Yes Sir, all yours until you leave on Sunday. By the way Sir, your breakfast is now ready in the main dining hall. But you have a choice if you want your meals served here in your room or in your view deck.” A tear fell on my cheek when she left and closed the door behind her. This is so surreal! My dream is now starting to unfold. I started to unpack my things and started taking pictures of my room. It’s a good thing that I have complimentary bottles of water, coffee and tea complete with a boiling pot. The phone rang and I was informed that my tour guide is now ready and waiting for me outside. Adventure awaits. . . .

Key to the Idawud Room.

Key to the Idawud Room.

We started off by visiting DOST’s PAGASA Station where they used to monitor the weather of the islands. I think this is no longer operational because there were no people inside the building. Not far from the station is the  Tukon Church which was built by the Abads. The ceiling was painted by local artists. These artists are supported by the hotel’s foundation because art is very close to Pacita’s heart. The Japanese tunnel is next on the list. They said that a lot of Japanese tunnels were constructed in World War II. The one we went to had some type of bunkers where the soldiers slept and they also kept their food. When we were navigating the interior of this tunnel, the walls were moist and there was a 90 degree drop. When we emerged from the tunnel, another view of rolling hills greeted us. We then proceeded to the lighthouses of Basco and Mahatao. These lighthouses are open and you can actually go inside and take pictures from its viewdeck. When you’re up there, you can just close your eyes for a moment and thank God for all these wonderful creations. We had to stop for lunch at Ms. Lydia Roberto’s restaurant. It was sumptuous, complete with uvud balls, calamari, soup and fried fish dish. The rest of the afternoon was devoted to the Chapa view deck where there is a small grotto and it offers a great view of the ocean and the hills. The Valugan Boulder beach was mind-blowing. You can’t help but wonder, where did all those boulders come from? They said that the boulders were once spewed by Mt. Iraya when it erupted decades ago. However, the Ivatans started quarrying these stones and boulders to build the walls of their houses. It is now prohibited to quarry these stones. Here now comes the Honesty Coffee shop. A lot have been said about this store. There is nobody in this store, just the goods. If you need something, by all means, get it and drop your payment in the box. I have read that the owner felt that she would be wasting her time if she would stay in the store the whole day. She might as well do her farming. Batanes, if I am not mistaken, has zero crime rate. Maybe she was banking on this that’s why she trusts all the people coming to her store. Last stop for the day was the House of Dakay. This is the oldest stone house in Batanes and the current occupant is Frestilda Dakay. In other blogs and write ups, she is named as Florestida Estrella or Lola Ida. She’s a bubbly, fine lady who speaks impeccable English. She talked about her growing up years and their life during the war. It was a very nice experience to talk to Lola Ida as the sun was setting on the horizon. I was smiling during the drive back to my hotel. Just a day in this beautiful island and a lot has happened. The sight of my room refreshed me. I took a long bath and got ready for dinner at Lydia Roberto’s again.

Since I knew that I will be travelling alone, I made arrangements before I left Manila with the famous photographer, that I will be joining her photo safari group for two days. And they will be arriving on Good Friday.

Good Friday, 6th of April 2012. Slept for the 8 straight hours. The sound of the waves the night before slowly dozed me to sleep. It’s a new day, new adventure! I was informed that I will picked up at around 9:30am. The photographer’s group will be arriving from Manila early. I heard a soft knock on my door. It was the hotel’s attendant. He’ll be bringing in my breakfast and he suggested that he set it up in my view deck. According to him, nothing beats enjoying an early breakfast in the view deck because everything is so serene. His words were true. The brewed coffee was really good as well as the beef tapa. They always include sweet potato in their set breakfast. Somehow the sweet potato in Batanes seem to taste differently, much sweeter. After breakfast, the photo safari group arrived on time. from here on all my meals and transportation has all been paid for from the fee I paid to join the group. We were taught all about photography the whole day while transferring from one spot to another. Fashion photography with the group members as models, portraiture, landscape photography as well. We were also taught how to use ambient light, how to diffuse our lighting and all. This day was a rewarding day for me because I was able to learn a lot from a very accomplished photographer.

Black Saturday, 7th of April 2012. We had to be up early today because we are going to cross the West Philippine Sea going to Sabtang. As I have read, the waves in the ocean can really go crazy. I informed the hotel’s kitchen that I need to have my breakfast very early on this day. I had it set up inside my room because it was still a bit dark outside. The staff were very efficient and well-mannered. Anyway, quick breakfast, quick bath and off we go to Ivana port to ride the falowa boat going to Sabtang island. When we got to the port at 8am, there were already tourists and locals queuing for the boat ride to the next island. The waters look calm but we still needed to wait for the approval of the coast guard if we can cross or not. We set sail at around 8:45am. The boat ride was quiet, just a few big waves and it took us 40 minutes to reach Sabtang Island. When we docked, the mayor of Sabtang was there to greet us. After the necessary paper works about registration, we went straight to the Sabtang Church. This church was built by the Dominicans in 1785. It was left behind in 1791 when the people in Sabtang were forced to transfer to Ivana. It was rebuilt in 1844 under the supervision of Fr. Antonio Vicente, O.P. The belfry was reconstructed by Fr. Gumersindo Hernandez, O.P. after it was detroyed by a typhoon in 1956. After talking to the current parish priest, we boarded our jeep and proceeded with our long and bumpy ride to Savidug. Savidug is the town in Sabtang where you can see the old stones houses in Batanes. We also went to Chamantad-Tinyan Sitio where the view is just awesome. Last stop is the Nakabuang Beach where we had a really tummy-filling lunch.  This beach is the one with a natural arch of stone and moss and has white sand. And now, it’s time to sail back to Batan island. It was already 4pm. The boat ride back to Batan was nowhere near calm. Ha! Ha! For a first time tourist, it was kind of scary. The locals however, can still afford to talk and laugh. We arrived safely after the looooong ride. After dinner, it was already time to pack my things for my flight back to Manila the following day. Batanes is quite expensive. But everything was all worth the money. It was sad that this adventure had to end. Memories were made and these will last a lifetime. But reality is kicking back in. I need to work and save for another adventure in the future.

My view deck at dusk.

My view deck at dusk.

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4 Hours In Manila’s China Town

Posted on 08 February 2011 by Mac Dy

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Tired of modern shopping malls and predictable amenities? Try Manila’s Chinatown, aka the Binondo/Ongpin area, a 45-minute drive from Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA). Most public transport operators won’t be too familiar with Chinatown, but using its alias will get you there as quickly as traffic jams will allow.

Many Chinatowns are considered to be tourist traps. In Manila, this is where locals go to get their goods — from wet markets to wholesale and everything in between. A lot of shops are still on a cash basis for payment and restaurants remain authentically Chinese. From Monday to Saturday, business is brisk and usually attracts a sea of people. On Sunday it is quiet: almost a ghost town.

Although the Binondo/Ongpin area has one of the most expensive real estate properties in the Philippines one of the biggest concerns for tourists is safety. This is one of the oldest areas with all types of characters in every nook and cranny. The keyword here is inconspicuousness. Dress down that DSLR, keep the jewelry to the minimum and tuck the passport/wallet some place safe. This is not to deter the future visitor, but to avoid a troublesome scenario as the Philippines is synonymous with long lines and red tape.

Do enjoy your visit to the Binondo/Ongpin area. Manila’s Chinatown will definitely be one place to tickle the senses.

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Trekking Mt. Pinatubo, Philippines

Posted on 21 October 2010 by Mac Dy

In June of 1991, a volcano in the Philippines erupted and some considered it to be the biggest eruption in living memory. Lahar flow covered much of the surrounding villages, towns and forest. Neighboring cities were carpeted in a layer of ash that put normalcy on hold for months. The eruption rendered 2 of the biggest US bases in Southeast Asia useless and affected the rest of the world through weather patterns.

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The 1 sign that signals you have arrived.

Now adventurers seeking beautiful Mt. Pinatubo can contact tours that cater to groups. Going on your own is not recommended as guides and 4×4 jeeps are required to reach the Mt. Pinatubo crater lake. The lake was carved from the explosive power of the eruption. It now acts as a reservoir for rain water.

Trips from Metro Manila starts before dawn just to reach the Pinatubo Spa Town in Barangay Santa Juliana, Capas, Tarlac by 6am. With traffic along the highways the trip takes approximately an hour or 2. Pinatubo Spa Town is the main stop for all private vehicles and the place to register in case of emergency.

To reach the trek point for the Pinatubo crater lake all adventurers must pile into 4×4 jeeps with local drivers. They will race through rough lahar roads that are carved by rain water flowing down from Pinatubo. The 45 minute trip will go through remnants of towns and villages that were buried during the lahar flow.

Once reaching the initial trek point for the lake you must take a bathroom break unless going au-naturel is your thing. Here, two outhouse style comfort rooms provide the basic-lets take a whiz and run type of scenario. Usually, the crowds get too big and these are mostly used by the women. Men, well, should just improvise. The next bladder break will be at the crater lake.

Pinatubo Spa Town, Tarlac, Philippines. Mandatory registration before heading out.

Pinatubo Spa Town, Tarlac, Philippines. Mandatory registration before heading out.

The guide, a local Aeta tribesman, will take the group up the lush green forest of the mountain side to the beautiful Pinatubo crater lake. Depending on how fast a group travels, the trek will take up 30 minutes to an hour. He can help to carry a ton of baggage and still have a limb to spare for the ice box of sandwiches and drinks that the tour provides. The guides, friendly and helpful knows the path like the back of their hands- much, much better than a GPS.

Once at the top of Mt. Pinatubo, take a 15 minute breather and enjoy the amazing view. Then it will be off again down 5 or 6 stories worth of stair way carved from hardened lahar to the crater lake. Spend a few hours at the lake to have snacks, a dip in the water and a boat ride to the other side of the lake. Mt. Pinatubo is still active and on the other side the crisp blue water is much warmer, albeit hot. Relax a bit in the volcanic hot water before taking the trip back down. Keep in mind, Mt. Pinatubo is still brewing it’s lavas down below and it will make the trip that much more worth it.

Things to bring: trekking gear, good hike shoes, sunglasses, candy/power bars, a bottle or 2 of water, change of clothes, towels and swimsuits just in case you want to take a dip in the lake.

Recommended time to go: November-February. It’s not so hot during these months and tropical typhoons are at it’s low season.

All photographs © 2010 Mac Dy

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Cruising lahar flat lands on 4x4 jeeps.

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Local Aeta tribesmen on the lahar path on a more traditional 4x4.

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Hiking up the lush trail at the foot of Mt. Pinatubo.

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The welcoming view of the crater lake.

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View of the lake from the 5 or 6 story stairway to get down to the lake.

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In the middle of Mt. Pinatubo crater lake-transport for getting to the 'hot spring' side.

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Lonely Planet’s backpackers’ tips for Asia

Posted on 10 September 2010 by Joel Quenby

Lonely Planet’s Tom Hall recently gave the UK’s Guardian newspaper his picks for the hottest tickets for young travelers looking for economical ways to navigate the region

INDONESIA: The Eastern Islands

Flying into Flores, though LP says go by boat (by Prilfish via Flickr Creative Commons License)

Flying into Flores, though LP says go by boat (by Prilfish via Flickr Creative Commons License)

LONELY PLANET SAYS: Flores is home to world-class diving, volcanic lakes and empty white-sand beaches. Start … from Bali via Komodo or Rinca on a Perama boat—you’ll pick up enough suggestions on the way to work out the rest for yourself!”

PHILIPPINES: El Nido

Volcanic beauty: El Nido (by Vanna GocaraRupa via Flickr Creative Commons License)

Volcanic beauty: El Nido (by Vanna GocaraRupa via Flickr Creative Commons License)

LONELY PLANET SAYS: “If you’re in search of stunning coastline and beaches, El Nido in northern Palawan is the place. This small, chilled-out town has plenty of amenities, but development remains slow meaning accommodation can be limited and the place never gets too busy.”

ASIA: The Andaman Islands

Not a lot in Havelot, I mean Havelock (by Kai Hendry via Flickr Creative Commons License)

Not a lot in Havelot, I mean Havelock (by Kai Hendry via Flickr Creative Commons License)

LONELY PLANET SAYS: “Two and a half hours by ferry from Port Blair, the islands’ main town, Havelock, is a pretty good approximation of a backpacker paradise, with great snorkeling,  and cheap eating and lodging.”

ASIA: Bangladesh

Boating at dawn near the Bay of Bengal (By joiseyshowaa, courtesy of Flockr Creative Commons License)

Boating at dawn near the Bay of Bengal (By Joisey Showaa via Flickr Creative Commons License)

LONELY PLANET SAYS: “This underrated country might just be the world’s best-value country for travelers. Marvelous meals will cost less than US$1, and a midrange hotel room less than $10.”

ASIA: India’s Northeastern States

in Northeastern India (by Old Fashind via Flickr Creative Commons License)”]Technicolor melting pot and spotting rhinos  [inset] in Northeastern India (by Old Fashind via Flickr Creative Commons License)

Technicolor melting pot and spotting rhinos [inset

LONELY PLANET SAYS: “India’s final frontier—the “seven sister states” of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizaram, Nagaland, and Tripura—hides obscure tribal societies, forested hills and the feeling you’re breaking new ground.”

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Batanes – Philippine’s last frontier

Posted on 25 May 2010 by clairealgarme

by: Claire Algarme

It was a small plane that flew us to Batanes, the northernmost part of the Philippines, and not usually frequented by travelers. Flights are few, and often have to cancel when a storm enters the country. Even without a typhoon detected, the waves surrounding Batanes furiously splash on its rocky beaches and cliffs. Located between the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean, Batanes seems helpless in the middle of the vast raging waters.

We left Manila scorching under the early Asian summer and arrived in Batanes greeted by slight drizzle and a steady breeze. Our accommodations was located near the Boulder Beach, a small cottage that fit all eight of us. A separate cottage houses the dining area and the shower room and toilet. There was also a small swimming pool good only for dipping.

Batanes introduced me not only to the harsh climate brought about by the ocean, but also to the sunshiny disposition of the locals. Ivatans, as what they are called, are friendly and open. They have learned how to keep a positive outlook in life, situations, and people around them and find a silver lining in their remoteness and challenging weather conditions.

We visited Sabtang Island where fishing villages were found. Old stone houses that have braved wind and water stood proud and formidable. Interestingly, we met Marcelo Hestarilo, aged 103 years, who was witness to the wars, storms and celebrations that have rocked their province.

A visit to Batanes will not be complete without a tour of its rolling hills, thrilling cliffs, and breathtaking landscapes. We sat there marveling at the blue sea, watching the cows grazing, breathing in fresh air, and waiting for the sun to kiss the ocean’s end.
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Claire Algarme loves to travel and write. She authors the blog, First-time Travels.

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Angus Bacon at Katre

Posted on 23 November 2009 by Darediva

Katre's Angus Bacon

Katre's Angus Bacon

I used to think that all bacon were created equal because I had never tasted bacon I didn’t like. To be sure, there were nuances in flavor but all invariably gave me the rush of endorphins that I needed to feel filled and fulfilled.

But one night at Katre restaurant, I discovered the hierarchy of bacon. I was there with friends for a send-off party at a private function room. We were all having a hard time choosing from the ample selection, and trying to outdo the other by ordering the most sinful, calorie-drenched dish on the menu. I couldn’t decide between the paella and the barbecue ribs, both of which I had enjoyed on previous occasions, so I ordered both.

The ribs was as I had remembered it – the flavorful meat, glazed with barbecue sauce and with the right trimming of fat to send me into a frenzy, was clinging precariously to the bone, and gave absolutely no resistance when I poked it with a knife.

The paella, however, was a disappointment. The rice I had fallen in love with – not the traditional Arborio, but a long-grained, chewy variety whose name now escapes me but whose texture and flavor left an indelible impression – had been replaced with couscous, which, in my view, did not provide enough surface for the proper coating of spices in the paella.

I nursed my paella failure by licking every sliver of meat off the rib bones. I thought myself satisfied, until my friend Bambi  graciously offered me a slice of Angus bacon from her husband’s plate. One slice and one big bite later, I must have blown a synapse because suddenly all I could manage was a long, emphatic Mmmmmmmm. Another friend was offered a bite. He proved to have more resilient neurons for he managed to say, “Panalo! (Winner!)” In a conspiracy to have at least one more taste, Dingdong and I ordered Angus bacon for Perl who called to say he was arriving late. So taste it one more time we did, and again my vocabulary was reduced to that of a one-year-old’s.

I vowed that night that I will be back. I will have a serving of Angus bacon all to myself, chew the meat and fat with equal passion, and pay the chef the best compliment of all – a clean plate.

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Flying Sky High

Posted on 03 November 2009 by Nellie Huang

Kitesurfing in Boracay - Photo by Alvin Gumba

Kitesurfing in Boracay - Photo by Alvin Gumba

Forget surfing or wake boarding. These days, golden-skinned surfers prefer to fly sky high. Or at least as high as the winds can bring them.

Kite-surfing has caught the eyes of many, becoming a sort of celebrity in the water sports scene. Rightfully so, with a lethal combination of strong winds and wave-cutting surfboard, kite-surfing is here to stay.

If there is only one place you”d kite-surf in South East Asia, it has to be Boracay.With an extended shallow shoreline and consistent cross-shore winds, Bulabog Lagoon is secretly hidden in a secluded end of the island. Plenty of kitesurfing schools organize courses ranging from 2-hour discovery lessons to 3-day certification course. (Prices start from US$80. Check out Isla Kite or Extreme Sports Cafe.)

White Beach, Boracay

White Beach, Boracay

Beyond the surprise of many, the 8-mile long island has managed to escape the ravages of  mass tourism.  The island can only be reached by boat, and the main beach sprawls across the length of the island.

Powder sand, clear skies and turqoise waters (as emerald as it can get), and you can find a nice combination of the three at White Beach. It’s quite a rare piece of heaven.

Begin your education in beach-bumming by chatting up the local folks on the beach. You’ll be surprised by how laid-back these friendly bunch can be. After all, in Boracay, life is a beach.

A View of White Beach from the Sea

A View of White Beach from the Sea

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Amy Ma

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Amy is a regular contributor to the South China Morning Post and Wall Street Journal amongst other publications. [...]

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Nellie has been published in Food & Travel magazine and Lifestyle, and is a contributing author of V!VA's Guatemala Guidebook. She writes to travel, and travels to write. [...]

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