East meets West meets tropical over-stimulation. Plus, beach resorts too!
As I marveled at the vintage interior of the jeepney—a former WW2 American trooper jeep-turned-bus/taxi—heading toward Rizal Park, I overheard two Filipino women banter in native Tagalog. The word mesa (“table” in Spanish) incorporated in their conversation piqued my curiosity as the currency here in the Philippines is—oddly enough—the peso. Digesting this peculiarity as the jeepney slowed to drop off a passenger, I couldn’t help but note virtually every sign we passed was written in English.
Needless to say, the Philippines isn’t your typical Asian country. The culture is rooted deep in Spanish colonialism (remaining prominent in architecture, language and cuisine), and the strong Western influence is unavoidable in the bustling streets dominated with English-written storefront signage. Furthermore, the Korean community swells to the increase of promising export processing zones and stronger economy. One may think these non-native components would strip a healthy chunk of identity the modest city may have begun with.
But it’s quite the opposite.
Diversification in its heritage is a Philippines trademark, and it’s not the only idiosyncrasy that this country fosters with pride. This group of 7,107 islands is the only predominately Catholic-practicing country in Asia, an unusual notion considering it’s also the most accepting (and perhaps only) country with a thriving and widely-accepted gay population. So, sure, the Philippines doesn’t quite march to the traditional Asian gong, but it ranks as one of the most interesting countries in the Far East. After all, the campaign here is “beyond the usual.”
Of the myriad stimuli that held me captive on the streets, I surrendered to the vendors selling fresh mango and ubiquitous full-body massages no less than $5. As far as I was concerned, these Manila staples were necessary for my terms of street survival.
Manila was a key player in World War II, and several of its best attractions are preserved in commemoration of its important role. One of the most popular sites is Fort Santiago in Intramuros (old Manila), the military headquarters that served as a prison and torture chamber during the war.
Just a short drive away is the Manila Hotel, temporary residence of legendary General MacArthur during the war. His suite still houses original furniture, as well as badges showcased on several walls. MacArthur’s former office sports a view of Corgidor Island, where his famous last words (“I shall return…”) may resonate.
History is also served at Rizal Park, where national hero Jose Rizal’s tomb is preserved and monitored 24-7. Rizal spearheaded a revolution that fought for his country’s freedom.
While history here is overwhelming, so is the shopping. Opened in 2006, the SM Mall of Asia is the biggest mall in the Philippines and second largest shopping center in the world. I was subjected to a shopper’s paradise that included 600 enticing stores, an indoor, Olympic-size skate rink and never-ending food court. Despite my notorious spending habits, I partied with my credit card as the Philippines happen to be one of the most inexpensive countries in Asia for American travelers.
The five-star Hyatt Hotel & Casino [http://manila.casino.hyatt.com] is a comfortable retreat from the city’s bustle. Overlooking Manila Bay in the Malate district, the hotel’s 378 contemporary rooms feature large windows and high ceilings with rainshowers in the bathrooms. Facilities include a casino, 24-hour spa, 35-meter lap pool and five restaurants.
From underground caves to rice fields, Bohol is known to be one of the most picturesque cities (and locals will agree it is the most iconic Philippines). It’s also home to the fist-sized, wide-eyed tarsier, the smallest primate in the world. Roadside tarsier farms let you get close to these interesting creatures. But it’s the geological phenomenon of Chocolate Hills that put Bohol on the map. 1,268 cone-shaped hills sprawl 50 square kilometers of land, turning brown in the dry season to resemble Hershey Kisses (or nipples, whatever you prefer).
The organic lunch buffet is a must at the Bee Farm, a secluded sanctuary on a cliff overlooking Bohol Strait. Everything (from the honey in the bee farm to the furniture in the hotel rooms) is made on premises!
Stay at Panglao Island Nature Resort [http://www.panglaoisland.com/], a 72-room property right on the Sulu Sea. Thatch-roof seafront bungalows are equipped with private decks and Jacuzzis, with glass-walls in the bathrooms fenced in by gated lush gardens. Swimming in the resort’s natural cave is popular with locals and tourists alike.
History buffs like me will appreciate the island of Cebu, the oldest city in the country. Magellan first docked here in 1521; the cross he spiked into the ground still remains erected as a memorial next to the city’s oldest church.
Cebu boasts a thriving dive scene. The beaches are some of the most sublime in the Philippines with diverse sea life. Magellan was later killed on Mactan Island by warrior chief Lapu Lapu (It’s true. Magellan himself never completely circumnavigated the world but his ship and crew did) so it’s actually this tiny island that put the Philippines on the map. Nearby the commemorative site is Shangri La’s Mactan Resort & Spa [http://www.shangri-la.com/en/property/cebu/mactanresort]featuring 547 Asian-Caribbean themed rooms with garden, pool and sea views.
The five-star resort boasts popular outdoor activities, from tennis courts and water sports, and six restaurants with patio seating. Chi, the Spa at Shangri-La, is the largest in Southeast Asia. Sprawled on 10-square meters with 15 private villas, the spa incorporates the traditional philosophy of chi into the luxury treatments.
There’s so little infrastructure on Bohol that even their airport is on the next island. There’s not even a manmade walkway (boardwalk, sidewalk) that separates the resorts and shops from the five-mile beach, ensuring the underdevelopment makes it a true getaway. The main industry is, of course, tourism, so hawkers abound with fake labeled goods but the most authentic purchase is the beachside massages that are no less than $5 for a full hour.
Discovery Shores, the luxury resort opened last year, has raised the bar in terms of high-end accommodations, though travelers continue to return to Boracay Regency Beach Resort [http://www.boracayregency.com/], a stylish property with exceptional service. Situated conveniently in the center of the beach row, the resort recently unveiled the new Garden Wing that features suites with pool access—you can literally step off your deck and go for a swim!
For more information:
For general tourism info, contact the Philippines Tourism Department at http://www.tourism.gov.ph