November 21, 2009

Manila Marriott Hotel

When Marriott first made its footprint in Cebu, everybody was expecting that it would immediately carve a spot for its second Philippine chain in the capital. However, the management of one of the world’s best names in the hotel business seemed not too keen in immediately leaving its Visayan nest. It took more than a decade before they’ve decided to establish a niche in Manila.

Situated in the fast-developing and world class tourism complex of Resorts World Manila, Marriott Hotel Manila is an oasis not just for the weary traveler, but also for locals who want an out-of-town experience without actually going out of town. Guests who will be checking in straight from the airport will be delighted to know that they will be spared of the metro’s horrendous traffic as the hotel is located just along the NAIA grounds, infront of Terminal 3.

The Sala
The first thing that you’ll notice upon entering the building is the lobby’s homey ambiance. It’s not as grand as Peninsula’s “The Lobby,” but Manila Marriott Hotel’s sala is definitely more welcoming and less formal. Instead of the reception desk, the centerpiece of the lobby is a bar whose backdrop is a teaser of the garden and golf course that neighbors the entertainment complex. If you’re not observant enough, you might even miss the check-in or concierge’s desk as it is partly hidden. The couches that abound in the lobby prod the guests to relax first before checking in, a noticeable departure from the typical arrangement or order of things in most hotels.

We were billeted in a deluxe room that resembles the one that we’ve been to in Marriott Bangkok. I guess the hotel has a standard design for each and every chain it has around the globe. There’s nothing much to rave about the room, except for the 40-inch Samsung flat screen display and a uniquely-designed bathroom that might tickle the fancy out of every voyeur as the wall dividing it and the room is made of plain, see-through glass. For those who are not that excited with the thought of having an aquarium-like experience when taking a bath, an electronically-controlled blind is just within reach to give you the privacy that you need. As for the bed and pillows, suffice it to say that it made me send a message to my boss that I would be reporting to work a few hours late.

Small But Charming

If you’re expecting a scuba-dive experience with Marriott Hotel Manila’s swimming pool, then you’re in for a disappointment. However, if what you’re after is just a relaxing dip and a date with the sun, then the pool area will definitely make you want to extend a day or two. The pool is just over 4-feet deep. It’s not that big, either. However, it does offer a panoramic view of the Makati and Ortigas skyline which provides a romantic or reflective backdrop at night. On the other hand, the Villamor Golf Club is the best vista when the sun is up. The 18-hole green will surely calm and relax your weary eyes from the grays that shade the metro.

Meat and More

One of the best ways to go around the world is to go around a multi-cuisine buffet table. Marriott Café offers the best dishes from the East, as well as from the West. Meat lovers will be delighted with the choices that are sprawled before them. Sadly, though, as with most hotels, it doesn’t offer the best pig dish in the world – lechon. But unlike most hotel café’s, Manila Marriott Hotel does not scrimp on expensive shrimps! It also has a delectable selection of cakes and other desserts that will make you forget your physician’s warning about diabetes.

For those who want their meat even bigger and tastier, a visit at the hotel’s Cru Steakhouse is in order. For those who just want to drink and groove all night, then the Velocity Bar is the right spot for you. Gin and I went there early in the evening for some killjoy drinks – plain, nutritious, non-alcoholic, out-of-the-box, grocery-grade MANGO JUICE. The fact that the area is meant for liquor-loving patrons made us quite apologetic and embarrassed of our order. Our bar experience was good and relaxing, though, especially since an excellent selection of Usher’s R&B masterpieces was being played in the background.

While the Manila Marriott Hotel is just a few weeks old, having only formally opened last November 12, 2009, it won’t be surprising if it becomes fully booked by December. The fact that the hotel is within a recreational complex makes it all the more enticing for those who want a taste of what the metro has to offer.

November 2, 2009

Cebu! Cebu!

(Featured in Travel Plus' March-April issue)

Cebu has not earned the label “Queen City of the South” for nothing. If the Cebuanos and the thousands of Manileños who have visited it would be asked, I’m sure they’ll say that Cebu is the Queen City not just of the south, but of every direction that a compass could point to at this part of the world.

Exaggeration aside (or is it?), Cebu is definitely the most developed city in the Philippines after Manila. Some even say that it’s almost like a spitting image of the capital, except that it is less infested with pollution and traffic. I agree.

Concrete Rainbows

The first thing that would welcome you upon driving to the island is one of its bridges. In our case, it was the one built in honor of the late Chief Justice and Senate President, Marcelo B. Fernan. It’s one of the longest bridges in the country, and the second most picturesque after the San Juanico. The other concrete rainbow, the Mactan-Mandaue bridge, was built a few decades earlier. At the end of both bridges lies the port city of Mandaue. There’s nothing much to see there other than Henry Sy’s first and biggest Visayan model of his shoe box.

The first stop of our hour 5-hour Cebu sojourn is the Taoist Temple at Beverly Hills Subdivision. It took us around 40 minutes to get there from Mactan (Cebu’s traffic is slowly rivaling that of Manila’s!). We were quite worried about this trip as the temple is a long walk from the subdivision gates. It’s a good thing our cab driver was cool to the idea that he’d be our transportation host for the rest of the afternoon (and for P400 only!).

Taoist Temple

Built in 1972 by the city’s Chinese-Filipino community, the structure resembles a typical oriental place of worship, albeit more ornate. Take a deep breath before attempting to reach its peak, though. The temple has 99 steps, a daunting number for those who are infatuated with escalators and elevators.

But the effort will be worth it, I assure you. Upon reaching the top, you’ll be treated to an exhilarating view of the city, Mactan Island, and nearby Bohol. The temple is situated 300 meters above sea level, so I’m sure you already have an idea how good the vista is at this part of town. The setting is quite romantic. Unfortunately for me, my partner is romantically-challenged (but I love her just the same  ). The fact that we were catching our breath from the steep climb may have also erased any possibility of a hallmark moment.

Magellan’s Cross

It’s already 4:00 p.m. and the sun was racing us to the ground. We hurried back to our waiting taxi and headed off to the downtown area. Daylight was fast dimming when we reached Magellan’s Cross. In case you might not know, this cross is the very one that Magellan planted on the island on April 14, 1521. The shrine is also the very spot where Rajah Humabon, Reyna Juana, and a few hundred of their followers were baptized by Fr. Pedro Valderama, making them the country’s first Christians.

The wooden cross that you’ll see in the shrine is actually just the casing. Inside it is the original cross. It was encased therein by the Augustinian priests as locals were chipping bits of the cross as it was widely believed to have miraculous qualities. Local folklore also has it that the cross is actually growing and that its present size is significantly bigger than the original one. A mural of the conversion and baptism can be seen on the ceiling of the chapel/pavilion that houses the cross.

The Sto. Niño

Right beside the shrine is the most important structure in Cebu City – the Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño. Built in 1735, it is the oldest church in the country and the cradle of Catholicism in the region. It’s also the very spot where the image of the Sto. Niño was found unscathed after a fire gutted the structure which housed it. It underwent several constructions since it first stood in 1566. The church was originally made of wood, mud, and nipa.

As with Magellan’s Cross, the image of the Sto. Niño is the very one that the Portuguese conquistador gave to the royal couple of the island in 1521. The figure’s complexion turned dark, though, due to the fire that engulfed the small shrine that hosted when Miguel Lopez de Legaspi arrived in the city. Hundreds of pilgrims line up to pray before the image, while thousands flock around it during the annual Sinulog festival held every third week of January.

After praying before the basilica’s altar and the image of the Child Jesus, we headed off to Colon, the country’s oldest street. The sun already bade goodbye to us when we were looking for a pasalubong shop, so we went to the first grocery store that we saw (Metro Gaisano). Images of the plane leaving us flashed in my mind when we exited the store as people were jostling for taxis. Luckily, Gin was able to hale one down and one-upped the others to it. We arrived at the airport well ahead of our departure time and just before the pasalubong shops locked their danggits and dried mangoes for the rest of the day.

October 24, 2009

A Good Tan in Mactan, Cebu

If there’s one trip that I would label as “unforgettable,” it would definitely have to be this one.

Not only did we get our airfare to Cebu for free, it was also our first trip outside Manila. It also happened to be my 31st birthday. But the thing that really lit the candles of my cake and sparked the rest of my day was the fact that this was our very first date! :)

Although I already had everything planned, the day didn’t start flawlessly. In fact, it started terribly. We encountered turbulence even before we boarded the plane when we didn’t get to be at the check-in counter 45 minutes before our 6:35 a.m. flight. The lady manning the check-in desk refused to accept us as it was already 6:05 a.m. I wanted to argue our way to the boarding gate, but I decided to just save it for another day. Our zero-fare tickets ended up having a couple of zeroes more, only this time it was preceded by a different digit.

We left Manila at around 10:15 a.m. Gin and I originally planned to just sleep through the entire trip. However, Cebu Pacific’s in-flight game jolted our drowsiness away. We didn’t welcome the game at first, but we ended up as active participants and eventually won a water tumbler :)

We landed in Cebu an hour later. Cebu shares its airport with Mactan, the latter being the actual host of the facilities. Nothing much has changed in the airport. But it still remains to be a good and very efficient one. It’s even more tourist-friendly than NAIA as it has a tourist information desk with free brochures and maps of the city. There even was a time when it put to shame our airports here in Manila, well at least to the ones which served the domestic flights. That reign ended when Terminal 2’s construction was completed in 1998. And with Bacolod and Iloilo now having new air terminals, I think the Mactan-Cebu International Airport is already due for a facelift.

We didn’t immediately proceed to Cebu City. Our first stop of the day was at the Shangri-La Mactan Resort & Spa for lunch. Getting a taxi at Mactan-Cebu airport is easy. There are coupon cabs and metered ones. Taxi drivers in Mactan and Cebu are very courteous. Some would even chase you down to give you your change, even if it’s just a few pesos! I wish I could say the same for Manila’s cab drivers. The drive to Shangri-La took just 15 minutes. I’m glad to see that Mactan still retained some of its rural charms. However, urbanization is fast creeping in on the island. I hope the place won’t transform into another replica of the city proper.

I wanted our lunch date to be a bit grand as it was a special occasion, so we went to the hotel’s Aqua Restaurant for a buffet feast. After filling our tanks, we went around the hotel to give our tummies time to sort out the things that we’ve eaten. The facilities and the view at the resort were captivating. We were so absorbed with the sensory feast that we didn’t notice that it was already 2:00 p.m. Time was of the essence as we’re scheduled to go back to Manila by 8:45 p.m.

One thing I liked about the hotel staff, and about the Cebuanos in general, is that they’re very friendly. Upon seeing us waiting for a cab by the entrance, an employee offered us a ride at the hotel’s golf cart. It was a fun ride going to the hotel’s exit by the main road. We found a cab a few minutes later and headed to Cebu.

February 21, 2009

Playing Hide and Seek With Mayon Volcano (Part 1: Lignon Hill)

The majestic Mayon volcano was in a playful mood when we landed in Legazpi City, teasing us all throughout the day as we pleaded for it to blow away its white shroud even for just a moment.
View from the Tarmac
Gin and I were expecting to be treated with a view of the world’s perfect cone upon stepping out of the plane. I even excitedly told her that we might even have a glimpse of it while we’re still in the air. However, we only saw lush vegetation and forests on our approach towards the airport. We were still combing the greens with our eyes for something interesting to see when we were nudged to our seat by a rough landing. It felt as if the pilot just dropped the plane on the runway like a bowling novice dropping a bowling ball on the lane. Gin begged to differ, though.

After stamping our first mark on the tarmac, I immediately tried to look for Mayon. At first, I thought I was just looking at the wrong direction. But after mimicking the possessed child in The Exorcist, my strained eyes and neck couldn’t find the volcano. While wondering as to where it is, I noticed a wide mound just below a band of clouds that hovered behind Lignon hill. I then realized that it was Mayon!

After passing by the tourist desk, we set out on foot to Lignon hill. We were told that it was just a 15-minute walk from the airport. But after five minutes of avoiding mud and potholes, we decided to just take a tricycle to the foot of our first stop.

Lignon Hill

Lignon Hill is the first accessible tourist attraction from the airport. It’s a favorite among first timers and locals alike as it gives one a good 360-degree view of the whole city, including a panoramic and unobstructed vista of Mt. Mayon. At first, the trek seemed easy as a paved road laces Lignon from head to foot. However, just 10 minutes through the climb, my knees were starting to remind me that they were missing a few ligaments. On the other hand, Gin was just taking it in stride (to think that I was the one in Nikes), going up on bends and inclines as if her Havaianas had wings on them. I ended up trailing her for most of the hike.

One thing that made our climb interestingly difficult was Legazpi’s fickle weather. We were initially thankful that the sun didn’t get out of bed immediately. After thanking the heavens for what seemed to be a sweat-free climb in view of the sun’s absence, the clouds played a trick on us by sprinkling us with rain on some stretches of our hike. Gin was saved from a second bath, thanks to her umbrella. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t bring one. While we shared her small piece of roof, I still ended up looking like I needed a spin drier.

The climb was worth it, though. Upon reaching Lignon’s peak, we were treated to a spectacular view of Legazpi City. The summit also seemed to be a very good viewing deck for Mayon hunters. Serving as Lignon Hill’s crown is a huge gazebo. The structure and the area around it are still undergoing construction and landscaping, so visitors have something to look forward to in the months to come.

While we were feasting on a sensory overload courtesy of the surrounding mountains and the Albay Gulf, the temperamental Mayon still wasn’t in the mood to give us a moment of its time, so we went down the Lignon mound with only pictures of a gray-shaded volcano. Before reaching the base, we took shelter on a nearby sari sari store as we were again threatened with a third bath. Coconuts littered the area. I was hoping for a buko shake. But after noticing the absence of electric posts, I gave up on the hope that the store has a blender. I just settled for a bottle of Pop Cola while Gin had a whole coconut for herse

January 19, 2009

Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 3

I’ve been wanting to take a peek at the Philippine’s premier (or so they say) air terminal for the longest time since the contractor finished capping their imposing creation with a roof. Unfortunately, legal matters prevented its early inauguration. Everybody was afraid that rust would already check in at the mothballed terminal. It’s a good thing that the authorities were able to open it, albeit just 90-95% complete.

While the NAIA Terminal 3 is the largest airport in the country, I can’t say that it’s the most splendid. Aesthetically, it’s a bit wanting. I find Terminal 2 more charming, although it’s slowly showing signs of wear and tear. T3 didn’t even elicit in me that awe effect that Terminal 1 had when I first saw it. You may argue that airports don’t have to look grand as long as it functions well. But airports are the first thing that visitors see in the country where they’re sojourning. And with Filipinos being known to show everything that’s good and grand in their abode whenever they’re welcoming guests therein, it’s quite surprising to see that they didn’t seem to have given their best for that all-important first impression.

But in fairness to those who conceived the design of the terminal, it is spacious and passenger-friendly. To begin with, it has a number of entrances. Terminal 2 only has one, so you could just imagine the long line that slowly slithers in it. The number of check-in counters in T3 goes beyond the number of fingers, appendages, or protrusions in my body. In other words, it’s an unlimited resource. But for some reason, long queues greeted me and my special someone (hi, dear :) ) on our 6:35 a.m. flight to Cebu. We got left by the plane, but that’s another story.

The only bottleneck that we encountered in the building was in the final passenger and baggage check that borders the check-in area and the departure lounges. There were several x-ray machines available for use. However, for some reason, only one was utilized.

It’s comforting to know that a generous amount of floor area was devoted to gates and waiting lounges. There are even walkalators scattered in the area (a few more would be very much appreciated). A considerable amount of space has also been set aside for shops. Only a few stalls/commercial spaces were occupied, though. Maybe more would come in as the number of flights increases in the terminal.

As with the departure area, the arrival hall is expansive. Long waits at the baggage carousels are a rarity as the terminal features 7 huge ones. The hall also offers an area for the passengers’ waiting friends and relatives, a feature or distinction that the other two terminals do not have as they don’t allow non-passengers inside the building.

Getting a cab is easy. Airport metered cabs and coupon taxis are immediately available upon exiting the terminal. Coupon taxis have fixed rates for defined routes. They cost twice as much as their metered counterparts. Regular metered taxis also line the perimeter fence of the terminal. It’s just a short walk from the exit, but you’ll have to flex your muscles when you’re carrying many bags or luggage as the baggage carts cannot be brought beyond the waiting area.

While the terminal isn’t as enormous as Honk Kong’s Chek Lap Kok or as grand as Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi, it’s comforting to know that we already have an airport that’s presentable and efficient. A trip to or via T3 is still a treat, considering what we’ve been asked to deal with a few years ago whenever we’re taking local flights (remember the old domestic terminal?). Be sure to bring along with you jackets and sweaters that are suitable for Baguio-like temperatures. This cavernous terminal can get extremely cold, especially during the early part of the morning. I learned that the hard way.

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