Highlights of our trip to the Philippines and Japan (July 5 -26)

“Thank you to all our family and friends for having us at your homes, for all the great food, for driving us around and most of all, for your company. We hope that you enjoyed our visit as much as we did ours.  We brought home a lot of good memories and we hope to be back in a few years!”

Francine’s 17th Birthday
2 days after our arrival, we celebrated Francine’s 17th birthday with a sumptuous dinner at Seafood Island at Eastwood Mall, Pasig with the Navarros, the Lacunas and the Condes. Francine was still suffering from jet lag and was tired from spending the day at the mall so she was a bit sluggish all through dinner. Nevertheless, she enjoyed everyone’s company on her birthday. I saw Randy and Dean and their families for the first time since we arrived. Blue, Alyssa and Sam have grown so much since I last saw them almost 3 years ago. It was close to midnight when we got home. Francine went straight to bed and was not able to enjoy the cake and ice cream that her aunts and cousins have prepared for her. The mango walnut cake was delicious! (Click here for photos)

Rounds at the Malls
It seemed like there is a mall every 2 blocks in Metro Manila! We did the rounds at the newer malls – Rockwell, Greenbelt 3,4,5, The Fort Strip, Mall of Asia. New to us, anyways. Francine got a grad prom dress at Kate Torralba’s shop at Greenbelt 5. Two shops down from Kate’s was Victoria Marie, a high-end accessories shop, which, I found out was partly owned by Lilibeth. Friend Au does their accounting and bought Francine a bracelet to go with her prom dress. We also revisited Glorietta and Megamall but Francine vaguely remembers both. Francine noted how tight security is at the malls. At all entrances, women and men queue up separately to be frisked by security guards and have their bags checked.

Day tour of Corregidor Island + Manila American Cemetery and Memorial
Knowing Francine’s interest in historical sites, we took her to Corregidor – an island fortress which stands as a memorial for the Filipino and American soldiers who bravely held their ground against the Japanese forces during World War II. In spite of the scorching heat and being seasick on the ride to the island, Francine enjoyed the day photographing the ruins. We also visited the Manila American Cemetery, a memorial for the 17,206 U.S soldiers who died fighting in the World War II. A memorial in the cemetery has engraved names of missing soldiers.
View photos here.

Catching up with high school friends
I met with my high school friends at Pier One at The Fort Strip, most of whom I’ve never seen since high school graduation! We had such a great time that we met again one night for dinner at a Japanese restaurant at Metrowalk. It’s amazing how much they still remember about our high school days and how little I remember of it. One of our friends, Ernie had a slideshow of snapshots taken during our high school days on his laptop so we spent the evening reminiscing and laughing at ourselves.

Dinner with friends from work and overnight stay at Tagaytay
We met up with my former work colleagues over dinner at San Jacinto restaurant in Pasig. Too bad, my ex-boss, Maritess Pineda was out of the country. I was looking forward to seeing her. One evening is not enough to catch up with everyone! Friend Michele brought along daughter Angeli, one of Francine’s childhood friends. After dinner that night, we drove off to Tagaytay, about an hour away from Manila, and spent the night at Sarah and Ricky’s place at Canyon Woods. Their 2 little darlings came along, too. The next day, Sarah and Ricky took us to Sonya’s Garden for lunch. What a charming place! Lunch starts off with “bottomless” salad of greens, edible flowers, fruits and a “hollandaise-like” dressing and freshly baked bread with a variety of spreads and dips. We must have had 3 rounds of salad before we proceeded to the main course – pasta served with a choice of 2 sauces. It’s not just the food that was great! I loved the its ambiance – the restaurant is set amidst lush greenery and colourful flowers, antique chandeliers, capiz windows, vintage china … the place is heavenly! (Click here for photos)

Weekend at Grande Island Resort, Subic
As planned, we spent a weekend at Grande Island Resort in Subic with my brothers and their families. We were booked at Subic International Hotel but we were so disappointed with the facilities that we packed up decided to find accommodation elsewhere. Subic International was filthy and rundown! We found better accommodation at Legenda, right across the street from the Grande Island Resort ferry dock. We would’ve stayed at the island overnight but they were fully booked. I wasn’t impressed with the resort facilities and the food but we went there for my nieces and nephew to have fun at the beach and they did! So, overall, it was a fun weekend! Francine enjoyed the company of her cousins, all of whom she’s never met before. We were looking forward to visiting a bat colony but found out that the bats have moved on when a Korean shipbuilding company built a condominium in the area. (Click here for photos)

Puerto Princesa, Palawan
Island-hopping at Honda Bay

A day after our trip to Subic, we flew to Puerto Princesa, Palawan with Francis’ family (Mom, 2 sisters and 2-year old nephew). We booked our flight with CebuPacific prior to leaving Toronto and got an amazing deal on the airfare. We only paid the taxes and fees, zero airfare! With the help of my friend, Devi and her sister-in-law, Dr. Elsa Salgado we got our rooms at Legend Palawan at corporate rate – 40% off :) My sister-in-law’s colleague, Margie was our guide in Puerto Princesa. It was almost lunch time when we finished checking in at Legend Palawan on our first day. We’ve read about Ka Lui’s restaurant online and how Palawan visitors are raving about it. So we decided to check it out and we all loved the place! The restaurant is a large open concept nipa hut (a native Filipino dwelling made of bamboo and cogon). Patrons are requested to take their footwear off to keep the bamboo floor clean. We chose a table with floor sitting – it was very homey and relaxing! Colourful mats are laid out on the floor and pillows strewn about. The seafood was fabulous and the fruit drinks refreshing! No wonder people are raving about this place. The washroom was very clean, too! And it’s equipped with a bidet :) From Ka Lui’s we went to the Honda Bay boat terminal for our island-hopping tour. We rented a banca for the rest of the day at P1300 ($30). If you book at the hotel, they charge approximately $35 per person and includes 3 island stops. Our $30 banca can accommodate all 7 of us and includes 5 islands. It was absolutely magnificent! It was like paradise out there. The weather was perfect, too. The beaches on the islands were the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. And because it was off-season, it was really quiet and at the beaches, often times we were the only ones there. If you have to pick one place to visit in the Philippines, this is where you go. Even Francine who isn’t a beach person loved it. We saw starfishes on Starfish Island and on Snake Island, schools of colourful fishes abound at waist-deep water. We bought a bag of bread, fed them and they swarmed around us. You can even see tiny fishes at ankle-deep water. You can also see the corals clearly underwater. 2 of the 5 islands we visited charge a small fee so make sure you have some cash with you. Snake Island is our favourite out of the five islands. In fact, after visiting all the islands we went back to it and stayed there until sunset. Back at Legenda Hotel, the dinner and service was quite good. The live band was enjoyable, too. Check out our pictures – Island-hopping at Honda Bay

Subterranean River Tour
Early the next day, we drove over 2 hours to Sabang for the Subterranean River Tour. Half of the trip was on paved road and half on gravel. It was very interesting for Francine – a ride through rural Philippines and through a tropical rainforest. Along the way she saw carabaos, rice farmers, nipa huts, limestone cliffs, wild orchids and other tropical flora, a roadside rural cemetery, a jeepney with passengers on the roof. It was shortly after 9 am when we reached the sleepy town of Sabang. As our experienced guide, Margie suggested, we pre-ordered lunch at one of the few restaurants so that it will be ready when we come back from the tour around noon. Seafood, chop suey and Wild Boar Adobo. Apparently, the only meat available in Sabang is wild boar. From here, we took a 30-min boat ride to get to the Underground River. The view on the boat ride was amazing….cliffs, secluded white sand beaches, fish jumping out of the deep blue and emerald green waters, and clear skies. We arrived at another beautiful beach and walked 10 min to the mouth of the underground river. Paid the fees and donned our gear – floating vest and hard hat. There was a strong pungent odor – the stench of bat urine! The hard hard will actually protect us from bat urine, not from rocks or falling stalactites. A baby monitor lizard swam by the dock. Cool! All 7 of us got on the boat in our strategically thought out seats. At the very front – Francis, who will be holding the spotlight and beside him, Francine with our camera. I sat behind them so that I could guide Francine with camera settings, etc. Our guide, the boatman steered the boat with a paddle and a long bamboo pole, as I remember. The only light source in the cave was our car battery-powered spotlight. We were all in awe once we entered the cave. You must check out our pictures! It was eerily dark and quiet until I shrieked! The bats were heading right t me! Well, I thought they were bats, but it turned out they were swallows -the birds that make the nest for Bird’s Nest Soup. They looked like bats in the dark :) During the ride, the guide instructed Francis to direct the light at specific spots as he did his spiel about the cave. The stalactites come in all shapes – fruits, religious icons, monsters, etc. Occasionally, liquid dripped from the roof of the cave…mineral water and/or bat pee, we were told. The guide reminded us often to keep our mouth closed when looking up the roof of the cave where we saw bats sleeping. We were warned that bat guano occasionally drops from above. As we dodged bat pee/poo, we also tried to protect our camera with a hat. The entire tour took about 45 min. to an hour.

When we emerged out of the cave, there were 5 or 6 monkeys hanging out by the dock. One of them snuck up on our guide from behind; snatched a plastic bag from her purse then quickly scampered up a tree. As we were walking through the surrounding rainforest, a 6-ft. monitor lizard crossed our path, flicking its slender tongue. It didn’t seem to be bothered by our presence at all.

On our last day in Puerto Princesa, we made a quick visit to the Crocodile Farm and Nature Reserve. Nothing fantastic at this place – young crocs in the nursery; older and bigger ones in open-air cages. For a small fee, one can have a picture taken holding a young crocodile.

Check out our pictures -
Puerto Princesa Underground River

3 fun days in Tokyo

On our first night in Japan, at Holiday Inn Narita, the earth rocked beneath us at precisely 11:26 pm! I was on Facebook, Francine was in the washroom and Francis had dozed off in bed. I felt the quake and sat still, not saying a word to anyone, hoping it would stop quickly. No……it lasted for about 40 sec at 5.0 magnitude. I told Francine what was happening as she stepped out of the washroom and woke Francis up. We were on the 12th floor and the building swayed pretty hard. Francis reminded us that buildings in Japan are earthquake-proof but that didn’t help allay our fears! As the earth was shaking, we got out of our kimonos and decided we were going to bed in our street clothes just in case we needed to evacuate. We packed our bags and left them near the door. When it was over, we watched the news in Japanese and that’s when we found out that it had been magnitude 5 in Tokyo.

The next morning we travelled 2.5 hours by train to Hatagaya, 2 subway stops away from Tokyo station. The stay at Holiday Inn was just a layover for the night of our arrival. In Hatagaya, we checked in at Sakura Hotel. Our $150/night room was tiny! There was barely room to walk around the 3 beds!

Imperial Palace Eastside Garden
We spent a few hours meandering in the expansive garden. It was as hot in Tokyo as it was in Manila and we did not bring shorts for fear of more mosquito bites. We suffered throughout the day in our jeans. In the garden, there was no shortage of things to photograph…shrines, foliage, flowers, architecture, etc. Because Francine had taken over my camera for the entire trip, I mostly stood in the shade every chance I get. I was so hot and getting crankier by the minute. I was tired and hot and wanted to take a cab to our next destination, the Nakamise Shopping Street. When I inquired for directions, I found out from a gift shop clerk that it would cost us $100 if we took a cab!

Nakamise Shopping Street
Forget the $100 cab ride. We took the subway to this exciting street lined with shops selling mostly souvenirs, snacks and what have you. While souvenir-shoppping we decided that we would decorate the guest room in our new house with a Japanese theme. And so we bought a Kimono and a cloth panel with Koi, if I’m not mistaken. We had a medley of sushi for snack then took more photos.

Akihabara
The electronics mecca. Akihabara has building after building of any electronics you can imagine. We spent the evening in just one building – 5 or 6 floors of electronics. It was exhausting. How does one decide which phone to get when one whole floor is dedicated to cellphones? The Japanese like their phones colourful and shiny. They also like attaching trinkets and charms to their phones. We bought a camera bag, a couple of camera lens filters and a Creative Zen. Click here for photos. To be continued…