Momo Beach House is the most chill resort in Bohol

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Lazy afternoons, nature and the sea at Momo Beach House on Panglao island, Bohol. Photo by Dominic Calalo
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The 15-room Momo is like someone’s chic island manor. Visit momobeachhouse.com, call 0915-9889932. Photos courtesy of MBH

When my best friend who lives in Canada told me last year she was going to vacation in the Philippines in January, we immediately started to plan an out-of-town weekend. People who know me know I love Palawan for its marine life and limestone cliffs, Boracay for its White Beach and food, and the third island province I never tire of visiting is Bohol.

“Bohol is for culture, churches, the sea and amazing landscapes,” I told Maria.

Indeed, foreigners who tell people they’ve been to Boracay are asked next, “But have you been to Bohol?”

Bohol has two things no other destination in the Philippines has: the Chocolate Hills, which are 1,700 geological formations that look like Hershey’s Chocolate Kisses spread across 50 square kilometers in Carmen  (they’re five million years old) and the tarsiers at two conservation centers, the world’s smallest primates that have been in existence for 45 million years.

Plus, there’s  Loboc River, which to me is the most scenic river in the country with coconut trees on the banks, bent toward the water as if bowing to welcome you.

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Two hammocks and a wide, open sea to ponder. Photo by Tanya Lara
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Paddle boards and kayaks are provided by MBH.

So we planned the trip in December, more than a month before she was actually arriving, bought tickets and booked at Amorita Resort and Momo Beach House, both of which belong to One-Of Collection, which manages hotels and resorts around the Philippines such as The Funny Lion in Coron, Sta. Monica Beach Club in Dumaguete and Momo Beach House in Bohol.

What I love about their resorts is that each one has its own distinct personality. They’re like children from different mothers — no two are alike and that’s the fun in it.

In Bohol, Amorita is the elegant child with its quiet villas with private pools, meandering gardens, amazing food (my God, the Peanut Kisses milkshake!) and discreet service.

Momo Beach House is the hipper version — the child that runs around barefoot in the gardens and climbs trees, the one that makes his parents laugh with funny faces, the one that catches fish on a boat with his father, only to release them again to the sea.

With Amorita located on a cliff, you can contemplate your life and probably come up with a plan for the next 10 years. If you contemplated your life on Momo Beach House’s hammocks — sandwiched between Momo Beach and the swimming pool — the furthest you will want to plan is dinner. In fact, you don’t want to plan that either. It’s that chill.

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Beach Tree Cafe is an open-air restaurant with views of the pool and sea.
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Apart from local comfort food, guests can buy the fresh catch of the day from local fishermen in the area and have it cooked.

“We developed Momo Beach House as a peaceful, inspiring destination where guests can share our passion for having a relaxing lifestyle,” says Ria Hernandez-Cauton, president of One-Of Collection. “Here, we foster a nature-driven culture so that guests can get away, exhale all the big city toxins, relax, and soothe their mind, body, and soul.”

Located on Panglao island and a 20-minute drive to Amorita and Alona Beach, Momo Beach House is an eco-chic boutique resort that “has emerged as one of the Philippines’ top resort destinations, offering world-weary guests an escape from the urban fray and multiple opportunities to rejuvenate in a beachside setting.”

The 15-room resort looks like someone’s ancestral manor with its whitewashed walls, thatched roofs and a pool in the middle. The dining room is an open space with couches and wooden tables and chairs and colorful throws.

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The Aqua Room for couples.
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The al fresco chillax lounge and dining room at Momo.

The rooms are in vibrant pastels with stunning seaside and sunset views, and a distinct architectural design theme incorporating white furniture pieces, locally sourced organic bath products, wooden poolside lounge chairs, a repurposed wine rack made from an old fishing boat, and a beachfront bamboo bar.

“Sustainability is an integral part of One-Of Collection’s business strategy,” says Ria. “The location of Momo Beach House is already blessed with a fantastic combination of sun, sea, and sky, and that’s why we designed in ways that integrated key features of these beautiful natural surroundings.”

Committed to meeting the demands of today’s increasingly busy tourists and wellness-oriented leisure travelers, Momo Beach House distinguishes itself with a wide range of features and services that make for truly holistic holidays: nature-inspired architecture, homestyle al fresco dining, environment-friendly amenities, and a homey, just chill vibe.

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Getting away from the stresses of city life.
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Beach volleyball, anyone?

“There is also much more to Momo Beach House than scenes of tropical idyll. Its Beach Tree Café is an all-day dining venue with a homestyle-inspired menu designed around locally sourced organic ingredients, and an approach to food that emphasizes health, freshness, clarity of ingredients, and local availability.”

Banking on the widely held notion that a healthy lifestyle is also necessarily an active one, the boutique resort serves as a venue for regular private yoga retreats and wellness activities, with an on-call yogal instructor available to lead practice sessions for beginner and advanced yogis and yoginis. Momo Beach House also provides kayaks and standup paddleboards for guests.

“Here at Momo Beach House, our approach to wellness is holistic,” says Ria. “The facilities, features, and services in our resort are all aimed at strengthening our ability to engage with and cater to travelers who demand greater options for getting away and rediscovering themselves.”

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Chillaxing on Momo Beach.
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Chilling at night at Momo Beach House.

The Lannisters send their regards — from Croatia and Spain

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Looking at Dubrovnik’s fortification walls from Fort Lovrijenac, which doubles as the Red Keep in Game of Thrones, while the entire old city of Dubrovnik is King’s Landing.  Photos by Tanya Lara
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“Knowledge is power,” Little Finger tells Cersei Lannister. Bitch, please. “Power is power,” counters Cersei in this scene filmed at Fort Lovrijenac in Dubrovnik.

It feels surreal to be standing in the castle courtyard where a scene from Game of Thrones with Cersei Lannister and Little Finger was filmed a few seasons ago.

Lord Baelish, implying knowledge of her incestuous relationship with her brother Jaime Lannister, says, “Knowledge is power.”

Cersei counters, “Seize him. Cut his throat. Stop! I’ve changed my mind, let him go.” She pauses, looks at him and says, “Power is power.”

Of all the quotable lines from Cersei, this to me distills her character’s understanding of what real power is. Manipulation is for children; cutting out the second act and going straight for the denouement in the third is the Cersei way, just like blowing up the Sept of Baelor with wildfire and killing everyone in such a spectacular manner.

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Boats outside the walls ready to sail on the Adriatic Sea. The little beach is where the Lannisters shipped off a crying Myrcella to Dorne.
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I don’t remember if this is indeed the Ethnographic Museum, which doubles as Lord Baelish’s whorehouse.

That line, along with what she casually says to Maergery Tyrrel, “If you ever call me sister again, I’ll have you strangled in your sleep” — which makes me laugh so hard! — is classic Cersei.

Power, which what makes GoT so compelling, is also understood by those who know they will have it only in doses that the gods old and new deem fit, like the eunuch and master of whisperers Lord Varys who says, “Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick. A shadow on the wall.”

It is September 2017 and I am on a solo road trip through the Balkans, a trip I had always wanted to do and wouldn’t shut up about to friends asking me what else was on my bucket list. Reading about the Balkans conflict and the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia when I was younger made me want to see this region for myself.

Many years later, Game of Thrones entered my consciousness with the subtlety of a bullet through the head — and I was even more determined to go to this part of the world where they had filmed.

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On top of Srd Hill in 2017, with views of the old city of Dubrovnik and the Adriatic Sea.

I’ve traveled to places before specifically to see where my fave movies were set — Savannah for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Bruges for In Bruges — but Game of Thrones is filmed in so many different locations I had to pick one first to suit my budget. Would it be Croatia, Spain, Morocco, Northern Ireland or Iceland?

My first choice is Dubrovnik, the setting of King’s Landing and perhaps the most publicized of all shooting locations in the series. Landing in Sarajevo, the third of nine cities I would go to on this solo trip, I rent a car at the airport and on the third day drive from Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina to Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Dubrovnik is a tourist city propelled by history and the Adriatic Sea, and only in the last decade by Game of Thrones. An American tourist once famously told my guide, “It’s great that GoT came to Dubrovnik to make it famous,” to which my guide replied, “Dubrovnik was Dubrovnik before the TV show, our castles were built before the TV show, our people existed before the TV show…”

I understood why she was so irritated in telling this story and two  years later in Seville  I would have to answer an equally stupid question from a fellow tourist on a walking tour. (“Do Filipinos consider Spain their motherland?” Me: “Of course not! It was our  country before Spain,  our people existed before Spain colonized our islands.”)

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The Baroque Staircase and the Jesuit Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola as the Sept of Baelor, which was CGI’d to look bigger, grander.
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Shame, shame, shame. A vengeful Cersei would blow up the Sept of Baelor in the Season 6 finale.

At my hotel facing the Adriatic Sea, I ask the local staff if they watched GoT and four out of four people said no. My guide at the walking tour, of course, did — many of her friends were hired as extras in episodes till season 4 when most of the shooting transferred to Spain.

But Dubrovnik is the place where some of the series’ biggest scenes were filmed and the city’s entrepreneurs have wisely capitalized on this. The Hilton just outside the walls is where Peter Dinklage stayed during shooting and  he got so drunk one night he fell asleep on a sofa in the lobby. That sofa is now a tourist attraction.

I meet my walking tour group at the main entrance to the walled old town, Pile Gate, which was used in several GoT scenes.

Cersei’s Walk of Shame was filmed here, starting at the Baroque Staircase or Jesuit Stairs. Naked and pelted with mud, she walks through a seemingly straight street but in reality it was filmed in several streets in the walled city.

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My walking tour guide shows a picture of Cersei’s Walk of Shame and where it began.
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One of the streets where Cersei’s Walk of Shame was filmed. Bar and restaurant owners were happy to close their establishment and get compensation while GoT was filming the scene.

The main street leading from the Baroque Staircase (similar to Rome’s Spanish Steps) is flanked by bars and restaurants and on top is the Jesuit Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola. On any given day, the restaurants are all full for lunch and dinner, and the hours in between when tourists try rakia or the popular fruit brandy in the Balkans.

To film the Walk of Shame, the owners were compensated to keep their establishments closed for several days. Then the shooting dragged on to 10 days, and they were very happy to be paid for staying closed.

Fort Lovrijenac doubles as the Red Keep. Outside the walls they shot the scene of Myrcella Baratheon — daughter of Cersei and Jaime — crying on a ship being exiled to Dorne to keep her safe from Stannis’ advancing army. This was filmed on a little beach below the fort.  The yellow and red kayaks waiting for tourists to enjoy the sea were, of course, taken away.

You can see the small beach and the red rooftops of the town from the ramparts of the fort, which is located on a 37-meter-high cliff and known as Dubrovnik’s Gibraltar. Some of the walls in this fortified city are 12 meters thick while other walls are only 60 centimeters.

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King’s Landing from another angle
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Another scene, another location. Every corner of Dubrovnik is a potential shooting location for King’s Landing.

The Ethnographic Museum doubles as Little Finger’s brothel and where Tyrion Lannister meets with Oberyn Martell, who is seeking justice for his dead sister and her children.

Season 7’s ending scene at King’s Landing, after Jaime Lannister leaves Cersei and rides north, was filmed in the old city. What’s funny about this is that they had to use fake snow in that love scene of King’s Landing with the slow piano version of the GoT theme. After the cast and crew packed up for the season, real snow did fall on  Dubrovnik, a first after many decades.

Had they waited five days, filming would have been easier and less expensive, but who’s counting money when you have the Iron Bank behind you?

A 20-minute boat ride from the harbor of Dubrovnik is Lokrum island, used as the city of Qarth near the Jade Sea, where Daenerys’ dragons are stolen and kept in the House of the Undying. In Qarth, the Mother of Dragons proves once again she is the Unburnt and merciless to those who betrayed her, locking Xaro inside his own empty vault.

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Breathtaking views of the old city and the islands surrounding Dubrovnik are from Srd Hill, accessible by cable car.
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Outside the Ploče Gate of Dubrovnik’s walls is Banje Beach.

Most scenes in Qarth were filmed in Lokrum’s botanical gardens and former Benedictine Monastery, and also at Dubrovnik’s Minčeta Tower, which stood in as the House of the Undying.

* * *

And so two years later, in February 2019, I am flying to Seville, Spain on a budget airline to see Dorne, in real life Real Alcázar de Sevilla, a collection of palaces built by the Moors and then the Christians.

I’ve let my feet run wild again, booking flights without a real plan except to find GoT film locations, losing my phone on the first leg of the flight from Manila to Abu Dhabi.

Called “the frying pan of Europe” (it reaches 45 degrees in the summer),  Seville is the capital and largest city of Seville province and the autonomous region of Andalusia.

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Real Alcázar de Sevilla or the Royal Palace in Seville is the setting of Dorne in Game of Thrones — a breakaway kingdom of sorts but an important ally to the Iron Throne nevertheless.
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The Ambassadors Hall in the Royal Palace of Seville is where Prince Doran welcomes Jaime Lannister, who is sent to collect his daughter Myrcella.
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Entrance to Real Alcazar. Never make the mistake of not booking online — as I did. Long queues in the morning.

In Sevilla without a phone, I have only rudimentary Spanish to communicate with my cabbie and Aibnb owner. My landlord is nice and welcoming, telling me she spent her honeymoon in Manila 25 years ago. She gives me the keys and a hug, and hours later the lights in her flat — my flat for a few days — have gone out. It’s shit but I don’t have the energy or the wifi to throw a hissy fit.

But I love this flat. It has a rooftop terrace, below the building are tapas bars and coffee shops — and most of all, the  Water Gardens of Dorne (or Alcazar) are just 200 meters away.

Dorne holds a curious place in Westeros — a sort of breakaway republic within the Seven Kingdoms, properly away from its politics and hypocrisy, but an important ally nonetheless.

Bastard children — the Sands — are not shunned. “We are everywhere in Dorne. I have ten thousand brothers and sisters,” says Elaria Sand when she and Oberyn Martell meet with Cersei and Tywin Lannister in King’s Landing.

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In the Water Gardens of Dorne or Real Alcazar de Sevilla.
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Moorish and Christian decorative motifs at Real Alcazar.
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Sevilla’s warm climate is the perfect setting of Dorne. “Bastards are born of passion, aren’t they? We don’t despise them in Dorne,” says Oberyn Martell.

The intricately decorated Ambassadors Hall in Alcazar is where Prince Doran welcomes Jaime (after being imprisoned briefly for sneaking in on a fisherman’s boat with Bronn) .

In Dorne, the weather is warm and the people are ruled by passion. “Bastards are born of passion, aren’t they? We don’t despise them in Dorne,” says Oberyn.

Warm weather and passion are also fitting descriptions of Seville. There are palm trees in the palace grounds and the street parallel to Guadalquivir River. Cross the river and you’re in Triana, a neighborhood with such a strong identity it considers itself apart from Seville.

I didn’t book online for the Alcazar tour, so I stood in line for an hour.

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GoT scene from the finale of Season 7, where the “summit” takes place between Team Lannister and Team Jon Snow/Daenerys Targaryen, filmed at the ampitheater of the Roman ruins of Italica in Santiponce, Spain.
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The real amphitheater of Italica. Photo by Diego Delso, wikipedia.com

There is music everywhere in Seville played by street musicians and ordinary people who just seemingly woke up and took their guitars outside to play. If you go out of the Alcazar, you’d still think this was Dorne — warm, laid back and tropical — and you fully understand Oberyn’s disdain for King’s Landing.

Emilia Clark (Daenerys Targaryen) said in an HBO interview that shooting in Seville was a joy, that it felt like they weren’t working at all but were on vacation compared to cast members shooting in Iceland like Kit Harington (Jon Snow).

Another shooting location in Spain, an hour by bus from Seville, is Santiponce, a town with a population of just over 8,000. This is where they shot the final episode of Season 7’s summit between the northerners plus Daenerys and her dragons, and Cersei and her minions, to show to the Lannisters the white walker they had captured from beyond the wall.

The Dragonpit is actually the Roman ruins of Italica, an archeological treasure to Sevillanos and commonly believed to be the birthplace of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. That scene where Jon Snow and Ser Davos, Tyrion Lannister and the Hound are walking to the Ampitheater is one of many cobbled streets of this ancient city that was once the third largest in the Roman Empire.

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The path leading to Anfiteatro de Italica.
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The pit from which the Hound carries the undead in a box.

In BTS interviews, the cast talked about how shooting in the Dragonpit was a sort of reunion for them — and for many characters it was the first time to shoot with each other, like for Cersei and Daenerys and Jon Snow who had never been together in a scene before.

As Game of Thrones progressed from its pilot episode in April 2011, previous shooting locations in Croatia were transferred to Spain. Scenes in King’s Landing, for instance, were shot in Girona even as the city doubled as Bravos where Arya Stark trained to become an assassin. Girona Cathedral doubled as the Sept of Baelor, previously shot in Dubrovnik.

Obviously, GoT isn’t the only reason to visit these places, but you do get a kick when you see a scene from this cultural phenomenon and remember your travels. And to be able to channel Cersei and say, “I was there, bitch.”

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Communal latrine in Italica.
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Santiponce is about an hour by bus from Sevilla.

10 things I love about El Nido’s Miniloc island

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Miniloc Island Resort from above. The resort is surrounded by towering limestone cliffs and amazing coral reefs below. Photos courtesy of El Nido Resorts
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The water villas at Miniloc. The entire resort was renovated last year, giving it a refreshed look but retaining its local design and rustic charm.

If I was asked what I loved most about my recent trip to Miniloc Island Resort in El Nido, Palawan, I wouldn’t be able to choose only one thing because the second you land in EL Nido, you know you’re going to experience memorable moments all throughout your stay.

Located in Bacuit Bay, Miniloc is one of four properties of El Nido Resorts, a group of sustainable island resorts in Palawan that offer unique experiences amid stunning natural landscapes.

One of the most Instagrammed islands in the Philippines, Miniloc was “discovered” by Japanese divers in the 1970s. And who wouldn’t fall in love with Bacuit Bay’s towering limestone cliffs and spectacular marine life?

Joey Bernardino, marketing director of Ten Knots Development Corp., owner of El Nido Resorts, says that Miniloc island was discovered accidentally. “The Japanese divers had been travelling through the area at night seeking other destinations. When a fishing line disabled the divers’ boat, they were forced to drop anchor. When they woke up the next day, they were amazed by their surroundings.”

In 1982, “they made Miniloc an ecotourism destination way before sustainable developments had become a buzz word. When Ayala Land bought into El Nido Resorts in 2010, it kept the resorts focused on nature-based activities, minimizing their footprint on the environment, and fostering relations with the surrounding communities.”

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Capiz doors and cogon roofs are Miniloc’s signature look.
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Miniloc added an eternity pool when it renovated.

Here are 10 things we love about Miniloc Island Resort:

1. The rustic charm gets refreshed. For a 40-year-old resort, Miniloc looks brand new. That’s because the entire resort was renovated last year, shuttered for six months and opening again in December 2018. Miniloc is famous for using local materials and architecture like traditional capiz windows and cogon roof on its water villas and cottages fronting the beach.

They made the conscious decision to retain the rustic feel that everyone loves. They also added sea-view suites and an eternity pool that looks out to Bacuit Bay— and when viewed from the gardens, you truly can’t tell where the pool ends and the sea begins.

2. Miniloc resort occupies less than one percent of the island. Joey Bernardino says, “The four El Nido island resorts have different masses or size in hectares but if we consider all the islands put together, we have only developed one percent . And once we develop them we become responsible for the entire island.”

Perhaps this is the reason why marine life surrounding Miniloc remains a spectacular showcase of biodiversity. Marigs Laririt, El Nido Resorts director for sustainability, says that could only have been made possible “by the fact that we have a well-maintained sewage treatment plant and a solid waste program that is uncompromising.”

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The clownfish is one of thousands of species in Miniloc’s house reef. Photo by Tanya Lara
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Thousands upon thousands of jacks in Miniloc’s house reef.

3. Miniloc’s house reef. I love resorts with house reefs — and Miniloc’s is the best I’ve seen so far (I’ve seen quite a few number in Luzon and the Visayas). Twice every morning, the staff feeds the jackfish that jump out of the water almost like dogs do when thrown treats.

There are colorful coral reefs just a few meters from the beach, so many varieties of fish, and it was the first time I saw thousands upon thousands of jacks surrounding me — like the famous sardine run in Moalboal, Cebu.

Miniloc also has well-trained nature guides who steer snorkelers’ fins away from the fragile corrals. Diving or snorkeling in Miniloc’s house reef is one of the happiest experiences you can ever have in El Nido.

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Entalula Island is one of El Nido Resorts’ properties. Miniloc guests are brought here if they want to go island hopping. It’s the perfect place to chill. Photo by Tanya Lara
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With old friend  Joey Bernardino of Ten Knots. Miniloc provides paddle boards on Entalula island.
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A sunny, lazy afternoon in Entalula.

4. Entalula island. I can stay here all day and just fall asleep under the shade of the trees to the sound of waves breaking. An exclusive island belonging to El Nido Resorts, Entalula has a white-sand beach, waters so blue, beach beds, paddle boards, a bar and restaurant.

Oh, and some resident monitor lizards that like to walk to the beach from the forest behind that’s been left untouched. Miniloc takes its guests here when they want to island hop and it’s a mere seven-minute boat ride away.

5. Big and Small Lagoons at the crack of dawn. I was shocked to see that our itinerary for the second day said, “Wake up at 5:30 a.m.” It turned out it was to go kayaking at the Big and Small Lagoons.

I said, “Didn’t we just do that today?” Yes, but seeing the sunrise in the lagoons is really special — you get to appreciate the stillness of the waters and literally hear the day starting with the sounds of nature. Tourists from the mainland are only allowed in the lagoons starting at 9 a.m. Kayaking makes you work up an appetite for Miniloc’s breakfast buffet.

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Dinner on a private beach with old and new friends: Joey, Romie, Ecka, Big Mac, Anne and Angelo.

6. Dinner at Big Lagoon Beach. Joey says Miniloc gets booked for quite a number of weddings and when it’s an intimate one, they prefer to get married here, one of the islands owned by El Nido. They’ve also had weddings where it’s just the bride and groom without a single guest.

Here, we had a lovely dinner of grilled seafood and paella, crispy pata and so much more with live music courtesy of the staff. Mike the singer was so talented he got me Youtubing Pinoy songs for days after.

7. Seeing the constellations and luminescent planktons. On the boat ride back to Maniloc at night, Miniloc GM Mac Guerrero — who has entertained various Hollywood celebrities on the island including Oscar nominee Margot Robbie — had the captain stop the boat and kill the spotlight.

Having seen Bacuit Bay’s limestone cliffs during the day, we were now treated to its beauty at night. “Look up,” Mac said. And indeed, the dark sky was filled with stars so bright it felt like we were under a giant umbrella lit from the inside.

With the boat rocking gently, we looked down and saw the water lit up as well by luminescent planktons. I had never seen this before in my life and it felt so magical.

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The bar at Miniloc and views of Bacuit Bay.

8. The glorious food and drinks! Since 2006, El Nido Resorts has maintained its own organic farm, using compost generated from the island resorts’ kitchens. Collectively, the resorts generate 36,000 kilos of biodegradable waste a month, which are composted. “The resulting soil conditioner has made it possible to raise a wide variety of produce in marginal Palawan soil and allowed the resorts to save significantly on food costs,” says Marigs Laririt, El Nido Resorts/Ten Knots sustainability director. “And 58 percent of all ingredients used in the four island resorts is sourced from locals.”

Miniloc is an all-inclusive resort with a buffet spread at breakfast, lunch and dinner. The variety of dishes is fantastic starting with the salad bar, grilled seafood and meats, fruits and desserts, and Filipino favorites. They change the buffet every day — some meals you get a pasta and pizza bar and others you get noodles and home faves like adobong pusit and ginataang kalabasa.

And I love the bar, which is just beside the main dining area. You have a view of the sea, and the bartenders make such wonderful drinks with top-shelf spirits. On our last night, when we got back to Miniloc from the beach dinner, Big Mac brought out a bottle of Johnny Walker Ultimate 18.

Needless to say, it was a great night back-grounded by the sound of waves.

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Morning boat ride with the limestone cliffs silhouetted against the horizon. Photo by Tanya Lara
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The waters around the island are filled with marine life. One afternoon, the boat dropped us here and we snorkeled all the way to Miniloc’s house reef.

9. El Nido community relations. Ninety percent of El Nido Resorts employees are locals and turnover rates are minimal. “Employees communicate a strong sense of pride in their islands to guests which in turn fosters among guests great appreciation for and a desire to keep the surroundings pristine,” Joey says. “It makes great sense for us to safeguard the resources that continue to attract visitors to our islands and this helps improve quality of life in general for our host communities.”

10. The warmth and kindness of the Miniloc staff. It’s true that Filipinos are naturally warm and friendly and when you pair that with the kind of training El Nido resorts provides its staff, you get impeccable service.

From the nature guides who go kayaking with you to the wait staff in the restaurant, the beach attendants taking care of your snorkeling or diving gear, the bar staff and room attendants — they all want to spoil you.

But nothing compares to the resort’s singing group that says goodbye to you at the pier. They’re plucked from Miniloc’s different departments — even the chef at our beach dinner doubled as drummer — and sing original songs about El Nido.

They sing to and wave at departing guests until the boat is literally out of sight, making you want to jump into the water and swim back to Miniloc.

Because who wants to leave paradise? No one!

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At one of the loft villas at Miniloc.
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Your first glimpse of Miniloc resort is on this pier.
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Whether you’re in bed or in the water, the views are amazing.

Cruising the Danube River on Avalon Illumination

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Melk City in Austria is one of Avalon Illumination’s stops on its Blue Danube river cruise. Photos by Tanya Lara
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Sailing into Passau, Germany

When I look up, the night sky is filled with stars — something you never see in cities anymore because of all the lights and pollution.

This is when the Danube, a river that crosses 10 countries in Central and Eastern Europe, feels new to me again. It is the third of our seven nights on the river and the stars are so bright above this little town somewhere in Austria.

I am on a fam tour with top travel executives and media hosted by Baron Travel, the general sales agent of Avalon Waterways in the Philippines, and Turkish Airlines.

Our group is sailing on the Danube, bookended by two of Europe’s most beautiful cities —  Budapest and Prague — on Avalon Illumination, a beautiful river ship that glides on the water with the grace of a queen and the age of a pageboy (Avalon has one of the youngest fleets in the industry; Illumination is only four years old).

In every itinerant’s journey, new details push our sense of awe to the surface once again — that day passing through Spitz in Austria with the houses on the riverbanks taking my breath away; the misty morning coming into Passau in Germany, a mist so thick it covered the autumn colors on the hills and then slowly lifting as though in a striptease; that day in Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic looking at the rooftops, something that had been on my bucket list for a long time; and the taste of a cup of hot chocolate between my freezing hands at the stern of the ship while watching the sun rise and enjoying the quietness.

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Autumn colors
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Yep, we love Turkish Airlines! Joining the fam tour are Mondial Tours’ Javi Berenguer Testa, Geographica Tours’ Zoe Tio-Fernando, I Love Travel’s Cyndee Wong, First United Travel’s Gaye Opulencia, AllPoints Travel’s Dondi Ocampo, Pan Pacific Travel’s Kaye Cervantes, the author Tanya Lara, Baron Travel’s Wally Cervantes, Airspace Travel’s Gigibeth Santiago, Our Awesome Planets Anton Diaz, and Turkish Airlines’ Sophia Kimura.

You’ve often heard the comparison of ocean liners to floating cities, and of river ships to boutique hotels. Both are accurate descriptions, but let me add that Avalon Illumination has the personalized service and intimacy of a bed and breakfast with our cruise director Tony as the host, giving talks in the lounge to what feels like a small, intimate group of travelers but in actuality is about 164 passengers in four decks.

The rooms feature floor-to-ceiling sliding windows, a good-sized bathroom with L’Occitane toiletries (important to women!), a sitting area and cable TV. It becomes a running joke in our group which fireplace channel they’re watching because there are 10. Yes, 10 different wood-burning fireplaces accompanied by classical music.

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The 164-passenger Avalon Illumination is like a boutique hotel that floats on Europe’s most beautiful waterways. Photo courtesy of Avalon Waterways
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The staterooms have a sitting area and floor-to-ceiling windows. Photo courtesy of Avalon Waterways

WINING & DINING ONBOARD
Avalon Illumination has three dining options: the main dining room which serves buffet breakfast and lunch, and a la carte dinner (we order off-the-menu too because, well, everyone becomes a foodie on a cruise); the Panorama Bistro for light meals and Avalon’s signature healthy cuisine options; and the Panorama Lounge and Bar for drinks and a happy hour every afternoon.

The quality of food and wines is fantastic. The meals often feature local dishes and wines, depending on where the ship is docked. We had schnitzel in Austria, Nuremberg sausages in Germany; and porcheta, goulash, Riesling and Wachau Valley wines in between. And champagne every single day.

Oh God, the champagne! If you ask for a bellini or mimosa at brunch on a day when there’s no morning excursion onshore, they’re not going to say no —  because what’s a late breakfast without alcohol?

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From Anton’s awesome 360-degree camera. Photo by Anton Diaz

The lounge I like best is the one at the stern of Illumination — it’s open round the clock, has coffee and tea-making facilities, cookies and hot chocolate. One night, a couple of the girls and I bring out a bottle of vodka and they tell the scariest ghost stories from all their travels (it’s the night before Halloween); some nights, it’s just me and several people reading their books.

FAIRY TALE TOWNS & FABULOUS SHOPPING
At every stop, Avalon offers a free walking tour and optional tours for a fee of between 49 and 96 euros. If it’s your first time to Europe, it’s a great way to see more.

This is what Geographica Tours’ Zoe Tio-Fernando and Turkish Airlines’ Sophia Kimura do as they take the free walking tour in Vienna and the optional tours to Schonbrunn Palace and Bratislava. Then First United Travel’s Gaye Opulencia and I join them in the optional tour to Cesky Krumlov while the ship is in Linz.

Mondial Tours’ Javi Berenguer Testa, who befriended practically everyone on board, agrees that a river cruise takes out the hassle of traveling through several countries in one trip. “What I enjoy most is that you only have to check in once and at the end of the cruise you check out. We’re able to visit cities and towns that aren’t normally part of the itinerary, like the towns of Krems, Melk and Passau.”

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The jaw-dropping Melk Abbey with its gilded statuary and frescoed library and church. To many of the travel executives I was with, this was a highlight of the river cruise.
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Melk Museum starts out as a dimly lit space…till you see what’s inside.
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Beer in Melk as the sun goes down.

In Melk, we explore the jaw-dropping baroque abbey and its magnificent frescoed library and church, and gold-plated statuary. Our Awesome Planet blog’s Anton Diaz and I are the only ones allowed to take pictures inside because you have to get a permit prior to your visit. Later, walking in the courtyard and still shookt from the opulence of the abbey, we joke about how the Benedictine monks took not having the vow of poverty to the extreme.

Melk is a charming town that seemingly grew because of the abbey, a smattering of souvenir shops and restaurants that glow at twilight with a forested area between the town and the Danube.

This small-town scene would be repeated throughout our stops and the vistas passing through Spitz, which is said to be the prettiest in the Austrian part of the Danube. Stopping at Durnstein with its vineyards and local spirits that we snap up from the shops; at Regensburg with its medieval stone bridge and gothic cathedral that’s the little brother to Cologne Cathedral; and Passau with St. Stephen’s Church’s period history of when the Catholic faithful were turning away from the church and the flood that devastated the city, which was eventually cleaned up with the help of young students who used Facebook to mobilize.

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The fairy tale-like Cesky Krumlov. I wouldn’t be surprised if a princess rode through the cobblestone streets on a horse and rescued her prince from the evil witch.
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Gaye, Zoe, Pia and I have some Czech beers, sausages, pancakes and goulash.
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I wonder if homeowners ever get tired of tourists taking pictures of their homes in Cesky Krumlov.

The optional tour that I take is to Cesky Krumlov, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the South Bohemian region of the Czech Republic. It is a dreamy place, a fairy tale-like town of towers, gabled roofs and a palace — and the Vltava River that flows from Prague. Unfortunately the tower is closed because of strong winds, so I leave without a photo of the whole town as seen from the tower.

The architecture is a mix of baroque, gothic and renaissance styles — and then there are the riverside houses that somehow look like they’re from the pages of children’s books that tourists can’t take enough pictures of.

I wonder if the homeowners ever get used to this or if, every time they peer out the windows, they let out an expletive.

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Regensburg in Germany is at the confluence of the Danube, Naab and Regen rivers. It’s a charming town with a gothic church that’s considered to be the little brother of Cologne Cathedral.
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Gigibeth, Cyndee, Zoe, Pia and I in Regensburg with the spires of the gothic cathedral showing in the background.
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Corporate International Travel’s Shan Dioquino David leads the charge to Pandorf Outlet Center, with Cyndee Wong and Gigibeth Santiago and their Uber ride back to Vienna. This is the first of many shopping expeditions.

In Vienna, Avalon Illumination treats us to a night of classical music at City Palace Billrothhaus. I am seated next to history buffs Wally Cervantes, SVP for Baron Travel’s Leisure Division, and his wife Kaye Cervantes of Pan Pacific Travel who are digging the Strauss concerto. Vienna is right up their alley, being the seat of the Hapsburgs’ Austro-Hungarian Empire, one of the greatest powers in history.

But there’s another wonderful thing about Vienna that Filipino travelers would love — its proximity to the outlet center Pandorf which has over 160 stores. Corporate International Travel’s Shan David, Airspace Travel’s Gigibeth Santiago and I Love Travel’s Cyndee Wong take an Uber to Pandorf.

In the evening they come back on the ship with a fleet of Rimowas (seriously, a fleet!) winter jackets, and a million other finds. Our jaws drop at the amount of shopping they did — accompanied by amazement at their finding things that cost thousands of pesos back home which they got for a couple of hundreds. And this is just the first shopping expedition!

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Handcrafted Wieser gin, whiskey and vodka in Durnstein.
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Vltava River in Prague. Charles Bridge, which brings you to Mala Strana, is oftentimes very crowded. An alternative is to take the modern bridge, then you actually get a view of Charles Bridge while crossing.

BUDAPEST & PRAGUE
In this part of Europe with four capital cities that are always strung together on a trip, I’ve always thought of Vienna as an old lady in a fur coat, Bratislava as not exciting — but Prague and Budapest are like energetic, trippy kids with old souls to me.

In Budapest, where we begin our trip, which is cut short because of the low river level, I take our group to the city’s most famous ruin bar, Szimpla Kert (more on Budapest in another story).

In Prague, where we are taken by coaches after disembarking in Passau, it is AllPoints Travel’s Dondi Ocampo that is our de facto tour guide, Prague being a city that he loves, in major part because of his devotion to the Sto. Niño. Walking through Stare Mesto and the medieval streets where Kafka hung out, where the Prague Spring reforms in 1968 and the Velvet Revolution in 1989 took place, where Czech beer is downed like water (the Czechs are the heaviest beer drinkers in the world), we cross Charles Bridge with its baroque statues.

Through Mala Strana on the other side of the Vltalva River, Dondi takes us to the John Lennon Wall and finally to the Church of Our Lady Victorious, the shrine to Sto. Niño.

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Prague’s Astronomical Clock at the Old Town Square is the third oldest in the world, first installed in 1410.

Dondi and Cyndee both love Prague in the same way I love Istanbul and Budapest — which is to say we will never get tired of these cities. We will always go back even when we get old and broke!

“Prague is a total package for me,” Dondi tells me. “It’s a time capsule of then and now. I enjoy its heritage buildings shouting at every corner, its food making its own statement, and I always say a little prayer in the church for our dear country. The Sto. Niño reminds me to be like a child — to enjoy and learn every day.”

We explore the city for two days — and outside the city for our champion shoppers. You can get dizzy in the old part of Prague with its hordes of tourists all day and night, in the bars and clubs, palaces, museums and shopping, the Astronomical Clock and Wenceslas Square.

Years ago when I was in Prague, there were puppets being sold that laughed like a witch when you waved your hand in front of their faces. This time near the square, I find a stall selling marionettes, and small wooden frames that reference John Lennon’s Wall with these words: “I’m a dreamer too.”

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The John Lennon Wall in Prague has been welcoming graffiti artists since the 1980s.

* * *

In the Philippines, Baron Travel Corporation is the general sales agent (GSA) of Avalon Waterways. For December 2018 and 2019 itineraries and sailing dates, call 817-4926 or log on to www.barontravel.ph.

Turkish Airlines flies daily from Manila to over 300 destinations worldwide. Call 894-5416 or log on to www.turkishairlines.com.

You may also book your flight and Avalon cruise through the following travel agencies: Manila — Airspace Travel & Tours, 522-3287; Binondo — I Love Travel, 232-1366/67; Quezon City — AllPoints Travel, 410-1527, 410-1538; Pasig — Geographica Tours, 994-8284, Corporate International Travel, 631-6541 to 44; Makati — Mondial Tours, 886-6300/47/48; First United Travel, 818-7181, Pan Pacific Travel, 810-8551 to 56.

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Passau at twilight, sitting on the banks of the Danube.
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At Turkish Airlines’ fabulous lounge, coming home with a layover in Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport.
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Melk town gives me the key to come back.
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Passau in Germany was another town I had never been to. St. Stephen’s Church may look unassuming with its façade, but inside are spectacular frescoes and gilded arches.
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Courtyard of Cesky Krumlov Castle. Unfortunately that day, the tower closed due to strong wind.
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Groufies with Gigibeth’s “magic” camera and Wally’s long-arm selfie.

 

 

Memorable Melbourne via Cebu Pacific

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Lined up on the shore, the 82 colorful Brighton Bathing Boxes are some of the most expensive real estate in Victoria state. Cebu Pacific recently launched its thrice-weekly service from Manila to Melbourne. Photos by Tanya Lara
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On another beach, 130 km. and two hours from Melbourne, the Little Penguins of Phillip Island are a big draw to visitors. Photo from Premier.vic.gov.au

They come on the beaches of Phillip Island at sunset, hundreds of them through the evening. They call it the “Penguin Parade,” a daily ritual of the Little Penguins, a name they acquired from being literally the smallest species at 33 centimeters tall and a kilo in weight. Blue and white in plumage, they go out to sea in the morning to catch fish and come back to their nesting burrows at night.

In the last hour or two of daylight, big waves come splashing on the shore as the tide rises. Then the water recedes as night falls, and by this time there are hundreds of people waiting on the bleachers, all shivering and wet from the winter rain — including our media group last week.

It’s our second day in Australia, having arrived the day before on Cebu Pacific’s inaugural flight to Melbourne, a thrice-weekly direct service that is Cebu Pac’s second destination in Oz following Sydney, which it launched in 2014.

It’s about time the budget airline launched its Melbourne route to make it more accessible to Filipino travelers, because the city and the national parks surrounding it in Victoria state are packed with attractions that are at turns surprising, colorful and delightful. And they make damn good wines and chocolates here, too.

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The Little Penguins come from the sea to the beaches at sunset all year round. Hundreds of visitors watch the ritual every day. Photo by Joros Razon

But back to the penguins. If you’ve seen the 2005 French documentary March of the Penguins, the only Oscar-winning docu that really interested me, you know how beyond cute they are.

You’d know, for instance, that some species like the Emperor Penguins can hold their breath for more than 20 minutes underwater, that they can go as deep as 500 meters, that all penguins spend most of their lives at sea, and travel thousands of kilometers a year, and that they are monogamous for each breeding season — in the next mating cycle, all bets are off and new affairs are started.

According to the Penguin Foundation of Australia, the Little Penguins are found only on the southeastern coastlines of Australia and New Zealand, “with Phillip Island in Victoria home to an estimated 32,000 breeding adults.”

Driving around Phillip Island Nature Park, which is two hours by land from Melbourne, you’ll see their nesting burrows (some of them manmade) on wide open fields on either side of the road, along with wallabies, birds and other animals that roam freely.

We are told by the rangers that the penguins would come in groups — one would leap out of the water and then waddle onto the beach to check things out, then it would signal to his mates and they’d all follow him.

And that’s exactly how the Penguin Parade goes.

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Beautiful Yarra Valley, home to wine and chocolate estates. Photos by Tanya Lara
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Yarra Valley Chocolaterie is the biggest handmade chocolate maker in Australia.
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Hundreds of varieties of chocolates, including 12 single-origin premium bars whose packaging features vineyards, orchards and wine estates around Yarra Valley.

Lit only by the moon and lights on the bleachers, it’s not so easy to see them come ashore and on to the grassy areas, but you can walk with them as they go “home” because the design of the Penguin Parade Center is such that the path to their burrows is alongside the human path and separated only by a three-foot glass barrier that goes around and past the center.

In fact, this is the way to see them up close. Some of the penguins walk in big waddles of 8 or 12, while others in smaller ones, and there’s always one left behind the bunch — “that one friend,” you imagine them gossiping with each other, their bellies full from the day’s feeding at sea shaking with laughter.

Since the penguins go out to sea all year round, summer (December to February) is the best time to go when the weather’s warm, but it also means that the sunset parade happens around 9 p.m.

Absolutely no photography is allowed because they don’t want to scare the penguins away or disrupt their ritual of a thousand years. And you realize what a joy it is to watch them with your own eyes and not through your phone camera. What a relief it is to not take pictures but to just enjoy the moment.

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At Churchill Island Heritage Farm. Photo by Joros Razon
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Our group on Cebu Pacific’s inaugural flight: The author Tanya Lara (back row, fifth from left), CEB corporate communications director Charo Logarta Lagamon (center, seated), and (from left) Jimmy Calapati, JG Summit’s Jeff Reyes, Stratworks PR director Mark Christian Parlade, Bea Cupin, Zsarlene Chua, Joel Guinto, Dominic John Galeon, Vangie Baga-Reyes, Iza Iglesias, Bernadette Lunas, JT Nisay and Ida Aldana

CHURCHILL ISLAND & YARRA VALLEY
Phillip Island tours usually include Churchill Island Heritage Farm, located on the smaller island and connected by bridge. Here, activities include cow milking, lassoing, and a sheep-shearing show. Children especially love seeing a sheep transform into a skinny one after its wool is sheared off in one piece. The record shearing speed is 49 seconds or 620 in eight hours — that’s a ton of wool!

The farm serves an unforgettable Ausssie lunch of grilled shrimps, stuffed mushrooms, stuffed mushrooms, coleslaw sandwiches and brownies.

I quickly realize that a trip to Melbourne is a journey in gastronomy. Every time we went out to eat, Australia’s bountiful produce, seafood, meats and wines were laid out as if it was our last meal.

Yarra Valley, which is an hour away from Melbourne, is home to the biggest handmade chocolaterie in the country and some of the highest-rated boutique wineries.

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City slickers on a farm. Say “Mooo!”
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Me and Inquirer’s Vangie… and a horse’s ass behind us.

At De Bortoli Wines, which produces an even split of reds and whites, we have a wine tasting accompanied by cheeses on its Dixons Creek estate. While I like the chardonnay and pinot, I love its dessert wines. After our tasting ends, our tasting master hands me another glass — the Black Noble with its nutty and raisin flavors.

It tastes and smells like Christmas and makes you feel like you’re drinking happiness! The only other wine that I’ve had a similar experience with is on the other side of the world, in Spain’s sherry-producing Jerez de la Frontrera in Cadiz, which I’ve never found in Manila.

At Yarra Valley Chocolaterie, you feel as if you’ve stepped into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate factory. You don’t actually see how they’re made — but my god! this is heaven for chocolate lovers.

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I wanted to take home the kid in the upper right photo. I said hello, he said “Meeeeeh.”
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Grilled shrimps, stuffed mushrooms, coleslaw and so much more. A trip to Melbourne is a food trip!

The chocolate is from Belgium; the chocolatiers from France and Belgium and their creations are hundred of kinds, from chocolate spreads to bars, clusters, candies and truffles, plain or flavored, white, milk and dark. Their Chocolate Wall alone features 34 chocolate varieties. And mind you, they’re not cheap — but they’re worth it.

We do a chocolate tasting of their single-origin premium chocolate —12 flavors whose packaging features paintings of the surrounding areas in Yarra Valley — the chocolaterie on the Mango & Passionfruit bar, Yarrawood Winery on Macadamia & Salted Caramel, Yering Orchard on the Roasted Nuts & Dried Fruit, Yarra River Yea on Cookies & Cream, and so on.

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The bathing boxes started out as rooms for women to change. Now, owners store their deck chairs, tables and kayaks and other beach stuff inside.
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Matching the bright colors of Brighton Bathing Boxes; VW camper on the facade of one.

BRIGHT BRIGHTON BEACH
I’ve never been to this part of Australia before, so Melbourne was a wonderful surprise for me — its architecture, its laid-back vibe and Asian feel, and the shopping! But none amused me more than the colorful bathing boxes of Brighton Beach.

Lined up like faithful soldiers on the shore, uniform in size and material but wildly different from each other, the 82 bathing boxes started out as exactly that — rooms for women to change. Now they contain beach stuff like deck chairs, tables and kayaks.

Visitors think of them as a Melbourne icon, but that’s geographically wrong; they are located in the city of Bayside, which is about 20 kilometers away, and they can only be owned by Bayside residents.

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One box auctioned last December fetched above the previous record of AUD$326,000 (P12.7 million pesos)

The Brighton bathing boxes are some of most expensive real estate in Victoria despite being just timber boxes without electricity or running water. One box auctioned last December fetched above the previous record of AUD$326,000 — and buyers don’t actually own the land, they’re just granted a license by the city council.

There are guidelines to the façade of the boxes issued by the council and among the outstanding designs are the VW van, the Australian flag and so many striking color combinations.

You can picture in your mind what it’s like here in the summer, when the days are long, the bathing boxes are open and the picnic tables and umbrellas are out.

They might even have shrimps on the barbie.

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Melbourne’s beloved icon, Flinders Street railway station.

MELBOURNE AT LAST
It feels that I’m getting to know Melbourne last on this trip, as if it was saving itself for the final number, like dessert, like a nightcap, like showing you its neighbors first before opening its arms in embrace.

Our driver and guide throughout this trip is an East Timorese native named Nigel who migrated to Australia with his family when he was a boy. On our first day, he proudly tells us that the city was voted this year as the Most Livable, beating Vancouver, another western city that’s been Asianized with migrants.

Melbourne’s widely regarded as Australia’s cultural and gastronomic capital with its mix of old architecture and new buildings, its Federation Square and its Flinders St. Railway Station, its casino and duty-free shopping, its Divisoria-like Victoria Market where the prices go down as closing time nears, its pubs and Chinatown. I think its openness, its multi-cultural population (4.8 million or 19 percent of the country’s population) has a lot to do with its livability.

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Yarra River flows 242 kilometers through and out of Melbourne, through other cities and valleys in Victoria state.
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Panna cotta at Locale restaurant in Yarra Valley and brownies at Heritage Farm on Churchill Island.

A colleague remarks that for a city that’s visited by millions of tourists, it’s not very touristy with its early sleeping hour (or perhaps we were simply on the quieter side of the CBD), but I point out that maybe that’s precisely what makes it the most livable city in the world — for locals to enjoy a balance of life and work and play.

Alongside its wide streets and botanic gardens, its running paths and riverside neighborhoods, its monuments to remembrance and war heroes is Hosier Lane, a street that merges art and horor vacui. Hosier’s a city block spanning two or three branching streets filled with graffiti from the ground up to rooftops — some interesting, mostly trash, at least to me — but it’s a place like no other.

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Federation Square, Melbourne’s cultural, art and events venue.
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Melbourne remembers its war dead from the various conflicts they fought.

Every day, for one reason or another, we find ourselves walking by Yarra River in the heart of Melbourne. This water flows 242 kilometers through and out of Melbourne, through other cities and valleys. We are told that Yarra is an aboriginal word that means “upside down.”

Maybe that’s part of Melbourne’s secret — the mix of strict order and freedom, of stable and fun, of ridiculously priced bathing boxes and ridiculously good kebab stalls after a pub crawl. You only have to look to the right of Federation Square’s modern arts venue contrasting with the old railway station’s regal architecture to realize that this is a city that’s changed by time and migration but still treasures its history. And it effortlessly convinces people to treasure it too.

* * *

Cebu Pacific flies nonstop from Manila to Melbourne on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 6 a.m.; Melbourne to Manila on the same days at 5 p.m. Its nonstop service from Manila to Sydney is on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 10:15 a.m.; Sydney to Manila on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at 11:45 a.m. For inquiries and reservation, call Cebu Pacific’s hotline at 702-0888; for promos and seat sale, log on to www.cebupacificair.com.

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The graffiti at Hosier Lane, which branches out into two or three streets. Some are interesting like the one on the right, most are trash — at least for me.
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Horor vacui, the fear of empty spaces.

 

A scenic route of wines, truffles & rivers through the South of France

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The luxury ship Scenic Sapphire starts its South of France river cruise at Chalon-sur-Saône in Burgundy, which produces some of the most expensive wines in the world.  Photos by Tanya Lara

At some point on the train speeding from Lyon, France’s third largest city, the landscape changes into my mind and memory’s picture of the South of France — a scenic route of vineyards, wheat fields, farmhouses and red-roofed village houses.

And plenty of golden hay rolled under the gathering blue skies of July.

I am on my way to Chalon-sur-Saône, a commune in the wine-producing Burgundy region 130 kilometers away, to join a river cruise on the luxury ship Scenic Sapphire, starting in Chalon, sailing the Saône and Rhône rivers back to Lyon at midpoint (where I’m to disembark), and then continuing its journey further south to Nice.

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Vineyards in Beaujolais grow gamay grape. Beaujolais Nouveau is released on the third Thursday of November and is greeted with wine parties across France.

Having arrived in Lyon two days earlier, I’ve opted to take the TGV myself rather than the complimentary shuttle service that Scenic offers its passengers arriving at Saint-Exupéry airport or the train station.

It’s a one-and-a-half hour journey, and now that I think of it, the train ride is just enough time to adjust your eyes, like when you walk out into the blinding sun when you come out of the house for the first time during the day.

Except in this case, my eyes are adjusting from Lyon’s urban vistas to farmlands draped in a light that renders the landscape with such stillness it’s as if I’m looking at a painting. I don’t know why this is, in the South of France. I’ve been to the lavender fields of Valensole in Provence before and was struck by the singularity of its light, especially at sunset.

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A rubber duckie race on the Saône river to raise funds for a children’s charity.

Arriving in Chalon, you have two choices — to walk 15 minutes to the docks or take a taxi from the train station. It’s now noon and the sun is blazing. There are three taxis on the curb outside the station, but there are no drivers inside the cars. A minute later, the driver approaches and asks where I’m going. It seems even they are hiding from the summer heat.

But you get my point — it’s not a busy town. It’s so slow and laid-back that their idea of a race to raise funds for a children’s charity — as I would find out the next day — is to release 10,000 rubber ducks downstream on the river and see which one would float to the finish line first. Apparently, it’s a thing in first-world countries, this rubber-duckie race.

* * *

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Scenic Sapphire is one of the 20-ship fleet of Scenic Cruises, which offers itineraries around the world’s greatest rivers. In the Philippines Scenic Cruises is represented by Acewin Travel & Tours (0915-5000-678, 0917-572-5540). Photos courtesy of Scenic Cruises
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Crystal Dining offers four-course meals with wines and other drinks; you can also order off-menu.

THE SCENIC ROUTE
Being onboard a Scenic Space Ship (that’s how the ships on their fleet are called) is like being in a floating luxury boutique hotel. Obviously, it’s much smaller than an ocean liner, plying on rivers around the world instead of the open sea — but the keyword here is luxury.

Scenic offers butler service to its passengers, the cabins are well-appointed with complimentary minibar, a step-out furnished balcony, L’Occitane toiletries, flatscreen TV and a sitting area.

It’s also all-inclusive — the land tours, meals, wine and drinks at the bar (we’re talking about top-shelf spirits here) and snacks.

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The mezzanine floor with the reception lobby.
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Scenic cabins (this one is on Scenic Eclipse, not Sapphire) are well-appointed with complimentary minibar, a step-out furnished balcony, L’Occitane toiletries, flatscreen TV and sitting area.

My friend Abbie Sandico, general manager of Acewin Travel & Tours which represents Scenic River Cruises in the Philippines, says, “Scenic has the best curated tours on Europe’s rivers. They’ve got your history covered if that’s your interest, but they are also strong with experiences: truffle hunting, a private concert in a palace, exploring on ebikes, etc. In a fast-paced world where everyone is busy, Scenic removes the hassle of planning and allows you to slow down and just enjoy the experience.”

Scenic Sapphire is only 135 meters long and 11.4 meters wide. It has 10 suites, 67 cabins and 28 crew cabins; and can accommodate about 160 guests, 43 crewmembers and seven nautical crew.

Founded in Australia by Glen Moroney, whose wife Karen Moroney designs the interiors of each of the 20 ships on their fleet, Scenic started 32 years ago with coach tours throughout Australia. In the 1990s they expanded to New Zealand and Southern Africa; in the next decade, they went pretty much around the world. And then they went into ship-building, constructing their own Space Ships.

* * *

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The Sapphire Lounge serves drinks and snacks all day. At the front is River Cafe for light meals, and L’Amour serves a five-course dinner featuring French specialties paired with local wines.
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A French cuisine lesson is held onboard every afternoon with each class limited to 10 passengers.

DISCOVERING BURGUNDY WINES
One of the great things about a river cruise is you’re never far from land. On Scenic, you get to choose from two to three tours to take in the morning, and the rest of the day you can go onshore on your own with Scenic Tailormade, a GPS locator that guides your own personal excursion. Think of those handheld devices in museums that are automatically activated with an audio commentary at each point of interest.

You can wander but you won’t get lost because the device has an interactive map.

The tours I choose in Burgundy are all wine and food-related (after all, this is the region that produces some of the best wine appellations in the world).

Is it any wonder that in Burgundy you can casually stop at a random restaurant and find that it has a Michelin star?

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Chateau de Savigny les Beaune was built in the 14th century and has an unlikely collection of airplanes and motorbikes.
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Scenic Sapphire’s main restaurant Crystal Dining offers four-course meals with wines and other drinks; you can also order off-menu.

Chateau de Savigny les Beaune, an hour by the arranged coach from Chalon, was built in the 14th century. During the wine tasting, we are told that Burgundy produces the most expensive wines in the world, and the region accounts for three percent of French wines and — surprise! — 65 percent is white wine. In Burgundy, vintners aren’t allowed to blend varieties — the pinot made here is 100 percent pinot grapes.

More than the wines, the chateau is known for its unlikely collection of  aircraft and helicopters, and motrobikes. The estate has a park lined with twin props and in the museum thousands of scale models of bikes.

On another day, we travel to Beaujolais to try the light-bodied red wine at Chateau Montmelas, and also white and rosé, all made form gamay grape. This variety allows for quick fermentation of just a few weeks and the arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau on the third Thursday of November is greeted with parties across France and tasting starts in bars, cafes and bistros.

Perched on a hill, the estate affords views of the vineyards growing gamay grape. It is a breathtaking sight.

* * *

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Chateau Montmelas in Beaujolais is not a museum — but a castle where the owners live.
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Turffle and butter on bread and some Burgundy wines at Cos de Piguet.

THE TRUFFLE TRADE
An Englishman living in the South of France is in financial ruin and so one day he takes out an ad in the International Herald Tribune looking for interesting and unusual work. “Anything considered…except marriage,” he says. What follows is a job to impersonate a wealthy gentleman who has the formula to grow truffles quick and cheap, and he’s soon plunged into truffle espionage.

If this story sounds familiar, you’ve probably read Peter Mayle’s 1997 fictional novel Anything Considered, the caper that kicked the door open for the public to have a look into the rare mushroom.

On a truffle farm in Tournus — a commune with only one four-star and one three-star hotel but with four Michelin-star restaurants — the story is not quite as dangerous.

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This Burgundy truffle is not quite ready yet; they’re usually harvested in autumn.

Oliver, who quit his job as a soil researcher in Switzerland to farm the land he inherited in Cortevaix, is a truffle farmer. He started from scratch, reconstituted the forest on his estate and planted it with truffle and saffron trees to have long and short-term yields. He grew two species of Burgundy truffles, one of them historically served on the tables of the French kings.

Truffles are fungi found near the roots of trees and they’re expensive because they grow only in specific kinds of soil, such as Burgundy’s or Tuscany’s in Italy. It takes five years before you can harvest truffles and you can only do so with animals with an acute sense of smell.

Pigs were previously used to hunt truffles, but I read somewhere that the problem with pigs is they enjoy eating truffles, too — and you can hardly teach them to refrain (being pigs).

Enter dogs.

Oliver’s dog is 14-year-old Chinook, a female working dog whose only mission in life it seems is to please him. It’s a relationship that he knows will end in a few years given her age, and so he started training another dog — a hunting dog. But the problem with hunting dogs is that they’re too efficient and want to get the job done as quickly as possible. The new dog doesn’t wait for Oliver; Chinook, meanwhile, sits on her heels and waits as he gathers the fungi in his basket and then they walk together in the forest to hunt some more.

It melts my heart seeing Chinook looking up adoringly at Oliver as he is telling us about truffles and complicated French laws regarding land and farming.

The truffles Chinook digs up aren’t ready yet, as they are usually harvested in autumn. Oliver’s wife tells us that the best way to enjoy truffles is fresh — shaved on a dish like pasta or eggs. As for saffron, they should be in their stalks because you never know what’s been added to the powder form. A kilo of truffles can go as high as $50,000 (P2.65 million) and saffron $20,000 (P1.06 million).

At the end of our tour, Oliver scoops Chinook up in his arms and carries her back into the house.

On this truffle farm, at this moment in France, I suddenly feel homesick thinking of my own senior dog thousands of miles away.

* * *

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Before sunset in Mâcon. By the time it’s dark, France will have won the World Cup and the whole city is partying. Photos by Tanya Lara

WORLD CUP PARTY IN MACON
I was in Paris when the national team Les Bleus beat Belgium in the semi-finals. By  the time the final game is played and won against Croatia, I am in Mâcon.

Mâcon is known for its wine appellation and its riverside buildings painted in burnt sienna and buttermilk. Every April, Mâcon holds a wine fair of which two-thirds of its  production is white, made from chardonnay grape.

And tonight in Mâcon, bottles of wine and champagne are popping inside the houses, and then the party spills out onto the streets. In Paris, people are celebrating on the Champs Elysées; in Mâcon cars are honking around the river, being driven aimlessly and crossing bridges on the Saône, drivers screaming with joy and the French flag waving in the summer night.

Bands are leading impromptu parades, faces painted with the French colors, people are singing and chanting, children are carried on their fathers’ shoulders, and the party’s getting bigger as the evening progresses.

It’s impossible not to be carried away by the crowd’s happiness — the French have earned their second star, their second World Cup after 20 years.

It’s a truly wonderful time to be in the South of France.

* * *

In the Philippines, Scenic River Cruises is represented by Acewin Travel & Tours Corp. For inquiries and reservations, call Acewin Travel & Tours at 0915-5000-678, 0917-572-5540, 729-66-88. Email acewincruises@yahoo.com or visit their office at the ground floor of LPL Bldg., 17 Eisenhower St., North Greenhills, San Juan.

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Chateau de la Rochepot on the scenic route from Chalon to Chateau de Savigny.

Midnight in Savannah’s Garden of Good and Evil

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Savannah’s Mercer Williams House, where art and antiques dealer Jim Williams shot a local male prostitute, the story central to John Berendt’s book and Clint Eastwood’s film “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Photos from visitsavannah.com
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The fountain at the north end of Forsyth Park; the park is the biggest in Savannah’s historic district, covering 30 acres.

Every time someone tells me, “The book is always better than the movie,” I point to two movies: Clint Eastwood’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Alexander Payne’s Sideways.

No, not always.

I saw the movies first before I read the books — Sideways by Rex Pickett, and Midnight by John Berendt, which was a damn good book — but it was the movies that I fell in love with. Eastwood’s film put Savannah, Georgia on the global tourism map — suddenly everyone wanted to see its garden squares every three blocks, its wooden houses that can only be described as languid, like a woman on a chaise lounge being sketched by an artist and, above all, the Bird Girl statue.

While Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump was also shot there, to my mind the location wasn’t as crucial as it was in Midnight. It didn’t have me putting it on my bucket list, Midnight did. One can argue that central to both movies are quirky characters that made Savannah memorable or that it was only Savannah that has in real life such characters that any other location was impossible.

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I flew from Manila almost a decade ago to have a look at the Bird Girl statue, formerly at Bonaventure Cemetery and later transferred to Telfair Museum, because I was so in love with the film version of “Midnight.”

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was written by former Esquire and New York magazine editor John Berendt. Published in 1994, Berendt’s novel won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction and spent 216 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, a record unbroken to this day.

Midnight also has one of the best book covers ever: a haunting picture of what the world would come to call the Bird Girl, a bronze sculpture of a girl holding bird feeders in both hands. There were four statues made from a cast and one of them ended up in local family plot at Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah. When Random House sent a photographer to shoot the cover for Berendt’s book, the author suggested that he find a subject in the cemetery and the photographer found the statue as the light was fading.

I’m a whodunit kind of girl, I love a murder mystery in any genre and there’s one at the heart of Midnight — the shooting of a local male prostitute (“a good time not yet had by all”) amid a slew of peculiar characters, socialites, old and new money swirling in Southern Gothic atmosphere. It’s Eastwood, but at times it feels like you’re  in the middle of a Robert Altman movie with its not-so-subtle class tension.

What Truman Capote did with In Cold Blood in 1966, what Susan Orlean did with The Orchid Thief in 1998, Berendt did as successfully with Midnight: he wrote news and the subsequent court trial as a novel and rearranged chronological events to fit his purpose. All three were made into movies, but to me only Midnight is a better film than the book, which doesn’t take anything away from the author because Eastwood was essentially handed a ready-made script that he filmed three years after the book’s publication.

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The Kehoe House historic bed and breakfast.
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Among the many tours is a ghost and haunted house tour which includes haunted hotels like this one.

In the film, Town & Country journalist John Kelso (John Cusack) comes to Savannah on assignment to cover a who’s-who party hosted by the town’s beloved art and antiques dealer Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey). At some point in the night, Williams shoots the temperamental male prostitute Danny Hansford (Jude Law) and maintains that he did it in self-defense.

Surrounding this murder are locals that include a man paid to walk an imaginary dog, a drag queen, a lot of drinking and canapés on the crime scene — and voodoo rituals. All for real, including the city’s famous drag queen who portrayed herself in the movie.

It is the American South, after all.

“For me, Savannah’s resistance to change was its saving grace,” Berendt writes. “The city looked inward, sealed off from the noises and distractions of the world at large. It grew inward, too, and in such a way that its people flourished like hothouse plants tended by an indulgent gardener. The ordinary became extraordinary. Eccentrics thrived. Every nuance and quirk of personality achieved greater brilliance in that lush enclosure that would not have been possible anywhere else in the world.”

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Savannah’s City Market includes restaurants and bars and a pedestrian promenades where bands play all day. Photos from City Market/flickr.com

Eastwood portrays all this in a brilliant pace, in scenes that are deeply atmospheric with beautiful shots of the houses, haunting trees dimpling the sunlight and voodoo rituals, contrasting all these against Cusack’s New York ethos.

“This place is fantastic! It’s like Gone with the Wind on mescaline,” Cusack tells his editor. “They walk imaginary pets here, and they’re all armed and drugged. New York is boring.”

* * *

All this was why I wanted to go to Savannah. It wouldn’t be for many, many years since the movie’s release that I’d actually make the trip, still a fave from my solo travels.

By this time, Savannah had become a tourist destination with movie location tours that included Williams’ Mercer House, where the murder took place, and Bonaventure Cemetery, where thousands of tourists would trample on other gravesites to see the Bird Girl.

Then the city said, enough!

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Trolley tours in Savannah drop tourists off City Market.
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If you want to discover America’s 18th- and 19th-century architecture, head to Savannah, which has preserved and re-purposed many of its houses in the historic district.

When I arrived at my hotel, the receptionist told me the Bird Girl was no longer at Bonaventure Cemetery. My heart literally stopped for a second. I had finally saved enough money for the trip — did I just fly 14,000 kilometers for nothing?

No, they had merely transferred the sculpture, which was donated to the city by the family that owned it, to Telfair Museum in the middle of town. It wasn’t the same as seeing it in a cemetery but it was there.

The museum had the stupid rule of no photography (it’s a statue!) and a burly security guard waved his hands at me in warning.

I quickly realized that in Savannah, gumption and charm go a long way. I told him, “I flew across the Pacific to see this statue and I just want to take a picture of it.”

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”In Savannah the first question people ask you is, ‘What would you like to drink?’” — Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. At the time,a study found that eight percent of Savannah’s adults were known alcoholics.

Not only did I get the guard to let me take a picture of the Bird Girl, he actually took a picture of me with it.

Every travel, in the end, is like a movie script. There is that which you follow, and then there’s improvisation. I improvised in Savannah after I had done what I went there for. I walked its streets, visited its houses, sat on the bench in the square where Gump said, “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.”

Indeed, Forrest, indeed.

But there was something more than that — a city that hummed to its own beat, through the breeze ruffling the Spanish Moss in the squares, something genuine that was becoming obvious to me slowly, sweetly.

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”In Savannah the first question people ask you is, ‘What would you like to drink?’” — Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. At the time,a study found that eight percent of Savannah’s adults were known alcoholics.
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Candy store in slow-paced, lovely City Market.

They drank in the morning, they played music in the squares, they played Free Bird continuously, the street band becoming bigger as passersby participated not just took pictures because in 2010, no one cared all that much about Facebook or Instagram.

At the time, the National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse said that more than eight percent of Savannah’s adults were “known alcoholics.”

Eastwood captures this throughout the film and in one scene, Cusack is told: “We’re not at all like the rest of Georgia. We have a saying: If you go to Atlanta, the first question people ask you is, ‘What’s your business?’ In Macon they ask, ‘Where do you go to church?’ In Augusta they ask your grandmother’s maiden name. But in Savannah the first question people ask you is, ‘What would you like to drink?’”

But Sunday was a different story. I went to the supermarket to buy wine and found the aisles cordoned off. I asked a salesperson why. He said, “Because it’s Sunday.” Again, I asked why. “Because of God,” he said. “It’s the law.”

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”In Savannah the first question people ask you is, ‘What would you like to drink?’” — Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. At the time,a study found that eight percent of Savannah’s adults were known alcoholics.

He began to walk away before I could wrap my head around this and I said, “Hey, wait, out of curiosity, can I buy a gun on a Sunday?” He turned and looked at me as if I had asked the stupidest question in the world and said, “Yes, of course.”

Since we’re on the topic of drinking and movies being better than books, let me say something about Alexander Payne’s Sideways, set in the vineyards and wineries of Sta. Inez Valley.

Failed novelist Miles (Paul Giamatti) is asked by Maya (Virginia Madsen) why he was so into Pinot. He fumbles around and says because it’s a hard grape to grow, “it’s not a survivor like Cabernet.”

Then he asks her why she’s into wine. She says, “I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it’s an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I’d opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks, like your ’61. And then it begins its steady, inevitable decline.”

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You can’t buy alcohol in Savannah on a Sunday, but you can buy a gun.

It’s one of the quietest scenes that’s ironically filled with dialogue, and that’s what I love about it. It may also be the one scene that won for both acting awards — the way Sofia Coppola made a star out of Bill Murray again in Lost in Translation. That sadness, that quiet desperation that no one else understands except those that finish a bottle of whiskey and black out after, and in the morning wish they had died instead.

But never mind that. Back to Savannah with its street music and unreasonable Sunday alcohol law…

I was asked by friends later how I liked the place. I told them that through the wind that traveled through its New York-like grid, its voodoo rituals, its historic district, the wooden houses that gossiped about the most scandalous affairs and murders, the movies and books, and my own failings — I told them that of all the cities in the US that I’ve been to, Savannah was the only place I could imagine setting my luggage down for.

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Twenty minutes form downtown Savannah is Tybee Island with a historic lighthouse and wooden cottages.

Cathay Pacific flies cleaner, further with the new A350-1000

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The A350-1000 comes home to Hong Kong: The world’s most modern aircraft will be used for Cathay Pacific’s longest route: the 17-hour nonstop flight from HK to Washington, DC, starting in September. Photos courtesy of Cathay Pacific and Airbus
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Cathay Pacific chief customer and commercial officer Paul Loo, flight operations director Anna Thompson, the four pilots who flew the A350-1000 from Toulouse to Hong Kong Evan Summerfield, Karl Lucas, Marcin Grzyb and Dominica Yung, and the flight crew at the Airbus Delivery Center.

An Airbus takes off or lands every 1.4 seconds. By the time you finish reading this story, about 500 will have done that all over the world; in 24 hours, 61,714 Airbus aircraft will have taken off or landed at any given airport on the map.

There’s a little bit of poetry in these numbers — one imagines airplanes carrying people home or taking them to adventures that lie ahead; the anticipation of a long-overdue homecoming, a reunion, or simply a weekend away to some island or a new city. Every single takeoff or landing is the beginning of a story for millions of people every day.

Last Wednesday, an Airbus made a special landing in Hong Kong. For the first time in the world, Cathay Pacific’s first ever A350-1000, which took off from Airbus’ runway in Toulouse 12 hours before, landed at Chek Lap Kok International Airport, signaling the start of a new generation of modern and clean-fuel airplanes for the airline’s fleet. It is only the second such plane in the world, and the first in Southeast Asia.

The wide-body aircraft will be used for CX’s longest route in its network: the 17-hour nonstop flight from Hong Kong to Washington, DC, a distance of 8,153 miles (13,122 kilometers). The service begins in September, four times a week, as the airline expands its long-haul network and increases its capacity in its 206 destinations in 52 countries. The A350-1000’s first commercial flight will be to Taipei, and will serve Madrid, Tel Aviv, Amsterdam, Manchester and Zurich from winter this year.

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The business class cabin features more comfortable seats that convert into flat beds with one touch, new personal stowage compartment on the side and a touchscreen remote control.
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You can now pre-order your breakfast before you sleep in business class.

Cathay Pacific chief customer and commercial officer Paul Loo who, six years ago, negotiated the carrier’s order of 20 A350-1000s to be delivered until 2021 (the next delivery is in August), says, “We already have one of the youngest long-haul fleets in the sky (an average of 5.6 years in service), and with the arrival of the A350-1000, our fleet is only going to get younger. The aircraft follows the successful entry of the A350-900 variant, which has enabled us to expand our long-haul network at a near unprecedented rate, providing our customers with a wider range of nonstop travel choices while at the same time strengthening Hong Kong’s position as Asia’s largest international aviation hub.”

Called “the future of air travel,” the A350-1000 is longer than its 900 sister in the A350 XWB family with 54 more seats (CX’s configuration is from 280 for four-class planes with first, business, premium economy and economy; to 334 for those without first class).

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The business class menu has three more starter choices and up to six main course choices.

“From now until 2024, we still have 79 aircraft to be delivered in total,” says Loo. Though he wouldn’t say the investment for this particular aircraft, he says the “the total cost of our investment is more than what Hong Kong is spending on building a third runway,” which is HK$141.5.billion (US$18 billion).

Cathay Pacific general manager for corporate affairs Kinto Chan says the airline’s A350 planes are partly powered with biofuel to reduce the airline’s GHG emissions and to fly greener; this plane flies on 10 percent biofuel. “Fulcrum Bioenergy will supply the aviation biofuel produced from municipal solid waste.”

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Author Tanya Lara with the Rolls Royce Trent XWB engine, the most efficient large aero-engine flying today. Cathay Pacific’s A350-1000 runs on 10 percent biofuel made from municipal waste.

Airbus head of A350-XWB marketing Marisa Lucas-Ugena says that compared to previous aircraft generation, the A350-1000 is 25 percent better in fuel burn, CO2 emissions, and cash operating cost. “Its new wing, inspired by and acquired from nature, morphs to mimic a bird’s wing; it has a new fuselage design using 70 percent advanced titanium and composite material, which means no corrosion or fatigue, and lower weight and reduced maintenance.”

The A350-1000’s Rolls Royce Trent XWB engine is the world’s most efficient large aero-engine flying today with 1.8 million flying hours and 99.89 percent operational reliability.

* * *

CX 3510 or the ferry flight from Toulouse to Hong Kong had only 76 passengers composed of CX executives, engineers, and employees who had won a company-wide contest held by the airline, and journalists. Out of the 334 seats, only business and premium economy cabins were occupied.

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Flying over the French Alps on the delivery flight to Hong Kong. Photo by Tanya Lara

As soon as the seatbelt sign went off, we were up and about inspecting the plane. Being a noncommercial flight, it was unlike any other flight of course. For one, the economy cabin was empty. Second, there was an atmosphere of celebration and for us journalists it was actually the only time we got to exchange business cards on this coverage, having done a series of interviews and tours at the Airbus factory the day before.

And third, the CX executives had loosened up as we were chatting on the aisles — finally, after six years, they were bringing this baby home! CX general manager for planning Lavinia Lau even helped with the breakfast service, serving bread to passengers. “When else can you do this?” she says with a laugh.

With all the journalists taking pictures and videos of the crew as they served drinks and food, it took twice the amount of time than on a regular flight. Leslie, a flight attendant who’s been with CX for 22 years, corrects me. “No, thrice!” he says. Indeed, the very cheerful flight attended was very excited to be on the ferry flight. “It’s a privilege for me,” he says. “Every crew wants to experience this and it comes only once in a lifetime.”

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Economy cabin: Throughout the plane are air and noise management systems and ambient lighting that help passengers relax.
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The author Tanya Lara with CX chief customer and commercial officer Paul Loo and wife Joy Loo, CX general manager for planning Lavinia Lau and Cheche Moral of Inquirer in the economy cabin.

Cathay Pacific corporate affairs editor Alexander Jenkins says the airline held a contest among its employees and the winners were flown to Toulouse, had a tour of the Airbus facilities, and joined the delivery flight back to Hong Kong.

A brand-new plane is the norm for CX, which is receiving a new one every month as it retires some planes and adds to its existing 206-aircraft fleet — but a new-generation aircraft is a big deal.

It’s not only the hardware that makes the A350-1000 the most efficient aircraft today, it’s also the passenger experience. The cabins have a higher ceiling, a flat floor — no more bumps that cover wires running throughout the plane —  wide panoramic windows, HD screens,  more legroom, and LED ambient lighting with 16.7 million colors that make possible lighting scenarios to mimic natural sunrise and sunset and help reduce the effects of jet lag. Plus, what everyone wants — mobile and WiFi networks! The latter is especially good news for Filipino travelers who need to work on a long-haul — but who are we kidding? — it’s important to document their air travel on social networks in real time.

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Flight attendants roll out main course selections and desserts in business class.

On the delivery flight from Toulouse to Hong Kong, we experienced just how intuitive the design is, and how much more comfortable the A350-1000 business class is compared to Boeing’s 777-ER of the same class, which the airline will be replacing in phases. The seat, which converts into a full flat bed, is longer and doesn’t have the bumps that I felt lying down — it felt like a true bed.

Also, there is a compartment beside the seat where you can store your handbag and other stuff compared to the net pocket in the 777. When you raise the armrest a water bottle cavity reveals itself so hydration is within easy reach at all times.

As for the entertainment system, the screen is full HD with a touchscreen remote control. Trying to find figure out the device, I was prompted, “Do you want to watch movie on this screen or main screen?” It means you can have one movie playing on your PTV and another one on your handheld screen.

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Journalists on the ferry flight to Hong Kong.

In the economy seats, the headrest has been redesigned with a softer, leather- overed one that’s adjustable six ways, and it feels like a pillow now. There is also a mobile phone holder for when you want to watch movies on your phone or just a place to put it while you’re charging on the USB socket, and a cup holder.  They’ve added a metal stepper on the aisle seat for you to reach the luggage stowage (the plane has a higher ceiling).

“Have you noticed that it’s quieter than on other flights? Sometimes on older planes, I can’t talk to my wife, but here that’s not a problem,” says Loo.

“It’s nine decibels quieter than the 777-ER,” Airbus’ Marisa Lucas-Ugena, who incidentally started her career at Boeing, told us the day before.

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CX’s A350-1000, which took off from Airbus’ runway in Toulouse on June 19, starts a new generation of modern and clean-fuel aircraft for the airline’s fleet (the plane uses 10 percent biofuel mixed with jet fuel)

According to Airbus, “the air management systems help passengers to enjoy a more relaxing flight. Total cabin air is renewed every two to three minutes in a draft-free environment at the optimum temperature and with 20 percent more fresh air. In addition the A350 offers the unique possibility to install an active humidification system in business and first class to reproduce a private jet flying experience.”

Lucas-Ugena adds, “There are features on this aircraft that you cannot see but you can feel. And on a long-haul flight, you will feel better when you land.”

* * *

Cathay Pacific flies from Manila to Hong Kong seven times a day to connect you to any of CX’s 206 destinations in 52 countries; 12 times a week from Cebu, and four times a week from Clark on Cathay Dragon. Starting in October, Cathay Dragon will have four times a week direct flights from Davao City to Hong Kong.  Call the global center at +180014411011 for Smart/PLDT, +180087395117 for Globe. Log on to www.cathaypacific.com.

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Waiting for our flight back to Manila at Cathay Pacific’s business class lounge The Pier. What a treat to have a shower and a hot meal after a long flight!

Symphony of the Seas sails the ultimate adventure

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The world’s biggest cruise ship, Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas can accommodate 6,000 passengers and over 2,000 crew members. It is also the most technologically advanced — and most fun!  Photos courtesy of Royal Caribbean
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Fireworks show as Symphony of the Seas departs Malaga.

When they said it’s like a floating city, they weren’t kidding. Royal Caribbean International’s newest cruise ship, Symphony of the Seas, is the biggest in the world. At 18 stories high, it’s taller than Mt. Rushmore and twice the height of the Washington Monument in DC. If you line up 17,000 African elephants and coax them on a scale, they’d still be lighter than the ship.

It can be overwhelming being onboard with so many choices in food and drinks, and sports activities and shows. In short, you will not be bored for one second, but if you just want to chill, that’s an option too, whether in your stateroom with balcony or on the boardwalk flanked by restaurants and cafes. Or maybe just grab a cold beer or frozen margarita and soak up the sun by the swimming pools.

Sure, it’s the biggest ship in the world, but that wasn’t RCI’s intention at the outset. It wanted to build the best in terms of efficiency, offerings and technology. So advanced is the ship that it literally floats on water using an air lubrication system that creates a reduced-friction layer of billions of bubbles, which means it uses less energy. Also, in terms of WiFi, RCI has satellite beams that literally follow each of its ships across the world’s seas. It’s a huge investment by RCI but as satellite technology costs get lower in the next 10 years so will the cruises’ Internet packages.

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Royal Caribbean International’s representative in the Philippines is Arpan Air Inc. For inquiries, call 892 2701 to 03, 0955 213 3579, rylcaribbean@arpanair.com.ph.

Royal Caribbean chairman and CEO Richard D. Fain says, “We set out to build the best ship in the world and it turned out to be the biggest. In the beginning, we said, no, don’t talk about it being ‘the biggest, talk about it being the best.’ It turns out that was a losing proposition with media. They wanted to talk about it being the biggest but that’s because there’s so many things to do on board.”

And we got to experience the ship’s offerings on a three-day pre-inaugural cruise to nowhere with Arpan Air, RCI’s international representative in the Philippines.

Arpan Air senior vice president and COO Joy Abrogar has seen the growth of cruising among Filipino travelers especially on European itineraries. “We now have families that hold reunions onboard especially if they live all over the world. They meet up in Barcelona from the US or Canada and the Philippines. It’s hassle-free, no need to fly from one destination to another.”

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The movements of the robotic arms at Bionic Bar are patterned after American Ballet Theater principal dancer Roberto Bolle. They can produce two drinks per minute for a total of 1,000 drinks per day — and no need to change shifts! Bestselling spirit? Vodka.

Allpoints Travel president and CEO Dondi Ocampo says, “RCI’s cruise ships are floating resorts. For a week, you get to see several countries and you don’t have to worry about transfers, luggage or even restaurants. It’s all here. Cruising is also great for incentive travel.”

Symphony of the Seas, which sailed its maiden voyage three weeks ago, will be starting and ending seven-night cruises in Barcelona to the Western Mediterranean until the end of October.

Barcelona is a fantastic port. Apart from its famous landmarks like Sagrada Familia, there’s so much to see, learn and eat in this beautiful Catalan city. Before and after the cruise, we explored Gaudi’s greatest love: the city he dedicated his life to.

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Adrelanline rush on the Ultimate Abyss water slide and sugar rush at the candy store.

WHAT TO DO ON YOUR ULTIMATE VACATION

Symphony was designed from top to bottom to fulfill what RCI calls the Ultimate Vacation. Let’s start with the look of the ship first. It’s a beauty! Onboard, you’d feel like you’re in a high-end resort whose design is both playful and sophisticated. For instance, Symphony of the Seas has more works of art than the Louvre has paintings. It has over 20,700 plants, more than The Smithsonian Gardens has in its orchid collection.

Symphony can accommodate around 6,000 passengers and it has 2,759 cabins — the most on a cruise ship — in 30 categories, ranging from the interior rooms to the staterooms with sea-view balconies, staterooms with boardwalk-view balconies to suites, which are like luxury hotel rooms with the family suite equipped with slides for kids.

The ship has seven “neighborhoods,” each with a distinct feel. When you’re out at sea, explore each one because they offer so many different things.

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My fave artworks onboard, “Meltdown” by Desire Cherish (left) and “Paradox Void” by Gregor Kregar (right)

For instance, Central Park, which runs in the middle of the ship on Deck 8, is a lush space with British chef Jamie Oliver’s Italian resto and a wine bar called Vintages.

At the Royal Promenade, there are two bars that draw everyone’s attention. First is the Bionic Bar with two bionic-arm bartenders that can do everything a human bartender can — shake, stir, muddle, strain — except frozen drinks.

The movements of the bionic arms are patterned after American Ballet Theater principal dancer Roberto Bolle. They can produce two drinks per minute for a total of 1,000 drinks per day — and no need to change shifts.

On a touchpad, you can order from the drink list (25 of bartenders’ favorites) — or customize your own, choosing from 30 spirits, eight sodas, six juices, three syrups, sugar, mint, lime and lemons. You decide how many shots you want to put in your glass (the robot bartenders will not judge you). Name your customized drink and the next time you order it, you don’t have to start from scratch because they already know what’s in it. The bionic arms will mix your drink (and wash the shakers between mixes) and then with a gentle push, they slide the drink to the end of the “bar” for you to pick up.

Made by Makr Shakr, the bionic bartenders are the fifth generation in Royal Caribbean’s fleet, starting in 2014 on Quantum of the Seas. Guess how many drinks they have made in the four other ships prior to Symphony? One million drinks as of last year.

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Royal Class suite
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The Ultimate Family Suite is practically is its own playground!

Also at Royal Promenade is the glass-enclosed Rising Tide bar, which lifts three decks from Deck 5 to Deck 8’s Central Park

The Boardwalk harks back to the 1950s with a candy shop called Sugar Beach and roaming around entertaining passengers are jugglers, clowns and other performers. It is also on this deck where Aqua Theater is located and where Aquanation divers and swimmers do their synchronized show — diving from 10 meters high or swimming in sync with the music. Most of the athletes are from Eastern Europe, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they were former Olympic athletes.

Adventure and Youth Zone is where you drop your kids off while you relax at Vitality Spa and Fitness or play in the casino. Here, the kids have creative ad educational activities such as scavenger hunts and talent shows.

At the Pool and Sports Zone, get your adrenaline up with the Perfect Storm slides or practice your surf at Flow Rider or literally hang out at the Zipline.

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On the Boardwalk, you’ll run into clowns, pirates and jugglers.
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The festive Boardwalk is one of seven “neighborhoods” onboard. The carousel turns pink night.

The Ultimate Abyss, the most talked about slide in the cruising industry today, is the tallest slide at sea. Appropriately enough, its entrance is the mouth of a giant fish with menacing teeth. It’s a 28-meter serpentine drop with two 360-degree circles. It may feel that you’re sliding endlessly, but in reality it’s only 13 to 14 seconds.

Entertainment Place includes the Royal Casino, the largest casino at sea, where they serve the best frozen drinks while you’re trying your luck at the tables. A section of it is one of two designated smoking areas on board (the other is by one of the pools).

This neighborhood also has theaters where they stage the Broadway hit Hairspray and a 1970s ice skating caper.

Two things not to be missed as well are the Silent Disco, where people dance to music listened to on wireless headsets; and Laser Tag where you pick your own team and battle another.

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Cotton candy and shots at Wonderland.
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Playmakers servers classic sports bar fare.

GLORIOUS FOOD

What I love about the food onboard Symphony of the Seas is the variety of choices. Windjammer is the all-day restaurant where most people gravitate to, but there are also cafes that serve light food, Johnny Rockets for burgers and milkshakes, Jamie’s Italian for Italian cuisine, Izumi for Japanese cuisine, and new outlets Hooked Seafood for just-shucked oysters, El Loco Fresh for Mexican enchiladas, Playmakers Sports Bar for sliders and fries, and Sugar Beach candy store.

So how do you prepare food for 6,000 passengers who are likely to eat more than three times a day — across 14 specialty restaurants offering 350 dishes?

With a team of 1,085 culinary staff, that’s how. At a behind-the-scenes tour in the ship’s galleys, I met Royal Caribbean corporate executive chef Gary Thomas, also known as “the General.”

A veteran chef of 26 years, he commands more than 10,000 chefs across RCI’s fleet, and he’s part of the design team from blueprint to construction of the ship’s kitchens.

On a seven-night cruise, Symphony of the Seas serves about 9,700 lbs. of chicken; 60,000 eggs (“We only have one chicken, it lays eggs nonstop,” he jokes; 700 lbs. of ice cream, 20,000 lbs. of potatoes; 2,500 lbs. of salmon; 5,300 lbs. of bacon; 195 spirits and 450 cases of champagne!

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Royal Caribbean president Michael Bayley (center) and Arpain Air senior vice president and COO Joy Abrogar (second from right) with Simeon Aquino Jr. of Blue Horizon Travel, Abigail Avellana of Our Awesome Planet, Abbie Sandico of Acewin Travel, the author Tanya Lara, and Ferdinand Dondi Ocampo of Allpoints Travel at the Royal Promenade of Symphony of the Seas on a pre-inaugural cruise on the Balearic Sea.
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Wall climbing onboard — and after which you can do the zipline, play billiards or cards, or try your luck at the Casino Royale.

What about special diets? “Symphony has an allergy-wise program. By the time guests arrive on the ship, we know their requirements, whether it’s medical or religious or lifestyle. Veganism is way more common now than 10 years ago. We keep up with the times. We have guests that have really complex allergy requirements, so we have designated preparation areas like for gluten-free or for religious requirements. “

So how many times does the ship replenish its food supplies, say, on a seven-day cruise? “Everything is set at the start of the cruise. We take supply on every embarkation day and to keep the food fresh — vegetables, fruits, etc. — we get them at certain stages of cultivation.  We buy quarter ripe, half ripe and ripe bananas, tomatoes, and store them in facilities that are temperature-controlled and based on the length of the cruise. Food continues to grow as long as there’s certain light and moisture. It’s very technical once you get on a 10 to 14-day voyage.”

Thomas says they know they got the requisitioning right when, on embarkation day, the storage facilities are empty and what they see is just stainless steel — ready to take on new supplies that have to be loaded in five hours for the next cruise.

The supplies and storage facilities are run “exactly like a supermarket.” The chefs order their supplies the night before, he approves them and a team distributes them. Maritime law also requires every ship to have a hurricane plan, “which is to have enough of everything to sustain the ship for 48 hours. We have to account for every unforeseen thing. So we have all the basics — not just food.”

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Main Dining room for formal lunch and dinner (left) or just chill in one of the Jacuzzi pools (right).
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Sushis and sashimis at the new-concept restaurant Izumi.

PEOPLE & SUSTAINABLE TOURISM

One thing that I love about Symphony is that it is staffed with so many Filipinos. From deck managers to chefs, restaurant servers, bartenders, housekeepers — at every corner of the ship you can ask a question in Tagalog and be answered in Tagalog.

Joy Abrogar tells me that when they have a big group on a long itinerary, they arrange for local dishes to be served to the group. “One time, we surprised our group with tapsilog breakfast and they loved it.”

Speaking of itinerary length, RCI offers cruises designed for millenneals called the Perfect Weekend, a three-night cruise on their Caribbean itineraries.

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Symphony of the Seas was built in the Chantiers de l’Atlantique shipyard at Saint Nazaire, France. She is the fourth ship in RCI’s Oasis-class series.

RCI is changing with the times as passengers change, as tourism changes. Chairman and CEO Richard Fain says, “We keep getting questions about over-tourism, but the more appropriate term is sustainable tourism. As people become more affluent, they want to travel to great destinations and it’s their right. Rather than think about how to stop people from doing that, time and energy must be focused on investing in infrastructure. The growth is inevitable. We work closely with the communities we serve to help them generate economic activities. We’re also very sensitive that we need to do that in a sustainable way.”

When Puerto Rico was hit by hurricanes last September, RCI allocated many of their ships to humanitarian efforts, “transferring people from different islands including dogs, cats, birds, you name it. It was a very rewarding effort for us and we’re proud to be in the communities we serve.”

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Royal Caribbean International’s representative in the Philippines is Arpan Air Inc. For inquiries, call 892 2701 to 03, 0955 213 3579, rylcaribbean@arpanair.com.ph. Like their FB page Royal Caribbean Philippines and visit their website at www.royalcaribbean.com.

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The Broadway musical “Hairspray” is just one of the entertainment offers onboard.

How Shangri-La Istanbul turned a tobacco warehouse into a luxury hotel

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Shangri-La Istanbul is located on the banks of the Bosphorus and is only a five-minute walk to the Dolmabahçe Palace, home to Ottoman sultans, and in a lively neighborhood filled with bars and museums. Photos from Shangri-La Istanbul
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The Lobby Lounge is a great place for afternoon tea and pastries.

When you talk about Shangri-La Hotels, luxury immediately comes to mind. Plush furnishings, silk tapestries, a great spa, big rooms and fantastic views are just some of the things that one comes to expect of a Shang Hotel.

Having three modern Shangri-Las in Manila and two gorgeous island resorts in Boracay and Cebu, it is a brand that we Filipinos love and are familiar with — down to the scent of its lobby, rooms and spa, and our fave dim sum at its flagship restaurant Shang Palace.

Last year, on a weekend in Istanbul coming from another European city, I experienced how the Hong Kong-based Shangri-La Group brought its Asian character across the seas and onto the shores of Istanbul’s Bosphorus Strait. Shangri-La Istanbul is only the group’s third hotel in Europe, following London’s modern hotel at The Shard and Paris’ former royal palace.

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Deluxe room with a view.
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The lobby of Shangri-La Istanbul Bosphorus with its plush furnishings and Chinoiserie accessories.

Located in Beşiktaş, near the ferry terminals that bring passengers to Uskudar on the Asian side, Shangri-La lives up to its mythical name — it is a quiet oasis in a very lively neighborhood that’s home to one of Istanbul’s Big Three football teams.

Shangri-La Istanbul is a great example of how an old, decrepit building is repurposed and turned into a modern structure. Looking at it today, you’d hardly believe that this luxury space used to be a tobacco factory and warehouse in the 1930s.

With the architectural firm Piramit Ltd., Shangri-La recreated the façade of the old warehouse since it is protected by the city’s Cultural and Natural Assets Committee. The hotel preserved the historic façade and built only seven stories above ground and seven under (for the function rooms and ballrooms). There must be a height restriction on buildings located on the banks of the Bosphorus because, second to the Dolmabahçe Palace which was home to a handful of Ottoman sultans, it’s the second tallest by the water.

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A great breakfast spread at Ist Too restaurant with the freshest produce and cheeses from all over Turkey.
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Ist Too restaurant. I was lucky that when I was there the hotel was celebrating the Gaziantep Kitchen.

For its interiors, they referenced the brand’s signature look of quiet opulence and luxury, working around a palette of earth tones with touches of blue and Chinoiserie accents such as the lamps and vases in the lobby.

A stunning four-story artwork called “Garden of Peach Blossom” hangs in the hotel’s atrium, as does a massive crystal chandelier, while the lobby’s furnishings are gold-leafed.

Shangri-La has set the standard for having some of the biggest rooms wherever the location, whether in a dense city like Hong Kong or an island resort like Boracay. Istanbul is no different. There’s generous space for its bathroom, walk-in closet and sitting area apart from a wonderfully comfortable king-sized bed.

The best part of its bedrooms? Most of them have Bosphorus views — and there is no better way to spend time inside than looking out to the Bosphorus Bridge at sunset.

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The Turkish identity of Shangri-La Istanbul Hotel’s Chi Spa.
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Corridor at Shang’s famous spa brand, The Chi Spa.

The hotel’s Shang Palace serves authentic Cantonese food with dim sum served in the afternoon. A wide selection of tea is served from an elongated pot by a “kung fu tea master.”

I was lucky that on that weekend Shang’s Ist Too restaurant — serving Turkish and Mediterranean cuisines — was having its Gaziantep Kitchen festival, possibly the most renowned Turkish cuisine and where the best baklava comes from. The views from here are of the Bosphorus and you can step out to enjoy a stroll on the quiet street outside.

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A kung fu tea master serves tea with a flourish and another checks the wedding banquet arrangements.
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Indoor pool and gym
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The bedroom of the presidential suite comes with a spacious terrace facing the Bosphorus.

So, where is the Turkish touch of Shangri-La Istanbul? My friend Sena Kahraman, who used to work there and is now brand director at Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort in Oman, showed me the hotel’s Chi Spa.

“This,” she said, “is the Turkish identity of the hotel.” I’ve seen a lot of Turkish baths in Istanbul, Antalya and Bodrum — and combined with the modern Asian feel of Chi Spa, this is definitely the most beautiful.

I’ve always said Turkey feels like a second home to me, and being at Shang just made my home a little closer.

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View of the Bosphorus Bridge right outside Shang’s Ist Too restaurant. Photo by Tanya Lara

The weird, the beautiful & the Zen of underwater photography

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Photo by Cem Gazivekili (Turkey), 1st place, nudibranch category, open class, at the 5th Anilao Underwater Shootout in Batangas, Philippines.
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Photo by Wen Chih Yen (Taiwan), 2nd place, cephalopod category, open class

National Geographic photographer David Doubilet waited 40 years to shoot his dream picture: a clownfish. A male clownfish that was aerating its eggs just before they hatched in the waters of Anilao, Batangas.

That was eight years ago and it almost didn’t happen. David was literally on the way to the airport with his wife Jennifer Hayes, a marine biologist, when fellow underwater photographer Gutsy Tuason called him up and told him he was going to Anilao.

“Jennifer told me, ‘Get out and see Gutsy,” David says.

And a magazine cover was made.

One of the questions underwater photographers are always asked — especially those who shoot macro or species the size of your fingernail — is about the wait.

“People ask me, how long did it take you to make that picture? I say 40 years,” he says.

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Photo by Lilian Koh (Singapore), 1st place, cephalopod category, open class.
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Photo by Wu Yung Sen (Taiwan), 1st place, macro/supermacro category, open class.

Last week, David and Gutsy — both authors and award-winning underwater photographers — were back in Anilao, home to the rarest species in the world and a famous dive town three hours from Manila. They joined other judges of the 5th Anilao Underwater Shootout, a contest organized by the Department of Tourism and Philippine Airlines. PAL also kicked off its campaign Dive Philippines, which would give international travelers/divers extra luggage allowance on their domestic flights in the Philippines.

Dubbed the “World Cup of Photo Competitions,” the Anilao Underwater Shootout brought together 173 divers and underwater photographers from all over Asia, Europe and North America to compete in Open and Compact Classes (cameras with interchangeable lenses and without, respectively) with five different categories — Macro/Supermacro, Marine Behavior, Nudibranch, Fish Portrait and Cephalopod.

Among underwater photographers, David Doubilet is a legend. Many of them grew up seeing his photos in the pages of National Geographic magazine. He’s a rock star to divers and underwater photographers.

When we sit down for an interview, David reveals a life made peaceful by diving and shaped early in a lake in upstate New York, when he was an asthmatic boy of eight.

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National Geographic photographer and Anilao Underwater Shootout judge David Doubilet and author Tanya Lara

Excerpts:

Which came first for you, diving or photography?
DAVID DOUBILET: It started all about the same time. I was snorkeling earlier and at 12, I started diving and taking pictures.

Where was this?
In New Jersey, but my first dive was in a lake in upstate New York in the Adirondack Mountains, not far from where we live now. I went to summer camp and didn’t like it very much. I didn’t like the mountains, I didn’t like the horses or baseball. The counselors gave me a mask and told me to clean out the dock of branches and trees in the lake. And my life changed. Eight years old.

What did you see underwater? 
I can still remember, there were sunfish and other freshwater fish. It was great. We had a summer home in New Jersey and I started diving there. Things were pretty simple, it was the mid 1950s. We didn’t have wetsuits until about 1960. Back then you made them yourself.

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Photo by PJ Aristorenas (Philippines), 2nd place, cephalopod category, compact class

How did your career with National Geographic start?
I came to Geographic when I was still in university, in my second year at Boston University. I had just won a big international competition in Italy, Mondo Sommerso Prize. I had a friend working for Geographic and went to see the director of photography. He told me they had nothing for me but to come back next year. So I started to work on other kinds of photography.

I was shooting with fairly primitive equipment compared to what we have now, but back then it was pretty sophisticated. I shot a lot of black and white and I learned how to print. That was sort of the basis, the bones of how to see underwater, how to shoot pictures.

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Photo by Penn De Los Santos (Philippines), 2nd place, macro/super macro category, compact class.

What has diving taught you about life?
That’s a very good question. What divers have, unlike the rest of the world — except for astronauts and mountaineers to a certain extent — is the ability to have a perspective of the rest of the planet. You go underwater and you come up out of the water and you see the planet in a whole new, complex light.

Diving teaches you, to a certain extent, about trying to be calm. The biggest enemy of diving is over-exertion. You have to be as calm as you possibly can. Even free divers have to be calm no matter how hard they’re working; they have to remain at a simple, single level of strength. It’s also a great escape. You leave this planet through another place. Not a lot of divers do, but I tend to think a lot underwater.

About what?
Everything. Especially when I’m shooting, I get very intense, I get very direct. Both Jennifer and I will go to a reef system and we’re very direct in our approach. That’s what you see in this competition in Anilao. People are very intense and literally focused. They are so excited about what they’re doing — and what they’re doing is making art. But it’s an art that involves some of the smallest and arcane parts of the ocean. And yet when they bring it back up, it opens people’s eyes. The competition does a lot of things in terms of self-fulfillment, but it also tells people what the ocean is about.

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Photo by Cem Gazivekili (Turkey), 1st place, marine behavior category, open class.
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Photo by Hongchao Yao (China), 2nd place, macro/supermacro category, open class

Is there a different kind of satisfaction between photographing critters and bigger species?
Some people live and die for the smaller creatures. I like them very much, but I like a lot of different things under the water. I’ll be photographing very small things, but also shipwrecks, aircraft, larger things.

A ship that ran aground in Malapascua, right next to where the thresher shark reef is, nearly wiped it out and that would have caused the jobs of 5,000 people. The thresher sharks would have just gone away.

Anilao is one of the success stories in the Philippines. Decades ago fishermen were doing dynamite and cyanide fishing, but the NGOs managed to convince them that there’s more money in tourism especially when it involves diving.
These guides whom everyone depends on, they work very hard and they’re geniuses. If they were fishermen they would just bang their heads against the wall and come up with almost nothing and families would be in trouble.

Diving tourists coming here bring five times, six times the amount of money than somebody coming here to play golf or people backpacking or whatever. Diving is a labor-intensive business.

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Photo by Virginie Barfuss-Gofart (France), 3rd place, marine behavior category, compact class
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Photo by Ronald Dalawampu (Philippines), 1st place, nudibranch category, compact class

The marine-protected areas around the Philippines are very successful because you have a no-take zone which will in time supply the take zone, and that will increase the number of fish that people can take out of the water. That’s working in many places in the Philippines like Apo Island.

So there’s a tourism angle and the fact that people should be well aware of how important the ocean is to the average Filipino. This is a coral nation. No one lives more than 75 miles from the ocean.

Do you have a favorite dive site?
The next one.

What kind of dangerous situations have you been into underwater?
Well, the most dangerous that Jennifer and I get into are situations that photographers tend to get into. And it’s based upon photographic greed — one more picture, one more story, spend some more time underwater — and all of a sudden you’re pushing your time. There’s always currents and weather that change.

I’ve had experiences with all sorts of sharks. Jennifer and I work back to back so we see 360 degrees and we shoot like that. Obviously white sharks are difficult to work with outside a cage because for the most part you see many shark species and you bring them a little bait.

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Photo by Hakan Basar (Turkey), 3rd place, nudibranch category, open class.
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Photo by Cai Song Da (China), 2nd place, nudibranch category, open class.

We’ve photographed tiger sharks feeding on the remains of a dead sperm whale in the Great Barrier Reef, and then more and more sharks came in because of the oil from the sperm whale’s flesh. It’s a delicious smell for the sharks; they love the smell of turtles and marine mammals, and so they got very aggressive with us.

I think the most dangerous thing we’ve done is not in the ocean at all but working on the Okavango Delta in Botswana. There were all sorts of crocodiles and hippos. Every dive, even at night, which was a crazy thing to do there, you could see the crocodiles’ eyes as they came closer and then we’d get out of the water. It was frightening.

What was the longest time you’ve had to wait to photograph a certain species?
It took me 40 years to get a picture of a clownfish and it happened here in Anilao. I was blown away.

What for you is the most beautiful species in the ocean?
Everybody loves different things. For Jennifer, it would be a harp seal or a sturgeon. For me, strangely enough, I do like clownfish. In South Australia, there are sea dragons  and in the Gulf of St Lawrence there’s the Atlantic wolffish. It’s like being asked who’s your favorite child.

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Photo by Ian Amboy (Philippines), 1st place, cephalopod category, compact class

How different are the challenges between island and ice diving apart from the temperatures?
Diving here is easy, simple — you wear a suit, you go on a boat. In the Antarctic and the Arctic, you wear extremely thick dry suits, waterproof dry suits. We use the most sophisticated dry suits manufactured in Sweden. You have to know the paramaters of little things, like if your hand gets cold you can be in very serious trouble because you can’t get your equipment off.

Obviously, polar diving is far more intensive but on the other hand it’s far shorter. A safe scuba dive is about an hour, you can do another hour after that and another one. But to stay in longer than an hour you lose feelings in your fingertips, so you have to balance that out and also be aware of your core temperature.

What is the biggest mistake that underwater photographers make and what is your advice for beginners?
For divers who want to be underwater photographers, I tell them, “Don’t.” I’m very serious.  Don’t do it until you’ve had about a hundred dives. You’re not going to enjoy it, you won’t be happy.

You have to look and see and do… I’d recommend to shoot in black and white, but here in Anilao you have wonderful colors. Start with a simple camera, even the camera phones are good. Then you begin to build up things. I think the problem with many photographers is they become very repetitive, so they have to find something they’re very comfortable with and have a look at other people’s pictures.

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Photo by Seungchul Yang (South Korea), 2nd place, marine behavior category, open class.
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Photo by Nancy Berg (US), 2nd place, fish portrait category, compact class.

I was talking to photographer Jun de Leon earlier and he said shooting macro made him “realize that there are no accidents, and there is a creator of all of this. Something that small cannot be an accident.” Is diving a religious experience for you as well? 
In many ways, yes it is. Because you look at something and say, is this the end of evolution or has it taken one more path it’s such a surprise? It’s the force of life on earth. I’m not religious at all — a lot of people are and diving reinforces their beliefs. But it certainly is an evolutionary experience. I think for people who are creationists, it’s not exactly the place to be because everything changes all the time. God didn’t create the leafy sea dragon, something evolved.

And then which God created the leafy sea dragon? Was it Jewish, was it Catholic, Christian, Buddhist or Hindu? It’s this constant evolution of this planet and the absolute force of biology to change. But the thing is, no matter how scientific you are, you’ll get to an end point. And after that, that’s when you have the unanswered question, that’s the religious question: How did it all come about? That happens in diving a lot — the constant surprise. And you’re right, it is a very religious moment.

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Photo by Wen Chih Yen (Taiwan), 1st place, fish portrait category, open class.

Singapore Airlines redesigns luxury in its A380 fleet

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Singapore Airlines’ new A380 First Class Suites are like hotel rooms. When the partition wall is lowered, the first two rows on the same side of the cabin become a 100-square-foot suite with a double bed.  Photos by Singapore Airlines

Ten years after Singapore Airlines (SIA) became the first airline to take delivery of and fly the Airbus A380 in 2007, it unveiled a major interior redesign in Singapore recently.

The aircraft itself hasn’t changed but the reconfigured interior is nothing short of spectacular — it’s like a whole new Airbus model with even more luxurious fittings that SIA is known for.

Having seen the very first A380 in its last stages of assembly in Toulouse, France in 2007, it was interesting to me how it has evolved from what was already a premier product a decade ago.

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First Class leather seats are by Poltrona Frau, soft furnishings by Lalique, and dinnerware by Wedgewood. .

The kind of fanfare and excitement surrounding the A380 a decade ago and the reconfigured aircraft two weeks ago are similar but in a different way.

Back then, Airbus people told me stories of how the whole town of Toulouse would come out and line the streets each time a truck carrying an aircraft part (the parts were huge!) would make its way to the Airbus plant. Last week, it was a global affair as Singapore Airlines introduced the new cabin products to media from all over the world at Suntec Center.

The layout of the new A380 has the First and Businesses Classes on the upper deck of the aircraft (they were in  the lower deck previously); the lower deck has Premium Economy in front and Economy Class in the main cabin.

Singapore Airlines is investing US$850 million in its A380 fleet. The first of five new ones will start flying on Dec. 18 to Sydney as its first route, while the 14 existing ones will be retrofitted starting in late 2018 and are targeted for completion in 2020.

The piece de resistance of the redesign is the First Class Suites, measuring 50 square feet each. The Suites also feature double beds for couples in a “room” that measures 100 square feet. The carrier has been offering double beds since they began flying the A380 but the new suites are swankier than ever before.

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The makeup area in the First Class lavatory.
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In SIA’s focus groups, women passengers said they wanted more stowage space for their things, including their makeup bags, jewelry and amenity kits.

“Our original Suites were the first to offer double beds in the sky and they are still regarded as the ultimate in premium travel,” SIA chief executive officer Goh Choon Phong says. “Not only are we retaining that feature, but now the beds are even more plush and comfortable than before.”

In a one-one configuration in First Class, two single suites (the first two rows on the same side of the cabin) are converted into a couple’s suite. When the sliding privacy partition is lowered, the two single beds become one with a leather seat on either side.

Now in a subtle gray palette, the suites offer a bespoke experience drawn from years of talking with SIA’s passengers. When the bed is stowed into a diving wall, a passenger can accommodate a guest to sit on a folding-style ottoman for dinner or to watch movies on the 32-inch HD TV.

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Singapore Airlines’ menu is created by a panel of international chefs.
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Lobster thermidor and fave Singaporean noodle soup laksa in First Class.

The new suites were designed by the Paris-based Pierrejean Design Studio, which specializes in luxury yachts and aircraft, and manufactured by Zodiac Seats UK.

Design office manager Jacques Pierrejean says, “The idea from the beginning was to give passengers a room, not only a seat. It’s very comfortable; if I want to have dinner, I can do that from my seat with the TV in front of me, and if I want to sleep I move to the bed.”

The firm had a team of 10 designers working with Singapore Airlines starting four years ago. “To do such work, you not only have to imagine the concept but to feel it.” And there were women on the team, too, so details such as where to stow your handbag and makeup bag, a mirror and other things were thoughtfully reconfigured.

The amenity kit is by Lalique, so are the soft furnishings like bed sheets and duvet, slippers and pajamas; the seats are upholstered in leather by Italian furniture company Poltrona Frau; and the bone china dinnerware is by English company Wedgewood.

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In a one-two-one configuration, the middle seats in Business Class can be converted into a double bed.

Goh Choon Phong adds that the new cabin offerings are a product of years of research and focus groups that SIA conducted with its passengers.

What do they want when flying? Their answers were unequivocal: A bespoke, luxurious personal space (the theme of the launch was “Space made personal, experience the difference”). Goh said they  don’t have any plans of installing showers or a bar in their future A380s because that wasn’t a priority for their passengers.

Designer Jacques Pierrejean says, “Singapore Airlines for us is at the top of the market now and I think it will be the benchmark for the next decade.”

The new Business Class cabin was designed by JPA Design of the UK and manufactured for Singapore Airlines by JAMCO Corporation of Japan. Like First Class, it features classy leather seats by Poltrona Frau in addition to lightweight carbon composite materials.

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Seats in Business Class are arranged in a forward-facing, one-two-one configuration, which gives all passengers direct access to the aisle.

Unlike the old A380 Business Class seat, which a flight attendant had to make into a flat bed for the passenger by pulling a lever, this new seat has buttons for the passenger to take full control of.

They may also stretch out fully in a “sun-deck” position to watch movies on the 18-inch high definition touch-screen monitor.

A larger back shell on every seat creates a cocoon-like feel for more privacy while the center divider can be fully lowered to form double beds, making the two center seats  ideal for couples or families.

Seats in the Business Class cabin are arranged in a forward-facing, one-two-one configuration, which offers all customers direct access to the aisle.

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Business Class meal

Other features include a business panel equipped with USB ports and in-seat power, reading lights with adjustable brightness level, mood lighting, enlarged dining table designed for flexibility in dining positions, as well as stowage space for personal amenities with a thoughtful design that puts everything within easy reach.

Premium Economy Class — designed by JPA Design and manufactured by ZIM Flugsitz GmbH — has also changed its color scheme. Its leather seats are now in gray and there’s more space in the magazine compartment in front of you to slip in your laptop. It has a calf-rest and foot-bar for every seat, individual in-seat power supply, two USB ports, personal in-seat reading light and cocktail table.

Each seat is 19.5-inch wide with an eight-inch recline and seat pitch of 38 inches. Customers have an enhanced in-flight entertainment experience with active noise-cancelling headphones and a 13.3-inch full HD monitor.

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Premium Economy Class — designed by JPA Design — has changed its color palette to gray and orange.

In Economy Class, Recaro designed and built the new seats, offering greater comfort. “Leveraging on advanced technology and ergonomics, seats offer more legroom and back support, with a six-way adjustable headrest with foldable wings. The Economy Class seat also features a more contemporary fabric seat cover design.”

An 11.1-inch touch-screen monitor eliminates the need for handsets to indulge in KrisWorld, Singapore Airlines’ award-winning in-flight entertainment system.

The new A380 configuration will carry up to 471 customers in four classes of travel, with six Suites, 78 Business Class seats, 44 Premium Economy Class seats and 343 Economy Class seats.

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Premium Economy seats have a calf rest and foot bar, in-seat power supply, two USB ports, personal in-seat reading light and cocktail table. They’re 19.5-inch wide with an eight-inch recline and seat pitch of 38 inches.

* * *

On every flight, regardless of cabin class, two things that passengers often praise (or complain about) are the carrier’s entertainment system and food.

Singapore Airlines is introducing an industry first called myKrisWorld, a feature that allows you to bookmark and resume content, and save preferences for your next flight when you input your KrisFlyer membership number.

If you’re flying, say, Manila to Paris, and you begin watching a movie in Manila and before you finish it you’ve land in Singapore for a layover, you can resume your movie when you board your next flight, from Singapore to Paris.

With the SingaporAir mobile app, you can also choose your inflight entertainment prior to your flight and transfer your selections to myKrisFlyer when you’re onboard.

Isn’t that amazing?

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With the new myKrisWorld, you can bookmark and resume content for your next flight when you input your KrisFlyer membership number.

As for food, SIA has always been known for serving good food in all classes thanks to an international culinary panel composed of chefs from all over the world.

With its Book the Cook service, you can select your main course ahead of your flight from Singapore. From Singaporean fare like chicken rice and laksa in Economy to more gourmet selections in the higher classes while enjoying a glass of Dom Perignon in your suite, SIA cuisine is a world away from “airplane food.”

“The significant investment that we are making with the introduction of new cabin products demonstrates our commitment to continued investment in products and services, our long-term approach to ensure we retain our leadership position,” said Goh Choon Phong.

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In Economy Class, Recaro designed and built the new seats, offering better comfort with the new six-way adjustable headrest.

* * *

Singapore Airlines flies four times a day from Manila. Its regional wing SilkAir flies 12 times a week from Cebu, nine times a week from Davao and three times a week from Kalibo. Visit http://www.singaporeair.com. For bookings and inquiries, visit Singapore Airlines Ticket Office at 33F LKG Tower Ayala Avenue, Makati City or call SIA Manila reservations at 756-8888.

Singapore Airlines’ A380s currently fly to Auckland, Beijing, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, London, Melbourne, Mumbai, New Delhi, New York, Paris, Shanghai, Sydney, and Zurich.

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Singapore’s famous chicken rice meal in Economy Class.

 

Marcel Wanders’ luminous space for Fairmont Quasar Istanbul

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Dutch designer Marcel Wanders puts fantasy elements in and around the swimming pool of Fairmont Quasar, the newest luxury hotel in Istanbul. Photo by Tanya Lara
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Wanders creates a lounge area surrounded by gazebos, greenery and stylized statues wearing red flowers for their clothing and hair. Photo by Tanya Lara

Don’t look for a reason behind Dutch designer Marcel Wanders’ spaces, it may not always be there. But you can count on magic always being present.

While most architects and designers tout form following function as a design philosophy, Wanders has a different perspective. “Luxury starts where functionality ends and where the true value is personal and so has no price or reason,” Wanders once said. He also said that the things he creates are the kind that people would want to save if their house was burning down.

If I had his Knotted Chair, the design that catapulted Wanders to global fame, I’d certainly save that first, too. Or the Horse Floor Lamp that the design label he co-founded, Moooi, produces. But I don’t have either.

Instead, I experience his spaces and gain insights into his design. To be standing in the pool deck of Fairmont Quasar Istanbul and seeing the product of his fanciful imagination is a treat that every design enthusiast would love.

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The hotel’s reception area mixes wood, leather, metal and stone. Photos courtesy of Fairmont Quasar Istanbul
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The lobby with its décor looks more like a luxurious sitting room in a friend’s home — warm and welcoming.

In the glass-walled pool overlooking Marmara Sea and the red rooftops of Mecidiyekoy (okay, let’s call it by its other name, Şişli), Wanders put what seem like trees with globular fruits at the tips of the branches. It’s a fascinating element that pulls your gaze and then suddenly releases it for you to appreciate the panoramic skyline.

What’s on the other side of the pool will also make you smile. In the lounge area with white sunbeds, blue sofas and golden gazebos, Wanders created a garden space “guarded” by statues of ladies with red flowers for clothing and hair.

It’s weird but beautiful…and fascinating. It’s also a nod to whimsy and the designer’s proclivity for the extraordinary.

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View from the balcony of a Fairmont Quasar suite.
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One of the most comfortable beds I’ve lain on—with a nice leather headboard as well. The Fairmont Signature Rooms and Suites come with balconies.

US-based design firm Wilson Associates, which masterminded Quasar’s overall design, imagined two sisters coming together in the city. “The older sister brought her polished Parisian sensibility, while the younger sister brought her eclectic, contemporary New York flare. Together, they created a design jargon all their own: contemporary classicism.”

Located on a windy hill in the city’s Mecidiyekoy area (after three years, I still can’t pronounce it), the property where Quasar is now used to be a 1930s liqueur factory designed by world-renowned cubist architect Robert Mallet Stevens.

Today, it is the newest star here, a luminous modern ode to a city that prides itself on its thousand years of history.

My wonderful friend Esin Sungur, Fairmont Quasar marketing and communications director, takes us around the hotel. I haven’t seen her in two years but know well enough that on this Eid al-Fatir weekend in June, she’d make the time. And it is a quiet weekend in Istanbul—more so than Manila during Holy Week and Easter, which is saying a lot about the two mega cities.

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Photos of present-day Istanbul line one wall of Stations restaurant.
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Demlique Tea Lounge and Patisserie
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A drink or two at the Marble Bar is always a great idea to cap a day in Istanbul.

Istanbuller who are staying for the holiday are at nearby beaches or swimming pools. Here at Quasar, they are enjoying a windy summer day and food trays from Ukiyo restaurant (Japanese for “floating world”) at their chaise lounges while working on their tans.

With the hotel located in busy Mecidiyekoy—a short downhill walk to Cevahir Shopping Mall and a subway skip to Nisantasi or Taksim—it’s a great fit for business and leisure travelers who like some style with their drinks (The Marble Bar just off the lobby) or their tea (Demlique Tea Lounge and Patisserie), and spacious suites overlooking the city.

It’s also for people who love contemporary design. “There’s nothing nostalgic about the hotel, it’s modern all the way. Except for the industrial inspiration from the iconic liquor factory in front of the hotel,” says Esin of the 209-guestroom and 25-suite hotel.

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The Spice Library at Alia restaurant with its wooden drawers and shelves full of everything any cook would ever need.
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Breakfast at Stations restaurant, which is designed to capture the legacy of the old liquor factory.

Even in a place where the city’s skyscrapers are located—there are office and residential towers in nearby Levent, the Trump Tower is a walk down the hill, and many more under construction—Quasar’s architecture stands out. The building is silhouetted against the distant yachts and ships crossing Marmara Sea, the view never letting you forget that you’re in one of the world’s greatest, storied cities.

For a property that doesn’t have wide gardens, the architectural firm Wilson Associates managed to create breathing spaces that extend into courtyards like in Alia, a restaurant that combines distinct spaces—the Spice Library, the Raki Bar and two dining rooms, one for mezzes and the other for traditional live grill.

It’s where we celebrate Ramadan Feast. While the holiday is also observed in the Philippines, it’s my first time to experience it with people who practice Islam and are fasting till the sun goes down, today for the last time this year. It’s a very hot summer, which means daylight is long, and so is the fasting.

But even when there are those who do not observe fasting, even when the restaurant’s servers have filled our table with mezzes, not a single fork is lifted, no fast is broken prematurely, until the clock strikes 8:40 p.m.

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Apart from its outdoor pool, there’s the indoor pool (open all year round) with jacuzzis.
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It was only my my friend Esin asked, “What does this remind you of?” that I realized this corridor at the Willow Stream Spa looks like a whirling dervish’s dress.

It’s not just Wanders’ whimsical design elements or the hotel’s attention to detail (the boiled eggs at breakfast in Stations restaurant are wearing knitted caps to keep them warm, which made me laugh like silly) that makes the place special, it’s also the service that makes you feel like you’re an old friend.

At the Gold Lounge, we have a long chat with Recep Kileoglu, the funny and lively manager who shows us how to make coffee from the tap (seriously, it’s like a craft beer tap).

There is an easy familiarity and warmth—like the skyline and the rooftops on the horizon that we watch from the terrace, as if I’ve known them forever.

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The living room of the presidential suite.
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The bedroom of the presidential suite with the bed directly facing the views.
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The presidential suite’s dining room.

 

Waking up to the Ottoman Empire at Çiragan Palace Kempinski

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Dating back to the Ottoman Empire, Ciragan Palace Kempinski blends heritage, history, luxury and Turkish hospitality. Photos courtesy of Ciragan Palace Kempinski

Nobel laureate for literature Orhan Pamuk wrote his memoir Istanbul: Memories of a City shrouded in melancholy. The Bosphorus Strait, he said, is a reminder “of the difference between one’s own wretched life and the happy triumphs of the past.”

That’s a little harsh, but it’s true that you can be walking in Istanbul’s historic streets and imagine yourself in the rich past of the Ottoman Empire and in the next block be jolted back to the reality of its modernity with hip coffee shops on both sides of the strait, gleaming shopping malls, and office towers.

Istanbul—a city where I’ve made friends and visited about 15 times in the past three years (sometimes just for the weekend when I’m coming from another city in Europe, sometimes for my annual vacation and then I head to Turkey’s coastline)—is a place I’ve come to regard like a second home. A friend calls me yenge (sister-in-law) as if I were married to the city, while another tells me that I should be granted honorary citizenship.

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Two beloved landmarks in this image — the historic gate of Ciragan Palace against the Bosphorus Bridge.

As with any first-time tourist to Istanbul, you go to where all the guidebooks tell you: the Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar, Hagia Sofia, Topkapi and Dolmabahçe Palaces, Galata Tower, Maiden’s Tower, Eminonu and the Bosphorus Strait.

I did all that, but it was only when I set out on a tour of the Bosphorus that I fell in love with Istanbul. This strait that divides the city between Europe and Asia lends it romance the way the River Seine does to Paris, but in an entirely different way.

“To be able to see the Bosphorus, even from afar—for İstanbuller, this is a matter of spiritual import that may explain why windows looking out onto the sea are like the mihrabs in mosques, the altars in Christian churches, and the tevans in synagogues, and why all the chairs, sofas, and dining tables in our Bosphorus-facing sitting rooms are arranged to face the view,” Pamuk wrote.

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The elegant structure of Ciragan Palace Kempinski on the Bosphorus — always a highlight on boat tours on the waters of Istanbul.

On that first Bosphorus tour, the guide pointed out the palaces of the sultans, the magnificent Topkapi and Dolmabahçe, which served as centers of the Ottoman Empire and are museums today. You can look at the bedrooms of the sultans and their collections but you cannot touch them or stay long because there is always a long queue behind you.

Then something caught my eye near the first Bosphorus Bridge. It was Çiragan Palace sitting on the shores, looking so magnificent—as if every marble column and gate rose out of the bottom of the waters of the Bosphorus fully constructed.

The palace was built by Sultan Abdülâziz and designed by the era’s famous Armenian palace architect Nigogayos Balyan and constructed by his sons between 1863 and 1867. Before that, it was known as Kazancioglu Gardens at the beginning of the 17th century and a hundred years later, in 1719, Damat İbrahim Pasha of Nevşehir built a summer mansion for his wife, the daughter of a sultan.

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Even in winter, guests take a dip in the heated outdoor pool of Ciragan, the only swimming pool in the city that remains open in the cold months.

The guide said, “The palace is now Çiragan Palace Kempinski, the most luxurious and expensive hotel in Istanbul. Its Sultan Suite costs about 33,000 euros a night.”

I thought, surely, that amount cannot be right—but it is.

The guide continued, “But superior rooms are affordable starting at 300 euros.”

And that was how, on my third time to celebrate the New Year in Istanbul, I found myself in this Ottoman Empire palace hotel—and I definitely did not book the Sultan’s Suite.

The Kempinski brand assures luxury and white-glove service— whether it’s a modern hotel such as Siam in Bangkok or a certain architecture, like the Selcuk-style The Dome in Belek—but more than that, I loved the idea of waking up, literally, to history. In Çiragan Palace Kempinski’s case, a faithfully reconstructed history.

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The elegant atrium in the palace side of the hotel. Ciragan Palace Kempinski is the choice for Turkey’s most expensive and high-profile weddings.

Çiragan Palace was built during a period wherein all Ottoman sultans constructed their own palaces rather than using those before them. It is the last example of this period of extravagance. The inner walls and the roof were made of wood, the outer walls of colorful marble and a very high garden wall protected the palace from the outer world.

Sultan Abdülâziz did not live long in his palace. He was dethroned and succeeded by his nephew, whose reign lasted 93 days and lived here under house arrest until his death in August 1904.

Then the palace was used by the parliament until a great fire destroyed it in 1910 leaving only the outer walls intact and it lay abandoned for decades. Its third incarnation was as a football stadium.

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The grandeur of the Ottoman Empire lives on at Ciragan Palace Kempinski.

And finally, in 1992, the Kempinski Group restored Çiragan Palace. Stones found still lying in the palace gardens through the years served as models for the master stonemasons to recreate the intricate latticework and marble colonnades by hand.

A mid-rise modern building was added (that’s where the affordable rooms come in!) and today it has 313 rooms, including 20 suites in the hotel, and 11 suites in the historical palace.

I am told this amazing history by two lovely and sweet women, Ciaran Palace Kempinski’s director of public relations Neslihan Şen and her assistant Cansu Baş.

“It feels very special to be working here,” Neslihan says. “Apart from the Kempinski brand, you’re looking after a Turkish heritage that means a lot to everyone. It’s a lot of responsibility because it really is the only Ottoman Imperial Palace and hotel on the Bosphorus. And it’s a lot of fun because celebrities hold their weddings and celebrations at the historical palace.”

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There’s nothing better than an outdoor meal during the warm months in Istanbul.
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Bosphorus Grill as the sun goes down.

We are having tea at Laledan restaurant, which is famous in Istanbul for its Sunday brunch, overlooking the infinity pool and the Bosphorus. The hotel’s pool is famous as well—it’s the only outdoor heated pool in Istanbul and they tell me that in winter some guests come here, quickly disrobe and jump into the warm pool—while it’s snowing.

Cansu takes me on a tour of the historical palace, which is connected to the hotel via a walkway filled with pictures detailing its history.

I’ve seen and written about presidential suites before, but nothing quite like the Sultan’s Suite. The centerpiece here is the lobby with its grand chandelier and staircase, a favorite place of brides and for pictorials apart from the terrace facing the Bosphorus.

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Ever wondered how the sultans lived? The hotel’s 400-sqm. Sultan Suite—at 35,000 euros a night—gives you insights into that with the plush and elegant furnishings.
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The master bedroom’s bathroom has a hamam (Turkish bath) with a private steam room and rain shower, and gold-plated and crystal bathtub fixtures.

And then there’s the two-bedroom Sultan’s Suite. At 400 square meters, it’s one of the largest suites in Europe and certainly one of the most expensive. The furniture and accessories in the room date back to the 19th century; they sit side by side with state-of-the-art technology.

The master bedroom has a marble hamam and a Turkish bath with a private steam room, rainshower and bathtub with gold-plated and crystal fixtures. The guest bedroom also has its own bathroom with a specially designed bathtub and a large window overlooking the historical peninsula.

Chandeliers, columns, replicas of paintings from the famous palace painter Fausto Zonaro, floor-to-ceiling windows and views of the Bosphorus and classical Ottoman architecture all recreate the grandeur of the Ottoman Empire.

If that wasn’t enough, Çiragan Palace Kempinski is the only hotel on the Bosphorus reachable by car, yacht or helicopter and guests of the suite enjoy complimentary transfer to and from the airport—by land, sea or air.

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The historical hamam in the palace side of the hotel.
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The private hamam or Turkish bath.

Royalty, heads of state and celebrities have all stayed in the sultan suite, which has received numerous awards including the World’s Most Luxurious Hotel Suite and the Most Opulent Hotel Room.

Walking back to the hotel side, Cansu tells me, “My dear Tanya, you are very special because you are the last guest for the year that I have taken on a tour at the palace.” (What did I tell you about Turkish women? They’re so lovely!)

Back in my room, I do what Pamuk wrote about the chairs facing the water. It is a new year and the past 12 months have been difficult for this country with terror attacks, but I have never seen its people bow even when the city bends momentarily.

I am sitting on the balcony and looking at the Bosphorus Bridge outlined in red lights that perforate the dark sky. I have looked at Istanbul in a million ways, in all the seasons, under all circumstances, and I have loved it in each.

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We spent New Year’s Eve at Le Fumoir, warming ourselves by the fire and with wonderful cocktails.
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I will never tire of these waters, this view, this bridge.

The subversive art & life of David Cerny

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In 2013, just days before the Czech Republic’s general elections, Prague woke up to David Cerny’s “Fuck Him,” a 30-foot purple hand floating on the Vtlava River, giving the finger to where Czech President Milos Zeman lives, the Prague Castle. Photos courtesy of David Cerny

(This story was first published by Esquire in 2015.)

I saw my first David Cerny sculpture on a spring day, a cold Labor Day on the first of May in Prague. I had rented an apartment in Staré Mesto, and every time I’d walk to the Old Town Square, I’d pass by this stainless steel sculpture of a giant woman kneeling on the ground with her legs spread…and people were climbing into her vagina.

Called “In Utero” and installed on Dlouhá St. in 2013, it is one of many  installations around Prague by the controversial artist David Cerny. It is also one of his many artworks in which the viewer completes the experience by inserting himself into the piece’s orifice.

Like his “Brown-noser” which, as the name suggests, is a pair of assholes—five-meter-tall sculptures of a person’s ass and legs bending toward a wall. A ladder leads directly into the anus where you stick your head in to  watch a video of two Czech politicians feeding each other to the music of Queen’s We Are the Champions.

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The Czech Republic’s controversial enfant terrible David Cerny. “To be honest I would rather do things that are totally unpolitical and just pleasant…but I am unable to see things the way other people do,” he says.

During my stay in Prague, I met a French expat and I asked him about the sculptures. “You don’t know who David Cerny is?” Gautier asked. I said no.

“But you must have heard of his work. He painted the Soviet Tank pink when he was an art student.”

He’s that guy?

In the early years following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, communism neither went quickly nor quietly into the night for many countries in the Eastern Bloc. It was a long process of stripping away the hold of the Soviet Union, often by reluctant governments and an impatient citizenry.

When, in the dead of the night in April 1991, the young Cerny climbed onto the Soviet tank and painted it pink, the most feminine of colors to insult the Kremlin, he was just starting to discover his own sense of irony as an artist.

“The Pink Tank” (or “Monument to Soviet Tank Crews”) got Cerny briefly arrested for civil disobedience. After the Czech government painted it back green, Prague’s citizens painted it pink again, and a tug-of-war ensued.

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“Brown-nosers” at Galeria Futura in Smichov is a pair figures leaning towards a wall. The viewer climbs up the anus to watch a movie of politicians feeding each other slop.

It was Cerny’s first subversive art, and by God, it wouldn’t be his last! Today, Prague is culturally richer for it.

In later works, he would embarrass the Czech government, anger the Council of the European Union, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi among other European leaders, make fun of both Saddam Hussein and Damien Hirst in one piece, pull off one of the best hoaxes in the art world by inventing 26 artists for a group installation—and pretty much endear himself to all modern art lovers.

By the time I finished looking at his sculptures online in Gautier’s kitchen, I said, “I would love to meet and interview him!”

“I know him,” he said casually. Gautier is into Prague’s underground culture and clubs; he once took me to a bar that was guarded by Great Danes the size of ponies and, on another trip, he took me to a march to legalize marijuana in the Czech Republic.

But I was leaving Prague in a few days for Austria and Greece. I was on a two-week vacation that started in the UK and would have ended in Amsterdam except I kept cancelling my flights and rerouting my itinerary.

When I returned to Prague in the summer for a road trip to Poland with him, he had arranged for me to meet David Cerny.

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This Cerny sculpture is not in Prague but in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Metamorphosis” is a motorized Kafka head that’s segmented in 40 layers that independently rotate 360 degrees.

* * *

The city of Prague has a very efficient public transport system. Like most European capitals, it has a network of subways, trams and buses, a cheap way to get around the city that relies on passengers’ honesty to buy a ticket, and when you’re caught without one  by random checks you’re slapped with a steep fine.

Most tourists get to know all the train lines leading to the historical center in Prague 1—a concentration of beautiful centuries-old buildings, museums, the Jewish Quarter, churches, monuments, Franz Kafka—and Charles Bridge, one that tourists love but locals loathe to cross because of…well, tourists.

David Cerny purposely located his studio away from all this. He wanted to be away “from cops who knock at your door after 10 p.m. and tell you to shut up.” Most importantly, his studio’s location is not only hard find if you’re not into the underground club subculture, but hard to get to as well for tourists.

Walking the distance from the tram stop to his studio called Meet Factory on a sweltering summer day, the weather makes me feel like I had never left Manila.

Meet Factory is a 5,000-square-meter warehouse beside railway tracks, a hybrid space that has a club, several studios for artists-in-residence, a theater, gallery and a music hall.

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“Shark” is Cerny’s parody of Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” in which Hirst put a shark in a glass tank containing 4,360 gallons of formaldehyde. Cerny put Saddam Hussein in the tank instead.

The provocateur is dressed in his usual black sleeveless shirt and black pants when he comes to meet us.

He’s had this warehouse for seven years, he says. It’s perfect for him. They can hold parties or concerts here “without any idiot neighbors complaining about the noise” because there are no neighbors.

It is a place for subversives, rebels and artists. Here, Cerny courts his muses—deadline, music and film. Here, he hid the artists that he invented in his head for what he considers his most challenging project.

In 2009, the Czech Republic assumed the presidency of the Council of the European Union, a rotating position among the EU countries and traditionally marked by an art installation. The year before, France erected a balloon in the French colors for its presidency.

Now, it was time for the Czech Republic to continue this tradition and Cerny was commissioned to head the project.

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“Entropa” may be the art world’s funniest and most offensive hoax. Cerny headed the project to mark the EU Council presidency of the Czech Republic. He invented 26 other artists for a “collaborative” work, depicting countries by their stereotype. Bulgaria is a series of toilets, Italy is a football pitch with players masturbating, etc. For a time it was covered with black cloth.

Called “Entropa,” the project entailed a collaborative work by 27 artists from EU countries including himself. Except Cerny invented the 26 other artists, and with his assistants he wrote biographical notes that they released to media before the unveiling. In short, he created all 27 sculptures by himself to represent EU countries in one massive installation.

Still, that wouldn’t have been so bad, would it? No. But we’re talking about David Cerny here, whose every piece is infused with satire, humor and irony, and always a strong political statement.

The exhibit was formally launched on Jan. 21, 2009, a Wednesday, but it opened to the public the following Monday. To the shock of viewers at the unveiling, what they saw were unflattering stereotypes of each of their country. Italy is depicted as a football pitch with players masturbating; Bulgaria as a series of squat toilets; Romania as a Dracula theme park; Slovakia as a Hungarian sausage; Sweden as an Ikea furniture box; France is draped with a banner marked “Gréve” (strike); the UK, which has been criticized for distancing itself from the EU, is represented as a missing piece on the map; and the Czech Republic is a LED display flashing controversial quotes by then President Vaclav Klaus.

“It was fun doing it but there was pressure every single day. It was one year of hell,” says Cerny. “There was no money in it and the moment of unveiling was really tough.”

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As an art student, Cerny painted the Soviet Tank monument pink on April 28, 1991, the army repainted it green on May 1, and people painted it back pink.

Between Wednesday and Monday, angry EU leaders such as Sarkozy and Berlusconi demanded an apology, and EU leaders were hunting down the 26 other artists.

“The Bulgarians were freaking out because their country is depicted as a toilet. When it was formally launched, that’s when we told people that the artists did not exist.”

Cerny likes to spring surprises like this in his own dramatic fashion.

In 2013, four days before the Czech Republic’s parliamentary elections, Prague woke up to a 10-meter purple hand floating on the Vltava River near Charles Bridge with the middle finger pointed at Prague Castle, home to President Milos Zeman.

Having been anti-communism all his life, it was Cerny’s way of saying “fuck you” to the president for supporting the Social Democratic party. You can imagine the flurry of phone calls to take down the sculpture.

“When I exhibited ‘Fuck Him,’ the President asked the city of Prague to remove it but he was told they could not do anything because the barge was privately owned. All the sculptures you see around Prague are mine except for the Peeing Guys in front of the Kafka Museum, which were installed before the museum. The sculptures are not owned by the city. I choose the spaces and most are installed on private properties.”

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“In Utero,” located on Dlouhá St. in Prague’s Stare Mesto, is a six-meter stainless-steel sculpture of a kneeling woman. Viewers can climb up inside the statue through her vagina. Photo by Tanya Lara

Cerny’s artworks are either beautiful, bizarre, offensive or all—but whatever the viewer thinks of them, they can never be ignored. They have put Prague, a city that he both loves and hates, on the map of modern art. “It would be nice if my art really did that, but no one cares.”

Not many people these days probably tell Cerny he’s wrong. But he’s wrong to think that no one cares. Every single person who has been to Prague with a little bit of interest in art and contemporary Czech culture cares—they walk away from his work with a smile or an understanding or, better yet, very disturbed.

* * *

Born in Prague to a mother who was an art restorer and a father who was a painter, Cerny failed art school twice before being accepted on his third try as an industrial design student, a course he abandoned after a year to concentrate on art.

His childhood was “nothing exceptional,” and in fact he was very bad at drawing. “I had the lowest grade in drawing in elementary school. If the grading was one to five, and five meant you couldn’t continue, I got a four. ”

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“London Booster” was made for the London Olympics in 2012. It’s a double-decker bus doing push-up with humanoid arms and installed outside the Czech House.

He had a lot of problems at school, he says. One of them was for criticizing Lenin when he was six years old and for which his mother was called in. But by his own account, he says it was an ordinary childhood of discovery (he lost his virginity at 15 to his girlfriend, who is now his dentist) and insists he didn’t have groupies even after he became famous.

Various accounts of his painting the Soviet Tank pink when he was 24 put his motivations as wanting to impress a Slovakian girl and a deep resentment towards communism and the Soviet tanks that rolled into the capital to quash the Prague Spring in 1968.

“It was both, of course,” he says now. And in the time between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Czech Republic’s Velvet Revolution, it was one big party. “I don’t think I’ve always been politicized. It’s just the nature of things, of me saying things from time to time that might be unpleasant for somebody else.”

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St. Wenceslas sits on an upside-down dead horse in Cerny’s “Dead Horse.” One interpretation of this sculpture is the changing values of Czech society and how people can no longer depend on their heroes and legends of past.

Like Franz Kafka, Cerny is influenced by a city that he can’t leave and yet thinks of as a place that’s been left behind.

“I have that sense of irony that is part of the city. Prague is very provincial, it’s Old Europe. If you look at the trajectory of Berlin, you’d think too that Prague has unfortunately been left behind. It’s unrecognized and nobody cares about this city at all except for tourists. But we have to live with it. To be honest, I would rather do things that are totally unpolitical and are just pleasant, but sometimes I do things that are political commentary. You cannot avoid that. I am unable to see things the way other people do. If I had a choice, I would do beautiful stuff rather than react to things. But, what can I say, I’m a figurative sculptor.”

* * *

When he was on a yacht the year before, Cerny and his friends decided to rip the doors apart and use them for water skiing. He took a bottle of champagne in one hand and clung to the cables attached to the boat with the other.

A steady figure gliding on unsteady water. I watched this video many times before I met him and wondered how he didn’t get flung in the water or get into an accident.  “Oh, it was just for fun and we were so fucking drunk,” he says.

What else does he do for fun? “You mean besides sex? Yachting, flying, diving, sometimes skiing and snow boarding, listening to music, reading, watching movies.”

But it’s sailing and flying that are his two his biggest passions outside of art. He got his ATPL (Airline Transport Pilot License) in four months of intensive studying (which normally takes two years in a technical school) and for which he refrained from drinking his favorite Czech beer Matuska.

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“To be honest, I would rather do things that are totally unpolitical and are just pleasant…But I am unable to see things the way other people do.”

What was the appeal of flying for him? “Maybe it could be a new job,” he says, laughing. “Maybe I will get tired of art. Flying is a pleasure for me.”

But there is a more serious side to his flying. He is in a relationship with a doctor and he thinks he can be very useful as a medical pilot, to fly doctors where they are needed. “There are organizations that have flying doctors and they have a Cesna which they fly as an ambulance, so that’s one idea.”

In the summer of 2014, the one thing that Cerny loves and the thing he hates the most collided. Malaysian Airline’s Flight17 was shot down over Ukraine by the Russians, killing 283 passengers and 15 crew members.

He saw the news at 2 in the morning when he turned on his laptop and he seethed with fury. “That Russian asshole Putin should be executed,” he tells me.

It’s a tragic incident that no artwork could alter.

But you can bet David Cerny’s not going to shut up about Putin or the world we live in. After all, this is the artist that painted the Soviet tank pink and flipped his own government purple.

And really,  no one—not even the Czech government or any president—can do anything about it.

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“Piss,” located in front of the Kafka Museum in Prague, came before the museum and is not connected with Kafka. Cerny did a piece for inside the museum though — a small model of a torture machine that’s featured in Franz Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Colony.” The kinetic men “write” sentences with their piss on a basin in the shape of the Czech Republic’s map. Photo by TANYA LARA

Diving with the turtles of Apo Island

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Apo Island has one of the most diverse marine ecosystems in the country. It is also home to green and hawksbill turtles.  Photos and videos by TANYA LARA

Let me begin by saying that the turtles of Apo Island are as awesome as you’ve seen in pictures and the experience of swimming with them a thousand times more.

The question I’ve been asked a lot is: Where is Apo Island and how do you get there?

Apo Island is located in Negros Oriental province with the airport in the capital Dumaguete City, about an hour away. Both Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific fly from Manila to Dumaguete.

You can go to Apo from the city, but I stayed in Dauin, a town 40 minutes from Dumaguete by land and another 30 minutes by boat to Apo.

Why Dauin? Because it’s nearer and the town is lined with dive resorts that do trips every day to Apo. By “dive resorts,” I mean they have swimming pools deep enough for a diving course whereas the city hotels don’t. Plus, they have all the equipment you need and are staffed by experienced instructors and dive masters.

The accommodations in Dauin range from cheap to expensive; from boring concrete hotels to native shacks and high-end resorts with manicured gardens.

I stayed at Atmosphere Resort, which is on the high end of the scale (hey, it was my birthday!), and very nice. When I was filling out the check-in form, the staff noticed it was my birthday and everybody was extra nice to me. Maybe they also thought it was weird (or sad) that I was traveling alone (I get that a lot everywhere!).

Even though I was certified by PADI six years ago, I didn’t have my ID and they never allow you to dive without it unless you take an intro course. But I had already done open water in Mactan, Cebu and Governor’s Island in Hundred Islands (literally with the then governor of Pangasinan and I don’t remember how that happened).

Then I stopped diving, then I lost my ID when my wallet was stolen. And I really enjoy snorkeling, so I never bothered renewing the license.

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My favorite picture because this turtle is so Zen! I named her Julia… you know, “Julia, ocean child…”

This time, when I was asked to sign up for diving, I told them the situation and Mark of the dive center said, “We can just look it up on PADI’s website.”

I said, really? Yes, really!

Dive instructor Lor was assigned to me and he said in Tagalog, “Diving will come back to you, it’s like riding a bike.”

I said, “I don’t know how to ride a bike.”

In the morning, it was only a Japanese couple from Yokohama and I that were going to Apo with a full boat crew and two dive instructors.

We were going to two sites, an hour-long dive each. At the first, “Chapel” (because it’s in front of a church on Apo Island), we saw a giant turtle not too far from the shore. The water wasn’t very clear, perhaps because it had just stopped raining, and also because the turtle was kicking about on the seafloor scattering sand.

Later, we saw two or three other turtles, about two feet long, and swam with them up close.

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Amazing markings. Up close, its head resembles a snake’s.

You do NOT need to go diving to swim with the turtles. You can snorkel with them because, whether they stay in shallow or deep waters, they eventually swim to the surface to get air.

The boat crew knows where the turtles hang out and they spot them easily from afar. Lor would tap me on the shoulder and point to a turtle and I’d be like, “Where?” Their green shell (which changes color when you’re up close) really blend with the sometimes-green, sometimes-blue water.

The first turtle I swam with got me so excited that I literally opened my mouth to smile and took in water in my regulator. Towards the end of the first site, I thought, okay, I’m good. But Lor spotted two others and we swam with them till my throat went dry from the filtered oxygen.

Then there was another turtle that we chased…and another. I felt like a child again, like I was opening presents from my grandfather on Christmas morning!

It was truly one of the best experiences I have ever had.

The second dive site, “The Rock,” was even more spectacular and the water was so clear. While we were having coffee and biscuits that the resort had packed for us, we watched several turtles coming  up to the surface for air.

At one point in the water, Lor said I should give him my camera so he could take a picture of me with the turtles. I said okay. But when we were swimming with them again, I didn’t want to stop filming for a selfie.

I was swimming so close I could have touched them but didn’t of course, I didn’t want want to scare them away, but one turtle kept looking over to his side as if knowing he was being stalked!

The thing that struck me most was the color of their shell. From afar, you think it’s just green but it’s actually so colorful. It’s bright red and brown, and their heads look like a snake’s. The markings on their head and fins are so defined underwater it was like watching HD TV.

So, how much does it cost to go to Apo Island? It depends on your resort. The cost of the refresher course, Apo Island tour and two dives was almost P10,000 (US$200) at Atmosphere.

Snorkeling gear is free, you just pay for the boat tour. Like I said, you don’t need to go diving to swim with the turtles, the only advantage is you can swim with them for a long time when they’re about three meters deep or so.

There are many hotels, resorts in Dauin and Dumaguete. At Atmosphere, the cost for two nights was P23,000 (US$450) with airport transfers. I wanted to go to the whale sharks in Oslob but there was no group to join and it was way too expensive to go solo (P13,000 or $260). I literally told the staff, “Nababaliw ka ba?” (Are you crazy?)

Unlike in Coron or Boracay, it’s not as simple as walking to the beach and hiring a boat for island hopping. But I asked around and there are cheaper alternatives from independent tour operators that will collect you from your hotel, take you to Cebu, and then bring you back at the end of the day.

* * *

Second most asked question: Why are there so many sea turtles in Apo Island? It’s because it has one of the most  diverse marine ecosystems in the country, and this allows them to feed there.

Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium modeled its Wild Reef permanent exhibit after Apo, from the sound of the waves breaking on the beach to the 400,000-gallon tank with sharks. Yes, sharks, too. The Japanese diver said that when he first went to Apo, he saw whale sharks (which normally feed in Donsol or Oslob).

Like many places in the Philippine archipelago, dynamite and cyanide fishing almost wiped out the fish populations in the 1980s — until conservationists, marine biologists and NGOs intervened.

I remember writing a story for a book on marine life in the early 2000s and interviewing experts and photographers that were helping in the early stages of transitioning these islands into tourism destinations.

It wasn’t easy. How were they to convince fishermen who relied on such practices for their livelihood to stop and let the fish population grow because there was more money in tourism — and in the meantime how were they supposed to feed their families?

But the conservationists did the impossible! The waters of Nasugbu, Batangas; Coron, Palawan (which became a tourism hot spot only in the early 2000s because of divers); and Apo Island are now protected by the locals themselves.

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Atmosphere Resort in Dauin. The town is 30 minutes to Apo Island by boat and 40 minutes by land from Dumaguete Airport.

In the case of Apo Island, it was the marine biologists of Siliman University in Dumaguete that led the conservation movement. Apo was declared a marine sanctuary in the 1990s and for more than 30 years, its marine life has been thriving.

The boat crew told me that a few years ago, the coral reef was much more beautiful but it’s been damaged by relentless typhoons. I heard the same story in Coron.

I was talking to a lady from the UK a few months ago and she mentioned she honeymooned in El Nido and Coron and was blown away when she swam in the latter’s marine sanctuary.

She initially thought “marine sanctuary” meant people cannot go there. Yes, you can — but no one can fish there. And in the case of Coron’s Siete Pecados (a place I love for snorkeling), scuba diving is prohibited because the corals are so shallow you could damage them with your tank.

I’ve seen how locals in Palawan, Bohol, Cebu and Apo Island are so protective and it makes me so happy that they see these waters as their own to protect for today and the future.

* * *

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The swimming pool and beyond. The waters of Dauin are rich with corals and fish.
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Dauin beach is nothing special, but what’s under is — a colorful, thriving house reef.

Third question: Palawan or Apo Island? That’s a tricky one because they’re two different experiences.

After I posted my turtle videos on Instagram, I got this question from friends and strangers abroad who were planning a trip to the Philippines.

So, here’s the long, logical answer.

The Philippines has 7,107 islands. Palawan alone has 1,780 islands but the province is scattered vertically. Coron is at the northern tip, the nearest to Manila, and El Nido is about six to 10 hours by boat or land and capital Puerto Princesa is even farther. Palawan has three airports, and if you pick the wrong one it’s actually easier (but not cheaper) to fly back to Manila and then fly again to the right airport.

Apo Island, on the other hand, is located in Negros Oriental (not be confused with neighbor Negros Occidental) with the airport in Dumaguete.

From Dumaguete’s port, you can catch ferries to the southern tip of Cebu (for whale sharks in Oslob and thresher sharks in Malapascua), which is a shorter trip than from Cebu City or Mactan Airport itself.

My sad point is that Philippine islands are not well connected — you almost always have to fly back to Manila as starting point.

My sadder point is that domestic flights are not cheap. We locals often rail against this fact because it’s actually cheaper to go to Hong Kong for the weekend than to Boracay or Palawan, unless you plan it months in advance. Flying to Caticlan (Boracay) can cost as much as US$200 (or $300 during high season) and so does Coron or El Nido.

Final answer: If it’s your first time to the Philippines, go to Palawan, specifically Coron (Busuanga airport). It has everything that El Nido has — the limestone cliffs, lagoons, lakes, marine sanctuaries, hot springs and deserted beaches — but El Nido doesn’t have Coron’s World War 2 shipwrecks, 24 of them for diving or snorkeling.

I love El Nido, too, with Nacpan Beach just half an hour away. But Coron has Kayangan Lake, which is the most beautiful lake I’ve ever seen, and gorgeous white-sand beaches against the limestone cliffs.

Go to Apo Island if you’ve seen limestone cliffs rising from the waters (in Thailand or Vietnam) because the turtle experience is something you cannot get in Palawan.

Apo’s location also lets you explore other provinces such as Bohol with its gorgeous Chocolate Hills, rivers, tarsier sanctuary and Balicasag, which I really enjoy snorkeling at. Dumaguete is also close to Siquijor, which is famous for its beaches and voodoo witches. And Cebu is accessible by ferry, no need to fly back to Manila.

Apart from the whale sharks, Cebu’s southern tip has Kawasan Falls. I haven’t been there but you’ve probably seen these Gatorade-color falls and people canyoneering or jumping off a series of cliffs to finally arrive at the falls.

So…Coron for first-timers because you can easily spend a week there; and Apo Island if you want to explore nearby islands by ferry.

But if you want nightlife, fiery sunsets, parties and unbelievable powdery white sand, then head to Boracay. It’s the island we locals all adore and hate for what it’s become but we keep coming back to anyway.

But that’s another story.

 

Conrad Manila’s presidential suite is inspired by super yachts

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The ship silhouette of Conrad Manila is now an icon in the bay area’s skyline.  Photo by TANYA LARA
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The 1,000-sqm. presidential suite, designed by Michael Fiebrich, takes its cue from interiors found in high-end super yachts. Photos by WALTER BOLLOZOS

How do you design the presidential suite of a hotel that’s shaped like a ship? Like the interiors of a luxurious super yacht of course! Nearly a year since its opening, Conrad Manila on Thursday launched its presidential suite — or as general manager Harald Feurstein puts it, “the crown jewel of the hotel.”

In only a short time, the hotel has become an architectural icon with its silhouette of a massive ship outlined dramatically against Manila Bay. Hospitality-wise, it has hosted some of the country’s big events in the past 12 months, including Miss Universe and the ASEAN Summit.

That it’s taken almost a year to complete the presidential suite after the hotel began operations speaks of the attention to detail paid to its design and construction.

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The 500-square-meter patio features a large seating area and space for parties.
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The private pool overlooks the waters of Manila Bay.

“The entire hotel is now complete essentially,” says Harald. “This room is so special that the ownership has taken particular attention to make sure it’s perfect.”

At about 1,000 sqm., with an even split between the interior and outdoor spaces, the two-bedroom suite’s design was inspired by high-end super yachts and colors of spectacular sunsets.

Conrad Manila is a master in the art of the dramatic reveal. There is a wow factor as it unfolds its space for the first time, when the lobby elevators on the third floor open and you are directly confronted by views of Manila Bay through the glass walls and double-height ceiling.

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The bedroom has wraparound floor-to-ceiling windows and a patio.
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The pebble-shaped bathtub in the master’s bedroom. All Conrad Hotels in Asia Pacific now carry Shanghai Tang toiletries for the ladies.

The presidential suite reveals itself with the same flourish. In the foyer, there is a second door which, when opened, grabs your gaze and directs it to the blue waters of Manila Bay on a sunny day with the boats and ships languid on the surface.

Only after those first few seconds of “wow, what a view!” do you begin to take in the interiors. At first, you can’t put your finger on a theme until you notice the open layout of the suite, the walls, the materials and construction of the sofas that you realize it feels like you’re in a yacht.

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The dining room features a metal sculpture by Sam Penaso and a wall and window design that could have been taken straight out of a luxury yacht.
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The marble bar follows the shape of the hotel’s exterior architecture.

When asked how it compares to other presidential suites he’s managed, GM Harald, who has been with the Hilton Group for almost 20 years with a stint at Conrad Bangkok before Manila, says, “It doesn’t. This is very special and unique. It’s very different from the traditional type of suite. It’s not a boxed-in type of suite where there are many different rooms. The view is quite unbeatable and the location is one of our strongest points. Just sitting here looking at the window, you feel you’re away form Manila, but you’re literally in the heart of the city.”

The living room, dining room and the bar are in one elongated space, and here you fully appreciate the nautical elements in the design. There’s an abundant use of lacquer finish, polished metal, marble, rounded forms, smooth textures and fabrics,  and lines that are reminiscent of super yachts, from the windows to the louvres and the sofas.

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Another section of the large entertaining area/living room.

The firm Michael Fiebrich Design of Singapore “matched the element of waves and the colors of a perfect sunset that we have before us every day,” continues Harald.

At P300,000 ($6,100) per night , the suite has a master bedroom with large walk-in closet and makeup area, a guest bedroom, study, a pantry, three bathrooms, dining area for 10, a bar with seating,  and an unbelievably expansive patio with a swimming pool. Even the bar inside mimics the lines of the hotel’s exterior architecture.

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The study room…but really, wouldn’t you rather sit outside?

Harald says, “I think people would rather have a view of the bay rather than the TV.”

Conveniences aside, technology was also put in place for Conrad Manila to keep up with green practices.

“The room is essentially in sleep mode when it’s not occupied: the air-conditioning is on fan, the lights are turned off and the curtains closed. When you arrive at the lobby, the room will know once you’ve checked in and at that point the AC will kick in and start cooling the room while you’re still in the lobby. As you open the door when you enter, the lights will come on and depending on the time of the day, there’ll be different lighting scenes and the curtains will open as well. So when you come in you will immediately enjoy the view.”

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Artworks by Filipino artists from the hotel’s art collection are featured throughout the suite.

Technology was also a big part in the suite’s design. Intelligent panels on the walls control everything, from the temperature to the sound system, curtains, and the dramatic lighting designed by DJ Coalition, Bangkok. The control tablets are also mobile so you can take them with you and control the systems from different parts of the room.

One of the areas where design is complemented by technology is in the master bedroom. The bed faces wall-to -ceiling windows. So where would you put the TV? In a console table at the foot of the bed, the TV goes up for viewing with a push of a button, and is recessed when you’re done.

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The sunset on Manila Bay is different every day. Here, another side of Conrad Manila’s façade with Mall of Asia’s ferris wheel. Photo by TANYA LARA

Conrad Manila is not a very tall building because of the height restriction in the area, but it has a large footprint. Its vast spaces have allowed it to showcase its art collection curated by CCP president Nes Jardin. For the presidential suite, he chose metal sculptures by Sam Penaso and paintings by Nestor Vinluan, Jonathan Olazo and Alain Hablo.

Located on the seventh floor of the hotel, the presidential suite enjoys butler service and access to the executive lounge, which offers breakfast and evening cocktails and all-day refreshments. “Once you are in the suite, the butler can bring you all the things you need from the lounge.”

Because, let’s face it, the stunning views of Manila Bay really make it hard to leave the room.

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Conrad Manila has a flair for the dramatic reveal, starting when you enter the hotel lobby on the third floor and the elevators open to this view. Photo by TANYA LARA

 

Chasing Shakespeare—from Stratford to Verona

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Verona is a city that Shakespeare set three plays in. And it hosts a very famous (fictional) house — Casa di Giulietta or Juliet’s House (and balcony). Photo by Tanya Lara

There is a scene I love in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. As the emperor is being stabbed by the senators, he recognizes his friend as one of the assassins and says, “Et tu, Brute?” (“And you, Brutus?” or “Even you, Brutus?” from Latin).

“Stabbed in the back” is such a common euphemism for betrayal, but no matter how apt this Shakespeare scene is in today’s world, it’s probably not the most famous in popular culture. That scene comes from Romeo and Juliet, the story of star-crossed lovers that has spun a million parodies and analogies.

Because between betrayal and tragic love, people seem to prefer the latter, notwithstanding the double suicide that could have been avoided had there just been proper communication about the poison from the apothecary 450 years ago.

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The house and famous balcony of Juliet Capulet in Verona.  Photo by Tanya Lara

In the autumn of 2007, I took the train from London to Stratford-Upon-Avon in the UK to see Shakespeare’s houses — where he was born and where he retired and died. Nine years later, in 2016, I would take the train from Venice to Verona in Italy to see the fictional house and balcony of fictional Juliet.

Scholars are divided about whether Shakespeare actually visited Verona in his lifetime, but he set three plays here — The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the first of Shakespeare’s comedies where the heroine dresses as a boy. Rendering gender ambiguous and the resulting complications are themes that would repeat themselves in the Bard’s plays, most notably in Twelfth Night (one of my favorites).

The second Verona play is The Taming of the Shrew, where the headstrong Katherina is “tamed” by her suitor Petruchio until she becomes an obedient bride. (Anyone else remember that Moonlighting episode?)

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Juliet’s bed. Not too far from the house is another tourist attraction — Juliet’s Tomb. Also on display are clothing from the Elizabethan period.  Photos by Tanya Lara

The third, of course, is Romeo and Juliet. Of the three plays, Shakespeare wrote this last (1597) with the first two written between 1589 and 1592. Romeo and Juliet is largely believed to be based on the English poet Arthur Brook’s narrative poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, which in turn was translated from an earlier Italian novella by Matteo Bandello, said to be from a French source. The list goes on and on because two lovers from feuding families is a tale as old as time.

But it is Shakespeare’s young, tragic lovers that endure, that have appeared before us on stage, in film, ballet and opera — and in our imaginations.

In Act 2, Juliet comes to the balcony and, no, she is not looking for him, rather she is questioning Romeo being Romeo — a Montague, the sworn enemy of her Capulet family.

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

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Tanya Lara and Juliet’s statue in the courtyard. It’s a tradition to rub Juliet’s right breast if you want to get married. I stayed away from it as far as I could while posing.

So here I am staring at that balcony in Verona, an hour and half by Trenitalia from Venice. Called Casa di Giulietta, the compound dates back to the 8th century and originally belonged to the Capello family in the 13th century. Was it this surname that inspired Shakespeare’s Capulets? Or gave rise to the City of Verona that here, Juliet Capulet could have lived, that she could have stood on this balcony and delivered her soliloquy?

In the courtyard, surrounded by the open-brick exterior of the four-level house, there is a statue of Juliet (there are actually two, one is inside). For some reason, it’s a tradition for women to rub her right breast if they want to get married; men do it, too, but with a smirk befitting Petruchio rather than a lonely bachelor.

I didn’t know you could actually go up to the balcony till my friend Luca messaged me, “Vai su” (go up), and so I did. For 6 euros, you can enter Juliet’s house through the souvenir shop.

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Visitors leave notes and letters to Juliet on the wall leading to the house.
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The Capulets’ house gets with the program: you can write your letters on a computer (right) or scribble them on paper and drop them in this mailbox (left) on the second floor.

In contrast to the Elizabethan period and artifacts in glass cases around the house, the second floor has several computers where you could write a letter to Juliet. I wrote a short note and pressed “send,” and it’s now floating in some computer server somewhere in Italy.

If you saw the 2010 Amanda Seyfried-movie Letters to Juliet, you know that women really do write to Juliet and the letters are answered by the “Secretaries of Juliet,” composed of the women of Verona.

In reality, the letters are left on the wall leading to the courtyard.

On the third floor is the balcony, from which the architectural term “Juliet’s balcony” comes from to describe a small one just enough to fit one or two people.

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The courtyard of Casa di Giulietta. For 6 euros, you can go inside the house and the balcony.
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The 2,000-year-old Verona Arena is still used today for opera performances; outside is the Christmas Star sculpture. Photo by Tanya Lara

I’ve come to Verona to see this house, to imagine Shakespeare’s characters, but for some reason I am cranky when I actually peer down from the balcony and see couples posing. I want to yell at the people below, “You fools. Love is not real but tragedy is!!” But why ruin it? So I keep my mouth shut.

I leave the house and walk through the wonderful streets of Verona to find a good restaurant. The open market not far from the house is flanked by ristorantes and tratorrias.

Like everywhere else in Italy, pasta (or a cute Italian guy) always gets you in a better mood.

* * *

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William Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-Upon-Avon was the biggest house on Henley St. during The Bard’s lifetime. Photo from shakespeare.org.uk

I love trains and what I love more than trains is complaining about them.

My beef with the London Tube is that it is cold. And I have to take several lines and a regional train to get to Shakespeare’s hometown Stratford, nestled on the River Avon.

It’s autumn in 2007 and I’m staying in a hotel just off Gloucester Road. I have to take the Circle Line at Gloucester station, then get off at Edgeware Road station and transfer to Marylebone station and on the Chiltern Railways, then on to Leamington Spa Railways station, take a bus which stops at a McDonald’s, and I’m on my own to find Shakespeare’s houses.

I’m alone in London and I write my friends at the Philippine Consulate that this is where I am going and the next day I’m flying to Italy — just in case I go missing.

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Holy Trinity Church and Shakespeare’s final resting place in Stratford. Poto from aboutbritain.com

I had been traveling to Europe for several years by this time, but I look back at this as the year of being young and carefree and really beginning to wander, of being footloose in the world.

I don’t know this yet, but this the beginning of finding my way by getting lost — of literally stepping onto the wrong platform and the wrong train, of being curious about other countries and going there to satisfy that curiosity, of almost crying at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate because there is a Starbucks on the eastern side where they used to shoot and kill people for trying to cross to West Berlin, going to Florence’s Accademia and seeing Michelangelo’s David sculpture for the first time, hearing the church bells ringing at Giotto’s Cathedral in Florence, getting pickpocketed in front of Harrod’s in London and being mugged in Milan.

Anyway, back to Stratford-Upon-Avon… I find the place to buy the two-house ticket to Shakespeare’s Birthplace and the New House where he retired and died. Well, I don’t actually buy the ticket; I show my press ID and they give it to me for free.

Shakespeare’s Birthplace is a Tudor affair, the largest house on Henley St. He was born and grew up here, the third of eight children. He also spent the first years of his marriage to Anne Hathaway in this house. According to the Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust, “it was because of his father’s status as Mayor that William was privileged enough to have attended the local grammar school to begin his education.”

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Tanya Lara in Shakespeare’s Knotted Garden, 2007

The house was later owned by Shakespeare’s eldest daughter Susanna and later his granddaughter Elizabeth. When it became for sale in the 1847, the Shakespeare’ Birthplace Trust purchased it.

Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway, whose family cottage at the edge of Stratford is also a museum, moved to New Place in 1597 (where he presumably wrote and finished Romeo and Juliet) and raised their family there. According to the Trust, “When Shakespeare bought New Place he was an established playwright and it is believed that he wrote his later plays there, including The Tempest.”

I don’t remember in which house I am told that it isn’t allowed to take pictures or touch the furniture (of course I do!). I run my hands on his bedposts, on his mantelpiece and desk, stomp my boot heels on the wooden floors and generally touch surfaces and take pictures of everything I could.

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Shakespeare’s bedroom in Stratford-Upon-Avon.  Photo by Tanya Lara

This was the Bard’s bedroom, this was his desk! Did he write Twelfth Night with a quill? Were his fingers darkened black by the ink? What the hell am I doing here alone?

You have to understand…I’ve been a fan of Shakespeare my entire life. In my grandfather’s house north of Manila, there was a book titled The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. It was printed in 1936.

It’s a hardbound book on thin paper (the kind you see in Bibles) that an uncle — I don’t know which one — stole from a library, and which I stole from my grandfather’s house. I’ve never read it completely, but it’s been with me since I left home as a teenager, through three apartments and two houses.

When I was a journalism student at the University of the Philippines, I fell in love with a classmate (a reject from engineering who thought journalism was easy), who knew Shakespeare like no one I’d met before. He studied at the Jesuit school Ateneo de Manila and took up two Shakespeare plays a year in high school. Two plays a year! This was no Cliff’s Notes, this was no Wikipedia summary; this was early memory embedded in his brain.

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Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, where she grew up with her family. Photo from aboutbritain.com

Whenever I forgot a character, it was he that I called. What was Othello’s crazy sister’s name? (Ophelia) Where did he say all lawyers should be killed? (Henry VI) What was the heroine’s name in Twelfth Night? (Viola)

So here I am in Stratford like a giddy fangirl about to meet her idol…except Shakespeare’s been dead for 400 years.

I’ve been given grief for putting the movie Shakespeare in Love on my top five list. To me, this was like seeing Shakespeare as he was struggling and writing in the Elizabethan period, of being poor and drunk and in love. There is Gwyneth as a thinly veiled Viola, my favorite heroine, from Twelfth Night. There is a shipwreck that he will write as they say goodbye, a case of mistaken identity, there is confusion and complication, there is falling in love with a person who pretends to be someone else. What’s not to love about this story?

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The Shakespeare Memorial by Lord Ronald Gower, 1888, in Bancroft Gardens. At each corner of the square is a statue of a Shakespearean character to represent his writing versatility — Hamlet (philosophy), Prince Hal (tragedy), Lady Macbeth (history) and Falstaff (comedy). Photo from aboutbritain.com

I sometimes look at the book from my grandfather’s house and turn it my hands the way people do for one last time at things they are about to toss them in a brick oven. I don’t do it, of course.

It will always remain with me. It’s not always the same with people you love, which is the real tragedy. I go like Ophelia sometimes, other times like Juliet, but most of the time like Viola struggling at sea. I try to forget that Julius Caesar’s Brutus will stab you in the back, and he would have done it in the heart if you just turned to look at him. And you did, didn’t you? Even when you were bloody and on the floor, you did turn.

This Shakespeare volume, written 500 years ago and printed 81 years ago, I will take it out of the bookshelf and read all of its verses someday. Because we go from Stratford to Verona in a span of several innocent years and we think that in another life — maybe not this one, but in that tightly constructed stage of a Shakespearean play — love really will endure.

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Stratford on the River Avon, about three hours from Central London. Photo from aboutbritain.com

The Manila Hotel: Built for kings, queens, heads of state & history

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The living room of The Manila Hotel’s newly renovated presidential suite sets the contemporary style and color palette of the space. Measuring 1,200 sqm., it is the biggest in Southeast Asia and costs P600,000 a night ($12,100).  Photos by Manila Hotel
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The master bedroom has a sitting area, workstation and a nook to watch the sunset. “We wanted to see Manila Bay from everywhere in the presidential suite, the master bathroom included,” says architect Manny Samson.

It occupies one of the most historic addresses in the country: One Rizal Park, Manila, a stone’s throw away from beloved Luneta and Manila Bay. It’s also one of the very few places from where you can see the water on one side and the beautiful parts of a reckless city on the other.

Writers, poets, politicians, rebels and history-makers have all passed through its doors, and it was no less than the timeless writer Ernest Hemingway who said, “If the story’s any good, it’s like Manila Hotel.” It was 1941 and Hemingway was a journalist en route to China. He and his wife Martha Gellhorn stayed at The Manila Hotel for five days.

One hundred and four years later, Manila Hotel’s stories continue to evoke nostalgia from people of all ages who remember the hotel at its different stages. Today, the hotel is having a rebirth, if you will, to bring back its glorious past as it faces tough competition from new and modern hotels.

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The master bathroom has a Jacuzzi for two with views of Manila Bay, a separate shower stall, and sensor-operated toilet bowl.  Photos by Walter Bollozos

On the long list of heads of state, royalty,  celebrities, and events that shook Philippine history are Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Prince Charles, Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain, Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko of Japan, Michael Jackson, President Thein Sein of Myanmar, President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea, World Chess champion Anatoly Karpov, Spanish singer and songwriter Julio Iglesias, Korean pop star Rain, former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and President Park Geun-hye of South Korea for APEC last year.

Manila Hotel president Joey Lina — yes, the former senator, governor and DILG secretary is now a full-fledged hotelier (more on this later) — says on the significance of the hotel to the country and people,  “It’s a national heritage. This should be the pride of the Filipino people. Our vision is to make Manila Hotel the true heart of the Philippines.”

The hotel is on the way to taking back its position as one of Asia’s top hotels by renovating in stages, including the presidential suite, “the showcase of any hotel” according to Lina, which was finished in time for the APEC Summit in Manila in November 2015.

Lina says the total renovation cost for the whole hotel exceeds P1 billion, and for the presidential suite alone, it’s more than P100 million. Owner Don Emilio Yap died two years ago but Lina says the patriarch saw Ilang-Ilang coffee shop and Mabuhay Palace to their completion, but not the new Fiesta Pavilion and presidential suite.

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The dining room can seat 14 people and is equipped with a modern all-white kitchen. On the left of the dining room is an expansive, bright lanai.
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En-suite kitchens today are no longer treated as back of the house, rather they are venues for showcasing the hotel’s chefs — or the VIPs’ own chefs who travel with them.

Manny Samson was the architect in whose hands the presidential suite of the Grand Dame of Manila was entrusted. Architect Samson says, “The board of directors decided that it was about time to reposition the presidential suite and the old Rizal suite. Both suites were very old, non-functional and bordering on neglect. I did not think they were being used that often.”

Samson’s design was to make what was originally an all-wood and dark suite into a “bright, light and airy space, or what we call in Tagalog maaliwalas.” Maaliwalas was also literal because the actual physical space of the presidential suite is 1,200 sqm. Today, it is the biggest suite in Southeast Asia, according to Lina.

It occupies the entire 18th floor of the Tower Building, which was added in 1975 and designed by National Artists Lindy Locsin and Ildefonso Santos. The original building was built by the Americans and opened, ironically, to commemorate American Independence on July 4, 1912.

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The biggest space in the presidential suite is the glass-ceilinged lanai, which showcases Filipino furniture pieces and Machuca tiles. One side has Manila Bay views and the other side has views of the city’s greens and built heritage — Intramuros and its golf course, and Luneta.
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Beyond the walk-in closet of the master bedroom is its own spa with massage beds set up for two.

IT INCLUDES A ‘PANIC ROOM’

Since the presidential suite is the choice of heads of state for occasions such as the APEC Summit, one room that had to be built in was a “panic room.” At a dinner with editors in the presidential suite two weeks ago, Don Emilio Yap’s grandson Emil Yap said that this room was built with bulletproof walls.

Samson adds that the hotel also engaged “the services of security experts — this time from a professional group of former CIA men. Again, our goal was that this could be the residence of visiting presidents and other world dignitaries, and that security is one of the utmost considerations. I think we achieved that.”

Samson walked through the old rooms and all the spaces around them. “We captured some wasted areas that were planters before to increase the floor area. Similarly, nowhere in the suite could you sit down with a glass of champagne and watch the glorious sunset, which is what Manila Bay is famous for.”

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View of Luneta from the presidential suite’s lanai corridor

“Elegant” and “modern” are indeed two words to describe the suite. You walk in and there’s a large receiving area with a bar and expansive views of Manila Bay on one side and a large conference room on the other.

Through glass doors is an airy lanai with modern woven furniture pieces and a provision for a dipping pool, which will be completed next year (in the same place where it was in the old presidential suite). This is my favorite space in the presidential suite, not in small part because of the black-and-white Machuca tiles or what Samson calls “baldosin” (old-style Spanish tiles).

The lanai looks so open and airy but is actually very secure with glass roof and windows. One side is Manila Bay and the other side, down a long corridor that spans several rooms, is a view of Intramuros and its golf course, as well as Luneta.

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It occupies one of the most historic addresses in the country: One Rizal Park, Manila, a stone’s throw away from beloved Luneta and Manila Bay. It’s also one of the very few places from where you can see the water on one side and the beautiful parts of a reckless city on the other.

You look out through these windows and realize that if Manila had protected its spaces from overdevelopment, all of it could have been very beautiful.

Beyond the lanai is a modern dining room with a capiz chandelier and a gorgeous, all-white kitchen. “Gone are the days when the kitchen is a back-of-the-house space where butlers do their chores,” says Samson. “We would like our guests to feel very special as our great chefs prepare their meals and also put on a show in the kitchen.”

SUNSET IN BED

After the dining room, a corridor leads to two guestrooms that mirror each other in design. Instead of the beds positioned against a wall, they are set in the middle of the room to face Manila Bay. Imagine winding down your day with the sunset or waking up to the sunrise. Both have en-suite bathrooms with separate shower stalls and bathtubs, and sensor-activated toilet seats.

And then there’s the master bedroom. Combining a blue-and-earth-tones palette from the carpet to the furnishings, which include mother-of-pearl accessories, the master bedroom has a floor-to-ceiling glass wall on the side of Manila Bay. On the same side is the bathroom, whose Jacuzzi for two is set beside the windows facing the bay. The master suite also has a private spa with massage beds for two.

So, how much does it cost to stay in the presidential suite for one night? A whopping P600,000! Lina says not only royalty or presidents have booked the room but also private individuals.

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One of two guest bedrooms with the beds facing Manila Bay directly and a writing desk behind the headboard.

FROM POLITICO TO HOTELIER

Manila Hotel president Joey Lina always thought the hotel has the grandest lobby in the country. He enjoyed going there to eat, for meetings, and to sing in fundraising shows with then fellow Cabinet members Bayani Fernando and Angelo Reyes from 2003 to 2008.

Imagine his surprise when he left politics in 2004 and two weeks later he got a call from Don Emilio Yap. In the end, he accepted the job because it was the Manila Hotel. “If it was another hotel, I would probably not have accepted it. Another thing was the assurance of the owner that he would guide me along. In everything I do I am hands-on. I studied everything, from the front office to the door, to the back of the house and kitchen.”

That was nine years and three months ago. Sometimes he would run into people he knew in his political life— mostly ambassadors to the Philippines — “and they wonder why I became a hotelier.”

As the hotel’s president, he is part of the long welcome line at the entrance when visiting dignitaries arrive (or leave). He says the last one to occupy the presidential suite was South Korean President Park Geun-hye during the APEC Summit last year.

“Her father, former President Park Chung-Hee, also stayed at Manila Hotel. I presented her a collection of photos of her father when he was here, including when he laid a wreath in Luneta at the Rizal Monument. She talked to me about how she has fond memories of him. She was surprised to see the pictures.”

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A conference room just off the living room.

Also staying at Manila Hotel during APEC was Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who occupied the MacArthur Suite. “We had two lady presidents during APEC,” Lina beams. What happens when two heads of state want to occupy the presidential suite? Lina says the rule first-come, first-served is followed. In the case of APEC, the South Korean Embassy reserved first.

Finally, and perhaps the most famous politician after whom another famous suite was named: Gen. Douglas MacArthur. “The first honorary general manager of The Manila Hotel was Gen. MacArthur. He was military adviser to the Philippine government. Before he accepted the offer to become adviser and put up the army and armed forces here, his condition was that he would stay in Malacañang Palace, but of course the palace was only for the president. The government decided that he would stay at Manila Hotel.”

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The presidential suite is designed in such a way that the master and two guest bedrooms get utmost privacy and security. They can be closed off to the rest of the suite. The artworks are the hotel’s existing pieces, but an art program will be in place in the future.
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Local furniture and accessories manufacturers were tapped by architect Manny Samson to furnish the presidential suite. The artworks are the hotel’s existing pieces.

MacArthur lived in the hotel’s penthouse which occupied the entire floor. It had seven rooms and a library — it was a well-appointed penthouse and even during that time it was very expensive. To justify MacArthur’s stay there, he was made honorary general manager.

“But he wasn’t just an honorary GM, he took the job seriously!” Lina says.

When it was bombed and rebuilt during the war, the MacArthur penthouse was reduced to one-third of its original size.

“You know, there is pride in being at The Manila Hotel,” says Lina. “The hotel is different, it has its own character, which is uniquely Filipino. All the people here can laugh with our guests, we’re not stiff, we have the Old World charm of Manila, we do things with a sense of theater. We’re a work in progress and we’re still evolving.”

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Another seating area in the presidential suite.

A portrait of Ethiopia

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A mother walks barefoot with her child on the edge of a valley, between the provinces of Gondar and Bahar Dar. Photos by Tanya Lara

They walk barefoot in the rain-soaked soil, often on the edge of the road, where concrete ends and the flatness gives way to the dips and rises of a green valley in Ethiopia’s Amhara region. While their feet are bare, their bodies are covered with the blanket-like local wear called netele, a piece of clothing that is often white with color blocks or embroidery on the edges that one wraps around the head, shoulders and body.

This is Lalibela, a town north of Ethiopia’s capital city Addis Ababa. In this landscape full of shepherd waving at tourists while their goats, donkeys and cows are grazing in fields made lush by the rainy season, you can’t find a quieter place for introspection as people go about their daily lives working the farms.

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