Momo Beach House is the most chill resort in Bohol

Lazy afternoons, nature and the sea at Momo Beach House on Panglao island, Bohol. Photo by Dominic Calalo
The 15-room Momo is like someone’s chic island manor. Visit, 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.

Two hammocks and a wide, open sea to ponder. Photo by Tanya Lara
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.

Beach Tree Cafe is an open-air restaurant with views of the pool and sea.
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.

The Aqua Room for couples.
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.

Getting away from the stresses of city life.
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.”

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

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.”

Capiz doors and cogon roofs are Miniloc’s signature look.
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.

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.

Memorable Melbourne via Cebu Pacific

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
On another beach, 130 km. and two hours from Melbourne, the Little Penguins of Phillip Island are a big draw to visitors. Photo from

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.

Beautiful Yarra Valley, home to wine and chocolate estates. Photos by Tanya Lara
Yarra Valley Chocolaterie is the biggest handmade chocolate maker in Australia.
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.

At Churchill Island Heritage Farm. Photo by Joros Razon
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

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.

City slickers on a farm. Say “Mooo!”
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.

I wanted to take home the kid in the upper right photo. I said hello, he said “Meeeeeh.”
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.

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.
Matching the bright colors of Brighton Bathing Boxes; VW camper on the facade of one.

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.

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.

Melbourne’s beloved icon, Flinders Street railway station.

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.

Yarra River flows 242 kilometers through and out of Melbourne, through other cities and valleys in Victoria state.
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.

Federation Square, Melbourne’s cultural, art and events venue.
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.

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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

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.
Horor vacui, the fear of empty spaces.


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

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
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.

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.
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).

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.”

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.

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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.

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.”

Economy cabin: Throughout the plane are air and noise management systems and ambient lighting that help passengers relax.
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.

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.

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.

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

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!

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

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
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.

Deluxe room with a view.
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.

A great breakfast spread at Ist Too restaurant with the freshest produce and cheeses from all over Turkey.
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.

The Turkish identity of Shangri-La Istanbul Hotel’s Chi Spa.
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.

A kung fu tea master serves tea with a flourish and another checks the wedding banquet arrangements.
Indoor pool and gym
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.

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

O - NUD1 64 Cem Gazivekili
Photo by Cem Gazivekili (Turkey), 1st place, nudibranch category, open class, at the 5th Anilao Underwater Shootout in Batangas, Philippines.
O - CEP2 97 Yen Wen Chih
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.
O - MAC1 95 Wu Yung Sen
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.

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


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.

O - MBE1 64 Cem Gazivekili
Photo by Cem Gazivekili (Turkey), 1st place, marine behavior category, open class.
O - MAC2 119 Yao Hong Chao
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.

C - MBE3 12 Virginie Barfuss-Goffart
Photo by Virginie Barfuss-Gofart (France), 3rd place, marine behavior category, compact class
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.

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.

O - MBE2 84 Yang Seung Chul
Photo by Seungchul Yang (South Korea), 2nd place, marine behavior category, open class.
C - FSH2 94 Nancy Berg
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.

O - FSH1 97 Yen Wen Chih
Photo by Wen Chih Yen (Taiwan), 1st place, fish portrait category, open class.

Singapore Airlines redesigns luxury in its A380 fleet
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.
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.
The makeup area in the First Class lavatory.
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.
Singapore Airlines’ menu is created by a panel of international chefs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 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.
Singapore’s famous chicken rice meal in Economy Class.


Marcel Wanders’ luminous space for Fairmont Quasar Istanbul

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
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.

The hotel’s reception area mixes wood, leather, metal and stone. Photos courtesy of Fairmont Quasar Istanbul
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.

View from the balcony of a Fairmont Quasar suite.
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.

Photos of present-day Istanbul line one wall of Stations restaurant.
Demlique Tea Lounge and Patisserie
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.

The Spice Library at Alia restaurant with its wooden drawers and shelves full of everything any cook would ever need.
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.

Apart from its outdoor pool, there’s the indoor pool (open all year round) with jacuzzis.
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.

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


Waking up to the Ottoman Empire at Çiragan Palace Kempinski
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
There’s nothing better than an outdoor meal during the warm months in Istanbul.
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.
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.
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.
The historical hamam in the palace side of the hotel.
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.
We spent New Year’s Eve at Le Fumoir, warming ourselves by the fire and with wonderful cocktails.
I will never tire of these waters, this view, this bridge.

Diving with the turtles of Apo Island

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.

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.

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.

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.

* * *

The swimming pool and beyond. The waters of Dauin are rich with corals and fish.
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

The ship silhouette of Conrad Manila is now an icon in the bay area’s skyline.  Photo by TANYA LARA
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.

The 500-square-meter patio features a large seating area and space for parties.
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.

The bedroom has wraparound floor-to-ceiling windows and a patio.
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.

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.
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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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


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

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
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.

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.

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.
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.

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.
Beyond the walk-in closet of the master bedroom is its own spa with massage beds set up for two.


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.”

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.

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.”


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.

One of two guest bedrooms with the beds facing Manila Bay directly and a writing desk behind the headboard.


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.”

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.”

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.
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.”

Another seating area in the presidential suite.

El Nido’s ‘Island of the Sun’
The luxury resort Pangulasian in El Nido’s Bacuit Bay. El Nido is currently ranked No. 1 in Conde Nast Traveler’s “20 Best Beaches in the World” and Palawan province is Travel & Leisure’s “Best Island in the World.” Paradise!!  Photo by El Nido Resorts
Only this part of Pangulasian island is developed, the rest is forests. There is a hiking trail  that leads to the top of the hill to watch the sunrise. Photo by Yann Arthus-Bertrand

The first time I was in El Nido was for the premiere of French filmmaker and environmental activist Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s documentary Planet Ocean, a beautifully shot but very disturbing glimpse of how the world’s oceans are dying and our marine resources dwindling.

The second time was for a long weekend — to get out of Manila and chill, do some snorkeling and reading on the beach while having mojitos or frozen margaritas before lunch, and swim with baby black-tip sharks.

Known for its limestone cliffs, El Nido never disappoints. Photo by Yann Arthus-Bertrand

The problem with going to a place like El Nido or other islands in Palawan is you never want to go back to the city or see an office desk ever again, or make a decision other than whether to order a watermelon or a mango shake while lying on the white sand with the sun beating on your back. You never want to make any choice bigger than whether to go snorkeling or diving, whether today’s book will be Orhan Pamuk or something totally opposite like David Mitchell’s.

Palawan has its share of  high-end island resorts and in El Nido the poshest and most luxurious is Pangulasian Resort, which is one of four islands owned by El Nido Resorts (the other three are Lagen, Miniloc and Apulit).

Located in Bacuit Bay, Pangulasian is also known as “island of the sun” because you can see from here both sunrise and sunset. It has a 750-meter stretch of white-sand beach and guests have the island all to themselves — it’s secluded and quiet, and everything you need is a phone call to the reception desk away.
Some villas are beachfront, literally 10 steps from the water, and some are set high in the forest with views of Bacuit Bay. Photo by El Nido Resorts
The swimming pool with a poolside restaurant and bar. Photo by El Nido Resorts

I love the design of the villas! They’re tropical chic and Filipino with their thatched roofs looking like an elevated bahay kubo. The rugs are made of abaca and seagrass, and the beds are a romantic four-poster with muslin fabric. And there’s a surprise for you once you open the closet of the huge bathroom (I mean, the bathroom alone is like one hotel room). Inside the closet are hats of all sizes, the biggest having flaps that will shade you up to your midriff if you pull it down!

Pangulasian has 42 villas, some of them beachfront — literally 10 steps from the shore and almost completely hidden when viewed from the water — while others are set on higher ground so you get sweeping  views of Bacuit Bay. Facilities include a boutique, library, a restaurant and bar, an infinity pool with beach bar, a spa, and scuba diving and marine sports shops. There is also a hiking trail that leads to a view deck up on the hill from where you can watch the sunrise.
Mondays in El Nido look like this. Photo by El Nido Resorts

Because it’s exclusive in both location and size, the service at the resort is personal — they know you by name, they arrange everything for you, boat tours to Snake Island, Secret Beach, Big and Small Lagoons, kayaking to the mangroves, picnic lunch on a secluded island like they did the last time I was there.

* * *

On his second day at Pangulasian Island Resort two years ago, filmmaker and Good Planet Foundation founder Yann Arthus-Bertrand boarded a helicopter and flew over El Nido. He was suffering from jet lag, but there are two things Yann can never resist: aerial photography and the ocean.

For an hour and a half, his pilot flew him between the limestone cliffs of El Nido, a managed resource-protected area 238 kilometers from provincial capital Puerto Princesa.

El_Nido_Palawan11_by_Cyril Raysseguier.
A collection of different feather stars and on the right is a green gorgonian coral. Photo by Cyril Raysseguier

He shot the poblacion (town proper)  with its backpacker lodges and houses hugging the cliffs, which is perhaps the only place in El Nido that will remind you that even the remotest places get discovered soon enough and once they do it can get pretty tight.

He filmed deserted beaches, mangroves and forests, small fishing communities, boats on the water. My favorite picture of his is of a girl drying fish and looking up to the chopper in her yellow t-shirt and grinning. It’ as if she’s saying, “What you consider a vacation paradise is everyday life for me, but hey, glad you’re flying over my skies this morning.”

Yann is very passionate about his film Planet Ocean— just as he is generous. The film is free of copyrights; it can be shown and distributed for free by NGOs, TV stations, corporations and governments — because Yann wants his message to be spread and to provoke action. Also, because the film is a recipient of the same kind of generosity from outstanding underwater cinematographers from outlets such as National Geographic and Discovery Channel, friends who gave their work gratis to be used in his documentary.

El_Nido_Palawan16_by_Cyril Raysseguier
And who can resist such colorful marine life? A magnificent orange sea anemone with a pink anemone fish. Photo by Cyril Raysseguier

The luxury watch company Omega funded the film, which cost 1.6 million euros, a modest sum really for such a documentary (one can only imagine the logistics and costs of shooting underwater and in the air in various parts of the globe, from Asia to South America, Africa and Europe) and this amount is only because 50 percent of the film’s images were given free by other filmmakers.

El_Nido_Palawan10_by_Cyril Raysseguier.
Cushion sea star on a coral boomie invaded by featherstars. Photo by Cyril Raysseguier

There is not a single product placement by Omega in this documentary, but its connection to the ocean goes back to more than a century — its first diver’s watch went as deep as 16 meters; today it can go down to 600 meters below the water’s surface.

* * *

On my first trip to El Nido, I unexpectedly met again two friends that I had known for some years. The first was Marigs Laririt, El Nido Resorts’ director of sustainability. She’s the one who makes sure that everything about Pangulasian Resort is in keeping with green practices — from its recycling to its no-plastics rule (the villas and rooms have refillable water bottles; the toiletries are in refillable containers).

I first met Marigs when Pangulasian did not yet exist — it was still under construction.  I was doing a story on the newly acquired hospitality division of Ayala Land which would be the four El Nido Resorts formerly owned by Ten Knots.

We were in a boardroom in Makati surrounded by office buildings, and it couldn’t have been far more removed from what Pangulasian would eventually become — a resort that would be the most environment-friendly in the country.

I got in touch again with Marigs last week and told her, “You know, I haven’t written about El Nido and I’ve had  wonderful experiences there.” She said she had seen my story on Coron (another of Palawan’s rock-star destinations) on the blog and was “green with envy,” hoping I’d do the same with El Nido.
The romantic four-poster beds in Pangulasian have muslin drapes..and the bathrooms are huge! This villa comes with a private swimming pool (below, left). Ddining by the pool overlooking the sea. Photos by El Nido Resorts
View of the terrace from the bed of a beachfront villa. Photo by Tanya Lara

There is a strong rivalry between these two islands in Palawan (which by themselves have several islands!). Coron and El Nido are both famous for their limestone cliffs and caves, lagoons, white-sand beaches, marine sanctuaries and dive sites.

Although Coron has the World War 2 shipwrecks for diving, El Nido has Hollywood bragging rights. Bourne Legacy’s last scenes were shot there (three-fourths of the film were shot in Manila). And no matter how much I try to persuade friends working in Pangulasian to give me details of Jeremy Renner (aka Jason Bourne) and Rachel Weiss’ stay there, they wouldn’t! What can I say, I have stubborn and annoying friends with  integrity — and probably non-disclosure contracts!

Back to the rivalry between Coron and El Nido —  fortunately, we  don’t have to choose. We can go to both (or to Puerto Princesa) anytime, they’re only about an hour’s flight away from Manila. But remember that Palawan has 1,870 islands spread vertically in the West Philippine Sea (no, it’s not South China Sea — it never was) and the province has three airports.  Apparently many tourists, including locals, end up at the wrong airport and it’s easier to go back to Manila and fly again than to take the 16-hour boat ride between the two or to Puerto Princesa.

Marigs said, “Long before there was ‘Palawan’ the brand, there was ‘El Nido.’ I guess it’s fair to say that El Nido cut the ribbon for tourism in Palawan, especially the brand of tourism the entire province is known for now, which is nature-based. El Nido the island set the bar for natural attractions, while El Nido Resorts set the benchmark for guest experience.”
Daybed outside the villa. Photo by El Nido Resorts

The second friend I ran into was Melanie Espina-Alvarez, wife of  former congressman of EL Nido Tony Alvarez. The funny thing is that I was on a boat wearing a hat and big, black shades when this lady came on board and said, “Tanya Lara?” I looked up — she was wearing shades too and had a towel on her head (the sun was so unforgiving that afternoon). As soon as she said her name, I knew her.

Ironically, I first met Mel not in sunny Palawan or Manila, but in the dead of winter in Berlin and then we traveled together to Moscow  where it was bitterly colder. And now here we were, halfway around the world, our faces covered from the sun, on a speedboat in El Nido to go kayaking alongside the mangroves.

Mel is an avid diver. She told me that Bacuit Bay in El Nido is a protected marine area, which means fishing is not allowed, and it’s ideal for beginning divers because the bay is mostly calm, being surrounded by islands so there are no strong currents or big waves.

Plus, El Nido is an easy takeoff point to the dive sites, her favorites being North Rock, South Miniloc and Popolcan Forest.

El Nido’s Twin Lagoons. When filmmaker Yann held the Philippine premiere of his documentary in Pangulasian Resort, he did what he loved best — aerial photography. Photo by Yann Arthus-Bertrand
el_nido_palawan014_by_yann_arthus_bertrand 2
Between beds of drying fish, a girl grins at Yann as he snapped pictures from his chopper.

* * *

You’ve heard often enough how El Nido is so beautiful with its towering limestone cliffs, how the beaches are gorgeous and deserted, but you’re never really prepared just how shockingly blue and at turns green and clear the water is.

The only city experience I can think of that approximates this jaw-dropping awe — and one I can relate to because I’m a city girl — would be seeing Paris for the first time in your life: that slow walk from the Trocadero metro, down the steps and seeing the Eiffel Tower rising before your eyes, or that 1.9-kilometer stroll on Champs Elyseés flanked by horse-chestnut trees all the way to the Arc de Triomphe.

“The question that we are encouraging everyone to ask is, how do I enjoy El Nido’s sights and make sure that my grandchildren see them, too? Or for those not reproductively inclined, how do I make sure that when I return 10 years from now, these natural features remain this way or even more robust?” Marigs said.

The mangroves of El Nido. Photo by Yann Arthus-Bertrand

In today’s world of drones and GoPros, you’ve seen the pictures on Instagram, seen the videos on Youtube. For me, it’s like I’m discovering my own country online. In April this year, after I went snorkeling in Balicasag island, I was talking to someone who was here in March and I took him to Boracay. After I told him about Balicasag, he said, “You’re so lucky you live in paradise.”

Living in flood- and traffic-prone Manila — “paradise” is not the first word I’d use to describe life here. But maybe that’s why we have all these islands to escape to.

El Nido and Coron, these two islands are what move travelers to vote Palawan as “the best island in the world” and El Nido to have the world’s best  beaches. There are live-aboard boat tours that drift aimlessly through Palawan — Robinson Crusoe-type where people sail, swim, dive and camp out for the night on the shore — no Internet, no electricity but plenty of beers apparently — and eat what they and the boatmen catch from the sea.

They’re perfectly happy with that. Just the sun shining, the blue sea, schools of fish underwater, a book to read on the beach, grains of sand washing at their feet, and a tent for the night for a week or even two. And it’s paradise.

I think it would be very hard to say that of any other place in the world.
Sunset on Bacuit Bay. Photo by El Nido Resorts

Raffles Istanbul: Asian hospitality & European timelessness

From the balcony of Raffles Istanbul Hotel, the Bosphorus Bridge sparkles at night — both from its dramatic lighting and the trail of headlights during rush-hour traffic. Photos by Raffles Istanbul
A mural by French artist Jean-Francois Rauzier, who reimagined the Dolmabahce Palace of the Ottoman Empire, adorns the grand lobby of Raffles Istanbul.

A funny thing happens over dinner the first time I am at Raffles Istanbul in Beşiktaş in October last year. I am craving mushroom pasta which I had seen in the in-room dining menu the night before, but the problem is that we are at the hotel’s Rocca restaurant which specializes in Turkish cuisine.

In this beautiful, contemporary one-year-old space where hundreds of wineglasses were used to create a translucent dividing wall, the menu is exclusively Turkish food — there is no mushroom pasta.
A huge abstract bronze sculpture “Lavinia” by artist Martin Dawe, which was inspired by the famous Turkish poem of the same name.

My (now ex-) boyfriend is chatting with the hotel’s assistant executive chef standing to the side of our table while I am making my order with a waiter standing next to the chef.

The waiter says, “I will have to ask the kitchen if they can make pasta for you, we don’t have it on our menu.”

“Well, the chef is right beside you, why don’t you ask him?” I reply.

The chef turns to the waiter and says, “Go tell the kitchen to make it for her.”

This is chef Mehmet Ali, a man so charming and kind that when he offered to make me poached eggs with yogurt for breakfast on our first morning,  I couldn’t say no even if I was thinking “What? Eggs and yogurt?”
The indoor pool for post-summer guests features a jacuzzi on one side and glass pendants from the ceiling.

But how could this tapsilog-loving, sunny-side-up girl say no to this nice man?  He would come to our table every morning and ask if he could make us anything off the menu,  would chat with the bf in Turkish while I finished my eggs and yogurt.

Unlike the original colonial-style Raffles Hotel in Singapore, which started as a private beach house in 1887, everything about Raffles Istanbul is very new (it opened only in 2014). It’s located at Zorlu Center, a new complex of office and residential towers, a performance art theater, and a luxury mall.

And yet the hotel is already gaining praise for bringing the tradition of Asian hospitality and impeccable service into this old city. Public relations manager Esin Sungur says with a laugh that the Raffles philosophy is that “even before we know the question, the answer is yes.”
Every Raffles Hotel in the world has a Long Bar, which serves the signature Singapore Sling.
Arola by the Michelin-starred chef Sergi Arola offers creative tapas-style plates.

And, yes, Raffles Istanbul is very expensive but you do get what you pay for because luxury is indeed in the details — not just of the space or the well-appointed rooms but also in  how personalized the service is.

You don’t even have to ask. The hotel goes the extra mile with its team of butlers that are assigned to every room. One of them is Hulya Zengin, who says there have been guests she’s assisted for special occasions such as marriage proposals, anniversaries and birthdays.

For one guest,  Hulya and her team arranged a romantic dinner with music, flowers and candles on the balcony for the guy’s proposal.  Hulya herself is newly married and maybe it’s the romantic in her that makes her want guests to have their special time, too.

Raffles’ team of butlers go the extra mile to make every stay special. Our butler Hulya  Zengin decorated the room the first time with red balloons, flowers and candles. Photo by Tanya Lara
The second time we booked at Raffles, the reservations team remembered to assign Hulya again (middle photo). This time it was pink balloons, which we later released from the balcony. Photo by Tanya Lara

For us, because I had mentioned in an email that we were in a long-distance relationship, Hulya decorated our room with  balloons, flowers, handwritten quotes,  and candles on the two times we stayed last year.

I was wondering why they had asked me to email them pictures, and it turned out to be a surprise. When we got there, there were framed pictures of us in the spring and summer of last year all around the room, and red balloons, sparkling confetti and rose petals scattered on the floor and bed (the confetti was a challenge to clear up).

The second time we were there, he and I were talking about whether it was easier for me to move to Istanbul or for him to expand his family’s business in Manila. He said I would never find a job as a journalist in his city; I said that wasn’t my question.

He had sent me to Bebek while he was at work the next day, that beautiful waterside and quiet part of the city. He was messaging me while I was at Starbucks overlooking the Bosphorus, that he was excited to live in Manila. I said, wait, hold your horses — you have to see the country first (he would do so four months later, in March this year).
Some bathrooms have a dramatic view of the Bosphorous or cityscape.
Every time we stayed at Raffles, we would watch Istanbul turn dark and then a new day start with an orange glow. Photo by Sami Bas

The balloons were pink on our second stay. He met Hulya for the first time while she and I seemed like old friends by then.

The room’s decor made us forget the argument we had on the metro, when he dragged my  heavy suitcase to and from the long walk at the Gayrettepe stop to get to Zorlu Center.

“Why is this so heavy?” He glared at me, his eyes almost bursting from their sockets. “When we reach the hotel, you will open your suitcase and I will throw away every unnecessary thing that you packed.” I had come from a five-day tour across Anatolya and did not actually buy anything, except for an overpriced leather coat for $800 in Izmir over which he was livid, but I had three pairs of boots, two pairs of shoes, two coats and several jackets in there. I laughed and said, “You will do no such thing.”

Surrounded by pink balloons, I opened my suitcase and handed him the chocolate-covered polvoron and dried mangoes that he so loved…and he forgot about his annoyance that I had over-packed yet again and his plan of throwing out my stuff.

On the TV’s audio selection, we found violinist André Rieu’s version of The Rose and we must have played it a hundred times in the time we spent there.

It was playing  when he brought the pink balloons out on the balcony in the cold November air later that night. “Make a wish and then let them go,” he told me taking a video on his phone.

And so I did. I let go of the strings and we watched the balloons float, carried by the autumn wind into Istanbul’s dark skies until we couldn’t see them anymore.
Rocca restaurant, where the most delicious breakfast buffet spread is served.
Turkish breakfast is one of the healthiest breakfasts I’ve ever seen with fresh and varied choices of cheeses, fruits and vegetables.

* * *

Designed by Sandra Cortner of Hirsch Bedner Associates (HBA), a leading firm in hospitality design with works from Atlanta to Moscow, Shanghai to LA, Raffles Istanbul at Zorlu Center was a unique project.

Istanbul itself was HBA’s main inspiration for the design with the “interiors reflecting the jewels of the Byzantine era, only worn by the Emperor and Empress of the time. These jewel tones are referenced throughout — in the palette and selected artworks.”

Cortner says, “The first question was, what would a guest coming into this landmark building expect? It would not be historical, classic interiors, for sure. Neither would the space be aggressively contemporary. It was decided to make it transitional, timeless. We needed to connect it with the destination to give the sense of place.”

“Art is part of the fabric of every Raffles hotel — incorporated into the overall design, seamlessly, which is how we came to our concept, ‘The Dream of Istanbul.’ Not everything has to be literal; you may have abstract sides to it, dreams, fantasies. You wake up in a room with a bed backdrop inspired by the chandeliers of the Hagia Sophia but they are not photographs; they are soft and volatile, painted on canvas.”

Roca restaurant takes on a different ambience in the evening.
Rich fabrics and textures in the modern bedrooms.

You see the references to the city’s history as you pass through the vestibule and stand under the crystal chandelier in the grand lobby: a huge abstract bronze sculpture “Lavinia” by artist Martin Dawe, which was inspired by the famous Turkish poem of the same name and a mural by French artist Jean-Francois Rauzier who reimagined the Dolmabahce Palace of the Ottoman Empire.

The 181-room hotel remains true to its DNA with the signature Long Bar (yes, it has the Singapore Sling as well and this drink celebrates its centenary this year) and Writers Bars. It also has the very popular Spanish restaurant Arola by Michelin-star chef Sergi Arola, a favorite of the well-heeled.

Another space that’s show-stopping is the hotel’s award-winning spa. Designers at Hirsch Bedner Associates made this 3,000-sqm. spa a true oasis with dazzling details.

We so loved the facilities here. Above the indoor pool and cascading from the ceiling are design elements in geometric shapes, giving it a translucent feel. The spa has three Turkish hamams, seven treatment rooms, a male and female relaxation areas with saunas, steam rooms, Jacuzzis and ice fountains; and a fitness center, yoga and and pilates studios.

If sultans still reigned in Turkey today, surely this would be the hotel they would converge, because Raffles blends European timelessness and Asian warmth— in a city that is timeless itself.

(This story first appeared in the Philippine Star in 2015 and has been updated.)
Classy, calm and completely convenient, Raffles is part of Zorlu Center with its mall, cinemas, performing arts theater, and is connected to the metro stop Gayrettepe. 

Coron: The best of Palawan’s thousand treasures

The best view of Coron’s waters and limestone cliffs is from the steep path going into Kayangan Lake, which is on the other side of this cliff. Kayangan is said to be the cleanest lake in the Philippines and Asia. Below the water’s surface are unusual rock formations. Photo by Tanya Lara
Parallel parking, island style. Photo by Tanya Lara

Siete Pecados or Seven Sins is indeed a strange name for a marine sanctuary, even though it really is seven islands scattered in the waters of Coron. But why not a more pleasant name like Seven Mermaids or even Seven Monkeys?

Like every bizarre thing in this country, there is a legend attached to this name — two legends in fact. One says the seven islands are the seven daughters of a fisherman who went with their seven suitors to another island against their father’s wishes. A terrible storm descended during the night and when the fisherman woke up in the morning, he saw seven islands that weren’t there before and the wreckage of seven boats. Another is of a mother with seven daughters who didn’t take care of her when she was sick. Instead they went swimming and drowned, and afterwards the seven islands appeared.

The gods of our islands and legends are very unkind. But what they take away with a curse and punishment they give back with an embarrassment of riches. In the case of Palawan, the gods gave the province 1,780 islands and islets and a 2,000-kilometer coastline. And for Siete Pecados, it’s countless coral reefs and fishes in high-definition color.

Reflections on the water and a time to reflect on one’s life and choices. Photo by Tanya Lara

This is the place to snorkel in Coron (diving is not allowed in Siete Pecados — there are many other sites for that around the islands including for wreck diving). There’s a section where you can’t even see the sea floor, it’s covered with hard and soft corals looking like an underwater succulent garden, the tips luminescent and swaying with the current.

Interspersed between these shallow, warm-water species are the “brain corals,” looking exactly as their name suggests. They’re quite intelligent species, too, using their tentacles to catch food at night and protection during the day.

And then there are the fishes. Yes, we found Nemo, and Dory, too, swimming and hiding between the corals along with thousands others.

Apart from Siete Pecados, there are the white-sand beaches of Coron that you can make a stop at for lunch or swimming. There’s Smith Station, and farther (around an hour and a half boat ride) are Banana Island, Black Island and Malcapuya Island.

Sunset descends on Coron Bay with the perfect view from The Funny Lion’s Pride Rock Rooftop Bar. Better yet with a mojito or a the bar’s own Caluit Cooler.
The swimming pool with jacuzzi at the boutique hotel The Funny Lion in Coron, Palawan, a property that’s surrounded by lush greens.
The Funny Lion prides itself on personalized service and attention to detail.
The Pride room of the safari-themed hotel

Two other places one must not miss when in Coron: the Twin Lagoons, where you swim in the second one surrounded by towering limestone cliffs; and Kayangan Lake, said to be country’s most beautiful and cleanest lake.

Kayangan has one of the best views in all of Coron, but to get there one must climb up steps that can get slippery when it rains, and then down again on the other side of the cliff to get to the lake itself.

For divers, Coron is the best place for World War II wreck diving because the shipwrecks of 24 Japanese ships that were sunk by the American forces on Sept. 24, 1944 are preserved on the sea floor. Some of them are located in shallow waters while others are much deeper, and advanced divers can dive inside the wrecks.

* * *

Coron is located in the northern tip of the narrow province of Palawan and part of the Calamianes group of islands (Busuanga and Culion are the two others). Its airport in Busuanga is the nearest one to Manila (45 minutes on a twin-prop plane) and is actually closer to the mainland than to the provincial capital Puerto Princesa.

Coron is much more rural than Palawan’s other seaside towns such as Puerto Princesa and El Nido and I hope it remains that way.

The roads in town are very narrow, just enough for two tricyles on each lane. As tour guide Andy of Coron Expeditions explained, no one expected for Coron to become a tourist destination and it was only in year 2000 that tourists from around the country began exploring it — and we have to thank the divers for that.

The poolside Hunt restaurant is decorated like a safari lodge.
Catch of the day with mango salsa at The Funny Lion’s Hunt restaurant

In keeping with the town’s charms and local flavor is the boutique hotel The Funny Lion of the One Of Collection.

How did it get its name? CEO Nikki Cauton III once told me the story when we were in Bohol. He and his wife Ria took their family to Calauit Safari Park in Palawan. Their son Emilio, then four years old, was looking for a lion and when he was told there was none in the 3,700-hectare game reserve, he said, “That’s funny there’s no lion here.”

The phrase just clicked in Nikki’s mind and so there is now one lion in Palawan — and the 36-room hotel takes safari as its theme in the design details. The very comfortable rooms are divided into three categories — Cub, King and Pride rooms — and have leather folding seats as the ones you pack on your jeep when for a safari.

The hotel has two dining outlets — Hunt restaurant, which is open all day, and Pride Rock Rooftop Bar, which serves the most delicious cocktails.

Coron has many small beaches (without accommodations) for swimming or picnics. Photo by Tanya Lara
Boatmen prepare lunch for their passengers. Seriously, their boats are equipped with a grill where they cook right before lunch. The seaweed (green plate) was sooo fresh and good with tomatoes, onions and chilis.

Hunt restaurant is very popular with locals, who like to spend special weekends with family eating out. Some nights are barbecue nights while others are pasta and pizza nights. It’s a la carte menu serves special Filipino dishes and fresh seafood.

For sunsets, go to Pride Rock Rooftop Bar. Better yet get into one of the two huge Jacuzzis with a drink and watch how Palawan’s sun sets with pink, orange and blue battling it out on Coron Bay.

The Funny Lion also serves a specialty coffee that you won’t find anywhere else except in communities of the Tagbanua people, one of the oldest ethnic groups in the country.

It’s popular knowledge in Palawan that the Tagbanuas make one of the best coffees in the country but very few people outside their communities have tried it — until now because it’s available at The Funny Lion.

Resort manager Michael Mahinay was able to persuade the Tagbanua chief to blend the coffee beans for the hotel. Tagbanua coffee is very strong but doesn’t have a bitter aftertaste. Instead, it is smooth from start to finish — and will keep you awake at night. But then again, that’s how one must roar when in Coron — with an open heart for adventure.

* * *

(I am so in love with Coron I’m going back and will be updating this story with more pictures and anecdotes.)

The way to the Twin Lagoons. Swimming is in the second lagoon, which is accessible by swimming through a crevice. The lagoons have two different temperatures — cold on the surface, warm under. Photo by Tanya Lara

Postcards from Petra

The Treasury, the picture-perfect rose-colored highlight of Petra in Jordan. Photo by Tanya Lara
Author Tanya Lara finds that camels complete the Petra scenery.

There is probably not a more dramatic path leading to an ancient landmark than the canyons leading up to this moment. Throughout two kilometers, they twist and turn, narrow, and then widen for the last time for the big reveal:  The Treasury, the center of Jordan’s Lost City of Stone.

On this trip to the Holy Land with Sar-El Tours and Conferences, our guide Jihann, a theology and history expert, tells us before we reach The Treasury, “Walk to the left side, and wait for it…wait for it…”

The first sighting of The Treasury feels theatrical in its staging after you negotiate the narrow canyon called Al Siq — gasps, eyes widening, jaws dropping.

It is, as every postcard from Petra promises, a spectacular sight of rose-colored cliffs rising to meet the skies, and on the sandstone is carved The Treasury, imposing itself onto your senses at 80 feet wide and 127 feet tall. It is sculpted ornately with mythological figures, its columns bearing traces of Greco-Roman architecture.

I almost cry seeing this.

Even at high noon on this winter day in January — when Petra is as quiet as it can ever get with the clatter of horses’ hooves and Bedouins selling postcards and trinkets — Petra is shrouded in rose color as if the sun is setting. Like life is suddenly softer in this bone-dry Middle East desert. Like everything and everyone is beautiful. Like every picture you snap with your camera aimed anywhere is good enough for every travel gallery on Instagram.

A candle-lit Petra casts a different atmosphere. Photo from
Bedouin children play with their camels. Photo by Angeli Navarro
Our Sar-El tour group at The Treasury; a kiss from the ancient city; Tanya, Vanche Yongco, Cyndee Wong, Angeli Navarro; with Bedouin girls selling trinkets. Photos by Cristina Javier, Tanya Lara and Angeli Navarro

A masterpiece of design and engineering, Petra during its height was the size of Manhattan. Unlike many of the world’s treasures which were discovered accidentally — like the terra-cotta warriors in Xian, China or the tunnels in the Louvre, France — Petra was a place that people knew existed but very few outsiders could find. Concealed by canyons and the protective nomads for 2,000 years, it wasn’t only until the 1800s when Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt disguised himself as an Arab pilgrim that the Bedouins led him here.

Though you can’t enter through the tall doorway now, just looking at it, the Indiana Jones theme keeps playing in your head and you want to say, “Of course it would be a carpenter’s simple chalice — not gold!”

Scientists have discovered through the years that the Rose City of Petra had aqueducts that let the many civilizations flourish here, an important route in the trade between the Mediterranean and the East. The Nabateans who built the tombs, then the Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders and Muslims controlled this area at different times. The incredible thing is that they believe 85 percent of the ancient city has yet to be excavated.

Gorges narrow and widen for a dramatic reveal of the ancient city of Petra. Photo by Tanya Lara

Partly shaped by earthquakes, erosion, and human hands and sophisticated minds, Petra became a city in what would have been an uninhabitable desert.

Of the ruins, it’s the tombs built into Petra’s cliffs by the Nabateans that are your introduction as you enter the park after the visitors’ center.

There are also tombs with a mix of Nabatean and Greco-Roman design elements called the Royal Tombs across the 6,000-seat Roman Theater. They are so majestic they look like temples. Next to The Treasury is the Street of Façades, Petra’s main necropolis.

And yet it was a city of the living, too, because past this area are what experts believed to be the neighborhoods of Petra, and estimates put the population at 30,000 during its heyday.

Jihann says that Petra at night is an entirely different but no less majestic experience, when the front of The Treasury is surrounded by candles, and tourists sit on the ground just to appreciate the ancient city.

Our tour group organized by Destinations Unlimited Philippines has the Jordanian part of the Holy Land sandwiched between tours of Israel, the first half of which was concentrated in Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee, and the second half in the Dead Sea and Jerusalem.

The Treasury is carved onto a continuous limestone cliff. Photo by Tanya Lara
A cat cleans itself by The Siq sign or the main entrance to the City of Petra. Photo by Tanya Lara

Our introduction to the Holy Land is through Mt Nebo. Our tour guide James says that God granted Moses a glimpse of the Promised Land and from this mountain he saw it. So near and yet so unreachable because after 40 years of wandering in the desert, he never did make it to the Promised Land.

On a clear day from Mt. Nebo’s summit, you can see parts of the Holy Land and even as far as Jerico in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Alas, we are like Moses on this day — a fog has descended ahead of a brewing rain shower and we don’t see the Promised Land.

Christians believe that Moses was buried on the mountain — or at least in the area. Two Popes have come here as part of their visit to the Holy Land, Pope John Paul II in 2000 and nine years later, Pope Benedict XVI.

Over lunch, Vision Tours owner Albert Hasweh shows us pictures he took on his iPhone. They’re Wadi Rum or the Valley of the Moon. Located in southern Jordan and 60 kilometers from Petra, it is the largest valley in the kingdom.

The picture is of the night sky above the sandstone and granite formations in the valley. It looks like you were looking at the sky with a telescope.  It looks like everyone has shut down their lights from around hundreds of miles. It looks like you can touch the Milky Way from your tent.

On a desert in the Holy Land, everything seems possible — including what science says is not.

Nabatean tombs vary in sizes, from small ones on the cliffs to grand ones the size of temples carved onto the rock. Photo by Angeli Navarro

Big love from Bohol’s Amorita Resort

Daybeds at Amorita Resort on Bohol’s Panglao island look out to the infinity pool and the clear waters of Panglao island. Photo by Tanya Lara
A school of fish in Balicasag island, half an hour’s boat ride from Alona Beach right outside Amorita. Photo by Dominic Calalo

You really can’t get any fresher than this. The scallops that chef Raphael Ongchiong baked in their own shells were fished right outside the restaurant, in the waters of Panglao island. The crust was made out of sea urchin that was pureed with butter and drizzled with breadcrumbs to give it a crunchy texture. In fact, all the seafood in this gorgeous spread of 17 pintxos (small bar snacks), tapas and paellas were locally sourced including the chupitos (baby octopus) and shrimps.

From sea to table, that’s how Amorita opened its new tapas bar called Tomar (“to drink” in Spanish). There was sangria and wine, there was flamenco, Spanish songs, and then there were the heavenly pintxos.

In a way that the seaside cliff resort Amorita (the word means “small love”) does everything, Tomar is classy in its physical space, ambience and food. It fuses traditional Spanish fare with Boholano creativity; it mixes furnishings of wood, steel and leather, resulting in a stylish restaurant.

Tomar (“to drink” in Spanish) at Amorita serves the best tapas, pintxos, sangria and Spanish wines in Bohol. Photo by Dominic Calalo
(Clockwise) Paella negra or paella with squid ink and gambas from Tomar; crispy binagoongan with mango, sisig quesadilla and the fabulous Peanut Kisses shake from Amorita’s  all-day restaurant Saffron. Photos by Tanya Lara and Dominic Calalo
Amorita CEO Nikki Cauton, COO Lyba Godio and chef Raphael Ongchiong. Photo by Dominic Calalo
One of two infinity pools at Amorita. Photo by Tanya Lara

With all the guests raving about the food, chef Raphael smiles and says, “That’s funny because I have never been to Spain.” Trained in the classical French technique, he did research by eating in Spanish restaurants in Manila, buying books and online sleuthing.

You can say he had tough taste testers: the young couple who own Amorita — CEO Nikki Cauton III and his wife, CFO Ria Cauton. Of all their travels, it’s Spain that keeps drawing them back, and in no small part because of the food.

Nikki says that when they were brainstorming on what new restaurant to add to Amorita’s poolside Saffron restaurant, they knew right away that they didn’t want the usual Japanese or Chinese restaurant that most hotels offer.

“Like me when I travel, I usually go on a food tour more than any other activity abroad. My wife Ria and I have done food tours in Madrid and Prague. That sense of vacation can be captured through a tapas and pintxos bar and such food goes well with wine or beer. A tapas bar is a good complement to a vacation because you want to celebrate and enjoy yourself, so we want to bring in that sense of festivity to Amorita.”

The menu was conceptualized by Nikki, Ria and chef Raphael. The first thing they considered — as they did when doing Saffron’s menu — was what was locally available in Bohol. Seafood was on top of the list with the freshest fish, scallops, shrimps and octopus coming from the clearest waters.

“That’s our philosophy whenever we do something. We find what’s abundant and endemic in Bohol and then we do the project around it. What’s great is that the local produce and ingredients of Bohol very much complement  Spanish food,” says Nikki, adding that Tomar wasn’t intended just for hotel guests or tourists, but also for Boholanos who want to enjoy a different kind of evening once in a while. “The chef and I are good friends and we’ve traveled a lot looking at Thailand and Bali to benchmark. We try to compete with the players outside the country, too.”

(Clockwise) The author Tanya Lara on a boat just after island hopping to the bizarrely religious Virgin Island with its beautiful sandbar, on the waters of Balicasag, enjoying Amorita’s poolside, and the pink kayaks on Alona Beach. Photos by Tanya Lara
Bedroom of the one-bedroom seaview suite.

Tomar is a great addition to Saffron, which serves some of the most innovative Filipino dishes I’ve tasted like binagoongan with manga, crispy sinigang, sisig quesadilla and more. We enjoyed a late lunch at Saffron after a morning of diving in Balicasag island, where we had encounters with sea turtles and colorful schools of fish in the marine sanctuary.

And for drinks, we had Peanut Kisses shake. Yes, those little mounds of delight — not just in a shake but as a shake. It’s like combining candy, peanuts, ice cream and the entire island of Bohol in a glass, and then blending it with ice cream. It’s brilliant!

Thinking out of the box is the Cautons’ secret to making Amorita one of the best-loved luxury resorts in the country. Nikki and Ria were only in their 20s and married for five months when they started the resort and neither of them is Boholano (Nikki’s from Ilocos and Ria’s from Pampanga). Falling in love with the province and its lifestyle of biking to the mountains on weekends, snorkeling and diving in the open waters was easy and quick for the couple.

The poolside Saffron restaurant on the ground floor and Tomar on the second floor.
Sunrise, sunset, a book and a hammock on the beach at Amorita.

“When we started in 2007, our goal was just to keep Amorita afloat. We were doing everything, I was driving the car, serving the food, but our standard from the start was very high. Then people realized that this property in Bohol was something unique — that this level of service could be had for a reasonable price and what a surprise that it was a local brand.”

What was 1.2 hectares before with 14 villas and 20 deluxe rooms is now 5.6 hectares with 14 villas that are being renovated until October and 82 suites. Amorita is one of the brands under One-Of Collection, which prides itself on distinctive hotels and resorts in prime locations such as Coron (The Funny Lion resort), Dumaguete (Sta. Monica Beach Club) and Bohol (Momo Beach Club).

Nikki says that they may do one or two more high-end resorts like Amorita. To which we raise our Peanut Kisses shake and say, “Cheers and big love to local!”

View of Panglao island from the balcony. For inquiries, call Amorita’s Manila office at 553-9549, 856-1443, email

Cappadocia & other Turkish delights

Gliding over the otherworldly Göreme Valley in Cappadocia on a hot-air balloon. During summer as many as 100 hot-air balloons do the hour-long tour in the morning and afternoon. It’s an awesome experience! Photos by Tanya Lara.
A closer look at the ancient cave dwellings in Göreme Valley.

So, this is how it feels like to be living out Instagram hashtags — flying 600 meters above a strange landscape that’s as old as time. It is 6 a.m. and the sun is slowly coming up on the horizon in freezing temperatures.

Author Tanya Lara in Hierapolis with its mineral forests, petrified waterfalls and a series of terraced basins that look like freeform swimming pools.

Around us are 25 or maybe even 35 hot-air balloons, some of them wildly colorful and others very commercial and boring. They are slowly rising with their baskets or gondolas carrying about 20 passengers who have seen, just minutes before in pitch-black darkness, how hot-air balloons work (they operate on the basic principles of gravity and heat transfer as they lay flat on the ground and an inflator fan fills them with air that is then heated).

The experience of being up there is, in one word, “Instagrammable.” In three words, “It’s f*cking Instagrammable,” which is how we seem to be living our traveling lives these days — filtered, color-manipulated and viewed with awed but skeptical eyes.

But the hour-long experience of being in a hot-air balloon gliding over Cappadocia is everything that is and yet more than the pictures you’ve seen before on someone else’s vacation. For starters, the landscape is surreal and seeing it at sunrise makes the experience even more so.

I’ve seen these colors many times before since I first went to Turkey last year and fell in love with the country hard and fast. But in Cappadocia, the sunrise is something else. It is a slow gathering of pigments that start out in the distance — some light, some orange, and then it gathers strength and hits you in the face as the day progresses ever so slightly.

You don’t need a filter for this, but you do need to put down your phone and selfie stick…and just enjoy the moment.

Two different seasons (autumn and winter), one beautiful sunrise and landscape. Left photo by Tanya Lara; right photo from Huffington Post IG
How do hot-air balloons work? They operate on the basic principles of gravity and heat transfer as they lay flat on the ground and an inflator fan fills them with air that is then heated.

Cappadocia is not actually a city, but a region that’s routinely described as looking like another planet whose geography has been evolving for the past 60 million years, a result of volcanic tuff, basalt and andestine rock.

And that’s exactly how the Göreme Valley of Cappadocia looks from the ground or from the air — otherworldly.

Our pilot Buket, the Turkish word for “bouquet of flowers,” is one of only seven female pilots across the valley. She says that in the summer, you can have about a hundred balloons in the air in the morning or afternoon. The balloons operated by different companies take turns at the highest and lowest positions. The weird thing is, even if you fear heights — you’ll still want to take this ride. I can never walk across the glass floors of observation decks or towers, but riding the balloon, I didn’t feel my knees shaking as I looked down at the valley seemingly plucked out of science fiction.

To celebrate the touchdown back on ground, Buket and her crew pop open bottles of champagne and give us token medals for surviving. Because as our tour guide Altan and the crew at the holding area told us before we went up, “Hope to see you again.”

Damn right we deserve champagne before breakfast!

The best spot to take a group picture is at the Monumental Gate ruins in Aphrodisias.
The House of the Virgin Mary where, Christians believe, she died before her assumption into heaven.

* * *

The Göreme Open Air Museum in the valley has Christian churches that date back to the 11th century and most frescoes inside have been defaced. While some paintings still have bodies, the faces of Jesus Christ, his apostles and the saints have been erased because Islam forbids the use of images in its practice.

Except in one called Dark Church (it has only one window) and hence protected from the elements across the centuries and marauders. Here, many of the frescoes have been spared especially the ones on the ceiling; they look as if they were painted just a few decades ago and not a thousand years ago.

Called Karanlik Kilise (literally Dark Church in Turkish), it has a cross-ribbed vaulting central dome and a central dome and one or two small apses — and it is entirely carved into the rock as the other churches in the Göreme Valley.

The paintings look so beautiful even though they predate the Renaissance Period when European painters were doing their best works with vegetable dyes. The other remarkable thing is — how did they create such frescoes when it was so dark inside? How did they illustrate the Transfiguration of Christ, the Nativity, the Crucifixion or Judas’ Betrayal of Christ on the walls, niches and domes? With polished metal sheets or mirrors to reflect light outside and in through the narrow corridor to light up the space inside.

In the background is the 11th-century Dark Church at Goreme Open Air Museum.

You wouldn’t think you’d find something like this in a cave, but there it is.You wouldn’t think either that Turkey, whose population is 99-percent Muslim and only one-percent Christian today, was so pivotal in the Christian faith because after Christ died, some of his apostles went to this land to spread the gospel. And so did his mother.

The House of the Virgin Mary, located on Mt. Koressos, is near the ancient city of Ephesus and Selçuk in the province of Izmir. It’s said that this is where John the Beloved spirited her away and where she spent her last days before, as Christians believe, her assumption into heaven.

It is a small stone house, now a shrine, overlooking the Aegean Sea that John was supposed to have built for her. The location was determined from a book based on the visions of an Augustinian nun,  Anne Catherine  Emmerich. Her visions were published after her death at the beginning of the 19th century in a book and she was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2004. Catholic popes and pilgrims have been coming to this house for three centuries, though the Vatican has not officially declared it to be the house of the Virgin Mary.

The Melvana Museum in Konya where the mystic Rumi is enshrined.

What I like best about this small compound is the wishing wall, where people write their wishes on paper and stick them into the net or fabric. There seems to be no space anymore to put your own wishes as it already holds thousands upon thousands of rolled and folded paper.

Melvana Museum in Konya has world’s smallest (above) and largest (partly shown) Qurans.

But you realize soon enough that amid millions of wishes that have gone through this wall, you always find a space for your own personal intentions.

* * *

Another ancient site in the region is Aphrodisias, the city of Aphrodite, goddess of love, but in Anatolia (which forms the greater part of Turkey), the goddess is the Mother Goddess of fertility known as Cybele.

The Temple of Aphrodite was a focal point of the town, but the character of the building was altered when it became a Christian basilica. The Aphrodisian sculptors became renowned and benefited from a plentiful supply of marble and much of their work can be seen around the site today. Some of the highlights in Aphrodisias include the Stadium, the Baths of Hadrian and the Theater.

The best spot to take a group picture is at the Monumental Gate ruins. Called Tetrapylon, meaning “four gates,” it served as a ceremonial gateway. During the height of Aphrodisias, these grounds saw epic parades and shows mounted for visitors and residents.

Tanya with Michelle and Malou in Aphrodisias

We look at the incredible background, at the soaring columns and the gorgeous carvings at the top  — and promptly hand Altan 26 cameras.

Before we even get to the strange scenery at Cappadocia, Hierapolis leaves us awed. Located in Pamukkale or Cotton Palace in Turkish, it is made of mineral forests, petrified waterfalls and a series of terraced basins that look like freeform swimming pools.

It is getting cold in the late afternoon but some visitors are wearing beach shorts (and one girl is wearing a bikini) because the natural basins are filled with hot-springs water. Hierapolis is another Unesco World Heritage Site and its ruins include Roman baths, temples and other monuments.

It seems that every place we make a stop leaves us either in awe of their uniqueness, or at home for their familiarity — a spiritual one, if you will —that connects with us on a deeper level.



Stopover Asia: 5 cities, 5 hours each

The spectacular Hong Kong skyline with Kowloon and Hong Kong islands divided by Victoria Harbour. Some of HK’s architectural icons are the Bank of China Tower by IM Pei (left), my personal fave; IFC or International Finance Centre (in front of BOC); and HK’s tallest building, ICC or International Commerce Centre, across the harbor.  Photo from HKTB.

This week, I’m starting a series on the blog called “Stopover: Five Hours.”

We’ve all been there — flights that have excruciatingly long stopovers on the way to our destination or coming back home. Assuming you have five solid hours in a city (excluding travel from and to the airport), where would you go, what would you do?

What better way to explore than be guided by locals’ recommendations? The friends I asked for tips are taking us to a mountain peak for unparalleled views of the World’s Skyscraper Capital to the longest escalators, museums, golden temples, sky bars, restaurants, malls and quaint shop houses.

For the first of the Stopover series, FindingMyWay lands in Asia. Hong Kong is written by my super friend Anthony Legaspi, head of sales for Asia of the Hilton Group, who many years ago brought me to the best hole-in-the-wall crab dinner I ever had in my entire life, at Hong Kong’s Under the Bridge. Singapore by Insight Vacations regional director for Asia Sheryl Lim, who seems to be living out of her suitcase with all the traveling she’s doing.

Jakarta by Jakarta Post managing editor Primastuti Handayani, who was my classmate many years ago in Seoul,  South Korea. Kuala Lumpur by Malaysian Star lifestyle editor Vicky Ooi, who was my roommate on a fun coverage we did abroad.  And Bangkok by my former colleague Ana G. Kalaw, who covered the fashion and beauty beat in Manila for my newspaper Philippine Star and Cosmo PH, and now for The Magazine of Bangkok Post.

Suddenly, a long layover doesn’t sound so hellish at all.

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On Hong Kong’s  Lantau Island sits the Big Buddha or Tian Tan Buddha, a bronze statue of a Sakyamuni Buddha. Photo from
Anthony Legaspi holding a king crab in a local seafood restaurant in HK. And Tim Ho Wan at IFC, which is “the most inexpensive Michelin-star restaurant in the world” with the best dim sum and pork buns in town.


To get some high-intensity experience in a city like Hong Kong, five hours is impossible for it to be a memorable trip to the former British colony. But let’s try, shall we? So how do you take advantage of a long layover and make good use of this time to experience a bustling city?

Take the airport express to get you to the city in 24 minutes — the ride gives you a glimpse of Tung Chung and for about 15 seconds it enables you to get an idea of where HK’s Big Buddha is located — and if your eyes are quick enough, you may get a glimpse of the cable cars that transport thousands of tourists every day.

Reaching Hong Kong station at the end of the train ride, stop for lunch one level up to Tim Ho Wan, the most inexpensive Michelin-star restaurant in the world, and indulge in baked barbecued buns and some of the best dim sum you will find in town. Every day, people queue up in this thirty-seat restaurant, which really deserves more than you pay for, for its excellent food and friendly service.

While you eat to your heart’s content, the city provokes a lot of walking, so do walk and burn and burp that lunch by passing through the iconic IFC building — a busy office and shopping tower where the biggest brands are available for the self indulgent…but wait, by this time you may only have less than four hours.
Crossing Victoria Harbour, which thousands of commuters do daily between the two islands, can still be done on a sampan or junk boat, or the modern Star Ferry; (right) the 800-meter-long series of escalators at Midlevels in Central. Photos from HKTB and
Anthony: “If I am able to do only one thing in Hong Kong, I would go to her highest point, which is the Peak.”  Photo from

Walk towards the Midlevels escalators. This 800-meter-long journey brings you to the famous Hollywood Road, a place that was built 100 years ago. Also known as Cat St., you can find here small gift items or maybe even a piece of furniture from some Chinese dynasty that will complete your living room.

But hold your ancient horses, packing and sending furniture or vases will take away the 180 minutes you have left, so better just have a cold beer in one of the cool places in Soho, which is just right around the corner.

Give yourself some 30 minutes for people watching before you head back to HK Station and look for the Exchange Square exit. Take bus No. 15 to bring you to the glorious views of Hong Kong known as Victoria Peak.

If I am only able to do only one thing in Hong Kong, I would go to her highest point, which is the Peak. It’s quite a sight — this  stretch of twinkling skyscrapers and Victoria Harbour and, yes, the greenest hills found in the New Territories. It’s best to see it at dusk though. The queue can be long to take the Peak Tram but the ride to reach the top is a great experience!
Enter the dragon with Bruce Lee, who still lords it over Hong Kong, particularly  the promenade in Kowloon. Photo by Benson Kua/

Once you are grounded again, find the nearest MTR to bring you to Tsim Sha Tsui. You still need to see the Avenue of the Stars and the promenade, and see Hong Kong at its business best: a topographical and architectural happening on HK Island standing high over the waters of the harbor.

Yes, of course it’s the same area as HK Cultural Centre, Space Museum and Museum of Art if you are into that — but you have got only one hour left!

Rush your way towards the Star Ferry to Island side to bring you back to IFC — yes, that same place where you started so you can take the Airport Express back. But sit by the window on the ferry and feel the breeze as you enjoy the magnificent views.

Remember to take the opportunity to buy a Bo Lo Pao before you head back to the airport — this is HK’s best delicacy and make sure they insert for you a slice of nice, cold butter. Eaten best when your hands are dirty.

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Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay features the Marina Bay Sands Hotel with its three towers connected by a ship-inspired top with its glass-bottom swimming pool overlooking the city skyline. At left are solar-powered 18 man-made gardens called Super Trees.  Photo from
Sheryl Lim; Singapore’s unofficial national dish Hainanese Chicken; Potato Head in a re-purposed building in Chinatown; and another local fave, laksa, a spicy noodle dish with seafood and tofu. Photos from,, and


By Asian city standards, Singapore is small, so five hours can give you a glimpse and taste of the city-state without having to rush everything.

Singapore is one of the world’s most modern cities, and yet interspersed among towers are heritage buildings, parks, and hawker’s centers not far from pricey restaurants.

Some places to see:

Keong Saik Road. Once a prominent red light district peppered with brothels back in the 1960s, Keong Saik Road now is peppered with some of Singapore’s coolest places. With a string of restaurants, bars and shops, you have to drop by at least once when you come to Singapore.

LeVel 33. Located on the 33rd level of Marina Bay Financial Center (MBFC) Tower 1, it is the world’s highest urban craft-brewery. It is an innovative concept that provides an unparalleled dining experience complete with one of the best views of Singapore’s Marina Bay and city skyline.
Singapore is so good at re-purposing heritage buildings into usable shops and restaurants, such as these old shop houses. Photo from

Haji Lane. In this row of pre-war shop houses, which was once an empty street, you will now find quaint boutiques set up by local designers and young entrepreneurs presenting fashionable wear and products showing made-in-Singapore designs. There will also be excellent vintage shops selling an array of contemporary, quirky garments and accessories.

Singapore Botanical Gardens. An urban oasis, the sprawling Botanic Gardens, Singapore’s first UNESCO Heritage Site, provides great respite from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Within the garden, you can also visit the newly launched SBG Heritage Museum, which features interactive and multimedia exhibits and panels that illustrate the Garden’s rich heritage. The National Orchid Garden, lauded as the world’s largest orchid display, features over 60,000 plants and orchids.

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The capital and most populous city of Indonesia, Jakarta is comprised of several districts that offer a dizzying array of shopping centers, night spots, museums, historical buildings, and sightseeing.
Yani Handayani; the train station from the Dutch colonial period; popular souvenir batik fabric; and a street eatery offering local dishes and delicacies. Photos from and


Jakarta has lots of interesting places to see in five hours. You can spend all of them in the Old Town area where you can enjoy the iconic Fatahillah Museum (originally Batavia’s City Hall during the Dutch colonial period). There are lots of museums nearby: Wayang Museum, Bank Mandiri Museum and you can see the Dutch architecture of BEOS railway station.

You can also go shopping at the nearby Mangga Dua area. If you prefer to spend most of your time shopping for local and foreign brands, then go to the Grand Indonesia Shopping Malls, the biggest malls in Jakarta. Don’t miss the dancing water fountain inside. Or walk to nearby Sarinah to buy gifts like leather or wooden puppets or batik clothes.

You can also walk or take a bajaj (motorized pedicab) to Jakarta’s iconic Monas (National Monument), located in between the City Hall and the Merdeka Palace. Facing the Monas is the National Museum or famously known as Museum Gajah because there’s a small elephant statue in the front yard. To fully explore the museum takes more than five hours because there are lots of collections to see. So save this for a longer stay in Jakarta.

The must-eat Indonesian food is nasi uduk, which you can find in most Indonesian restaurants. It’s rice cooked with coconut milk and served with side dishes like fried chicken or fried beef fillet.

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Kuala Lumpur’s twin skyscrapers Petronas Towers were the world’s tallest buildings from 1998 to 2004. Designed by Argentine architect Cesar Pelli, they are also one (or two) of the most recognizable towers in the world. Photo from
Vicky Ooi; KL Tower with its observatory deck and a restaurant at the top; and KL City Gallery. Photos from and


Here are five things to do in Kuala Lumpur in five hours:

KL City Gallery: Jalan Raja (in front of Merdeka Square). Set in a century-old heritage building, the gallery has all things art and artistic as well as information about KL. It is also home to the Spectacular City Model, an architectural summary of the city and its story.

KL Tower: Jalan P. Ramlee. Take a ride up to the observation deck, at 276-meter of this 420-meter-high  tower. It’s the tallest in Southeast Asia and currently ranks the 7th tallest structure in the world.

Nobu KL: Level 56, Menara 3 Petronas, Persiaran KLCC. If you happen to be here close to meal time, why not try to get a table at this famous international restaurant chain? It also has a panoramic view of the capital city and perhaps you may even see Malaysian glitterati dining next to you.

KL (Petronas) Twin Towers & KLCC Park: Kuala Lumpur City Centre. Work off the meal with a stroll around the park adjoining Suria KLCC mall. Here’s the chance to snap plenty of pretty pictures with the dancing fountains and the twin towers as backdrop.

Karangkraf  Complex: Jalan Conlay. You will need to spend about an hour here to discover every type of handicraft from all 13 states of Malaysia. It also houses a crafts museum and demonstrations by craftsmen. And of course, plenty of handmade souvenirs for you to buy.

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Bangkok’s Grand Palace has been the official residence of the Kings of Siam (Thailand) since 1782. It is a complex of buildings, halls and pavilions set in gardens and courtyards. Photo from,parenthetical.pilgrim,
Ana G. Kalaw; MBK shopping center, a tiangge on eight floors with 2,000 shops; street food from Sukhumvit Soi 38; and the Reclining Buddha. Photos from, parenthetical.pilgrim/, and


Five hours is not enough time in Bangkok. The traffic from the airport to the city and back alone will already take up half of the time. Thankfully, Bangkok has a decent sky train system that links the airport to the city. What goes down in these five hours all depends on what you feel like doing.

Option 1: Those who want to take in a bit of history and culture can take the Airport Link to the Phaya Thai station and from there, take a taxi to Wat Po or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, an iconic site that features a 46-meter-long Buddha covered in gold leaf. The compound it is situated in is very serene and peaceful, and houses pocket gardens, many golden stupas (hemispherical structures that typically contain “relics” or the remains of monks) and other Buddhist icons.

Wat Pho is a 10-minute walk to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew) and the adjoining Grand Palace. The Emerald Buddha is another landmark relic that’s about 26 inches high and, despite its name, is made of green jade. It’s a pretty sight but can be missed if you’re the type who thinks one temple sighting is one too many.
“Food is a huge part of Thai culture,” says Ana. Even the Chao Phraya River hosts a  floating market. Photo from

The Grand Palace is a marvel to behold and is interesting, but makes for a rather impractical visit on a really tight schedule. (Chinese tourists by busloads mean cramming into narrow corridors and two hours of foot traffic). Instead, opt to stay at Wat Pho complex and get a traditional Thai massage.

Wat Pho is considered the leading school of massage in Thailand and the treatments they offer here, though simple and technique-focused (no lavender-scented lobbies, fancy massage beds or New Age music), are probably the best you can get in Thailand.
Mandarin Oriental Bangkok’s Author’s Lounge is famous for its high tea and the writers that have stayed there, including Somerset Maugham and Joseph Conrad. Photo from

From Wat Pho, hie over to the nearby Tha Tien pier and take the public ferry down the Chao Phraya river in the direction of the Sathorn pier. Consider getting a quick drink, some snacks or afternoon tea in one of the five-star hotels located along the river. The Shangri-La and the Peninsula both have pretty and breezy riverside terraces from where you can enjoy a drink while taking in the Chao Phraya’s interesting sights (get off Sathorn Pier at and walk a few meters to Shangri-La or take the hotel boat to get to the Peninsula).

The  Mandarin Oriental (get off at the Oriental pier) offers afternoon tea at its iconic Author’s Lounge, a light-filled space named for the literary greats (Joseph Conrad, John Le Carre and Somerset Maugham included) who have signed into the hotel’s guest register.

The Oriental offers two types of afternoon teas: a classic set and a Thai set. Go for the latter if you want to take in English teas with pandan-flavored scones, curry puffs and rice cakes.

Tuktuk outside Siam Paragon mall; pad thai at St. Regis Hotel; cucumber and seared tuna at Kempinski; sticky rice and mango at Four Seasons; high-end stores such as Bulgari at Paragon. Photos by Tanya Lara.

Consider making the trek back to the airport after your Chao Phraya visit. Take the BTS back to the Phaya Thai station and then make a switch onto the Airport Link to go back to Suvarnabhumi Airport.

Option 2: Shopping lovers and the food-obsessed can use up their five hours hunting down fashionable finds and sumptuous eats in central Bangkok. From the Airport Link, get off at the Phaya Thai station and take the BTS skytrain to Siam, the city’s main commercial drag. Siam Station gives you access to the luxurious Paragon mall, Siam Center, home of diffusion lines and Thai designer labels, and Siam Square, a haven for funky finds and cute fashions.

A five-minute trek will lead you to MBK, Bangkok’s version of Greenhills. Here you can find fashion “overruns,” startup labels, souvenir stalls and everything that has anything to do with mobile gadgets.

Food is a huge part of Thai culture. The basement level of Siam Paragon is a maze of ready-cooked food, breads, fast food chains and stalls offering Thai food staples such as duck noodles, som tam, basil-topped stir fries and tom yum soup.

The busy streets of Bangkok are filled with altars for believers to offer food and light incense sticks. Photo by Tanya Lara

Siam Square and the little streets and alleys surrounding it also have great affordable Thai and international restaurants. Get a reprieve from all that shopping by getting a foot massage in one of the spas surrounding the Siam area.

A favorite is Chang’s right across Paragon. The chairs are comfy, and therapists experienced. You can also take the Airport Link to the Makkasan station and from there take the underground or the MRT to Sukhumvit station, which will take you to the Asok area and Terminal 21, an airport and travel-inspired shopping mall complete with boarding gate entrances and city-inspired floors (a miniature Golden Gate bridge on one level, and red double-decker buses on another).

One BTS stop (Phrom Pong) will take you to EmQuartier, Bangkok’s hottest retail haunt right now. EmQuartier houses the biggest foreign brands, has a fashion zone containing the best Thai talent, and has three floors boasting some of the best restaurants in town. EmQuartier’s food court is always great for picking up quick but tasty eats while its supermarket has great souvenir options.
Sukhumvit Soi 38 is filled with beloved local eateries. Ana says, “But you have to hurry. Local reports say they will soon be taken down to make way for yet another condo-retail development.” Photo from

If your five-hour stopover falls in the evening, grab the chance to indulge in some street food at Sukhumvit Soi 38 (BTS Thonglor).

This street is famous for having some of the best duck noodles, mango sticky rice, pad thai and khaosoi (rice noodles in curry soup). But you have to hurry. Local reports say that the street stalls and pocket restaurants will soon be taken down to make way for yet another condo-retail development.

Falling in love with Japan, one prefecture at a time

Springtime in Kyoto, the City of Ten Thousand Shrines and former imperial capital of Japan. Warm weather breaks a week ahead of forecast and cherry blossoms fill the canals along the sakura-lined Philosopher’s Walk.  Photos by Tanya Lara
At Osaka Castle. Angela Ureta, author Tanya Lara, Stephanie Asuncion, Giselle Kasilag, Ivy Lisa Mendoza and Susan de Guzman.  Photo by Ivy Lisa Mendoza

It’s so easy to fall in love with Japan on the first date. It’s like meeting a smart, handsome guy that takes you out to a great dinner, some dancing and drinking, is extremely polite and then he takes you home safely even when you’re drunk and kissing everybody in the pub.

I first went to Japan in 2001 on a whirlwind tour of three prefectures (provinces): Tokyo, Hiroshima and Kyoto. Then I didn’t go back for 13 years except for quick work trips to Tokyo last year and Yokohama in between.

Coming back to Japan in April this year on a holiday, it felt like the first time all over again.

To everyone else, Japan is an enigma and I’ve a feeling the Japanese prefer it that way. Everything is so confusing at first and no other thing symbolizes this better than Tokyo’s train system. Its subway route map looks like someone dropped a plate of spaghetti on the floor and everybody stood around to look — and only the Japanese could make any sense of it.

It’s amazing how, in only a couple of generations, Japan has reverted back to its reputation before its atrocious aggression in the Second World War — of being a polite, disciplined and helpful society.

Osaka Castle is surrounded by a moat and sits on 5.2 hectares (13 acres).

And for decades, it has surpassed its Asian neighbors in every industry even as it continues to remain homogenous and, incredibly, despite being in recession for years.

I’ve never met a person who has been to Japan and didn’t like it. I’ve met lots of people who don’t like Manila, Hong Kong, Singapore, New York, or even Paris. But I’ve never met anyone who said Tokyo sucks ass. Or Kyoto. Or Hiroshima. Or Arashiyama.

I have friends who are so in love with Japan that they keep coming back, like my Singaporean friend Bibiana who has been to Japan more than 30 times! Or they want to live there, like my Hong Kong-based British friend James, who lived in Tokyo on and off for 15 years, and can speak and write the very complicated language.

I’ve known James for three years and he still puzzles me. With two degrees from Oxford University and the London School of Economics, he’s chosen to teach in Asia instead of working in some high-paying job in the UK or US.

When we go out to the bars in Hong Kong and talk endlessly, he says that unlike Tokyo which is alive every night, nothing ever happens in this city. Who says this in the middle of Lan Kwai Fong or Tsim Sha Tsui?

There is something about Japanese women wearing kimonos that captivates visitors. The ones we meet and talk to are tourists from China who had rented yukatas for the day and are doing hanami in Kyoto’s Maruyama Park (left) and walking around in Gion, Old Kyoto (right) — happy to be mistaken for Japanese women.
A quiet street in Gion, Kyoto.

Still, I can feel his perpetual homesickness for Japan.

I try to think of a city that has me pining for it and chipping away at my gut every night, and I can only come up with Paris, for which I’ve had this love for the past 17 years. And yet my homesickness for Paris is nothing compared to his for Japan.

Coming back to Japan this year with friends for the Easter break, I begin to understand his longing. Or maybe I feel like this because I am with my friends.

We have our itinerary all planned out. Manila to Osaka on a budget airline booked seven months before, Kyoto, Nara, Inari, Arashiyama, Harry Potter at Universal Studios, and lots of cherry blossoms and ramen in between — and Don Quixote, that crazy department store/supermarket that offers every flavor of KitKat found only in Japan and Japanese cuteness.

Two months before the trip, we find out just how hard it is to book a hotel for sakura week. The forecast is different from city to city and all the hotels in Kyoto are full, so we decide to base ourselves in Osaka and even then we couldn’t find ryokans (traditional inns) or Airbnb flats that could accommodate the five of us.

Finally, we find a hotel in Osaka’s Higobashi area with its last five single rooms available. APA Hotel is short for “Always Pleasant Amenity,” which is just one of the quirky examples of what is often a very confounding Japanese English.

Osaka’s main shopping and entertainment district Dotonburi. (Clockwise) Ichiran, inarguably the best ramen chain in Japan, beside a takoyaki shop (octopus); giant crab; giant gyoza (dumpling); and a cow for yakiniku (grilled meat). No need for translation, just look at the giant food above the restaurants.
Dotonburi bridge and canal are flanked by illuminated signboards. Glico Man, which is a guy crossing the finish line, is both a symbol of Osaka and the confectionery company founded there. Photo from

If you’re used to small hotel rooms in Europe, Japan will shock you even further for the same amount of money you pay. Our rooms are 12 square meters each, which is the size of a nice bathroom or a walk-in closet. From the bed you can reach out and grab the TV remote control on the dresser without ever getting up.

Which matters little once you hit the streets of Osaka.

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I should introduce the friends I am with.

Three of them were classmates in journ school at the University of the Philippines in Diliman five years ahead of me; one is younger than me; and another was an executive producer for a major TV network. What we have in common is that straight out of university we all went on to become career journalists.

Today, of the six of us, only Stephanie and I are working for newspapers; Susan and Gik quit their newspapers and took up their master’s degree in museum studies and are now curators putting up exhibits in Manila, Hong Kong and last year in Madrid; Ivy quit to work full time in her own PR company and recently began teaching; and Angie became a full-time fangirl of the Korean girl band 2NE1 and part-time producer of TV documentaries.

Kyoto’s Zen Buddhist temple Kinakaku-ji or Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which I visited on my first trip to Japan. People like to say that once you’ve seen the Golden Pavilion,  you don’t need to see any other temple in Japan — but that’s not true. Photo by Keith Pomakis/
The Silver Pavilion was built by a shogun (general) who wanted to emulate the Golden Pavilion.

Except for Angie and Gik, we are all from UP Diliman, which means that our training was a mix of idealism, protests, a ton of left-leaning social and political studies, and only a little bit of reality to prepare us for the newsroom. But to be fair, nothing ever really prepares you for the realities of working as a journalist.

Tanya Lara at Deer Park in Nara prefecture, which hosts over 1,200 deer. They are extremely friendly when you feed them. If you don’t have biscuits, they just ignore you.

We arrive at our hotel at midnight after a four-and-a-half-hour flight from Manila. Angie, who by coincidence is also going on the same week as us to see her Japanese friends, is staying in another hotel.

At ours, we get our first taste of the rhythm of Osaka. When five girls arrive at the same time, the hotel’s front desk guy looks like he’s going to have a mini heart attack, and with all the bowing and politeness the check-in takes a long time.

We had come from Osaka’s main train station, which is as big as an airport, and like many major train stations in Japan, you can live here for a month and never really master it.

Every few years, you get news of a crime being discovered in a train station — a severed finger left in a locker in Tokyo near the Shinkansen platforms (bullet train), or maybe even a whole hand, ostensibly left by the Japanese mafia Yakuza; a few weeks after our trip, an abandoned suitcase was discovered in a locker in Osaka and was found to contain the rotting corpse of a woman.

Apart from these, the stations are like cities that run efficiently. They are never overwhelmed by the millions of passengers or by the many different lines that come and go every second. Even when the queues are long, the Japanese wait patiently, never cutting in line (if someone does, it’s probably a foreign tourist).

This is our commute every morning for the next five days as we travel between three prefectures — Osaka, Kyoto and Nara.

But first, we discover that Osaka has a mind of its own. It looked at the calendar for 2015 and said, “Fuck this forecast!” Kyoto did the same damn rebellious thing. Warm weather broke a week ahead of schedule and so when we arrive, the cherry blossoms are prematurely falling and floating on the canals and castle grounds in both cities.

The thousands of torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine are dedicated to the rice god Inari. Lots of visitors here recreate the scene from the movie Memoirs of a Geisha where the heroine runs through the gates.

And perhaps this is the reason why sakura season is so revered in Japan: it lasts only a week. Despite the forecast, the flowers come out only when they want to, clinging to their stems through wind, sun and spring rains, and when the week is over, they begin to fall — never to be seen again until the following year.

Isn’t that so poignant?

Osaka Castle’s grounds are filled with cherry blossoms that you lose count of the places where you can take pictures and, even under the rain, people are doing hanami or picnic under sakura trees. They are seated on woven mats and holding up umbrellas and drinking sake.

Kyoto is the same, except here, the walk to the Silver Castle is paved with pink flowers. The canals are pink, the Philosopher’s Walk is pink. The only other color is macha green — in ice cream, crepes and pastries.

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It’s so long ago now when I first made a trip to Japan.

I was part of a tour group that went from Tokyo to the old capital Kyoto where we were introduced to geishas and their trainees or geikos. We were in a restaurant where the geishas served food kneeling on tatami mats, and they laughed a certain way, moved a certain way — it was practiced and measured for many years, and even then you thought it was all sincere.

Every morning we would walk to Osaka’s main train station and take the express to Kyoto where we would transfer to another city like Inari.

There was a kimono to be tried on and a geisha asked for a volunteer. I raised my hand. They dressed me in it over my clothes in front of everybody.

The kimono felt so heavy as I was wrapped up in meters of vintage silk with amazing embroidery, and they explained it was a wedding kimono, not the usual cotton yukata or summer kimono. I thought then, well that explains the feeling of restriction.

That trip also took me to the island of Miyajima (Itsukushima) in Hiroshima prefecture, and Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park in the center of the city.

In the Pacific side of World War 2, when Japan stupidly refused to surrender after the war in Europe had concluded, Hiroshima was the first city on which the US dropped an atomic bomb and Nagasaki was second, the bombs instantly wiping out both cities and killing nearly 150,000 people.

Hiroshima Peace Park was designed by Kenzo Tange, a Pritzker Prize-winning architect who was influenced by Swiss architect Le Corbusier. Tange was a pioneer of what would essentially become the template for Japanese modernism, a style that combines traditional Japanese with modern, western architecture.
I went to Hiroshima Peace Park on my first trip to Japan around 2001. The most moving monument here is “Sadako and a Thousand Paper Cranes,” dedicated to the girl who was but two years old when atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. To this day, people leave paper cranes for her.  Photo from

The Peace Park is located in an area that was leveled by the bomb. To me, the most moving monument here is “Sadako and a Thousand Paper Cranes,” a statue of a young girl named Sadako Sasaki who is holding up a crane.

Sadako was only two years old when Hiroshima was bombed. When she was 12 and suffering from leukemia, she began making origami birds with the goal of making a thousand. One story says she had reached 600-plus when she became too weak to fold and died, and her classmates completed the rest; another story says she completed the thousand cranes.

The Bamboo Forest of Arashiyama, a favorite of day trippers. If you’re going to Kyoto, spend a night in Arashiyama — there’s so much more to this little town than the forest.
The wonderful town of Arashiyama in Kyoto prefecture has a Kimono Forest exhibit at its tram station (Randen Line) — an installation of 600  acrylic poles featuring textile dyed in the traditional manner and curated by artist Yasumichi Morita.

I don’t remember anymore what month it was when I was in Hiroshima, but it must have been not too long after Obon Day, when the Japanese Buddhist traditionally honor their dead. The term “Obon” implies “great suffering,” and in Hiroshima Peace Park, people left thousands of colorful paper cranes to remember that young girl and perhaps to ease her suffering if only symbolically.

* * *

Back to my Easter holiday this year with friends.

No other town captivates us more than Arashiyama on the outskirts of Kyoto. We loathe to leave it in the evening to go back to Osaka, all of us wishing we had booked a night here.

Arashiyama is famous for its bamboo forest but little is said of the town itself. What a charming little town it is!

We get lost in its streets and in trying to find our way back to the train station, so many surprises await us, like stores that sell only one thing and one thing only! — from socks to chopsticks, umbrellas whose designs come out only when they get wet, purses and noodle bowls — restaurants, rickshaws, minimalist Japanese houses.

Some of the glorious street food in Japan are grilled corn, yakitori, green tea ice cream and eclairs, takoyaki, and sweet bread with cream filling. Photos by Tanya Lara, Susan de Guzman and Giselle Kasilag.

We also accidentally discover a spectacular exhibit at a tram station when trying to find a toilet.

Created by artist Yasumichi Morita, “Kimono Forest” is an installation of 600  acrylic poles at the Randen station in Arashimaya.

They are clustered together just as the bamboo trees of the town, except they are printed textiles traditionally used for kimonos and lighted from within the  poles.

You can walk up and down this station for hours and just enjoy looking at the blue twilight skies and designs on the fabrics that are dyed in the traditional style. They are produced by Kamedatomi, a textile factory dating back to more than a hundred years ago — to the Taisho period, the 123rd emperor of Japan.

Earlier that day, we were at Fushimi Shrine in Inari, also in Kyoto prefecture, which is famous for its torii gates. The shrines are located at the foot of the mountain but it is the two kilometers that lead to them — orange bamboo gates with Japanese markings — that people go to and recreate that scene from the movie Memoirs of a Geisha. Inari (rice god) is regarded as a business patron and so companies or individual business owners sponsor a gate to give thanks to Inari.

The price to dedicate a torii is 175,000 yen or US$1,500. Business is good here, judging by the thousands of toriis in the Fushimi complex.

Yep, we’re at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Hogwarts’ school motto is “Never Tickle a Sleeping Dragon.” Don’t even think about it!
(Clockwise) The wizarding village of Hogsmeade at Harry Potter park in Universal Studios Osaka, where we — Stephanie, Tanya, Susan and Ivy — eat lunch and drink butterbeer at the Great Hall, visit Olivander’s Wand Shop, and the Owl Post Office.

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By the time we go to Nara prefecture, there are only four of us. Angie, who was with us for only one day, and Gik have left the night before.

Nara Deer Park, spread across 500 hectares (600 acres), is home to over a thousand deer. You can buy biscuits from kiosks for 150 yen — and they can smell it a mile away — to feed them.

Up to twenty deer will poke at you and gather around and then they lose interest when the plastic bag is empty.

On our last day, we deposit our luggage at Osaka station to be collected at the end of the day when we take the train to Kansai Airport for our night flight back to Manila.

From the station, Universal Studios Osaka, which opened the Wizarding World of Harry Potter  earlier this year, is less than thirty minutes away.

We tour Hogwarts, drink butterbeer, chase our favorite Sesame Street characters for pictures, and high-five Hello Kitty. It’s a great day to be at Universal, a great way to end a vacation because nothing makes you feel like a child again than visiting a theme park with friends.

Our fave Sesame Street character — Cookie Monster! Photo by Ivy Lisa Mendoza

I don’t know this yet as we are laughing and walking around the park — we would arrive in Manila early morning on Friday and I would go to work at my newspaper, and by the end of the night I would receive the devastating news that my grandmother who raised me had died. I spend the weekend at her wake with my family, two hours north of Manila, and leave again on Monday for a work assignment to Italy.

In a week, my gut is wrenched every which way. Crying on a bus in Milan, it feels that Osaka, Kyoto, Nara and the happy week before are a million miles and a lifetime away.

I realize that like Japan’s cherry blossoms, nothing ever really follows a schedule even when you desperately want it to. Yet there is always the following spring to look forward to.

It comes when it does — not a moment too soon or too late.

Sunny day sweeping the clouds away in Osaka. We feel like children again chasing so many characters in the park including Hello Kitty, Bert and Count Dracula. Photos by Tanya Lara and Ivy Lisa Mendoza.

Istanbul: A story told in two continents
The majestic Sultan Ahmed Mosque or Blue Mosque sits on a hill in the historic part of Istanbul overlooking the Bosphorus Strait. It has one main dome, eight secondary domes and six minarets. It was built one millennium or 1,079 years after Hagia Sophia and derives architectural influences from it. (Photo from
The blue tiles on the ceiling and walls inside the Blue Mosque (Photo by Ben Morlok/


I didn’t fall in love with Istanbul until I was about to leave it. And by then, I was so completely enamored of the place that I would come back two months later when I was in Paris for the New Year.

Friends told me, “But you’re in France, why are you going to Turkey?”

It was as if leaving Paris was a mortal sin, as if I had just told them I was going into the nunnery.

But I saw a lot of similarities between two of the world’s greatest cities, most significant is that they are both defined by their waters — the Seine for Paris and the Bosphorus for Istanbul.

That’s how I fell in love with Istanbul the first time I went in October last year. I took a cruise on the Bosphorus Strait on my last day and didn’t want the day to end even as it rained as I walked two kilometers from Eminönü back to the old part of Sultan Ahmed. (I didn’t have an umbrella!)

The idea of one city straddling two continents is so romantic, so exotic and exciting to me, and as it turns out even for the Turkish people for whom this is an ordinary, everyday fact. They love this uniqueness and are proud of it.

Though only three percent of Turkey is geographically in Europe and the rest in Asia Minor,  historically and politically Europe is where it seems to belong.
Hagia Sophia, first built as an East Roman cathedral in Constantinopole (modern-day Istanbul), which was later converted into an Imperial Mosque during the Ottoman Empire, and is now a museum. (Photo from
The massive interior of Hagia Sophia with its hanging chandeliers and medallions (Photo by Ben Morlok/

The day before, I was on SMS with Sami Bas, who asked me what my plans were before the evening. I said I was going on a “river cruise.”

“And which river is that?”

“The Bosphorus,” I said.

“It’s not river, it’s a strait,” he said. “How can you be a journalist and not know this, Tanya?”

“Okay, fine,” I said. “I’m going to take a cruise on that narrow body of water.”

The truth is, even though friends who know me to be an adventurous traveler had been telling me for years to go to Istanbul, it was never high up on my bucket list…it was just there somewhere on the list.

The author Tanya Lara at the Rahmi M. Koç Müzesi in December 2015, and with Sami Bas in Levent in February 2016.
A drive to the Asian of Istanbul in January 2016 with Sami.


I had taken a tour to the incredible Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque with colleagues before they left for Manila, but it was the Bosphorus that I fell in love with — what it represented and what actually sat on the coastline: the Dolmabahçe Palace, the villas from the Ottoman Empire, some of which have now been converted into hotels or private properties owned by affluent Turks, sheiks from the Middle East, and Europeans.

From my hotel in Sultan Ahmed, I went to Eminönü following the tram tracks. The dock is dotted with fish and bread restaurants — and you can smell them even before seeing them. They catch the fish, cook it on the boats and bring it to your table or just peddle them around.

On the boat before the cruise started, I asked two elderly gentlemen to take a picture of me on my phone. They hardly spoke English, but they bought me tea from a waiter who was deftly balancing a dozen glasses on a small tray.

Author Tanya Lara on the Bosphorus Strait in October 2014. Is there a cooler cruise than seeing two continents all at once? Probably not.

People always say don’t accept anything from strangers, but in a way that I have grown accustomed to in all my years of traveling solo, I understood their kindness and hospitality.

Their wives arrived from the lower deck and one of them spoke English. The four of them were from the capital city Ankara and were doing the cruise for the first time, they said.

The Turks have an old proverb that says, “Every visitor is a gift from God.” Maybe that was what they were thinking. I was a visitor, all alone in their country, and so the wives bought me another cup of tea despite my protests that it was my turn to pay.

From the Bosphorus, you can see the Blue Mosque with its nine domes and six minarets, and across it Hagia Sophia with its four.  Catholic churches have bell towers, mosques have minarets. In the old times, the imam would climb a minaret to announce that it was time for prayer; there’s no need for the imam to climb now as loud speakers amplify this call.

Dome upon dome, big or small and with seagulls flying about, the mosques all over Istanbul look incredibly beautiful, their gold-tipped minarets puncturing the skies, the silhouette softened and balanced by the sandstone domes.

The Blue Mosque or Sultan Ahmed Mosque got its nickname from the blue tiles used on its interior walls and ceiling. It is Istanbul’s most popular tourist attraction and remains an active mosque.

Istanbul13_photo from
The Bosphorus Bridge connects the European and Asian parts of Istanbul. Geographically, only three percent of Turkey is in Europe, but historically and politically this is where it seems to belong. (Photo by Jorge1767/
The waterfront House Hotel, a 19th-century Ottoman mansion in the Ortaköy district. (Photo from

It is closed to tourists for half an hour or so on each of the five times that Muslims pray, the first at sunrise and the last at nightfall. Obviously, worshippers don’t have to stand in line but tourists have to wait up to an hour or more to get inside, which is the typical waiting time for most of Istanbul’s attractions like the Topkapi Palace and Dolmabahce Palace.

Across the Blue Mosque and a park between them is Hagia Sophia, older by a thousand years and originally constructed between 532 and 537 as a Greek Orthodox Church, a monument to the Byzantine Empire’s capital city Constantinopole (modern-day Istanbul), then it became a Roman Catholic Church, then an Imperial Mosque when the Ottoman Turks took over, and now it’s a museum.

Hagia Sophia’s fate reminds me of the temples in Siem Reap, Cambodia, particularly Angkor Wat. It was originally built as a Hindu temple and was converted to a Buddhist temple when a new king took over and effectively erased all spiritual symbols of the previous religion.

Eminönü, where three bodies of water meet: the Golden Horn, Bosphorus Strait and the Sea of Marmara. In the background is the 450-year-old Yen Cami, which means New Mosque. (Photo by @iamtanyalara)

Hagia Sophia is no different. Outside, you would never think it was once a Christian church even though during the Renaissance  churches also used domes as their main feature (Florence’s duomo and Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica).

Its bells, altar and paintings and tiles depicting Christ and the saints were removed and replaced with Islamic elements like medallions with Arabic writing and the four minarets outside. All but a few Christian features were plastered over, one of them a painting of Madonna and Child above the southwest entrance.

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Despite the fact that 98 percent of its population follow Islam, Turkey is a secular country — it is mandated in its constitution. That was what the protests in Taksim Square years ago were all about: to remain secular and fight the move to be more religious as a state.

Turkey is Middle Eastern in faith, but also European in its secularism. And there is no better city that exemplifies its being at these crossroads than Istanbul.

Galata Tower overlooking the Bosphorus (Photo from
Sami buys roasted castañas in Sisli. This and simit vendors (like pretzels but dipped in molasses) are all over the streets of Istanbul in December 2014. (Photo by @iamtanyalara)

Istanbul’s most famous writer, the Nobel prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk, once said, “Istanbul is so unmanageably varied, so anarchic, so very much stranger than western cities: its disorder resists classification.”

Around Taksim Square and in the malls — in fact, in all of Istanbul — most of the local women don’t wear chador or burka but a lot of them wear headscarves.

My friend Sami took me for a walk to the medieval Galata Tower, a nine-story tower with a café on top overlooking the city and the Bosphorus.

The streets around the tower look like any modern city in the world — vibrant, filled with local and branded boutiques, pavement cafes, restaurants and bars.

In the evening, you see young locals enjoying wine and cocktails, and Sami taught me how to drink raki, an anise-flavored spirit that you chase with water.

During the day, people who are not rushing to or from work are leisurely enjoying cups of tea or the yogurt drink aryan. I had seen this in Greece and Italy — that laid-back attitude to life not dictated by the hours, men and women lounging around and enjoying the buzz of the city happening before their eyes.

Manuel Deli & Coffee, a typical café in Cihangir (Photo by Ezgi Ünlü/

Pamuk, whose novels I love, wrote his memoir Istanbul: Memories of a City shrouded in melancholy, a kind of sadness that pervades even  the waters of the Bosphorus.

The Bosphorus, he writes, is a reminder “of  the difference between one’s own wretched life and the happy triumphs of the past.”

I didn’t see or feel this melancholy in Sultan Ahmed or Eminönü, or the streets around Galata Tower, Taksim Square or Besiktas.

I did see it in the endlessly confusing Grand Bazaar when I took the wrong exit and got lost yet again. I found myself walking towards the water, the neighborhood blocks beginning to look more and more impoverished.

But that’s another story.
The Byzantine-period Maiden’s Tower on the Bosphorus Strait. Turkish legend says it was erected by an emperor whose daughter was prophesied to die from a snake bite by her 18th birthday. So her father kept her there, away from land. On her 18th birthday, he brought her a basket of fruits to celebrate. And guess what? There was a poisonous snake in the basket, which bit and killed her. (Photo from