A Haven for Heritage

As a travel writer, one can get used to everything being laid out for you just so. The press junkets and familiarization tours are all programmed to maximize what the sponsors and organizers would want you to see and experience, and then bank on their hopes that you actually write about it as positively as possible. All well and good, we all need to take a living. But when each stop is just another item to be ticked off on an itinerary somebody else thought up, what happens to the sense of adventure, of discovery, the thrill that comes from cleverly figuring out how to find that special place?

Those were the questions I was asking myself as I and three French first-timers to the Philippines were driving around twisty mountain roads in the near dark still tens of kilometres away from where we hoped to end up. As we curved around yet another tricky stretch, dodging goats and barrio lasses, one of my wards asked half-jokingly, half-nervously: “What if after all this, we get there and it’s not very nice?”

But I get ahead of myself. Tasked to tour a friend of a friend and his friends around during the year-end holidays, it was up to me to formulate our game plan for a road trip. I decided to go for broke and look for a destination that was unique, off-the-beaten-path, and one I had never been to before. I already had a pretty good idea where.

Like a city of myth, secreted away from the madding crowd, shrouded by the mists of time, I’d heard snatches about and caught glimpses of the legendary Las Casas Filipinas De Acuzar. Scooped by various websites and blogs, and even showing up as background scenery for the local production of Zorro, these tantalizing teases whipped me up into a must-go-there frenzy. This road trip was my opportunity, and I was gonna seize it, and I didn’t care if I had to drag three unsuspecting foreigners with me to satisfy my selfish whim.

One of my first beats ever as a writer was on architecture and design, and I was drawn to Philippine heritage architecture in particular. So knowing about a whole village composed of authentic 18th-19th century Principalia Mansions and original Bahay na Bato (Stone Houses), painstakingly restored and arranged around a cobblestone plaza and streets had me rabidly frothing at the mouth. Fortunately, I had fellow archi-enthusiasts and shutterbugs in tow, so they were keen on the adventure as well. I booked a room for four at the nearest deluxe resort, the rambling Montemar beach club, utilizing it as the starting point for exploring the region, and squeezing some R&R in between.

And that’s how we found ourselves in the dark, on the road, tracing our route on the map, hoping to get to Bagac in time for dinner. Mt. Samat, the supposed can’t-miss landmark to lead us to our destination, loomed to our left like an imposing black bogeyman. Thankfully, Montemar’s house restaurant El Meson just had its menu and wine list overhauled by respected chef consultant Ed Quimson, so we were properly sated and sloshed before turning in for the night.

After breakfast the next day, we decided to take advantage of our Bataan base camp and spend some time on the beach and in the sea. Though not lily-white, Bagac’s beach sand is fine, clean and algae free, and the clear water had just enough wave action going on to make swimming interesting. Swim out far enough though and you’ll be treated to an even more intriguing sight, the dome of the dormant Bataan Nuclear Power Plant surrounded by lush tropical rainforest. This prompted a few jokes about radioactive fish, but being the world’s top consumers of nuclear energy, my French companions were nonplussed.


For lunch we explored the center of Bagac town and decided to tuck into a simple meal of noodles and sandwiches in a small kitchenette right by the plaza. Barring the Burger Machine cart, it was our only option in the area, but a taste of hearty, down-to-earth local fare was just what the tourists hankered for. But the quaint shop fronts and modest homes of Bagac hardly prepared us for what we were next to see.

Now, beyond the physical effort of getting to Bagac, however scenic, what appeared to be the more insurmountable obstacle to gain access to Las Casas Filipinas De Acuzar was the seeming tight cordon around it imposed upon by its developer and management. From when I first thought of paying a visit to the site, letters, messages and phone calls flew at an increasingly furious pace between myself and various people in charge of different departments across two separate companies, just so I could guarantee my entry into this restricted area. There came a point where I almost surrendered and decided that no place would be worth the trouble, and another point where I imagined us having to sneak into the site like a Franco-Philippine impossible missions force. So when we finally hit the property’s gates, I was bowled over by two pleasant surprises.

Light streams through capiz windows in the U.P. School of Fine Arts building

One, despite our rather surreptitious arrival, the staff on-site were very welcoming. Our guide Mao, gamely toured us around the compound and even opened up some houses up for us to explore, offering some information about the development. Two, all the fuss was more than worth it, gaining a thumbs-up, even in its unfinished state, from my travel-jaded companions. This was a destination that was truly unique, beautifully thought-out, and exquisitely executed. If they can pull off the finishing touches, and all signs point to that coming to fruition, then not only Bataan, but the entire country, will have a resort that will put us on the must-see maps.

Las Casas Filipinas De Acuzar goes beyond the warm beaches, watersports, and charming country scenery that most Philippine resorts are content to offer. By bringing together this unquestionably stunning collection of heritage structures and ensconcing them in an equally dramatic setting, mastermind developer Gerry Acuzar proves himself a genius, with a passion bordering on madness. But if this is insanity, then we need more crazily passionate people taking on projects like this. Whatever you may think of the resort’s concept, it is definitely not uninspired nor mediocre. They really went all the way with this, and it shows, from the intricate details to the big picture postcard-perfect view. What started as a lone vacation house has blossomed into a 400 hectare complex complete with a deluxe hotel (housed in a recreated Escolta building), plus villas, shops, a bar and restaurant, all carved out from the gorgeously gilded heritage halls and homes that Acuzar has personally plucked from the cream of the country.

As supervised by Mexico-trained restoration architect Mico Manalo, the painstaking reconstruction of each heritage house, at least 14 by the time of our visit, with several more (and a chapel) in the process of being scoped out, is not some slapdash uprooting and pastiche job, but a careful, respectful integrated preservation effort. Once seen in situ, it’s easy to dismiss his detractors and accept Acuzar’s rationale for relocating these heritage treasures. With the government or their former owners unwilling or unable to properly safeguard these endangered structures from the ravages of time and greed, their best hope for survival is really behind the safety of Las Casas Filipinas De Acuzar’s fences. What he did was not a rape, but a rescue. Even the modern elements and fixtures that they unavoidably have to incorporate have been carefully designed or cloaked to harmonize with the architectural tenor. Anachronisms are avoided unless necessary. This devotion to authenticity can clearly be seen in the transplanted School of Fine Arts from Quiapo, the centuries-old columns have been left un-repainted, retaining the patina of age, while the new columns replacing damaged ones have been moulded from the originals and accurately display the original colors albeit in bright new enamel.

With the late afternoon sun slowly setting down into the sea, the lengthening shadows and warm light altogether cast an eerie glow on this enchanted village. As it was, with nobody around except for our small party, a few construction workers and random townsfolk who had wandered in for a stroll, we couldn’t help but imagine ourselves as temporal travellers stuck in a time warp, or ghosts come back to haunt the remains of their days.

text by Jude Defensor, photos by Olivier Milan, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2010

Bye to the Baltic

…continued from Turning Swedish

The tail-end of my trip was partly spent appreciating the simple mundane joys of Swedish life. I went to the church, library and market, and carbo-loaded with hearty everyday fare such as pyttipanna (a plate of pan-fried diced potatoes, vegetables and meats). The stored calories were then walked off around charming parks and neighbourhoods shifting from modern to medieval. In contrast to what may be deduced from the dark and depressing films Swedish directors are renowned for, and also the false myth of Sweden’s high suicide rates (actually lower than France and Germany), the best thing about Stockholm is just how pleasant everyone and everything seems. Even at its summer peak, it doesn’t seem over-run by hordes of package tourists and other itinerants. And you rarely come across the roving gangs of rowdy delinquents that have become worryingly common around some other European cities. Globalization and multiculturalism may have mixed up the city’s cosmopolitan colors, but they have yet to dilute the strong Swedish identity enough to make it seem like Anytown, EU.

Stockholm Stadsbibliotek

Danish sports fans in Sergels Torg

Yet all isn’t sunny in Scandinavia. Stockholm’s heart of darkness may beat in Sergels Torg, a 1960s-tastic plaza carved out by demolishing entire city blocks, the fever for modernity changing the city’s face far more drastically than any war could manage. Now the concrete crater plays host to a raucous collection of troublemakers and rabble-rousers – from militant pro-lifers, Native American and Amazonian tribesmen, Danish footie fans, and campaigning politicos, not to mention the odd grifter or gypsy (terms not mutually exclusive). But their openly flaunted freedoms show that at least in Sweden, socialism and democracy can coexist. It may not be the ideal Asgard for the ages, but while the sun shines it’s a brighter place than most.

Stockholm Arlanda Airport

Getting There: KLM flies between Manila and Stockholm via Amsterdam daily. For this trip, I was able to grab a preferred seat. This means that for only an additional 70 euros, you can choose a seat with extra leg room or a seat in a row of only two seats. On a 14+ hour flight, this can really make a huge difference in comfort.

text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2009

Turning Swedish

…continued from Upp & About

view of Lake Malaren from Drottningholm Palace

With a free pass to almost every museum and attraction in the city, I managed to browse through a lot of fine art, antique curios, and royal knick-knacks over the next few nippy days. I got a sense of this Baltic state’s rich maritime past at the Vasa museum, an impressive purpose-built structure sheltering the wreck of what was then the Swedish Titanic (mortalities notwithstanding, the movie would have been more of a comedy than a tragedy however, as the warship sank after sailing less than a mile).

The risen Vasa occupies its own museum where one can marvel at its size and detailed carvings

At Millesgarden, the home-turned-museum of famed sculptor Carl Milles on the island of Lidingö, mythical figures stand and soar amidst lush gardens and fountains. While exploring the grounds of Drottningholm Palace, the private residence of the Swedish Royal family, I realized that I had flown roughly 13 hours far west for the chance to admire the Kina Slot, a Chinese-inspired royal pavilion built in 1753 when everything from the Far East was all the rage. One installation that stood out among the modern masterworks and architectural marvels at the adjoining Museums of Modern Art and Architecture, was a hot mess of ketchup bottles scattered around the floor, their sticky red contents sandwiched between 30 plates of glass.

views of Millesgarden

Waiting for the train is no dull experience at Stockholm’s art-laden subway stations. Each stop is designed around a certain theme

Edifying and interesting those worthy displays of high aesthetics may be, one eventually hankers for something edgier but still accessible. Fortunately a Swedish architect friend pointed out a must-see that was literally below my very nose – the Stockholm Metro. A number of stations are designed and decorated in very striking themes, making the subway lines some of the longest art galleries in the world. From Viking patterns at Rinkeby, a pastel-colored timeline of world history at Rissne, to a psychedelic mix of actual ancient castle ruins and pop art at Kungsträdgården (my favourite), there’s probably  a station to everyone’s tastes. But try not to get too distracted by the dramatic surroundings, especially at the more remote stops, or you may lose more than just your sense of direction.

Both Sweden and the Philippines celebrate their National Days in June, so because of these special occasions, I was able to peek into parts of Stockholm which would normally be beyond ordinary tourists. On Swedish National Day, the Royal Palace in Gamla Stan is opened to the public for free, with puppet shows and free hotdogs for all in its broad central square. Swedes swarm the streets to get a glimpse of the royal family as they parade through town. For the Philippine Independence Day reception I trooped to the city’s edge at Djursholm, a seaside private enclave for diplomats, pop stars and tycoons. Some stately residences occupied entire islands unto themselves, all the better to appreciate the beauty of the archipelago.

Malmö’s pride, Santiago Calatrava’s Turning Torso

But I ended up going even further out of my way, far beyond Stockholm, just to check out one bridge and one building. It may seem counter-intuitive to fly down to Copenhagen, Denmark to be able to go back up to Malmö, Sweden, then cross back south to Copenhagen Airport to catch a flight up north back to Stockholm. But that’s exactly what I ended up doing. All this criss-crossing was to marvel at (and photograph) Calatrava’s Turning Torso, the tallest building in Scandinavia, famed for its 90 degree twist; and also to go over (both ways!) the Öresund Bridge, the longest combined road and rail bridge in Europe and the longest border crossing bridge in the world.

Some natives of Stockholm and Copenhagen (among other places) may have none-too-flattering opinions of Malmö, but even they have to admit that the city has come a long way from its glum industrial past as a peripheral port. It stands as a lesson for Manila’s city planners (do they even try?) that an iconic structure that is part of a well-planned development can revitalize an otherwise moribund district and improve the image of a tarnished city with positive international buzz.

continued in next entry, Bye to the Baltic

The Oresund bridge between Malmo and Copenhagen

Upp & About

…continued from Stockholm When It Sizzles.

Uppsala Cathedral, Scandinavia’s largest, in the rain

Walking around Uppsala

I guess Loki himself took charge of raining on my parade as the next day, the thermometer plunged 10 degrees, the skies grew overcast, and chill winds from the Arctic blew down to the Baltic. Thus began the coldest June in Sweden in the last 100 years. Just my luck. Now I finally understood these northerners’ love affair with warm sunlight, a commodity we Filipinos are practically raised to shun. But cold and wet was more how I’d imagined Sweden anyway, and this was an opportunity for a more contemplative expedition. So we took the train up north to Uppsala, Sweden’s religious (both pagan and Christian) centre. As a city, Uppsala is quieter and more academic than its more prominent sister down south, sort of like the Bibi Andersson to Stockholm’s Liv Ullman. Its rich heritage is well represented in the opulent displays at the Domkyrka (Uppsala Cathedral), Scandinavia’s largest; and Uppsala University, Scandinavia’s oldest. The cupola-topped Gustavianum shelters the world’s best-preserved anatomical theatre and cabinet of curiosities from the 17th century. Monuments to such notable natives as diplomat Dag Hammarskjöld and scientist Carolus Linnaeus also figure prominently in the city. A sweet treat and cup of fresh brew amidst dreamy-eyed students at Ofvandahls, a 130 year-old cafe, is the perfect capper to a jaunt round this university town.

Even the escalators at the world’s largest IKEA store are not spared as a venue to display this couple’s desire, to expand their nursery maybe

The next day wasn’t any warmer so we decided to salvage it with some retail therapy. At only around 6 Philippine Pesos to 1 Swedish Kroner, Stockholm turned out to be one of the most cost-effective European capitals I’d ever swiped my credit card in. This being the birthplace of Ikea and H&M, one can hardly visit without at least a peek into these shopping institutions. Swedish design from fashion to furniture has clearly vaulted to the top ranks of style setters’ esteem and so everything on sale was a guiltless good deal even in this time of crisis. I scored an awesome find for Father’s Day with a half-off watch by Axcent of Scandinavia and bath accessories from Hemtex to make Mom merry.

Wallets lighter, the long daylight hours still left enough time for more touristy clichés. This meant a trip to Stockholm’s soaring Kaknas tower for splendid views of the city and archipelago. At the foot of the tower stretch forests and fields, formerly part of a shooting range. An eerie vista of swaying wildflowers leads to the pet cemetery, the quiet calm making my hair prick up as the theme to Tales From the Darkside played in my head. That is, until some cross-country racers zipped by from out of nowhere, almost knocking us off the woodland path. Acting for all the world like Alice’s White Rabbit bounding off with an “I’m late, I’m late, I’m late!”, alarmingly fit Swedes of all ages ran around willy-nilly as they consulted their maps, watches and GPS, all while trying to avoid my click-happy camera’s sights. We ended up following them out of the woods on to a vast meadow filled with more racers and runners in addition to the odd horse-riders and kite-flyers — a wholesome, well-adjusted Wonderland if there ever was one.

Drottningholm Palace, the residence of the Swedish Royal family

continued in next entry, Turning Swedish

text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2009

Stockholm When It Sizzles

…continued from Sweden: Almost Asgard.

Sporty Swedes go racing and riding around the fields surrounding the Kaknas tower

First stop was Kungsträdgården (Swedish for “King’s Garden”). Filled with lightly dressed promenaders making the most of their walking and tanning time, this sprawling central park has something for every season, an ice rink in the winter, cherry blossoms in the spring, concerts and events in the summer. The outdoor cafes were all open, offering refreshing drinks and snacks, and unappreciated shade to park-goers while the going was good. With the gentle sunlight and fresh cool breezes of early June, you feel like you can walk the whole city for hours with just an occasional break for meatballs.

Sporty Swedes go racing and riding around the fields surrounding the Kaknas tower

I had yet to partake of a proper meal by then so I besought my guide to bring on the balls! We crossed the bridge to Gamla Stan, the city’s olden heart, where I was determined to make my hunger hold out until I could stuff my belly with the Swedes’ roundish meaty specialty (and I don’t mean babies this time). Unfortunately, we’d missed the lunch hour and so the kitchens of the more illustrious eateries had gone cold. But just down the main tourist drag, tucked in between shops selling postcards and horned Viking helmets, lay a charming little café that beckoned invitingly. In we went and their staff beamed with the pleasure of serving us. It was just the place for my first real meal in Sweden. The leather-bound menu was filled with Swedish-sounding dishes and the woodhewn interiors accented with Swedish-looking décor. Only one minor thing seemed slightly off. Based on their tight camaraderie and strong family resemblance, all the cooks and waiters seemed to hail from the same town, which by my best guess would be somewhere closer to Shanghai than Stockholm. As I enjoyed the yummy spheres of animal matter, I couldn’t help but wonder if they would do just as well wrapped in dumplings and dished out as dimsum. But dining there, deep in the ancient core of the Swedish capital, I was sure that when served with some gravy, lingonberry and the ever-present potatoes, these were balls that not even tennis legend Bjorn Borg would toss away. Reinvigorated by the meal, I had the energy to cross more bridges and climb a hill up to Bastugatan on Sodermalm, where I was treated to more lovely views from on high of charming Swedish architecture and sunbathing Swedes in various states of undress.

A film crew on a break from shooting a period scene at one of Skansen’s preserved traditional houses

Swedish meatballs

shrimp sandwich

With the weather getting hotter the next day, we tried to cool down by taking the ferry to Skansen. This extensive park is designed like an open-air version of “It’s a Small Sweden After All”, with transplanted historic houses and buildings from all over the country artfully arranged around typical Swedish flora, fauna and even craftspeople in traditional dress doing traditional things. I was impressed by the hugeness of the reindeer and the cuteness of the brown bear cubs, and couldn’t help but pay my respects to a majestic Siamese cat named (of course!) Bjorn Borg. But a lucky treat was stumbling onto a period film being shot right in the park. A heavy educational undercurrent runs through Skansen. Full of honest healthy fun it may be, but it’s also just not possible to walk through this outdoor museum without having learned something either scientific or historic. Most excursionists bring a picnic lunch or grab snacks from fast food stands but there’s a smartly appointed restaurant right in the middle, where you can gorge on smorgasbord or fussier cuisine, which is exactly what we ended up doing. Sipping cool sparkling water as the sun sweltered past the shade of the awnings, I made a quip about how much warmer it was than I’d wished, prompting my Swedish host to shush me in alarm. Apparently, such comments are heard as taunts by the Nordic Gods, and we would soon be in for it.

A potter at his wheel at Skansen

continued in next entry, Upp & About

text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2009

Sweden: Almost Asgard

Rush hour at Kungsträdgården metro station

Bleary from a restless night in Amsterdam, I boarded the extremely early morning KLM flight to Stockholm. I encountered a plane that was less than half-full, with the majority of my few fellow passengers being stereotypically calm, tall and blonde. Is this a portent of my days to come?, I mused. Was I about to wander into a real-life version of an Ingmar Bergman film set to ABBA songs, starring Greta Garbo as Pippi Longstocking and the Skarsgards as Vikings? If I drank enough aquavit and ate enough from a smörgåsbord, then jumped into a sauna, would the potent physiochemical reaction turn my Manila Bay black eyes to Baltic Sea blue?

The view of Riddarholmen from Sodermalm. The Riddarholmskyrkan, where Swedish monarchs are buried, towers over the Old Parliament Building and National Archives

I have to admit that Sweden is one of the more unlikely countries on my personal list of possible places to visit in my lifetime. It just seemed too up there and way too out there — the arctically stoic Scandinavians as exotic to us hot-blooded hispanicized Asians as we probably are to them — but that was before I knew any better. I’d had the pleasure to befriend some Swedes in Manila and they’d all been endearingly friendly, warm and welcoming, and now I had the chance to observe them in their natural environment.

A tree-lined path at the Drottningholm Palace gardens

As we descended onto Scandinavia, I wondered if my Holland haze had yet to fully dissipate since the richly emerald land masses below could, if you squint enough, pass for some parts of the Philippine archipelago. It was only as we approached the airport, which was surrounded by sprawling farmland and deciduous trees, that I began feeling pretty sure I wasn’t landing in Manila. Or was I?

As I shuffled into a relatively drab terminal that had seen better days, I wondered again if I hadn’t gone through the looking-glass right back to NAIA 1. Maybe my welcome to the capital of Scandinavia, among the first tier of the First World, land of Absolut and Volvo, may not be quite what I had envisioned. Were there cracks in the Tetra Pak?

A Hogvakten guarding the Royal Palace in Gamla Stan

Walking towards the exit, a series of larger than life-sized posters of Ingrid Bergman and Alfred Nobel lined the corridors as if to reassure us arriving passengers that yup, you’re in Sweden alright.

The airport-to-city bus helpfully displayed the temperature (a balmy 24 degrees Celsius) to confirm the sunny heat streaming through the windows, as furry brown bunnies hopped alongside us on the lush greenery spanning the highway. Where were the ice hotels and polar bears?, my tourist-from-the-tropics brain cried out. While my Swedish companion pointed out some royal estates and old cemeteries that we drove past as Stockholm-proper loomed, I was already wondering if I’d brought enough sunscreen to last the fortnight. But before I had any chance to get my bearings, we were already alighting from the bus at the central station, riding on the metro, dragging my heels and trolley wheels on a two-block walk, until I finally found a place to rest my weary suitcases again.

A nap then some strong coffee was all it took to make me feel ready to get out and explore. With the sun setting at almost 11 pm I knew I needn’t rush to catch the light. My thoughtful host had cleverly provided a week-long pass valid for use with almost all of Stockholm’s modes of transportation. As I flashed the pass at the calm, tall and blonde bus driver, Roxette’s opening line to their seminal Swedish hit Joyride (“I said hello, you fool…”) sparked through my musical memory circuits, and I smiled and thanked him with a sincerely grateful “tack!”

Sweden’s generous social benefits, including 16 months paid parental leave, help make encounters with rugrats such as these an unavoidable occurence around the country

At that odd hour, one thing caught my attention, or more accurately, I caught the attention of more than a few things — bouncing blonde blue-eyed baby things to be specific. I profess to no great fondness for human spawn, and I believe that they sense this perceived failing. Which is probably why as a group, they like to stare at me accusingly as if asking “how dare you not think I’m cute?” I’ve grown immune to this phenomenon among Filipino fetuses, but these Aryan infants were coming at me with a different tact and laser focus. And they were everywhere — strapped into backpacks, pushed in prams, bundled among the groceries. The Swedes were obviously getting it on, with competing teams of more and more attractive couples in a battle to breed the most beautiful babies. Whoever wins probably gets an exclusive Anne Geddes calendar, or maybe the cover of the next Cardigans album. Anyway, all of you fellow pedophobes have been warned.

continued in next entry, Stockholm When It Sizzles

Sun-loving Stockholmers by the waterfront at Riddarholmen

Northern Disclosure: Ilocos Norte

a spot of zen — in Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte.

Some of the best trips are borne from a minimum of preparation and a maximum of indiscretion. Planning an almost last-minute trip up to Ilocos Norte during the busiest time of the year is not the least stressful mission one can undertake, especially with foreigners in tow. It seemed rather foolhardy already, exploring longganiza land, famed for its pork sausages and dishes, while dragging along a Jewish friend. Defying the Holy Week rush, braving bumpy bus and tricycle rides, shrugging off dodgy weather, and coping with the peculiarities of Ilocano cuisine and culture, we persevered, arrived in one piece, and by Jove and Jehovah, resolved to have fun!

the foam can be deceiving — in Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte.

Laoag, the provincial capital, is a sleepy, simple city, a cozy, convenient pit stop from which one can plot out a game plan for the region. We spent a night at the comfy, friendly Palazzo De Laoag to recover from the tiring trip, get our bearings, and run some errands. For our first proper meal in Ilocos, we trooped to local culinary legend La Preciosa to try out some authentic Ilocano cooking. The funnily-named Poki-poki, a dish of eggplant sautéed with eggs, onions and tomatoes, was a hit among our quasi-kosher little party.

the ilocos sky and surf change with the winds — in Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte.

The next day in our adventure, we continued north to the crown jewel of Ilocos Norte – the beach town of Pagudpud. My previous tour of Ilocandia had only taken me as far up as Laoag, so this stretch was just as fresh to me as my foreign charges. As each town whizzed past our windows, we’d catch such show-stopping sights as waves crashing dramatically into cliffs, wide green swathes of rice and tobacco fields, the majestic lighthouse at Cape Bojeador and the windmills at Bangui. As we crossed over what seemed like a low hill, descending into a lush valley, the very air and light seemed to change. This was not the dry, dusty Ilocos Norte that textbooks teach, but a tropical coastal ecosystem all its own, an island within an island.

holy hole.

Reaching Pagudpud proper, we crammed ourselves into a tricycle and vroomed in the general direction of the beach. Whizzing down a narrow but solid road, picturesque hills, farms and flowers on either side, we had to dodge the odd water buffalo or farmer laying out rice stalks to dry, the grains forming golden sidewalks by the wayside. The resorts soon started mushrooming along our path. We caught glimpses of the coastline and the tops of palm trees, but the surf remained just a sound. So we dodged souvenir stands and scaled sand dunes, finally skidding down onto the seafront. And there she was…

Saud beach, immortalized incognito by Filipino cinema through many a melodramatic romance or cheesy musical extravaganza. But my movie memories paled in comparison to actually standing on this sunny spot, the smell of the South China Sea filling my lungs. Although never quite achieving the level of popularity and development as other Philippine beaches, there’s still something special about Saud. Even during peak season, with hordes of infant young building sandcastles and shrieking on banana boats in front of the main drag of resorts, it’s only a short stroll from its center to secluded coves and isolated stretches of beach, where you’d be lucky to stumble upon a lone fisherman or hermit crab. Wherever you choose to chill out along Saud, the windmills of Bangui spin lazily across the horizon, mesmerizing one into a quixotic daze. It was around that point, hypnotized by the whirl, when we decided to stay an extra day.

paying their respects to the religious figure

Maybe we could have just bummed on the beach indefinitely, but the rest of Pagudpud had a few more postcard-ready sights worthy of mention. So back into the trusty tricycle we go, the tight squeeze and twisty turns tempered by the bracing coastal breeze and wide blue sky overhead.

Kabigan falls

First stop on our hop was Kabigan Falls, a must-do if the tourism brochures were to be believed. There’s a mandatory paid guide for the hike up, and we got a particularly Nazi-like escort who kept up a no-nonsense pace as if she were leading us to a concentration camp. But as a young sage/popstar recently sang: “Ain’t about how fast I get there. Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side. It’s the climb!” I guess “Fraulein Falls Guide” was no Miley fan, so dutifully trudge up we did, clear streams and cows rambling calmly beside us, cloud-capped hills looming in our faces, with enough vividly-colored vegetation in every direction to get green burned into your vision. The 1.2 kilometers of exhilarating scenery along the way made the falls themselves seem almost like an anticlimax.

Patapat viaduct, scene of many a dramatic shoot — in Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte.

it may be blue but it sure ain’t calm. Maira-ira beach

Heading back down, the pressure of finding our way up gone, we hiked down at our own pace, breathing in great lungfuls of the fresh, moist air., practically smelling the oxygen. Next tricycle stop was the Patapat viaduct, yet another spot that lends itself well to cinematic purposes (a popular Korean TV series filmed its big romantic climax here). This elevated stretch of highway hovers 31 meters above Pasaleng Bay, snaking along the Cordillera Mountain Range for 1.3 kilometers. The view of tempestuous sea against towering stone, dramatic clouds brushing the peaks of forested hills, is truly Wuthering Heights-worthy. From there we motored on through a series of striking rock formations, eventually arriving at the vaunted blue lagoon at Maira-ira beach. Smaller and more secluded than Saud, Maira-ira’s attraction used to be its undeveloped isolation. But for good or ill, commercialism has crept into this once serene and secret spot. Several many-roomed resorts have sprung up just over the past couple of years and are seeing brisk business. Whereas before you could lie on the sand and hear nothing but the surf, now the lagoon resounds with laughing vacationers, howling in glee as the strong currents carry them back and forth like a carnival ride. Throughout the coast, we saw waves of all shapes and sizes, some powerful enough to challenge even top surfers.

the waves come in

But it’s body-boarding that seems to really have caught on, with bronzed mermen tirelessly throwing themselves into the water again and again, trying to catch that perfect patch of surf. As sunset falls, the restaurants and bars turn on their night lights, parents tuck in their tired kids, and the adults sit out under the stars for dinner and drinks. Nowhere near as bustling as Boracay or Puerto Galera, evenings at Pagudpud are more wholesome than fulsome. Depending on your outlook, you may either be pleasantly or disappointedly surprised at the dearth of foreign backpackers or big tour groups. We did stumble upon some raucous shows and impressive live music during our stay, but this was more the exception than the norm. For those bewitched by this northern siren, the beach, the breeze, and a beer are all that are necessary to bliss out.

– text and photos by Jude Defensor. first published in What’s On & Expat Newspaper, 2009

Mission: Vuitton. A Very Specific Summer Shopping Spree in Paris

I didn’t get to spend much time in Paris this time around, just half a day on my way from Madrid to Sable, a false terrorist alarm (a middle eastern looking boy had bounced his toy ball into spaces he hadn’t meant to) keeping me trapped for half an hour at Charles De Gaulle, leaving me with exactly 50 minutes to navigate the whole metro and catch the last high-speed train of the night (was in the station with barely 8 minutes to spare, and in my seat literally 3 minutes before it sped off). I’d never been so happy to catch a train in my life. By dusk I was safe in Sable, ready to de-stress. But that story’s for another post.

is that LV in the distance?

I then got to spend a whole summers’ day in the city on my way back up from Sable to Brussels. What a difference the weather makes! Although I was lugging my trolley all along the Champs and La Defense, I felt tons lighter than I did the last winter, maybe because I was wearing 60% less clothing and there seemed to be 60% less tourists on the streets. I was so glad to be back but so sad that my return visit was so fleeting.

the mothership!

Nostalgia aside, I had a mission to accomplish. My old, dear friend Kathy’s beloved Louis Vuitton handbag had been stolen in the operating room as she was performing a C section just a couple of weeks ago. My trip’s timing was fortuitous. I had now been tasked to acquire for her a replacement LV Damier Papillon straight from the source itself: the LV flagship store along the Champs Elysees.

this photo was taken in the LV store before i knew better

So briefed by my Parisian friends Marie and Anne, and my cousin Jamie (who used to work for LV) as to how to deal with the legendarily snooty LV staff, I breezed into the store’s doors with Kathy’s euros burning a hole in my pocket and dragging my not-quite-as-expensive-as-LV luggage behind me. As Marie had briefed me, the millisecond you walk in somebody (in my case, a big tall swarthy bald guy with a radio plugged into his ear) asks you whether you’re going to buy something. The magic word of course is “yes” and that makes all the difference. The 2nd question that Marie didn’t foresee was that I was also asked (probably due to all the travel gear, airline stickers and all, I was schlepping with me) and I quote: “From where did you fly in from?” A little bit flustered by this not being in the script, I quite honestly but literally replied “From Madrid.” And thanks to that faux pas, that’s when I discovered the fun in luxury shopping.

the last photo I snapped before big bald swarthy guy waved his finger in my lens “no no no photos!”

Moments later, I had been assigned my very own personal LV shopping assistant – Angelo from Madrid! Cute and curly-haired like a cherub, but probably twice as slick, Angelo seemed a teensy bit disappointed that I obviously wasn’t really from FROM Madrid, if maybe not by how I looked, then definitely through my not-very-native Spanish accent. But he seemed legitimately happy to be able to serve someone in Spanish and as we waited for them to bring down the last and only Damier Papilion in stock (lucky girl that Kathy!), a process which took some special authorization from on high before I could get my grubby hands on it (being the last unclaimed Damier Papilion in Paris and all), Angelo kept me amused and refreshed with conversation and Perrier. I’m not one to care much for  expensive handbags but I gotta admit that the way they pamper you, it really helps make you feel a lot better about forking over that much dough for one. Or maybe I just lucked out with Angelo. It was positively surreal though being in Paris and still shopping in Spanish.

ala bryanboy – the moneyshot. yes, it’s real, didn’t just fall out from the back of a truck!

After a quick stroll up to the Arc De Triomphe and as much summer sightseeing I could squeeze into 15 minutes, I headed off to La Defense, the modern side of Paris which I didn’t get to explore much before (and because of renovation work on that particular Metro line, I got a free ride that day! Yipee!). Continuing what has now become almost like a tradition for us when in Paris, I met up for lunch with Jussi and Anne, who just happened to be celebrating her birthday that day. This I couldn’t miss as part of my 2nd Parisian Mission: to deliver Jussi’s birthday present of Team Manila T-shirts (“smuggled” in my baggage) to Anne. I’d just spent the last 3 days staying with vegetarian friends in the French countryside so the skyscrapers around and the big beefy burgers we ate really made me feel more like the carnivorous city-boy that I usually am again.

Paris’s other arc

Right after lunch (which went on till 3) Jussi gamely accompanied me through the Metro (he had an extra ticket so another free train trip, yipee again!) seeing me off to the station to Belgium (from where he’d just arrived that day, ironically, hauling tons more luggage than I). Two hours later I was crossing the border, off to another adventure, other rendezvous-es, but now with a really expensive handbag making me really paranoid about losing my luggage.

La Défense’s Dark Tower

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first posted 2008

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Fine Food High. Dining Up in Baguio’s Manor

Baguio City

Baguio City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like a phoenix, the former American rest and recreation facility of Camp John Hay in the chilly hilltop city of Baguio in northern Luzon has risen out of the ashes of a devastating earthquake in 1990 and the withdrawal of the United States Air Force in 1991. It has now metamorphosed into a top destination for vacationers with its 5001 yard par 69 golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus, picnic grounds, eco-trails, and other leisure and tourist facilities. But the brightest jewel in the Camp’s cap is undoubtedly the Manor. The four-storey structure, designed to stand in harmony amidst its setting of towering pine trees and views of the majestic Cordillera mountain range, offers five-star service and world-class amenities. Its rich interiors of warm wood evoke the feel of Baguio at its most welcoming best. Above everything, what the Manor offers that really gets people to brave a trek up the zigzags road to get to Camp John Hay are the gastronomic delights at its premier dining outlet Le Chef. The “baby” of talented and charismatic superchef Billy King, Le Chef at the Manor has arisen as a de rigeur gourmand’s destination. The force and flair behind Manila fine dining institution Le Souffle, Chef Billy started cooking as a young boy in Ireland and proceeded to hone his craft in various top-drawer kitchens around the world. He then came to the Philippine where his heart found its home. “I think I’m more Pinoy than most Pinoys,” Billy reflects. “It’s fantastic being in the Philippines. This country has been so good to me. It has given me everything I have. And that’s happiness.” He unabashedly gushes about the friendships and opportunities he has found here and to his fellow expats he counsels: “Get to know as many Pinoys as possible. They’re fun. They love to party, sing and dance. And most importantly they love to eat. “

Chef Billy relates how his friends, Manor bigwigs Tito Avenceña and Heiner Muelbecker, approached him to take over as their head food and beverage man. He loved the idea, since it gave him the opportunity to get away from the exhausting hustle and bustle and intense competition in Manila.

The way Chef Billy operates is he relies on several key people who he trusts. He prefers to hire people who need a break, either jobless or novices. He runs his kitchen like a school. There is always 20 percent more staff than necessary, all undergoing constant training. To keep things fresh and innovative, Chef Billy believes in always mixing things up, never sticking to a regular dish or menu, or any fixed specialties. And despite his deep foundation in classical French cooking and huge respect for his profession, Mr. King still displays quite the rebellious streak. “I can’t follow rules. I break every rule in the book,” he admits.

But there’s one thing that Chef Billy never screws around with, and that’s the importance of good food. “Food is what I love. You can call it an obsession in a way,” he states passionately. “I hate to see food wasted and people that don’t care about food. When I get a complaint it breaks my heart and stays with me for days. It really hurts. I can only apologize and hope I’m given a second chance. But most have given me a second chance.”

With the orgasmically delicious dishes Mr. King seems to consistently dream up with ease, one can’t help but keep coming back to his cooking, not just twice, but multiple times. Who can resist the chance to check out his latest yummy concoction? “We’re always upgrading and changing, adapting our menu according to the seasons,” he explains. Being in Baguio allows him to be even more adventurous and ambitious. “There’s plenty of everything in the market. We create specialties from what we have here. I challenge my staff to do something different, come up with ideas and put something together. It’s good for them and for me. I can’t stand doing the same thing everyday.”

English: The replica of the Statue of Liberty ...

English: The replica of the Statue of Liberty in Camp John Hay in Baguio (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chef Billy and Manor General Manager Heiner Muelbecker’s next venture is the soon-to-open Manor Suites, a lavishly appointed structure rising beside the current Manor. Like a boy with a new toy, Billy enthusiastically talks about their plans for their re-imagining of the legendary 19th Tee diner which all aficionados of the old pre-quake Baguio remember with fondness and profoundly miss with an intense nostalgia. The Manor team has been hard at work on a 19th Tee for the new breed of Baguio-lovers. The kitchen is being built and menu being developed according to Chef Billy’s exacting and inventive specifications. “The menu will be very versatile,” he reveals. “I’m a great believer that not only adults, but also children should be given the option to eat healthy food. I’ve been working on a way to do affordable, healthy, quality fast food for a long time.” He does reassure us though that innovations aside, the diner will still feature the good old original American-era favorites nostalgia-hounds are sure to crave, like hamburgers, chilli dogs, and ice cream. And soda fountain buffs are sure to appreciate one detail where the new Tee will definitely improve on the old, Chef Billy reveals that they’ll be churning up their very own homemade ice cream. Cool Baguio weather and homemade ice cream, what more of an excuse does one need to move up to the Manor?

-text by Jude Defensor. first published in What’s On & Expat Newspaper, 2007

Holland From a Higher Plane

…continued from Bikes and Dikes

Back in Amsterdam, I was in for one last treat. Michael, a British expat and long-time resident of the Netherlands, invited me to his loft apartment atop a 300 year-old 5-storey building right between the Royal Palace and the red-light district. Buttressed by thick wooden beams that make the space feel like a huge, cozy attic, his home has its own rooftop garden where we sipped wine through the long sunny afternoon with the city spread out before us.

Drinking it all in among the flora and foliage of this unlikely spot, I realized how horticulture is such an integral part of the country’s fabric. As sombre as their architecture can be at times, the Dutch sure know how to touch things up with a well-placed row of tulips or spray of ivy. Their charm really creeps up on you, it’s not a massive all-out assault with everything pretty all of the time. Sometimes there’s gloom, and a little bit of doom, but then the country’s beauty blooms through and true.

After one last perfect zero-degree-cold Heineken at the Schipol airport lounge, I got on the plane back to storms and semi-sobriety in Manila. As we took off and ascended, I looked down at the Netherlands’ patchwork patterns, carved precariously from the invading tides and foreign powers, and realized how I’d expanded my consciousness simply by chasing the horizon and keeping my head in the clouds. Try puffing on that!

The Facts of Flight

KLM flies direct from Manila to Amsterdam daily. A nifty way of passing the time on the long journey is to study a few lessons in Dutch or other languages using the in-flight entertainment system. Besides the pampering and other perks (which you really come to appreciate on a 14+ hour flight), World Business Class passengers are also given a Delft blue porcelain figure of old Dutch canal houses filled with jenever. Now collectors’ items (some styles go for US$1000 at auction), there are 90+ different houses, one for every year of KLM’s operation, with a new house style introduced every year.

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