We left PH just before midnight of November 17, 2012.  We arrived early in the morning the following day . . . giddy but raring to go.  The arrival process at the Immigration Counter was a breeze.  Our initial fear and apprehension turned into excitement when we saw our then future nephew-in-law already waiting for us at the gate.  And much to our delightful surprise, he brought us straight to Sydney’s world-famous Bondi beach.

Immediately after I stepped out of his car with the cold gushing breeze caressing my face, I knew this trip will be different: My first outside of Asia and my initial foray and fascination to anything “first world”.  After a short leisurely stroll on the beach and a breakfast of fish and chips on the sidewalk, we were off to a good start in Sydney.

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Sydney is scintillating and splendidly special.  It’s so picturesque and visually engaging that you can’t walk a few meters without gawking at its beauty and splendor.  I loved the way its natural and open spaces were tapped for common public use.  It’s a good model for third world countries to emulate.

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Strolling around Darling Harbor and Port Jackson, you can’t help but marvel at their paved covered walks that stretches from one end of the bend to the next.  I seethed with envy seeing how friendly their pedestrian walkways and access ramps are; encouraging one to walk instead of ride, or bike around instead of drive.DSC00766 (640x480)

Here – manicured landscape doesn’t have to be inside a gated subdivision or as pathways to a privately owned-mall or retail strip to be maintained.  It’s simply there: accessible, meticulously planned and devoid of manipulating pedestrian traffic for private gain.  And it’s clean , expansive and truly rejuvenating for early morning walks or late afternoon strolls.

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And then we saw their heritage sites – accentuated by beautifully landscaped parks and meandering walkways.  Like the one above: St. Mary’s Cathedral at Hyde Park – excellently and wonderfully preserved.  This majestic historical landmark with its medieval-like structure and imposing twin spires sits at the heart of the central business district.  But despite its location near and around the modern high-rises of Sydney – it doesn’t seem out of place.  On the contrary, it complements the surrounding vista; highlighting Australia’s unique way of merging the old and the new.  The same is also true with the recent transformation of the old Queen Victoria Building along George Street.

Downtown Sydney is like your typical first world city.  It’s modern, cold and buzzing with people going about in their hurried cadences but confident gait.  The mostly fast-food American giants that we’re accustomed to back home are not so prevalent here.  Instead, you see their own home-grown equivalents; dominating most of the coveted street corners in their city’s downtown.

2012-11-26 18.43.16Thus, you’ll see more of Hungry Jacks than McDonalds here, more Gloria Jeans than Starbucks and more of Coles or Woolworths than 7-Elevens or Mini-Stops.  And when it comes to your morning cup of joe, Australians take it seriously.  I was told they are steeped in coffee chutzpah and have their own highly-evolved coffee culture that Starbucks had it rough here when it entered the market. 2012-11-17 19.17.21We stayed at Ashfield Manor for the first leg of our stay in Sydney.  It’s a two-story bed and breakfast cum boutique hotel owned and operated by a charming lady (we were told) who, unfortunately, we didn’t get to meet.  Ashfield is a suburb in the inner west of Sydney and is roughly 7-8 kilometers away from the Central Business District.  A bus station is conveniently located in front of the hotel.

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This is Brisbane – Australia’s third largest metropolis and for me its most beautiful city bar none. This picture was taken from the view deck of Mt. Coot-tha — overlooking its central business district and the surrounding areas. Brisbane is vibrant, modern, beautiful and hip. While most tourists will think twice when choosing between Sydney and Melbourne, I’d go for Brisbane anytime. It’s not as crowded as Sydney and not as ethnically-diverse as Melbourne. I think it’s Australia’s most underrated city but a sparkling gem nonetheless.

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This is the view of downtown Brisbane from the 29th floor of MERITON Serviced Apartments along Adelaide Street; where my wife and I stayed for a couple of days.  A peak from our window gives you a spectacular view of the city’s skyline, the Brisbane river and, on a clear day, the Moreton Bay.  Four blocks away is the Queen Street Mall while just behind it is the River Boardwalk where some of the city’s chic and priciest restaurants line up.  A leisurely stroll along the propped up side of the river is a relaxing way to explore the city.  The path can lead you to the city’s business district through Eagle street; while walking further along will bring you to the city’s Botanical Garden.

Singapore was our family’s first trip abroad.  It was May 28 last year when all six of us left NAIA3 past eight in the evening aboard Cebu Pacific’s A320.  We arrived at Changi Airport’s budget terminal just before midnight.  Singapore’s old budget terminal (a new one is on the drawing board) looks cramped and spartan but is clean and efficiently designed.  It’s also free of hustlers and ambulant vendors; enabling you to exit fast after clearing their Immigration.  In our case, we simply headed to and registered with the officer-in-charge posted near the exit doors, stated our vehicle preference and waited for our ride.  It didn’t take long and we were on our way to this bustling city-state and ASEAN’s undisputed financial hub.  For S$ 50.00, we got ourselves a maxi-cab (a wagon-type family taxi) which, after loading all our checked-in bags and carry-overs, still had ample room to spare.

It was drizzling when we left the airport.  It took awhile before our Chinese-looking driver figured out where our hotel was.  Apparently, there were several inns with the same sounding name as Park View Hotel.  It’s along an inappropriately named street – the Beach Road – near Buguis Junction.  Make no mistake though:  There’s no beach there.  It’s actually decked with buildings left and right.

The three clean and comfortable rooms we booked online served as our base for the next four days.  Everyday after having our complimentary breakfast, we hurry out to exit  – always heading to our left, passing by Liang Seah Street on our way to Buguis MRT station – our default jump off point.  It was such a routine that, once we stepped out of the hotel, we never bothered going right.  It’s kinda funny now just thinking about it.  But it’s true.  The thought, perhaps, of getting lost in this urban jungle clouded our collective psyche and straight-jacketed our feet.

Singapore is a vibrant modern metropolis that can feel distant and aloof.  It’s glass, concrete and aluminum structures punctuate its cold amenity. And a seemingly unwelcoming buzz.  But there are also pockets of green and leafy shades that offer refuge to tired and weary strangers.  The Esplanade Park easily comes to mind:

Nestled near the mouth of the Singapore river, the park is a cheap place to stroll around and spend lazy afternoons with friends and loved ones.  If you’re pressed for time but want to explore it nonetheless, there are bikes and skates for rent in strategic locations.

 

This one’s a belated post.  It’s actually more than 4 years late.  But the sights and memories are still fresh and the promise of BIMP-EAGA – especially for our beloved Mindanao – remains strong and just now unfolding.  At that time, going to Indonesia on a few days notice was not my idea of a fun-filled trip. I was a late filler to a group of travel agents who got invited for a familiarization tour to promote the revived Davao-Manado flight.  The idea was to push the sagging East Asean Growth Area initiative thru intra-ASEAN travel and tourism.  My sister-in-law, who could not make it, facilitated my inclusion.  It was a grab or miss thing. And I took it . . . boarding my first foreign airline courtesy of Indonesia’s Sriwijaya Air.

We arrived in the city of Manado late afternoon and I immediately felt queasy going through Indonesia’s immigration protocols.  Sam Ratulangi International Airport is dry and airy, unmistakably Asian in look and feel but obviously in need of a renovation.  Or maybe even just a fresh coat of paint.  It reminds me of the old Davao Domestic Airport in Sasa.  But make no mistake about it:  It may look small and weary but it’s busy and buzzing with tourists looking ready to spend not just a few bucks: white, yellow,  brown-skinned busy-bodies hulking their gears and equipment in one hand and their bulging bags with the other indicating they won’t be staying here for just a few days.

A few minutes after being whisked downtown and catching our first glimpses of the city’s landscape, I was startled to see more church buildings than mosques.  I saw “Baptist”, “Evangelical”, Lutheran”, “Methodist” written on doorposts and at least two Catholic-looking church buildings standing on prime locations.  For a while I couldn’t figure it out.  Then it dawned on me: there are more Christians here than Muslims.  That was a pleasant surprise.  Indonesia after all is the most populous Muslim nation in the world and yet we saw strong Christian influences all over.  Mindanao has so much to learn here.  Really.

For 3 full days, we explored the city of Manado and the nearby towns of North and South Sulawesi.  The sprawling Hotel Santika, where we stayed, served as our base.  The resort, facing Bunaken island, felt like Davao’s Waterfront Hotel (facing the island of Samal) but with larger and better amenities.  I have no complaints really.  Except the food.  We got served hot and spicy Minahasa cuisine – morning, noon and night.  Not only in Santika but everywhere we ate.

On our first day, we had shopping at their one and only mall at that time – Manado Mega Mall – and had our few hundred pesos exchanged to tens of thousands of rupiahs in one of the outlets outside.  If my memory serves me right, the peso-ruphia exchange rate then was 1:228.  Yes, we felt “loaded” but only for a little while.  Prices there were steep.  Even so now I would suppose.  We were treated to a Minahasa Highland Tour the next day.  We passed by the flower city of Tomohon on our way to a Buddhist temple and had lunch at a roadside restaurant overlooking Lake Tondano – the largest lake in Sulawesi.

While it has a thriving fishing industry, Manado’s increasing draw is diving.  Bunaken National Marine Park and Lembeh Straits are the two lynchpins to this draw.  They pack in the beach-loving leisure-seeking beginner-divers as well as serious dive enthusiasts from around the world who then laze around for days in the many white sand beaches of North Sulawesi.  We checked out one of their many dive centres not far from the hotel and came out impressed by the comprehensiveness of their dive packages.  A day trip to Bunaken Island aboard a transparent glass-like floorboard displayed the richness and diversity of their marine life.  Truly for them, tourism has richly paid back their renewed commitment to protecting their reefs and sea beds.  I can only hope that we’ll reap the same for our Davao gulf.

This is my second visit to Dumaguete – the center of trade and the provincial capital of Negros Oriental. Dumaguete is quaint, laid-back but refreshingly vibrant and hip.  Dubbed the City of Gentle People, it has one of the lowest crime rate in the country and one of those up and coming tourist and BPO destination that’s on its way to progress and prosperity.  I can only hope that the city government manages this well and avoid the pitfalls that have ensnared other emerging cities who are so in a hurry to fast track their transition.

Nestled at the southeastern tip of Negros facing the island of Siquijor, the city is home to the tree-lined promenade along Rizal boulevard overlooking Tanon Strait.  If you are staying overnight, Bethel Guest House  would be a good place to stay.  It’s clean, cheap and gives you a commanding view of the sea.  It’s just across Rizal boulevard where you can bay-walk safely even at night while enjoying the sea breeze gushing on your face.  On a clear day, you can actually see the contours and landscape of Siquijor and the inviting white-sand beaches dotting its coast.

There are at least a dozen decent restaurants within walking distance from Bethel Guest House; most of them along Rizal boulevard and some of them owned and operated by foreigners serving European cuisine. Check out Lab-as Seafood Restaurant along Flores Avenue near the seaport terminal if you’d rather stick close to the homey and the familiar.  If you’re after the cheap kind, though, there are several barbecue stalls lined up near the seawall going to the port when dusk breaks.  They magically disappear during the day; thankfully maintaining the immaculate clean look of the city’s showcase for tourists and picky travelers looking for a photo-op.  Visit Dumaguete now while the city is still simple, relaxed and easy-going.  It won’t be like this soon.

ayala-cebu11Ayala Land’s property arm in Cebu recently opened The Terraces – a circular two-storey cluster of coffee shops, resto bars and chic restaurants in lush alfresco settings.  Unveiled last year and just a few weeks before Christmas, Ayala Cebu Mall’s expansion is now the hottest meet-up-and-say-hi venue in town; the sort of “in-place” thing to see and be seen.  Nestled at the center are well manicured lawns and gardens (larger, better and greener than those at Greenbelt Makati) complete with man-made water falls and fully grown tropical plants; further accentuating the greeneries.  There’s also a convenient pathway to and from the Cebu Marriot Hotel; affording its guests some last minute shopping or quick make-overs prior to lunch-meetings or dinner dates.   This latest vote of confidence in Cebu is another feather to its cap; cementing its hold as the preferred destination and investment site in the country south of Metro Manila.