Saturday, March 31, 2007

Cherry Blossoms

Cherry blossoms at Ueno Park
It's late March and the temperature is in the low 70's, enough to motivate local residents to get the picnic basket out and sit under the cherry blossom trees in Ueno Park. There's a full week to go before the white blooms turn pink but some trees are already showing a preview of Barbie pink blossoms.
It's a wonderful time to enjoy this shortlived phenomena. If you decide to go on the spur of the moment and brought no snacks or provisions for a meal, not to worry. There are food stalls and restaurants nearby. There is also a zoo, rides for children, and the Western Art Museum where Auguste Rodin's Thinker contemplates on what to wear for Spring.
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Image by Rosario Charie Albar

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Score on Boracay


Yes the beaches of Boracay have fine, white sand and its wonderful to burrow your feet into its warm recesses. The water is clear and cool. The coconut trees sway in the gentle breeze and offer much needed shade and the sunsets are showstoppers.

These things we already know about Boracay. But here’s what we haven’t heard or read about:

1. You take a ferry to Boracay from Caticlan for P30.00, a relatively inexpensive fare. But to this you have to add an environmental fee of P50 which you pay at a separate window and a terminal fee of P20 which is paid to a different cashier. If you travel after 6 p.m., there is a fare surcharge as well.

2. To get into the ferry (usually an outrigger), you have to walk a plank which measures about 1.5 ft. in width. Attendants will help you along but watch your step anyway. It gets tricky when you are carrying a bag or two. One of the passengers in our boat dropped his luggage in the sea. While an attendant dove to retrieve it, his clothes were all wet.

3. If you take a minicab into town from the harbor, the driver will drop you off at the station closest to your hotel. Since the best hotels are on the beach, you have to walk a short distance through narrow passages to get there. These routes are not pretty and it might dampen your expectations until you get to the beach. The cheaper hotels can be found in these alleys.

4. We were accosted by several pearl jewelry vendors as we walked along the stretch of beach. We enjoyed selecting from the array of siopao pearls which were being offered at reasonable prices. Bargaining is the norm. But even while eating at an outdoor café, we were approached by more pearl hawkers. This gets old fast.

5. If you think you have enough of pearl vendors, how about the fruit sellers, the tour salespersons, the restaurant, hotel and bar promoters handing out flyers, the tattoo artists, the masseurs on the beach? They’re all there.

6. Be prepared to get your feet wet if you happen to take a smaller ferry back to Caticlan. The boat will take you to shore but you have to wade in water when you get off. Wear flipflops to protect your feet.

7. If your idea of a holiday is to escape from it all, then Boracay is not the place to go to. It is a world famous beach destination and attracts many visitors. My friends stay away from Boracay during the summer season (from March to June). This is when the island is teeming with vacationers. If you want a relaxing time, go after the Ati-Atihan festival in late January. We visited in February and it was quiet and slow and the beach quite roomy.

Now that you have a fresh perspective of Boracay, you are better prepared to enjoy all it offers. We had a great time during our visit there. A friend had a massage on the beach and she loved it. Two friends had a tattoo (temporary) done. We bought beautiful shell jewelry from the many stalls around. We marveled at the site of emerald sea that turned to sapphire blue in the distance. And best of all, we didn’t have to rub elbows with anyone at the beach.

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Images by Rosario Charie Albar

Monday, March 05, 2007

On Lantau Island


The cable car ride from Tung Chung to Ngong Ping is a 5.7 km. stretch dangling above a tributary of the South China Sea and over rolling green hills of the North Lantau Country Park. Hiking trails crisscross these hills and there were a few hikers about. Suddenly through light rain and mist, we beheld the Tian Tan Buddha in the distance. It was a magical moment.

We got off at Ngong Ping Village where our first stop was the Tea House. I love to drink tea but have never done so in a tea ceremony. The ritual starts with the cleansing of tiny cups in a bowl of hot water. Then a spoonful of green tea is poured into a small pitcher filled with water heated to a temperature level that brings out the best of the selected tea. The guide transferred the tea to a filtered glass pitcher to remove the tea leaves. She then filled all our cups. Raising the cup to her nose she inhaled the aroma of the tea, just like wine. We followed suit. She took a sip of the tea. The first sip she explained is to quench the thirst. The second cup is to slowly appreciate the rich flavors and the third drink is for sheer enjoyment.

Fortified we made our way in the direction of Po Lin Monastery and started our climb to the Giant Buddha on top of the hill. About 200+ steps lead to the top for a close-up view of the 34-meter seated bronze Buddha, the tallest of its kind. It took 10 years to build the Buddha which sits on a lotus throne. There is a commanding view of the surrounding mountains and the valley below.

Hong Kong residents and our hosts, Kent and Wendy, had a special treat in mind when they took us to Tai O. The bus dropped us at the harbor and we walked the short distance to the dried fish market. Tai O is well known for its dried fish and seafood. As it was the Chinese New Year holidays, the restaurant we chose was packed with families celebrating the Year of the Fire Pig. Our hosts ordered the local specialties like shrimps with extra thick shell which is a little difficult to eat but is very juicy, deep fried bean curd sprinkled with salt and really tasty, Chinese broccoli, and a terrific dish of minced pork and squid topped with salted dried fish. It was incredibly good.

After lunch we strolled to the bridge and took a boat out to sea to watch for white dolphins. Our skipper took off like a speed maniac and the stilted houses passed like a blur. He didn’t let go until we were in open sea. We didn’t have to wait for long to see white dolphins bobbing in the water. It was exhilarating to be out at sea and see the rocky contours of the island. Returning to the village, we cruised through a community of stilted homes, with their laundry hanging out to dry next to pots of colorful flowers and an occasional raised dinghy. Tai O is dubbed as the “Venice of Hong Kong”.

The bus trip back to Tung Chung passes through the Park. It is a two-lane highway with enough twists and turns and is quite narrow in certain parts that buses have to stop at designated areas to let oncoming vehicles pass through. At this point I felt so relaxed I was ready to fall asleep.

Lantau Island is a far cry from the bustling streets of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon yet close enough for those in search of a quick restorative getaway.

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Images by Rosario Charie Albar

Saturday, March 03, 2007

The House that Sam Built


Aklan is well known as the jumping off point to the blindingly white sand beaches of Boracay. But it has another jewel worth visiting. This is the house that Sam built.

Sampaguita Gardens Resort and Spa in New Washington is only a few minutes from the center of Kalibo. It is a beachside complex with a non denominational Meditation Chapel, an Asian fusion restaurant, an aquarium, a Christmas cottage, a children’s playground called Sammy’s Circus, a butterfly farm and the house of Samuel J. Butcher, the creator of Precious Moments. Precious Moments is renowned worldwide for its unique figurines and dolls.

You enter Sam’s house through carved doors flanked by two enormous Chinese vases. Inside the cool interior of rich dark wood, is a collection of museum quality furniture and Oriental objets d’art. To the left of the main door, behind a glass panel is the library room with an antique Chinese bed. It has a wooden canopy with intricate carving. It would be difficult to concentrate on reading anything while reclining on the bed.

In the center of the living room, behind a graceful dancing Thai figurine, is a grand piano. A doll with angel’s wings and wrapped in Asian costume with trademark Precious Moments eyes, stands next to family photos on top of the piano. A still life painting of vase, lamp and white blossoms anchors the Oriental inspired decor. A rare landscape by Corazon Aquino, the former president of the Philippines, hangs in the drawing room.

The Christmas holiday season is a good time to visit Sampaguita Gardens to see the glittering display of Capiz shell lanterns and handcrafted Christmas trees. The green Victorian house with white and burgundy trim and shake roof is Jojo’s Christmas Cottage. It stands out in this tropical setting. It is a boutique full of dolls and colorful holiday crafts. The best buy here is the Asian Precious Moments doll.

Sam Butcher himself painted the murals in the chapel. His depiction of the Lord’s Prayer is warm with gentle humor. He’s portrayed a boy taking a cookie from the cookie jar. This scene is inscribed with the words, “Lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil”.

After a morning of exploration, the Oriental Flavors Restaurant is the best place to relax and stay cool while savoring the succulent steamed fish. No need to rush through lunch. There’s plenty of time to get to Boracay for a sunset drink.

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How to get there: Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific have daily flights to Kalibo.

Where to stay: Sampaguita Gardens Resort and Spa offers room packages. Their website is http://www.sampaguitagardens.com/.