A Holiday in Paradise

A CLUSTER of over 7,000 islands (only 2,000 of which are inhabited)
sun-kissed beaches, simmering volcanoes, a sprinkling of historical
monuments, a wealth of flora and fauna, world class golf courses, bustling
cities, mega malls, a hospitable and friendly people, and other never
ending surprises (diving sites, hot springs, buried gold and unexplored
caves) are what make the Philippines a tourist's paradise. There is
something for everyone here - a rich tradition for the culture aficionado,
seascapes for water lovers, remnants of the past for heritage buffs and
history students and a little of everything for the average tourist.

A good place to start discovering the Philippines is by traversing the
length and breadth of Manila (which is in Luzon, the largest and
northernmost island) to unravel the many surprises it has in store. The
name Manila was originally derived from two words "May (There is") and
"Nilad (Mangrove plant") which grew on the banks of the Pasig river.

An important landmark in Manila is "Intramuros", literally meaning
"Within the walls". Intramuros was the site of Maynilad, the native
Tagalog settlement ruled by Rajah Soliman. It was conquered by the
Spaniards in 1571. Miguel Lopez de Legaspi founded the city of Manila over
the old settlement and built a fortress there. Named in honor of the
Spanish patron saint St. James, Slayer of Moors (Santiago Matamoros) whose
wooden relief decorates the main gate to the fort, Fort Santiago affords a
good view of Manila Bay.

To protect themselves from foreign invasion the Spaniards also constructed
a series of defenses - high stone walls, bulwarks and moats. The walls
stretched to 4.5 km in length - enclosing an area of 64 hectares - housing
churches, residences, palaces, schools, gardens and government buildings,
which is how it got it name.

During Japanese occupation in World War II, Fort Santiago became a hell
hole wherein thousands of civilians and guerillas died in the infamous
dungeon cells which lie below sea level leaving no room for escape at high
tide. It also includes the Rizal shrine, a museum in honor of Dr. Jose
Rizal - Philippine national hero who was condemned to death by a military
tribunal and executed by a firing squad - for inciting people to revolt
against the Spanish. On display at the museum are his personal effects,
his farewell poem, "Ultimo Adios" inscribed in different languages and a
flying frog which kept him company. The cell where he spent his last days
and the brass shoe prints that trace his path as he walked in chains to
his execution site evoke vivid images of this period in Philippine

Intramuros was almost totally destroyed by bomb attacks during World War
II. It was declared a Shrine of Freedom in 1950 by presidential decree and
has since been restored and protected.

A walk along the cobbled streets of Intramuros will take one to the
Manila Cathedral, the main Catholic church in Plaza Roma, Intramuros. Its
great cupola, stone carvings, rosette windows embellished with stained
glass lighting up its clerestory make for an imposing structure. Mosaic
artwork decorates three of its side chapels. The large organ with its
4,500 pipes came from the Netherlands and is said to be the largest in
Asia. The centre of the cross on the dome is a reference point of
astronomical longitudes of the archipelago. It is the sixth structure to
rise on this site since 1581, with fires, typhoons, earthquakes and war
alternatively playing havoc. Virtually destroyed during the war it was
rebuilt with the help of the Vatican between 1954 and 1958.

Talking of war, the United States military cemetery is a poignant reminder
of the scars of battle for it is here that the remains of 17,000 U.S.
soldiers who died in the Philippines during the World War II have been
buried. Not far from here is Forbes Park - the Beverly Hills of Manila.
This luxury walled neighborhood on McKinley road even has its own police
unit and opulent mansions. Family members of the Sultan of Brunei have
homes here.

Among other must sees is Tagaytay.

About two hours away (depending on the traffic snarls) past drives on
skyways or flyovers that stretch for miles, Tagaytay, located in the
Batangas Province in South Luzon, is the site of the famous Taal volcano.

It is the smallest, active volcano in the world and the only one located
in a lake. Stumped? Well it is like this. Right in the middle of the lake
is a mountain within which lies the volcano. The setting is indeed
exquisite with wisps of smoke emanating from the crater and the shimmering
blue waters of the lake fringing the mountain. Visitors can take a boat
ride to the mountain (from the town of Talisay) and then climb from the
base to the crater. Those not equal to the task can go on horse back. At
the summit one can actually see the water in the lake bubbling within the
volcano below.

Despite the hazards posed by the volcano the island has been attracting
migrants because of its fertile soil and rich fishing grounds. There is
the Mayon volcano, an active cone shaped volcano at Legaspi in Bicol which
is considered one of the most beautiful of its kind. It stands 2,462m high
and is famed for its perfectly symmetrical cone. The last eruption was at
the beginning of 1993.

If you like Spanish architecture, a walking tour of Taal town two hours
from Tagaytay ridge would be a good idea to reconnect with the lifestyle
of a bygone era.

The Pagsanjan falls is another tourist attraction not far from Manila,
famous for shooting the rapids (traveling quickly along the rapids in a
boat). It involves going on a canoe or banca paddled by two boatmen
against the strong current who steer it through the gorge with walls of
rock mass and vines. At the last major waterfall one can ride on a bamboo
raft that takes one through the cascading water to a hidden cave formed by
the walls of the gorge. More exciting is coming downstream at a thrilling
speed which is when one experiences the joy of shooting the rapids - there
are 14. Be sure to take a local Filipino or Pinoy along as the boat men
sometimes demand extra money over and above the fare. The route to
Pagsanjan from Manila is fascinating as it winds past the quaint
countryside - beyond the Jamaica hills, plant nurseries, bamboo houses,
hot spring resorts, pineapple plantations, buko pie, (tender coconut pie)
mango pie, parutsa (peanut brittle) stalls and pasalubong shops or
souvenir shops.

While on the road one cannot forget the colorful jeepneys which sport a
cheerful look with traditional designs and figures of horses painted on
them. Originally reconstructed jeeps left behind by the U.S. army after
World War II, the new jeepneys (some of which are Ford Fieras) continue to
remain a popular form of public transport.

No travelogue on Manila would be complete without mentioning its malls.
The megamalls in Manila (SM Megamall, Glorietta to name a few) are
something shopaholics would die for. Rows of shops in swank outlets stock
clothing, footwear, accessories, cosmetics, souvenirs and food.

If you want to go island hopping there is a lot else to choose from. Some
of the biggest islands are Mindanao, Palawan, Panay, Cebu, Bohol, Mindoro,
Masbate, Samar, Negros and Leyte. (Of the 7,107 islands only 500 are
larger than one sq. km and 2,500 are not even named.) Each island is very
different from the other in topography and natural attractions. While
Palawan has beautiful beaches and has the biggest reservation of
Philippine wildlife, Mindanao is dominated by mountain chains. Cebu city
in Cebu, referred to as the Queen city of the South, is the country's
second most important city. It is the shipping centre for the country and
is known for fashionable shell and coral jewelry and rattan furniture.
Ferdinand Magellan (1480 - 1521), planted the cross of Christianity here.
The impressive and ornate Taoist temple is also located here.

The province of Ifugao, for instance, is famed for its rice terraces.
Considered the Eighth Wonder of the World, they were constructed over
2,000 years ago by the Ifugao tribals using only their hands and primitive
tools. Resembling a giant staircase they are an awesome sight, rising up to
1,500 meter high and extending over 2,000 km. In Bohol, the Chocolate
Hills are a major attraction. They consist of about 1,200 haycock hills,
between 30 and 50m, covered with grass. At the end of the dry season the
grass is dry and chocolate colored looking like giant scoops of chocolate
in the centre of the island. Hence the name.

The world's smallest primate, the wee tarsier is found here. And for
trivia that will gladden the hearts of birdwatchers and wildlife
enthusiasts - more than 750 species of birds.

Davao is home to the Philippine eagle, the world's tallest in eagle
species, standing a meter tall, with a wing span of 20m.

The Philippines is also not without honeymoon destinations and summer
getaways and Boracay island with its white beach figures right on top. Not
for nothing has it been ranked among the best in the world. Veteran beach
combers vouch for the fact that they have never seen sand as fine and soft
as talcum powder than in Boracay and as white; so it is cool to feel even
under the scorching sun. What is more, the water is clear and not too deep
which makes it a delight for children and adults who do not know how to

Apart from Boracay's white beach there is Puka Beach, known for its rare
puka shells. Boracay is also among the Philippines' prime wind surfing
venues and is Asia's best board sailing destination offering endless
opportunities for water sports, scuba diving and snorkeling.

For a summer getaway, Baguio City - six hours from Manila by bus,
variously known as the City of Pines, and the City of Flowers, the summer
capital of the Philippines - is an obvious choice. Situated at an altitude
of 1,500m above sea level it has several scenic spots.

Yet another delightful aspect are the fiestas unique to each island
replete with music, dance, games, food, debate and theatre. The colorful
Ati Atihan festival in Panay, Philippines' own Mardi Gras so to speak, is
rated the most spectacular. It is a three-day fiesta in honor of child
Jesus to which revelers come in colorful costumes and masks and dance to
the beat of the drums.

If you do not have time to take in the Philippines at leisure, it is worth
paying a visit to Nayong Pilipino (recently closed) about 10 minutes
away from Ninoy Aquino International Airport, Manila. On a 45-hectare
site, the cultural/heritage centre showcases the architectural styles of
six regions of the Philippines - Ilocos, Cordillera, Tagalog, Bicol,
Visayan and Mindanao and the crafts typical of each. There are miniature
versions of the famous Mayon Volcano, The Rice Terraces, Chocolate Hills
and Magellan's Cross. The only regret a tourist may have is that the
houses of each region have not been traditionally furnished and instead
serve as souvenir shops. A jeepney ride through the sites is a bonus.
Nayong Pilipino also houses a museum of Philippine dolls, an aquarium, an
aviary, a garden of plants and a Philippine museum of ethnology. Music and
dance performances are a value addition that make for a complete
Philippine experience.

Rocked by earthquakes (of the political kind too) buffeted by typhoons,
the Republic of Philippines has demonstrated a resilience that only adds
to its appeal. With a little bit of homework and research one can list the
kind of spots that would fire one's imagination and seek them out in the
Philippines for a truly customized and memorable holiday.