After a little more than a week of fun rest and recreation peppered with work — it was a working trip, after all — we’re back in the cold arms of New York. It was a little hard adjusting back to the wintry weather specially since there was a snowstorm when we returned as we bade goodbye to the 90-degree December weather back home.
Late last month, the Tourism Promotions Board of the Philippines (TPB) in cooperation with the Philippine Consulate General of New York, the Department of Tourism and Philippine Airlines invited members of the Fil-Am media in New York and New Jersey for a quick familiarization tour of the Philippines.
Our tour had two legs – Manila and Davao. DOT and TPB have been active in promoting various Philippine destinations to show that there are literally thousands of islands more to visit aside from Palawan and Boracay, which are both lording it over when it comes to polls on Best Islands or Best Destinations.
I’ve been to Davao City multiple times in the past, but the last one was around 20 years ago so I was just as excited as my colleagues to see what’s new in the city dubbed as the largest in the country in terms of land area. And if you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of years – breaking news! – Davao City has been hogging the national limelight because it is home to the first elected Philippine President from Mindanao.
Such was the lure of Davao that even the Ambassadors Tour this year brought more than 200 delegates from the United States to the King City of the South. Many are curious about the hometown of the current president, who served as mayor of this city for 3 three-term periods – from 1988 to 1998, 2001 to 2010 and 2013 to 2016.
We had a packed itinerary expertly prepared by the TPB representatives led by Michelle Alcantara and Albert Gadia who joined us in both legs of the tour.
We spent about 36 hours in Manila upon arrival from New York. The PAL flights that leave JFK before midnight arrive in Manila around 10:00 am, skipping a day. We had an early check in at Marriott Hotel and we had time to freshen up before a heavy brunch, then proceeding to Manila for a quick stop at Rizal Park and a tour of Intramuros, the walled city.
Marivic Cometa, our tour guide, was armed with intricate knowledge, historic trivia, facts and figures and she made sure that we were not just walking down memory lane, we were also re-learning our history.
We also had an abbreviated visit at the San Agustin Museum adjacent to the church as we looked at some of vestments worn by friars back then along with ivory hands of religious images and relics from the Galleon Trade.
We crossed the street to Casa Manila for an ultimate throwback, to the days when rich Filipinos or Spanish familias owned the biggest houses in the city.
During the welcome dinner tendered by the city government and attended by numerous city and tourism officials led by Tourism Operations Officer Generose Tecson, our hosts made sure that we felt right at home.
Our city guide this time, an affable guy named Ervin, made sure that we were filled with information and stories. It was through him that I first heard of the phrase “martial love” as he explained that Davao residents call martial law that.
We also met with Department of Tourism Regional Director Roberto Alabado III at a bustling seafood place similar to the shrimp and crab restaurants that have become famous across California in recent years.
We learned that Davao City is represented by four icons: the Philippine Eagle, Waling-waling, Durian and Mount Apo, each one with its own bragging rights.
The Philippine Eagle, also known as the monkey-eating eagle (they dropped the moniker because of the violence it connotes) or the great Philippine eagle, one of the three largest eagles in the world. It is said that Davao City (which shares territorial jurisdiction with North Cotabato over Mt. Apo) is now the last remaining habitat for this critically endangered species.
Waling-waling on the other hand is called the “Queen of Philippine Orchids”. It is the rarest, most beautiful and most expensive among the thousands of orchid species in the country.
And who doesn’t know durian? We sometimes see this “King of Fruits” sold on the streets of Chinatown in NYC. People we asked either love or hate this fruit with a passion. Others refuse to eat it and are turned off by the distinctively strong odor of the fruit. There are plenty of souvenir stores selling durian byproducts such as pies, tarts, candies or even coffee.
Mount Apo is the highest peak in the Philippines – that much we learned from our geography lessons back in grade school. Little did we know then that it is a dormant volcano located between Davao City, Davao del Sur and North Cotabato.
Our Davao leg felt rushed, but we only had a few days so our schedules were filled.
Hijo Plantation Resort
Located about an hour and an half drive from Davao City is Hijo Resort and Banana Plantation, one of the oldest banana and coconut plantations in the country. It has now evolved into a resort catering to the modern and environmentally conscious traveller.
We toured the sprawling beach, cruised along Madaum river passing through
mangroves and finally went through the lush and verdant forest and plantation and to relieve stress, practiced target shooting and ax throwing.
It was like being on the set of Jurassic Park but instead of T-Rex and his velociraptor friends welcoming us, long-tailed macaque monkeys and wild boars did as this was home, their natural habitat.
Hijo is the first and only eco-agri tourism destination in the Philippines so far. The resort offers 23 bedrooms and villas and they are committed to promoting conservation, sustainability and harmony by providing their guests an extraordinary travel experience.
The group had a great time at this tour, learning how bananas are exported to Japan, Korea and other countries the same day that they are harvested in Tagum.
We returned to the city for a quick visit to the Magsaysay Park where we caught a glimpse of the city’s rich history and culture through the Kadayawan Village, home of the 11 tribes of Davao City. Replicas of these indigenous peoples’ traditional houses stand side by side as representatives showcase their tribes’ ingenuity and craftsmanship.
A quick visit to the night market and the Aldevinco in the city center allowed us to buy more trinkets, memorabilia and pasalubong to our friends and family. From malong to necklaces, medallions to wallets, shirts to pearls, Aldevinco remains as the place to be.
Pearl Farm & Samal Island-hopping
Samal Island, an island city situated immediately off the city’s coast in the Davao Gulf is popular for its scenic beaches. With a 116-kilometer stretch of beach (72 miles), the island boasts of around 70 resorts.
Pearl Farm, of course, is the crown jewel here. We stayed at the Samal House, those beautifully designed homes on stilts overlooking the pristine waters.
Each suite has a balcony with really comfortable seating and I imagine myself with a cup of coffee and a good book with the perfect Davao Gulf view. Too bad we didn’t have enough time to do that but I figure those on vacation will find this activity hard to beat.
With two private beaches, two pools, a spa, a game center and a restaurant that serves great food, Pearl Farm is a dream vacation waiting to happen. Add to that the variety of water activities the resort’s Aqua Sports Center offers and we have a deal. Adventure seekers will truly enjoy jet skiing, windsurfing and snorkeling as they hop from one area to the other.
While no longer an actual pearl farm, the area is still famous for their meter-long cultured clams and the more adventurous in our group had a fun and noisy time in exploring the coral reefs and giant clams of the Davao Gulf.
For larger families and clans celebrating milestone events such as weddings or anniversaries, the villas at the Pearl Farm are a must. Designed by famous architect Bobby Manosa, these three-story villas offer amazing views of the water no matter where you choose to sit – by the spacious living room area or on the third floor bedroom.
I personally would have wanted more time to explore Malagos Garden Resort and the Philippine Eagle Foundation and Nature Center, a twin destination where visitors and their families can enjoy a full day exploring both sites.
Entering the Malagos Chocolate Museum was an experience like no other. I can smell chocolate wafting in the air as we were introduced to the history of the place and how it has been coming up with high quality chocolate worthy of global awards.
The 230-square meter museum is a must-visit when in Davao so one can witness and experience the “tree to bar” concept. The cacao beans are harvested from the 30-hectare property across the resort.
Our guide told us that the rich soil and favorable climate in the area make it ideal to grow cacao, particularly the ‘trinitario’ (a cross between the Criollo and Forastero) which is considered one of the finest cocoa beans in the world.
I suddenly remembered Tony Meloto of Gawad Kalinga in one of his talks in Boston years ago where he said that Switzerland does not produce any cacao beans and yet Swiss chocolates are top of mind. That actually got stuck in my mind and since then, I have found myself looking for chocolates made from Philippine cocoa beans.
I’ve seen quite a few brands that made it big – Theo and Philo, Risa, Hiraya, among others, joining Malagos on the list. These Filipino brands are now purveyors of ethically-sourced cacao beans made into craft or artisanal chocolates, joining a handful of American companies such as Askinosie in promoting and raising the profile of Philippine cacao beans globally.
In recent years, Malagos has hogged the headlines for winning awards in various categories. At the Salon du Chocolat, Mondial du Chocolat and du Cacao (Paris Chocolate Show) in Porte de Versailles, Paris, France, the cacao beans from Malagos were chosen as one of the best 50 samples from a total of 166 samples received from 40 countries for its 2017 edition. This was also the first year that the Philippines has participated at the Salon du Chocolat, which makes the victory of being included in the best list taste even sweeter.
Imagine a generation of young Filipinos now who can brag that some of the world’s best chocolates can be found in the Philippines. Make no mistake, we still love the local chocolates we grew up with – Flat Tops, Curly Tops, Chocnut, Cloud 9 – in fact, we still buy them in Filipino stores when we get a chance.
We were transformed into kids as the tour organizers told us we were going to make our own chocolates. They ushered us into a chocolate laboratory, gave us aprons, hairnets and a tray where we’d put our key ingredients. I chose dried ginger, dried mangoes and pili nuts for my chocolate collection.
It is a fun and enjoyable activity for the entire family, and it is just one of the many activities that can be done at the sprawling resort, which is also an accredited wildlife farm. It is home to butterflies, indigenous birds and other species as well as a collection of flowering plants, orchids and fruit trees.
Food & People
In the end, it will boil down to the food and the people – the reason why a trip to the Philippines is always fun and memorable.
From Marriott Manila’s sumptuous buffet spread to Grind Bistro’s inventive offerings to Seda’s pomelo salad and Hijo’s farm-to-table fare at The Spot; from Café Romulo’s classic Filipino favorites to Dampa’s seafood delights to the dishes served on the boat or overlooking the islands – we enjoyed eating authentic regional cuisine as well as tasting our traditional favorites, those that we rarely get to devour.
Then the people we met – TPB reps Michelle and Gadia, our guides Marivic and Ervin, Jobelle and her team at Belle Horizon, among others – who made sure that the schedules they set were followed, and always gave beyond what was expected.
As overseas Filipinos, we will always go back to the Philippines no matter what. Chances are however, that we will only be spending time with friends and family in Manila or wherever we come from. Why don’t we allot an extra few days so we can also visit what the rest of the Philippines offers, those islands that we only get to see on international travel magazines getting top awards and those ones that are harder to get through but are gems nonetheless.
An extra 3 to 4 days could allow you to see the islands – Boracay and Palawan are both an hour plane ride away, or if the highlands are your thing, Tagaytay or Baguio.
Or better yet, hop on a plane for that 80-minute ride to Davao and bask under the glorious sun on the white sand beaches of Pearl Farm and when you’re tired, trek the forest and enjoy the mountainside at Hijo Resorts or Malagos and commune with nature.
This kind of trip is perfect for couples who are honeymooning or even for those who just want a romantic getaway, great for families who want to have some bonding time activities away from Netflix and Playstation and a major booster for individuals who may be feeling a little low due to a variety of reasons.