Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Malaysia: Low's Peak of Mount Kinabalu in Sabah (4,095 MASL)

Mount Kinabalu is the rooftop of Borneo and the most prominent peak in Southeast Asia. Words cannot describe how I felt as I stood on Low's Peak, the highest point of Mount Kinabalu at 4,095 meters above sea level. It was a challenge to get up there, an ordeal even. But the view from the top was nothing but breathtaking.

After a previous attempt to reach the summit of Mount Kinabalu last year, I finally conquered the mountain during the Pinoy Mountaineer Mount Kinabalu Expedition 2011. But more than that, I tested my own limits.

This year was extra difficult. Although the weather was expected to be good, the La Niña made everything so unpredictable. So on the way up to the Laban Rata Rest House, we had to deal with rain and the resulting slippery and muddy trail. Just like last year, I slowly inched my way up the steep 6-kilometer trail to Laban Rata for 8 grueling hours as we all know I'm not as physically fit as I should be.

That night in Laban Rata, the 30-member expedition was praying for a miracle, that the skies would clear the next day as we made our assault to the summit. Our prayers were answered. We were gifted with a very beautiful morning.

It was another 2.7 kilometers to the summit. Our group left Laban Rata a few minutes before 3 a.m. and nearly missed the cut-off at the Sayat-Sayat Hut. You have to reach the checkpoint at 5 a.m. But thank God we were allowed to continue despite arriving a few minutes late since the weather was relatively good.

Despite feeling weak and having to bear the chilling cold weather, the grandeur of the summit, and a lot of prodding from my friends, helped me inch my way to the top. As promised, I am posting a photo of myself and Gideon Lasco of Pinoy Mountaineer at Low's Peak.

Pinoy Mountaineer has gone a long way since we created it in 2007. It has changed the face and culture of mountaineering in the Philippines and opened the doors even to non-climbers who simply want to have fun and experience our mountains. And we have Gideon to thank for that! The mountains of the Philippines belong to everyone.

I got to enjoy the view from Low's Peak for quite a while. In fact, I had the summit all to myself since me and my guide were the last to make our way down.

As if reminding us that the clear morning was simply a prayer answered, it started to drizzle as we descended from the summit. Then the drizzle turned into a light rain. The rocks started to get really slippery. And there were portions of the trail were I had to hang on to the rope for my dear life as I maneuvered through a steep cliff.

And then, when we thought things were already bad, the sky opened its floodgates and released a torrential downpour that transformed the trail into a cascading stream. So we had to deal with that from the Laban Rata Rest House all the way down to the Timpohon Gate. But no doubt, those few minutes when the heavens opened for us was worth the effort.

Anyway, for more information on Mount Kinabalu, check out Kinabalu Park & trekking up Mount Kinabalu in Sabah. But with the success of this year's climb and to make it easier for everyone who wants to climb Mount Kinabalu, we're organizing the Pinoy Mountaineer Mount Kinabalu Expedition 2012. And as early as now, you can reserve slots by e-mailing expeditions@pinoymountaineer.com.

Thank you to all those who joined the Pinoy Mountaineer Mount Kinabalu Expedition 2011! And thanks to Gideon Lasco, Pam Aquino and Jim Mejia for sharing their photos. For more photos, visit the Ivan About Town Mt. Kinabalu 2011 Facebook album.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Bonifacio Global City (BGC) is Metro Manila’s foodie haven

The next premier district of Metro Manila, Bonifacio Global City (BGC) continues to grow and expand as new sectors are built and with it, the number of restaurants which offer a wide variety of choices for foodies like you and me.

The thing I like about BGC is the wide variety of choices located in different sectors such as Serendra, Bonifacio High Street, The Fort Strip, Burgos Circle and Market Market, among other areas. While many restaurants are on the high end, I consider Market Market one of our best hawker centers in the country where you can get local Philippine street food, dishes, and other local delicacies everyday at their food court. And then there is Mercato Centrale during the weekends.

Another thing I like about BGC is that it’s easily accessible from both EDSA and C5. Plus you don’t have to deal with traffic jams when you’re there, so it’s very easy to move around. I really like scheduling my appointments in BGC since aside from the food there being good, the area is conducive to meetings.

I find myself in BGC quite often for gatherings with friends and colleagues. Here are some of the restaurants I’ve visited:

Dinner at Mamou was simply sumptuous. The thing I like about Mamou is that it’s a family run restaurant and the service is very personal.

For starters, we had the Healdsburg’s Salad (Php325) which is greens with sweet tomatoes, topped with glazed pecans, dried cranberries, and cranberry stilton cheese, served with berry vinaigrette.

We also had Lorenzo’s Truffle Cream Pasta (Php385) which is spaghettini served al dente with truffle flavored cream, topped with Grana Padano cheese.

But the piece de resistance for the night was a 28-ounce slice of Dry Aged USDA Prime Grade Bone-in Rib Eye Steak (Php3500). They served it in warm plate swimming in its own fat. Sinful and deadly, but super tender and very flavorful, it was definitely a winner! I’m sure everyone who’s been to Mamou can attest to the fact that they serve some of the best steaks in town.

Steaks also come with two side dishes such as red or white rice in various flavors, creamed spinach, and corn pudding which was my favorite.

To end the night, we had a slice each of Key Lime Pie with “Schlagsahne” (Php180) and Dark Chocolate Sans Rival (Php145).

Note that Mamou is usually fully-booked, so it’s best to reserve. They are very strict with times and have two dinner sittings. The first sitting is from 6 to 8:20 p.m. and the second from 8:30 p.m. onwards. So if you arrive late for the first sitting, don’t expect to stay beyond 8:20 p.m. It’s a testament to how sought after this restaurant is. Mamou is located in Serendra.

Probably one of the best French restaurants in the metro, Cuillere was another dinner to remember. For starters, they serve their really soft mini baguettes with herbed butter which is among their specialties.

Of course, their French Onion Soup (Php225) is to die for. This beef broth with slow-cooked caramelized onions and croutons, topped with Guyere cheese gratin is another bestseller.

For our main courses, we had Seabass on Black Ink Risotto (Php795) and Lamb Riblets (Php495). The seabass is pan-seared and served on risotto with Grana Padano slivers. While the lamb riblets are braised then grilled, and served with ratatouille mint rice.

Dessert wasn’t on the menu. But we were in heaven as we savored their Flourless Chocolate Cake. Culliere is also located in Serendra.

The Stock Market
Bonifacio High Street also has some interesting food finds. I didn’t realize that the Bistro Group, which includes Friday’s and Italianni’s (both have branches in Bonifacio High Street), has a new restaurant. The Stock Market is now part of the group which is great since I have a Bistro Frequent Foodie card.

I was hungry when I had lunch there so I ordered quite a lot. For starters, I had the New England Clam Chowder (Php130) which was served really warm and was very rich and creamy. I noticed they also had Kamias Shake (Php140). I usually don’t order drinks but since I wanted to try something different, I ordered a glass.

For the main course, they suggested I have the Baby Back Ribs (Php495) served with The Stock Market’s special barbecue sauce. I noticed that another dish had a ‘must try’ note beside it. So I also ordered the Pork Tournedos Espagnole (P425) which was grilled pork tenderloin served really moist and tender together with potato wedges.

For dessert, I had a serving of really firm Panna Cotta (P225) served on honey with chopped walnuts. It was a perfect way to end my lunch.

Where to eat in BGC
From street food, hawker stalls, local delicacies and Filipino favorites in Market! Market! to fine dining options all over, no doubt that BGC is Metro Manila’s foodie haven. And it continues to grow as more areas are developed.

Bonifacio High Street offers popular choices such as Friday’s, Italianni's, Brothers Burger. All the known coffee shops are there too such as Starbucks, Seattle’s Best, Coffee Bean and Figaro. And Krispy Kreme has become my favorite hang-out, not just because of the donuts, but because of the free WiFi. So I can easily work there or spend the afternoon just passing time.

There are more restaurants in BGC. So to help you out, here is a directory of restaurants in Serendra, Bonifacio High Street, Fort Strip, and the rest of BGC:

Bonifacio Stopover
7 Eleven
Chicken Bacolod
Country Style
Dayrits Burger and Roast Beef House - (02) 8180168
Gloria Jeans
Pancake House
PastaRoni - (02) 7035520 / 8289670
Pho Bac - (02) 8156529
Pizza Hut
Red Ribbon
Reyes Barbeque
Shiok - (02) 4666291
WingKings - (02) 7758229

Bonifacio High Street
2nd's (B3) - (02) 8465293
Agave Mexican Cantina (B3) - (02) 4036003 / 4035865
Bo's Coffee (B1)
Brothers Burger (B5) - (02) 8562405 to 06
CAV Wine Shop & Cafe (B8) - (02) 8561798
Claw Daddy (B6) - (02) 8564785
Club 7th High (B4) - (02) 8561785 / (0917) 2597452
Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (B8)
Figaro (B5)
Italianni's (B5) - (02) 8564094 / 8563890
Kabisera ng Dencio's (B4) - (02) 8565543
Kirin Chinese Dining (B7) - (02) 7999338
Krispy Kreme (B2)
Mini Shabu-Shabu (B6) - (02) 8563005
New Orleans (B6) - (02) 8564326
Oliver's Super Sandwiches (B6) - (02) 8566457
Pancake House (B4)
Seattle’s Best (B3)
Starbucks (B3)
Texas Roadhouse Grill (B1) - (02) 8561547
T.G.I. Friday's (B3) - (02) 8562996
The Stock Market (B3) - (02) 8566301

Fort Pointe
Kaiseki - (02) 8891005
Pasto - (02) 8841592
Toyz Cafe - (02) 8877934
Zong - (02) 8890472 / 8890479

Abe Restaurant - (02) 8560526
ArAma - (02) 9013836
Balducci Ristorante - (02) 8560676
Brazil Brazil - (02) 8560671
Café Mary Grace - (02) 8560858
Cafe Via Mare - (02) 8565944
Chelsea Market & Café - (02) 9097011
Chucks Deli - (02) 5764210
Conti's Pastry Shop - (02) 8562352 to 53 / (0922) 8473005 / (0917) 3226684
Cuillere - (02) 8563325
Cupcakes by Sonja - (02) 8560308
DUO Steakhouse & Wine Bar - (02) 8561200
Fez - (02) 9011840
Gaudi - (02) 8560473
Gelatissimo - (02) 5763088
Hossein's Persian Kebab - (02) 8560632
Kape Isla - (02) 9013485
Larry's Café & Bar - (02) 8560527
Le Petit Artisan - (0929) 8429824
Lulubelle - (02) 5668542
Mamou - (02) 8563569 / (0917) 8162668
Marta's Cakes - (02) 9153802 / (0917) 5009984
Miss Desserts - (02) 8561429
Mogu - (02) 8560718
Murray and D'Vine - (02) 8563723
Polu Kai Grill - (02) 9011841
Sentro 1771 - (02) 8560581
Tatami Japanese Restaurant - (02) 9011870
Thai at Silk - (02) 8560386 to 87
Zao Vietnamese Bistro - (02) 8562819

The Fort
Amber UltraLounge - (02) 8876838
Encore Super Club - (02) 8195481 to 85
Gourdo’s Cafe - (02) 8451700 / (02) 8875007
L’Opera Ristorante Italiano - (02) 8893963
Pier One Bar & Grill - (02) 8870115 / (02) 8870112
The Establishment - (02) 8446364 / (0916) 4946390

The Fort Strip
Burger Avenue - (02) 9708277
Café Puccini - (02) 8163055
California Berry
Fuel Bar and Resto - (02) 8560320
Jill’s - (02) 8184557
Mint Bar Bistro - (02) 8186297 / (02) 8186418
Red Kimono - (02) 8166642
Status Lounge - (02) 8466255
Umma Korean Cuisine - (02) 4738461

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Ivan Henares wins Thailand Med Blog Contest! Thank you for your support!

Yesterday, I received great news that I won the Thailand Medical Tourism Blog Contest sponsored by the Tourism Authority of Thailand. This contest was a really grand experience. I was able to visit Chiang Mai, Thailand which I've always wanted to do, and in style at that! I also got to meet travel bloggers from different corners of the world. So I'm very grateful to the Tourism Authority of Thailand for selecting me as a finalist to experience all that. Being a finalist was in fact already a prize in itself.

I also realized that I have a lot of friends and supporters. Every time I'd meet people I knew, especially after the contest ended on January 31, from family, fraternity and friends, colleagues, alumni groups, fellow bloggers and blog readers, they'd always ask me if I won the contest and would let me know that they visited my blog entry regularly. I'm deeply honored and touched by the support. Thank you very much to everyone!

Do visit my entry if you still haven't seen it. And here's the winner announcement as well. Again, my heartfelt thanks to everyone! Thank you also to South East Asian Airlines (SEAIR)!

Monday, March 07, 2011

Train travel in Europe: Tips for using the Eurail Pass

The Eurail Pass is one handy travel tool for those who want to see a lot of Europe and hop from one city to another. Here are some tips to help you with your Eurail Pass:

1. Try to compare prices before purchasing a Eurail Pass
Sometimes, it may be cheaper to purchase individual tickets, especially if you will be able to plan your route ahead of time (tickets are much cheaper when purchased way in advance) or if you won’t be traveling too much by train. The Eurail Pass is for people with an itinerary heavy on train travel or those who want to decide where to go when they are in Europe like what I did. Remember also that there are reservation fees on top of your Eurail Pass purchase, particularly for high-speed trains which have seat numbers assigned.

2. Know the type of Eurail Pass for you
There are literally tens of thousands of possible combinations of Eurail Passes which you can choose from to suit your travel plans. Eurail Passes have two main components: travel period and area of coverage.

For travel period, each pass is either a continuous or a flexi pass. Continuous passes are cheaper but usage starts from the first day you use the pass and continuous until the last day of validity whether you use the pass or not. Flexi passes are more expensive but will allow you to choose the days to use a pass within a specified time period.

For those who want to visit one or even two cities a day, the continuous pass is best. For those who will stay in each city for at least two nights, the flexipass is more efficient but this will require some planning since you will need to use your train days wisely.

For the flexipass, since it counts only the days you actually use the pass, you might want to avoid using it if your only travel for the day involves local or regional trains which are relatively cheap. The Flexi Pass should be used for more expensive long-distance train rides if you want to get the most out of it. Flexi passes can be purchased for a period of 10 days or 15 days for use within 2 months for global passes.

For the continuous pass, since the pass starts counting from the day you first use it, the more trains you use, and that includes local trains, the better. Continuous passes can be purchased for a period of 15 days, 21 days, 30 days, 1 month, 2 months and 3 months for global passes.

For area of coverage component, there is the global pass which is valid in all 21 Eurail countries, regional passes, and passes for one to 5 countries of your choice. I got a 15-day continuous global pass which allowed me unlimited travel to all the then 21 Eurail countries (there are now 22). I got to visit 7 of the 21 in 15 days.

3. Reserve seats in advance
Unfortunately, the Eurail Pass is not always a hop-on, hop-off pass. More often than not, especially on high-speed trains where seat numbers are assigned, you have to reserve seats and pay the corresponding reservation fees per leg. Remember that even with Eurail Passes, you have to deal with demand. While the regular adult Eurail Pass gets you First Class seats, you’ll have to settle with 2nd Class if there are no more seats.

If you can do it with your travel agent at home, that's the best. You also can do it online or at any train station in Europe. But you have to deal with seat allocations. And reserving late can mean not getting the train schedule you want. Sometimes also, the computer system won’t allow you to reserve except in the city where you are departing from. That’s why I had to do my reservations in installments and would reserve as far as the system would allow.

On most regional and local trains, you simply have to hop-on and write down the details in the itinerary sheet provided with the Eurail Pass. This is very convenient since you can board any of the trains at any departure time. Just show the conductor your Eurail Pass.

In Belgium for example, I just boarded a train to Bruges from Brussels. Even the train to Luxembourg did not need reservations. I also got to use local trains such as the Cercanias in Madrid and the Ile de France trains in Paris, as well as regional trains in Germany just by showing the Eurail Pass. But again note that using the Eurail Pass for local trains is only worth it if your pass is a continuous pass. Make sure also to check with the ticket counter since some train systems still require you to get provisional magnetic tickets to get you through the barriers.

4. Know the different types of seat classes
There are 1st class seats which are either single or double seats (3 to a row); 2nd class which is usually four to a row; and sleeper cabins or Trenhotel which I remember can have 4, 2, or 1 to a room.

5. Always check the date and time on your ticket
Before leaving the ticket reservations counter, make sure you check the date and time of your ticket twice or thrice, especially the month. I was lucky the train from Bordeaux to Brussels wasn’t full. When the ticket was checked the first time, the wrong date wasn’t noticed. But when we were a station away, another ticket check was done and they saw my ticket was July 27 instead of June 27. They let it pass since the train was not full. But you won’t be that lucky all the time.

6. Be ready for train strikes and delays
While the train system in Europe usually works like clockwork, it’s still prone to both human and technical error. Try not to book connecting trains too close. If one train is late, your whole itinerary gets affected. On the way to Heidelberg, I had to change trains at Stuttgart. Good thing I had one hour to spare since the train was 20 minutes late. Many had only ten minutes between trains and thus missed their connecting trains.

I experienced that trains in Germany are not reliable. I’ve had several trains delayed by a few minutes. Twice I missed the bus because of a delayed train. And I had to spend for a taxi or wait another hour for the next one. On the way to Potsdam from Berlin, a regional train stopped one station before Potsdam and asked all passengers to get off and continue their travel on a local train.

On the train from Valladolid, Spain to Hendaye, France, we were told at Irun, the last station before the border, that the train could not move any further because of a strike in France. We were instructed to take a taxi from Irun to Hendaye which was about 11,50, an amount I shared with two other passengers. At Hendaye, I was supposed to change trains for Bordeaux. But because of the strike, we had to wait six more hours for a provisional train to pick up all the stranded passengers. Good thing my next train was the next day.

7. Be at the station at least 30 minutes before
Remember that more often than not, trains in Europe leave on time. Remember that departure time is departure time and not boarding time. You’ll see people running especially a few minutes before departure because trains leave on the dot and close doors a minute or so before leaving. At the Reims Station, I saw some people were already within sight of the train and were shouting at the train staff to wait. They were about 30 seconds away. But they still closed the doors and left.

I myself have seen a train I planned to get on leave within sight despite efforts to reach the station on time. Good thing it was a regional train and I simply boarded the next one which was an hour later though.

Being early also gives enough time allowance since some stations are really big and you’ll still have to locate the track where your train will be departing from.

8. It's important to have fun!
I guess that's self-explanatory. Exploring Europe on train is definitely an enriching experience!

P.S. Make sure you purchase your Eurail Pass from your travel agent before leaving the country. It's much easier that way. Buying it online when you're in Europe will be hassle. Don't forget to check out a related entry on Europe budget travel tips.

Update (12/07/2011): I bought a 21-day Eurail Pass last month which I never got to use. It was impossible getting a reservation out of Paris while we were there. So we rented a car instead and it came out cheaper since there were two of us sharing the bill. I was told I could get a refund back at home. I was expecting some penalties. But I wasn't expecting it to be a shocking 17 percent penalty for refunds! Ouch!

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Bataan: Kilometer Zero and Freeport Authority of Bataan in Mariveles

The Freeport Authority of Bataan (FAB) in Mariveles, Bataan is working on rehabilitating its old tourist facilities. I visited early this year to help give suggestions. I also checked out the nearby attractions, the most popular of which is Kilometer Zero of the Bataan Death March.

Kilometer Zero is the starting point of the Bataan Death March. There are actually two of them, the one in Mariveles, and another in Bagac. The memorial in Mariveles is marked by a bayonet thrust to the ground. A few years ago, the Filipino American Memorial Endowment installed new kilometer posts from Mariveles to San Fernando, Pampanga and Capas, Tarlac, including one for Kilometer Zero.

Two large historical markers installed by the National Historical Commission in 1967 recount the ordeal of the Filipino and American prisoners of war. I felt that the park needed to be rehabilitated though and the landscaping professionalized. The standards of local government landscaping in the country are simply horrible. We really need to invest in proper landscaping in major urban centers as well as tourism attractions, parks and open spaces.

Unfortunately, I had to rush back to Manila. So I wasn't able to visit the nature attractions of FAB which I hope to see in a future trip.

Occidental Mindoro: White Island and Ambulong Island in San Jose

I got to visit San Jose, Oriental Mindoro early last year. It was a really quick trip and I only had time to go island-hopping off the coast of San Jose. On the list of islands to visit is White Island which is about 15 minutes by pump boat from Caminawit Port.

I'm quite amused how the local government promotional material describes the beach as made of smooth and powdery white sand even though it's far from powdery. In fact, the sand is quite rough and most of the island is made of pieces of coral. But it's definitely better than the beach where I boarded the pump boat which has darker sand and was littered with plastic.

I also got to visit Ambulong Island which could have had really stunning beaches. But unfortunately, the local government did not control the development of the barangay there. So the houses are on the long stretch of beach itself, right by the water. For a beach as beautiful as Ambulong, the houses should have been built even just a few meters further back so that the community could have benefited from tourist arrivals. I was told that the community only sprouted a few years ago. Such a pity!

But the good thing is that there was a small patch of land further down the beach which had been fenced off to prevent settlers from building there. I was told by the caretaker that it belonged to a foreigner who was married to a local, and that they planned to build a beach resort there. Ironically, it's a foreigner who saw the potential of the beach.

When I fly to San Jose, Occidental Mindoro again, I'll make sure to visit Pandan Island in the town of Sablayan which is the beach resort to visit when you are in Occidental Mindoro.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Cagayan de Oro: Whitewater rafting in the Cagayan River

Whitewater rafting is a very popular activity for those visiting Cagayan de Oro. It was actually a visit of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Tourism Secretary Richard Gordon several years back which created a lot of buzz for Cagayan de Oro's top adventure activity. Today, there are several companies which offer whitewater rafting trips down the Cagayan River, seven companies I was told.

The good thing about the whitewater rafting trips in Cagayan de Oro is that you don't need to form a group to schedule one. All you have to do is book a trip at least a day in advance through your hotel or directly with any of the companies, and they'll pick you up from your hotel and drive you over to the Cagayan River. If you're just one or two, they'll group you with other guests, just like what we did.

In fact, this experience is so convenient, you could actually take the first flight to Cagayan de Oro, go whitewater rafting, have lunch, then take the last flight out of Cagayan de Oro.

It takes about 45 minutes to get to from downtown Cagayan de Oro to the jump-off point. Everyone is given a helmet, life jacket and paddle for the trip down the river. After a safety briefing by the crew, the group is off.

I was quite surprised that there were really young kids in another group. I asked if there was an age limit. And I was told it's the discretion of the parents since they are the ones who sign the waivers. Dangerous as it may seem, whitewater rafting in Cagayan de Oro is quite safe.

The three-hour trip takes you through a series of fourteen rapids for the regular course. If your guide is a bit naughty, he'd purposely cause the rubber raft to capsize to add to the thrill. Good thing that didn't happen to us. In some of the rapids, our guide would ask us to stand which was really fun.

In areas where the river is calm, we were allowed to get off the raft for a swim. For an extra fee, you can ask them to take photos and videos of your trip which we did.

At the end point of the trip is a restaurant called the Cabula River Grill. Their best seller would be the Lechon Baka (Php180) which we made sure to try. After lunch, we proceeded back to CDO. In fact, I had time for a power nap before taking the last flight out.

Never miss the whitewater rafting experience when in Cagayan de Oro. In fact, I'll try the advanced whitewater rafting course when I return to CDO.

Swift Travel + Tours
14 G/F Pelaez Sports Center, A. Velez Street, Cagayan de Oro City
(088) 8573897 / (08822) 727629 / (0922) 8333136 to 38

Thanks to Karlo de Leon for editing my videos from Cagayan de Oro.
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