Monday, March 11, 2013

Canada: Niagara Falls & winery visits at Niagara-on-the-Lake

Niagara Falls, at the border of Ontario, Canada and New York, USA, is on the bucket list of many travelers. It's actually a popular day-trip from Toronto, Canada. In fact, we visited Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake, a town known for its wineries, during the Philippine Airlines (PAL) inaugural flight to Toronto.

The day actually started quite nice since the sun was out. We visited Jackson-Triggs and Inniskillin in the morning to try out their famed ice wine. So what is ice wine? It's a type of dessert wine, really sweet. What makes it sweet is the manner in which the grapes are harvested and processed.

The grapes are allowed to freeze and are usually harvested early in the morning, before the sun comes out, to maintain the cold temperature since the grapes start to thaw by sunrise. Because the grapes are frozen, the water in the grapes freezes, but the sugars do not. So when the grapes are pressed, it produces a smaller amount but more concentrated must (juice) which ferments into a much sweeter wine.

Lunch was at Inniskillin, where we were served salad, salmon and prairie rice, which is not actually rice, but an oat known as Cavena Nuda. It cooks and tastes like rice. But the flavor also reminds me of white corn. I regret not taking a few kilos of Cavena Nuda with me to the Philippines.

On the way to Inniskillin, We also made a brief stop in Fort George, the scene of several battles during the War of 1812, a war between the British and the Americans. Opposite the Niagara River is Fort Niagara in New York.

We also passed by the Living Water Wayside Chapel, the smallest chapel in the world as per the Guinness Book of World Records with only six seats. Yes, some people actually hold their intimate wedding ceremonies there.

We also drove through the town center of Niagara-on-the-Lake before proceeding to the falls. Too bad the afternoon weather didn't cooperate when we visited the Niagara Falls.

By the time we arrived, it had started to rain. So it covered the view of most of the falls. There are actually three falls, two on the American side and one on the Canadian side. They say the view is best in the Canadian side. Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side is the most powerful waterfall in North America. No doubt, because we definitely felt its thunder as we went behind and stayed very close to the falls.

The Journey Behind the Falls offers you an observation platform and tunnels near the bottom of Horseshoe Falls. This attraction is accessible via elevators from the street level entrance. Fees vary depending on the season. From April to December, it's $15.95 (13+ years) and $10.95 (6 to 12 years). It's cheaper from December to April at $11.25 and $6.95 respectively.

If you want an overhead  view of the falls, you can visit Skylon Tower or the Minolta Tower. During the summer months, you can try the Maid of the Mist, a popular boat tour of Niagara Falls.

After exploring the area, we motored back to Toronto.

How to get to Niagara Falls from Toronto
Toronto is about two hours away from Niagara Falls, approximately 133 kilometers. There are various ways to get there. But the most popular would be renting a car, taking the Niagara Airbus or Megabus, or joining a guided tour. The guided tours are convenient options since they usually include visits a winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Philippine Airlines (PAL) flies direct from Manila to Toronto. Thank you for inviting me to join the inaugural flight last November!

Monday, March 04, 2013

Tagaytay: Your own vacation unit at Asilo Tagaytay

Tagaytay is such a charming city, with a majestic view of Taal Volcano from the ridge. On one side of the National Highway, they strictly impose height restrictions so as not to block this beautiful view. On the other side, medium and high-rise living spaces are now rising, providing city residents with an opportunity to enjoy a vacation unit with the famed view.

We were invited by Avida Land, Ayala’s affordable housing arm, to check out their new development in Tagaytay City. Asilo Tagaytay is a mixed-use residential development that offers a second home or vacation unit for buyers who want to enjoy picturesque views overlooking the majestic Taal Lake and Volcano and the cool, refreshing climate that Tagaytay is famous for. It’s perfect for families, couples, and individuals who wish to have a beautiful second home in Tagaytay where they can spend a holiday, a weekend, or take a vacation.

Of course, part of the visit was to experience two popular activities in Tagaytay – food and relaxation. There are so many interesting restaurants in Tagaytay and we had lunch at one of them. For the afternoon, we were pampered at the famous Nurture Spa, definitely among the best in the country.

Before trooping to Tagaytay, we visited their showroom in Alabang Town Center. We were introduced to the development.

Among the features I like about Asilo Tagaytay is that the size and number of the buildings are just enough to let resident fully enjoy the views and the climate—and of course, to maintain as much as possible a natural setting which is very important. I just hate developments that are all concrete. This is evident in the form of the structures and their terracing, where we see how they sort of step back and become unobtrusive parts of the overall landscape.

Corridors are designed to have breezeways and there’s ample space between buildings to allow better cross-ventilation. The roof is pitched so there is a particular character that is appropriate to Tagaytay. Plus, there are more balconies in the upper floors so that residents can fully enjoy their view of Taal and the Batangas mountain range in the horizon.

We all like to have a vacation space in Tagaytay. Asilo Tagaytay could just be your place. For more information, visit the Asilo Tagaytay website. You may also contact Avida thru (+632) 848-5200.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Manila: Chinatown food trip & staycation in Binondo

Who would have thought a staycation in Manila was a viable option? We got to experience one during Chinese New Year at Ramada Manila Central in Binondo where we spent the night before the Lunar New Year. It was a very convenient way of enjoying Manila Chinatown cuisine and the festivities the next day within walking distance from where we were staying.

In fact, as soon as we were done checking-in at the hotel, we went straight for dim sum at President Tea House. Restaurants were full that night since it was the bisperas and we had to queue. But it was well worth the wait as we enjoyed some really good Tsinoy food.

To get rid of the obvious weight gain from the sumptuous food, we walked around Binondo's interesting streets (which are very quiet on a normal night) and visited some of its hidden temples. I say hidden because most of them are located on the roof tops of buildings, such as the Te Ah Kong (Teyakong) Temple, a Taoist temple located near the corner of Ongpin and Kipuja Streets. Another interesting temple nearby is the Shi Ong Hu Temple along T. Alonzo Street, a Buddhist temple which occupies at least two floors of the building where it is located.

We were back at Ramada Manila Central before midnight and watched the fireworks from our hotel room window. The next day, we visited the roof deck bar of the hotel to see the view of Binondo from above. Ongpin was alive and crowded with so many visitors enjoying the festivities. Later in the morning, we got to watch the lion dance hired by the hotel before moving around.

Lunch was at Xiao Chun Yuan Restaurant near the corner of Ongpin and S. Padilla (Gandara) Streets. We tried out their Oyster Cake, Mapo Tofu, Polonchay and Pork Mushroom, another hearty Chinatown meal! For the afternoon, since it was a bit hot, we went back to the hotel to take a nap. Anyway, most of the dance troupes were resting as well.

By late afternoon, all the troupes were out again. Aside from the lion dances, we also got to see colorful dragon dance troupes. Unfortunately, the out of place freak shows were making their appearances as well, trying to compete for attention with the genuine lion and dragon dance troupes that are an inherent part of the celebration. These outsiders should be reminded that it isn't Ati-Atihan, nor was it a Pride March, or even Halloween (poor business owners were trying to shoo away people dressed as aswangs dancing in front of their establishments since to them, they are malas or symbols of bad luck). These outsider groups, mostly drag queens, fire eaters and fiesta drummers, were obviously there for the money. So at the very least, they should have matched their acts with the occasion which was Chinese New Year. And visitors should stop giving them money so as not to encourage them to come back again next year. But at least I noticed more lion dance troupes this year which was a good sign.

The main reason we went out was to get some Fried Siopao from Ching Hong Foods along Benavidez Street.  We got there just in time since a new batch was about ready for serving and this sumptuous snack is sold out before you know it.

We actually so enjoyed our stay at the hotel so much because of the convenience that we decided to extend for another night to experience more of Chinatown. Dinner was at the Royale Sharksfin Seafood Restaurant (no we did not have sharks fin and I hope they don't serve it), which according to my tokayo, Mr. Old Manila Walks, is one of the best restaurants in Binondo. We were not disappointed.

Before calling it a night, the two Ivans got a foot massage at the spa located at the first floor of the hotel, a perfect way to end the night, especially for Ivan Man Dy, who had been touring people around Manila Chinatown the whole day. It may not be as festive on other days, but Binondo is worth a staycation any day of the year if only for the food!

Where to stay in Binondo, Manila
Ramada Manila Central, a Wyndham hotel, is conveniently located at the corner of Ongpin and Quintin Paredes Streets, beside Binondo Church. Rooms are cozy and comfortable. And its location makes exploring Binondo even easier.

Telephone: +63 (2) 5886688 / 3544151
Fax: +63 (2) 3544152

Monday, February 18, 2013

Negros Oriental: Food & cultural heritage in Dumaguete

Dumaguete, Negros Oriental is such a charming city! Its tree-lined seaside boulevard is the centerpiece of its historic core. The locals fought hard to preserve the character of Rizal Boulevard, vigorously opposing a reclamation by the Philippine Ports Authority that would have forever damaged its charm.

On one end of Rizal Boulevard is historic Silliman University, established by Presbyterian missionaries in 1901, the first American private university in the Philippines. Silliman Hall is the iconic structure of this heritage campus, built using materials taken from and old theater in New York. One of the oldest American colonial buildings in the country, it now houses an anthropology museum.

Along the boulevard are centuries-old trees, old lampposts and heritage houses brilliantly reused as restaurants and hotels. It was a beautiful example of how adaptive reuse can breathe life into heritage structures and that one need not demolish old buildings to make them economically-viable today.

Around town are reminders of the city's colonial past. The Dumaguete Bell Tower and Cathedral, in front of Quezon Park, the city's main plaza, are major landmarks found in downtown Dumaguete. A house where Jose Rizal stayed en route to Dapitan, Zamboanga del Norte still stands. We also visited Sidlakang Negros Village, an expo park that features the different municipalities and cities of Negros Oriental, their arts and crafts, delicacies and souvenir items, a one-stop shop for everything Negros Oriental.

Where to eat in Dumaguete
Food options are also interesting. From the traditional delicacies to new restaurants, there's always something different to try.

We trooped to the Dumaguete City Public Market to try out the famous Budbud Kabog, a suman made of millet instead of the regular glutinous rice, which is actually from the town of Tanjay. Make sure to have it with a hot cup of tsokolate! We also had the Chocolate Budbud which is the regular glutinous rice suman with chocolate.

Another pride of Dumaguete are the Silvanas of Sans Rival, which come in the regular butter and chocolate flavors. We actually had dinner at Sans Rival Bistro, their branch along Rizal Boulevard, one of the beautiful old mansions by the sea, adaptively-reused as dining space. Of course, we had to try their cakes for dessert. We ordered Date and Walnut Dacquoise and Salted Caramel Cheesecake.

Speaking of dessert, Fried Ice Cream of Panda is also a popular snack. We also dropped by to enjoy this popular Dumaguete treat.

One of our dinners was at Hayahay Treehouse. We got to try out Dumaguete Express, Hayahay's version of the famous Bicol Express topped with Lechon Kawali. Baked Talaba was also on the menu.

Where to stay in Dumaguete
We were hosted by Dumaguete during our stay in Dumaguete, Negros Occidental. You could actually get a decent room for Php388++ a night if on sale. Airport transfers are also available for Php98 per person. You can book your stay via the website.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Negros Oriental: Lake Balanan, Dauin Church & Bacong Church, road trip south of Dumaguete

Late last year, I got to fly twice to Dumaguete, Negros Oriental. The first trip was a familiarization tour with Dumaguete and Cebu Pacific. The group got to experience Dumaguete and areas nearby. Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate and it was raining every now and then. So our trip to Apo Island did not push through due to rough seas. We instead drove south all the way to Lake Balanan in Siaton, the southernmost municipality of Negros Island, and passed by heritage churches on the way back to Dumaguete.

As we neared the lake, we were met by a road blocked by a river that overflowed. Some of the locals were saying that there was no other way to the lake. And it was a bummer if we didn't get to see it. But just as we were about to leave, someone pointed to us a trail to the lake. So we walked for a few minutes and finally made it to Lake Balanan.

Lake Balanan is actually a success story. It used to be full of informal settlers. And like in most informal communities, it was riddled with garbage. The local government organized the informal settlers, gave them a community away from the lake, and set-up a cooperative for them to manage the tourism facilities around the lake. It was a win-win-win solution since Lake Balanan looks very clean now, you don't see any informal settlers by the lake, the former informal settlers now have a place to stay plus they have livelihood from tourism.

We had lunch at one of the function halls built by the lake. Among the dishes we had was the Negros Oriental version of halang-halang which to me tasted like chicken tinola with pepper and gata (coconut milk).

From Sioton, we motored back to Dumaguete. We stopped along the National Highway at Barangay Maluay, Zamboanguita to try out the town's famous torta. Note that torta has striking differences depending on where you are. In the Visayas, it's usually bread. And various places have different recipes. In Zamboanguita, torta looks like dinner rolls, but sweeter, denser and more filling.

In Dauin, we stopped by the centuries-old Dauin Church. The exterior is well-preserved and has character but the inside seemed to be renovated. We also stopped by the Bacong Church which is a National Cultural Treasure. Dumaguete
We were hosted by Dumaguete during our stay in Dumaguete, Negros Oriental. You could actually get a decent room for Php388++ a night if on sale. Airport transfers are also available for Php98 per person. You can book your stay via the website.

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