Friday, February 28, 2014

Batanes Diary 8. Sabtang Island

A visit to Batanes is not complete without a daytrip to Sabtang Island. It's 30-45 minutes away from Batan Island (where Basco,  the capital town of Batanes, is) but many visitors to Batanes are unable to visit the island because of the rough seas. 

In Sabtang, one will find whole villages made up of the traditional Ivatan stone houses, some in ruins, some in perfect condition and currently occupied. Aside from getting a glimpse of day-to-day Ivatan life, Sabtang also has some of the most amazing views in the country. It should definitely be on one's Batanes tour list. 

 This is a falowa, the traditional Ivatan boat, except that this one is motorized. This is what we used to cross to Sabtang. 

Among the cargo from Sabtang to Basco are a calf and a pig bound for the market. Poor things!

The 40 minutes of rough seas are soon forgotten when we see this.

And this...

 And this...

this too...

and this....

Enough already! Just go!

"All travel has its advantages. If the passenger visits better countries, hay may learn to improve his own. And, if fortune carries him to worse, he may learn to enjoy it.: - Samuel Johnson

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Coolest Ride from Singapore to KL!

On a trip to Singapore a few years back, we decided to go to nearby Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. We wanted to experience the trains and luxury buses going there. The train ride was forgettable (that's another story) but the buses were something else!

We paid around 30 Singapore dollars each for one-way, and the trip took about five hours.  It was the most comfortable bus ride we had ever taken! The deluxe seats were at the lower portion of the double-decker bus, and there were only ten seats in the area. Ten coomfortable reclining seats with full legrests. 

The biggest treat was when we found out they were massage seats . Just press a button at the armrest and certain points along the backrest (where your back, spine and shoulders rest) would vibrate for 5-10 minutes or so. If you want more, just keep pressing. 

There was a 15-minute rest stop for clean restrooms, sandwiches and chips  - look they have Philippine chips (jack 'n jill) ! 

and chilled fresh fruit slices in plastic packs, and cold drinks...

and then back to dreamland. There was a movie onboard but we all dozed off so no one remembers what it was. 

Soon it was time to stop at the border for very fast immigration processing. We were actually sorry that the bus ride ended so soon ;-) 

"To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world." - Freya Stark

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Cheese Gorging in Davao!

Just when you thought you've done everything there is to do in Davao, here comes another must-do for visitors and locals alike. Cheese-tasting! (Cheese-gorging is more like it, actually!) Who would have thought that the Philippines, land of the lactose- intolerant, would would have an artisan cheese-tasting attraction, and way down south in Davao even? But thanks to Olive Puentespina, who is married to the family that owns Malagos Farms and Puentespina Resort, top quality cow's- and goat's milk cheese is produced in Davao City, and it is possible to arrange for a tasting of an assortment of her cheeses. Malagos Farmhouse is how the company is called, but there's no need to go all the way to thei resort in Malagos because the cheese shop is right in the heart of Davao City (Bolcan St., Agdao, behind Assumption College of Davao). 

Cheese-tasting sessions may be arranged for P300/person for a minimum of 6 persons. Reservations have to be made at least a day before the event, and Olive prefers tastings in the afternoons as their mornings are busy with production. Guests are allowed to bring their own wine at no extra charge (she will even provide elegant wine glasses for everyone), or they may buy any of the wines that they keep in stock.

Olive shows off the cheeses beautifully, adorned with pesto, dried fruit, fresh organic arugula, honey, nuts, etc. Impressive cheese table indeed!

A typical tasting consists about 6 kinds of cheese. Olive likes to guide guests through the tasting, starting with her fresh, mild cheeses - cottage cheese usually flavored with pesto or tropical fruit jam, then on to kesong puti,  feta cheese, and on to more mature cheeses  like Chevre, up to the harder, fully aged varieties like Blue Peppato, Blue Goat, La Maria, Rustica and Blush.  

On the sideboard, there's a raclette pan if you want to melt your cheese a bit, and slices of french bread to catch the gooey cheese. Yum!

Here, our favorite La Maria (disc-shaped) is drizzled with honey and sprinkled with pistachios, while the more mature Rustica is served with grapes and more honey. Olive provides a basket of bread, but guests may also bring more bread or crackers of their choice, and even deli meats. We brought some smoked salmon and salsiccia to make it a party!

Each cheese has a distinct texture and flavor, and the nuts, grapes and greens serve as excellent palate-cleansers. Smooth, sharp, creamy, goaty, melty, etc., etc.....all excellent! One time I bought a small wheel of La Maria, kept it in the fridge and promptly forgot all about it. When I found it three months later, it was all ripe, and tasted like a very good Brie. 

After the sixth or seventh cheese, ask each other which one they liked best, and then toast the choices with a glug...

....which was exactly what we did. And a marvelous time was had by all. 
A toast to cheesemaker Olive (3rd from right)

(P.S.  If you aren't big cheese eaters, you even get to bring home the leftover cheeses!)

"Eat well. Travel often." - Unknown

To arrange for a cheese-tasting, call:
Ms. Olive Puentespina
Artisan Cheesemaker
Malagos Gardens
Bolcan St., Agdao, Davao City
+63 82 2264446
+63 917 700120email:

Monday, February 24, 2014

Batanes Diary 5. Batanes Tours

As soon as we arrived at the hotel, we asked around for tours. We met a group of fit, fab,twenty-somethings at the hotel who told us they rented bikes and motorcycles and pedaled/motored their way all around Batanes. Just listening to them made our ancient hamstrings ache, so we opted to book for ourselves a 3-day Batanes tour. The hotel recommended Joaquin Cantor, who turned out to be a trained, patient and very well-informed guide and skilled photographer, answering our endless questions and handling up to four cameras at a time. 

He had perfect timing for jump shots too ;-)

He outlined for us the following  itinerary:

Day 1 - after lunch - Northern Batan Tour
Day 2 - Sabtang Island Tour with set lunch
Day 3 - Southern Batan Tour

Because we were a group of 8, the whole tour cost us P3K/person, instead of the usual P5K/person that he charges for groups less than five. The 6am flight from Manila to Basco meant that we woke up at 3am, so Joaquin suggested that we start the tour after lunch so we could take it easy in the morning.

Also covered by the tour fee was the rental for the jeepney for three days, and boat fares to and from Sabtang, the tourism registration fee, and set lunch in Sabtang Island. 

Since Joaquin could not be with us in Sabtang, he referred another guide, Gloria, who is a Sabtang local, and who met us at the Sabtang port with another jeepney. 

Gloria explains how corals and rocks are mixed and "cured" for a year in these pits before the mixture is used to build stone houses.

Although the tour fee included only one meal, Joaquin was able to suggest and arrange for sunset dinner by the Basco lighthouse, and lunch at the Racuh A Payaman ("Marlboro Hills"). 

We will not post too many Batanes pictures here so as not to preempt your enjoyment of the sights, but trust us when we say it was worth every peso we paid. 

Here's Joaquin's pretty calling card and contact numbers:

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." - Mark Twain

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Our Group's Travel Rules 101-3. The Tour Schedule Is Not Cast In Stone!

Or, How To Make Sure We're Still Talking To Each Other At the End of the Trip - 3

Before travelling to a certain place, we usually have a list of places we have heard, read or been told about, that are "absolute must-see's" or "must-try's", food that we "must try" and things we "must buy".  Well and good, except that after two days of looking at old churches, and in sweltering heat at that, one's head and feet seem reluctant to leave the airconditioned comforts of the van, even if the driver says the church in front of you was built five centuries ago using 20,000 eggwhites and as many rocks. 

So, guess what...being 50 and above allows you to break the rules. Honest. In our book, it is perfectly okay to say, "Pass", or "I've already seen that on Rated K/National Geographic/Kris TV anyway". There is no contest to see who went to the most tourist spots, quiz to check who memorized all the architectural details of all the stone houses in the country. Hello, you're on SHOULD do as you please! 

So when your guide/guidebook/van driver says you absolutely have to visit this tenth church, just this last one, and all you want to do is lie back and read a magazine, go tell that to the rest of your group and watch everyone heave a sigh of relief and say, "Good! Me too!"  

Which is what happened one hot afternoon in Panglao, Bohol...

It was our third day. We were all churched-out...  

...done visiting the tarsiers..

Hot, hot day. Thirsty.  Waiting for sunset in Panglao Island. Waiting for happy hour. 

Too hot for a beach-side massage, even.

 What to do?


"Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Our Group's Travel Rules 101-2. We agree on a budget, and respect it.

Or, How To Make Sure We're Still Talking To Each Other At the End of the Trip - 2

We agree on a budget, and respect it.

(Photo from

As soon as flights are booked by either Nancy or Tony, Millet researches on hotels, van rentals and sights. The Web is full of information about destinations, and most hotels and restaurants have Facebook pages. The most helpful websites are those that include contact details of the places. Most hotels can make referrals to van rentals.
8 people inside one tricycle, Camiguin, March 1985

When we have a fairly good idea about the range of choices for lodging, we draw up a rough itinerary and a budget. We decide on an intial working budget (say, P5K/person), and give the amount to either Nancy or Tony. This is the group's general fund for the trip, and from this amount will come the payments for lodging, all meals, tips, airport terminal fees,bottled water, van rentals,etc. -  sometimes even massages, as long as everyone wants one!  This is way more convenient than splitting the bill each time we eat, and having everyone dig through their pockets for the exact amount. 

Not included in the general fund are items that are of interest/use to some members only - rentals for sports equipment or specific rides (e.g., ziplines), liquor, "pasalubong" (take-home goodies), souvenirs and personal items.
Eating durian by the roadside, Kapatagan, Davao del Sur, 2006

Nancy/Tony periodically updates us on the state of the group's finances, so we know when to go slow on the lobster (if we don't want to end up washing dishes at the restaurant!) or when to top up and hunt for the nearest ATM. In all these trips, we've had to top up only two or three times, so that means we've done pretty good planning and fund management, right?
Costa Marina Beach Resort, Samal Island, 2006

Tips for a happy travel budget for your group:

1. Agree on a basic amount based on your rough itinerary/plan.

2. Keep in mind that travel is cheaper the more people there are in a group.  For example, a typical van rental goes for P3K/day. If you're a group of 8 like us, that comes up to only P375/person. 

3.  Agree among yourselves which items you want to scrimp on and which ones to splurge on. For our group, we require only the basic necessities for lodging (aircon rooms, hot/cold showers, clean bathrooms, clean bedrooms, and good and safe location. Food and tours - that's our priority - that's what we're there for, after all. 

4.  Van, walk, van, walk.  We used to get a kick out of finding our way around using public transport, but these days, unless the places have excellent public transport systems like Singapore and HK, our achy backs and knees prefer vans for going around. We all love walking around, but when the next ancient church or beach is three towns away, there's nothing like a big van to take everyone along their merry way. Splurge on the rental, and save your energy and muscle power for walking around and shopping.
Tagbilaran City, Bohol, 2012

"I haven't been everywhere, but it's on my list." - Susan Sontag

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Our Group's Travel Rules 101-1-We buy budget flights/promo tickets

Or, How To Make Sure We're Still Talking To One Another At The End Of the Trip - 1

We buy budget flights/promo tickets only 
Nancy and Tony have designated themselves as the promo-watchers and ticket purchasers, and they have it down to an exact science. They can predict 90% of the time the dates when Cebu Pacific offers its "Piso Sale" (P1.00 seats), know whether PAL's promo is better than CEB's, and know how and where to pay for the tickets. We pay in cash whenever possible, and we understand, albeit grudgingly, the statute of limitations of promo tickets - non-refundable, non-transferable, etc., etc. 

Since promo flights are usually booked months ahead of the flight date, if something comes up by flight date and some of us are unable to make the trip we do not fret, but only a little; after all, foregoing a P1,200. roundtrip ticket to Manila is much less painful than giving up a P7,000 ticket, right?

Some tips for booking online:

a) The airline websites may be  swamped by too many people trying to book flights during seat sales, so you just need to keep trying. Sometimes you may need to refresh your browser. The best time to book flights used to be between midnight and 2am, but I guess everyone got wind of that so everyone's logged on at that time. ;- (  I used to panic whenever I heard my cellphone go off after midnight, anticipating news of an emergency, but these days, the text message at 3 am is usually, "BFFs, we're booked to_____ on ____".

b)  If you're booking for a group, have a list of everyone's complete names, birthdates and addresses in front of you. Some websites save your details so it's easier to fill in the forms the next time you book online.  Check and double-check your entries.

c)  Some airline websites are tricky in the sense that you may be unaware that you're paying for add-ons like seat selection, meals, flight insurance, etc. Make sure you un-check those boxes and those seats. It takes more effort, but that difference could cost you as much as P1,000. each if ignored.  Make sure you review the details of your total fare, especially the "Add-Ons". 

d)  And because they're promo flights, we bring along our own sandwiches, chips, blankets, pillows, and even water. and we don't mind the 2 am flight schedules. Of course we still expect courtesy, comfort and basic amenities, but that is another story for another day. 

"You don't have to be rich to travel well." - Eugene Fodor

Batanes Diary 3. Going Around Batanes

There are very few motor vehicles in Batanes. Around Basco, there are a few rental vans for tourists. Bikes and motorcycles are available for rent. 

Of course there are a few tricycles which seat two slim people in the front seat, and another one behind the driver. however, because gas is expensive in batanes, the tricycles in basco do not go around town looking for passengers; instead, if you need a ride, you send a text message to the tricycle terminal and tell them where you wish to be picked up, and in a few minutes, the trike is there. How convenient is that! Besides, everyone in town knows the contact numbers of the trike terminal.

instead of an airconditioned van, we opted to tour batan island in this big jeep. 

this proved to be a wise choice as we had an all-around view of the sights as we went along since it was open on all sides. 

and you can even take pictures from a moving jeep...

of course, there's nothing like a sturdy pair of legs for strolling

and for climbing up and down the mountains....

Make sure you bring a sturdy pair of walking shoes for all that walking. Flip-flops sometimes just won't do the trick.

But mean we're walking all the way up and down there? hmmm...

"Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world." - Gustave Flaubert

Batanes Diary 4. What We Saw In Batanes


More stones


...more boulders



...more water


...and more hills


...more grass 

Yup, that's all that we saw all over Batanes! So why is everyone jumping for joy?

"Not all those who wander are lost." - J.R.R. Tolkien