Of sun,sea,sand and finding a hero.

Under the Tuscan Sun

Enjoy Tuscany with a glass of wine

Finding Felicity in El Nido

Pink painted skies in El Nido,Philippines

Quaint Girona

Off the beaten path in Girona

Good Morning,Vietnam

Cruise the emerald water of Hanoi

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

New York: Majestic Niagara

Dividing the international border of Ontario,Canada and New York, USA are the voluminous waterfalls on the Niagara river more popularly known as Niagara Falls. The trip to the majestic falls was a break from the concrete jungle of Manhattan as we venture on the more laid back and small town America parts of New York.

To Tour or Not to Tour
Unless you brought your own car or you have someone to drive you around, the best way for a tourist to get to Niagara Falls is to get an overnight tour package. We got our tour package online via gotobus.com which was very convenient since you just pay via credit card and print your confirmation booking and show up on the meeting place on your departure day. If your planning to get other cities to tour in the east coast – there are several package tours being offered as well in www.gotobus.com

We got a buy 2 take 1 deal for about 180 USD as long as the third person will be sharing the hotel room.Inclusive in the payment are the bus service and overnight hotel stay in Niagara,NewYork.

Good Morning Chinatown
The tour starts early in the morning at around 8am and the pickup point is in Manhattan’s Chinatown. The tour agents are already in front of the building, we showed our confirmation email and was led to our bus.
If you are thinking of having blonde and blue eyed tour guides – well sorry to disappoint you we are in Chinatown which means the travel agents and tour guides are chinese.

The bus is a standard aircon tourist bus with an in-bus toilet but “heavy usage” is not allowed.No need to worry since there are several rest stops during the trip.

On the way to Niagara Falls there were several rest stops and lunch and dinner stops, it will be better to bring some light snacks or chips and bottled water that can be consumed in between the food stops.
There is a stopover in Alexandra Bay for the Thousand Islands Tour (optional tour).The Thousand Islands tour is via an open deck tour boat that will take you on a cruise to view the island summer houses of the rich and famous of America.We opted not to join this tour so we just walked around and explored Alexandra Bay from it’s quaint shophouses to the tourist souvenir shops that line the streets.

We reached at about 10 pm at Niagara. First things first – right after we arrived we checked in into the hotel. We were given a few minutes to freshen before having our first look of the majestic falls in its night illumination. During evening the Canada side lights up the falls with multi-colored lights.We just spend about an hour admiring the illlumination and picture taking before heading back to the hotel to rest after a whole day of a very tiring roadtrip.

It was an early call the next morning since there is a tour schedule to be followed. In the morning we had another tour back to the falls to see it in all its glory on a bright and clear day. Then we were off to a close encounter with the falls as we take Maid of the Mist .Maid of the Mist is an open deck boat that will cruise along the river and takes you an up close encounter with the majesty of the Niagara Falls.Prepare to get wet though they provide a somewhat plastic ponchos but it is not enough to really protect you from the waters. Make sure to handle your cameras and other electronics gadget well.

We are back on the road at about 11am as we travel back to Manhattan. On the way back there is a stop over in the Corning Museum which is also an optional tour. If you are not going to take the museum tour there is cafeteria where you can grab some bite to or you can check out the glasswares for sale in their shop. The name ‘Corning’ might sound familiar since they are the makers of the famous ‘Corningware’.

We reached New York at 8pm and it was back to the hotel for a good night sleep.

New York: Taking a bite of the Big Apple

One of my frustration in my New York trip was not being able to enjoy the gastronomic wonders of the city due to a lingering gastric problem. I just had another good reason for me to go back to the Big Apple. I just had two noteworthy foodie delight in the city that was a wonderful relief from all the chinese takeout.

What Carrie Bradshaw Snacks On

Having a sweet tooth or perhaps teeth, I have resolved before stepping into New York that I won’t be leaving until I got a taste of those heavenly cupcake that Carrie Bradshaw is snacking on. After a day of walking and posing for the camera, what better way to reward ourselves but to satisfy our sugar craving with those yummy cupcakes. I personally liked the Red Velvet cupcakes with its yummy melt in your mouth vanilla icing. Special cupcakes are priced at $3.00 – converting it to peso is roughly a hundred pesos for a cupcake. Quite a hefty sum to pay for this sweet treat but with all the nostalgia of my first NY experience-let me fork out that 20 bucks and add that Devil’s Food cupcake, German chocolate and some good old Vanilla cupcakes.

It has been almost a week since I have landed in the Land of Milk and Honey, but I still haven’t experienced the American Dinner.It was home cooked Pinoy food or Chinese take out reason being my mom and aunt just doesn’t dig those sinful steaks and yummy buffalo wings.

Thanks to “K” once again for treating me to a wonderful dinner at Applebee’s in Times Square. We had a scrumptious salad,yummy buffalo wings and tasty sirloin steak (well done please).Good food and great company capped a memorable day at the Big Apple.

New York: I want to be a part of it…New York, New York!

It was a full packed day for day two in the Big Apple. I also have a personal tour guide for the day which is my college bud “K” – this means no more figuring out the subway.

It was a gray and rainy day which will translate to lesser and not so nice photo-op session. Rain or shine nothing can dampen my spirit for this bonding in the Big Apple with “K”. I remember while we were sitting in the train and chatting about the itinerary when we just had a this realization as “K” puts it -  “Can you imagine we are both here in NY! – this is so surreal”

Crossroads of the World
First stop, is the touristy but definitely the place to experience the so called ‘New York Vibe’ – Times Square. Being a theatre aficionado – I just gaped at all those Broadway show billboards lining the streets of Times Square. The place just seemed to vibrate with energy from locals hurrying up and down the streets in their flapping jackets and umbrellas to the flock of tourists posing in the Red steps or queuing up in the TKTS booth for a discounted Broadway play ticket even with the persistent rain.No wonder it is nicknamed ‘Crossroads of the World’ because all kinds of people from different backgrounds just converged in this particular place in New York. Care for a free entertainment, just find a cozy corner in Times Square and people watch or do an oplan boy hunting definitely better than catching a film.

I tried to defy gravity
My trip has a tight schedule there was no chance for me to catch a Broadway play – bummer. And even if I do have time to watch ‘Wicked’ – tickets are all sold out – another bummer. So if you are planning to catch a popular Broadway play you have to pre-book your show ticket, another alternative to just experience Broadway is to get a heavily discounted tickets from the TKTS booth right there in Times Square. For this trip, I have to contend myself in visiting Gershwin Theatre and pretending to catch ‘Wicked’. What a better way to capture the closest moment I have in watching a Broadway play in Broadway is to take pictures from the facade of Gershwin theatre to all the ‘Wicked’ posters scattered in the the theatre’s vicinity. Next time I do visit New York – catching ‘Wicked’ will top my list of things to do.

Grand Dame
Another stop for the day is Grand Central Terminal in midtown Manhattan. This is actually built by the prominent Vanderbilts (sounds Gossip Girl character). The huge Main Concourse is lighted by gorgeous chandeliers reminiscent of five star hotel lobbies. One will find bustling crowds going in and out of the councourse or several queues in the ticketing counters. At the middle of the concourse is the main information booth with the four faced clock – according to Wikipedia the faces of all four clocks are genuine opals worth 10-20 million dollar (jaw drops).  Another highlight of the place is the mural of the stars painted on the ceiling of Grand Central.

Hello Upper East Siders
On our way to the Metropolitan Museum and Central Park we passed by the so-called Upper East Side area of Manhattan. This translates to “this is where the rich and famous are staying”. There are blocks and blocks of townhouses and luxury apartments adorned by the ubiquitous metal fire escape ladders. When you glance inside these several thousand per square meter piece of personal space in Manhattan – there is this hotel-like lobby with marble lined reception desk , dangling chandeliers, plush chairs and sofas and a doorman adorned in a neat uniform assisting an Upper East Sider mom and his preppy son as the Mercedes Benz car waits in the curb. – neat!

Passing By – I’ll see you the next time
Two disappointments for the day – The famous New York Metropolitan Museum is closed to the public for a private event . By the time we reached Central Park, it was now really pouring and we are both drenched. No point in going inside and exploring Central Park, so I just snapped some photos for souvenir purposes.

Time check – It’s 6pm NY time and we are off to find Magnolia Bakery.Come to think of it – on the other side of the world where I came from a new day is just starting.

New York: It’s a Cliche but I really heart NY

As for New York City, it is a place apart. There is not its match in any other country in the world. 
Pearl S. Buck

New York City does not need any introduction. From the history books, you have probably read and saw the picture of Lady Liberty as she greets the migrants flocking to the New World. If you’ve missed that history lesson, you would still have gotten a bite of the Big Apple from all the movies that were filmed here – when Tom Hanks was “Sleepless in Seattle”, a big ape called KingKong thought the spire of the Empire State Building is a tree trunk, the ‘fasyon’ Carrie Bradshaw as she strolls the streets of Manhattan in those Choos and Blahniks.I do remember when I was young thinking that New York City is already the whole of United States since it’s the only place I have seen in the movies.

Subway — Not the Sandwich!
My first NY experience is the Subway. No it’s not the popular sandwich but NY’s train system very similar to our local LRT and MRT. For a flat fare of $2.00 and a good amount of walking, you can explore any part of the Big Apple. The subway is made up of an intricate (another term for mind numbing) series of train lines identified by a letter or number. Which direction you want to take is either uptown or downtown. If this confuses you which also happened to yours truly, try to make out a trueblue Newyorker or an MTA employee and just politely ask for directions. I remember when I approached this girl as she arranges her paper bag loaded with several Steve Madden shoes ( I was actually astounded by the shoes) to ask for directions and she even went out of her way to guide us to the correct staircase. (That’s a Newyorker for you)

How come they always wanted to meet in the Empire State Building to profess their undying love.
What does the lonely guy from Seattle and an ex football star have in common? They both wanted to meet their lady love in the Empire State Building. Being a closet romantic, My first stop in the city that never sleeps is the Empire State Building which I already considered a familiar place because of the countless times I’ve seen Sleepless in Seattle and Love Affair.
Since its a weekday there are a fewer tourists lined up for the tickets and elevator rides, it was quite a breeze from the ticket purchase up to the elevator ride that took us to the 86th floor observatory area. Observatory ticket is priced at $20. Additional fees applies for a map and audio tour.
The observation deck provide an impressive view of New York City but due to an overcast weather we were not blessed with a good visibility. Too bad, it was a gray and foggy city for me.

Rockyfellah and a Friday Freebie
Next stop, is the Rockefeller Center which houses the famous ice skating and the statue of Atlas. No christmas tree treat for me since its still way to early for the yuletide season. Another famous observatory called The Rock is located here.
Last stop for the day is the Museum of Modern Art which just a few blocks away from Rockefeller. Since it’s a friday we were able to get in for free because of the Target Friday which allows people to go inside MOMA for free from 4pm-9pm.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Las Vegas: Around the World In Three Days

Another way to enjoy and experience Las Vegas in a budget friendly way is to
hotel-hop and be whisked from one continent to another.

Butterflies at WYNN
The Charm of the Orient
On our first night at the city of Light we visited the newest luxury hotel in the strip
which is Wynn and its next door neighbor Encore. The primary theme is the Orient. From the plush red carpets to the intricate oriental decors convey elegance and luxury.

Fremont Experience
Old Town Las Vegas
After hitting Wynn and Encore, it was time to be nostalgic and head out of the famous 'strip' to
the older side of Las Vegas which is Fremont Street. The street's famous attraction is the Light and Sound show where neons lights are projected into the "canopy" that runs along Fremont Street. Casinos, Retail Shops and Souvenir stores line the stretch of the street. I bought my souvenirs here since my aunt told me that its cheaper to get it here than in the 'strip'

Paris Balloon

The Charm of Paris
On our second night out it was off to the city of Love - Paris. That Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel tower replicas are sights to behold.Inside the hotel, it is like walking along the famous cobbled stone streets of Paris together with this fake blue sky painted roof. 

The Grandeur of Rome
After Paris it was time to visit Caesar's Palace. Just looking from the outside, one can say that Caesar's Palace is one of the grandest hotel in the Strip. The hotel buildings are designed after the Roman Architecture. You would also find several statues of the mythological gods and goddesses and even a replica of Da Vinci's 'David'. You can also view the 'Atlantis' which is an indoor aquarium in Forum Shops which is within Caesar's Palace.

That Funny Man
Fun at the Circus
On the afternoon of our last day in Las Vegas, it was time to enjoy the Circus. Coming from Manila, it is your high-end perya. There are all these booths where you can play different 'perya-like' games.You can also choose some electronic games and accumulate the tickets and claim it for a prize. There are also scheduled circus acts that you can catch when you are tired from shooting the darts.


The Romance of The Venetian and Bellagio
what better way to cap our last night at the City of Lights but be romanced by the Italians. From the gondolas and canals of Venice in The Venetian to the colorful and magnificent indoor flower garden of Bellagio Conservatory.

From the Mystic of Orient to the Culture rich Europe all in three days..one car...a comfy pair of crocs..4 GB SD Card and a fully charged Digital Camera..That's Las Vegas for you.

Las Vegas: Oasis in the Desert

After three hours of rolling dessert gutted with wild bushes, the skyline of Las Vegas loomed ahead like an oasis in the desert. It was around 4pm when we hit 'the strip'. Though the famous neon lights are not yet lit but I was already in awe of the grandness of Las Vegas as we passed by rows and rows of luxurious hotels.Never in my life have I seen that much concentration of elaborate facades of buildings in one location.

It was another story when night comes into Las Vegas it becomes like a magical toy left in the toy shop that comes into life as the day ends. The night ushers in the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas as the party atmosphere settles into the city. It was a sensory overload with the multitude of colors from the neon  that lights up the streets. Masses of people moving up and down the strip carrying those fancy plastic cups of cocktail drinks or puffing a smoke or two. Those hitting the club scenes looked like the recession has caught up with them that they resorted to buying a size smaller than what they usually wear hah! The casinos are filled with serious gambler trying their luck and rows and rows of slot machine beckons. We did try our hand on those slot machine but no first timer luck for us. I wonder if we could have done better in poker since I got some so called trainings from our poker night sessions at home.

Los Angeles: Hello Hollywood

A day after arriving in California and still battling a serious bout of jetlag, I was off to visit the entertainment capital of the USA - Hollywood. Since it's a weekend finding a parking space is like searching for a needle in a haystack. There are just rows and rows of cars in the streets. As we search high and low for a parking space, I was treated to a driving tour of Hollywood.We passed by the famous  "HOLLYWOOD" signage and drove through the streets of Hollywood Blvd. After finding a parking spot, which is about 10 minutes walk to Grauman's Chinese Theatre with it's intricate oriental design and the cement imprints of the who's who of  Hollywood. Just beside it is the famous theater where the annual Academy Awards is staged - The Kodak Theater.There is also a part of the "Walk of Fame" right in front of  the Kodak Theater and Grauman's Chinese Theater. If you want to keep a nice remembrance of your trip in the entertainment capital, you can snap some photos of the moviestars impersonators.Yes, I did strike a pose with Marilyn Monroe.
Grauman's Chinese Theater

Ilocos: NORTHERN EXPOSURE (Exploring Vigan and Pagudpud)

A day after Christmas of 2007, me, my sister and my two college buds were off to the first leg of our Ilocos trip which is Pagudpud. We took the Partas bus going to Laoag from the Partas bus station in Cubao (right below the flyover going to Sta.Mesa) with a departure time of 11 pm. We wanted to get the deluxe or first class bus type for the added comfort but since there is quite a long ticket queue in front of us, only regular buses are available by the time we purchased our bus tickets. I noticed that the most deluxe and first class buses have the earlier departure times so if you are planning to take this type of bus make sure that you take the earlier departure times . Regular bus fare from Manila-Laoag is Php667 (as of Dec.2007).

Quick Tip: Partas have a ‘No Reservation’ policy. Be there 3-2 hours before the departure time of the bus to purchase your tickets.

Of rolling waves and raindrops
We reached Laoag by 8am and it is another 2 hours ride to Pagudpud. From the Partas station we took a tricycle to the station of the mini buses going to Pagudpud. The mini bus brings back to memory the Marikina Autoline buses plying the route of Makati-San Mateo during the 80s and early 90s. For a fare of Php70 these mini-buses will guarantee a breezy (the mini bus are not equipped with aircon units) and scenic (watch out for the statuesque beauty of the windmills in Bangui) ride to Pagudpud. The driver of our minibus was kind enough to drive us directly to Saud Beach Resort but of course for an extra fare.

After 12 hours of weary road travel, 1 bus transfer and roughly 2 hours of sleep, we were greeted by the rolling waves in the latte colored shores of Saud Beach, Pagudpud and a drizzle of rain.  In serious need of nourishment and some power nap, we were able to explore Saud beach late in the afternoon.

By mid-afternoon, the wind has picked up resulting to bigger waves and the patter of rain has not shown any signs of stopping, we abandoned all hopes of donning our suits. Armed with hooded jackets and our trusty digicams, we traversed the latte-colored sands of Saud beach; stopping here and there to strike a pose for the camera. Most of the sandy stretch of the beach is near Saud Beach resort and Aryana. The rocky portion of the beach is located at the other end near Apo Idon resort; this is also where one can get a vantage view of the statuesque Windmills of Bangui.
Long walks along the shore, loads of picture taking and a quiet night capped our Pagudpud experience.

IMHO (In My Humble Opinion):
Food is quite expensive when you compare the amount as to the serving size. Food quality and taste is average. Bring lots of snacks, biscuits and breads so you can just buy the main meals from the restaurants.

Brace yourself for quite a long wait when you dine at La Helene Restaurant (near Apo Idon), there are more food choices as compared to Saud Beach Resort Restaurant but you have to wait…and wait…and wait

Of calesas and cobblestones

As morning arrives at the sandy shores of Saud beach, it was time for us to start our journey back to Vigan City. After a 4 hours drive (Pagudpud-Laoag-Vigan) along the scenic route of the Ilocos region, we arrived in Vigan at around 11:30 am.

We stayed at Gordion Inn Bed & Breakfast and are very much delighted with our antique-themed bedrooms and comfy Iloko blankets. The rooms are very clean and well-maintained. Though the toilet is a bit small and the towels provided are a bit threadbare.

Deciding to grab a quick lunch before we have our calesa tour, we spotted the famous red ‘M’ arch near Plaza Burgos. But as we are walking in Plaza Burgos we passed by the white stalls of the famous Vigan empanadas. With no second thought, we settled in one of the tables and ordered empanadas with extra vinegar dipping, okoy and a bottle of Pepsi. The empanada is made of ground meat and vegetables rolled in a thin flour wrapper (resembling the lumpiang shanghai wrappers). The okoy is humongous and is good for two people. The okoy is made up of a nice helping of small shrimps fried in egg. No empanada & okoy meal will be complete without the Iloko vinegar dipping.

After a satisfying empanada & okoy encounter, we made our way towards the line of calesas. We picked out a nice horse named Brono (this is the visayan-version of Bruno). The calesa rate is fixed at Php150 per hour. Our calesa tour included: Bantay Church Belfry, Crisologo Museum, Burgos Museum, Pagburnayan Jar Factory and Baluarte.

Bantay Church Belfry
Bantay Church Belfry with its old brick structure sits atop a small hill. The endless stretch of the clear blue sky serves as its perfect backdrop to complete a picturesque view. Upon climbing the church tower, you can be treated to a bird’s eyeview of the surrounding areas.

Burgos National Museum
Burgos National Museum is the ancestral house of Padre Jose Burgos of the famous GomBurZa priests. There is a Php10 entrance fee and guided tour. According to our tour guide, there have been no major renovations made on the house.

Crisologo Museum
Crisologo Museum is the ancestral house of the famous Crisologo clan that was turned into a museum in honor of its patriarch, Floro Crisologo, who was assassinated in Vigan Cathedral in the 70’s. The museum contains clippings, articles, memorabilia, artifacts and antiques of the Crisologo clan. Also on display is the car where the former Governor Carmeling Floro (wife of Floro Crisologo) is riding during a foiled assassination attempt. There is no entrance fee in this museum.

Pagburnayan Jar Factory
Pagburanayan Jar Factory is where the burnay jars are made. The jar maker kindly allowed my sister to sample molding clay but sad to say my sister’s final product was like a disfigured empanada. There are stalls in front of the factory that sells mini-burnay jars that you can buy as souvenirs.

Baluarte is a property of Chavit Singson, which he turned into a mini-zoo with ostriches, monkeys, deers, small horses etc. There is no entrance fee.

After a tiring but delightful calesa tour, it was time to hit the famous cobblestone-covered street of Vigan which is Calle Crisologo. Walking along Calle Crisologo is a walk down memory lane during the Spanish era in the Philippines. Old houses with Spanish architecture line the long stretch of this street. The click-clock of the calesas is the constant noise as you walk along the street. Nowadays, souvenir shops abound this street.

With weary feet and growling stomachs, we headed to Café Leona for a sumptuous
dinner. We ordered a serving of bagnet and pinakbet, both are famous Iloko dishes.
I also tried a chocolatey tiny cup of Vigan Tsokolate.

Still in the mood to explore Vigan at night, we walked towards Plaza Salcedo, Vigan Cathedral and Nuevo Segovia Museum. Since it’s already quite late, the fountains are already turned off in Plaza Salcedo and Vigan Cathedral and Nuevo Segovia Museum are already closed for the day.

To cap the final night of our northern exposure, we had a cool tall glass of yummy milkshake at the bar room of Gordion Inn, a toast for a memorable road trip into the culture-rich northern province of the Philippines.

Quick Tips:

  • You can buy your pasalubongs/souvenirs at Vigan public market since it is cheaper there as compared to the souvenir shops in Calle Crisologo.

  • Recommended souvenirs/pasalubongs:
-         Vigan bibingka
-         Longganisa
-         Bagnet
-         Iloko blanket
-         Chichacorn
-         Iloko Vinegar

  • Bagnet & Vigan longganisa have fixed price for all the stalls in the public market.

  • Marsha’s Bibingka is highly recommended even if you ask the locals. There is a stall in Partas station. Consider grabbing a few boxes before hopping into the bus.