Sunday, March 29, 2009

Buenisimo by Cafe Isabel

Next on the list in the newest restaurants to open at the Eastwood Mall is Buenisimo by Cafe Isabel. Of course, Cafe Isabel is one of the institutional restaurants in Manila, owned by Chef Gene Gonzales. Their new venture is located at the 2nd floor of the Veranda in Eastwood Mall. The place looks expensive, so we were apprehensive at first. But when we entered, the place actually felt homey, sans the clientele who are mostly executives from the offices nearby.


I was confused at the menu that they served. I thought Buenisimo offered Spanish or Italian cuisine, but turned out, it presented a whole range of dishes, from pasta, to Filipino favorites, to those normal continental ones. We were given freshly baked foccacia bread with plain butter.


We ordered the Calamares (P198) to start. It was firm, not too tender. But the breading was packed, and it held on to the squid. Two sauces were served with the Calamares. One was a garlicky cream sauce, and the other one (red) tasted more like an Asian dip. I like the red sauce (not tomato though, sorry for the lack of description). It had a unique taste. (please remind me that type of sauce).


My friend ordered the Pasta Ysabel (P298), which was a cream based penne creation with mixed seafoods and topped with dried seaweed. It was nothing spectacular, but I like the freshness of the seafood. I think it needed more seasoning.


Finally, I had the Grilled Lapu-Lapu. I was craving for fish, so I ordered the safest. It came out great. The fillet was excellently cooked, not too dry and not too flabby. I remember that it had a weird ingredient, but I didn't taste that flavor distinctly. The fish was served on a bed of a tomato relish, like a pomodoro. There was also a cream sauce that blended well. Over-all, I liked my dish.


I totally forgot the descriptions of our dishes, since I was eating in several new restaurants. It's so hard to keep track. I give Buenisimo good ratings, for its ambience and dishes. They were uncomplicated, but flavorful and surprisingly unqiue.

Yogurberry

Now that Red Mango is open in Manila (they also serve great waffles), here's another chain that I wish would arrive in Manila too. Introducing Yogurberry, one of the most popular froyo brands from Korea.


I had my last Yogurberry when I was in Kota Kinabalu. It was located at the Warisan Square near the Waterfront.


I love their froyo naked, but my companions dressed it with fruits (strawberry, kiwi and mango, which is a real good combination).


I realized that 3 years ago, I wanted to bring Pinkberry or Yogurberry badly to the Philippines. I even inquired about the franchise costs and all. That was when Pinkberry boomed in the US. After 2 years, the FroYo craze hit the Philippines. I should have followed my instincts before.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Tiger Leaping Gorge: The Descent (Part 2)

It felt like a movie, this trek. I felt like I was part of a movie set, with new scenes after each trail bend. The next day I woke up at 8AM, hoping get back on the hike by 9AM. My plan was to leave for Shangrila at 2PM, after reaching Walnut Garden where I would have lunch. So, after a heavy breakfast, I went ahead alone. There was still group of young backpackers behind me, but I didn't mind them yet, until I passed the waterfall that flowed right on our path.


The waterfall was a sight, as it crashed gracefully onto our path. I stopped to feel the cold yet fresh water. I also got the chance to speak to the group of backpackers that was on my back. Turned out they came from the Tea Horse Guesthouse, the place where I should have stayed. The group was mixed, like almost everyone, except for two from Denmark, were all solo travelers as well. There was a Japanese and an Albanian girl. The rest were all guys from Australia, Israel, and Finland. They told me to join them, as they continued the hike down the trail.


The hike down was straight, and because I had some buddies to talk to, it became shorter. They asked a lot about the Philippines. They thought I was from South America, so they were pleasantly surprised to have a Filipino with them. Some of them were actually planning to visit the Philippines in the South East Asia leg of their world tour.


It took us around 3 hours from Halfway Guesthouse to Tina's Guesthouse, in the Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge. So, my plan was I would make it to Walnut Garden and catch a bus back to Qiaotou, to get into another bus onwards to Shangrila. My trail mates however, had a different plan. They would descend further down into the gorge for 2 hours after having lunch at Tina's Guesthouse, and catch their onwards buses at 5PM. I didn't think about going down the gorge, into the rapids, but I thought it must be worth it. So, as we arrived in Tina's Guesthouse, we arranged a minibus for all of us, back to Qiaotou at around 5PM. I just went with the flow.


After a quick full lunch, we looked for the path that would take us down. We saw it after a while, and a lady at the entrance of the path charged us 10RMB each. Yes, it was just a simple path down, but we were charged (for "maintenance"). So we paid our dues, and slid ourselves on a steep down path. At the back of my head, I was thinking of how to get back up, because I wouldn't want to take this same path up. It was just too steep, and it took us 30 minutes to get down.


Finally, we arrived at a leveled path parallel to the rapids. We rushed to the rock where the Tiger Leaping Gorge got its name. The Chinese believed that a tiger leapt from one rock to another, over the Yangtze to escape its hunters. So, even though the Chinese guide books mention that the locals claim several "tiger leaping" rocks, we just picked out one and took a much needed rest. It was relaxing listening to the pounding music of water on rocks. The weather was great and the scenery fantastic. I really felt like I was one with nature already. Then, someone mentioned an ever familiar word to me as I was lying down at the top of the rock, "Kabayan?"


Yes, he was a Filipino, who was traveling with his brother. They were surprised to see me, again, alone traveling. They kept asking me how I planned this trip and how much I spent. They were surprised that I didn't consult any local forums in the Internet. I just told them that I had this map, and looked for the places that seemed interesting, and asked how I would go there. The two Filipinos didn't even know the trail I just took, up the mountains, and one of them was a mountaineer. I gave them a map of the upper trail, and told them to take it backwards, which would be relatively easier. I was happy to see some kababayans in my trek, in my entire trip for this matter. After traveling from Guangzhou, it was the first time I met some Filipinos. And right here, on Tiger Leaping Rock.


Now, going back up was a mystery. Everyone didn't want to take the same way we went down, so we asked around. I asked the Filipinos, and they told us that they were taking the ladders up. So, there's this trail back up that had 3 ladders on its way, to make the ascent faster. So, we all decided to take that trail which cost us another 10RMB each.


Going up was an ordeal. It was the 24 Bends all over again. We were all exhausted after the first ladder, and had 2 more. There were steep steps up between ladders, that were literally against a cliff. We were catching our breaths every step of the way. We even went passed the Filipinos who took on the trail earlier than us. I had a big bag at my back, and wished I left it in the guesthouse. That was stupid of me. Anyway, horses were also on the trail, bringing cursing Chinese tourists.


After an hour, we reached a meadow that had some dazzling views of the Yangtze and the Gorge. The exhaustion evaporated as soon as I witnessed this grand landscape. I really felt I was in heaven, because it was so peaceful. I was overwhelmed at the grandeur of the mountains, bowing down to the river that cut across them.


We took in the wonderful view, and after realizing it was 5PM already, we walked back to Tina's on the tarred road. It was a relief walking on solid ground again. The minibus would take everyone else back to Lijiang, while I and the Israeli guy would catch a bus at 6PM to Shangrila. The ride back to Qiaotao made us reminisce our trek the day before. What took us 1 day to hike, took only 30 minutes by car. But we all thought it was worth it, and one of the best experiences in our lives. Every step of the way was an experience in itself. We touched the mountains, rolled down the hills, and basked ourselves in the rivers and falls. The Tiger Leaping Gorge took us so close to nature, that we became a part of it.


Back in Qiaotou, we got off the minibus, and asked around for the bus onwards to Shangrila. The Albanian girl spoke fluent Chinese, as she was a student so she handled the conversations. They told us that they weren't sure if a bus would come. We realized that they were offering us a private car at 400RMB to go up to Shangrila. So, it was a risk. A bus may or may not come. I decided to take the risk, and go with the flow once again. So, with the Israeli guy, we said goodbye to our new friends.


The Tiger Leaping epic may be over, but another adventure awaits, in my finale at Shangrila.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Where to Go: Beach Summer 2009

Let's assume most people still want to get out of the city despite the huge crowds outside Manila this Holy Week and other Summer holidays. Let's also assume that we can't spend that much (recession). And the travel time must only be 3 hours maximum. So, where do we go?

1. Anawangin/Nagsasa Coves with Capones/Camara Islands Combo (Damage: P3,500 per person for an overnight)

Since it will be full in Pundaquit, you can opt to take a day trip from Subic or even Olongapo. Stay there in the evening, since you really need just a day in Anawangin/Nagsasa. But stay for the sunset in Anawangin/Nagsasa and head back to mainland as soon as the sun tocuhes down. Anawangin/Nagsasa still offer the best nature and beach experience near Manila.

2. Bondoc Peninsula, Quezon (Damage: P1,000 per person)

The Quezon province is one of the most undiscovered beach areas near Manila. Aside from the already popular Polilio island group, the other option is the Bondoc peninsula. Around 15 minutes after Lucena, you'll come about a fork which has the sign, this way to the Bondoc Peninsula. Turn right there and drive down around 20 minutes more. Padre Burgos is the first town in the Bondoc peninsula which has good beaches. I like the Tamarind Tree because it is well-maintained, affordable but basic, and very eco-friendly. Again, it's not luxurious, and the huts are really just nipa huts. Most take the day trip here from Manila, since it's just a total of 3 hours away. I still have to go further into the peninsula. There may be more hidden beaches. If you do find some, let me know.

3. Morong, Bataan (Damage: P2,000 to P4,000 per person)

Morong offers a lot of beach options in various types of accommodations. The nearer ones from Subic are just after the forest road that you will hit after exiting the Morong Gate. Anvaya Cove comes after if you take the cliff road, all the way down inwards in the peninsula. You'll be hitting Baranggay Poblacion where more resorts can be found, such as my recommended White Corals Resort or Coral View Resort. These resorts are huge, and some of their rooms are expensive. But if you're a barkada, you can get their dorm type rooms, and spend just P500 per person. The beach is relaxing, and you can visit the Pawikan Conservation Center and nearby islands, including the beaches near the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant.

4. San Juan, Batangas (Laiya Beach and Beyond)

Well, it's turning out to be the most preferred beach nearest Manila, but I really think the rapid development is too much. I have visited Laiya when the road was still rough, and there were still a lot of trees lining the beach. Only La Luz and a few resorts were present. Nobody was around, except for some families living nearby. Now, Laiya is packed, especially during weekends. I don't recommend it at this time, so make sure you plan well, and visit during weekdays. La Luz is still there, and has the best location at the end of the beach. Virgin Beach Resort still has its charm but I think has gone way too expensive for its standards. Sabangan Beach Resort is your option if you want to rent an apartment style accommodation, with kitchenette and dining areas. There are also several other beaches on the same coastline, like in Hugom, where Palm Beach (La Frondosa) is located. It is a great resort for families and big groups. There are more cheaper resorts around, but the cheaper they get, the less value you receive.

5. Pagbilao and Sariaya, Quezon

Sariaya is the town adjacent to Lucena, and offers some beach resorts that are noteworthy. The beaches here are not excellent, but it's a good jump off point for the nearby islands, such as Pagbilao Grande, which has a nice and clean white beach named Puting Buhangin. There's even a cave at the end of the cove. You can take a boat from Sariaya to Pagbilao Grande. You can opt to stay for the night at Marina Azul Beach Resort. The boat trip can take almost an hour, but the trip is worth it. You can also head straight to Pagbilao which comes after Lucena.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

PAL Econolight Fares

TIP: When traveling international, try to book online at www.philippineairlines.com, where they offer the great and most affordable fares, the Econolight. Their rates are most of the time cheaper than Cebu Pacific. Imagine, a roundtrip to HK can cost as low as $100 (P4,900). Cebu Pacific does have these low rates as well, but they're almost always unavailable when you plan to travel within the next week. I fly on both carriers, so I just get the cheapest among the two. When CEBPAC is on sale, they are unbelievably low, but I think you can get the lowest rates at any time with PAL.

The Tiger Leaping Gorge: Grandness of Nature (Part 1)

When I first planned my trip to China, I never thought I would end up exploring Yunnan. I was just supposed to go to Guilin and Yangshuo for a week. That was it. Now, I am on top of a mountain facing another mountain so close to me I could touch it. Down below was the great Yangtze River. Welcome to the Tiger Leaping Gorge.


Touted as one of the MUST THINGS TO DO BEFORE YOU DIE, trekking the TLG is indeed something life-changing. The Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the deepest in the world. The Yangtze cuts powerfully through a massive mountain range, and the result is a spectacle. Located around 120 km from Lijiang, the TLG has become of the fastest rising tourist spots of China. I haven't heard anyone in my trip who didn't recommend taking the trek up its trail.


And so I did. From Lijiang, I took a mini bus to Qiaotou, the starting point for the trek. The bus took two hours, along an already spectacular scenery. We reached the TLG Gate, and someone came in the bus to collect the entrance fee of 80 RMB (I told you the Chinese charged for every sight they have). Then, suddenly, a perky woman appeared at our bus door and began speaking in English. She was Margo, an Australian who owned Margo's Cafe, and a personality in this popular trek. She told us to get off the bus and gave us advice on the weather and safety tips on taking the trek. She invited us to have some coffee and breakfast in her cafe, which was just beside the entrance.


Margo's Cafe was like a waiting shed for those beginning the trek and for those waiting a bus back to Lijiang or onwards to Shangrila. Margo gave us Sean's TLG Map (Sean is a well-known tour guide in TLG and also owns a guesthouse at the end of the trail in the Walnut Garden). The passengers from my bus eventually became my trailmates: a French couple, an American and a Swedish student. After making our mark in Margo's walls using chalk, we began finding the path to the upper trail of the TLG.


The Upper Trail is the hiking trail. There is a Lower Trail, but that was the tarred road where most vehicles pass, so taking the low trail is quite stupid. The Upper Trail goes up the mountains, and takes a total of 8 hours to accomplish by a fit individual. It passes through the most spectacular scenery in the area, giving you breathtaking views of the Jade Snow Mountains and the Yangzte below.


We began hiking at around 11AM, and we were told that the next stop over would be after 2 hours, at the Naxi Family Guesthouse in the middle of a village by the slopes. We were guided by red arrow marks on stones, supposedly marked by Sean himself. The start of the trek was relatively easy. There weren't steep slopes yet, and there was even some Chinese tourists who were on horseback on the trail. The French couple I was with went ahead, as I was taking pictures left and right. The American and Swedish guys fell behind as they walked slow. So, I began listening to my ipod as I embarked on the longest walk of my life.


Two hours after, I arrived at the Naxi Family Guesthouse. It was perched on a cliff, so I had to take some steep steps to go up. The French couple was already there, and I joined them for lunch. There were also a group of Thai yuppies having their lunch. After a while, it began to rain, so we had to let it subside first before we continued with our journey.


The subsided, but it was still pouring, so I took out my foldable umbrella and went back on the trail. The scenery was getting better and better, as I moved further up. Then, I approached the most dreaded part of the trek, the 24 Bends. It was steep hike up and I became so exhausted I nearly gave up. There was a horseman who followed me along the trail, hoping I would succumb to an expensive horse ride. I stopped several times to catch my breath. I never felt so unfit in my life. After a grueling hour, I made it to the peak, where the wind blew hard and cold. I took out my camera and dropped of my heavy bag at a bench on the lookout. It was freezing, but I braved to go further out to the edge of the mountain and take some shots. I took me around 15 seconds to take pictures, then I ran back to shelter. It was really cold.


I continued on the trail, and have already made friends with the Thai yuppies. They were surprised I was a Filipino traveling alone. Even the Thais noticed that. The peak trail gave us the most dizzying views. We were also so close to the snow capped mountains of the Jade Snow that you could almost touch them.


From then on, the trail changed its pace. It was mostly down hill, and the surroundings were becoming different. I passed by tall bamboos, dirt paths and small waterfalls. After 3 hours, I arrived at the Tea Horse Guesthouse, where I was greeted by my American and Swedish trail mates. They didn't stop at the Naxi Family Guesthouse for lunch, so they arrived earlier than me. The French couple was about to leave Tea Horse when I arrived. I was the last to arrive.


There were other travelers in the Tea Horse, and they began drinking. They invited me to stay for the night there, but I wanted to make most of the day and head onwards to Halfway Guesthouse, where I initially wanted to spend the night in.


So I moved on, with 2 hours left before sundown. The trail was getting easier, but more and more dangerous as I was literally walking at the edge of cliffs. I passed by fallen rocks, which made me look above form time to time. There were even animals on the path, like goats and even cows that literally took up most of the narrow path I was in. I had to move myself up the slope. I was hanging on a branch of a bush to avoid slipping.


I hit a paved road already, after an hour and a half, and the sun has already hidden behind the mountains. It was 7PM and the wind was getting stronger. Then, rain fell down, and it became significantly colder. I could see civilization ahead, and assumed that my guesthouse was in that area. After 30 minutes, I arrived at the Halfway Guesthouse, which was under construction.


I wished I had stayed in the Tea Horse instead, if I just knew that the Halfway wasn't as good as it was pictured in the web. Anyway, I had no other choice, so I got a room, and headed for the restaurant, where my French trailmates were beginning to drink. I grabbed something to eat, a much needed hot bowl of chicken noodle soup. The wind was blowing stronger, and the temperature went below freezing. I was so cold, since I went to the restaurant without my winter jacket. So I retired early, after a few beers. That night, the wind blew like a storm and I was freezing cold under my heated blanket. For some reason, I couldn't sleep, even if I was so tired from walking the entire day. I was still anxious about finishing the trek, which I would be continuing the next day.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Lijiang: Old Town Labyrinth

I made it into Lijing after 4 hours in a small bus that constantly stopped for passengers. We even had to load some sacks of rice along the way. I dozed off for most part of the trip, so the next thing I knew, we were approaching a city, that is the new Lijiang, on a cloudy day. The bus stopped in front of what seemed to be gate of the Old Town. My inn was located inside the Old Town, the main attraction of Lijiang. I got down and tried to ask for directions. Unfortunately, nobody could understand me, so I tried calling the inn. I was told to go to Sifang Square, where I would meet someone to escort me to the inn. Turns out I was far from Sifang Square, and with the maze that is the Old Town, I got lost.


Lijiang Old Town (or Ancient Town) is a labyrinth of cobblestone alleys. The place was huge, way bigger than Dali. I began to like it though, as you really feel you're in a Chinese movie set. Preserved shop houses lined the alleys, streams flow everywhere.


I followed the crowds, until I found an alley that was packed with people. Finally, I ended up in an open space with a lot of tourists capturing themselves on photos. I arrived in Sifang Square after 10 minutes of walking. I called up Mu, my host, and told him that I was beside the tourist information kiosk. He arrived 3 minutes after, got my bag and told me to follow him.


I saw the sign of my inn, and I was glad it was located on a quiet alley beside the ancestral home of the "king" of Lijiang (the family who built the town). Mu's Garden Inn was pleasant. It had a courtyard, like most Chinese inns, and was built out of wood. I settled in a private room and unloaded my stuff. I was so tired from walking that I had to rest before I head outside to see what Lijiang holds for me.


After an hour of rest, Mu gave me a map of Old Town Lijiang. Finally, a map. I began my exploration of the old town, passing through Sifang Square again, hoping I would get to master the maze. Lijiang was full of Chinese tourists. They were packing each alley. There were shops everywhere, selling everything unique to Lijiang and China from antiques to silk scarves.


Lijiang was capturing my attention for its preserved old town charm. You could see the Naxi people whipping up their delicacies, creating artworks, or just lazing around. It was still their home.


It was also so cold, so I decided to finally buy a fleece jacket to add layer to my clothing. I also noticed a lot of tourist reminder signs like this one:


I went around looking for a place to eat. There were some side walk vendors selling their native delicacies and some street side dishes like this egg omelette which they call a pancake. It was savory and sweet at the same time.


I moved on to find a place to sit and have a decent meal. I ended up in Prague Cafe, where I had a very tasty Naxi Sandwich. Think a regular clubhouse, but with goat cheese, egg, potatoes and lettuce. This is also where I bought my handcrafted Lijiang notebooks.


I continued walking around Lijiang and ended up in Pub Street, which had several bars and restaurants. Little did I know that this place transformed into a huge beat box at night. This was the first time that I saw Chinese people dancing crazily on the dance floor, and singing to tunes that are out-of-tune.


I went back to the inn after amusing myself with the Chinese revelers. I had to get some rest as I would be heading to my most anticipated destination the next day: The Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Brooklyn Pizza

The first time I heard about Brooklyn Pizza was through a friend. I was craving for New York style pizza. My friend then asked me, "Haven't you tried Brooklyn?" I said no. He knew the delivery number and immediately dialed it. He did the ordering and after 30 minutes, the pizza man was at our door. That was the first time I had a superb white cheese pizza aside from Sbarro's.


Since then, Brooklyn has been a favorite in my pizza delivery list. I found their pies more flavorful and less greasy than several of the New York Style pizzas out there. Recently, I visited their branch in Ortigas, at the City Golf Arcade along Julia Vargas Avenue. It was my first time to dine in their place, and I was quite surprised at my experience. The place was small but cozy. They even served complimentary garlic bread.


We were having our first real meal of the day, so we ordered Buffalo Wings to start. The wings were spicy, and the tangy flavor was not too strong. It didn't need the sour cream dip that is usually served alongside it. You'll know a good dish if it can stand alone naked. And it did.


We ordered two Junior New Yorker size pizzas (medium sized with 8 slices). The first one was my regular order, the White Cheese Pizza (mozzarella, parmesan and ricotta cheese, P430 for junior). It never failed to satisfy my white cheese craving and I was glad that it was still the same after all these years. You could savor the mozzarella which was distinct in flavor.


The other one was a fully loaded pie, the Deluxe (lots of meat and vegetable toppings, P520 for junior). Well, Filipinos love lots of topping on their pizza, so this was a certified best seller. There was the usual stuff found in most loaded pizzas. I love that they put a lot of olives on the pie.


Finally, I had my first pasta in Brooklyn, the Spaghetti and Meatballs Pasta, which surprisingly was for FREE, when you order a junior size New Yorker pizza. I found it weird that they gave free pasta for ordering a medium sized pizza, but hey, who's complaining? And, I enjoyed the pasta, which tasted more like a putanesca without anchovies. You could taste the olives that is blended well with tomato sauce. The meatballs were packed with flavor as well. I am not a fan of meatballs, but I was chewing on them, even without the pasta.


I thought their promo was a great deal, especially when the Spaghetti and Meatballs Pasta is worth P225. It's good for a hungry bunch of 3 to 4 people.


All in all, the stop at Brooklyn was satisfying. We were so full, and I kept my promise of making it my dinner as well (we ate at 3PM). So, for those wanting to trying a real slice of New York (pizza that is), call 633-9999. That's the Ortigas branch (sorry, I am from Ortigas), but they have 6 other branches in the Metro. Of course, you call for the pizza, but try their pasta as well. I wouldn't know they were also good if I didn't give it a try.

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