New Year in Philippines
New Year in Manila - not really a common destination like Sidney or New York - but an interesting one with lots of good vibes.
Well Manila, the feedback from most of the people who have been there is that it is loud, dirty, congested and with chaotic traffic. But for us arriving on 30th December at night - Manila showed itself from the best side, as many people already were on holiday and the roads were empty.
We decided for a City Tour on 31st December - Manila might not be a city with very significant sights - but on a tour you get to know the spirit of the city and you will mainly learn about the country hero - Jose Rizal. Usually on a common full-day City Tour which was booked through our agent Rajah Tours (www.rajahtoursphilippines.com) there is a couple of museums included, however they were all closed on that day.
So we started with the visit of the old Santiago Fort - which served as military headquarter for the Spanish colonizers and later as well for American and Japanese soldiers. Nowadays it hosts a museum of Jose Rizal - who was a nationalist and the leader of the Propaganda Movement which advocated political reforms under the Spanish colonizers and who was executed by the Spanish military. Later on the tour you will also visit the Rizal Park - where you can see a monument showing his execution.
When you step out from the Fort you are in the Old Walled City that still remained from the Spanish colony time. It is nice to take a walk through the old historic buildings, have a horse ride or some lunch - in our tour it was included at Barbara's Heritage Restaurant - which was a bit "kitsch" and touristic, but located in a historical building and with good food.
We were then heading on to China Town and the market there is really an experience and exactly the chaotic way you would expect in Manila. Very recommended to go there, but watch your bag and be prepared that after some monsoon rains you might walk in muddy streets.
On our visit as it was the 31st December a lot of fireworks were sold there as well as oranges and other round fruits - because for Filipinos on the New Year's Eve you should have 7 different round fruits on your table to bring prosperity for the next year to you.
If you have a strong stomach you can also try lots of street food here as sticky rice or other delicacies.
On a tour through Manila you will notice the many churches of all colors and designs, which are the symbols of the strong religious believe of the people here - Philippines is the country with the highest population of Catholics throughout Asia. We visited the Quiapo church, which houses the Black Nazarene - a life-sized image of a dark-skinned kneeling Jesus Christ. Every 9th of January a huge procession of the statue is taking place through Manila - it attracts millions of viewers and means pure chaos and traffic jams - so better to avoid that. Around the church you can stroll through an interesting market, selling everything from religious souvenirs, over fruits, vegetables, meat and fish. You can also find the famous future-telling ladies around here, who will be happy to read out your future destiny from your hands.
This concludes pretty much the main sights of Manila - but of course there is still a lot of fun stuff to do like a ride with a Jeepney. These common public transportation vehicles have each a fixed route and final destination and will pick-up and drop off people along the way. They are still a relic of the American soldiers. When they left the country they sold their jeeps for the symbolic amount of 1 USD to the local people - and the smart Filipinos adjusted them, made them longer and transformed them in small buses. That is why they called "Jeep" and the second part "ney" = knee, comes from rubbing the knees together as you sit so tight in them.
New Year in Manila
We decided to stay at our hotel for New Year and had a nice dinner there followed by a poolside party mingling in with the locals. We also tried a real local favorite Lechon - which is grilled pork and served on all special occasions. Who ever has been in Philippines or knows Filipinos can assume that New Year here is a happy and loud affair with lots of dancing, drinking and of course MUSIC. Throughout the year wherever you go in that country you will always notice A.) the happiness of the people and B.) the music. Filipinos like to sing wherever they are and music will follow you everywhere - and I must say that sometimes I came across impressive good voices.
For a more adventurous New Year - of course you have to leave the comfort zone of your hotel. There are various spots in the city where you can mingle with the locals and watch the official fireworks, like for example around Mall of Asia. But be aware that basically everybody has some fireworks too - so the streets resemble rather a war zone after a few minutes into the new year. Not sure if that will continue in the future as the government has plans to restrict this private street fireworks.
Where to stay in Manila.....
In Manila you can find all international hotel chains and some very nice local ones as well. We stayed over New Year at the Dusit Thani Hotel,which is located in the business area of Manila called Markati. It is already a bit older, but still a nice city option with quite large rooms and a Shopping Mall beside. It also has a pool area as well as a gym. Best is the great breakfast that has so many choices for all tastes!
On our way back we stayed at the new Conrad Hotel (www.conradhotels3.hilton.com)beside Mall of Asia. Apart from the great location, the hotel impresses through its modern design. It has a very nice outdoor pool area with views over the Manila Bay and direct access to the Shopping Mall. As we had an early departure I can not say something about the breakfast. At that morning by the way we got the real taste of Manila when we almost missed the flight because of the crazy traffic jam at 5.00 in the morning!
With a choice of more than 7200 islands Philippines has to offer a big variety for beachgoers and does not make the decision easy for a destination. Our original plan was the famous Palawan Island, but unfortunately all hotels were already fully booked there. Boracay was too touristic for us and when we saw Alona Beach later on in that trip, which is on the way to become a second Boracay we were very happy about our decision.
So our agent offered us Panglao Island in the Bohol province. There were also good flight connections with Philippine Airlines and therefore we decided to choose this place which turned out to be a good decision.
We stayed at the Bellevue Hotel (www.thebellevuebohol.com) - which is more popular among Asian travelers than Westeners, but overall we enjoyed our stay and I can recommend a holiday there if you are aware of some things concerning the location of this hotel.
But let's first talk about the hotel itself , which is quite new and a medium seized resort hotel. The rooms were very spacious in size, with large bathrooms and comfortable beds and a nice balcony facing the sea side. The hotel has a small tropical garden with an infinity pool, a garden restaurant/bar plus another international restaurant. Furthermore you can find there a games room, small spa and a very small gym room (with a not so good smell as it is in the basement without windows). The hotel also organizes some sport activities and games (however during our stay not all of them took place) and you can rent a bike or book some tours over their concierge desk. So plenty of stuff to do.
Food - breakfast was good with many choices - of course lots of dishes catered more for Asian tastes but also for us many options were available inclusive of some live cooking stations. Lunch was served either at the poolside restaurant or on most of the days also in the international restaurant in the main building. Disappointing was that they are using the same menu in both outlets, for lunch as well as for dinner. So staying there for a week makes it a bit limited in choices. However at night they are organizing different theme nights and buffets which are a welcomed variation. Now to the taste of the food - in general it was good and also with nice presentations, but somehow the dishes, especially the international ones, are lacking in taste - they are trying hard, but it still takes a bit more for them to earn their credits for the food.
The staff is very friendly at the restaurants - however professionalism and speed can vary a lot. But they always make it up with a smile.
They further have a coffee shop at the lobby and the beach side bar.
So far so good - but now to the bit controversial location of the hotel. It is in a quite remote side of Panglao Island at Doljo Beach. So be aware that you need to go to Alona Beach to have some bars, restaurants and entertainment. However that is not a problem as the hotel offers free shuttle bus services (by minibus or their hotel Jeepney) or alternatively you can rent a rickshaw moped outside of the hotel, which brings you in about 10 Minutes for a few Pesos to Alona. Sure a lot of people will appreciate the silence of the Bellevue compared to the buzzling Alona Beach.
But the most problematic point is the beach of the Bellevue itself - because the strong tides make swimming in the sea almost impossible. In the few hours when the water is a bit up, the huge amount of sea urchins hiding inside the seaweed down there will also put you off from swimming. They tried to solve this problem with a long floating walkway and island, but also at the end of the walkway the sea is still too shallow to swim. The beach itself is white sand and the hotel is doing great efforts to clean off all the sea grass that is splashed out of the sea. But when you leave the premises of the hotel and walk along the public beach the picture is different and you find a very wild and often a bit dirty beach around. Nevertheless you can get in touch with the local community there, observing boat builders, see locals digging for sandworms (yes they eat them :-) ), go on hunt for seastars and admire unspoiled sunsets.
Outside the hotel fence you can also find some locals who offer snorkel and diving trips for half the price than the hotel diving school.
A 10 minutes drive away from the hotel and you are in the up-coming beach village of Alona. A couple of years ago this was a stretch of unspoiled white beach and once discovered by some Germans expats building up the first bars and small hotels over there. Nowadays it has grown up to a lively beach town with bars, restaurants, wild tattoo studios and hotels of all categories. The biggest and most modern hotel over there is the Henann Resort. Further you can find a big number of smaller hotels and hostels. For my taste it is already too crowded and touristic for a nice beach holiday, but to go there at night for some food and drinks is nice.
At night many restaurants put out their tables on the sand and you can choose your catch of the day which is grilled live in front of you while you have your feet in the sand and watch some live entertainment from the local youth.
One good BBQ restaurant where we ate twice was Pyramids - you can choose here your fresh meat or fish which is grilled on site. The nice beach tables are under huge umbrellas which will safe you from some tropical rain showers. The Pyramids Beach Resort also offers some rooms for rent, which looked very nice and cosy to me situated in a tropical garden with a pool.
For all organic food lovers among you - there is an organic restaurant and small shop as well the Buzz Cafe which belongs to the Bohol Bee Farm. In the shop you can buy delicious organic ice cream made of exotic locally grown fruits - the long queues in front of the shop will direct you :-) (www.boholbeefarm.com).
The nice thing on Panglao which is quite a small island is that it is connected by two bridges with the large Bohol Island - means if you want a break from the beach there is plenty of things around to explore. Other than in destinations like Boracay where you mainly only have the beach. We decided for a day tour - which we booked through the Concierge desk of the hotel and which was a private tour with a driver plus guide for around 50 USD pp.
The tour brought us through the picturesque Bohol island - driving through tropical forest and paddy fields. The lush green vegetation is a feast for the eyes - first main attraction of the tour was a cruise on a jungle river.
Loboc river - well on one side it is a super touristic activity which you can already assume reaching there when you spot all the tourist buses. You also have to pass many souvenir shops before you come to the embarkation pier of the boats. On one of the many boats you will get squeezed in with a lot of other tourists - so the first impression is not a very good one. Also the folkloric dance show at the end of the cruise does not make it better. However once cruising on the deep green river you cross through lush tropical forest until you reach a romantic waterfall where the boats will turn around. Also the food on our boat was pretty good and I really enjoyed the jack fruit curry.
Land of the Tarsier - after we continued our drive on a winding road until the Tarsier Sanctuary. Tarsiers are tiny little primates which are endemic to the Philippines and mainly found in the southeastern parts of the archipelago. They are members of the approximately 45-million-year-old family Tarsiidae. Locally known under the name mawmag they used to be popular pets - however these tiny fellows love their freedom and are the only animals in the world committing suicide when hold in cages. Yes folks you heard it right - they commit suicide - how they are doing it? They bang their cute little heads on the cage walls until they die. Therefore the government has now enforced not to keep them in captivity anymore and has created sanctuaries for them.
Usually they are nocturnal animals and they need their peace and quiet environment, therefore you are asked from the staff not to be noisy and not to touch them or take photos with flashlight. They will also help you to spot them out as they usually are staying in the same places and if you are lucky they are awake and you can see their huge eyes - I couldn't help but somehow they reminded me of the Gremlins :-)
Chocolate Hills - afterwards we reached the main destination of today's tour the famous Chocolate Hills, a geological formation of around 1260 hills spread over more than 50 square meters. The hills are covered in green grass that turns to brown (like chocolate) during the dry season, hence the name. The Chocolate Hills are a main tourist attraction in Bohol and have been declared the country's third National Geological Monument.
At the time of our visit they were more green than brown, but still a very picturesque landscape, which we could admire on top of one of the hills.
Also on the tour we saw a not so impressive butterfly farm with not many butterflies but more staff taking some funny pictures of you. Further we passed many local villages (some landmarks there as some churches are still destroyed from the last big earthquake in 2013), a market and a national monument. All in all an interesting and varied tour through the island that gives a good overview on the southern part of Bohol. You could easily do that tour also on a self-drive by car or more popular with tourist a moped.
And we came over a creative Christmas tree.....
Some last impressions........
And last but not least as there is always music everywhere in Phillippines we were waved goodbye by a local musician group in the airport departure hall of Taglibaran airport.