In the Philippines, rain can’t dampen a partyAlthough the Philippines has fallen somewhat out of favor with Japanese tourists, Koreans are increasingly taking up the slack, and signs of a vigorous Korean tourist and commercial presence in the archipelago are evident all over the country. In Manila, advertising signboards in Korean abound, and, in a sure sign of a thriving Korean community, a number of Korean church congregations have been founded. In Makati, Manila’s suburban business and commercial center, a Korean hairdresser plies his trade.
Despite its reputation, not altogether undeserved, as a Wild West kind of country, the Philippines is a relatively safe travel destination if a traveler uses some prudence. Most of the southern island of Mindanao should be avoided because of the continuing Muslim insurgency there, but the Manila area, most of the main island of Luzon and the central islands of Cebu, Bohol and the perennial favorite, Boracay, are popular destinations.
The flight is less than four hours, fares are competitive and the Philippine peso is weak, making a vacation in the islands a bargain relative to other Southeast Asian destinations.
The summer is the low season in the Philippines because of the monsoon rains. The weather makes a vacation there somewhat of an iffy proposition, but unless there is a typhoon in the area, the monsoon season typically is marked by still-generous amounts of sunshine and one or two hour-long showers (sometimes downpours) per day.
Manila is served by Asiana, Korean Air and Philippine Airlines. Discount air fares cluster around the 400,000 won ($345) mark. There are some four-day, three-night or three-day, two-night excursion tickets available; they require a payment of about $100, though, if you change your return date. A 15-day excursion fare cost 430,000 won two weeks ago. Prices will be higher during the Korean school vacation, however.
An alternative is an Asiana flight from Incheon to the former U.S. air base at Clark Field, about 90 kilometers (54 miles) north of Manila. For those interested in seeing the sights in Northern Luzon ― the mountain city of Baguio, the Banaue Rice Terraces, the colonial Spanish architecture of the Ilocos provinces or the beach resorts on the Lingayen Gulf ― the flight to Clark may be a better option than going through Manila. You will save several hours’ driving time; traffic is terrible from Manila’s airport through the metropolitan area to the north.
And Clark Field is a popular vacation destination of its own for Koreans. The old U.S. military base is now a free trade zone, and although industry is not thriving there, some of the old military facilities have been converted for tourist use. The former bachelor officers’ quarters is now a luxury resort hotel run by Holiday Inn, and the military golf course, spiffed up and renamed Mimosa Golf Club, is so popular with Koreans that it gave up the opportunity to host the Philippine Open golf tournament early this year because of the loss of revenue it would have sustained to prep the course for the tournament.
A sign of how popular Clark Field has become is Asiana Airlines’ increase in frequencies between there and Incheon; on Monday, the carrier increased its flights from twice weekly to daily. Asiana’s representatives had no comment on whether golf or the notorious “entertainment district” outside the Clark Field gates in Angeles City was the main attraction for Korean visitors, but he insisted that a large number of travelers there were toting clubs.
Boracay is the premier beach destination in the Philippines. It is relatively undeveloped; visitors have to wade into a small boat to travel to the island and then wade ashore. The dumbbell-shaped island is about seven kilometers (four miles) long and only about 500 meters wide at the narrowest point. Its pride and joy is White Beach, a four-kilometer-long stretch of white sand on the western shore. Small hotels and restaurants line the beach promenade, a sand path. Hotel prices range from over $100 per night to as low as $18 for a fan room. Traveling middle-aged masseuses and manicurists ply their trade on the beach; either an hour-long massage or a manicure and pedicure costs about $5.
There is a wide variety of restaurants of many different cuisines; seafood, of course, is a good bet. Two of the JoongAng Ilbo staff recommend the Pink Patio Resort, located about 50 meters away from the beach along a bricked path. Rooms there cost about $50 per night; the resort has a swimming pool, health club and rock-climbing wall. It is a short walk to the beach, and the area is quiet at night. Asia Travel (see box) on Wednesday was advertising a three-day, two-night package at the resort, including air fare, breakfast and roundtrip boat transportation to the island, for $175 per person double occupancy.
Another good bet is the Boracay Regency, where rooms cost about $100 per night. It is located right on the beach.
During the monsoon, the winds blow directly into White Beach, kicking up more of a swell than during the dry season. There is a nice, often-deserted area called Puka Beach on the northern tip of the island that will appeal.
Perhaps the best area to stay in on a vacation in Manila is Makati, the upscale suburban financial district. Several five-star hotels cluster here, including the Mandarin Oriental and the Manila Inter-Continental . They are both near one of the city's largest shopping malls, the Makati Commercial Center, and within easy reach of some of the city’s best golf courses. If you want to emulate Imelda Marcos, several large department stores there have a huge variety of locally made shoes in a dizzying array of styles beginning at about $16.
The Intercon is immediately adjacent to the shopping center; the Mandarin Oriental is a couple of blocks away. On Wednesday, rooms in both hotels were available on the Internet for $90, including a buffet breakfast at the Inter-Continental.
At the top of the Mandarin is a facility that will delight spa buffs: an intimate Thai-motif spa that offers treatments ranging from facials to body scrubs (herbal, coffee or chocolate, if you please) to a four-hour, four-technique massage for $130, including a service charge. The spa is small, intimate and dimly lit; a lounge area for apres-spa relaxation leads to four treatment rooms with individual showers and steam baths. Two of the rooms are single; two are set up for couples. The spa consultant, Doris Sinnathurai, a Singaporean, recommends reservations and warns that latecomers risk an abbreviated “spa experience.”
The spa-less Intercon is an alternative, and for many nightlife lovers, a major attraction is Le Boulevardier, a bar by day and a lounge at night that features two of the Philippines’ best show bands when they are at home between regional gigs. Modern and classic rock and middle-of-the road music is the usual fare, and the talent is top-notch.
One final off-the-beaten-track sightseeing recommendation, for history buffs or those seeking a quiet, contemplative atmosphere for a couple of hours, is the American World War II cemetery and memorial, about a 15-minute drive from the hotel district in Makati. Interred here are the remains of over 17,000 U.S. and Philippine servicemen and women; the memorial lists the names of another 36,000 men, predominantly U.S. Navy, whose remains were never located.
The circular memorial also has a series of mosaics that describe the war in the southwest Pacific, from the defense of Luzon in 1941-42 through the preparations for the final assault on Japan before its surrender in August 1945.
Arranging your Philippine vacation
Tour packages to the Philippines are available through many travel agencies here. A popular choice is a three-day, two-night trip to Manila with two side excursions. One is to Pagsanjan Falls, a beautiful gorge that you traverse in a small boat to the waterfall at the end. Parts of “Apocalypse Now” were filmed here. The other trip is to Tagaytag Ridge and Taal Volcano, a highland resort area near Manila. Taal features a crater lake with an island inside and another crater lake within that island.
Packages to Cebu, the Philippines’ second-largest city, are also popular. Mactan island, where Magellen landed and was killed in 1521, has a number of beach resorts. Boracay packages are also available.
One of the better sources for discount hotel rooms and resort packages in the Philippines is www.asiatravel.com. Rooms at several Makati five-star hotels are available for less than $100 per night through the site, and air-hotel packages are also available for travel to Boracay. The site has been having some e-mail problems of late; if you are booking near your departure date, you may want to call Asia Travel directly at one of the Philippine numbers given on their Web site.
If Boracay is in your plans, you should specify a flight to Catlican unless you dislike flying in small turboprop airplanes. A larger airport served by jetliners is a bone-jarring 90-minute bus ride away from the quay where you board a banca, a wooden outrigger boat, to get to the island.
by John Hoog