Six years since my last visit and a journey I do not intend to delay again, a reunion with my family was eagerly looked forward to. There are many perceptions of the Philippines with the principal ideas gained mainly by encounters with the people administering to your needs in hospitals, cleaning your houses and caring for your children; somewhat subservient positions that Filipinos excel at.  And there is no disenchantment with partaking in these roles either. When I land in Manila I am immediately greeted at the airport by staff manning desks with stickers in prime position stating ‘Immigration with a Smile’.   And this, by definition, could form a slogan for the country in its entirety.

As I wade through the congested crowds at the airport gates, the air is prickling with noise, humidity and food odours, all triggering an immediate nostalgia.  A concerted effort on mobile phones reunites me with my weary warrior of a cousin, Ernest, who although ridden with the dregs of a hard-working life based in Manila, he still manages to produce a thunderous laugh with his entire body, reaffirming the country people’s disposition as a very happy nation.  Happy through adversity, happy through poverty and happy through re-connections with long-awaited family members.  His job though does enable him to visit his children twice a month, a privilege not to be scoffed at when the necessity to provide for 4 children and put them through a good education be the ultimate drive for such an existence.

Manila is a thriving Capital and not too dissimilar since my last trip (although I was a little saddened to learn that the majority of new shopping complexes and restaurant areas that now riddled so much of the city chose parks and lush vegetation as their resting place).  Roads are still congested, muddled with cars, motorbikes and jeepnies  alongside workers favouring foot-work, scraping money together by walking over to immobile vehicles to wipe windows, offer sticks of cigarettes or a salty snack to accompany you on your stagnant ride.  A pity that I both arrived and departed during night-time hours though as I was not able to witness the bay that was overlooked by my hotel.  I was however more looking forward to the departing flight which for just a 47 minute air journey allows me to reach the Provincial more naturally maintained city of Iloilo (which translates as ‘Nose-Nose’ due to the formation of its side of the island, a fact which tickled me).

Even my experience as a passenger had evolved as this was the first time I had flown there without my Mother, an observation which I had previously overlooked until now.  So many of my air journeys were unnecessarily tainted, inducing a slight fear of turbulence and airspeed, reinforced by my Mother’s constant praying, clutching of rosary beads and reflexive sign of the cross on repeated occasions mid-flight, triggered by the slightest sudden movement.  A much more positive experience this time, with awareness of cloud break, wind speed, gear changes or the pilot’s flying skills as contributing factors.  The flight itself was endearingly comedic with a short flight-information video with an older Filipino man in the starring role, who upon understanding the essential passenger basics ‘whooping’ for joy and then hiding himself behind a large newspaper upon the awareness that he was not sat alone.  Snacks are duly provided in the form of a chocolate cream-filled bar called Fudgee and a miniscule packet of nuts called Happy (how ironic that the theme is continued with some salted legumes).

Perhaps if the UK (my originating departure island) had been more agreeable in temperature throughout the year, the mindset of it’s inhabitants might be equally as warm and content.  The Philippines is indeed a place where the eyes look ‘up’ and not down, curiosity is rife and one is not to be intimidated by this.  It is unconditional warmth that with a ‘smile given is a smile received’ and it should never be looked upon with cynicism. One’s culture must not be strictly adhered to on holiday, it would be a travesty to even consider it.  So no, whilst you enter the Philippines through my eyes on this short journey leave your rules at home and liberate yourselves to a nation that could teach the world a thing or two on good manners, happiness and general humility.

FOOD, DRINK & SOCIALISING

These key places brought me much pleasure in between concentrated family time and my own cooking efforts.  I have no doubt it will do the same for you.

Madge CaféThis glorious café is found in the centre of La Paz Public Market in Iloilo City, a market which I can recommend to visit anyway when sourcing fresh meats, fish and vegetables as well as household items.

Versus the usual free-coffee stamp cards, your loyalty is potentially rewarded instead with your own personalised mug to sup from, taking pride of place on their shelves.  Madge cafe offers good, cheap ‘Ilonngo’ coffee (a mug will set you back 10-15 pesos which is around 20 pence) as well as food & snacks to sate the appetite.  Watch the world go by as they busy themselves with market fare and discuss life with one of the many locals that you may share a table with.  Governors, school-children, business-owners and the retired all sit side-by-side here, all are truly welcome.

Madge MugsMadge Cafe

Cilantrothe only Vietnamese restaurant in Iloilo, I was keen to visit as a self-confessed Pho-addict.  With various options available, ranging from lobster (100g for 90 pesos) to stuffed squid, I was extremely pleased with the service, menu and quality on offer.  It might well prompt more similar places to open as the Seafood Pho, Pad Thai and (I had to give in to it) Stuffed Squid were divine and had the crab or lobster been available, would most certainly have been added to the bill.

Cilantro

Greenoz PizzariaThe Philippines is saturated with fast-food restaurants ranging from their own burger chain ‘Jollibee’ to Filipino fast-food Mang Inasal (tempting diners with an all-you-can-eat rice offer), however, if I crave pizza, it’s always the thin and crispy version, NOT the deep-pan pie style of American origin.  Greenoz was recommended by my highly experienced in pizza-eating cousin and I was right to trust his opinion.  If you must eat pizza, get one here, just remember that the XXL size, IS ginormous.  We bought 2 to feed 12 people however the 12 of us barely finished the 1st.  Crisp, light based and evenly topped, I commend this version as a respectable nod to the typical Italian offerings I’m used to so if in vicinity of Iloilo City’s party area of Smallville Boardwalk, stop by and crunch down on a slice.

Greenoz Pizzaria

Salvi’s GrillA diverse Filipino menu with a very alluring ‘hut’ style of outdoor seating, reggae-style music lulls you into a state of relaxation, where you can lean back and enjoy the atmosphere. I very much enjoyed my visit here.  Waiters come to your hut and provide all the food and drink you desire.  Like a sort of beach-style eatery in the City, you could imagine being elsewhere when walking by the bamboo hut seating areas on entry.  We enjoyed some sizzling squid and fried chicken, as well as stalwart rice dishes, with additional calamari too to soak up our San Miguel Lights.  Pull up a cushioned seat and enjoy.

LumpigaA great hidden-away upstairs bar/restaurant with a regular Reggae music night on Fridays.  This be the day I went with my family and it was just the injection of good music and drinks that I needed.  Floor seating with cushions, rugs line the floor and head fans spin to cool you down, with a great set of musicians playing requests as well as their own repertoires.  Lights are dim and focus is on listening to the music and sharing a platter or cocktail. It’s a laid-back crowd to get together with and ‘feel alright’ (as Mr Marley would have said).  You simply must oblige!

Lumpiga FoodLumpiga Music

The Red Crab Alimango House

This was to be my final meal in Manila when I sadly parted ways for 2013.  However, it was a mighty fine (foodie) kiss goodbye and a complete delight to experience.  As can be gathered by the restaurant’s namesake, it is crab-abundant chain of sorts with around 5 Philippine locations at present.  Nevertheless, quality and diversity is featured high on the menu and my cousin and I opted for a soup, crab main dish, vegetables and rice sides.

The Halaan in Ginger Wansuy Broth was a thoroughly wholesome, clear broth with clams.  Steaming and light, it tasted so cleansing with every drop it was hard to put my spoon down in anticipation of the crab!  We went with the staff recommendation of the Crab Maritess, a female crab (best option for the meat!) cooked up with white wine, garlic, chilli and some other spices.  Extremely delicious and I broke through each piece of armoury with relish for the tender crabmeat inside.  With more than 15 ways of cooking their crab, that just leaves me with 15 more reasons to return and gorge.  The wonderful side dish of the Ilocandia Pinakbet with Crunchy Tinapa Flakes was a perfect accompaniment too.  Typically Pinakbet, a Filipino vegetable dish, comes with pork and a fermented fish paste Bagoong, which I am not particularly enamoured with.  This version was a treat though; squash, green beans, okra and eggplant formed the main root vegetables and the fish flake alternative to pork complimented it beautifully.  Our seafood and vegetable fried rice side had perhaps more superior table companions, however it too was highly enjoyable. 

I will return to conquer more, bib and crab-cracking device at the ready.  I just have to contain my mouth dribbling from each thought of those moist, flavoursome mouthfuls until then.

The Red Crab Alimango House

BEACH LIFE

With 7101 islands (low tide, 1 less in high tide) in the Philippines, you will never be too far from a beach.  These 2 beaches/islands spoiled me further this year so please spare some pesos for a trip to either of these.

BORACAY ISLAND

Although not as ‘untouched’ as it once was (my family and I can’t help but be nostalgic for the days when the island was not so top-tourist-heavy) its white sands, resplendent coastline and paradise-like feel is a must visit.  Wear your swimming attire of choice the entire day and alternate eating, drinking, swimming and dancing until the wee hours beneath the moonlit-Boracay night sky.

Gusto Y Gustos Deli

A deli that I had the good fortune to stumble by, it’s products are based on traditional Spanish-Filipino cuisine and based on the next-door restaurant from the same owners, Dos Mestizos, you will be not be disappointed with your visit.  A tender amount of care has clearly be taken on entry, with visuals of fresh breads greeting you, along with hanging meats and the friendly smiles of the female staff preparing made to order sandwiches (I ate a tongue-tingling roast beef grilled sandwich; home-made bread with a spike of mustard and salad. My mouth waters once again thinking about it).  Consistently busy in the short 30 minutes I spent in there, understandably so with the excellent meats and cheeses on offer as well as wines and condiments on the shelves, a ‘must-stop-by’ for your island trip.

Maya’s Filipino & Mexican Cuisine

The morning after the night before (which mainly consisted of beer and greasy foods) set my mind focused on sourcing a healthier brunch so whilst strolling along the beach front, I came across Maya’s which was a welcome injection of nutrition. Backed upon by the hotel Jony’s (where a friendly Filipino guard will blow a whistle to enable a safe road crossing to use the CR facilities), it’s menu is diverse and comfortable on the European purse strings.  I opted for the ‘Fitness’ Breakfast, providing me with a lovely plate of egg white omelette, brown toast and small salad, accompanied by a fresh Calamansi juice drink and black coffee.  Many other items on the menu were delectable; burritos and tacos mixed up with the finest Filipino fare.  I’ll return to try them out for certain.  The other family members opted for fast-food chain ‘Big Mouth‘ which is a filling alternative, however the stomach-busting menu at 9am was not quite as alluring for me.  Judging by my cousin faces though who gorged on mountainous pancakes, spaghetti, noodles and fried chicken, you will do as their slogan states; come hungry, leave happy.

GUIMARAS

A fifteen minute boat crossing will bring you to the Mango-studded sanctity of the Guimaras islands.  About a half hour to port from Iloilo City, a day’s island hopping and beach frolicking was the day’s activities and as we chugged across in a salt-water battered boat for the princely fee of 14 pesos (yes, that’s about 20 pence, and perfectly safe too readers, these sailors know what they’re doing).

We arrived at the port of Jordan in Guimaras and took a private Jeep for our large gaggle through to the Villa Igang Beach Resort.  We walked by foot for about 10 minutes to get there and I was astounded whilst walking over the wooden bridges by the natural encounters around me; butterflies zooming through the air, numerous mango roots creating Tolkien-like mystery around us and a distinct lack of commercialism that has encroached so heavily upon Boracay’s shores.  I was enchanted by the beautiful flowers around me and my gaze was like that of a child witnessing something for the first time.  Older and wiser eyes seem to appreciate so much more that was wasted on my youth.

The staff at the Villa kindly looked after our bags before we took a pre-lunch swim (they also fed us with an excellent array of Filipino dishes).

Activities we indulged in between boat trips included some cliff-diving, popping by a research facility and meeting the huge 70kg Lapu-Lapu fish of Guimaras as well as some alien-like Seabass, treading onto soft sands to greet a sea-turtle and swimming in private beaches that knew no modernity (thankfully).  Just witness the world around you as you flop by the beach, in or out of water, and breathe in the clean air.  A visit to this collection of unspoiled pleasures will leave you with the warmest memories.  Just remember to pick up some of the sweetest mangoes you will ever taste on the way home (and I can also recommend a Mango Pizza that was unusually appealing too.  Thank you Pit Stop & Nino for insisting!).

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