Holiday suggestions Travel

It’s more fun

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It’s more fun in the Philippines…… the official tag line of the Department of Tourism for the Philippines. And they are right. There is just so much to see and do in this often neglected corner of South East Asia that it is impossible to cram even a fraction into most holidays. We will focus on some of the easier places to see, but are only too conscious that we are simply scratching the surface of this amazing and welcoming country.

 

Visitors will almost certainly arrive in Manila, the location for the Thriller in Manila, the second fight between Ali and Frazier. Even the official website describes Manila as “a dense stew of urban development and historic sentiment”. Hardly a ringing endorsement, but still work spending a few days here.

 

Manila has the reputation of the worst traffic in the world. It’s perhaps unfair, but to be expected in a city with one of the biggest populations and no underground train/metro/subway. But there are other means of transport, including the colourful, customised jeepneys and public transport will seem incredibly cheap to Westerners used to paying for their more civilised systems.

 

Quite apart from the hustle and bustle, there is still a UNESCO world heritage site here, the San Agustin Church in the Intramuros, one of the best preserved medieval forts outside Europe.

 

If staying in Manila, an excellent day trip outside the city is to the Taal Volcano a couple of hours bus ride away. Taal has an island within a lake, that is on an island within a lake, that is on an island. Confusing? Yes, but incredible to visit.

 

Taal Volcano

Of course, the Philippines is best known for its beaches and Islands. There are over 7000 islands, of which Boracay and Palawan are regularly voted the most beautiful in the world. For me, Palawan wins hands down because of its diversity, gorgeous beaches, stunning cliffs, an underwater cave and some of the best diving in the world.

 

  • Boracay is perhaps becoming a victim of its own success, as over development threatens the idyllic nature of the island, pushing up prices, but still remains a fabulous place to sit and do nothing.
  • Palawan is about an hour and a half away by plane from Manila, and has two airports, the principal one in Puerto Princessa and a second in El Nido. Palawan has an extraordinary underground river, another UNESCO site, as well as some of the best diving in the world. Crystal clear seas cover barracuda infested shipwrecks and a host of marine life.
  • Bohol: About an hour’s flight from Manila and home to the amazing Tarsier and chocolate hills of Bohol. The Tarsier is a small mammal with enormous eyes, and are mainly nocturnal. They are very nervous so would probably have joined the ranks of extinct animals had a sanctuary not been established to preserve them. The Chocolate Hills are bizarre hills, shaped and coloured like chocolate (although not like chocolate as I know chocolate!) and are best visited by hiring a go cart type vehicle. The beaches in Bohol are probably no better than fine, with the best in Panglao Island. I often hear criticism of the cuisine in the Philippines compared to other South East Asian countries, but I would have to say that the best squid I have ever eaten, by far, came from a restaurant near Alona Beach.
  • Cebu was the first Spanish Settlement in the Philippines and therefore is a mix of history, culture and modern living. This is another busy city, with its own vibe, but not far from the hotels, casinos, shopping malls etc, are still pristine beaches with an abundance of wildlife waiting to be discovered. Cebu is also the home of the Lechon, the famous whole roasted pig, with its crispy skin and delicious meat.

 

Our ideal itinerary in the Philippines would be a few days in Manila, and then to head off to one of the islands for some well deserved rest and relaxation, plus taking in some of the extraordinary sites. It is a great place to learn how to dive, as the seas are so clear, and there is so much to see under the water, almost as much as above.

 

The food is perhaps not as complex as Thai or Vietnamese but national dishes such as Adobo and Lechon are definitely worth trying. And no visit to the Philippines can miss some Lambanog, the Philippine spirit made from Coconut, and not for the faint hearted!

 

Apart from the beaches, there is plenty of activities to give the adrenalin junkies their fix with a huge range of water sports, motor sports, zip wires, and other near death experiences. The Philippines has a wide range of wildlife, from the incredible monkey eating eagles, through to the tiny Tarsier, and of course whale sharks and other marine life. When they say it’s more fun, they really mean it’s more fun. Come and enjoy it!

 

 

 

Holiday suggestions Travel

Cruising for Beginners

I’ve always had reservations about cruising as a holiday destination, but those reservations have been founded on a basic ignorance of what is involved in a cruise. My preconceptions included that only old people cruised, that passengers were rushed from destination to destination, that I would be trapped with too many people I didn’t like on a small boat. How could I possible enjoy cruising?

Those preconceptions were more than blown out of the water by a visit to the Royal Caribbean ship, the Independence of the Seas, while it was docked at Southampton between two trips to the Norwegian fjords. I could see the ship from the Railway station and it looked huge. It looked absolutely massive when I was alongside and looking up at it.

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The ship holds between 3,500 and 4,000 passengers, but it is so big that you certainly do not get the impression that passengers are squeezed on like sardines.

A little bit about the Royal Caribbean International. Their strap line is ‘Where extraordinary happens”, and the first site of the ship really does give that impression. And those feelings just increase as you go inside and start to see some of the extraordinary features it has. RCI has a fleet of 25 Cruise ships and travels pretty much all of the seas of the world, from Asia to Europe, Australia and New Zealand, the Mediterranean to the Baltic, North America and the Caribbean, as well as the South Pacific.

Just as the grandest houses have grand staircases, so too do grand sea liners. How about this for an entrance:

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We started our tour in one of the café’s with a welcome cup of coffee with pastries and biscuits. We then headed to the Presidential suite, housing up to 14 guests, and is apparently ideal for stag or hen party groups as well as extended families. The suite has bedrooms, shower rooms, lounge, an extended balcony with dining table and private hot tub. Other private suites come with a private bar (with accompanying butler) or a self playing piano.

Suites for everyone else come at a comfortable size, in varying layouts, from double beds to two single beds, to bunk beds for children. The ship also boasts a number of suites for those less mobile, and include wet rooms, with everything laid out at a comfortable height.

ENTERTAINMENT

It is not just the family configured rooms which demonstrate that cruising is not just for older people. The entertainment is very family orientated, with the pool area, so called the H2O zone, complete with fountains and water cannons, as well as crazy golf, a climbing wall,  the flowrider which is a surfing simulator. A running track flows along the perimeter of the deck, and there is a basketball court and sports court.

The Independence of the Seas improves the cruising experience with an Ice Rink , a Theatre with West End style shows (including Grease while I was visiting), a casino, a library and of course a spa.

FOOD AND DRINK

No holiday is complete without food and drink. The Independence of the Seas boasts a number of restaurants, including a Grill, a Tuscany themed restaurant, a pizzeria, a Johnny Rockets diner and of course the impressive Main Dining Room, where I had a lobster salad starter, a baked Halibut and followed with a Baileys Creme Brule.

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Throw in some pubs, cafes and shops, and you will soon experience the Royal Caribbean style of cruising.

I’m sold on the idea now. The only problem is where to start, in the Med, or the Caribbean? Or what about a gentle river cruise, drifting through the vineyards of the Rhine or through the astonishing Mekon River. And there is still the Antarctic to be explored!

Holiday suggestions

The Journey is as important as the Destination

 

River Cruising is one of the most increasingly popular styles of cruising, and it is no surprise with operators providing ever higher standards of service and luxury aboard. The very nature of river cruising means that there will be fewer passengers on board, and fewer means more selective.

Cruises are available on all of the major rivers of the world, from the great US Rivers to the exotic Mekong. The most popular of course are the European rivers.

It is often said that oceans take travellers to countries while rivers take travellers through countries, and there can be no better way to experience a country than to leisurely cruise through its rivers, tasting local cuisine and of course its wine.

I have long thought that the wines of Germany are among the most underrated in the world. How best to experience these wines than to undertake a wine tasting tour aboard a cruise on the Rhine, Main and Mosel Rivers. The tour starts in Amsterdam and includes a tour of the canals. It then moves onto Cologne, where there is a stop to visit the Cathedral. Back on board we enjoy our first wine tasting session led by a wine tasting expert.

The fourth day takes us through the  Rhine Gorge, cruising past  spectacular castles and features a visit to Seigfried’s Music Museum. Day 6 is in Strasbourg, and the tour finishes the following day in Strasbourg.

7 days of culture and wine, four countries and one unique experience. If you would like more information on how to book, contact me at anthony.kingsley@notjusttravel.com

Photography

Owls and more Owls

 

I recently spent a most enjoyable day at Eclipse Falconry (www.eclipsefalconry.co.uk) on a photography day organised by Scott Latham. I had wanted to shoot some birds of prey for ages, and this workshop seemed perfect for me.

And so it was. We were a small group and the weather just about held out for long enough, bright, but without being too sunny.

We started off shooting a little owl

The smallest of the British Owls. We shot him in the open fields to start with before moving to a bit of shelter, a barn with a hay backdrop.

The second owl was my favourite, the Barn Owl. The colours on a barn owl are absolutely amazing, and I don’t think I’ve properly captured the shading and details, but I was still pleased with the results. The wind had started to get up little and that had the effect of ruffling his feathers a bit.

Travel

White Beach, Puerto Galera

It was difficult for me to choose which beach to hit while on a short trip to the Philippines: there are so many. However, I needed to be within easy reach of Batangas, so I chose the island of Mindoro, and chose  to stay in Sebang rather than Puerto Galera.

Puerto Galera is within easy reach of Sebang, a short ride away in a Jeepney. Perhaps one of the first things I notice about beaches in the Philippines is how empty of people they are compared to beaches in Europe. White Beach is aptly named, with white sand and crystal blue sea. There is little wind and hardly any noise.

The edge of the beach is lined with small bars and the occasional stall, I sat down at one of the bars and ordered a drink, really just to be able to grab a table in the shade. It’s not long though before I can no longer resist the lure of the sea and head down towards the water, quickly as the sand is very hot.

The water is a little colder than I expected, but very refreshing. It’s hard to get out, but I know that I must, otherwise I will get sunburned. Although I take precautions against sunburn, it is usually in vain, and I know that before the end of the day, I will be lobster red!

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First Day in the Philippines

Stepping out into the early morning Manila heat and smells, pretty much the first thing that hits you is the traffic. Hits you figuratively speaking hopefully, but there’s a good chance that it could be a physical impact. Traffic is probably the one thing that defines Manila, one of the most densely populated places on the planet, grinding almost to a halt. It’s a seething cauldron of traffic lava, bubbling away but with nowhere in which to explode.

 

I need to get from my hotel in Makati to the bus station in La Buenia, and as I am in a hurry, and not inclined to much to try adventure, have booked a taxi to get me to the bus station. From there, I take a bus to Batangas City, and then a banka for the 2 hour crossing to the island of Mindoro. I get there just in time. The bus is trying to pull out into the traffic to get away, but the controller stops the bus so that I can get on. Now that’s a service you will not get on the 38 bus route from East London to Victoria Station!

 

Traffic may be a problem in Manila but public transport fares certainly are not. I pay 168 pesos or about £2.50 for the two and a half hour ride in a clean, air conditioned bus. Payment is made on board with a conductor, who punches holes in a ticket, and then comes back later for payment. I get to Batangas and then the hassling starts with numerous guys coming up, Where am I going to, can they get my tickets, can they carry my bags? I am wary of scammers and shush them away, although one is particularly persistent.

 

I had recently bought myself a new travel bag, promising to travel lighter, but in the end pack too much in an older, bigger, bag and trying to board the banka, with the weight of the bag and the swaying duckboards to the banka threatening to toss me into the pretty clear water below, I remember my broken resolution grimly. However I struggle into the boat safely and grab a seat. Bankas are long thin boats with bamboo balancers running alongside them, and I am not sure how seaworthy they would be should there be even any moderately bad weather, but the crossing looks smooth enough, a little choppy and the boat does rise and fall a few feet, causing the pilot (captain? What does one call the person who drives a boat) to hand out plastic bags. Soon enough our destination begins to approach, the divers’ town of Sebang, comng down the hill to the sea. A lot of boats, fishing boats, pleasure boats, diving boats are moored in the bay.

 

To my left as we arrive, I see my hotel, the Oriental   perched halfway up the hill. Someone from the hotel is there to greet me and help me with that oh too heavy bag, and walks me along the seafront up the hill to the hotel. I had seen in many reviews people complaining about the number of steps to take, but it really was not that bad.  What is best about the Philippines? The people. And the Reception staff at the Oriental certainly live up to their country’s repuration. I am greeted  in a friendly manner and with a welcome cup of Iced tea while I check in. The rooms are essentially banked up the hill looking down onto the pool, and giving a great view of the bay. This is not a hotel review, so enough of the hotel, tomorrow I go to White Beach in Puerto Galera.