Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Up in the Air

Travelife Magazine Editor in Chief Christine O. Cunanan recalls flights—and fights—of fancy

There was once a time when people actually talked to their seatmates on airline flights, perhaps because there was little else to do. Airlines then didn’t offer the smorgasbord of in-flight entertainment they do today, business class seats were still configured for congeniality rather than privacy, and notebooks—the paper kind—were the standard carry-ons. Socializing was the other activity travelers looked forward to, as an acceptable way of relieving the long flight’s ennui.

(Lack of) Fine Wines from Hong Kong to London

On a trip to London via Hong Kong in my first year out of college, I met Alastair, a proper Englishman who called himself a wine broker and who worked for one of London's centuries-old wine merchants. We were seated next to each other in business class and the airline had just announced a special treat of fine wines tbe served. I was never much of a tippler, but the prospect of a 14-hour flight with not much else to do induced me to indulge in a glass or two. I noticed that Alastair asked only for sparkling water.

“You’re not drinking,” I began. “Is this a health thing?”

“Certainly not,” he replied. “I actually like wines. It’s just that I never
drink anything young.”

We could not be more different, but we became fast friends and still occasionally meet for dinner in Tokyo or London. Even now, when I have a question on wine, he’s happy to advise and act as a sounding board.

A cheese dinner from Asia to Europe

On another flight to Europe, I met a Frenchman originally from Senegal, who was a marketing executive for one of France’s famous cheese companies. We started talking because the in-flight supper was just awful.

“I can’t eat this,” he said. “This isn’t food.” He pushed away his tray table. I nodded at him sympathetically. He then looked at me with a conspiratorial smile. “All is not lost,” he whispered. He then took out a leather attaché case from the overhead compartment and opened it on the rack between us. It was a specially made case with spaces for six round tin containers and six knives. Each tin container held a sampling of delectable cheese.

“Our very best cheeses,” he said, like a proud father showing off photographs of his children. “Now all we need are crackers, and I think the airline can manage that.” By the time we reached Paris, the tins were empty and we were laughing like old friends. This was most fortunate for me, as a transportation strike had crippled Paris and nothing was moving out of Charles de Gaulle airport, and he was able to give me a lift to my hotel in the company car.

No need for a movie from Tokyo to New York

The best story, however, deserves to be told last. On a flight from Tokyo to New York one day, I was seated next to an American couple who had just visited Tokyo and Kyoto for their honeymoon. When I reached my seat, they were the picture of marital bliss, holding hands and smiling at everyone. Prior to cocktails, they showed me trinkets they had bought at a Kyoto shrine and Polaroid shots of schoolgirls in Goth attire walking down Harajuku in Tokyo. Over dinner, unfortunately, they began arguing; and by the time I was enjoying dessert, this had escalated into a full-blown battle that culminated with the wife throwing her raspberry cake at her husband.

The husband was just about to retaliate with a half-eaten garlic roll when the wife suddenly turned to me and said: “Can you do us a big favor?”

I was almost afraid to respond, after what I had just witnessed. But the wife continued, “Would you be kind enough to sit in between us? I don’t think I want to sit next to him anymore.”

Without waiting for a response, she stood up expectantly and so I was forced to stand up as well and let her have my seat. I blame this instance of being unable to say ‘no’ on my youth; and spent the remainder of the very long flight playing Switzerland to a warring couple.

They never made up and I remained quiet for the flight’s duration, fearing that my being nice to one would provoke the other. To top it all, my headphone system conked out and without any spares, I could only ponder my unhappy fate as the buffer between two tempests. When we finally landed at JFK Airport in New York, they left by separate aisles without even a word of thanks. Yet when I finally cleared immigrations and was heading for the luggage carousel, I spied them sharing a trolley and pushing it with arms linked together, smiling sweetly at each other like newlyweds are supposed to do.

Now that’s what I call real in-flight entertainment.

This originally appeared in the Frequent Flier column of the June-July 2010 issue of Travelife Magazine.


Monday, June 21, 2010

How to Write for Travelife Magazine

For the recent Writers Block travel writing workshop, conducted with Carlos Celdran last June 19, we were asked some questions about travel writing and we thought we'd share our answers with Travelife Magazine friends interested in becoming travel writers.

What do editors look for in a travel piece?
First, we at Travelife Magazine look for real and authentic experiences by people who are passionate about travel, whether they travel frequently or not. Second, we look for good writing that is a result of the following: an eye for details, a keen sense of observation, an understanding of culture, the gift of wit, and the ability to record an experience in a logical but entertaining manner. Ideally, it would be great to have both; but most of the time, this only happens in a perfect world. So we're happy with the first criteria and we keep our fingers crossed that we'll also get the second criteria. You can always edit and improve a travel piece, but you can't make up a great travel experience unless you're planning to come up with fiction.

What makes Travelife pieces distinctive from your usual travel article?
Travelife Magazine only accepts real and authentic travel experiences by people who are truly passionate about travel -- and then, before publishing these, we edit them to fit a concise and readable format that at the same time preserves the writer's identity and personal style. I don't think any other travel magazine edits their articles under such stringent standards. We also don't accept pieces from contributors who've availed of free travel in return for writing an article.

What places and angles are you looking for - specifically for your magazine?
We're looking for fresh perspectives on familiar places or truly interesting articles on unusual destinations. We like accounts of experiences that will make readers want to put down the magazine and phone the travel agent. Travelife Magazine doesn't publish ordinary travelogues.

Do you have a travel story or proposal you'd like to send us?
We seriously consider all submissions.
Email us at


Sunday, June 20, 2010

Sayonara, Turkey

Hong Kong, 10 PM - Today was a very long day that began at 6 AM in the mysterious city of Konya in central Turkey, continued on to vibrant Istanbul and then to cosmpolitan Hong Kong (where I'm once again updating this blog from the CX lounge while watching the World Cup on TV), before finally ending at home in Manila perhaps past midnight. But because of all the time differences, it's been more like a 36-hour day from the time I woke up in a proper bed and to the time will be able to call it a night in a proper bed on land once again.

Shopping at the Grand Bazaar

We took the 9 AM Turkish Airlines flight from Konya to Istanbul, and from Istanbul airport, we proceeded directly to the Grand Bazaar to get some last-minute serious shopping done. My managing editor wanted to buy some plates with Ottoman designs, while I was looking for interesting accessories and home accents. As it was the weekend, the Grand Bazaar was full with tourists and locals. We parted ways at Gate#1, planning to meet back in an hour. During that hour, I wandered along jewelry alley, one of the bazaar's main alleys (built in the 13th century, it covers something like 45,000 square meters and houses thousands of shops) and then walked down an alley filled with knick-knack shops until I found a small store selling handmade jewelry made from semi-precious stones. Perhaps it was because the store owner mistook me for 30 -- or does he say this to everyone? -- but I ended up buying several pieces from him at what seemed like excellent prices. More information on this store at the end of this blog, for anyone heading for Istanbul soon.

Luxury at the Park Hyatt Istanbul

For lunch, we headed to the ultra-exclusive Park Hyatt Hotel Istanbul in the posh district of Nisintasi, up on a hill with only a bit of a view of the Bosphorus but lots of fashionable atmosphere. It's housed in a 1920s building with a very downplayed entrance that you'll probably drive past and miss if you're not careful. It used to be the official residence of the Italian ambassador, and the hotel designers cleverly added a glassed-in modern reception area where the garden used to be, so that now the original outer facade of the building is part of an inner wall of the lobby. And all around were the special Park Hyatt touches I love so much: interesting photographs and artwork on the walls, coffeetable books strewn about, and touches of local decor -- in this case, Turkish accents -- to still make you feel you're in Istanbul. Albeit a very chic part of Istanbul.

There are basically three top hotels to stay in, in Istanbul: the grand Ciragan Palace Kempinski, for those who want a taste of traditional, old-fashioned hospitality; the Four Seasons hotels -- they have an intimate one in the old town area of Sultanahmet (this is where JFK Jr stayed on his honeymoon) and a newer one right by the Bosphorus; and the Park Hyatt Istanbul, which is so low-key and private that most ordinary people in Istanbul have not even heard of it. Even our guide and driver had to double-check the address several times because it was not on their radar. But like Park Hyatts everywhere in the world, it's an unmatchable bastion of modern luxury and elegance. This is the kind of hotel celebrities stay in when they don't want to be bothered, and the hotel tycoons book this because it merges flawless service and infrastructure with the comforts of staying in your own private hotel.

At the Park Hyatt Istanbul, we had a nice chat with the hotel's very charming general manager, Harun Dursun, and his senior executives, over lunch in their terrace. After ten days of Turkish food, we were hankering for something more familiar so we'd ordered ceasar's salads and dry aged ribe-eye steaks, accompanied by glasses of Turkish cabernet sauvignon. It was all so civilized and wonderful on that terrace -- the perfect way to end our stay in Turkey -- that my managing editor and I joked about ringing Turkish Airlines up and changing our flights for that night to the same time one year later instead.

Park Hyatt Istanbul's top management were in jolly spirits and excellent form, which was admirable considering they'd just had members of the Pritzker family, the owners of Hyatt worldwide, to stay at the hotel until that very day as they were in Istanbul for an awards ceremony. Of course, they never even hinted at stress -- in fact, they seemed very happy to have had the opportunity -- but I can imagine that having the owners of the entire hotel chain staying at your intimate luxury hotel requires a lot of preparation and planning.

It was a wonderful Western meal, but we were also pressed to try a few of their Turkish specialties, courtesy of the executive chef who had just arrived to take up posting in Istanbul from Moscow's Park Hyatt. How could we not, on our last day in Turkey? So we stayed on for another hour, simply relaxing, as the executive chef sent over plate upon plate of luscious Turkish delights.

After lunch, we booked the hotel's special Body Luxe 90-minute massage, which was a combination of Thai and Swedish massage with special oils from Paris, and a little bit of reflexology thrown in. It was perfect, in anticipation of the long flight back to Asia tonight.

Before (reluctantly) leaving the hotel, however, I couldn't resist taking a peek into the hotel's presidential suite on the top floor. Consisting of 250 square meters in a duplex, it had a marvelous wraparound terrace with a view of the city and the Bosphorous, and a generous living room, an authentic Turkish-style hammam with its own steam room and, on the second floor, an office with a floor-to-ceiling glass wall showcasing beautiful city views. (That's a photo of the 2nd floor office above)

The presidential suite is connected to the other suites so super VIPs like royalty, celebrities and the ultra-wealthy can take over the entire floor (8 suites) and treat it like home. "We had one businessman who rented all the suites on the 8th floor for his family," said Kevin, the director of rooms. "So we took away all the plant dividers that separate the terraces of the 8th floor suites so he could jog around the building's terrace every morning." That seemed like the life, and so again I motioned to my managing editor to consider the possibility of calling Turkish Airlines to postpone our flight for another 365 days.

Taksim for a last (sweet) hurrah..oops, we mean baklava

Finally we were ready to leave, and we headed towards Taksim to have a last hurrah of baklava and a delicious bird's nest-type pastry called Kunefe that is simply deadly for calories and best eaten hot with lots of cream. We'd tasted this earlier with some expatriate friends of mine living in Istanbul, who had very kindly invited us to dinner, and we both felt strongly that we could not leave Istanbul without having this again.

As if all that food wasn't enough, our guide took us back to the Sultanahmet section of town, a few steps from the Blue Mosque, where we entered a rather touristy restaurant and climbed three flights of rickety stairs to a terrace with a view of the old town. Here we had a wonderful kofti (ground beef and lamb in a sausage) dinner that simply forced us to throw our caloric concerns out the window. There were three prayer chantings from different nearby mosques competing for our attention as we ate, but we felt it was strangely comforting. "I'm even going to miss this," my managing editor said.

Flying high with Turkish Airlines

At 1130 PM we boarded our Turkish Airlines flight to Hong Kong. After having experienced both their long-haul international and domestic flights, Turkish Airlines' business class is getting to be one of my favorite business class experiences. Their flat beds are among the most comfortable I've ever experienced because they're long enough to stretch out in fully, and there's enough space in the private cubicle for storage. Lots of airlines now have these private cubicles in business class, but many of them have extremely tight spaces compared to Turkish Airlines. It was also nice to have a little window in the middle so that my managing editor and I could discuss things when we wanted to do so, while at the same time have enough privacy if we just wanted to watch a movie. The meals too come a la carte, beginning with a full Turkish mezze sampler and soup and salad, followed by a choice of hot dishes and an array of desserts including ice creams and cakes. The service, too, is exceptional. The stewardesses are constantly smiling, quick to respond and always ready to help.

I watched a couple of really good movies on Turkish Airlines, so I can vouch for the great selection of new releases and old favorites. I was suprised to see a lot of interesting-looking non-English movies with English subtitles. On the way over, I watched a Korean political comedy/ drama about three very different presidents called Good Morning President. Korean TV and movies are all the rage worldwide now but I found this movie especially good. Highly recommended, especially if you're interested in politics.

Meanwhile, today I saw The Namesake, a movie by Mira Nair, the Indian-American director who made Monsoon Wedding. It was a particularly inisightful movie about relationships within a family, and especially one that has had to deal with various intercultural barriers and differences. Maybe it was the topic concerned, or the fact that I was feeling a little sad at the end of a wonderful trip to Turkey; but I found myself teary-eyed at the end of the movie, which coincidentally was also the time we started our descent into Hong Kong. Talk about a painless long-haul flight (except for the tears at the end of the movie)! We boarded the plane and I was fast asleep in 15 minutes. When I woke up, we were flying near Thailand and I had just enough time to eat a mixture of dinner and breakfast and watch my movie.

And now I'm waiting for my flight to Manila. I was trying to decide whether to ring up friends in Hong Kong to meet up for dinner instead of waiting at the lounge, but I decided to work in the lounge and catch up on blogging and Facebook!


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Mysterious Konya

Konya, Turkey - Today we finally bade goodbye to amazing Capadoccia and rode across the vast plains of central Turkey towards the very old-fashioned city of Konya. I've been to Turkey several times and had always wanted to see Konya -- ever since I first saw a photo of Konya's enigmatic whirling dervishes, actually -- but each time, it had not been possible for some reason.

This time around, I was initially again resigned to not visiting Konya since we were only spending 10 days in Turkey and it seemed too much trouble to be taking a plane back and forth between Istanbul, Capadoccia and then to Istanbul again to take a plane to Konya. I was explaining all this over dinner to my Turkish friend Beliz back in Manila, prior to my trip to Turkey, and relaying my disappointment, when she suddenly said: "I think you can drive from Capadoccia to Konya. It's not very far."

On the ancient silk road

And, indeed, when I returned home and studied my Turkey map carefully, I realized we could go over land instead. Well, today, after a leisurely breakfast in my favorite hotel garden in the town of Urgup, in Capadoccia, we set off for Konya. The trip took about three and a half hours through mostly flat lands and occassionally some dramatic plains, with nothing much to see except a few caravanserai, which were the old lodging houses of the Silk Road. I counted three caravanserai in between Capadoccia and Konya: two accepted visitors and one was completely abandoned. We stopped at the most famous caravan serai along the way -- it cost us 4 euros each and inside, it was basically an empty fortress-like structure with an inner garden and prayer area, and enclosed spaces for horses, sleeping, eating and bathing.

"This must have been the Peninsula or the Park Hyatt of that time," I said, as we poked through dark and musty rooms. "I'll bet it was the best place to stay along this part of the Silk Road." We'd passed the other caravan serai already and they were smaller and less impressive.

Was that a ghost?

One of the rooms was completely dark save for some light from a sliver of a window at the top. My managing editor started to take a photograph of this room, so I teased him: "There must be so many spirits haunting this place. If you take this photo, you're probably going to see one of them." We didn't really take this seriously then, but just earlier, we looked at the photographs he had taken and there was indeed an unexplainable light in the photo of that very dark room, which he photographed without a flash.

"OMG, what is that?" I asked him. He shrugged, and I continued: "I remember how you took this photo because I was behind you. There was absolutely no light in that room."

We quickly changed the conversation as it was starting to give me the shivers. Thank goodness we were booked in a very modern hotel in Konya! Back to Konya. I was quite excited to finally see this city although Ahmed, our guide, was frankly not very enthusiastic. "It's just flat land over there," he told us in the van, on the way over. "Apart from the mevlana, there's nothing much else to see."

I'd never been to a region of Turkey that had nothing much to see, actually. In fact, the entire country is one big museum and every neighborhood is -- at the very least -- a bit of culture. So it was hard to imagine Konya as boring. "There must be some other things to see," I persisted. "And outside of Konya, I'm sure there are places for daytrips."

"Nothing," he said, in this listless manner which got me worried. "Nothing else to see."

"In fact, you're the only people I know who are actually staying two nights in Konya," he added. "Most people only visit Konya for a half-day." This type of exchange continued for quite a while until we finally reached the outskirts of the city. Here, we stopped for lunch at a highway joint with a Turkish buffet that catered to dozens of tourist buses plying the Capadoccia-Konya-Pamukkale route. When we entered the dining hall, it was like a mini conference at the United Nations with all kinds of faces and languages. Meanwhile, as this was just one big tourist bus stop catering to people who would never eat there again, the food at this highway joint could only be described as edible enough but we were just so hungry by then that we heaped all kinds of things on our plates: green peppers stuffed with ground meat and rice, a lamb and eggplant stew, and the usual assortment of cold appetizers. In the lobby, a World Cup football match was playing and many of the tourists were gathered around the TV set.

The Wonderful Whirling Dervishes

Our first stop in Konya was the Mevlana Museum itself -- basically the reason why Konya has so many tourists. The Mevlana Museum is the former monastery of the group of mystics who followed the teachings of the 13th century prophet Rumi, and who became famous through the centuries for their practice of whirling around and around in semi-trance as a form of prayer and devotion. I'd seen an excellent whirling dervish show some nights back and had read up on the prophet Rumi and his philosophies of tolerance and patience -- I like to describe him as the New Age mystic of the medieval ages; so I had a pretty good idea of what to see in the Mevlana. There are only two main rooms to see here, along with the kitchen area, but it was much more interesting and mystical than I expected. The monastery has now been turned into one large museum/mausoleum for the prophet and his family and friends.

I was quite moved to see the tombstones of the prophet Rumi and his original whirling dervish disciples, and then to see the large and beautiful room in which they whirled and whirled in trance. I could imagine how amazing a sight it must have been in the old days, with the dervishes in the center, the sufi chanting and songs, and the room ablaze with carpets and oil lamps. It was extremely interesting, and that alone was worth a trip to Konya in itself.

Meanwhile, in the olden times, the mysterious whirling dervishes were disciples dressed all in white with brown caps who would twirl around and around a room as a form of prayer, meditation and acceptance of their religion. Nowadays, whirling dervishes have disappeared and anyone you'll see dressed in a dervish costume and turning around and around like a spool is probably being paid to do so -- such as in a cultural show for tourists. Nevertheless, it's still an amazing sight to see. We'd been to a performance a few nights back and it was truly fascinating to see them whirling around with their eyes closed to the beat of equally mysterious music.

All in all, I was very happy to have included a trip to see the birthplace of the whirling dervishes, which have captured my imagination for so long, in my Turkey itinerary this time around. And, as far as I can tell, there are enough sights to keep us happy tourists over the next two days, although Konya does pale in comparison to major tourist destinations like Istanbul, Capadoccia and Izmir. Nevertheless, if you're a traveler with an insatiable apetite for culture and new adventures, like us at TRAVELIFE Magazine (the Philippines' leading travel & lifestyle publication), life is never boring and I'm sure Konya -- or anywhere else in this part of the world, for that matter -- will never disappoint!


Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Amazing Capadoccia

Urgup, Turkey - This morning, I had one of the most amazing experiences in a (so far) not very short lifetime of adventures around the world. The Travelife Magazine team is in Capadoccia right now, which is in the central part of Turkey, a dry region of awesome landscapes and amazing rock formations with evidence of civilizations that date back to the start of Christianity. I'd first been to Capadoccia 20 years ago, when there was nothing else apart from the sightseeing spots but small villages and minor tourist infrastructure. You could go for hours and be the only tourists around, and there were so many undiscovered underground cities and churches that all you needed to do was walk 500 meters or so and you'd stumble upon some cave rock door, for example, that had not been moved in 1000 years. There were so few restaurants for tourists that we'd had to pay village families to cook us a meal. Today, Capadoccia is still amazing but it's now so much more built up vs 20 years ago.

Anyway, we woke up at 4 AM today, after a late and very pleasant evening puttering around the carpet and pottery shops of Urgup (which close at midnight) and then dining on the Turkish version of a hamburger in our hotel garden while exchanging stories of past adventures. Frankly, when I finally went to bed after midnight, I didn't think I could wake up in four hours and was half-regretting booking an early morning balloon ride that required a pick-up at 450 AM. However, the chantings from our neighborhood mosque ensured that we were up and about long before the wake-up call came, and so we made it to the nearby town of Goreme for our balloon ride with Goreme Balloons, among the most trustworthy names in Capadoccia's hot air balloon business.

I'm writing more about our balloon ride in the upcoming Aug-Sep issue of Travelife Magazine, so I'm not including too many details here, except to say that today's ride across Capadoccia in a balloon left me speechless in wonder. The experience was almost spiritual, actually, as I found myself thinking about the power of god and the beauty of nature -- and yes, about having the good fortune to be able to experience this amazing ride. Apparently, this experience was lost on my companion, however.

We were at one end of the basket gazing out at the vast plains, when I said aloud: "There are balloon rides, and there are Balloon Rides. This has got to be one of the most amazing experiences in the world." Again, let me stress, this is not something someone who spends half of her life in a suitcase, doing unique experiences every other week, says lightly. He looked at me and said, "I'm hungry. When do you think we'll be able to have breakfast?"

Let me assure you, though, that the hot air balloon ride across Capadoccia is a must-do when visiting this part of Turkey, and it certainly should make it to every adventurer's bucket list.

But so far this trip has been so full of wonderful adventures for a bucket list -- so much so that we feel we've been here for weeks instead of days. Each and every day is long, varied, interesting and incredibly stimulating.

Nightclubbing in Istanbul

On our last night in Istanbul, too, before flying to Capadoccia, we spent a very enjoyable evening at Reina, one of Turkey's most famous restaurants and hottest nightspots. It's a massive and beautifully designed open-air restaurant-club right on the Bosphorus, so you can enjoy a view of the Bosphorus and of the many boats passing by as you drink and dance. Nesli, one of my Turkish friends from Manila, also happened to be in Istanbul at the same time, and she very kindly invited us to a Turkish degustation dinner at Reina.

We arrived earlier than her so for several minutes, we just sat around enjoying the sunset and people-watching. It was only 8 PM but the sun was still on the way down, and there were lots of beautiful people already dancing to European club music in the middle of the restaurant. Someone was celebrating a birthday and a lot of young people from Istanbul University were celebrating the end of university studies and the start of summer and real life. There were also several large families having dinner, with everyone from the grandparents down to the toddlers dressed in incredible casual chic.

Then Nesli arrived and we immediately started eating an assortment of Turkish appetizers and knocking back glasses of raki, a Turkish anise-flavored liquor that is normally mixed with water and ice, but that the brave drink straight. The weather was perfect, every table was full of people laughing and eating, the music was cool, the food and company excellent, and the Bosphorus settting simply awe-inspiring. It made for a very surreal atmosphere of chic sophistication that would be hard to replicate elsewhere in the world.

After dinner, we didn't want to go home yet so we decided to do a round of drinks at Reina's bar right be the seaside. It was great for people-watching, especially for observing all the glamorous partygoers arriving at 11 PM by boat at Reina's private landing for some midnight dancing and drinking on a Sunday night -- yes, on a Sunday!

"I want to live here," I told Nesli. I've always loved Turkey for its deep history and culture, and find it endlessly fascinating. But this time around, I also found it to be a good mix of European and Asian culture -- Istanbul literally sits at the crossroads of Europe and Asia after all, with one side of the city in Asia and the other side of the city in Europe -- and also an incredibly sophisticated and relaxing city with a population that knows how to live well and enjoy life.

"Why don't you open a Travelife Magazine office in Istanbul?" Nesli jokingly suggested, and from the corner of my eye I already espied my managing editor, seated next to me, ready to raise his hand and volunteer as branch manager for Turkey. While that's not entirely possible right now, it did give me an idea to organize Travelife tours to Turkey that will provide a good combination of cultural visits, shopping opportunities, unique experiences and interaction with locals. We're hatching this idea right now as we sit outside in our hotel garden in the charming town of Urgup, with a marvelous view of centuries-old cave dwellings and incredible rock formations. Stay tuned for more details.


Friday, June 11, 2010

Glorious Istanbul

ISTANBUL - We arrived early this morning at 4 AM from Hong Kong, after an incredibly pleasant flight on Turkish Airways, which has flat beds and a great a la carte dinner menu in business class. After taking off from HK at 1130 PM, dinner was served and then it was lights out somewhere over China. When we woke up six hours later, it was time for breakfast and then we were descending into Istanbul. There wasn't even enough time to finish the movie.

At the arrivals terminal, we met our guide Ahmed, an enthusiastic young man who had studied tourism and history at a university in the UNESCO World Heritage city of Safranbolu, five hours away from Istanbul by car along the Black Sea coast. "I will be at your service for the next ten days," he said, in a very nice, old-fashioned way. "We will do whatever you wish." It was still an ungodly early hour when we finally drove into Istanbul and across Galata Bridge, and few cafes were open for breakfast.

"Let's drive to Bebek," I requested. Bebek, one of the most fashionable residential areas in Istanbul because of its picturesque seaside setting, has always been one of my favorite non-tourist places. It's filled with million-dollar flats, chic cafes and nightclubs, beautiful buildings and lovely little shops and restaurants; and it has a wide promenade along a yacht harbour for walking around.

If I ever lived in Istanbul, I always imagined getting a penthouse flat in Bebek and having a yacht parked nearby to tool around the islands. "Imagined" is the operative word here, however, although this is certainly one of the things we would do if we won a lottery jackpot.

Bebek was already bustling with fishermen lined up neatly along the promenade with their kits and their big plastic pails. Most of them had probably not even been there an hour but their pails were already full with the bounty of the sea. As I passed by one of them, he handed me his rod and motioned me to reel in my catch. I rolled the fishing rod wire slowly up and there were four fishes dancing along the nylon wire.

"Wow, I've only been in Istanbul an hour and already I've caught four fishes!" I said, rather proudly to my companions, who were frankly not very impressed. If we had had a grill, we would have cooked the fish right then and there with a little olive oil and salt, and eaten it with freshly-baked bread being hawked by an old man with a colorful bread cart.

As I said this aloud, Ahmed said, rather shocked: "Oh, we don't eat those fish for breakfast. We usually only have yoghurt, bread and cheese for breakfast." We had to explain then how in the Philippines, fish such as these were standard breakfast fare along with rice, tomatoes and lots of garlic.

By then, the sun had risen and we were in the mood for breakfast. We headed for a tourist dive a stone's throw away from the Spice Bazaar where we had a standard Turkish breakfast tray each. It had three different kinds of cheese, a bit of ham, assorted breads, a plate of sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, and a little bowl of olives.

Accompanying it was very strong tea. We'd already had a hearty breakfast on the plane so we weren't really hungry, but it seemed healthy and it tasted pretty good so we ended up finishing everything on our plates. Frankly, I think we were just happy to be in Istanbul so we were very easy to please.

From there we proceeded to the Dolmabahce Palace along the Bosphorus, which has been home to generations of sultans and then finally to Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey. I've visited this palace many times before, but it's so lovely inside that I always like seeing it again. We're writing more about this in the October-November issue of Travelife Magazine, but for now, let me tell you about an incident that just made me laugh. We'd been going around the different rooms admiring the beautiful furnishings, all the while accompanied by Ahmed who continuously pointed out objects of note.

"That's a gift to the sultan from Germany," he said, pointing to some large porcelain vases. And then a little later, he continued, pointing to a clock: "That's a gift from Russia." This went on for sometime until we had seen perhaps a dozen gifts from different countries.

When we passed a fire extinguisher along a nondescript corridor, my companion, in his usual deadpan humor way, pointed to it and said to me: "And that's a gift from China." I burst out laughing so loud that Ahmed looked at us quizzically. Of course this sort of perfectly timed joke is very difficult to explain afterwards.

After a morning's sightseeing, we headed to Taksim Square for a bit of shopping. Apparently Taksim is the old Greek quarter of Istanbul. Just diagonally across the square itself is one of Istanbul's main shopping streets lined with clothes shops and eateries that date back to the 1930s and 1940s.

Most of the traditional eateries served Turkish sweets like baklava and a huge fluffy pastry filled with feta cheese that Turks love to have for breakfast. There was also a beautiful art-deco roofed alley -- similar to the ones you see in Paris or Vienna -- filled with lovely bars and restaurants, that we made up our minds to try sometime.

It was also the most fashionable walking and shopping street in the old days, just the way Escolta was. Fashionable Turkish ladies would come to this area in their Sunday best and carry lovely parasols while walking along the street to their favorite tea house.

Today, it's mostly a modern shopping area for young people, although vestiges of its previous elegance still remain in the old tea houses and richly decorated buildings, as well as the presence of many consulates housed in lovely mansions along this street.

We walked the whole road down, endlessly fascinated by the color and vibrancy, as well as by the hustle and bustle around us. On the way back, we rode Istanbul's nostalgic tram back towards where we had left our car and driver, and it really felt like a step back in time. We were seated at the back row, where an old man suddenly spoke to us. I guess we looked pretty exotic to him amidst a sea of Turkish and largely Caucasian faces.

"Where are you from?" he asked us.

"The Philippines," one of us said.

"Oh, Pearl Harbor," he then replied. We had to gently correct him about his geography. Then he smiled at us and said in almost perfect English: "It's wonderful that you young people are traveling about and seeing the world. When I was your age, I once did that too. I spent six months traveling all over Europe. Enjoy and make the most of your time and your travels. I can only wish you luck and godspeed. The football match is finished for me and I'm on my last minutes, just waiting for the end of my life."

His moving little speech ended appropriately at our stop, and with a wave of his hand he bade us farewell. Youth is indeed precious, and travel too a precious oppportunity. Those who can should make the most of their opportunities because it affords an unparalleled education that you can't get through books alone, and shapes your perspectives in a broader way than you can ever imagine. This is precisely the passion on which Travelife Magazine was founded.


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Week of Great Food and Nonstop Travel

HONG KONG - I'm typing this out from the CX lounge in Hong Kong airport as I wait for my flight to Istanbul, one of my favorite cities in the world. We're to spend ten days visiting the sights of Istanbul, Capadoccia and Konya -- watch out for our special Turkey features in future issues of Travelife Magazine.

This week has been full of good food and lots of travel. It started in Tokyo on Sunday and soon we'll be ending the work week in Istanbul, hopefully over a great grilled seafood dinner at one of those noisy and delicious places, full of local flavor, by the Bosphorus.

Beef curry and Paris croissant at Narita Airport

Monday morning, bright and early, I was at Narita Airport waiting for my morning JAL flight back to Manila. I headed sleepily for the lounge with their beef curry on my mind, only to realize that their famous beef curry is only served after 11 AM. Lots of JAL frequent fliers have made eating beef curry over hot white rice at the lounge a pre-departure ritual, and I'm one of them. What's so great about it? It's the quintessential Japanese curry, which is neither Indian nor Thai, but closer to Javanese curry actually. And it's thick, full of slivers of juicy meat, and great with vinegared onions.

But there was no curry on offer last Monday. Instead, breakfast was being served. But breakfast at the JAL lounge, too, has its classics. I always get a big serving of runny scrambled eggs with catsup and a bit of Japanese mentaiko (cod roe) which is really delicious with hot rice. And even if I know the calories are going to pile up, I simply can't resist having two croissants afterwards. The croissants served at the JAL lounge are made by the Tokyo branch of the famous Maison Kayser bakery in Paris, so they're fluffy, light and buttery. Even now as I write this, I'm thinking that I should've have had a third croissant!

Philippine food at Dusit Thani

Then it was back to Manila in time for a Philippine Independence Day dinner at the Dusit Thani Hotel, cooked up by Stephanie Zubiri and organized by Dusit GM Prateek Kumar, Dusit F&B Director Gilbert Uy and Dusit PR Danelle Palang. There were a lot of people already when I arrived, so I headed straight for the buffet to see what looked tantalizing. Stephanie's Pinoy food was all done with a twist: salmon kinilaw, priniritong corned beef, sinigang bouillabaise, balsamic beef adobo, coconut tanglad panna cotta, and rosemary turon. Looking at this very interesting fusions, I guess you understand why I once again threw caloric caution to the wind and simply heaped my plate.

Several things stood out: the sinigang bouillabaise with its garlic mayonnaise, with its mix of sourness and spiciness, was a big hit at my table; along with the priniritong corned beef. I also particularly enjoyed the balsamic beef adobo, and after tasting Stephanie's version, I realized that balsamic would indeed make a great base for fusion adobo. It was a wonderful welcome back home, to have all these Filipino treats to choose from.

Stephanie's Filipino specialties will be on offer within the Basix buffet at lunch and dinner until Independence Day, June 12. So if you're hankering for some interesting Pinoy fusion, do go while the promotion lasts.

Dinner with the US Ambassador

The next day, I was invited by United States Ambassador Harry Thomas to his beautiful and elegant home in North Forbes for an honest-to-goodness American barbecue. When I arrived, the party was in full swing with tables laid out in the courtyard, laden with -- literally -- American goodness, and still another buffet table in the dining room. I've never been a fan of American food, but that may now all change. On Tuesday night, I just could not get away from the food, almost stationing myself by the barbecue beer can chicken the whole evening and running over to other food stations every now and then to refill other depleted offerings.

The barbecue beer can chicken, for those not familiar with this very novel way of barbecuing a chicken, involves inserting a can of beer, with the beer, into a chicken, and roasting it as is to allow the flavor and fumes of the beer to soak into the chicken as it cooks. That night's chicken was so flavorful and tender that the meat simply fell off the bone. Everything was simply delicious, but I especially remember going back for thirds and fourths of the corned beef sandwich which literally melted in my mouth, the juicy prime rib steak, and the french fries with mayonnaise wasabi sauce. Apparently, the affair was catered by The Plaza, one of Manila's most respected caterers, and Karla Reyes, a member of the family behind The Plaza, personally planned the event and created the recipes based on American food ingredients. The barbecue beer can chicken, too, is a Reyes family recipe - this time from her uncle Raymund Reyes who also offers it at the Ski Ray BBQ & Grill and at a stall at the Legazpi Village Market on Sundays.

The jolly atmosphere -- some people were even doing a barn dance in one corner -- further contributed to everyone's enjoyment. Great party and an excellent venue for showcasing American cuisine at its best.

Gawad Kalinga Builders' Night

Meanwhile, last night was a different kind of event altogether. We headed to the Rockwell Tent to attend the 2nd Gawad Kalinga (GK) Builders' Night, where we heard glowing and inspirational testimonies from Tony Meloto and a whole cast of people who were either builders or recipients of GK help. Tony Meloto arrived at midnight the previous day after joining an early Philippine Independence Day parade in New York and crossing the US continent 6 times in 2 weeks in his neverending bid to promote GK interests.

The entire evening was incredibly moving, and particularly the speech by Dylan Wilk, a British national and GK director, about his transition from one of Britain's 10 richest men to probably one of its 10 poorest now (in his own words) -- but also, it seems, one of its happiest. Dylan spoke so inspiringly about his experience of helping and giving that he easily and quickly moved the crowd present. "God didn't design a single Filipino to be poor," he said. "Together we can eradicate poverty by 2024."

At the end of the meeting, Beliz Balkir, wife of Peninsula Manila general manager Jonathan Crook, formally announced the launch of the Gawad Kalinga Charity Ball on October 8 at the Peninsula Manila -- a charity and auction fundraiser for a specific village in Sulu, to be organized by her in cooperation with the Peninsula Manila and Travelife Magazine (yes, we're heavily involved in this project!) and many other companies. "Generations of families continue to live a life of poverty in Sulu," Beliz said. "GK's entry into Sulu to build communities for the poor has been seen to impact greatly in building a new culture of working together and rebuilding together – and ultimately building long-lasting stability in the area; one house at a time."

For this charity ball on October 8, GK is also preparing a stellar cast of performers for that evening including many big superstar names to be announced soon. If your company would like to get involved in this, please email us at In the meantime, stay tuned for our next post -- this time from the beautiful, historic and mesmerizing city of Istanbul!


Friday, June 4, 2010

Travel Writing Workshop on June 19

The Art (and Joys) of Travel Writing
Saturday, November 12
Fully Booked, Bonifacio High Street

Special thanks to Jun Reynales

"That was a fun, fun, fun workshop.
So much insight. With (literally) icing on top.
Haha. Let's do it again!"
- posted by A.M. on Facebook

The Travelife team at the workshop registration

"Great job with the workshop!
Hope it expands and evolves into
more learning sessions with your readers."
- posted by R.V. on Facebook
Travelife Publisher Christine Cunanan &
Travelife Contributing Editor Miko Liwanag

A participant at the workshop

Gabby Malvar, Travelife Editor at Large

"I thoroughly enjoyed Saturday afternoon with you guys.
Aside from the writing workshop,
I also learned how to be a better traveler.
Great job!"
- posted by R.V. on Twitter

A participant at the workshop

Travelife Editor at Large Gabby Malvar &
Travelife Publisher Christine Cunanan

"It was a learning experience for me.
Great job and kudos to the organizers.
Hope there will be a part 2."
- posted by A.M. on Facebook

Travelife General Manager Leah Gohu
holds the certificates of completion
for The Art (and Joys) of Travel Writing

A participant at the workshop

A participant at the workshop

The Travelife team at the workshop

Gabby Malvar, Travelife Editor at Large

A participant at the workshop

Miko Liwanag, Travelife Contributing Editor

"It was very inspiring."
-posted by M.O. on Facebook

Participants at the workshop