Friday, April 23, 2010

Magic at the Peninsula Tokyo

TOKYO - At the invitation of Peninsula Tokyo General Manager Malcolm Thompson and his charming wife Roxanne, old friends we'd known since Malcolm's days running the Park Hyatt Tokyo, we braved the heavy spring rains last night to have dinner at the beautiful private dining room of Peter, Peninsula Tokyo's flagship fine dining restaurant.

This private room itself makes an interesting conversation piece, pretty much the way a modern or avante garde piece of jewelry on a beautiful woman is something to naturally talk about. Peter, which is named after one of the Peninsula Group's top executives, is located on the top of the hotel, accessible by private elevator. This private dining room is at the very corner, affording the most beautiful views of this fashionable part of Tokyo. But what's most amazing, to me, is the steel art installation on the wall and ceiling that serves both as decor for this ultra-modern high-tech room and also a very unique chandelier. Lights sparkle from this installation that starts from the floor in one part fof the room and works its way up the wall to cover most of the ceiling. The room itself is very intimate, made for 12 persons at the most, lending itself to really posh private dinners. This was certainly the fanciest private dining venue in Japan. We'd heard that Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama had only recently hosted a private dinner in this very room.

Last night we were an eclectic group of 10 who gathered in this lovely room to dine on the new spring dinner menu of Peninsula Tokyo chef Patrice Martinneau, who also paired his food with equally wonderful wines.

After some champagne and catching up, I was shown to my seat in between a Japanese banker formerly of the Bank of Japan and the Lufthansa country manager for Japan. The three of us looked at the menu prepared for us -- a Western menu with lots of Japanese touches -- and immediately got hungry.

But just while we were enjoying an amuse bouche of Japanese pickled plums in a flan, a young man with a naughty smile and a purposeful air confidently walked in. He wasn't a waiter and obviously he wasn't a guest, as our table was full. But his entry was very noticeable in this very intimate room of people who knew each other.

Malcolm looked at one of the ladies on his side of the table with an inquiring look, and asked, "Is he with you?"

It turned out he was a magician hired as entertainment for the evening exclusively for our little party. And judging from the most amazing tricks he did, he was certainly among Japan's best.

He made rings disappear, turned 10,000 yen notes into 1,000 yen, and changed playing cards into stickers which ended up as stickers on the wristwatch of a gentleman guest. We were all simply astonished. It's one thing to watch a magic show on TV or from afar when the magician is on stage, as so many visual things are not obvious at such distances. But when the magician is performing for 10 people and you can see what he is doing from 5 inches away, and you still can't understand it; that's what I call magic.

This novel little touch certainly added sparks to a most enjoyable evening.

Then the service for the dinner proper began. I'm listing the food and wines here, but what stuck in my memory most were the prawns wrapped in a thin sheet of tofu and a barely seared filet of the the tenderest Japanese beef served with a crust of blue cheese and a cream sauce. Everything was a most unusual pairing, even for Tokyo, the city that prides itself in having perfected the marriage of East-West cuisine.

The company too was most enjoyable. My German neighbor had had a life of very exotic assignments for Lufthansa, including Verona (Italy), Somalia and Ethiopia. He'd seen violent war and la dolce vita at the same time, and now he was enjoying a rather peaceful existence in cosmopolitan Tokyo. At least peaceful until earlier this week when the Iceland volcano erupted and he found himself at the office until midnight on Monday trying to deal with over 100 passengers camped outside his office. Fortunately, everything returned to normal by Wednesday and he was able to enjoy this most elegant dinner at the Peninsula.

Meanwhile, as a banker and later oil executive, my Japanese neighbor had spent a lifetime criscrossing the globe. He'd been to Brazil several times in the past years, which is among the farthest places from Japan in terms of distance. We tried to figure out whether Tokyo-Brazil was easier via New York or via Paris. At least until our German neighbor piped in that Frankfurt was a good stopover too.

At the end of dinner, the impressive magician made a reappearance for a few more tricks to end the night with a bang. He brought in a table which, with very little effort, he made swing, sway, dance and float high up in the air. I'd seen similar stuff on TV and always suspected that batteries, strings or very thin and strong wires were involved in such acts. But last night, with the table floating next to me and no evidence of machines or paraphernalia, I just had to stand up, open-mouthed, and try to inspect the table as it danced around.

Then as quickly as he had appeared, the magician was gone -- leaving us all quite astonished that we couldn't speak. "The art of the quick exit," someone finally said. "I guess that's part of it. You can't very well stay to explain things after a performance like that."

But, as if he had read our minds (or overheard our conversation), he popped back into the room, the twinkle in his eye never disappearing. "You had some questions for me?" He asked. He was almost laughing. My Japanese neighbor recovered his composure enough to ask: "How did you do that? Did you use some kind of magnet?"

"I never use magnets," the magician replied. "But how, then?" My Japanese neighbor persisted.

The magician gazed steadily at each one of us. We all certainly felt he would be sharing his secret. The man who hired him -- the Peninsula Tokyo GM -- was there and he too wanted to know, after all. In that split second that we were waiting for the magician to say something, I remember thinking: Finally, I'm going to find out how all these magicians do it. I'm going to know how they do it!

"Can you keep a secret?" The magician asked us. We all nodded eagerly. In that moment, I felt I was transported back to the sixth grade.

"You can really keep a secret?" He persisted. We all nodded again. The suspense was killing.

"Well," he began slowly, "so can I." And with a flash, he was gone.

Spring Menu at Peter

Amuse Bouche

Japanese spice marinated Hiramasa Spanish-style
Poached quail eggs
Cold basquaise and dandelion salad

NV Peninsula Champagne Deutz


Yuba-wrapped Kuruma prawn
White asparagus curry veloute
Red daikon salad and lemon confit

2004 St Aubin "Les Charmois" Domaine Jean-Marc Morey


Grilled tuna and foie gras confit carpaccio
Fresh morels and green vegetable fricassee
with Szechuan peppercorn

2006 The Peninsula Pinot Noir Keller Estate


Umami-roasted beef fillet
with a white miso-blue cheese crust
Tomato tortellini and spring turnip mousseline

2002 Chateau Sociando-Mallet Haut Medoc


Peter's golden soft chocolate biscuit
Anis and caramel confit
Banana ice cream

Petit fours

Coffee or tea


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Talking Travel with Gilbert Teodoro

TOKYO -- This blog entry isn't about the faults of different candidates or why people should not vote for them. It's solely about our experience at Travelife Magazine, one sunny afternoon last month when presidential candidate Gilbert Teodoro (GIBO) took time from his very busy schedule to have tea and discuss travel and tourism prospects for the Philippines with the editors of Travelife at the Peninsula Manila.

It was the day of GIBO's speech at a meeting of the Makati Business Club, held at the Intercontinental Manila, and we'd been lucky enough to get him to ourselves for over two hours that afternoon. I'd thought about attending the MBC lunch myself, but there were just too many things to organize prior to meeting him, especially as he was heading straight to the Peninsula from the MBC event. Later on, I'd heard that he'd impressed practically everyone at MBC, which included a largely skeptical group of business people who had never been his supporters.

"The Best Candidate"

"He's really the best candidate," so many people said repeatedly to me that day, after GIBO had talked solidly and sensibly about what he would do if he were president. I'd bumped into some senior multinational executives at the Pen lobby that afternoon while waiting for GIBO to arrive and they'd said this again and again. "He's really the best candidate. It's just too bad he won't win. Wrong time."

This was a phrase I would hear over and over in the weeks after that. It's often hard to open up about politics and this election to friends and acquaintances because people have become so polarized that it's almost shocking to discover that friends you thought were on the same page with you are on completely different continents regarding presidential candidates. Well, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and it's really not for others to judge these -- including us.

But when the topic did creep up, and still does creep up, it was equally shocking that almost everyone I spoke to thought GIBO was the best. I knew people liked him, but I didn't think almost everyone did. Whether it was over lunch with travel companions from Manila and Cebu at a seafood restaurant in Mumbai, at drinks with competitors at the Fort, or at a trade show meeting clients for the first time, the refrain was the same that it was starting to ring in my head like a jingle without a tune: "GIBO's the best candidate. It's too bad he won't win."

A tragedy for us, not for him

Then I realized: too bad for whom? Of course if GIBO doesn't make it, I'm sure he (and his supporters) will be extremely disappointed. But he's young, talented and energetic. Whether he becomes president of a country or just president of a family company, or even if he ends up a regular lawyer instead of Philippine president, I'm almost sure he will land on his feet and still lead a good, successful and purposeful life. His family may even be happier that they will have him all to themselves instead of having to share him with 90 (last count?) million other Filipinos for six years.

The real tragedy lies with us Filipinos: if so many of us truly believe GIBO is the best candidate to navigate the Philippines through these very tough times and we don't do what we can to make him president. If we believe he'll make the best president and yet we don't elect him because other candidates have more money, more machinery, more pedigree or a couple of very powerful media behind them, we've basically slammed the door on an opportunity that doesn't come very often in the history of a country. Truly great presidential material is rare anywhere, but it's perhaps rarer in countries like ours where real skills and capabilities take the backseat to sentimentalism, showbiz and media perceptions. Don't we deserve and need the best qualified person as president, especially at this very crucial time for ourselves and the world? And, really, if we don't elect GIBO -- can you imagine what the Philippines will be like for six long years under a mediocre president?

We don't need popularity or pedigree, but capability

Face it. We don't need popularity (although that makes the job easier) or pedigree for a president, we need someone who really wants to finally get this country out of the mess we're in; and who can make sensible and rational decisions for the good of the majority, who has enough foresight to plan for the future of a population, and who can effectively manage the meager resources of the population for maximum results. Please tell me -- popularity aside, which of the candidates is best equipped to do this very difficult job? Winning the elections is the easiest part of the process. It's the after part that counts.

Now if I was going around the country or the world -- I'm typing this out in a hotel room in Kobe, having just arrived from Hong Kong, where I did meet many Filipino professionals -- and Filipinos I'm meeting are not saying GIBO is the best qualified, then that's another story. In fact, there's no story at all.

Mediocrity can't be an option for poor countries

But having so many people believing GIBO is the best but that he won't get elected is a tragedy of almost comic proportions -- and it's really a tragedy not for him, but for us: a poor country that could really use a darn good and capable president with honest intentions and sincere motives. It's not enough right now for us to elect an honest president (who can't run a country) or a very capable president (with questionable motives) -- or worse, a person with neither capability nor good motives, but just popularity.

This is GIBO's time -- not because he should be president or because he wants to be president, but because we need someone capable like him to run this country and finally get us out of our rat hole. A candidate with the right pedigree or enough popularity can easily win an election, but after the posters and banners have been taken down, the serious business begins. And the Philippines can't be run on the legacy of parents or the shine of showbiz alone. I can't stress enough how we need a truly capable person as president, and how damaging six years with a lousy president will be.

GIBO at the Peninsula

On the afternoon that GIBO came to have tea with Travelife's editors, Managing Editor Jon Vicente and I went down to the lobby to meet him and escort him and his entourage to the suite we had booked. The moment he walked into the lobby, there was a change in the air -- not just because of the surprise and excitement of onlookers, but because he himself brought a powerful and positive energy to this cavernous lobby that was immediately felt.

This is a kind and smart man with a good purpose, I thought to myself. He can get the tough business done. This is not just any man running for presidency. He possessed an air of command, striding – he doesn’t just walk – purposefully into the lobby, ensuring that all eyes were drawn to the tall man with kind, glinting eyes.

Read about our afternoon with GIBO in the latest issue of Travelife, on sale everywhere now. Here are some excerpts from that afternoon in a corner suite of the Peninsula Manila, where he effortlessly held four Travelife interviewers at bay, talking about travel, how tourism can help revitalize the Philippine economy, and life after a presidency. Just another day at work for him, and an incredibly inspiring few hours for us at Travelife. This isn't about the candidate we went to school with (not) or the one we know best (not even close; we certainly know the others and their families better), or the one someone in our family knows best or owes a favor to. This is about the best presidential candidate for the Philippines. There is hope, and his name is GIBO.

Afternoon Tea Talking Travel with Gilbert Teodoro

Managing Editor Jon Vicente (JV): How did travel and living abroad shape your personality?
Gibo: It made me less insular and more open to change. Living abroad makes you realize you need to compete worldwide, and that the world is not a static thing revolving around the Philippines, but vice-versa. It makes you more liberal in terms of accepting a need for greater interconnection amongst countries. The world’s getting to be a smaller place. There’s freedom to migrate, there’s freedom of capital flow, there’s freedom of cross-border services. The sooner we wake up to that reality, probably the sooner the ‘brain drain’ and migration problems get remedied.

JV: What are some of your most memorable destinations?
Gibo: Cambridge, Massachusetts. Personally and of course, nostalgically, because I lived there for two years. My family and my wife’s family were also residents in northern California, so there’s a little bit of nostalgia for the West Coast too. Our son was born was born there. New York is also quite memorable because I almost worked there, either in an investment bank or a law firm.

Travelife Chairman Keiichi Miki (KM): What’s your favorite hideaway place with your family?
Gibo: Internationally, Singapore and Hong Kong for the food. We were able to go to the Maldives once and the United States once, but it was more for a working visit. London and Honolulu are good places too. Turkey was memorable. We were childless then and we spent two weeks in a bus touring Turkey. No way am I doing that in a bus again! Mactan Island is also good.

Travelife Publisher & EIC Christine Cunanan (CC): How did you end up here?
Gibo: My father told me to come home! Then I ran for congress immediately after!

JV: If elected president, what are your plans for Philippine tourism?
Gibo: Number one is to implement the new tourism act. I think it’s an all-encompassing act regarding our strategic direction. Number two, complementary infrastructure for tourism. I do not agree that islands with limited carrying capacity and sustainability should be made more accessible - quite the contrary.

We should begin looking more into high-value tourism. We had that market before, the Japanese market, and we lost it. So, we should invest more in high-value tourism and medical tourism, and provide complementary infrastructure for it. Through the tourism act, I think we’re trying to fill the gap in shortfall with respect to facilities. I think in 2008, when Thailand had domestic problems, a lot of tourists wanted to redirect to the Philippines—in Phuket-type destinations. But we could only accommodate so much, not only in terms of hotels, but in terms of airports. People are looking at Terminal 3, when what’s needed is an additional runway. It takes 45 minutes in peak time to get off and land right now. It’s a problem. In Cebu for example, with its single runway: what happens if it gets inundated? I think those things should be examined. I’m going to work with the industries involved, to get as many quality tourists as possible.

"Gibo is the best
and the brightest torch
in this, our darkest hour."
- F. Sionil Jose

I also would like to encourage consolidation in the tourism industry in terms of government policy. Each and every town already has a festival. There should probably be some consolidation because sometimes you need a bit of contrivance in tourism. The perfect contrivances for me are Bali and Langkawi -- they were able to shape their culture. There should be more of a cultural renaissance in the Philippines, in terms of indigenous diversity.

JV: What do we need to promote the Philippines and tourism abroad?
Gibo: We don’t sell ourselves enough in terms of information and marketing. Information-wise, people really don’t make a distinction between problems in some areas of the Philippines vis-à-vis the whole country. We need to advertise more, although now there is definitely a budget concern, because there is once again a fight between social services and tourists, without realizing that there is a direct correlation between the quantity of advertising and the return.

JV: Is it just about marketing?
Gibo: Not only marketing; however there is a marketing problem. We certainly can market certain areas, which are ready for tourism, such as Cebu or Bohol. And every travel advisory is a problem. But how do we deal with the travel advisory? Rather than deal with the problem underlying the travel advisory, we get angry. So, there’s some sort of a disconnect in the way we approach things.

JV: Do you see the global recession dampening tourism growth in 2010?
Gibo: No, because there are already visible signs of recovery elsewhere. It’s probably the right time to invest in tourism, which is badly needed. Anyway, if you invest in tourism, the byproducts are cleaner surroundings; there are multiplier effects that go into the surroundings and to the economy. Now, which goes to say also our human capital is also a problem. Why? Because we have a big debate about English as a second language when we should have more [of them].

CC: What will you do about NAIA 3 if you become President?

Gibo: We’ll have to solve a whole gamut of problems first before that. I say again, the NAIA 3 terminal is the smallest part of NAIA’s problem. The runway is the problem. Traffic is also a problem. You’ll have to get the support facilities in first.

How many people come to Manila in the first place? I think for tourism, minimal. Manila is for business, rather than for tourism. Panglao is on track, I think, it’s going to be able to accept bigger types of aircraft. Mactan, we need another runway because it’s a hub. Davao can already accept large aircraft. They can accommodate the Airbus A340 but not the series 400. Sulu and Tawi-tawi have very promising runways, 2,800 meters, which were just inaugurated.

CC: Many of our friends overseas think that the Philippines has a lot of nice tourism destinations, but even in Manila, squalor is everywhere even along the roads from the airport. What do you plan to do as president?
Gibo: Well, we already started it, with the relocation of people in vulnerable areas. It’s going to need a lot of work, because they will always come back. I think these informal settlers must be relocated and the waterways must be dredged. I think that’s a safety issue also for Metro Manila.

However, there is hope for NAIA. NAIA’s competitive advantage is probably that it’s right smack in Manila, like Tokyo’s Haneda Airport.

Travelife Board Member Andrew Masigan (AM): What is your vision of Manila as a world-city? I heard about the Php208 Billion Plan.

Gibo: No, the Php 208 billion plan is really to save Manila from disasters, not to make it competitive. What Manila should be is a high-value and quality service provider: Value-service, Service provider. Not manufacturing anymore. It should be a business destination, a business hub. Our laws are quite restrictive in that end. We once had the opportunity to make Manila one of the best financial, legal, and design centers for services. This is what Manila should be, but right now, people are even more optimistic in Cebu.

JV: Some people are calling the Philippines the retirement capital of the world. Is that something you’ve heard too?
Gibo: Yes, it is one of the identified sunrise areas, together with wellness, medical tourism, tourism per se, food manufacturing, BPOs and the like. It is something that really should be looked into. However, I think the synergies between the Philippine Retirement Authority, the Department of Tourism, Department of Interior and Local Government are also not that defined.

KM: Maybe reducing the number of departments will force them to work together.
Gibo: It’s kind of hard because normally, doing that is through a committee and the committee will never meet because the cabinet member will just task somebody to do this. The committee system in this country has not worked that well. But probably for retirement, I’ll empower the local government units and get them to evolve their own policies regarding retirement communities. I’ll support feasible plans. Retirement is ultimately a function of the community itself, so LGUs should be capable.

CC: What would you do to promote better synergy?
Gibo: Well, first thing is for private sectors to provide a feedback mechanism. You can’t watch them 24 hours a day. There should be a working relationship between these departments and the best way is to make stakeholders really a participant: they’re going to shout if the department doesn’t do any work. It’s their money, and the time value of money runs not against government, but against the stakeholders themselves.

Number two is to have some quick wins. Your first 100 days is an important window. If you have quick wins in it, it will multiply. The third way really is what I was advocating earlier. Part of your program should be a long-term multi-stakeholder program. Tourism is one of the eleven areas where the Philippines can be competitive. You have to have an intrapart-interpart political party, local government, and a legislative accord with it. So, everybody is in. Takes a lot of hard work, but it has to be done.

KM: What can you do to ensure a project being long-term?
Gibo: You get all the political leaders to sign on to it. If the private sectors make lots of noise, everybody will sign on. For tourism, one of the biggest problems is the potential conflict between the Department of Tourism and the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources. I’ve seen that alreadyand that should be remedied.

CC: How would you address such conflict?
Gibo: That’s where leadership comes in. They better tow the line or get out, that’s the only way.

JV: What specific places would you focus on developing in the Philippines?

Gibo: The Visayas area. That’s already the tourism area of the Philippines. In northern Luzon, there’s Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, and Sta. Ana. For wellness, the Cordillera Area is like Ubud in Bali, Indonesia, but it needs some time, because weatherproof roads are an issue. And access by air is also an issue because of fogging. Also, if you build roads, security problems disappear by 50%. Access is important for anti-insurgency purposes.

CC: How about making Manila more of a tourist destination?
Gibo: There is room for that. I walked around Old Manila the other night and I think there’s a lot that we can do to convert Manila into something like Singapore’s Boat Quay or Clarke Quay. Chinatown still has the façade of something that can be developed. Clean up the place, give a lift to the traditional restaurants there, the traditional Fookien food.

JV: Is the Philippines ready for a philosopher-king?
Gibo: Probably there’s too many of them already (laughs).

JV: Which one do we need? The businessman-king? The lawyer-king?
Gibo: I think the Philippines needs a lot of realists. There’s too much misplaced idealism in the country, to the point of hypocrisy. For example, the way we treat our public servants. We have the ideal of the public servant—the super human being without any material needs whatsoever and who will devote 24/7 to the welfare of the country. That doesn’t work anymore. And the problem is that the Philippines always wants a free ride. We should really live up to the fact that there’s no free lunch in the world. There are costs.

We could increase financial incentives for doing good. For example, we can start with the bonus system. Why don’t we have lump sum personal services appropriation per department and let the policy of the department work to how a bonus is given? We should do that, but we don’t because we have salary gauges.

JV: Besides your campaign team, what is a must-bring on your travels?
CC: What can’t you leave home without?

Gibo: Not a laptop, not a Blackberry. It’s a book and probably a blanket.

CC: How do you cope with such hectic travel? Do you have a secret?
Gibo: Just look forward to the next time you have peace and quiet. That’s what keeps you going.

Click here to read


Paris When It Sizzles…

Battle-ready women, long lines, secret destinations, and great bargains—the madness of the Paris summer sales

I'm writing this out from Tokyo, not from Paris unfortunately; although finally the weather here has turned from miserable and cold to sunshine-y spring, making me feel I'm actually in Paris in June.

And today, for lunch, I'm meeting my Japanese friend Keiko at our usual haunt, one of Japan's most authentic French brasseries. It's so French that it only uses French flour, butter and salt to make bread and pastries; and even most of the produce served for lunch and dinner as well is flown in on Air France.

Meeting Keiko today after a very long time of not being in Japan reminded me of the very many trips we have taken together to all sorts of places, and most of it with some amount of shopping involved. For about ten years now, until last year, I've met up with her for a week in Paris right about the last week of June. Elsewhere during the year, we also managed trips to Asian destinations and around Japan.

In fact, I met Keiko on a trip -- which is probably why we made very good travel friends. I was spending a week in Florence on my own, intent on visiting museums and galleries. I flew into Florence from Vienna, and my first stop that evening was dinner at an excellent trattoria recommended by my hotel. The place was full and I was on my own, so I guess that's why the restaurant seated me next to the only other lone diner : Keiko. We exchanged pleasantries in Japanese and by the second course we were comparing notes on museums and outlet stores. By the end of the evening we had made plans to meet up every night for dinner together -- one day she would choose the place, the next I would do so. It was the perfect arrangement for two girls traveling by themselves in Florence.

Anyway, this was long before Travelife came along and took the time (but not the fun!) out of traveling.

For as long as I can remember, Keiko and I have traveled to Paris at the end of June for one week of good food and great bargain-hunting. The annual summer sale kicks off on the same day for all stores, and not a few avid shoppers travel from all over the world to unabashedly indulge themselves in a sea of 50% discounts.

There is absolutely nothing high-brow about these June trips, although last year, we did manage an afternoon at the Louvre. In general, however, we reserve the museums, the historical walks and the opera for visits to Paris at other times of the year, when the city is less populated by battle-ready women in slacks, flats, and with the all-essential credit cards, roaming the streets with the determined look of hunters searching for current season items at half-price.

Keiko and I have our routine down to pat, arriving five days or so before the sale proper and staying at a hotel within walking distance to the Fabourg St. Honore, the department stores around the Place de l’Opera, and also to the Left Bank. I always fly into Paris from my Tokyo home, and then continue onto elsewhere in Europe for summer holidays with my husband. Meanwhile Keiko heads to Tuscany in mid-June to stay in countryside inns tracking down amazing delicacies, before ending up in Paris for one last fabulous shopping hurrah.

We deliberately arrive earlier than the sale to leisurely check shops, choose items and plan our respective first-day routes. At places where we’ve become regulars, the shop girls will keep highly coveted items for us. We also take advantage of the lull before the consumer storm to indulge in our common love for food—something impossible to do once sale madness begins. Taking turns to pick restaurants, in between store browsings we have long lunches at Michelin three-star restaurants, where a proper three-course meal at noon is often a bargain compared to the astronomical prices at dinner; and then we try to walk off the calories in the afternoon. Evenings are reserved for more reasonable one-star restaurants run by ambitious young chefs.

On the sale’s first day, many stores open at 8am. After an early, hearty breakfast— our next meal will be dinner at 9 PM, after all—Keiko and I part ways for the day, wishing each other luck. She joins the throngs at Printemps and Galleries Lafayette. Meanwhile the Hermes sale is always my first stop, followed by visits to Chloe, Missoni, and Christian Louboutin’s tiny workshop/store on a very narrow street just on the way to the Marais.

Every year I reach the Hermes sale—which, unlike most other brands, is held off-site on the ground floor of an ordinary building in a nondescript neighborhood with no signs to attract attention—at 8 AM, and am subjected to a tortuous three-hour wait just to enter. I know I should arrive earlier but I never do; and instead I line up and listen to the same songs on my iPod, and watch impatiently as Japanese early birds leave the sale laden with so many paper bags they can hardly walk. Some of these women take the last Air France flight out of Narita Airport the day before, arriving in Paris at dawn and heading straight to the Hermes sale to sit on the pavement until 9am in the same clothes they left their Tokyo apartments in. The die-hards who can’t afford time away from work spend the whole day shopping and then taxi back to Charles de Gaulle airport just in time for the last flight back to Tokyo. It’s literally a shopping daytrip to Paris from across the globe.

The Hermes sale is probably the least publicized of the designer sales, and the way Keiko and I discovered it long ago deserves to be told. It was a fine morning in June when we set out from the Park Hyatt Place Vendome for our usual pre-breakfast circular walk through the Tuileries, along the Seine and then finally past the Champs Elysees and typical working districts on the way back to the hotel.

In one of these districts, we saw dozens of women waiting in a line that snaked several blocks down outside a subway exit. Most of them were either French or Japanese. Unable to contain our curiosity, we asked a Japanese girl in line exactly what this was all about. She stared at us as if we had just asked the silliest question in the world. “This is the Hermes sale,” she replied. “No leather bags, but lots of scarves, shoes and clothes.”

That was all we needed to know. Unable to find a taxi, we ran the last three kilometers to our hotel to pick up our credit cards and dashed right back. I had never seen Keiko run like this before—but this is exactly what sale season in Paris does to you!

This appeared in the May-June 2008 issue of Travelife Magazine. Travelife Magazine is the Philippines' leading travel & lifestyle magazine.


Saturday, April 17, 2010

About Travelife's April-May 2010 Issue

Hello, this time from Kobe, a charming city known for style and genteel living. I flew into Kansai from Hong Kong yesterday, arriving to one of the coldest spring days in memory and completely unprepared for this April version of winter. I toyed with the idea of buying another winter coat for the few days I'm going to be in Japan but decided against it, keeping my fingers crossed instead that the cold wave would soon pass.

It's warmer today but still chilly enough that I've been wearing everything I could manage all day including two dresses and a cashmere scarf. I woke up early to join friends and family for a 10 AM mass at the Rokko Catholic Church in the hills up Rokko Mountain, and then we all headed to Sannomiya, the commercial heart of Kobe, for lunch.

It was to be a Chinese lauriat. But when I heard we were going to a restaurant I'd never heard of at the top of a new shopping mall in Sannomiya, I threw all expectations out the taxi window. Call it prejudice or jumping to conclusions, but I figured I'd be having so-so Chinese food for lunch -- especially compared to the pretty fabulous dinner I enjoyed at Hong Kong's China Club on Thursday night.

Well, this was a lesson to me not to pre-judge -- at least not if I can help it. Lunch was just about the best Chinese food I'd had in a while, and this period I'm talking about encompasses dining experiences in some of the best Chinese restaurants in four cities in Asia. It was a small restaurant run by a Taiwanese husband-and-wife team, although the husband has written about 20 Chinese cookbooks and reportedly taught Chinese cooking in Japan for years.Lunch for all the restaurant diners was served on a very impressive and complete assortment of delicate Richard Ginori plates, bowls, cups and pitchers. This alone should've told me that I should be raising my expectations. Richard Ginori porcelain from Italy is incredibly expensive. A simple coffee cup and saucer set for two persons alone costs at least US$100. I myself have been planning to complete a Ginori set for years, but prices have always held me back.

Meanwhile, the food was delicate and sublime, consisting mostly of seafood cooked in different flavors. Every dish was simply delicious, and most of it were original concoctions based on basic Chinese cooking methods and ingredients. In between courses, I asked the chef what kind of cooking this was, and he answered breezily, "Oh, a little bit of everything." Well, his formula -- whatever it is -- worked. If you're headed to Kobe and are hankering for good Chinese food, check out Lee's Garden on the 8th floor of the Shimbun Kaikan bldg in Sannomiya. On the way out, I looked at the menu and lunch costs about US$75 per person. Pricey even by Japanese standards, but I haven't had Chinese food this good in a long time.


While I'm here typing away in Japan, our April-May issue is out on the newsstands and so far, getting very good reviews. Personally, I think it's one of our best yet. As with the last issue, it was a lot of fun to work on (I am so enjoying this job!) but of course not without the usual stress of deadlines and high standards. The latter, in particular, is weighing heavy on our team as we are pushing ourselves to keep on being the best travel magazine in this town. I'd like to describe why this issue is so good (and why you should get a copy of it at the bookstore asap) in so many words, but Travelife's Managing Editor, Jon Vicente, does a much better job of it. So again, I'm borrowing some of his copy from his editor's note.


Our April-May 2010 issue starts out with a cover story on Brunei, our next-door neighbor (one hour and 40 minutes away by plane!) and yet a country most of us know close to nothing about. I was part of this majority until earlier this year, when I landed in Bandar Seri Begawan to participate in the ASEAN Tourism Forum 2010. What a surprise to get to know a pleasant country that is somewhere in between the First and Second Worlds, completely safe, and yet full of untouched natural resources like pristing forests and mangroves. Admittedly, there's not much for shopping or manmade recreation, but it's certainly a great destination for nature lovers and a pretty fantastic country to visit for families who just want to relax amidst clean surroundings; and in this issue we give you the low-down on why you should be planning a trip there.


This issue also brings together an excellent combination of destinations near and far, from some very earnest travelers who also (lucky for us) happen to have the gift for storytelling. New York-based Pat Vicente, who works at the United Nations, brings you to Aix-en-Provence in France, a spot of almost legendary eminence, in her touching piece entitled "Where Air Breathes Light." And rightly so, for there exists an ancient land that suffers modern life, and a magical light that inspires creativity -- the very same light that has been fueling the genius of artists for centuries.


Meanwhile, in his regular column "The Rafe Guide," Global Editor at Large Rafe Totengco talks about Bali, one of his favorite places in the world, and shares with readers the places and things on this magical island that keep him coming back. His detailed guide, which includes the best places to hang out and chill and also some great shopping destinations, paints a lucid picture that can only be bettered by actually being there. I was reminded of the two weeks I spent here at the very traditional Four Seasons Jimbaran Bay and the very contemporary Four Seasons Ubud some years back and was prompted to mentally plan a (long overdue) trip while editing his column. Babi guling (Balinese roast pig), here we come!


Other destinations are lesser known, and all the more interesting for it. Nothing courts wonder more than the unknown. This issue finds our widely-traveled Domestic Editor at Large Gabby Malvar, who is spending a year going all over the Philippines for Travelife, literally "Slicing Uncharted Waters" in Coron, Palawan. He procured a paddle boat and found himself the best guide on the island, and together they visited parts of Coron that few people have ever seen before. His amazing photos -- Gabby says that some of the lakes and ponds he photographed have never been captured by a camera before, simply because the Tagbanua tribe don't normally let anyone near their lands -- leave us in awe of the beauty of the Philippines, and give us more inspiration to continue being the definitive guide to local travel. With Gabby as our Domestic Editor at Large, we're pretty secure. In Coron, he discovers a fortress guarded by a watery gate, and a treasure hidden under his kayak’s nose. See this hidden paradise first in Travelife.


Meanwhile, Delhi-based Mohammed Ahmedullah, Travelife’s India representative and an adventurer with a passion, drove around India’s Bandavgarh Reserve, and in enjoying the virtual Thrill of the Hunt, captures the magnificent Royal Bengal Tiger (photographically). There he experiences a close encounter that illustrates why “King of the Jungle” aptly describes the big cat. I met up with Mohammed this week in Hong Kong, and he has many wonderful ideas for travel articles on India that few travel magazines have covered before. Watch out for these in future issues of Travelife.


Speaking of change, we get up close and personal with one of its proponents. Gilbert “Gibo” Teodoro speaks quite frankly on the state of tourism, among other things. As you get a glimpse of the man’s stark vision in “Steady Ambition,” this issue's Online subject, don’t be surprised if seeds of doubt about other candidates suddenly begin to germinate. We were certainly mezmerized by his brilliance and steadiness, and we'll write about that more in a future blog entry.


Also within this issue’s pages are details that help you combat the Philippine summer, whether by fleeing it or surrendering wholly to its blazing embrace, as Patricia San Diego-Wirman did, when she fell in Love under the Mediterranean Sun. Triccie lives mostly in Marbella but she also has a lakehouse in rural Finland and a posh penthouse in Helsinki. But for this issue, she gives readers a real insider's view on the best of Marbella and its surrounding coastline.


Contributing Editor Buddy Cunanan fled to Georgia’s fresher climes. As he discovers the tenacity of the Georgians for merrymaking in Revelry Behind the Iron Curtain, he finds a delicious “coolness” of another sort. He also gets to visit former Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze in his villa outside the capital, where they spend an afternoon discussing Georgia, Russia and the Philippines. That's the kind of thing Travelife editors get up to in their spare time, when they're not on a plane or hammering something out on their computers -- they're hanging out with movers and shakers most other people only read about in Time Magazine.

There's lots more to this great issue -- including a trip from Bangkok to Singapore on the Eastern & Oriental Express, one of the world's most glamorous trains; barbecue tips for the summer courtesy of Clifford Lichaytoo of Bacchus Epicerie; and new and exciting itineraries in Singapore courtesy of private banker Triccie Luchangco. Travel undoubtedly enriches our lives. Make Travelife Magazine a part of yours and have a great read with every issue. We're not kidding when we say we believe we're the best travel magazine around. We work incredibly hard at being number one and we don't settle for anything below excellence. Get your copy of our latest issue as soon as possible.


Commencing next issue, we will be dedicating a new section, called Postcards, to feedback from you, our valued readers. Feel free to send via email, or snail mail if you like, in your comments, suggestions, rants or raves. We’d love to know what you think. Email us at


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Letter from Hong Kong

Hello from Hong Kong. I arrived yesterday to gorgeous weather -- particularly gorgeous, considering the unbearably hot weather I had left behind in Manila -- and in the car over from the airport to my hotel, resisted the impulse to stop over at my favorite shops at IFC and Landmark in Central. Instead I opted to head straight to the hotel to relax and veg for a very brief moment prior to a business dinner.

My hotel in Hong Kong is considered one of the hippest and coolest on the island. I'd stayed here last year and have to agree. Even now, everything is still new, swanky and uber-cool. Last year, it had taken me a full hour to come to grips with how everything technological worked as all the devices were wired, connected and on remote. One button turned a clear glass wall into an opaque wall -- if you've ever been to the Prada dressing room in Omotesando, Tokyo, you'll know what I mean -- and all kinds of other buttons did everything from put mood music on to allow you to work the iPod. At 3 AM one day (or rather one very early morning), I even had to ring concierge to find out how to turn the jacuzzi in my room off. There were no buttons to close the darn thing. It turned out, all I had to do was get out of the tub and the jacuzzi motor would just die down eventually.

So here I am again in this cool hotel of the future. The hotel is teeming with corporate executives from all over the world on conferences and away-days. There are at least two major financial firms doing investment meetings, and a well-known manufacturing company is having a regional meeting. And then there's us, having our annual regional conference. In the elevator, too, I overheard three men carrying coffee cups from their rooms to the ballroom talking about state-of-the-art medical procedures. So I guess there's a doctor's group somewhere here as well.

It's a great conference venue in an overcrowded, noisy and expensive city. You're in Hong Kong but you're also not. It's incredibly convenient for people flying in from all over Asia but you can also actually concentrate instead of thinking about the hustle and bustle outside and about heading down to the shops as soon as it's break time. We used to have our conferences in a swanky hotel in Central and it was nice, but also so distracting to have shops, good food, and good friends just a few steps away.

Anyway, at my current hotel, my old room was not available but the hotel gave me an equally lovely suite with gorgeous seaviews, lots of light and space, and nicely placed modern artwork. I even had a welcome foyer with a modern sculpture in deep red on a pedestal. There are two flat-screen TVs and last night I fell asleep with a DVD I had brought from home still playing -- it was that comfortable.

Driving into Hong Kong Island and onwards to my hotel, I found myself thinking about the same place in another time -- specifically 1989, when I temporarily lived in Hong Kong. The island was on steroids then, and there was so much ambition and aggressiveness, and the combination was both incredibly intoxicating and suffocating to a young person like myself. But it was a wonderful time to be here as it gave me a (little) taste of that hungry spirit that separates winners from everyone else. I hope I've managed to put that taste of Hong Kong's mesmerizing power to good use since then. Only time will tell.

But yesterday, looking out of the car at the skyscraper scenery playing out like a movie in front of me, Hong Kong seemed to me more like an old friend, more mellow and less on adrenalin. It was a comfortable feeling which was very different from the usually jumpy and competitive feeling I usually get the moment I hit Central. Working in Central, to me, is similar to being on a treadmill that never stops; and some of this kinetic energy rubs off on me even when I am just visiting -- perhaps because so many of my friends and acquaintances work here. Maybe the recession had something to do with this, but I find Hong Kong this time around to be a more subdued and less stressful place.

My feelings were confirmed at lunch today. Sitting across my colleague J over a meal, she recounted how at a recent hedge fund conference in Hong Kong, she found the hedge fund managers much more subdued than at the last conference in 2008. Many of them were more practical, realistic and grounded this time around. That's exactly how I feel about Hong Kong today.

This is all for now. My conference is ending soon and then we're all off to celebrate a pretty good first quarter with a team dinner at the China Club, a private club next to the HSBC headquarters designed to look turn-of-the-(last) century and filled with the wonderful private art collection of David Tang. And then I'm skipping out early and quietly to meet some good friends for late-night drinks somewhere in -- where else but -- Central. We're going to the top of the Mandarin Oriental, an old favorite, for great views and drinks. This will certainly start some reminiscing. There was a time when I practically called the MO "home" in Hong Kong. But that's another story. Catch you all later after some great Chinese food and a couple of margaritas.