Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Year of Travel, 2010

We've been to some pretty amazing places in 2010, so it's really been a great year of travel for us. On the last day of a most eventful year, here's are some of our best travel experiences in 2010:

Best roadtrip
A three-night journey on the Eastern & Oriental Express
from Bangkok to Singapore
last February 2010

"Perhaps the most luxurious train in the world."

* * *

Most amazing travel-related high
A sunrise hot-air balloon ride across Capadoccia
in central Turkey last June 2010

"A deeply spiritual experience coupled with
some of the most amazing sights I've ever seen."

* * *

Favorite nightspots
Reina in Istanbul, at any time of the year.
Although Reina last June was simply amazing,
with gorgeous weather, people dancing outdoors,
and partygoers arriving by boat at midnight.

We also loved the rooftop bar of the
Four Seasons Hotel in Mumbai

March 2010

and the Sky Bar of the Trader's Hotel in Kuala Lumpur.
May 2010

* * *

Most memorable trip
Two weeks in Turkey
with 70 Travelife Magazine readers and friends
last November 2010

* * *

Best shopping finds
All ballgowns, found in the strangest places!
A vintage Leonardo gown at a chic boutique
across from the Pera Palas Hotel in Istanbul last November.
We went in for five minutes
and left with a beautiful gown that
we're wearing to a black-tie New Year's Eve party tonight.
And a couple of long dresses bought at a boutique in Kuala Lumpur.

* * *

Best discovery
Sun Moon Lake in central Taiwan.
What a beautiful place.
September 2010

* * *

Best "Me" Trip
Two weeks in Southern India with a dozen girlfriends
last February 2010.
Everyone had a credit card, good humor
and an endless capacity to visit store after store.

And, boy, was that fun.

* * *

Most memorable time travel
The launch party of the Peninsula Manila's Salon de Ning.
What a party, what a night.
Take us back to old Shanghai anytime.

December 2010

* * *

Most memorable hotel stay
Lake Kumarakom Hotel in Kerala, India
We stayed in the presidential villa
made out of an old Keralan house,

with a beautiful view of the lake.
March 2010

* * *

Best travel companion


* * *

Cities we visited at least twice
in the past 12 months

Tokyo, Hong Kong, Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Istanbul

* * *

City we want to visit again in 2011
Marrakech on the
Travelife Magazine Morocco tour in May 2011
For more details, check out our blog entry on
2011 Travelife Tours & Experiences


Sunday, December 26, 2010

My Favorite Things, 2010

This is an updated repost of a piece I wrote on my favorite books almost one year ago. Since then I've read more interesting books to add to my list below -- mainly Japanese classics going back approximately 100 to 150 years. Two books I particularly enjoyed were old Japanese fiction: Mistress Oriku, a tale of the liberal (for the Meiji era especially!) owner of the Shigure Teahouse in Tokyo, and The Flower Mat, which contains stories about Tokyo's old pleasure district. Both are published by Periplus Books from Singapore and available locally at major bookstores.

I don't get enough time to read anymore, save for this lull between Christmas and New Year's; and right now, I'm re-reading one of my all-time favorite Japanese classics, The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki, a master observer of human nature. I'm so glad I'm re-reading this, actually, because I'm discovering so many important details in this second read that were not apparent to me the first time I picked up this book.

With the best of intentions, my friend X also lent me just before Christmas a very interesting and user-friendly book called Brand Gap, on the importance of building and maintaining a brand. While not exactly in the same category as literature, it's certainly timely in view of Travelife's business planning for 2011. So that's on my night table at the moment.

My favorite things

On the topic of my favorite things, my friends will probably tease me and say that Birkins, cruises and luxury hotels are among my favorite things. But in reality, I love books for the education and escape they offer all of us at a relatively nominal cost. In fact, my luggage back from some exotic place is just as likely to contain beautiful picture books and local literature, as it is to contain clothes and trinkets. Just last month in Turkey, for example, I sacrificed precious luggage space for an incredibly heavy but beautiful coffeetable book on living in Istanbul, and a couple of semi-fictional books by Turkish Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. I haven't had time to open any of these since returning to Manila, but I do plan to do so soon.

The world through books

Traveling the world through are some recommendations for those who wish to visit other worlds and other times...

Someone recently wrote asking me what kind of books I read, and so I decided to share with you some favorite books, as a year-end break from the subject of travel. However, in a way, reading books is a form of travel because books take you to places and periods away from home and the present. In fact, books are perhaps the most affordable form of (mental) travel, accessible to anyone with the time and inclination.

The Tale of Genji

Although there are some great fiction books on the market, I almost never read fiction, save for classics of the ancient and contemporary kind. My all-time favorite novel is The Tale of Genji, a lengthy 11th century novel on life in the intrigue-filled Heian-era courts of Kyoto by a court lady who wrote under the pen name Murasaki Shikibu. There are several translations on the market; I've read most of them and prefer the translations of Edward Seidensticker and Donald Keene.

The best of Japanese literature

Among contemporary novels, I favor the works of Japanese writers like Junichiro Tanizaki, Yasunari Kawabata and Yukio Mishima, who are masters of subtlety and yet excellent observers of human nature. Tanizaki's Makioka Sisters is a novel about four genteel but impoverished sisters in Kansai worrying about money, saving face and marriage; and Mishima's Spring Snow is the first book in his three-part masterpiece, The Sea of Fertility, which describes the life of an aristocratic courtier family in Tokyo with a wayward son. These books, and a handful of others written in the early 20th century, were responsible for making me a lifelong fan of Japanese literature.

One Hundred Years of Solitude

Among living novelists, the only one I have read thoroughly is the Colombian Nobel prizewinner Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. Many years ago, I read his famous One Hundred Years of Solitude, a novel that could kill a person with its heavy weight (it would also certainly kill my rather strict Ateneo English 101 teacher with its lengthy sentences...), and was hooked. His flowery prose goes completely against my Strunk & White training, but I allow myself to be enchanted by his descriptions of a most amazing world of love, courage, intrigue and desperation. I've read his other books since then, but One Hundred Years of Solitude is still my favorite.

My favorite bookstore in the world

My biggest passion, however, is reading biographies. I scour bookstores all over the world for rare ones, especially when in London, where I am probably at Hatchards every other day. In this bookstore with fairly ancient beginnings (it opened for business in 1797!), a few blocks from St. James Palace, I've found some very rare books -- the kind written for very small audiences and with an even smaller print run. One of my precious finds here, for example, include a privately-published diary of a lady-in-waiting to Empress Alexandra of Russia, the last Empress, that chronicled their secluded life in the Alexander Palace just before the Russian Revolution. I'd read that such a diary was in existence, and you can imagine how happy I was to find it as a privately printed book at Hatchards -- not the kind you can easily pick up at

Why I love biographies

Anyway, my library in my weekend house at the foothills of Mount Fuji in Japan is filled wall-to-wall with biographies and also such books that a nephew was once prompted to ask why I loved reading about dead people so much.

Biographies are great studies in human nature and in the common motivations and passions that transcend time, place and situation. It is uncanny how the fears and insecurities of a queen in 16th century Europe, for example, are so similar to those of a senior executive in a Japanese firm in present-day Tokyo. After reading so many biographies, one realizes how similar we really all are. Stories about strong women particularly fascinate me, especially when these women have been able to combine the advantages of femininity with strengths equal to men. Such combinations may not be very unusual today, but until 50 years ago, such women were still short of amazing.

The rise and fall of powerful women

Over the years, I have been heavily engrossed in the biographies of female historical figures in Europe, reveling in the excellent (and also highly-recommended) accounts of the lives of Marie Antoinette of France (by Antonia Fraser), Empress Elisabeth of Austria (by Brigitte Hamann) and Eleanor of Aquitaine (by Alison Weir), among others. (By the way, after reading so much history, I've now realized that many a downfall of an empire was prompted by a woman. This was the case with Empress Elisabeth of Austria, a beautiful woman who led the most purpose-less life imaginable at a time when Austria would have benefited from an intelligent and capable empress and mother; and Empress Alexandra of Russia, a kind-hearted but neurotic woman who did not have the political instincts that could have helped her husband and saved their lives.

In contrast, her mother-in-law, the Empress Marie Feodorovna, was an amazing woman who overcame a so-so education and rather limited physical advantages to truly become an asset to her husband in his short reign. The little-known Danish-born Empress Marie, made larger than life only by portrayals of her as the bitter grandmother living on her memories in all these Anastasia movies, was actually a most admirable queen. She deserves a separate blog entry next year.)

Rivalry between queens and cousins

However, my favorite book has been Elizabeth & Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens (by Jane Dunn, published by Harper Perennial in 2004), a historical comparison of Elizabeth I of England and of Mary Queen of Scots, two fascinating women leaders who were bound by blood and rivalry. I picked this up at Hatchards last spring on the strength of its appearance in The Sunday Times bestseller list and was happily rewarded. Jane Dunn combines good writing with meticulous research and an eye for interesting details. I spent the entire flight back to Tokyo marvelling over how one woman was born in a golden cradle and yet she died a queen without a kingdom or wealth (Mary), while another was disinherited as an infant and imprisoned as a young woman, yet she ended up Europe's most revered queen (Elizabeth).

However, to enjoy this book fully, if possible I recommend reading beforehand the respective biographies of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots to get to know each of them first as persons. This way, it will be like knowing two warring cousins very well and then finding out the real story behind the feud. As far as I'm concerned, the two best biographies on the market are Mary Queen of Scots (by Antonia Fraser, published by Delta Trade Paperbacks) and The Life of Elizabeth I (by Alison Weir, published by Ballantine Books).

Now, you may ask, why spend so much time reading about these two women? First, if you love a good story complete with love, tragedy, and betrayal, none of these will disappoint. Second, their lives, choices and rivalry made a significant impact on Western history and culture. The Elizabethan Age is widely acknowledged as England's Golden Era and this is due largely to the wisdom and foresight of Elizabeth I, a woman of steel who was also full of complex weaknesses, many of them related to Mary Queen of Scots' strong claim on the English throne. Meanwhile, Mary Queen of Scots was a Catholic queen of a largely Protestant Scotland, who was born with so much good fortune but who suffered from bad luck and bad decisions. If she had made different choices and had actually lived to rule her country, who knows what would have happened? Perhaps Scotland would have reverted to Catholicism, or perhaps it would be more aligned with Spain or France than with England even today.

A woman for all seasons

Meanwhile, this year-end, I just finished the biography of Madame de Pompadour, long-time mistress of Louis XV, and a beautiful, intelligent and politically astute woman who fascinates me no end. I've read probably every biography on her, but this most recently acquired one, written by the almost equally notorious but also equally talented Nancy Mitford in the first half of the 20th century, has been the most entertaining. The book flows like a novel, and yet without relinquishing any of the strictness required of historians and biographies (although some purists claim she took liberties with the facts).

Madame de Pompadour was a woman advanced for her time. Although not nobly born, she was better educated than most, and she smartly used what skills she had to navigate and conquer the French court. My interest in Madame de Pompadour took me to Versailles, France, to see the palace she ruled, the little theater she acted in and the manor house she created for herself and Louis XV. Then by accident, while having lunch one day at the Tour D'Argent in Paris, I just happened to glance at an ornate little carriage to the right of the restaurant elevator. It turned out to be Madame de Pompadour's palanquin! Meanwhile, in England, while staying at the country house-hotel Cliveden, I happily chanced upon a beautiful gilded room on the ground floor that was just being outfitted for some very wealthy French lady's bridal shower. I learned that this had originally been Madame de Pompadour's room, meticulously taken down piece by piece and transported to England and reassembled in Cliveden by Lord Astor, who owned Cliveden at the time.

Potemkin: the amazing Russian statesman

Right now, I'm also happily finishing an excellent biography of Potemkin, lover and co-ruler of the Russian Empress Catherine the Great. Prince of Princes: The Life of Potemkin by the respected British writer and historian Simon Sebag Montefiore is such a good read that I almost dread finishing it and having Potemkin's tale out of my life. This book was recommended to me by a good friend in London sometime back, as she and I share a love of history and she is very aware of my passion for Russian history in particular. In addition, her cousin (who happens to be a good friend of Prince Charles) had written it, and she vouched for the meticulousness of the research. He reportedly spent weeks and weeks pouring over dusty documents in the Kremlin that no one had ever seen before, and traveled all over the former Russian republics in search of Potemkin relics in the most unusual places. However I only found time to pick it up at the bookstore recently (yes, it's available in Manila -- and I'm so glad I didn't pay double or triple abroad for this book). The moment I started page 1, I was enthralled by the wonderful writing and meticulous research that together produced a vivid portrait of a great man and a great woman, and their partnership, in tumultuous 18th century Russia. Now with my work winding down at least for the few days before New Year, I've been happily ensconced with this book.

Unlike my other favorite books, this is a biography of a man. But, it is just as much a revealing story of the powerful woman who ruled the country and whom he loved, and their enigmatic relationship -- and this is perhaps why it joins my list of favorites. I've now learned that Simon Sebag Montefiore is currently writing a book on the Russian Imperial Family from the time of Peter the Great to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 entitled The Romanovs: The Intimate Chronicles of the Russian Imperial Family. I can't wait! This is now at the top of my wishlist for next year.

These wonderful books and such musings certainly kept me entertained on many long airplane flights traipsing through continents and on rainy weekend afternoons at home in 2009.


Thursday, December 23, 2010

See the world with Travelife Magazine in 2011

Travelife Magazine, the Philippines' leading travel and lifestyle publication, is offering more of its wonderful tour packages next year. As with our very successful Travelife Turkey trips last month, each tour will have the special Travelife touch that makes a trip with us like no other.

From 2011, we'll be bringing you the world with every issue of Travelife Magazine, and we'll be bringing you to the world via Travelife Tours and Travelife Experiences.

For more details, please refer to upcoming issues of Travelife Magazine and to this Travelife Magazine blog.

Tour & Experiences for 2011*

An evening of culture and world-class music
February 25, 2010

This is a very special Travelife Experience brought to you in cooperation with the Embassy of India. It will be a wonderful evening featuring an Indian degustation dinner prepared especially for Travelife, a talk by Indian Ambassador Yogendra Kumar, and a private concert by some of India's top sitar and sarod musicians.

Travelife's Best of CEBU
The Secret Shopping & Eating Tour
March 11-13

Travelife's Amazing TURKEY 1
Ancient Izmir and Magical Istanbul
Also see the beautiful ruins of Ephesus and the Virgin Mary's House.
May 11-19

Travelife's Amazing TURKEY 2
Magical Istanbul and Incredible Capadoccia
Explore 2000-year-old Christian settlements
and take a sunrise hot-air balloon ride
through some of the most amazing scenery in the world.
May 14-21

Travelife's Enchanting MOROCCO
Intriguing Marrakech and the beautiful Atlas Mountains
Visit also Casablanca and
the UNESCO World Heritage site of Essaouria
May 21-28

Travelife's Gastronomic SPAIN
A small-scale luxury food and wine trip
through Madrid and the Rioja wine district,
including a stay and activities in the famous Marques de Riscal.
Sep 10-17

Travelife's Old-fashioned JAPAN
Off-the-beaten track villages and castle towns
Get a glimpse of old Japan and the noble samurai life
Oct 29 - Nov 5

Travelife's Ancient & Luxury EGYPT
Fantastic Cairo and the antiquities sites of Luxor & Aswan
Sail down the Nile River towards the Valley of the Kings
onboard an elegant river ship
Nov 9 - 16

Travelife's Incredible INDIA
Incredible sights in an ancient culture
Nov 2011

Travelife's Picturesque MALAYSIA
Historical Malacca, modern Kuala Lumpur
and charming Penang

Nov 2011

*This is a tentative lineup subject to change without prior notice.
Prices and other details available soon.


Kare-kare and a travel wishlist for 2011

It began suddenly and simply as an inspired moment to have a pre-Christmas lunch, after realizing we both had a couple of spare hours in between the mad rush to finish office paperwork; and in my case to continue magazine production and squeeze in any last-minute Christmas shopping. First we were going to do Thai, as I was particularly craving for green chicken curry and pad thai. But in between about a dozen back and forth texts, we settled for Cafe Juanita at Burgos Circle at the Fort, for a proper kare-kare lunch.

Having a million things to do at the office, I was running late, and when I arrived, X was already sitting at an outside table and kare-kare, sisig with tofu, and lapu-lapu with tamarind sauce had already been ordered. "Hope you're hungry," he said. I certainly was. I'd had pizza for dinner and no breakfast, so I was raring for some real food with rice.

The best kare-kare

Being a kare-kare person, I was really looking forward to this lunch after re-programming my expectations of a green chicken curry lunch. And Cafe Juanita, in my opinion, has one of the best restaurant kare-kare around, along with Abe in Serendra and Milky Way. Cafe Juanita's kare-kare is great because it has a generous serving of oxtail and really chunky sauce that doesn't seem to be made from peanut butter. I also like the kare-kare in the Peninsula's Escolta, simply because it's so non-traditional. It comes with virtually no sauce, and you eat it with papaya atchara.

Over lunch, the talk as usual turned to travel and we animatedly exchanged stories and opinions about places we'd been to and things we'd experienced.

The best place for stargazing

"Where's the best place you've ever seen the stars?" X asked, out of the blue. Without hesitation, I answered "Amanpulo." On my last visit, I'd sat on top of a hill called Eagle's Nest and I'd marveled at the amazing symphony of stars above. Thinking about it now, I guess it was so clear and beautiful because my surroundings were pitch-dark. It also helped that the quietness of the little island induced focus and heightened one's sensitivity to the skies.

Meanwhile, X's best stargazing place so far was on a boat to Puerto Princesa. One day, X
he'd just decided to take a boat to Palawan from Manila, without thinking much about what to do or where to stay upon arrival. About three hours to arrival, at about 8 in the evening, X was sitting on the deck gazing at the stars and this had been simply beautiful -- especially because it was a view from the middle of the sea. It was so beautiful in fact that he almost didn't want to land in Palawan.

Lack of tourism infrastructure

The Philippines, we both agreed, has such amazing beauty that it's a pity there isn't adequate infrastructure to encourage more local tourism. It's usually so difficult to get to many beautiful spots, and once you're there, there's a dearth of suitable accommodations especially in the higher-end of the market. The hotels don't even have to be of the luxury standard, but they ought to be clean and comfortable enough for the squeamish.

Travel bucket list for 2011

"What's on your travel bucket list for 2011?" I asked X. Being the adventurous type, X had been to far more places than I in the Philippines, and not too long ago, he'd spent a month going all over the southern part of the country, and had also traveled all over the country for surfing. But still, the Philippines was happily on top of the 2011 wishlist.

"I'd love to go to Ilocos," X said. "It seems like a fascinating place."

I'm usually more on a plane out of the Philippines than on a plane around the Philippines; but all X's talk about the Philippines encouraged me to see more of it next year. I didn't have a particular place in mind this afternoon, but I decided that I would pick a place I'd never been to in the Philippines for a trip in the first quarter of the year.

Meanwhile, X became excited about my talk of travels overseas and all the wondrous places I'd been to all over the world, this year alone. "I think I'm going to get myself a globe for Christmas," he said, "so I can plan my next trips abroad properly."

That was around the time we both stopped daydreaming about travel and we finally looked at our watches and noticed the sky above. The sky was darkening and it was hitting 530 pm -- just a little bit longer than I had budgeted for lunch, and I still had to get back to work while X had to buy the globe for Christmas. Time certainly flies when you're having too much fun.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sunday Fun at Mercato Centrale

Yesterday, we hopped over to Mercato Centrale at the Fort to see what all the buzz was about regarding this weekend food market right next to Bonifacio High Street. We'd first heard about it from RJ Ledesma and his wife Vanessa, who we sat next to at some gala event a few weeks back, and had been wanting to visit ever since. Unfortunately, our travel life got in the way, and in the weeks since then, we were always somewhere on this planet away from Manila whenever the weekends came.

But last weekend, we were finally in Manila and on Sunday morning we were free! Of course, we took this opportunity to drive over to Mercato Centrale. Mercato Centrale is based on the weekend food markets concept in Europe, where a lot of people have snubbed the large supermarkets and taken to shopping for their food requirements at weekend markets where the food is fresh and local. This is part of the environmental-friendly slow food philosophy of only accessing local products as much as possible for one's food needs.

Lots of smiling, happy people

My first impression of Mercato Centrale was one of fun. Lots of smiling, happy people were going in and out of the airconditioned tent, and most of them were carrying delicious-looking items! "I'm certainly in the right place," I told myself, as I followed my nose inside and went straight to check out the first table I saw. This was a table manned by a very nice lady, selling morcon and chicken galantina for Christmas fare. "They'll keep for months in the freezer," she told me, as I considered a purchase. "And they're perfect for the Christmas table."

Then I went over go another booth where someone was selling all kinds of organic artisanal personal toiletries in beautiful packaging, including colognes and lotions. I was amazed at the quality of the products, as they seemed quite similar to those made in high-end parfumeries and pharmacies and then sold in chic boutiques in Europe.

More unusual food at Mercato Centrale next year

It was at this point that I bumped into RJ the man himself, who was walking around to ensure that everything was fine and that both vendors and buyers were happy. "We're really happy with how Mercato Centrale is doing," he said, "and we want to get more interesting food vendors and unusual cuisines next year."

So I walked around for a half-hour or so more, buying all kinds of goodies for Sunday lunch and for the Christmas season. I ended up with ice cream, organic vegetables, cookies, quesadilla with an Asian twist, and a box of ham.

Here were some of the delicious offerings
from last Sunday at Mercato Centrale:

This table was selling freshly-cooked longganisa rice made with Vigan longganisa and Ilocos vinegar.

Authentic Philippine coffee on sale

This table was selling a sweet-sour sauce in a bottle that they recommended to use with fruits. They gave us samples of green mangoes drizzled with the sauce.
This is Mrs. P herself of the famous Misispi cookies. This year, their cookies came in wonderful brown packaging.

One table sold authentic Moroccan food
including sweet pigeon pastilla and stewed lamb.

Here's a typical tagine pot from Morocco

Beautiful baskets were on sale with a very catchy slogan

Organic vegetables were abundant

This is where I bought my lunch -- this booth sold all kinds of tortilla wraps and rice toppings with a twist

The owner recommended a delicious tortilla wrap
with salsa and avocado sauce