Saddleback Haven

Just under an hour’s drive from Davao City is this slice of heaven 2,800 feet above sea level. Amidst the lush greenery, with a panoramic view of Mt. Apo and Mt. Talomo, is this mountain vacation villa where men and horses enjoy fresh air and tranquil moments. 

Listed on Airbnb, Saddleback Haven can be booked either as a day destination or for overnight accommodations. Perhaps many nights. Just imagine the sound of crickets, palms and bamboos swaying as the breeze wafts through the porch of the villa and the adjacent screened dining quarters. Bring your own music if you like. And some drinks ๐Ÿท๐Ÿฅ‚๐Ÿน  to cheer up enchanted nights under the stars. 

We were lucky to meet the owners of this mountain vacation home the time we visited. We were a group of 10, but were told the Villa can accommodate as many as 16. Check out their website for photos of all 4 rooms. There was even an attic which can be reached by navigating a ladder. The kids would love this not-so-secret place. And there’s even a “closet room” which can easily accommodate more futons where the young ‘uns can sleep “a la Harry Potter” (as in that windowless room beneath the staircase) and play games. 

Hiking trails, horseback riding and swimming in Tita Gin’s Brook are your choices to while away your time and use up some energy left after the night’s starwatching with flutes of champagne. Commune with Nature and check out the many tall and old trees in the estate’s nearly 5 hectares. You can ride the horses but I’m happy just watching them being happy in this place.

Group or family outings? Or simply a retreat place?  You found the perfect place where no one gets “phubbed”. In case you haven’t heard, it’s a new word coined to describe a present practice . Here……

Next time I’m in Davao, I’d follow (Owner) Jocelyn’s advice to hit the beaches and then spend at least a night here in this mountain sanctuary. 

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Paradise Island in Samal

If you have the time, there’s Pearl Farm and Malipano Island in Samal. But if you want a quick escape, Paradise Island is just a 10-minute boat ride from the jetty in Davao City. You still get the same sun and white sand squeezed between your toes, and the cabanas with picnic tables allow you to order some of Davao’s culinary delights including many versions of how the famed durian fruit can be served and enjoyed — crepes, shakes, iced, frappรฉs, etc. 

Paradise Island Park and Resort is in Samal Island just off the coast of Davao. There was even a band playing while we we were there, which only happens to be Valentine’s Day! There was a good crowd of picnickers and couples out on a date.  There’s a choice to stay overnight in any one of those lovely casitas, and a choice of boat or van tours to visit bat caves, giant clams, etc. I’m sure they were interesting but we weren’t prepared to spend more than 4 hours in the Island resort. 

Photo grabbed from Paradise Island’s website.

And so we did the next best thing.  EAT. We tried the vegetables with shrimps served in a coconut, which was very good in its coconut-creaminess. The grilled tuna belly and grilled squid were perfectly grilled and only needed a dash of soy sauce laced with calamansi. Simply prepared and certainly how we wanted it. The sisig , steamed veggies and more completed our Valentine lunch. Nothing fancy. Nothing romantic. But sated our cravings. It would have been perfect with fresh fruits like durian, marang and my favorite mangosteen.  No photo of the halo halo but there’s one of the durian frappรฉ. 

Food was good and service was prompt. The sun’s out but the sea breeze made it very comfortable to stay and just stare out at sea. By the time we left, tide’s low and the swimming area receded back. But there were not too many swimmers at noontime and early afternoon. Many came to eat. Or perhaps many have booked rooms/casitas and chose to swim later in the afternoon. Or simply out on the boat or van tours around the island. Perhaps we should stay overnight next time and do one of the tours. Next time. 

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An Invitation To A Children’s Village in Bustos, Bulacan

Years back, I wrote about Fr. Boyet’s project here in Bonga Menor, Bustos, Bulacan. Called Bahay at Yaman ni San Martin de Porres“, it housed about 120 street urchins then. Today, there are 160 of them. Boys who used to sleep on sidewalks, park benches, roaming the streets of Manila and nearby towns late nights or even during the wee hours of the morning. They are not all orphans. Some have parents who can hardly feed them, or come from dysfunctional families that these kids found “home” instead in the streets. Today when we visited, the most recently-admitted ward was an 8 year old named Nikon. While talking to Fr. Boyet, Nikon would invariably follow behind and at every chance, grab Fr. Boyet’s hand. It was a kind of attachment that I found surprising for a kid who has been brought to this children’s village only a day before. When I called Nikon, it seemed so natural for him to likewise grab my hand and lean on me. I dare not imagine the kind of life he had in the streets. 

That’s Nikon In Front of Me.

Entrance To “Bahay At Yaman Ni San Martin de Porres in Bustos, Bulacan

From the streets to this community where these kids are sheltered, clothed, fed, schooled, trained and nurtured. You’d be amazed how much Fr. Boyet and his volunteers have done for these children. The place isn’t exactly an orphanage. Like he said, it isn’t easy to raise funds to keep and maintain the village. With 160 children, about 3 1/2 sacks of rice are consumed DAILY to keep these growing boys fed. Fr. Boyet jokes that even after a meal of spaghetti and burgers sent by generous donors, the boys still hunger for their rice meals. Rice. And more rice when paired with meat. 

This is the all-boys dormitory.

Fr. Boyet is quick to remind us though that while providing food, shelter and clothing may not be easy, the even harder task is the rehabilitation of these children who have survived off the streets and lived by its rules. Many come to live in this village initially foul-mouthed and selfish. Some may have even led criminal lives as thieves, snatchers, or worse, drug couriers. In Fr. Boyet’s experience, reforming them wasn’t easy but certainly possible. Very few left the village, despite the disciplines imposed on the boys. Looking around, the vibrant colors of the dormitories, halls and retreat stone houses bring cheer to village life here. How they’ve kept the entire community clean is a testament to how disciplined these boys are. Truly admirable. 

Because there is a chapel inside the village, weddings and renewal of vows can be arranged here. In fact, one can even arrange other events such as birthdays and anniversaries here. Or simple pot-luck reunions.  Why not? A mass celebration and a thanksgiving meal for guests and the boys who’d even regale you with their rondalla music. Celebrations are made more meaningful when shared. As Fr. Boyet says, no food is ever wasted here. So potluck as much as you can?  Frankly, not much is required except for the RICE. ๐Ÿ˜€ 

The Dining Hall

My advice though is to keep the meals simple. Best to use those resources to buy rice for the boys, raise funds to maintain the place, or even help pay for the payroll of the educators in the Instituto de San Martin. Without volunteer teachers, a monthly salary of P12,000 minimum for each teacher is difficult to sustain. And they need a faculty of teachers and trainers for vocational skills and value formation. Likewise for their music ministry. Not easy, but by the grace of God, this village survives.  It can do much more for these children. As things stand, it is only limited by others’ generosity NOT just with money but time. 

I’ve seen many projects with lofty ideals work and fail. Fr. Boyet and his volunteers are never short of ideas and certainly full of commitment. They can do with a lot of help from us. Even by simply sharing this piece to introduce this noble project to as many generous souls. Maybe find groups, fraternities, companies to foot one teacher’s payroll. So, how about it? Below are details on Father Boyet and this project. 

Donations can be made to Fr. Boyet’s account with Metrobank. Just make sure to send SMS to Fr. Boyet re: donor and amount.

You may also want to call or send an SMS to Fr. Boyet or to his assistant Myrna (0922 8341940) should you wish to visit. And there’s Sister Adora too, who can “introduce” you to St. Martin de Porres and even sing her composition for you. 
An earlier blog was written on the same project. Just click here

More photos below.


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A Dog’s Life @Acuaverde

Beats flying to some island just to laze around the beach. It’s not near but we’ve decided on this drive south of Manila so we can enjoy the beach with our beloved canine. The three hour-drive can be broken with a pit stop in Padre Garcia where we enjoyed a Batangueรฑo lunch in Cocina. Think bulalo, pinaes na dulong, sinaing na tulingan, lomi, etc.  Staff so friendly that we promised to return on our trip back to Manila. 

Acuaverde Beach Resort is in Laiya, in the southeastern part of San Juan, Batangas. A beach break here is a good idea especially if you have fur babies you can’t leave at home. Only 26 very roomy units, with plenty sun loungers and cabanas fronting Tayabas Bay. Plus those cute-sy swing chairs made of wicker and shaped like an egg. Tried sitting and swinging in one and I swear it’s a challenge not to doze off.  The vibe is far from the party island vibe of Boracay nor the touristic scene in El Nido and Coron. In fact, I hardly saw any tourists except for a couple of  balikbayans married to foreigners with their families. The guests were mostly locals, families opting for a quiet beach break and some groupies enjoying a break from work. So yes, no loud, blaring music during late evenings. And many early-risers the next morning waiting for sunrise, and some fisher folks with their harvest from the sea. 

We booked 2 spacious rooms in a 2-storey unit with a veranda overlooking the shore. There are kayaks in case you want to flex those arm muscles, a ping pong table, banana boats and other fun beach sports. There’s a kids’ playground and a similar playground for pups. I love that they have this service buzzer right in the room too.  The meals are nothing fancy but delicious and filling. Think beef caldereta, chicken tinola, seafood curry, tilapia, espada, grilled liempo, adobo, etc.  No complaints. 

Toffee was the honored guest here. On Day 1, he was given a welcome loot bag of ball, leash and dog cookies. On the day we left, he was photographed and footprinted (or paw-printed?) and his photo is now framed along with other fur babies. Their pet parents must be beaming with pride. Toffee took to the water like a fish, swimming like a pro. He also made friends with another pup, a 2-year old beagle named Dax. But he’s picky — he didn’t like Bruno, the Chihuahua. How odd.  But he ran, played, and swam to our delight. So active…. but he cared not to miss any member of the family. Yes, Toffee made sure we’re always together.  Happy pups make happy pet parents! 


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Ate Indian Food, Did Chinatown (in Bangkok)

Yes, exactly. The closest thing I got to traditional Thai cuisine was that Pad Thai dinner by the hotel pool and in the wedding party. Now I’m not sure I ever was in Bangkok if not for the wedding party at The House On Sathorn. 

It was just too tempting not to dine in Gaggan, an eponymous restaurant offering “Progressive Indian Cuisine”. We hurdled the reservation process, and now cherish memories of a 22 – dish degustacion. Dining in Gaggan means prepping yourself to be tricked and deceived. Nothing tastes exactly as it looks. Like those mashed lentils rolled up like a croqueta around a chicken bone, masquerading like a drumstick sitting on some apple and tamarind chutney. Magic! Up till the 17th dish, it was all one-bite tastings. Each crafted and prepared like some piece of art and wonder of science. All senses engaged, all savory, then the bomb. Or bombs. The Lamb Rangoli and the Crab Curry aren’t bite-sized. More, but not too much. So very Indian too, and nearly traditional including how the curry was served in Indian tiffin boxes or pails. The desserts that followed seemed like yummy experiments in The Lab (exactly what our dining area was called) where each was not simply delish, but fun to eat too. 

IMO, Gaggan is our best excuse without raising eyebrows to eat Indian food while in Thailand. But wait.  Chinatown.  In Bangkok? While the shopping Mecca lurks in Platinum, Paragon, MBK, Pratunam, Chatuchak, here I find myself in Chinatown. Around Yaowarat Road which is the heart of Modern Chinatown in Bangkok. Not to shop. But to check out temples and museums. You got that right. Chinese temples and museums on Chinese history. Thailand being home to the largest overseas Chinese community in the world also has the oldest and best-integrated overseas Chinese community. Even Thai monarchy — King Rama I no less — claims Chinese ancestry. 

From Yaowarat Road, trash your maps and explore the many narrow alleys here. Dodge and snake around the many food stalls and ambulant vendors plying their trade since the 18th century. Wait till dark to see the lofty neon signs in these vibrant streets and footpaths. When tired, catch your breath and sneak into the Yaowarat Heritage Center to learn more on Chinese immigration and integration into Thai society. Or try any of the Chinese eateries to snack on  dim sum in airconditioned comfort. 

Wat Traimit. Bangkok is never short on temples and shrines. But Wat Traimit has an interesting story to tell. It’s solid gold Buddha in “Sukhothai style” was accidentally discovered when the statue was moved, lifted and dropped. The plaster casing broke, and underneath was found this pure gold massive Buddha, claimed to be the world’s largest gold seated Buddha. A diorama was assembled as well as a documentary film to illustrate how the statue was transported and the discovery of the gold statue within the plaster casing. 



So there. I flew to Bangkok for a wedding I couldn’t miss. Then I indulged on Indian cuisine in this land of pad thai and meandered around the alleyways of Chinatown. And would you believe I didn’t shop at all?  I came with my tiny roller bag and flew home with the same checked-in baggage at 8kilos. I’m so proud of myself ๐Ÿ˜€๐Ÿ˜€๐Ÿ˜€

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Going Gaga in Gagganย 

Bangkok. Here for a wedding. And a dinner. And what a magical dinner! Everything is a piece of art and a wonder of science. A genius play on creativity, ingenuity, art and technique. 

Gaggan Anand. The Asian Czar of Gastronomy. I have always loved Indian cuisine but dining in your lab was truly an experience beyond just dining. We were all dripping with excitement walking into this lovely 2-storied  white colonial-styled building with lovely glass windows. Upon seeing your “menu” of emojis, we were almost fidgeting with anticipation of the 22 bites of gastronomic delights. No fancy cameras for us. Our iPhone cams are fine. We won’t overdo it. Rather, we prepped ourselves for the 22 surprises. My only concern was putting all that stuff into my mouth in one go or one bite to experience the explosion of flavors. At least until the lamb, crab curry and sweets were served. And yes, they’re Thai crabs ๐Ÿ‘

All senses heightened. Nothing tastes exactly as it looks. The tastes so subtle one is nearly embarrassed to guess what’s touching one’s palate, twirling in the mouth, tricking the tongue and taste buds. I could never have guessed the goat brain you fed us! Not even if you left some clues. But I did guess and savored the foie gras as well as the dhal (lentils) masquerading as a tiny drumstick.  I nearly forced that Mango with Uni “sundae” cone into my mouth but no luck. As a consequence, the ginger at the bottom cone was divorced from the fruit & sea urchin medley ๐Ÿ˜ญ. Now I’m left wondering how that creative combination would have tasted when left a few seconds on my tongue. 

And the customized plates! All part of the Gaggan experience, of course. I am NOT an expert nor would I pretend to know what goes into each culinary process. But as one of the younger chefs said, it’s really all about the ingredients and Gaggan’s creativity and genius. Nothing is ever as simple as it looks. The chunky crab meat in the curry. The edible plastic (potato starch?) wrapped around some nuts.  The lovely design on the plate where the tender lamb was served (it’s beet!). The hint of dashi in the rice-looking merengue. And yuzu with foie gras? A yogurt explosion? Beyond imagination.   I couldn’t sleep that night just thinking about the experience. 

I failed to take really good photos but knowing many others before me did, I’d ask you to then google those images. I am a stranger in the kitchen but I spend lots of time around the dining table. I like food. I like surprises even more. I’ve tried some weird combinations before this experience. Some I liked, some I found completely overdone. But this. The subtleties and the artistry define the Gaggan experience. After all, why spend a wad of money (yup, it’s kinda pricey) if you’re eating what many others can cook for you? Or what you can easily copy and cook yourself at home?  Ever tried making tomato soup looking like a bright, red wine? Or having a yogurt explosion of flavors?  How about dining on golf balls? 

The most “traditional” among the dishes was the crab curry. Served chunky on the finest curry soup paired with coconut rice. Happiness. I like how the crab curry was served in a stack of dinner pails. Unlike the previous one-bite “surprises”, the lamb and this curry dish were exactly what they looked like. But of truly fine quality. I still have a hangover now, just writing of this dreamy crab curry. Oh, Gaggan. You’re the best! And indeed he was for 2 consecutive years (2015 and 2016). And this Asian Czar of Gastronomy counts among the world’s best 50. So glad to have experienced this. My set of emojis sums up my dining experience. 



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The Hall Of 1,000 Tatamis

In the island of Miyajima, Hiroshima, one finds the gigantic, floating vermilion Torii Gate which has graced the covers of many Japanese tourism magazines, books, calendars and posters. Indeed, the floating, iconic Itsukushima Shrine is a beauty. One can even walk under the gate at low tide though I much prefer viewing it at high tide, its silhouette reflected off the waters of Hiroshima bay. 

We reached the island via a 10-minute ferry ride from Miyajima Station. The JR Rail Pass works here too so it’s an easy train and ferry ride from Osaka or Kyoto. It’s also an ideal tour combined with a visit to Hiroshima where a loop bus waits to take you around (free for JR Rail Passholders). On the ferry, you’d pass the majestic Torii Gate. Easy enough to know in which direction to walk as soon as you’re off the ferry. 

But the island offers so much more. While a crowd gathered at a spot where the floating Torii Gate and its reflection is visible, we walked past and found a staircase towards the island’s biggest structure. Still unfinished, Sensojaku is likewise known as the Hall of 1,000 Tatami Mats. Used often in Shinto rituals, its altars and votive tablets give off a calming, meditation-inducing effect on its visitors.  I like this temple so much because the open structure allowed breeze to flow in and out, and its strategic location up on a hill offers a commanding view of the bay and the rest of the island. Beside it is a striking 5-storied pagoda where the Buddha of Medicine is enshrined.

The Hall of 1,000 Tatami Mats

I noticed many of those who scaled the steps to reach this temple were locals. Some rituals before the Shinto altar before picking a pillar against which they rested. Others chose to sit by the “terrace” to view the rest or part of the island.  In particular, my interest was drawn to the many votive tablets hanging around. Some faded, others still with striking colors.  Amazing how those colors still evoke the dynamism of that age. 

I’ve written an earlier blog on Miyajima but couldn’t resist writing a separate post on Sensojaku. This wooden, unfinished structure is so charming that  we stayed for quite sometime just leaning our heads on the pillars and looking up on the votive tablets. And I just couldn’t end this blog without zooming in on these tablets if only to share some interesting details. Just imagine they’ve been here for 400 years. So pretty!

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