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Manila

Surprising hidden Manila
by Sandi Butchkiss

The last time I was in Manila, which was probably about 18 years ago, we stayed at the Manila Hotel in what was then considered downtown. We had dinner friends we knew from Hong Kong at their home in a residential tropical paradise, a nearby suburb of Manila known as Makati. Then this past September I visited Manila again, this time staying at the Peninsula Hotel in the very heart of Makati.

I was astonished at the enormous changes.

A major and obvious difference is the old business district now looks rather dated and dowdy, so last decade, while Makati is the cool, sleek and fashionable place to be. In fact, stand on the corner of Makati Avenue and look up and down, and you could easily be in Palm Beach or Beverly Hills or even the Gold Coast in Australia. My eyes were as big as saucers as they took in the surroundings. Clean and modern office blocks mingle with five star hotels and sprawling designer malls. All the international retail names are here in these environs, along with hip and trendy supermarkets, snazzy dining spots and sidewalk cafes. It doesn’t take long to see that Makati is definitely where it’s happening.

But the PR guys from The Pen wanted to show us a less obvious side of the Philippine’s capitol we never could have discovered on our own. This turned out to be an in depth sensory bombardment that made our heads spin.

First we motored away from Makati and into the hills until we found ourselves at a most stunning, sprawling Mediterranean villa with a drop dead view of Lake Taal. The weekend home of a famous surgeon/art collector, he was kind enough to let us into his art-filled world for a memorable morning tea. We hardly had time to catch our breath before we were whisked off to another magical experience. How can I describe Sonya’s Garden?

A bit off the beaten path, in a town called Cavite, down a very bumpy road, and more than commuting distance from Metro Manila, Sonya’s is a fantasy trip into a veritable wonderland of flowers and hanging vines and tropical plants. Our magical lunch took place in a cleverly converted greenhouse… dripping with lace curtains. Softly running water constantly raining down on the glass panels of the greenhouse completes the dream-like ambiance. Hidden here and there in the foliage of this haven in the midst of the tropics in are little alcoves; one for having a massage, another where you might purchase an antique necklace, another for just chilling out on a fluffy four-poster bed and still another hiding a cozy cottage where you might want to spend the night.

Somebody pinch me, I thought. This cannot be real.

For a few days we drifted like this, into private worlds and hidden corners known only to the inner circle and evidently, the PR director of The Peninsula. A real surprise was a visit to a exquisitely restored home from the turn of the century, decked out in all appropriate furnishings. From walls filled with framed sepia photographs and original oil paintings, to rugs, tables, beds, armoires and bric-a-brac; all was of the time and place. Obviously an exhausting labor of love by the owner, who completed this step back into the past, with period costumes for all of us. We donned the outfits, had our pictures taken and then, in our garb, gathered around the antique dining table for a wonderful authentic Philippine dinner. To make us feel even more like Filipinas of yesterday, we were serenaded throughout by traditional song and guitar. Yet another magical experience to be stored in our memory banks.

Another day we were let into a gated, walled-in enclave opening to a secret courtyard of wonderfully renovated houses from the forties. These delightful high-ceilinged bungalows are now home, studio and showroom to a group of young and visionary furniture and fashion designers and artists. These guys can also cook! We had he most wonderful lunch washed down with deep pink fruit juice in this charming setting. In a different mood entirely was the chic up-market couturier shop and studio of Rajo Laurel, bad-boy turned doyen clothing designer to Manila’s leading fashionistas. Rajo proudly displayed his unique designs and specially woven fabrics to a most impressed audience.

Also living and working in a marvelous Disneyland of a home/studio is the delightful Impy Pilapil. Probably one of the most popular, productive and prolific of Manila’s artists, Impy’s imaginative work is displayed proudly in private homes and public places throughout the Philippines. Impy couldn’t have been nicer, pouring us tea and graciously showing us around her astounding creative environment.

We left these private worlds and entered the almost futuristic development of the Fort Bonifacio Global City, in Taguig, just five minutes by car from Makati. The shops, the restaurants, alfresco cafes, walkways, all crowded with laughing and joking smartly dressed locals out window-shopping, or for a meal or just for a stroll with friends and family, is surely a far cry from the image most have of Manila.

A total contrast to everything we had seen and everywhere we’d been was Intramuros – or the “Walled City” – built in 1571 when the Philippines was colonized by Spain. Not far from the sea, we walked the cobbled streets and took a peek into restored churches and the Plaza de San Luis with its many beautifully reconstructed old casas, each style representing a different era in Filipino-Hispanic architecture history.

Our heads filled with extraordinary experiences, we showered and changed for our farewell dinner. An imaginative four course movable feast awaited us. Commencing in the lobby with cocktails and yummy hors oeuvres of chicken adobo and smoked salmon on brioche, we then moved on to Spices for a starter of catfish and green mango salad, then over to Old Manila for the main course of slow-roasted duck breast and veal in truffle sauce. How we managed to make it back to the lobby, I don’t know. But we did. Some dived into a mammoth bowl of homemade uniquely flavored ice cream. But I just sat back, sipped my decaf and marveled at the special places we visited and the fascinating people we met. Experiences that will surely be etched in my memory bank for a long, long time.

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