I just found out that Casa Vallejo, the oldest hotel in the mountain city of Baguio which was built in 1909, reopened early this year as a boutique hotel. It’s been around since the American Occupation and was one of the very few structures that survived the carpet bombing of the Japanese during WWII. But though it was spared in the war, the years were not as kind. It went the way of like many old pieces of architecture around the Philippines–decrepit and looking as if it’s about to crumble under its own weight. Right before it closed in 1997, when my sister and I and two friends found ourselves stuck in Baguio because we didn’t reach the last bus to Sagada, we ended up staying in this old hotel. And though that was more than a decade ago, Casa Vallejo remains one of the most unforgettable accommodations I’ve ever had on the road. And it got me thinking of some of those memorable hotels, resorts, or guesthouses I’ve temporarily called home while on a trip–whether because they sent chills down my spine or were just unbelievably chilly.
Casa Vallejo then (photo courtesy of JMagreda.blogspot.com)
1. Casa Vallejo (along Session Road, Baguio). Aside from the fact that it looked like it was just a couple of days away from attaining condemned building status (turned out they were closing it in a few months), the place just gave us the creeps. But we were in Baguio during a holiday and it was one of the few places with available rooms and they were cheap too. It only had shared bathrooms so using the toilet in the middle of the night meant getting out of our room onto an eerie and dark hallway, climbing the creaky staircase and running to the bathroom, while trying not to look behind you where Casa Vallejo’s old ballroom stood. The huge room was always dark and it had a heaviness around it. I always felt like I was being watched from that room and I refused to look at it. I later found out that it was where colonial government officials and the society belles before the war used to party. Well, it felt like they were still all there, wondering what happened and looking out the hallway. At the time, I felt like maybe I was letting my imagination run away with me, but when we got back to Manila and told people where we stayed, we were told that the place was haunted. That before it was a hotel, it had served as a prison and hospital during the war.
My sister is heading off to Palawan in a few days and while I know she’ll be spending a large part of it writing and meditating, here are a few things she (or anyone with Palawan plans) should try in the country’s ‘last frontier.’
1) Island-hopping. As Palawan is composed of more than 1,700 islands, you can spend days hopping from one powdery white beach or rocky cove to the next. If you’re heading to its capital of Puerto Princesa, Honda Bay is the most convenient group of islands that can provide the requisite, sun, sand and surf. To make the trip even more convenient, you can book a tour with the inn or hotel you’re staying in (which we did through Casa Linda–more details on that at the end) as they usually have their own recommended tour groups. It comes out around a couple of hundred pesos more expensive, but it means being picked up by a van to take you to Brgy. Sta. Lourdes, which is 12 km away from the capital, where the boats to Honda Bay are docked; having a designated boat for the island-hopping; no worries about the different entrance fees of the islands (admittedly though, most are cheap at P50 per person); and being served lunch on the beach. Of course, this also means traveling with a group of strangers, but if you’re feeling sociable, it’s a great way to meet other travelers.
Serene stretch of Snake Island (Photo by P)
We spent the entire day either soaking in the sun or wading in the waters in front of Pandan Island, Snake Island (my favorite for its two-kilometer stretch of sandbar), and Starfish Island (where we did see some starfish).
Last stop, Pandan Island (Photo by P)
For a little over three years, I’ve been working as a freelance writer (plus, its other permutations, including hand-holding temperamental art directors) and I love it (not the hand-holding part so much). I love it that I still get to do what I love without having to go to an office and report to work. I love it that when I wake up I don’t have to immediately jump in the shower, groan that I don’t have anything to wear, and brave the rush-hour madness in the train. (I can just have my breakfast and start working in my pajamas, thank you very much!) I love it that I can often write about different things that matter to me. Not all the time, but often enough. (As long as they don’t run counter to my principles, I’m on it. After all, there are bills to pay. ) I love it that there are days when I simply spend it cooped inside the house (or in the case of this weekend, inside a hotel function room next to a buffet spread, while proofreading a manuscript…hmm, buffet). I especially love it when I get to travel to places I wouldn’t have otherwise visited on my own, because they’re not on any tourist map or most people’s travel radar.
Last year, I got to be part of a team that had to travel all over the country for a corporate project on different bodies of water and how they contribute to the town’s livelihood or development. Since the Philippines is an archipelago, there was a lot of ground, er water, to cover. While the two-month long itinerary included trips to tourist-friendly spots such as the islands of Coron, the beaches of El Nido and Caramoan, Sumilon Island in Cebu, the surfing town of Baler, and the university town of Dumaguete, among others, we also had to visit small lakeside rural towns, a couple of middle-of-nowhere sites, and some remote areas near terrorist territory. And we had to travel during the monsoon season. And it involved a lot of boat rides. And I didn’t know how to swim yet. It was thrilling and terrifying at the same time. It had all the ingredients of a remarkable adventure that often pushed me out of my comfort zone.
1. Camarines Sur. Before we headed to Caramoan, we had to go to Lake Manapao in Buhi, where the you can find one of the smallest edible fish in the world, a goby locally called sinarapan. One of the things we had to do to get to the lake was cross this hanging bridge. I am not afraid of heights, I like riding big ferris wheels and standing atop tall buildings, but for some reason I turn into a wimp when it comes to hanging bridges. First, it wasn’t the most sturdy looking bridge and it didn’t help that my companions thought it would be funny to sway it from side to side. Not funny, but at least it didn’t make me retch or wonder whether I was going to make it out of there alive. That honor belonged to the terrifying two-hour boat ride we took from Caramoan back to Sabang.
On the way to Caramoan…when the weather was still fine