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Whale-less wandering at Donsol, Sorsogon

You may not see the famed butanding, but fret not – says Michael David C. Tan – as there’s more to Bicol than the gentle giants of the seas.

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An oft-repeated adage is the need not to lose sight of the forest for the trees (a different take at “Don’t lose sight of the big picture”) – that is, that if we focus too much on a single tree (or some trees), we may forget that the tree (or trees) we admire is (are) but one (or some) of the many in that forest. This is sound advice, definitely – after all, why over-emphasize on minute details when the big prize is yet to be achieved?

However, when traveling to Donsol in Sorsogon, in search of the famed butanding (whale sharks), I’d say: Forget the forest; it’s the trees that should define the experience. Because while swimming with the gentle giants of the seas is, definitely, a magical experience, if it is the end-all of a trip to the place, that trip could end up… not exactly happy.

As our whale-less wandering at Donsol, Sorsogon proved.

WHERE TO?

It was approximately a year after booking a flight to Legazpi City in Albay when my friend (Rye Mendoza) reminded me of our pending trip – that’s what happens with too-early bookings: either you’d forget about it (as I almost did this time around), or end up choosing to forget about it (as I repeatedly did in past reservations). It was, for him, something new, since he has never been to the place in the past; and while I have, repeatedly, visited the place, the enthusiasm was… contagious. And so we headed out sans any plans at all what to do when we get there.

Legazpi is, by itself, a place full of mini- and not-so-mini wonders – heck, the view of the MAJESTIC Mayon Volcano alone makes the trip worth it! From afar, the volcano looks like it was pasted (or painted, for the more poetic) against the blue sky, it makes one believe in the Divine – that only some intelligent hand could design something so artsy, so beauteous in our midst. And – should you be so lucky if you landed with clear skies – it’s a sight to behold as soon as you land, too.

And then there’s the Bicolano food. I have long been a fan of how Bicolanos whip up what they whip up – Bicol Express, ginataang balat ng santol (santol peeling with coconut milk), balat ng pili (pili peeling) turned into burger patties… The gustatory possibilities here are endless. Interestingly, they even use the same as toppings on… a pan pizza! That too spicy for you? Cleanse the palate with freshly-baked malunggay pan de sal – available from numerous bakeries off the main streets.

But back on track now… to Albay’s neighboring province to the south, Sorsogon, where Donsol is.

Donsol is approximately an hour away from Legazpi City, with the roads not offering much as far as scenery is concerned but, well, provincial living. We took a van (over P60, one-way) that was supposed to take us to Donsol, but – as luck had it – the van stalled, so we transferred to the only jeepney passing, which happened to be full; so we sat atop the jeepney. Take in views of the rice paddies, people chatting while sitting ON the highway, chickens crossing the road… For Manileños, you have to go as far as the outskirts of Cavite to see such scenes, so the experience was refreshing.

Donsol is, in one word, sleepy. Not much happens here, with just about everything revolving around the butanding. There are abundant accommodations to choose from – homestays are common in the town proper, while closer to the wharf where the boats that head out to spot the butanding are more expensive resorts. As is usual in small towns, though, everything’s accessible by motorcycle or tricycle.

WHAT FISH?

And so we gravitated towards the Donsol Tourism Office (DTO), where we registered (P100 is the fee for locals; P300 for visitors, irrespective of nationality) and then were made to attend a brief orientation session on how to deal with the butanding.

Worth remembering is this: per boat that leaves the wharf to view the butanding requires seven tourists; meaning, in our case, since there were just two of us, it’s time to be friendly with other tourists who may invite you to join them (or you can form groups with) so you cut the costs of the boat rental (approximately P3,500). This we did with a German, a Frenchman and a Swiss.

Another thing worth remembering is this: If at all you are planning to see the butanding, bring your own swimming/snorkeling equipment. Why? Because outside the DTO are stalls “requiring” tourists to rent masks, snorkels and fins for P300 (entire set). Nature-tripping was, for us at that point, getting expensive.

But as soon as you leave dry land (with a “butanding interaction officer”, spotters and the boat’s crew), you are just about ready to forgive the too-apparent monetizing of the entire experience.

Alas, once in the water, all the locals stress that there’s no guarantee of seeing any butanding. Various reasons are offered: “Hapon na kasi (It’s already late)”; “Hindi nila season ngayon (It’s off-season)”; “Ilang araw na walang nakita (It’s been days since any was spotted)”; and so on. And all the while, I was just thinking: “If not seeing was known before we boarded the boat, why were we still made to pay to look for what the locals acknowledge we will not be seeing?”. Big-time opportunism, in a gist.

Worse, there were too many boats roaming the waters, so that if a butanding is seen at all, it would have been swamped – completely contrary to the lessons supposed to be learned from DTO’s instructional video.

An hour passed. Then two. Then three… The sun was starting to turn orange. And so we headed back to the shore. The gentle giants remained elusive.

We were told to return earlier the next day,  for who knows what tomorrow is supposed to bring.

Flummoxed – not just annoyed – we toured the town, and once again encountered what these parts of the Philippines have to offer. Ginataang pating (shark with coconut milk – and, yes, we saw the irony in it being served in the turo-turo right outside the DTO). Ginataang dahon ng kamoteng kahoy  (Cassava leaves with coconut milk). And there’s this dish made of small fishes cooked with greenies and lots and lots of green and red chilis – somewhat sour, yet tantalizingly good as it makes the mouth water and crave for more. This is Bicol food as can only be imagined…

Nights are quiet. You can spend it stuck in your room (reading a book, Wi-Fi-ing, or whatever), drink with buddies (which we did with the German), or firefly-watching (by the river in a place between the town proper and the DTO, almost magical as you watch the fireflies seemingly dance in the night as they make low-hanging trees glow). But these are refreshing, for me a hark back to my rural days…

Armed with wishes/prayers/hope, the next day started with another demand for money – tourists need to pay the P3,500 boat fee again. The equipment you can “borrow” from whichever stall you rented them out, because – after all – they were not put to any use the day before.

Alas, the day ended (again) sans any butanding sighting…

WONDROUS EXPERIENCE

I have swum with the butanding (which can grow over 15 meters long) before – and, yes, I can say it’s a MAGICAL experience. I still remember being in the murky water, not knowing where to look – and then, seemingly from nowhere, you get a glimpse of this HUGE creature nearing you, and then gliding by you. Breathtaking? Yes. Dramatic? Yes. Exhilarating? Yes. It will, truly, make you feel like that proverbial “nothing but a speck of matter floating in space”. I hope that even Donsol’s (over)commercialization of the experience won’t ruin it (that much).

Back in Legazpi City, Bicol’s wonders were experienced again – a closer view of Mayon Volcano, discovering the antiquated churches, meeting the shy (tentatively friendly) locals, and yes, more Bicolano food. The latter – i.e. food – is, dare I say, something the really defines this place (they even have siling ice cream, or ice cream with chili!).

And these are the “trees” that you are bound to miss if the sole focus is to see the “forest” that is the butanding that may not always show itself (note: head there from February through April, the peak season). Because there are times when the details are more precious than the big picture.

M.D. dela Cruz Tan is the founder of Zest Magazine. And no, the initials (i.e. M.D.) do not make him a "medical doctor" (as many have erroneously thought in the past); he is actually a graduate of Bachelor of Arts (Communication Studies) of the University of Newcastle in New South Wales Australia (just don't ask when, he says). He can: photograph, do artworks with mixed media, write (of course), shoot flicks, community-organize, facilitate, lecture, research (with pioneering studies under his belt)... this one's a multi-tasker, who is even conversant in Filipino Sign Language. Cross his path is the dare (read: It won't be boring).

Destinations

Greenfield District in Mandaluyong kicks off its holiday celebration

To mark the beginning of the district-wide yuletide merry-making, the event kicked off recently with the traditional lighting of the 60-foot Christmas tree at the Greenfield District Central Park,. followed by a magical display of fireworks and Christmas caroling by a 20-piece chorale , setting the mood for guests to get into the holiday spirit.

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Greenfield District, the smart and connected urban center of Greenfield Development Corporation (GDC) in Mandaluyong City, transformed into a holiday wonderland with the launch of GDC’s annual Christmas festivities called “A Christmas for Generations”. 

To mark the beginning of the district-wide yuletide merry-making, the event kicked off recently with the traditional lighting of the 60-foot Christmas tree at the Greenfield District Central Park,.  followed by a magical display of fireworks and Christmas caroling by a 20-piece chorale , setting the mood for guests to get into the holiday spirit.

“After two years of not having face-to-face yuletide celebrations, Filipinos are surely excited to once again gather with their loved ones to celebrate the country’s festive Christmas season,” said GDC President and Chairman Jeffrey D.Y. Campos.  “Greenfield District is a venue where different generations, from senior citizen grandparents to Gen Z kids, can bond with each other by taking part in the fun holiday activities of the District,” he added.

Ongoing  until December 25, Filipinos of all ages are in for a lot of holiday fun at the District. On December 17, families, especially kids are invited to come and meet  Santa Claus at Greenfield District’s “A Night with Santa” , which will feature merry activities and gift giving.

Meanwhile, adults can start their holiday shopping early as the Greenfield District Central Park will showcase weekend bazaars starting this month until December. Shoppers can look forward to discovering value for money gift ideas, trendy fashion pieces, delicious treats and more. While shopping, visitors can also enjoy a quick food trip and engage in Arts and Crafts activities while immersing at the bazaars dressed in colorful Christmas decorations. 

With a mission to build future-ready and sustainable communities for generations of Filipinos, GDC upholds its tradition of organizing events that promote the value of togetherness and spending quality time with the family.

“At GDC, we are committed to not only building properties for generations but also creating verdant, spacious neighborhoods where Filipino families can create beautiful memories together throughout the years. Christmas is a special occasion for many Filipinos, and we want Greenfield District to be part of their memorable Christmas experience every year,” said GDC Executive Vice President and General Manager Atty. Duane A.X. Santos. 

Located at the corner of EDSA and Shaw Boulevard, Greenfield District is accessible to the public through various routes and roadways from the main business districts of Metro Manila, making it an ideal destination for recreational activities, get-togethers, and shopping this yuletide season.

Visit the Greenfield District with friends and family this holiday season.  To know more about the activities at Greenfield District, visit https://www.facebook.com/greenfielddistrict.

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All Nippon Airways launches ‘Beyond #MissingJapan’ campaign

On 11 October of this year, border restrictions were eased, allowing foreign new arrivals including business travelers, students, and technical trainees to finally enter Japan.

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Prior to the pandemic, the Japan Tourism Agency reported the number of foreign visitors traveling to Japan in 2019 hit an all-time high of 31.9 million, 600k of whom were travelers from the Philippines. In 2020, the number dropped drastically to around 4.12 million due to the stringent travel restrictions throughout the pandemic, making Japan one of the world’s most difficult countries to enter.

On 11 October of this year, border restrictions were eased, allowing foreign new arrivals including business travelers, students, and technical trainees to finally enter Japan. With news of Japan’s plans to reopen the country to international travelers, Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) and All Nippon Airways (ANA), Japan’s largest 5-star airline are launching “Beyond #MissingJapan” together.

The campaign was inspired by both social media posts of people yearning to travel to Japan and a strong sense of eagerness amongst ANA’s flight crew to welcome visitors back. And Filipinos are eager to visit the Land of the Rising Sun. According to a 2022 Statista survey, Filipinos chose Japan as their top holiday destination. Countries in the EU and US got the 2nd and 3rd choice, respectively.

‘Beyond #MissingJapan’ aims to excite  travelers for their next trip, give them head start on planning, and an insider’s perspective on the island country. The campaign features Paolo from Tokyo, a famous Filipino YouTuber based in Japan, who shares the best that Japan has to offer to both first-time visitors and seasoned travelers alike.

Paolo’s travels take us to Greater Tokyo and the hidden gems in the areas around the country’s capital. He rediscovers popular landmarks like Asakusa, shopping mecca Don Quijote, and the iconic Tokyo Station to name a few. Paolo also ventures into “New Tokyo” where lesser-known attractions such as Tokorozawa Sakura Town, Sanagi Shinjuku, and GOTEMBA PREMIUM OUTLETS® are located, must-visit spots that opened after 2020 and are within a few hours from Tokyo.

Get a real-life glimpse of Paolo’s experience in this 360 video that takes you inside the awe-inspiring pop culture haven Tokorozawa Sakura Town and walks you through the temples of Asakusa and Miyashita Park, a rooftop oasis in the heart of bustling Shibuya. The 360 video also gives you a feel of the festive vibe at Sanagi Shinjuku and the shopping that awaits at the endless aisles in Japan’s biggest discount store, Don Quijote, and the more upscale complex, Coredo Muromachi. Always growing and evolving, Tokyo still has so much more to offer

Mr. Isao Ono, Vice President of Marketing & Sales, Asia & Oceania from ANA said: “I believe our ‘Beyond #MissingJapan’ campaign will give those who have missed Japan an opportunity to rediscover the country through a series of videos featuring Asia’s most well-loved personalities as well as a 360° first-person perspective of landing in Japan. At ANA, we are committed to providing passengers with the best service in a safe and clean environment. We look forward to welcoming more travelers to Japan soon.”

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Travel with your furry friends with Airbnb this festive season

Around the world, Airbnb Hosts have welcomed hundreds of thousands of guests and their beloved pets. As the pandemic pet boom continues and travel resumes, guests are increasingly looking for domestic stays that allow them to bring their furry friends along, with ample outdoor space for all to roam around.

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This week marks World Animal Day, an international day celebrating all animals and promoting a better future for animals all over the world. As the festive season rapidly approaches, there’s no better time to start planning a getaway for your loved ones – with fur kids in tow.

Around the world, Airbnb Hosts have welcomed hundreds of thousands of guests and their beloved pets. As the pandemic pet boom continues and travel resumes, guests are increasingly looking for domestic stays that allow them to bring their furry friends along, with ample outdoor space for all to roam around.

More than 3 million pets have checked into Airbnb since last November. As of June 2022, pet-friendly stays make up almost one-fifth of all Philippines listings on Airbnb, a 44% increase compared to June 20192. The top ten destinations for pet-friendly travel in the Philippines in Q2 2022 are:

  • Manila, Metro Manila
  • Baguio, Cordillera
  • Patuto, Calabarzon
  • Quezon City, Metro Manila
  • Taguig, Calabarzon
  • Cebu City, Central Visayas
  • Olongapo, Central Luzon
  • Nasugbu, Calabarzon
  • San Fernando, Ilocos
  • Calamba, Calabarzon

Amanpreet Singh Bajaj, Airbnb’s General Manager for Southeast Asia, India, Hong Kong and Taiwan said that when it comes to pet-friendly Airbnb stays, owners are seeking stays with additional space for their furry friends, often in locations outside capital cities.

“If you’re an avid pet lover, you’ll know that no holiday is quite complete without taking your family pet along. We have something for even the fussiest four-legged family members, and certainly, homes with spacious yards and deck areas are always among the most popular for guests with pets,” Bajaj added.

In the Philippines, over 15,000 guests have traveled with their pets on Airbnb3. To inspire more fur moms and dads planning to bring their pet friends on their next getaways, here are some amazing pet-friendly listings in the Philippines —  from spacious homes with huge backyards for your pets to roam to stays co-hosted by equally hospitable pooches!

Spacious farms for the zoomies

If you’re itching for a quick weekend away from the 9-to-5 routine, these farm stays that are drivable from Manila can certainly give you and your fur baby that relaxing getaway you both deserved.

  • The Alperi Farm is a newly built private farmhouse in Amadeo sitting on an expansive 2,000 sqm — perfect for non-stop fetch and the occasional zoomies. Offering guests plenty of opportunities to unplug and bond with loved ones (pets included!), the farmhouse comes with entertainment and activity options including a playhouse, bird sanctuary, a gym, and even a theater and arcade room.
  • Another farmstay south of the metro is Campo Canueza, which provides the best of both mountain views and beach access. It has a two-storey air-conditioned bahay kubo, a private pool, and an expansive space where you can freely walk your pets. At night, you can pitch a tent outside and enjoy uninterrupted views of the night sky.

Beachfront homes for the water-loving breeds

While some will just dip a toe, other dogs are born for the water — and will be truly delighted to hit the beach. Head on to these beachfront stays if you and your canine companion are dreaming of sands in your toes and paws.

  • Saya Nest is one of the seven nests hosted by proud fur-mom and Airbnb Host, Tamara. Located in the rainforest of Subic Bay, it lies just a few minutes from the beaches and falls. There is a fenced-in patio so your pets can run off-leash, a bathtub overlooking the forest, an outdoor table and grill, and a hammock by the porch. If you’re lucky, you might even be welcomed by Tamara’s own fur babies!
  • If you and your pet are up for a little island adventure — check out this Beachfront Loft in Palawan. It is located in a 2-hectare beachfront community in Aborlan just south of Puerto Princesa, and sits right by the sandy beach. Go boating with your pet by day and warm up around the bonfire at night while listening to the calming waves.

Breathtaking views for your best bud

Looking for vacation rentals with picturesque views where you can bring your fur babies? Search no further! These homes are not only pet-friendly — they make you want to bask in the scenery and stay for longer.

  • Anto House is a secluded farm nestled in the highlands of Antipolo, offering a 360-degree view overlooking the distant Metro Manila skyline, Angono hills and ridges, and the Laguna de Bay. Featuring two beautiful bamboo casitas that can accommodate up to 14 guests, it’s perfect for family gatherings and even reunions. There are also animals on the property like goats and sheep that both kids and fur kids can interact with.
  • How about calling an entire island your home for the weekend? This rustic, tiny island is right in the middle of Lumot Lake, with astounding views of the Sierra Madre mountain ranges. If your fur bud’s love language is quality time, you can set up a mini obstacle course, go swimming at the lake, or simply just watch the world go by.

1 Based on Airbnb internal data from June 30, 2019 to June 30, 2022

2 Based on Airbnb internal data from June 30, 2019 to June 30, 2022

3 Based on Airbnb internal data from November 11, 2019 to June 30, 2022

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