Monday, September 14, 2009

Missing Baguio City

MY sister recently spent a weekend with her call center officemates in Baguio City. Judging from her kwento and the usual pasalubongs, it was certainly more than just a weekend to remember.

Which suddenly made me miss the place. I have very fond memories of my few Baguio visits. I was actually there to cover the very first Baguio Flower Festival in 1995. A few years later, I was part of a media entourage that covered the tour of Pinoy Rock legend Joey "Pepe" Smith and the folk-rock duo, Yano, who were then at the height of their popularity. Pepe and Yano performed at UP Baguio, a campus that fascinated me the first time I saw it on the big screen as the setting of Mike De Leon's classic romantic yarn, Kung Mangarap Ka't Magising.

Also met a good number of interesting people based there as well including independent filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik and his daughter, Kawayan as well as now National Artist Ben Cabrera simply known as Bencab.

Hopefully, I can pass by anytime again soon especially now that it's a scorching hot summer here in Metro Manila. For now, I'm gonna have to content myself with sharing a revised version of an article I wrote about the City of Pines for the Manila Bulletin back in 2005.

Our rollicking highland adventure

TO pass up any opportunity to go up to Baguio would be a big mistake for anyone who would even think about it. The City of Pines remains one of the most wonderful places in the country–earthquakes, landslides, outbreaks and other natural disasters notwithstanding. The cool weather is a big reason, of course, but there is a lot more to Baguio than just its climate. It’s simply one of those places where your first visit is never your last.

Getting there remains a marathon six-hour drive, eight or more when using public transport. It really doesn't make much difference if you take Marcos Highway (our path of choice coming from Manila) or Kennon Road (our choice route going back to Manila) although the zig-zaggy Kennon is certainly less safer when it’s dark and raining, given all the documented mishaps that took place there over the years.

The long trip is, of course, always worth it. For those who don’t come here very often, Baguio will always feel like a totally new experience. In many ways, it actually feels like a different country altogether. It’s that special.

And it’s all the more special if you happen to be staying at Camp John Hay Manor, where about half in our group of 12 were booked. The European-style hilltop hotel was built on the site of the old main clubhouse of the former American rest and recreation camp.

Surrounded by towering pine trees, the Manor remains the camp’s centerpiece and the mostly wooden structure of this very charming hotel was, in fact, a high-profile witness to the fairy tale wedding of Aga Muhlach and Charlene Gonzalez. Often the choice spots for taking wedding vows, the place has a beautifully landscaped garden punctuated by a lovely gazebo and statues of Abraham Lincoln and Manuel L. Quezon, supposedly symbolizing our so-called Fil-Am friendship.

Billy King’s Le Souffle restaurant provides the good food served in the hotel. Buffets were occasions that we particularly looked forward to. Equally worth looking forward to is the piano bar where we saw an elderly couple having a romantic dinner complete with flowers, candlelight, champagne and yes, thoughtfully-rendered lounge instrumentals.

Taking a walk at the nearby John Hay Commissary area is a pleasant cheap thrill as well. There's a duty free grocery store, a couple of gift and souvenir shops, an ukay-ukay store and several restaurants including Mile Hi Diner, which has a familiar ring to me as I do recall eating in a similarly-named old-fashioned American diner during my very first visit to this camp when the Americans were still running the place.

Outside the camp, Mines View Park is another part of Baguio that's ideal for daily morning walks as you can also shop for souvenir items or simply enjoy its picturesque scenery. For some strange reason, I always buy a cardigan sweater whenever I come here. During our last two days when we had more free time, I was joined by photographer Qyam Michaels, who took pictures of the awe-inspiring view. Yes, I made like a tourist and posed with a horse, a St. Bernard and even the elderly Ifugaos (or was it Igorots?) for the usual five to ten peso fees.

For better or for worse, shopping for ukay-ukays (or used clothes) in Burnham Park and the Session Road area remains a highlight of every Baguio City visit. I know a friend who goes to Baguio on a given day just to get his ukay-ukay fix. He then immediately returns to Manila after only an hour's worth of used-clothes shopping.

I'm glad to see that some old favorites like Star Cafe and Sizzling Plate are still Session Road fixtures although I didn't get to dine in those places this time. Outside of Le Souffle at the Manor, we also had great meals in a couple of inexpensive places in Burnham Park including a turo-turo eatery that specializes in lechon manok.We also enjoyed a really sumptuous lauriat at Hotel Supreme in La Trinidad (known there as an ideal venue for wedding receptions, thanks to its much talked about signature cuisine) and of course, it's hard to go wrong with Cafe By The Ruins where framed works by artists like Baguio native Bencab adorn its quaint interior.

In a previous visit, our media group had the chance to visit Bencab's beautifully-landscaped residence and enjoyed a nice chat with the National Artist himself. The really cool dude who is also the same guy who painted Pinoy rock legends for my fellow Jingle magazine writer, Eric Caruncho's book, Punks, Poets and Poseurs has an equally eclectic music collection of his own.

Technology seems to be a big deal in Baguio City and it has just about everything we have here in Metro Manila. There are several computer schools including two STI branches. There's even one that actually calls itself, Philippine Cyber College. Cool name, I thought.

Of course, a visit to Baguio nowadays is not really complete without checking out its own SM Mall. Yes, there is one here, too. While there’s not much that sets SM City Baguio apart from other SM Malls everywhere else, it does have open-air balconies that has a panoramic view of the city that’s quite different from the one in Mines View.

SM City Baguio is also home to an Islands Souvenirs shop where I found a really funny T-shirt that I just had to get. At first glance, the design of the tee resembled the logo of the popular reality show, Survivor. A closer look reveals that what it actually says is “Meningo Survivor.” Talk about spin.

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