Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Charms of a Southern Cebu Town: Whale Sharks, Old Forts, Waterfalls and Bluewater Sumilon Island Resort

The port of Sibulan, the town next to Dumaguete City, is just fifteen minutes from the airport of the province of Negros Oriental. Here, ferries regularly cross the Tañon Strait from Sibulan to Santander at the southern tip of the island province of Cebu, and vice versa. The trip takes about thirty to forty-five minutes for P65. People from Santander and neighboring towns such as Samboan, Moalboal and Oslob go to Sibulan and Dumaguete to buy supplies instead of Cebu City, which is a four-hour drive away.
            The water of Tañon Strait near Cebu is lucent, and dolphins, whales and sharks are regularly sighted here. By the shore of Oslob, fishermen have been interacting with whale sharks, tuki in Cebuano, feeding them krill like they are pets.
The southern part of Cebu is sleepy and rustic, in contrast to the province’s capital, Cebu City, about 125 kilometers away, which with the adjacent cities is the Philippines’ second largest urban area. Tourism has been sporadic save for Moalboal, which is known for its dive sites. Recently, Oslob has seen rapid development and vibrant tourist influx after travelers discovered the whale sharks that frequent its waters.
            In the country, the town of Donsol in Sorsogon has been long popular for whale shark watching and interaction. Now, Oslob is suddenly in the limelight, offering a surer and closer sighting and interaction. Although guidelines have been set, the way they conduct the interaction has also often drawn criticism, particularly the fishermen’s feeding of the sharks to bring them closer to the tourists. The impact on the sea creatures still cannot be ascertained and is being studied. One thing is sure though: Oslob has experienced a boom. The barangay of Tanawan, where the whale shark tourism is concentrated, has been bustling with visitors and has seen several constructions of resorts and other kinds of accommodations. The whale shark tourism also affected other areas as tourists began to discover and visit other sites in southern Cebu.
            The whale shark tourism started at around 2012, surmised EJ Barretto, resident manager of Bluewater Sumilon Island Resort. He said it has drawn attention to other tourist attractions that have been unnoticed before.
            “The start of the tourism on whale shark watching changed the resort, as well as the town of Oslob and the province of Cebu,” he said.
            Located on the coralline island of Sumilon, part of the barangay of Bancogon, Bluewater Sumilon Island Resort is most likely the only luxurious and well-appointed resort in southern Cebu. It occupies about seventeen hectare and developed about eight hectares of the 24-hectare island just off the shore of southeastern Cebu. The area was the first marine protected area in the Philippines and was made a fish sanctuary in 1974 under the guidance of Silliman University Marine Reserve.
            Charming villas nestled along the rocky shore, which contain modern amenities and sport a lovely contemporary design infused with Filipino sensibilities and details, which can be also be found in other Bluewater resorts owned by the Alegrado family of Cebu and Bohol.
            The Alegrados started in the hospitality industry with opening of the Almont Hotel in Butuan City in Agusan del Norte in 1983. In 1989, the family established Maribago Bluewater Beach Resort in the sitio of Buyong, Maribago, Lapu-Lapu City, on Mactan Island, Cebu. Bluewater Sumilon Beach Resort opened in 2005, furthering the Bluewater brand of which the resort in Panglao, Bohol, is the latest property.
            Among their resorts, Bluewater Sumilon resort has been the most private and serene, being the only property in an uninhabited island of a languid town. The attractions of the resort include a white-sand beach and another one at another part of the island, which changes shape and location. There is a mangrove-fringed lagoon within the resort where one can go kayaking and fishing.
            One can also go trekking through the forest of the island and espying on birds. At the southern part, trekkers will discover a lighthouse inside a protected tree park and a 19th-century watchtower or baluarte, used to look out for slavers and marauders.
            The resort also offers tours around the area, visiting waterfalls, heritage sites and other attractions. Tourists can also watch dolphins in Tañon Strait. Other water activities are boating, snorkeling and diving.
            The rooms are one of the best parts of Bluewater Sumilon. Starting with fourteen villas, it now has twenty-nine rooms—fourteen deluxe villas, twelve premiere, two one-bedroom and one two-bedroom. Additionally, if one desires to rough it out but without the usual inconveniences, the resort offers a chic kind of camping—glamping. One area has pre-pitched tents with electricity and accessibility.
            The Pavilion is the largest structure in resort, an octagonal hut with thatched grass roofing. It houses the restaurant that serves of local and international cuisines with a panoramic view of the swimming pool and the luminous sea. Notable are their seafood dishes and their innovative takes on local dishes such as the adobo rice served inside a bamboo cylinder, lamb shank caldereta and the suman panna cotta. The resort also regularly prepares buffet feasts on the beach and occasionally a lovely private dinner at the sandbar. One feasts on grilled squid and prawns with lamps dangling from a bamboo pole over the table and swaying in the sea wind, surrounded by the sand, the sea, the darkness perforated by distant lights and the sound of waves.
            Diving has been the main activity before the whale shark interaction, said Barretto. Also, the occupancy was middling. Now, it dramatically increased that they are almost always full. Day tours have also dramatically increased, and usually these are the whale tourists. Because of the increase in clients, the resort is now expanding to add more rooms. Filipinos still comprise the biggest slice of the market with about more than half, followed by the Chinese, a recent development.
            Aside from the resort and the whale sharks, many of these tourists explore other sites in the area. The most popular is the town proper, especially for heritage lovers. The town proper has retained the old provincial air with church and its environs forming the most important heritage zone of Oslob. Facing the sea, this area was also developed into a tourist complex, with the preservation of the old structures and the building of a small museum. At its heart is the 19th-century buttressed Church of the Immaculate Conception, constructed of limestone and coral stone, as with most churches in Cebu and many parts of the Visayas.
            Just across it is the Cuartel, also made of coral stone. The building was erected in late 19th century as a barracks for Spanish soldiers, but was not finished until Spanish occupation ended in 1898. Also in the area are the ruins of a watchtower, built in 1788. It is part of the series of old Spanish-era watchtowers along the shores of southern Cebu to look out for marauding pirates and invaders. Also, the church stone walls or fences are still largely intact.
            On the other hand, the museum contains pieces of furniture, utensils, daily implements, etc., giving visitors glimpses of life in the olden days.
            Aside from the town proper and Tumalog Falls within Oslob, tourists explore as far as Samboan for the Aguinid Falls. The falls has several levels, and the adventurous challenge themselves to climb the higher levels with guides and ropes already in place. Here, Bluewater Sumilon can arrange a Boodle Fight-style lunch to complete a nature adventure experience.

             With Bluewater Sumilon Island Resort as base, the offerings of southern Cebu are opened up for the tourists with a range of experiences that can be exhilarating.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Go Chinese for a Different Holiday Feast: Crystal Jade Offers Christmas Menus of Tasty Delights

Chinese food is not a usual option for a Christmas feast. There are no special dishes reserved for such celebration, China being largely non-Christian and thus having no Christmas traditions. But with the proliferation of Chinese restaurants around the world, many of them have been catering to Christian Chinese, as well as other nationalities celebrating one of the world’s biggest occasions. One of them is Singapore-based Crystal Jade, which has branches in several countries including the Philippines.
Crystal Jade’s branch at the Bonifacio High Street in Taguig City has prepared special menus for the Filipinos’ most beloved celebration, including regular items prepared in a “Christmas-y way” and new dishes specially concocted for the occasion.
Take, for example, the sliced bitter gourd or ampalaya with plum sauce. Usually served arranged like a flower, it is now served arranged like a Christmas tree with pieces of cherry and mango serving as embellishment with a preserved plum (which we usually call champoy) at the top. The bitter gourd is blanched, thus preserving much of its nutrients. Its bitterness is tempered by the tart sweetness of the plum sauce, and such combination makes for an interesting dish of contrasting flavors.
Another intriguing dish of contrasting flavors and an imaginative way of serving is the new almond with scallop soup. The almond flavor in creamy broth is usually served as dessert in a form as gelatin. Now, it is as a warm, creamy soup, the saltiness replacing the sweetness. However, it is served in the shell of a ripe papaya, so you can scrape off the papaya flesh while spooning the bisque, providing hints of sweetness and freshness to each slurp. At the bottom is an indulgent surprise — a fat medallion of scallop meat. 
There is also a duo of crispy duck sandwich and shredded duck fruit salad. The sandwich is actually made of slivers of vegetables and duck meat in between squares of crisp fried duck skin, which is surprisingly delectable. This is contrasted by the rich salad.
    Another addition to Crystal Jade’s deluxe Christmas menu is the pan-fried bean curd roll with special sauce. It is composed of tasty meat roulades wrapped in bean curd skin and set in a pool of secret exquisite sauce, which is actually shark’s fin soup, treasured in Chinese gastronomy but controversial.
Another ingredient considered luxurious in Chinese cuisine is the fish maw, or the swim bladders of large fishes, sold dried. Crystal Jade’s fish maw with black truffle and osmanthus is actually a fried rice dish with strips of fish maw and flavored with black truffle and osmanthus flowers. Fragrant and flavorful, this harmonious ensemble of exotic ingredients is very likable.
These are currently being offered for the holiday season and are featured in Crystal Jade’s specially curated holiday full-course sets, which start at about P8,800 (with complimentary gift certificates) and includes interesting dishes such as golden baked crab shells (which we recognize as crab relleno), live garoupa served in two ways, steamed rice with seafood and abalone sauce in lotus leaf, steamed garoupa with black fungus and cordycep flowers, and yang zhou fried rice and red bean mango mouse cake.
To make your holiday feast truly delicious and indulgent, add in Crystal Jade favorites such as steamed soupy pork dumpling or xiao long bao and the steamed cream custard bun with salted egg yolk.
Crystal Jade was established in Singapore in 1991, offering an assortment of Chinese dishes prepared in luxurious and exquisite ways. Over the years, the restaurant has grown into a food and beverage company with over 100 outlets in Asia-Pacific and the United States. The first Philippine branch opened in 2010 in Greenhills, San Juan City, and then moved to its present location at 7th Avenue, Bonifacio High Street, Bonifacio Global City in Taguig City, in 2013. In July 2016, the restaurant earned its first one Michelin star. The guide inspectors particularly cited its Cantonese barbecue meats, seafood dishes, foie gras with Japanese sake and pan-fried scallop, roasted suckling pig with black truffle and the selection of wines.

For inquiries, call 808-5233 or visit www.crystaljade.com.ph.

Fish maw with black truffle and osmanthus
Pan-fried bean curd roll with special sauce
Sliced bitter gourd with plum sauce

Monday, December 12, 2016

Developing Divisoria: Tutuban Center Undergoes Renovation While Honoring its Heritage

Many stalls and stores in Divisoria sprout fake pine trees and sparkle with boxes and boxes of glittery trimmings and Christmas decors, and the volume of shoppers expectedly swells this Christmas season. This area in the district of Tondo in Manila is a well-known shopping and commercial Mecca with numerous stores, shopping centers, makeshift stalls and bazaars spilling into each other it looks like one sprawl of a market. It is where one can almost everything, and haggling is the most popular mode of transaction. 
            Divisoria’s being a commercial center most likely started in the 16th or 17th century, during the Spanish colonial years, when Chinese merchants, shut out from the walled area of Intramuros, started doing business here and in adjacent Binondo. It grew to be an important trading center that the Main Station of the Manila Railroad Company was built here in 1887 and started operation in 1892. Trains went from Divisoria to Dagupan in Pangasinan, and vice versa. The train service is defunct now and the station was transformed into a shopping center, but Divisoria continues to be a bustling commercial area although afflicted with urban decay and squalor. Four hulking malls now rise among the entanglements of stalls and stores. One of them is the Tutuban Center, along Claro M. Recto Avenue, which now operates the mall which was once the Main Station.
Twenty hectares of land owned by the Philippine National Railways is leased to Prime Orion Group, which developed the Tutuban Center in 1988, utilizing 8.5 hectares for the buildings. Tutuban Center has become a popular destination over the years with about fifty thousand people visiting it on weekdays and sixty thousand on weekends.
“Tutuban is a twenty-hectare property located right beside the heart of Manila’s trading district—Divisoria. The property is accessible to popular districts and landmarks such as Divisoria market, Ongpin, Binondo, Escolta, North and South Harbors, Quiapo, Intramuros and the University belt,” described Rowena Tomeldan, Tutuban Properties, Inc. president and vice president and head of Ayala Malls Group, Ayala Land, Inc.
Early this year, Ayala Land has become part owner of the shopping complex. It is part of the Ayala Group of Companies, which has interests in real estate, telecommunications and tourism, among others, but is known for its chain of malls. With the entry of Ayala, Tutuban Center undergoes renovations and marks a milestone, ushering in a kind of renewal for Divisoria itself.
The renovation work, said Norie Ranial, head of operations of Tutuban Center, “highlighted the heritage component of the Main Station and enhanced the Prime Block building.”
According to Tomeldan, the renovation works and building improvements are in partnership with the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP).
“The original Tutuban Station façade and columns built in 1892 have been restored. Some of the work done were repainting based on the heritage color palette, improving lighting to highlight its façade details, and preserving its brick walls and century-old wrought iron pillars that lead all the way to the food court,” she said.
“We have worked to preserve and restore the heritage elements of the original railway station.  It is a good example of colonial architecture in the Philippines as the only train station with a Spanish colonial style of domestic architecture, inspired by the two-storey brick ancestral house,” Ranial explained. “Along the interiors of the Main Station are more than century-old wrought iron columns with ornate pillar caps.”
“Across Tutuban Center is a monument to the Father of the Philippine Revolution, Andres Bonifacio. This was made in commemoration of the town where he was born,” she further said. “We also have twelve large canvas art works, which depict highlights of this brave hero’s life in the East Loop of the mall. The National Historical Commission of the Philippines was involved in ensuring the authenticity of these scenes from Bonifacio’s life. We hope that even in a small way, more visitors and shoppers can gain an appreciation of the history behind this great shopping destination.”
The Main Station features regular retail stores, service stores and food outlets, as well as Robinsons Department Store and Supermarket. At the second level is the new food court.
“The popular Kikiam in Ilaya is now being offered in a food cart set-up in the food court,” said Ranial. “We will soon have other popular Divisoria and Binondo food and restaurant brands in our food court.”
These eateries and brands include El Presidente Tea House, King’s Bakeshop and Eng Ho.
Next to the Main Station is the Prime Block which has stores offering wholesale products such as fabrics and textiles, curtains, fashion, accessories, ribbons, mannequins and wigs, supplies for salons and spas, tailor supplies, school supplies, toys, artificial flowers and gardening needs among others. Prime Block retains the well-known Divisoria bargain shopping style.
The building improvements include upgraded exteriors and renovated interiors, repainting, improved signage, installing about 5,600 LED lights, air-conditioning and the restrooms. For services, enhancements include customer service booths, security and housekeeping services.
“Visitors will also notice better pedestrian and vehicular circulation throughout the development. We have a new ticket booth and additional 150 parking slots in the Recto parking area,” Ranial added.
“Tutuban Center has introduced the new Prime Block Clusters on Level 3 of the Prime Block building. Shoppers will find improved merchandise zoning in this area. For Phase 1, we have 175 stalls with an approximate size of eleven square meters per stall,” said Ranial.
Many of Tutuban Center’s 600 tenants are long-time Divisoria merchants. One is Malou Salvador, who owns of Anding’s Toys and Flowers, which her mother started as a stall at the market in Divisoria. The store is more than forty years old.
“The Prime Block Clusters is anchored by Anding’s Toys and Flowers, Inc., which occupies 317 square meters or about 18 stalls,” Ranial revealed. “Anding’s showcases a wide array of products that go beyond toys and flowers. They have party favors, costume accessories, party decor, garden decor, picket fences and hedges and so much more, even Halloween items and Christmas decors. They have been in business for more than twenty years, and majority of the big malls and other establishments get their supplies from Anding’s.”
Additionally, Tutuban Center hosts a night market, which comprises about 400 stalls, in its open spaces.
Mall officials said they will retain the mode that Divisoria is known for but will bring in qualities Ayala malls are known for such as efficiency in service, security, comfort, value for open spaces and polished architectural aesthetics.
“Tutuban Center has built relationships over generations of shoppers and merchants. We know our market and we are committed to providing the best experience for them and our merchant partners,” Ranial said.
“Our vision is to develop Tutuban Center into an organized and efficient wholesale and retail district at the heart of Manila,” said Tomeldan, who also mentioned that redeveloping Tutuban Center is both challenging and exciting.
She also said that they are not planning on bringing in popular local and international brands that are ubiquitous in malls.

“We want to create jobs especially for small and medium enterprises and micro-entrepreneurs. We want to develop and take a chance on young entrepreneurs,” Tomeldan said. “We want people to come here feeling safe and secure, knowing it’s a comfortable place.”

Prime Block Clusters

Prime Block Clusters
Aking's Toys and Flowers at the Prime Block Clusters
Profusion of Christmas decors at the Aking's Toys and Flowers at the Prime Block Clusters

 The Prime Block Clusters
The Main Station
Main Station's historical marker
Inside the Main Station
Metal pillars with ornamentation preserved from the old structure
The information desk
The food court
Prime Orion Properties Inc. director Victor Say, Ayala Land board director Tony Aquino, Prime Orion Properties Inc. director Felipe Yap, Tutuban Properties, Inc. president Rowena Tomeldan and Prime Orion Properties Inc. president Junie Jalandoni