The Trek to the Underground River

Underground-RiverCredits: Papers by Plum Dumpling Designs, Pri Rocha, The Design Girl, Trixie Scap Design; Ribbon by Design by Tater, Red string with flowers by Graham Like the Cracker, and String wrap by Haynay Designs. 

Elusive in the past, I became disinterested and eventually gave up the idea of visiting Palawan’s famous Underground River. Then they re-opened the Jungle Trail.

Initially slated for December but due to unforeseen reasons, we moved our Puerto Princesa trip to January.  We planned to simply chill out, visit our favorite jaunts and catch up with friends. Then, the grand idea— “why not go to Sabang for the day so you can finally see the Underground River?” Anton to me.  Me to him,  “Ok, but we will trek to the cave.”

Sabang-Pier

The Sabang Pier is the main jump off point to the Underground River or The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, once also called the St. Paul Subterranean River. Yes, it has many names. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999, the cave was provisionally chosen (through votes—and you know how we Filipinos can vote) as one of the 7 New Wonders of Nature in 2011.

Entrance-from-the-shoreEntrance from the shore

The usual way to get there is to take a 15-20 minute boat ride (I estimate) from the pier.

There are two trails to the cave, The Monkey Trail, and the Jungle Trail. The former has been closed for a time now and the latter re-opened only last year. Having heard of the Monkey trail from friends who did it some 10 years back, I knew that I’d do it at some point. Well, the jungle trail, I reckon, is good enough.

crossingThe trek starts by crossing the mangrove.

A recommended option for the active, the jungle trail meanders through a beautiful lush forest.

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It lets you hike through ancient trees, well crafted wooden staircases, bridges and benches made from confiscated wood that adds character to the trail

wooden-walkways

one-among-many-bridges

and at one point, limestone formations becomes backdrop behind the foliage.

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Not only does the pleasant 2-hour hike enhance the experience but it also gives jobs to the 20 or so Tagbanua indigenous community members.

guide

reminder-before-the-trek

As “Park Wardens” they serve as guides and caretakers of the jungle.

path-to-the-riverthe path from the trail

The Underground River itself was not a let down at all. Having heard of so many mixed reviews, expectations were low.

paddle-boatsWaiting in line to enter the cave.

But to my surprise, the chambers especially the one called “the cathedral,” towering some 800 meters high, impressed me.

inside-the-cave

Truth to tell though, I fell asleep some part of the way, perhaps due to exhaustion and the fact that the only thing lighting the way was a flashlight held by the person in front. Our guide was adept and quite engaging in providing intelligent albeit elementary information about what a cave system is.

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My take on this experience: to go there just for the Underground River may not be worth the effort (it’s still a 2-hour ride to Sabang). The hikes makes the difference.  Having seen Sabang, I wish I had stayed a few nights to explore the quiet town.

Posted in Palawan, Philippines, Sabang | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Queluz

Plan to stop at nearby Queluz on your way back to Lisbon from Sintra.

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The national palace is worth the detour.  Be sure though to buy a ticket to Queluz, or you won’t be able to get off at your end destination. That was what happened to us when we decided mid-way to get off at Queluz instead of heading straight back. When we arrived at the Rossio station, the tickets we had were void, and we couldn’t get out. Apparently, the time started ticking once we got on the train and what should have taken 45 minutes took us 2 hours. We should have bought another ticket back to Rossio when we got off at Queluz — explained Mr. Operator. With many apologies, we asked to be freed with the promise of paying what was due. Kind Mr. Operator let us out, even waved our arrears. Smiling and shaking his head, I wonder how many mindless tourists did the same thing?

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It was, however, worth the hassle. Queluz is a rather unremarkable suburb but its National Palace, in its pink Rococo glory, is a remarkable example of Portuguese Romantic architecture. Although smaller, it shares much of Versailles’ sense of grandeur in its ornate decorations and exquisite gardens.

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It is because Portuguese architect, Mateus Vicente Oliveira designed it in homage to the famous palace outside Paris France. Built as a summer retreat for Dom Pedro, the famous Duke of Braganza, who later married his niece, Queen Maria I.

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Famed for the glory of its gardens, which include a large topiary parterre, formal terraces and fountains at the rear of the palace. The interior’s attention to detail is no less than that of the exterior.

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The palace is a 10-minute walk from the Sintra train line, turning left out of the Queluz-Belas Station. Signs will lead you to a cobbled square with a statue of Queen Maria I. Facing directly into the plaza is the façade of the palace.

Posted in Lisbon, Portugal, Queluz | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Romancing with Sintra

Sintra-collageCredits: J Sprague Photo Collage Template version 3; Paper by Wimpychompers Creations

If you have an extra day in Lisbon, I suggest you head out to Sintra. It’s just a 45-minute train ride from the Rossio Station and well worth the trip.

first-glimpse

Walking into Sintra is like treading on fairytale land, more so on a gloomy day as when we were there. Known for its many romantic 19th-century architectures, Sintra is an outstanding reference for Portuguese culture.

fairytale town

Royal castles, mansions, and chalets scatter around the verdant rolling hills and peaks of the Sintra mountain range. The long sections of walls winding around the high peaks of the Serra reminds of century’s past.

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The Moors Castle high above Sintra

Here, at the Central Western Portuguese coast, at the northern-most stretch of the protected Sintra-Cascais Natural Park, history, archeology, architecture and natural beauty meld into a beguiling and magical town.

It’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed center, the Sintra Vile is a 15-minutes walk from the train station.

Palacio-Nacional-de-Sintra

The Palacio Nacional de Sintra dominates the old town. Its iconic twin conical chimneys can be seen from far away. We, however, only had time to visit 2 Castles that day:

Sintra Castelo dos Mouros (The Moor Castle)

Castelo-dos-Mouros

A classic ruined castle set amidst the lush forests of the Serra de Sintra. Established by the Northern African Moors during the 9th century to guard the town but fell into disrepair after the Christian conquered Portugal. The castle was restored and transformed into a romantic ruin in the 19th century by King Ferdinand II.

Pena National Palace

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On top of a hill stands an eccentric palace built in the 19th century for Dom Fernando II, an artistic king who wanted the palace to resemble that of an opera. Despite the hodgepodge of styles, the castle looks surprisingly harmonious and the use of yellow, pink and purple colors completed the “fairytale” quirkiness of the palace.

Pena-interior

A Protected National Monument, the Palace is considered to be one of the world’s best examples of architectures from the Romantic era.

medieval-streets

The medieval streets of Sintra Vile lead to many treasures – craft shops selling a host of local artisan specialties, a range of cafes and restaurants or even townhouses that exude the air of past glories.

Cantinho-Gourmet

In one of the narrow streets, we found a small café (Cantinho Gourmet) for a pretty good lunch prepared by an old lady. In another part of town is A. Piriquitos.

traveisseros-and-queijadas

Here we had the famed delicacies of the village, Queijadas de Sintra and Travesseiros. Delicious treats not to be missed.

Pena-Palace

In this region north of Lisbon, the center town of Sintra is only half the story. A must-do day trip but if time permits, a few nights stay is ideal to spend time exploring the surrounding beaches and the many seafood restaurants. The other half is a spectacular stretch of Atlantic coast with rugged cliffs, crashing waves and near-empty stretches of sandy beach, which calls for another visit in the future, perhaps.

Useful Info:

A Piriquita: Rua Padarcias 1/7; +351 219 230 026

Pena National Palace: Estrada da Pena; +351 219 237 300

Castelo dos Mouros: Parque de Monserrate, Estrada da Pena; +351 219 237 300     Opening Hours: 9:30AM-8:00PM; shorter hours in low season

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Belem: The Glory days of Portugal’s Explorers

Wealth, fame, and fortune, along with spreading Christianity, were reasons why daring sailors like Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco de Gama, and the likes set sail in uncharted waters. This was from a period known as the Age of Discovery. From 1400 to 300 years later, European explorers, many of which are from the seafaring country of Portugal and Spain, visited and mapped most of the world. Portugal discovered the sea route to India while the Spaniards discovered America.

Portugal, a small kingdom whose economy relied on seafaring in the 15th century, had a visionary ruler in Henry the Navigator. He encouraged and paid many to explore the world. And so this nation once ruled the waves.

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Belem is where the Tagus River meets the sea. From its waterfront, many of the great Portuguese explorers embarked on their voyage to discover the world. During this time, Lisbon flourished and many great monuments were constructed.

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Belem Tower was one of those. A magnificent fortress also named Tower of St. Vincent, as it was built to honor Lisbon’s patron saint. The tower situated at the mouth of the Tagus River was initially built to defend the city. The 4-storey tower was originally constructed on an island in the Tagus River near the shore. It stands on land today because the riverbank’s location shifted through the years.

Belem’s main street and historical avenues are a strip of 160-year-old buildings that have survived changes and modernization. These include the famous pastry shop, Antiga Confeteria de Belem, known for a particular Portuguese confectionery, an egg tart called

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Pasteis de Belem—the flakiest pastry filled with creamy custard. Just across from Jeronimos Monastery, the shop is easily spotted because of the long line spilling over to the sidewalk. Many of which are visitors from the stunning monastery.

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The Jeronimos Monastery is a classic example of a Portuguese late Gothic Manueline architecture. Along with the nearby Tower of Belem, it was classified in 1983 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is one of the significant emblems of the Age of Discovery and the distinct maritime motif, which includes corals, sea monsters, and coiled rope, reflects that golden era.

jeronimos-monastery-details

The monastery was built in honor of the successful voyage to India of celebrated Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama. This is also where De Gama, King Manuel, and other prominent figures were laid to rest.

Discovery-Monument

Sitting opposite the monastery, on the banks of the Tagus River, is another stunning iconic monument, the Discoveries Monument. Dedicated to the adventurers and explorers who helped established Portugal as a 14th-century superpower. Unveiled in 1960, on the 500th death anniversary of Prince Henry the Navigator. The massive monument had Prince Henry at the prow of a caravel, backed by figures from Portuguese history that participated in the golden age of discovery.

I have to admit, Belem caught my attention because of one thing only—Pasteis de Belem. If this is the only thing you do, that tram ride to Belem will be worth it already. But it would be a waste to miss its historical sights, which are all within walking distance anyway.

Lisbon’s gateway to the Atlantic, Belem, is where the Tagus meets the sea and where the naval explorer of yore started their journey to the unknown. Take the effort to visit it when in Lisbon.

Useful Info:

Jeronimos Monastery: Praca do Imperio

Opening Hours: Oct-Apr: Tues-Sun 10AM-5:30PM May-Sep: Tues-Sun 10AM-6:30PM Admission: €7

Antiga Confiteria de Belem: 84/92 Rua de Belem

Posted in Lisbon, Portugal | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

New Year Cruising

“The moments of happiness we enjoy take us by surprise. It is not that we seize them, but that they seize us.” — Ashely Montagu

 New-Years-at-High-SeaCredits: JSprague Digi in Deeper course materials

This year, 68 of my family members from all over flew to Singapore for a grand reunion. For the first time, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins and second cousins took the time and effort to fly from all over and spent New Year holidays together, on the high seas to boot.

mariner's-of-the-seaInside Royal Caribbean’s Mariners of the Seas

A perfect venue, truth to tell, as none of us could go very far—not saying though that the ship isn’t big and off-shore excursions aren’t aplenty. It was contained enough to allow us to catch up.  Some met each other for the first time.

new-year-in-patongFireworks before the New Year in Patong Beach

It was an experience I surprisingly enjoyed. Being the traveler that I am, I thought that this was merely something I had to do, an obligation of some sort. The destinations were nothing to rave about but the togetherness was awesome. It was something unexpected… Which are usually the best, yes? You know what they say— “the things you don’t see coming tickles you the most.”

Port Klang

So the destinations weren’t great, they weren’t total disappointments either. Our first port of call was Port Klang. What is there to see in Port Klang, the principal port in Selangor state of Malaysia? Nothing much though we heard that it is a haven for local foodies—good enough for us (by us I mean my immediate family).

bak-kut-teh

Seafood aside, Klang is famous for its Bak Kut Teh, in fact they say that this pork rib soup which has become a staple in Malaysia, Singapore and some parts of Indonesia started here. Considered a breakfast food, BKT, as locals call it, is pork ribs (or other parts of the pork meat) slowly simmered in an herbal broth.

restoran-bak-kut-teh-facade

Across the AEON Bukit Tinggi Shopping Center, about 30 minutes away from the Star Cruises Terminal, we randomly chose Restoran Bak Kut Teh. A small shop sans the fanfare – open air and round tables and stools to sit that serves (in my opinion) quite a good and (I assume) authentic BKT.

restoran-bak-kut-tehFood tripping with the family

The Bak Kut Teh has an herbal taste (of course), salty with the hint of sweetness; meat was falling off the bone. Extremely enjoyable with soy sauce, garlic and a bit of chopped chili.

Phuket

Next port of call was an overnight in Phuket. Arriving Phuket at 11AM, it was too late to do much so we decided on a late lunch in Old Phuket Town and a massage after. We took the tender to Patong Beach and haggled with one of the many vans peddling their services to take us to town.

old-shop-house

Old Phuket town shines with personality with its rich history. In this old quarter, you will see beautifully ornate old shophouses, quaint cafes, Buddhist and Chinese temples, and some grandiose Sino-Colonial mansions once occupied by Phuket’s tin barons of years ago.

Raya

In the middle of town, on New Dibuk Road is a two-storey Sino-Portuguese house converted into a restaurant.

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Tinted glass windows and wooden shutters, hard to find Machuca floor tiles,

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stairs

rustic ceiling fans, vintage posters, a wooden staircase,

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and an antique bar, this old house exudes old colonial.

raya-dishesL-R: Pork with Kafir Leaves; Deep Fried Sea Bass with Shallots and red chilli in Tamarind-Lemongrass Sauce; Green Mango with Dried Squid Salad

The food, known to be THE Thai restaurant in Phuket; its specialty is said to be the Crabmeat Curry served with rice vermicelli. Being a sucker for all things crab, this was a definite winner. Big chunks of crabmeat and the strong curry muted by the addition of coconut milk produced a subtle creamy curry dish. The deep-fried sea bass with shallots and red chilies in tamarind-lemongrass sauce and the pork with Kafir leaves were fantastic too. When in town, do visit Raya Restaurant if you can.

We could and should have walked around town, but we opted instead for a massage. We could and should have gone to the spa just around the corner from Raya. On a previous  trip (a post I still owe) the boutique hotel I stayed in offered a discount at The Raintree Spa when booked through them.

RainTree-Spa

It was most satisfying, in all the right ways—service, skills, and ambiance. I should have known better than to indulge our driver but, hindsight is always 20/20, so yeah… We could have saved the 30-minute drive to the spa he recommended (name and place I won’t even bother to tell) and used it to walk around the charming old town instead. And to think, I convinced my whole family to that massage.

Koh Phi Phi

Thank goodness for Phi Phi Islands.

Phi-Phi

Praised as one of the most beautiful beaches in Southeast Asia, thanks to the film “The Beach”.

white-sand-beach

A 45-minute bumpy (because we decided to sit in front) speed boat ride from Phuket, the Phi Phi archipelago comprises 6 islands boasting of white sand beaches, stunning limestone cliff and turquoise water, many parts ideal for snorkelling.

snorkling

tourists

Popular with backpackers even before the movie, but the world seemed to have flocked here after the film was shot in 1999. In spite the crowd, the limestone outcrops that swept the archipelago still impressed.

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Posted in Klang, Malaysia, Phuket, Thailand | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Greetings…

It has been a crazy, crazy month year!!!  This hopes to explain why posts have been slow in coming.  Writing to you in the early morning of Christmas eve in my hotel room in Hong Kong (here for work).  Tomorrow I fly early in the morning back to Manila to catch an afternoon flight to Tuguegarao where, for the first time, I will spend Christmas.

While I look forward to a good year ahead, I hope and pray that we try to keep the spirit of Christmas in our hearts and deeds the whole year round.

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Merry Christmas Everyone!!

 

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Baixa: An Architectural Delight

I walked around the part of Baixa closest to our hostel, bewitched. Lisbon, you are a surprise.

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Elegant squares, streets filled with cafes and shops, old tramcars, street performers, Neo-classic and Art deco buildings, street vendors selling everything… All this adds to the charm of downtown Lisbon.

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Baixa borders the river in the bottom of the valley and nestled among the hills of Alfama, Chiado, and Bairro Alto. It’s grid like area stands in contrast to the winding and complicated alleyways of neighboring Alfama.   A central location extending to the Tagus River and Avenida da Liberdade (the Liberty Avenue) and is considered the most elegant of all districts in Lisbon.

Rossio-Square

Rossio. Where the main central square is found. Officially named Praca Don Pedro IV, the square is also called Rossio Square because it revolves around Rossio. It is the heart of the city and surrounding it is nothing but a bundle of architectural delights and here’s sharing with you a bit of Baixa.

Figueira Square (Square of the Fig Tree)

figueira-square-transport-hub

Neighboring the imposing Rossio Square is one of the city’s important transport hub. The metro, the buses, and the charming trams stop here and many shops, cafes, and guesthouses surround the square because of it.

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The bronze equestrian statue of King João I stand on a pedestal in the middle of the plaza, the beautifully designed grounds covered with pigeons.

Teatro Nacional Doña Maria II

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This beautiful neo-classical building survived the earthquake but was destroyed by fire in 1964. It was rebuilt in the 70’s and with it founded Lisbon’s municipal orchestra. Named after Dom Pedro IV, the theater’s façade dominate the northern side of Rossio Square and now hosts some of the most spectacular performances of Lisbon.

Rua Das Portas de Santo Antão

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Just behind the National Theater Doña Maria II and a stone’s throw away from Pensao Residencial Portuense (our hostel) is a lively pedestrian street buzzing with outdoor cafes and restaurants.

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It is a mecca for seafood lovers but ironically, we found Locanda Italiana where we were served a superb steak dinner.

Elevador de Santa Justa

elevador-de-santa-justaThis beautifully crafted lift southeast of Rossio Square is the area’s highlight. Raoul Meisner du Ponsard, an engineer, born in Porto to French parents and a Gustave Eiffel student, built this alternative transport to climb up the many steep hills of the city.

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A challenge to Lisbon citizens for centuries. And until the underground Baixa-Chiado metro station opened in 1998, the Santa Justa Elevator was the easiest way to get to the Bairro Alto and Chiado district from Baixa.

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Rossio Station

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One of the most beautiful train stations I’ve ever seen. Looking more like a temple, the façade is decked with horseshoe doorways and the roof is topped with small turrets and a clock tower.

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Influenced by the 16th century Portuguese Manueline style, the façade dominates the northeast side of the Rossio Square. Here, the trains depart for Sintra.

Restauradores Square

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Surrounded by beautiful 19th and early 20th century buildings, an obelisk standing in the middle of the rectangular square. It has names and dates of battles fought during the Portuguese Restoration War and this entire square is dedicated to the country’s liberation from Spanish rule.

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Nearby is the former Condes Cinema, a Modernist building built in the 1950s that reopened in 2003 as Hard Rock Café.

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The square is also a few steps away from the Elevador da Gloria, a funicular linking downtown with the Bairro Alto district.

And this is just downtown Lisbon.

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