Simple & Low-Key

Credits: DID Lesson 2 papers — camp stripe, orange stripe, plain jane, splendid fiins notebookdots 03, thursday b, 08, 02;  Elements — Crystal Wilken’s SVC stitch, flea market brads, heat yellow strips, ikari’s urawesome gray stitches, LivE S$S Twill 2 Delight, ricrac orange

Sometimes the best places are obscured in simple low-key settings… like this Italian-style pizzeria in a Total Gas Station along the National Highway at Barangay San Rafael. Who would have known that one could find great pizza in Laguna and in a gas station to boot?

Came highly recommended by Boots Alcantara of Casa San Pablo, we set out to search for this supposedly good find.  Orders are taken at the convenience store and one can choose to dine inside the store (a small corner is set up like a bar facing the station) or al fresco just behind the store.

The crust, for me, is what makes or breaks a pizza and this definitely made their pizzas – thin and crusty baked in a wood-fire oven.  The toppings, with special mention to their Pesto, Pepperoni and Margherita, have just the right amount of ingredients, the cheese and the sauce not drenching the crispy texture of the crust.

They’re pasta, likewise cooked al dente with me favoring their Bolognese.

Gone before we knew it!

La Pizzeria made such an impression when we had a slice each of they’re Pesto pizza some years ago, I made sure to have a meal there when I found myself back in San Pablo last year.  It still did not disappoint and my meticulous friends continued to be wowed.

Right after lunch and before heading home, we stopped by to bring home some local treats.

El Mare’s buko (coconut) and chicken pies are popular food to take home with you to remember San Pablo by.

Both pies had fillings filled to the brim, the crust – flaky definitely deserving the thumbs up.


Making Tradition

Birthdays are always a good excuse to get together.  Since we graduated from High School many moons ago, we still keep in touch but seeing each other often is fantasy today, with different lifestyles and priorities as the number one culprit.  Not to mention that 10 in a group means 10 birthdays and busy bodies that we are, it’s complication to the max. Determined to keep the bond, it became a tradition of sort for 5 of us with birthdays close together – if you consider a span of 3 months close – to treat the group to something special, each year transcending to finer and more enjoyable experiences.  It started with extravagant dinners to out-of-town lunches to dinners prepared by a chef to this.

We don’t travel well together.  It’s the difference in travel styles.  That said, the travel planner that I am dared to plan an overnight trip to Laguna and Quezon for the group last year.  They complained – about how far the trip was… that they don’t like airbeds as it is difficult to share the bed… and why were there only 2 bathrooms for 9 of us… fun, isn’t it?   😯

So we had lunch at Ugu’s and so impressed they were, they stopped grumbling about the 3-hour drive.

We then headed to Sitio de Amor, our home for a night.  Again, they oohed and ahhed… until they realized the bathroom and bed situations.  I told them to live with it (for a night).

I have eyed that tree house since I first saw it.  So I booked it.

It had a balcony with seats built all around.

The back of the pool

And beautiful views of the grounds to boot.

A close to perfect setting to gather together and catch up with each other till the wee hours of the night, the only thing is… it had only 1 bedroom which could only fit 4 of us.

Not bad at all.

The rest had to trek back and forth to their room, called Lanzones – a room with a beautiful view of the lagoon that fits 6 and yes, with only 1 bath.   😛

The motley crew before heading back home.

All is well that ends well.  They were happy despite the bathroom and bed dilemmas.  The breakfast was as usual, superb.

The Potter, His Home, His Food

Augusto Bigyan, a once upon a time accountant turned potter extraordinaire, landscape artist and a wonderful cook is someone I used to visit a lot when I needed some inspiration.  Just to be in his wonderful place is enough to replenish my juices.  I’ve known him since the late ‘90s, and this post is close to my heart because although I haven’t been as frequent to visit lately, he has remained my favorite potter and his place still a preferred respite after all these years.  The workshop and residence of Ugu, as he is fondly called, is still the best (but not so) kept secret (anymore) of Quezon.

He’s works are mostly functional pieces — dinnerware, decorative tiles, accent pieces such as these vases, bowls and plates.

Last November during a joint birthday celebration with some friends, I suggested that we take the Viaje del Sol route and have lunch at his place.  I wanted to take them somewhere I consider special and wow them.  As most have never been there.  It worked.  They were more than wowed.  They shopped till they dropped too.

Ugu, the prolific humble artist that he is, slowly started transforming his home into this wonderful haven of art in the ‘90s.  The first time I stepped foot here, his garden was mostly talahib (tall weeds or grass) still, with just a few Balinese inspired cabanas and simple but tasteful wooden furniture to speak of.  Today, clusters of cabana with the same tastefully laid-out furniture occupying a bigger lush landscaped garden with his masterpieces thoughtfully dispersed all over.

They started serving meals since way back because after a 3-hour drive, you’re hungry and there aren’t any place to have decent meals anywhere near.  And his is more than just decent.  I remember going there craving for his dishes as much as wanting to get a piece or two of his latest works.

Ugu’s other passion is cooking and he is equally talented in that area, serving up creative dishes with simple, appetizing flavors of a home cooked meal. Lunch is a fix set depending on what’s in the market the day before.

So go out of your way to visit this wonderful haven at the outskirts of Tiaong.  I guarantee that you will leave the place so full of inspiration, if not a whole bayong (bag) of pottery goodness and a happy tummy.   😉

Getting there:

The first few time would be a little tricky and hopefully they don’t tear down my one and only landmark… here goes:

From SLEX, go all the way to the end going towards Lucena.  You’ll see a junction when you reach Sto. Tomas, take the left road still going towards Lucena.  Driving along the National Rd., take the right road (which is the National Rd. as the left road will take you to the town of San Pablo) when you hit the junction at San Pablo.  When you hit Tiaong, just follow the road till you see a Rural Bank on your left, passing the market and the municipio.  Turn left at the small street just before the faded pink building (my landmark), which is the Rural Bank, a few meters after you hit Km98.  You will pass a railroad track, continue driving till you see  “Alvarez Village” and “Alavarez High School” signs, make another left on that road.  You will hit a Mexican looking terracotta house.  That’s Ugu’s.

Address:  Alvarez Village, Brgy. Lusacan, Tiaong, Quezon

Other useful info:

1.  They usually go on sale 3 times a year:

  • During Pahiyas Festival (May 15)
  • On his birthday (August  14) – the discount always matches his age.
  • Year-end sale (1st week of Oct)

2.  Call in advance or you won’t be served any lunch, they only market enough for a day’s worth.

Telephone:  +6342-545-9144


Credits:  Template by Jen Caputo’s ckapr08; Papers by LivE Designs Sing 4 Spring paper kit (PP4, PP6 and SP6)

A weekend road-trip just before it ended was capped by a wonderful lunch at a café oozing with charm.  Highly recommended by Jorge and Amor Bondad (of Sitio de Amor), we headed to Sulyap Café and Art Gallery before heading home.

The café is a 2 story Spanish colonial house transported from Quezon and restored piece by piece at the Cocoland compound.

Gorgeous ceiling detail

Lovely window details, a trademark of the old Spanish houses — overlooking the gallery.

Did I say charming inside and out?

Clockwise:  Enseladang Pako (Fiddelhead fern salad), Sinigang na Liempo, Banana crepe, Kulawong Puso ng Saging (an original recipe of San Pablo city).

And the food… quite good and could merit a return in the future.

Across the café is the art gallery, which had pieces in various sizes, from furniture to plates and other collectibles.  This building used to be the Cocoland Hotel before proprietor Rommel Empalmado bought the compound.  He also recounted that prior to it being a hotel, it was a South Luzon College, which explained the school-like structure.

He also disclosed that when he was restoring the old house, being a lover of anything old, he’d use to take a peek (sinusulyap – sulyap in Filipino) and admire the unfinish house from a window of the gallery across, hence the name Sulyap.  Quite an endearing story, me thinks.

Rommel is currently building a bigger house in the other part of the compound, this time a bed and breakfast that he hopes to open by December – so watch out for this new lodging alternative in the Viaje del Sol circuit.

Definitely a gratifying end to our weekend getaway.

Getting There:

On the Maharlika Highway coming from Manila on the way to San Pablo, you’ll hit a fork, take the left road (that’s Colago Ave.), which would take you off the highway and lead you to San Pablo proper. You’ll come to an intersection with a stop light (Puregold Supermarket should be on the right corner), turn left on Cosico Ave.  Turn left 2 or 3 streets after (there should be a sign of Sulyap on the right that points to the street where you should turn).  The road will lead to the gate of the Cocoland compound.

Sulyap Cafe and Gallery
Brg. Del Remedio, Cocoland Compound,
San Pablo, Laguna
Tel no:  (049)562-9740 / 582-9735

Of Preservation and Livelihood

We were running late, directions given were not very clear and so we took a wrong turn and ended up in Sampaloc Lake.

Sampaloc Lake taken from the balcony of Tahanan ni Aling Meding on a previous visit.

When we finally arrived at Sto. Angel, we saw our friends waiting by the roadside.  We turned into a parking lot and hurriedly parked, exchanged pleasantries and off we went, following Mang Tano, on a short trek as lunch was waiting for us.

It was an easy trail and about 15 minutes later, the trail revealed a blue-green lake that is quite captivating.

There were rafts positioned at the banks, one of which was reserved for us.  One can book with Aling Sion, Mang Tano’s wife a tour of the lake for P180 and if you add another P180, you get to enjoy a delectable lunch of

Clockwise:  Ginataang hipon, buko juice (coconut juice), pako (fiddlehead fern) salad, grilled tilapia.

pako salad, grilled tilapia and ginataang hipon (shrimps in coconut milk), all caught from the river and cooked fresh.

All meals are prepared by the fishermen’s wives which make up the Samahang Mangingisda sa Lawa ng Pandin (loosely translates to “Association of the Fishermen of Lake Pandin”).  The association was established as part of a preservation effort and at the same time help the residents earn a little bit of income on the side with the wives attending to the tourists.

With the help of Mandy Mariño, the fishermen’s wives organized the “Tour of the Pandin Lake” personally paddling the rafts.

Today, it is the most pristine of the 7 lakes of San Pablo.  Although there is nothing much of the tour, it just takes you around the lake, stopping at a short uphill trail that leads to clearing where one can take a peek at its twin, Lake Yambo.

Yambo’s name was derived from its famous lengend of 2 lovers, Yambo and Pandin.

Both lakes are teeming with tilapia, carp, catfish, milkfish, shrimps and snails.

They are also suitable for swimming but just to avoid the hassle of changing afterwards, we skipped it and just enjoyed the lake, the company and the delightful lunch.

Note: This tour is likewise part of the Viaje del Sol route.

Getting There:

Along the National Highway going towards Lucena, you’ll reach a fork somewhere along San Pablo, take the left.  This will lead you to the town proper.  Go all the way till you reach the city hall, go pass the rotunda until you reach Sto. Angel.  Watch out for a sign. Ask around if you don’t see the Lake Pandin sign that would lead you to a parking lot.  The residents are very helpful and will point you to the right direction.

Contact detail:

Aling Sion
0929 9789565


Fresh from the Tree

Credits:  Papers by LivE Designs – UNR Grassy Sky and Lily Lines from the UNR_Naturally Free kit and PP2 from the Sing4Spring Paper Kit; Elements – Birdoodle, Brad set of 4 and Frame 1 from the Sing4Spring Elements kit.

I am not particularly fond of rambutan, at least not in the same level of fondness I have for lychee and longan – rambutan’s close cousins.  But one glorious day I was given some that was fresh from the tree and it has gained a few notches on my gustatory scale.

This tropical fruit indegenous to Malaysia is a hairy bright red oval fruit about the size of a small hen’s egg.  Inside is a translucent grapelike flesh that is sweet and tastes a lot similar to but slightly acidic than that of the lychee.   The pit is what sometimes turns me off.  It annoys me much if the outer layer of the seed sticks to the flesh.  However after tasting the freshly picked fruit, I found out that a fresh produce does no such thing, and I learned to be less judgmental of the fruit.

July – October is harvest time for these sweet juicy fruit and last August, we were in San Pablo, Laguna for the Rambutan Festival where a kilo can go as low as P20 (US$ 0.50).

On our recent road trip, we checked in at Sitio de Amor, a great place to have fresh rambutans, either by personally picking them from their trees that is sprawled all over their garden or simply have it served right after picking during mealtime.

Our breakfast fare which include scrambled eggs, longganisa (local sausage) and a dried fried fish called Nora Aunor (no kidding!)

Glutinous rice cake topped with cane sugar (panocha) — the best in my opinion.

Sitio de Amor is a sprawling 4.5 hectare landscaped orchard situated near the Maharlika Highway.  Nestled between Mt. San Cristobal and Mt. Banahaw,

traversed by the Balanga River feeding into a lagoon where people can choose to take a dip.

Another option is the infinity pool built by the owners of the resort, Jorge and Amor Bondad.  A weekend home turned resort, the Bondads are very hands-on in expanding and sprucing up this oasis of theirs.  In fact, when in their property, you will chance on Amor working in her garden, claiming the chore to be her stress buster.

Looks like more rooms coming up in the future.

Note: Sitio de Amor is part of the many destinations of Viaje del Sol.

Getting There:

Once you see Jardin de San Vicente along the Maharlika Highway, watch out for a sign that will lead you to the resort.

Sitio de Amor
Km 88.8 Maharlika Highway
Barangay San Antonio
San Pablo, Laguna
For reservations, call:  522-7340 ; 0918-9274346

Summing Up the Year That Was

I am blessed.  Blessed to be able to explore the world, albeit not as extensive as I want to but I’ve had some fair share of adventure and fun last year.  So I’m not complaining.  Last year was a good mix of local and international travels, small and big trips. Rounding them up, there were highs and lows, great satisfactions and some disappointments.  Here’s a run down of my best and not so best experiences of 2008.

The Disappointment


Donsol – in pursuit of the elusive whale sharks (Feb)

We were ready to jump anytime but the whale sharks were scarce.  There were way too many boats, way too disorganized and so we caught a glimpse of its… tail.  Oh well… this calls for another trip sometime in the future.

One Miserable Climb


Mt. Pulag – rained out! (Feb)

We started the trek with just overcast clouds, then it drizzled and when we reached the campsite, it poured.  It let up a bit just so we can go to the loo and cook our dinner.  Then it started again.  Rained the whole night and the whole day, next day.  Needless to say, the summit was foggy and really, really cold!  No sunrise, just slippery, flooded trails.  Good thing this was not my first time here and I’ve seen a glorious sunrise in 2002.  But we still had fun.

My Favorite Asian Destination (thus far)


Luang Prabang, Laos (Mar)

The jewel of Indochina and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Surrounded by mountains at the junction of the Mekong and its tributary, the Khan River, Luang Prabang to me is a city where time stood still.

It was a wonderful 5 days of various adventures. One day was spent trekking to the Kwang Si falls, another learning to cook Lao dishes. There were a lot of walking, eating (Lao and French meals), sunset cocktails and we even had a taste of a traditional Khamu massage. It was fantastic.

A Delightful Road Trip


Viaje del Sol (Apr) – a blend of good food and the arts.  From Kusina ni Salud (for dinner) to Ugu Bigyan (for lunch and his potteries) to Carlito’s (for coffee, mangoes and his sculptures) in one weekend resulting to another follow-up weekend.  This time, we stayed in Casa San Pablo, checked out Kinabuhayan Café, and had a satisfying lunch at Sulyap Gallery Café, a restaurant cum antique gallery.  There definitely will be a 3rd trip to this Viaje del Sol sometime in the future.  Perhaps we’ll try a meal at Kinabuhayan Café, try that famous buko pie locals are raving about and do an overnight at Sitio de Amor.

Wonderfully Surprised


Dolphins Galore at Puerto Bay (May)

Didn’t even know that they had a lot in Puerto Princesa, Palawan.  There were tons of ’em.  What we didn’t see in Donsol, these dolphins made up for.  We didn’t even need a spotter as they were all over the place.  Never saw so much in my life.  Tons and tons of them.  Hope to dive there someday.

A Junk Experience


Cruisin’ Halong Bay, Hanoi (Jul)

When in Hanoi, one must experience cruising along Halong Bay in a junk at least once. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the bay features calm water and thousands of limestone karsts and islets in various shapes and size.  Something like Palawan.

A Star-strucked Moment


Dinner at Restaurant Bobby Chinn, Hanoi (Jul)

Even if he wasn’t around, I was excited to be there.  Totally am infatuated with this celebrity chef of Travel and Living’s World Asia Café series.  And the food did not disappoint.  Maybe because I’m so infatuated. Hee Hee! Expensive but superb.  Sorry but no photos of the food and the place except from across the street.  It was a treat from DBF to cap our Hanoi adventure and we agreed no cameras, besides the place was too dark to get even one decent photo.

Great Amusement


Watching the traffic of Hanoi at the Old Quarter (Jul)

We spent hours atop a restaurant sipping beer, relaxing and watching the traffic below with amazement.  The chaos of Vietnam traffic just amused us no end.  Watch and be amused.

The Best Reunion Ever


A San Francisco get-together with my high school buddies (Aug)… some I haven’t seen in 26 years.  It was a trip down memory lane but more importantly, it was literally a food trip as well.  Our friend and classmate, JT, now a chef cooked a superb dinner for us!  They’re actually planning another one this year… a US trip 2 years in a row is out of my budget if I want to explore other new places as well, so boohoo for me.

A Cove Truly Breathtaking


Anawangin Cove (Sep)

This could pass as my runner-up for the Most Miserable Climb too.  I am a clumsy person and more often than not, I fall and hurt myself.  So during the trek I was already asking “why do I do this to myself”? when I banged my knee in the course of what I thought was an easy trek. I’ve seen beautiful pixes, read and heard so much about this “not so secret” place and finally am hours away from it. Thrilled and excited as I started the 7.3 km trek to Anawangin Cove, I was 3rd to arrive at the saddle (which had an awesome view of the cove, by the way). Not bad, if I may brag… Many months of lifting, walking on a machine (that goes nowhere), puffing and pushing is finally paying off.  THEN… without warning, I slipped and fell about 30 minutes through our descent, all because I was not paying attention to the trail. It was agony from then on. Let’s just say that I trudged downhill, passing rocky streams for another 2+ hours before I reached the camp… From 3rd to last! Thirsty, tired and in pain but dampen my spirits it did not as it was indeed so BREATHTAKINGLY BEAUTIFUL! Picture this, Agojo (imagine pine trees as it looked so much like it) forest on the beach with a meandering fresh water stream that flows out to the sea. And that is why I keep doing this to myself.

An Adrenalin-filled Birthday Weekend


Rafting the Chico (Oct)

Been doing this for almost a decade but never on my birthday.  So that’s new.  If you’ve never tried this, you should!  You will experience one heck of a weekend, a totally worked out upper body, and the thrill of a lifetime.  Contact Anton Carag of AEPI for bookings.

An Incredible Underwater Experience


Mantas and Sharks up close in Yap (Nov)

Amazing… is all I can say.  An experience of a lifetime.  Read more about it here.