Tagaytay - It's Smokin', Literally!
Phil Hopkins, Travel & Arts Correspondent
This week we are running a series of features on the Philippines. Our theatre and travel man, Phil Hopkins, has been on an amazing three-week adventure to the other side of the world, and here recounts his journey to this country of more than 7,000 islands. Today, in this final feature, it is the turn of those places to the east and south of the Manila capital.
A Filipino counting his cash should also count his blessings when he gets to the 50 peso note!
For it is on that part of the national currency that he will find an image of Taal, the smallest active volcano in the world and, practically speaking, 'just up t'road from Manila!'
And, with 32 recorded explosions since the 1500's, some would consider it wise to quickly spend any surplus cash in one of Manila's numerous shopping malls, before this terrible lady decides to throw another tantrum!
Skyway Toll Road
Only 60km and one and half hours south of Manila, providing you take the Skyway toll road, Taal sits in the shadow of weekend tourist destination, Tagaytay, a city since 1938, part of the Province of Cavite and officially the second summer capital after Baguio City.
It is 2,500ft above sea level and, whilst Taal won't hopefully deprive you of your mortal existence, it will do a nice job of taking your breath away!
The area could play its part in a difficult pub quiz. The question, if asked, would go something like: 'Where in the world can you find an island within an active volcano sitting within a lake?" Oh yes and people live on the island!". Answer? Tagaytay!
On a clear day Lake Taal is a marvel to behold and from Tagaytay you can peer straight down into the simmering multiple craters of active Taal Volcano, also known as Volcano Island, rising out of the middle of the lake 600m beneath you. A popular hike is up to the main crater overlooking a sulphurous pool.
Tagaytay itself is a relaxed town that seems to meander forever along Tagaytay Ridge. As well as clean air it is also something of a foodie Heaven, and you would be well advised to check out Sonya's Garden (www.sonyasgarden.com) where everything brought to your table is grown on the premises.
Further up the road - the city seems to be located on one never ending highway - there is the Taal Vista Hotel (www.taalvistahotel.com) which, apart from serving a Betty's style afternoon tea (for a fraction of the price!), also has the most spectacular viewing platform from which you can take in Taal Lake and its surrounds.
Originally built in the 70's, the hotel has been fully refurbished and is at the upper end of the price scale whilst, by contrast, you can book into the Tagaytay Econo Hotel on the edge of town, and opt for a few mosquito bites and darker rooms along with a basic breakfast!
But, if price is the deciding factor, then the Econo Hotel is for you and a handful of pesos will quickly cover the ride to the main tourist area, courtesy of a motorised tricycle from the market place followed by a five minute Jeepney ride; about 15p each way!
For me Tagaytay is essentially about spectacular views, great restaurants and trekking / boat rides, although there is a handy theme park next to the Taal Vista Hotel if you have kids. However, for a slightly more alternative day out, you could do worse than head east of Manila to Taytay in Rizal Province.
This crazy, chaotic place is the Philippine garment capital, and has a superb outdoor market which, seemingly emanates from, and is centred around, the equally manic McDonald's fast food outlet at its heart!
For sheer spectacle this market is worth a visit. The stalls are so tightly crammed together, that it is possible to walk in between them and down a series of corridors, with zero threat of being exposed to the burning sun! Three nice ladies' tops will cost you about £3, as traders frantically compete to sell 'overs', those garments probably made for the likes of M&S but now surplus to requirements.
Taytay is also an opportunity to visit one of the country's cock fighting arenas.
You might not approve of this blood sport, however, the Philippines is one of the few places in the world where you can witness it and, for me, it was very much about observing this spectacle. The Taytay arena is big and is essentially full of hundreds of men, barking out their bets ahead of noisy cheering, as locals line up with their prize birds like Roman nobles parading their gladiators!
Not a million miles away from Taytay is Antipolo City, also in the province of Rizal, and said to be one of the most populous cities in the country and so-called Pilgrimage Capital of the Philippines. There you will find the beautiful Antipolo Cathedral, also known as the Church of Good Voyage, a popular shrine for Filipino Catholics to visit, many of whom get their cars blessed in the belief that this will ensure the safety of the vehicle and its passengers, or simply to make a prayer for a safe journey.
And it is impossible to escape the countless street vendors pedalling their religious artefacts to the seemingly endless pilgrims, who flood into a city where even Starbucks requires a security guard to coral the crowds!
Its higher elevation than that of Metro Manila affords it a scenic view of the metropolis, especially at night, and its locally grown mangoes and cashews are popular among tourists, as well as suman - a local delicacy made out of glutinous rice. The Hinulugang Taktak National Park, which was once a popular summer get-away, is gradually being restored to become again one of the city's primary attractions.
Undoubtedly religion still forms the backbone of a nation where divorce and abortion are both taboo, but in which pilgrimage and religious icons are rarely in short supply.
Thousands of people journey to the shrine of Our Lady of Regina Rosarii at Rica, a huge chapel with a very large, modern statue of Our Lady of Regina Rica atop it.
You can buy prayer candles and follow the signposted 'pilgrim's walk' to the foot of the statue. Even if you are not religious it is worth a visit for the views alone, and to witness the popularity of such a religious site.
Manila is often just the beginning of a visit that may well start at Ninoy Aquino Airport but, as with all capitals, this principal city is not representative of a country that has so many facets to its character.
By traversing considerable distances, you will see terrain that moves from scorched brown earth to lush fields, from Catholicism to tribal culture, and fast food to every conceivable 'rice' delicacy you can imagine.
However, if you only have limited time to visit the Philippines, then use Manila as your base and, within two or three days, you can take in some wonderful sights that will serve your memories well over the decades to come.
As Grandma Hopkins spent years telling me: "Don't forget Philip, travel finishes an education." Ten out of ten for the Philippines! Thanks for the inspiration Gran!
Take the Skyway toll road to Taal. It'll cost a little but MUCH quicker. Avoids traffic jams!
If you take a motorised tricycle look to see if there's the equivalent of a tricycle taxi rank, often in the local market. Prices there are usually fixed so you won't get ripped off. If in doubt agree a fee you are happy with before you set off. Ask a local what you 'should' be paying!
Carry a hat, sun cream and water with you at all times. Sunstroke is never far away!
Watch your pockets in public market environments. One pocket for the mobile, one for the wallet and a hand in each!
Street food's generally good if, sometimes, a little unhealthy. Make sure it's well cooked. Diarrhoea and tummy upset will wipe you out for 48 hours!
Men - take your hats off in churches.
(in-country travel agency / nationwide city guides / Travel & Hotel Bookings)
Tagaytay - It's Smokin', Literally!, 1st June 2016, 8:00 AM