Monthly Archives: March 2023

The Philippines, part two… The Islands, A Magical Tropical Wedding


The Island of Bohol

As I write this second Philippines post, I’m so pleased that part one made you feel as if you were along with us on this journey. As for this long read and the copious photos, well, there’s just so much to share! In fact it was always the intention that this ‘destination wedding’ wasn’t only about the wedding, but also an adventure shared by two families… and it so very much was.

Before we rendezvous with the Pacis gang, the Wilsons celebrate New Years; a new ‘best exotic family revelry’ to add to the previous one in India. That New Year’s Eve, our train from Agra had been eight hours late and we rolled into our Delhi hotel just in time to get the party started. Now, we’ll ring in 2023 on the island of Bohol. A flight from Manila to Cebu, a fast ferry and we’re deposited on the country’s tenth largest island. Seventy smaller islands comprise Bohol province but we need only to cross a causeway from the main island to our destination, Panglao, with the Bohol Sea our playground.

The name Bohol derives from a tree that was once abundant on theses islands and today it is still rich in flora and fauna, and especially marine biodiversity. It’s also home to a range of curious uplifted limestone cones, the Chocolate Hills and to the world’s smallest primate, the tarsier monkey. Sadly we don’t see either, but instead stay fairly close to the resort and Panglao town. It’s rainy and still a little cool, yet thankfully the weather cooperates for a guided boat tour which includes snorkelling.

As we approach a small inlet, bangkas jostle for a parking spot as their green and blue hulls sparkle against the dreamy turquoise water. And praise-be, the sun is finally brilliant! The beach is lined with simple family owned establishments – cafes and rentals of snorkelling gear offered all in one. There’s no shortage of dogs lazing about and bangka crews chatting over morning coffee. Our bangka-captain has directed us towards a particular business, it’s seemingly an all family-affair, making the tourism-based economy go around. After coffee and with snorkelling gear chosen, we meander to a cove that we enjoy to ourselves. We’ve loved snorkelling since our days living in the Middle East and the marine life here is as spectacular as anywhere… vibrant coral, clownfish, lion fish and starfish in rainbow hues. As the sun sparkles on the water, I feel rapturously happy; privileged to be a part of this wondrous underwater world.

The Philippines is considered to be in the top eight countries in the world to snorkel with substantial coral reefs and more than 3000 species of fish. And of course it’s also a premier archipelago for diving. Between here and our next island destination, most of the gang dives and they return exuberant with tales of a seabed festooned with coral; fan-shaped, brain-shaped and everything in between, creating exotic habitats for turtles and fish of every stripe and hue.

Our resort on this island is along a few back streets from the main street of Panglao. It’s pleasant, though we regret that it isn’t situated along the beach itself. Alona Beach is a lively stretch of beautiful white sand, bars, restaurants and towering palm trees… all enchanting in their either straight, crooked or leaning statures. And I’m besotted with them. Perhaps palm trees signify those tropical countries that I came to love, from the date palm groves of Oman to the ubiquitous palm-fringed villages and cities of India. If there’s one palm that I adore, it’s the travellers palm. Our resort, The Scent of The Green Papaya, happens to have a few of them anchoring and beautifying the pool area. They’re simply a perfect backdrop for our swims and poolside chats.

The traveller’s palm or traveller’s tree is iconic, impossibly uniform and tall. In reality it’s a member of the family Strelitziaceaea, plants that include the flamboyant bird-of-paradise flower… so technically not a true palm at all. Its scientific name is Ravenala, meaning ‘forest leaves’ and indeed the leaves are enormous and paddle-shaped, fanning out in perfect symmetry, each as much as 11 metres in length. There are a number of theories as to why it’s referred to as traveller’s palm. It’s said that the arc of its foliage always faces a certain direction in response to sunlight. Unfortunately in the many countries I’ve admired them, I haven’t noted their compass orientation! Perhaps the more practical answer for their name is down to the rain that’s channelled into the interlocking U-shaped leaves, collecting in the centre of the tree that might have offered water to thirsty travellers. Just as much as I adore flowers, I find myself pausing to admire and touch palms whenever I get the chance.

And so we celebrate New Years in Panglao; a wonderful dinner, then a boisterous welcome of 2023 with other revellers on a rooftop bar. There’s a crazy machine blowing foam that mimics the snow we left behind in Canada, the locals taking turns to wade in and out with delight. A DJ spins the night alive and our plans to celebrate on the beach fade with each great dance tune. We stay put and at midnight, our vantage point is brilliant as fireworks cascade out over the island to the Bohol Sea. It’s a beautiful night to round out a pleasant stay on Bohol. On reflection though, we all agree that perhaps we should have trimmed our travelling ambitions and ventured to only two islands instead of three. If you’re planing a trip, be mindful of how much time you have and consider how many travel days your itinerary requires. Of course this applies to any destination, but especially when you’re island hopping. Even so, we’re delighted to have experienced something of the central Philippines. But now we’re off to the ‘wedding island’!

The Island of Palawan

As we board the flight from Cebu to Palawan Island, Luke and Trixie’s smiles are wide with anticipation…. they’re off to get married, and in a place they know will charm us all. They happen to have been on the island previously, not long after they started dating, and they promise that the resort they’ve chosen is ‘rather sublime’. The Pacis family has already arrived in El Nido Town and this evening we’re planning a night out, followed by an early morning transfer by van, bangka and speed boat to the resort. I’ve never been so thankful to be only travelling with a carry-on. Full disclosure though, there might just be a few things stored in left luggage back at the Manila Airport!

It’s a dramatic arrival as our AirSWIFT flight descends into El Nido Airport. We skim through the clouds past a breathtaking seascape of sugarloaf islands and shadowy limestone cliffs rising precipitously from the sea. Formed 250 million years ago, they’re surreal and haunting, and oh so dramatic. The plane touches down mere metres from the beach, wheels abruptly contacting the short runway, the kind of landing that makes you want to applaud as you suspect it’s not the easiest of descents. Cradled amongst the lush tropical jungle, the small airport is charming and an acquaintance of Joey’s from a previous visit greets us. The ‘Welcome Back’ sign is a special touch from El Nido Island Tours.

We arrive at our Inn for the evening, it’s a joyous reunion for the eleven of us. There’s immediate chatter as the guys discuss and deconstruct the dramatic plane landings. Joey and I toast with a margarita, ‘To the mothers!’ Ayla and Marga present the bride-to-be with a tropical shirt with none other than the bridegroom emblazened upon it. Very appropro with the bucket hats – the stagette look is complete!

True to what we’ve encountered on other islands, Palawan has yet another unique version of the motorized tricycle. These ones seat three, so the guys head off in one direction, girls in another, and it’s a fun ‘stag evening’ two days before the wedding. Bar-hopping along El Nido’s lively streets, we meet up later in an open air bar on the beach. Laser lights play upon a boat wreck by the shore, now somewhat of a novelty, yet a sad reminder of the most recent tropical typhoon. On Dec. 17, 2021, Typhoon Rai hit Palawan causing severe damage and loss of life. As I admire the Palm trees decorating one of the walls (hey, I live in a pine forest) I’m mindful of how fortunate we are to be here and contributing just that little bit to the post-pandemic recovery. I gaze outwards the sea and notice the shimmering, beguiling moon… it’s going to be a full moon wedding!

El Nido Resort on Lagen Island

As our bangka cruises towards Lagen Island, one of four El Nido Resorts, we’re mesmerized. We’re only about 420 kilometres south-west from Manila, almost at the northernmost tip of the main island of Palawan and yet it feels almost otherworldly. Now up close, the towering limestone cliffs are majestic and the water impossibly clear and blue. We’ve travelled for a good hour or so from El Nido Town, so there’s a feeling of being entirely tucked away on a treasured place on earth. Yet we’re not quite alone as I watch swiftlets darting in and out of the cliffs. In fact El Nido, means ‘the nest’ in Spanish and as a frequent visitor to nearby Malaysia, how I know the story of swiftlets!

Chinese traders have been visiting this area since the 900’s to gather the edible-nests created by the saliva of swiftlets. Known as the ‘Caviar of the East’ Birds Nest Soup is extremely rare, coveted and expensive. Yes, the main ingredient is the nest of a swiftlet and one of the most expensive animal products consumed by humans. No, I’ve never tried it, but I may have collected a prized soup bowl or two. Yet I haven’t seen a natural swiftlet habitat this close up – the ‘swiftlet-houses’ in Penang are another story!

We’re assigned a resort ‘water butler’ now with us for the next four days, and he’s a character. Lover – yes his name, in that endearing Filipino nickname tradition – tells us about the inner caves within the cliffs, noting that ‘cultivation’ of the nests has reverted to a system of traditional ownership from some manner of centralised control. Despite this, poaching is an ongoing problem and ascending up internal crevices to collect nests is a dangerous occupation. Still about 100,000 nests are exported annually, mostly to the Chinese markets throughout southeast Asia.

We know we’ve arrived as one of our bangka-guys, pole in hand, climbs to the prow of the boat to guide us onto the transfer boat that will take us into the lagoon. Before us, nestled amongst the cliffs are two strands of pearl-white villas perched on stilts above the water, curving around the small bay on either side of the restaurant, bar and pool area. As we make our way from the dock pavilion past a string of villas ringing the long, long pier, we hear the sound of drums, guitar and singing. A woven necklace is proffered to each as we’re greeted with a lively song… it’s a thrilling welcome and emotional first impression!

We’ve arrived two days before the wedding and it is instant bliss. All of it! Our gorgeous villas with the exquisite views, playful monkeys amongst the verdant jungle behind. Jaunts to snorkel and paddle in pristine waters, swimming through fish shoals, watching turtles go their solitary ways. And the dining is superb, three times a day we are beyond spoiled, and it transpires that here as well, we’re entertained as we dine in the evenings. Much to the delight of the other guests, Joey joins with one of the talented staff members, Mike, and as always she’s gracious with her adoring fans. These are lovely evenings wrapped in music, long dinners and seeing the ‘kids’ connect as one family.

We’re all incredibly calm as the wedding day arrives. As most everyone heads out for a morning snorkel, even the bride and groom, I stay behind and refine my dinner speech. From my perch on the dining room terrace, I watch as the hard-working resort crew load up bangkas with all that a beach wedding entails. Back and forth they ferry and they’d later proclaim, “This was the happiest wedding we’ve seen in twelve years!” And so it was!

The chosen spot is just around the cliffs, at Cove 2 and after the traditional ‘first look’ at the resort we are jetted off about 4 pm. Stepping out onto the sable sands, we see the transformation of a ‘merely’ beautiful beach to a magical tropical wedding venue. The backdrop is a palm-fringed cliff, framed by sand and lapping water just a few metres away. The aisle and altar are adorned with palm leaves and burnt-orange birds of paradise, creating an al fresco chapel. The simple benches provide seating for just the eight of us, Bruce is officiating, and yet it feels like the eleven of us and this magical backdrop is all we need for the joyous union of Luke and Trixie. And it felt fitting that we’re mostly barefoot, feeling the sand between our toes, a simple connection to this place on this special day.

The bride and groom profess the most beautiful of hand written vows, and a hand-fasting ceremony seals their union. We pop champagne, we toast, hug and revel in the moment. We pose for official photos and also take photos on the beach, unable to resist feeling the water, making it our own. Lover now becomes our unofficial ‘official’ photographer, just one example of how tremendously we’re catered and cared for.

And then it begins… the heavens open and the rain comes down – showering us with its blessing, we say. We run, laughing, gathering up our things and head for cover. The beautiful dinner setting is rescued. The rain starts and stops, holding off long enough for dinner and the slideshow presentation about two kids who grew up thousands of miles apart and somehow through a near impossible stroke of karma ended up in each others lives. We then just let it rain that warm tropical rain, each of us wordlessly, agreeing to revel in the moment; extracting joy and delight from the experience of this improbable scene. Speeches ensued, a serenade or two by Joey, laughter and blessings for these two kindred souls who have built a charmed life together.

We dance, we sing, we party and then much to my absolute joy, the clouds part and that full moon graces us with its presence. And at some point, late in the evening, we just might have taken a swim in those warm tropical waters… just moon-beams, magic and love on a remote tropical island!

The Philippines, part one… Christmas, Music & Manila


Each blog I write is special to me and the next two posts are particularly poignant. Not only was this my first trip to the Philippines, it was a family adventure which culminated in our eldest son’s wedding. Trixie, the talented and beautiful bride-to-be, was five years old when her family emigrated from Manila to Vancouver and getting to know her roots and heritage was something we were all looking forward to. We would discover the nuances of a warm people who have a distinct and rich heritage. One which most certainly includes a love of music!

Just before Christmas, in the midst of a mass disruption of flights due to snowstorms, my husband, Luke and Trixie, and our middle son Matt, somehow managed to fly from Vancouver to Manila. I had just a quick jaunt from Bangkok and after a month of travelling in Malaysia and Thailand, I was overjoyed to be reunited with my gang. The Ninoy Aquino International Airport was festive. Sparkling Christmas trees, a life-sized nativity scene and a quartet welcomed us arrivals with carols and a warm Mabuhay!

As families joyously reunited, it felt like a mini Christmas ‘miracle’ that five of us had arrived within hours of each other. The services of a personal driver to navigate us out of the city was also a blessing as the first thing that strikes you about Manila is the vastness of the city. With its long stretch of modern high rises silhouetted against Manila Bay, it’s one of the most densely populated inner cities in the world. We’d see much more of it soon, but for now, our driver deftly maneuvered us through the endless flows of traffic.

We’ll be spending Christmas on a little slice of paradise. Leaving the main island of Luzon, home to Manila, we make our way southwest to the island of Mindoro… by van, ferry and bangka. The reality of traveling in the Philippines, with 7,640 islands, is the necessity of internal flights and ferries that requires planning and often ample patience. It means travelling fairly light and accepting that weather delays or cancellations might well interrupt your travel plans.

Yet such delays are also when you chat with locals and see day to day life unfold. Coffee is mostly from a packet and always pre-sweetened and milky. Noodle pots aplenty, for a few pesos… my guys were up to nine total on a three-hour journey! It’s where you learn that you don’t look for a Toilet, but for the CR, the essential Comfort Room! In ferry terminals you might also find organizations such as for blind people, who for a small donation offer shoulder massages or serenade as you wait. And it’s in those delays, you note the polite and the good-natured personalities of Filipinos.

After a four-hour drive to Batangas, then a ferry to Puerto Galera, we arrive on the seventh largest island in the country, Mindoro. Known for its dive sites and sandy white beaches, the province of Oriental Mindoro is steeped with history. Chinese and Southeast Asian traders sailed the waters long before the arrival of the Spaniards; the bay a convenient place to shelter ships, and to store, load and unload trading goods. Puerto Galera means ‘Port of the Galley’ but in 1574, it also became one of the oldest missionary settlements amongst the islands.

Nowadays locals and travellers ply the waters in a bangka and I’m immediately smitten with them. Varying in size, these native watercraft of the Philippines originated from single-outrigger dugout canoes. Picture them as some of the first ocean-voyaging vessels in the world from 3000 to 1500 BCE, allowing the Austronesian Expansion from China and Taiwan, to Southeast Asia and beyond. As we’re bangkaed to our resort, we catch the first glimpses of the vibrant colours and the range of the carefully chosen names each owner subscribes to his carrier. It’s also soon evident how logistically and culturally significant they are to these island communities. We jump on and off of them time and time again throughout our travels. We see them being lovingly repaired and repainted. On our boat a father is teaching his son the tricks-of-the-tides… just as one would acquire your learner’s license for a vehicle. And always, a firm hand is offered to escort you onto the pier or the beach as you step down from the bangka.

As our bangka drifts up to our Christmas resort, we’re taken by its shore-side beauty and the simple elegance of the accommodation. Perched hillside, roofs poking out amongst towering palm trees, the villas at Casalay Boutique Villas & Dive are absolutely dreamy. Throughout our four day stay, the staff is welcoming and ensure we feel very much at home. The food is familiar yet infused with Filipino novelties such as pancit and sinigang. We all agree it’s the ideal start to our three week Philippines adventure. One can only leave the resort by bangka, we’re situated between the diving hub of Sabang and the town of Puerto Galera. So we mostly relax, swim, snorkel, day trip and generally give thanks that five out of our seven have managed to arrive on schedule. Trixie feels immediately at home and slips in and out of the Philippine language, formerly known as Tagalog. Speaking the local language comes in handy at one particular ferry terminal snarl and it won’t be the only time we’re thankful to have a ‘local’ on the ground. As seasoned travellers we expect challenges, but we’ve learned to embrace them and add them fondly to our long list of traveller’s stories.

Christmas day is full of heart warming vignettes; strolling the streets of Puerto Galera, visiting a charitable school, admiring tropical plants along a jungle path to a waterfall. We brave local modes of transportation throughout the day… those iconic sturdy jeepneys and the more precarious motorized trishaws. And we get our first glimpse of what will become one the most endearing hallmarks of Filipino culture. Late afternoon, we arrive at the bustling White Beach for Happy Hour where tourists and locals are understandably soaking up the sun. The weather has been a little cloudy and chilly; it feels fitting that some warmth is bestowed upon us for Christmas day.

As we chat over a round of San Miguels, two waiters keep us entertained. Elmer and ‘Felix’ are amusing and flamboyant. In fact, they’re fabulous and proudly proclaim that they identify as bakla – a person, male at birth, who has adopted a feminine gender expression. By the second round of Migs, Trixie reveals that she’s the daughter of the iconic Joey Albert, one of the Philippines most beloved singers. Seeing the disbelief and giddy delight from these locals is thrilling and it seems that a love ballad is the only way to honour the moment! As they google lyrics to one of Joey’s most classic songs, ‘I Remember The Boy,’ Elmer, who has just regaled us with a flag rendition of his flame juggling skills, proclaims, “It’s a very special moment to meet Ma’am Joey’s daughter, it’s a wonderful day!” As the three devoted fans harmonize and improvise, Trixie now Facetimes her mom back in Vancouver. The three are suddenly serenading Joey with her own song. It’s a joyous scene, one that portends all of the wonderful music we’ll hear throughout the trip.

We bangka it back to the resort in time to change for Christmas dinner and we’re happy to hear that Trixie’s sister and partner are unexpectedly joining us, yes due to one of those tropical flight cancellations. Bit by bit, the Pacis/Wilson group of eleven is arriving in the country in anticipation of the wedding on January 6th. But this evening has a magic all of its own. A gentle breeze drifts through the outdoor dining area and palms gently sway under the glow of a waxing moon. The table is set beautifully as the Christmas lights shimmer throughout the resort, and to our delight, we’re serenaded by a young musical duo. The two sing and play everything from Christmas songs to Kylie Minogue, and we learn that these local celebs perform as far away as Dubai. Late into the second set, like an impromptu karaoke, they invite anyone to come up and sing. Unfortunately, none of us have the voice or the nerve it seems… no, not even the singer’s daughter! Yet one of the guests and then a staff member gladly take the stage and perform a few songs.

“Is this usual, for just anyone to get up and sing during a performance?” I ask Trixie.

“It sure is, you’ll see it everywhere. It’s just that everyone here knows how to sing!”

And so it seems to be the case and just as it was late afternoon, it’s another entertaining musical flourish. Yet there’s more. One of the staff members is a pole dancer in nearby Sabang and at once, a table is his makeshift stage. The guests love it, we all clap madly and I notice that for each performance there’s no judgement, just the joy of spontaneity and freedom of expression. The day seems to encapsulate the love of song and dance of the Filipino people and also the embrace of acceptance. It’s been a memorable Christmas day and we bid the staff a warm thank you and Merry Christmas. As we climb the palm-fringed steps to our villas, music and laughter drifts up towards us and off into the jungle canopy. At breakfast the next morning, the staff tells us that they had a beautiful long evening of singing and laughter; a very Merry Christmas for everyone!

A few days later, we make our way back to Manila. Ayla and Andrew will arrive, making our family of seven complete. Trixie’s parents will arrive after New Year’s where we’ll all meet in El Nido on the island of Palawan for the wedding.


Our introduction to Manila begins where it should, amongst the historic fortress walls of Intramuros. Oral history suggests that the original Maynila (which translates to where indigo is found) was founded as a Muslim principality as early as the 1250’s with archeological findings suggesting organized human settlements dating around the 1500’s. It evolved into a trading centre with ties to the Sultanate of Brunei and to traders from China during the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644.) In 1565, sees the arrival of Martin De Goiti leading an expedition of Spanish colonizers. The ‘Battle of Maynila’ ensued in May of 1570 and by June the next year, conquistadors established a city council and declared the islands a territory of New Spain, as Mexico was then known. The Spanish attained great wealth in their new outpost of Manila, atop the subjugation of the local population. The Acapulco galleon trade transported goods from Europe, Africa and Hispanic America across the Pacific Islands to Southeast Asia and vice versa. Silver, Chinese silk, Indian gems, Malaysian and Indonesian spices, wine and olives all passed through Manila Bay. And as any colonizers would deem necessary, the Spanish built the fortressed enclave of Intramuros. Alongside Mexico City and Madrid, it became one of the world’s original set of global cities.

As a former tour guide/historian, I know that one of the best ways to get to know a city is to treat yourself to a tour. I chose Bamboo Bicycle which couldn’t have given us a better introduction. We meet in the iconic courtyard of a former Chinese merchant’s mansion and before choosing our bikes for the three-hour journey through Intramuros, we hear how incredibly diverse the city was with people from many lands. This inevitably led to a blending of peoples, the mestizos, a people of mixed races… a true melting pot of cultural complexity and ethnic diversity.

As we cycle along the walls and in and out of the grand city gates, the cobbled streets are lively against the backdrop of lush palms, bougainvillea, busy parks and tucked away cafes. As the religious and educational center of the Spanish East Indies, Intramuros boasted the oldest university in Asia and today houses many more. We pass through the original city gates where nearby cannons and bulwarks protected it from not only foreign invaders, but also from perceived threats nearby such as the Chinese community at Binondo, believed to be the oldest Chinatown in the world.

The pleasant atmosphere belies the history of the next foreign occupier. Spain surrendered the Philippines to the United States after the Spanish-American War for a price of $20 million. As the American flag was hoisted over Fort Santiago in 1898, a new period commenced. The Manila Hotel is central to that next phase of the city’s and country’s history. Its address of One Rizal Park, reflects this; Jose Rizal was the beloved national hero who became a leader in advocating for political reforms against the Spanish Colonial occupiers. When Rizal was executed by the Spanish in 1896, he wouldn’t know that his country would be purchased just a few years later. His writings however, inspired a revolution not only against the Spanish but the incoming Americans. A mere forty years later, the hotel would then be occupied by the Japanese Army and set on fire during the Battle for Liberation of Manila, the Philippines and the US now united against the Japanese and Spanish Mercenaries. For all of the urban fighting, mass murder and deprivation that occurred, The Manila Hotel seems now to proudly signify a people that finally won its independence on July 4, 1946.


In the tradition of the ‘grand old dame’, the iconic Manila Hotel, is just a few blocks from the old city walls we explored. It prides itself on being the oldest premier hotel in the Philippines and at this time of year it’s simply splendid in its Christmas’s best. The expansive lobby is festooned for the season and is a backdrop for family gatherings and celebrations. It’s an opportunity to see locals dressed in their finery – especially the national formal shirt the barong – and to experience the warmth of family as generations gather. Filipino families are often large as they extend to titos and titas, uncles and aunts, both family or friends who are very much part of the family. As we wait in the lobby to welcome Andrew and Ayla who’ve just arrived, Kumukutikutitap, rings out, enhancing the festive tone. This is Joey Albert’s well-loved Christmas song, it’s lyrical and happy… flickering, bubbling, twinkling stars, gifts and decorations on Christmas trees, a lucky star on top. It’s a fitting song for the happy moment as Andrew and Ayla glide through the revolving doors. I couldn’t be more thankful and excited for the island adventures, and the wedding ahead and the union of our two families.

To be continued in part two…