Sunday, 24 May 2015
Have you guys ever bought a bottle of wine, only to open it at home and find out it tastes awful? It's happened to me a couple times. If it's a nice bottle that's gone off I'll usually go back to the LCBO and return it, but sometimes I end up with a wine that just tastes bad. Fortunately, I have a solution other than pouring it out: Sangria!!
I tend to use cheap wine in sangria, as the flavours of the other ingredients drown out the flavour of a good wine, so an accidental purchase of crappy wine is perfect. I don't follow a specific recipe, but I do have some building blocks: liquor (usually inexpensive whiskey or bourbon, but some friends and I made a lethal batch with vodka a while back), a soft drink (I like ginger ale, but have also had good results with Sprite and Orange Crush), and fruit. That's it. Just fill a pitcher with ice and chopped fruit, pour in the wine, and add the other ingredients to taste. Easy, right?
Saturday, 23 May 2015
Some of you may have noticed the new banner. I had the old one up for a long time, and even though I loved it when I first put it up, I realized this year that it was just too big and too busy. This time I've tried to keep things simpler: no fancy font, and only one image.
I took this photo last summer in Toronto, at the gorgeous Dineen Coffee Company, in the Financial District. The restoration project on the building won an award from the heritage group I used to work for, and I'd been looking forward to seeing it for myself. The coffee and food were all good, but the highlight was the design, especially the fantastic tile floor. I recommend checking it out next time you're in the area.
Friday, 22 May 2015
The last few days of our Hong Kong and Philippines trip was reserved for a real beach vacation on the popular island of Boracay. It is still in the province of Aklan, so from Kalibo we only needed to take a two-hour van ride to the Caticlan jetty port, a ten minute boat ride, and a ten minute tricycle ride (the rickshaw of the Philippines) before we were at our hotel. Travelling to Boracay by air is also really convenient; the Caticlan airport is only a five minute walk from the jetty port.
We stayed at Sur Boracay Beach Resort, in Station One, near the Western tip of the island. Most restaurants and island activities are found in Station Two, but, as someone who gets anxious in crowds, I really enjoyed being away from that and spending more time at our quiet end of the beach. Sur has four buildings in successive distance from the beach; we stayed in the one closest to the road because it was cheaper, but we still spent all our time on the beach or at the beach-front restaurant/bar anyway. I tend to get bored after doing sitting on a beach for more than a couple days, so four days was the perfect amount of time for a stay in Boracay.
There are tons of activities aimed at visitors to the island, and one afternoon we decided to go sailing. Late afternoon was the perfect time to go since it was still bright enough to get a good view back on the island, but the sun wasn't too harsh out at sea. A lot of people like sailing at sunset, but I definitely preferred watching the sunset from the beach with sailboats as part of the view. At night we would meet up with a cousin for drinks and other activities; one night we saw fire dancers at a beach-front shisha bar, and another night we went to a local karaoke place. I also got a massage on the last day, which was the perfect way to relax before going back to reality.
There are a lot of options for eating and drinking in Boracay, but most of it is pricey and designed to rake in the tourist dollars. A breakfast buffet was included with our room at Sur, so we would fill ourselves up and then graze at lunch time either by splitting a small meal at the hotel or grabbing something from the supermarket, and at dinner time we would head out to a restaurant in Station Two. We ate typical Filipino food at favourite chain restaurants Gerry's Grill and Inasal, and got fresh fish and chips at Tilapia 'N Chips. We drank a lot of calamansi juice, made from a tiny green citrus fruit that tastes like sweetened lime. Very good, very refreshing, and offered at basically every restaurant, resort, and bar on the island. One night we were both hankering for a burger, so we tried the Filipino chain ArmyNavy Burger + Burrito; it's fast food but tasted really good, and I finally got to try banana ketchup. Unfortunately something was not right with my burger, and I got horrible food poisoning that left me in bed for the entirety of our last day. Clem's meal was totally fine, but boy am I glad we were armed with Pepto Bismol and tons of water.
Illness aside, I really enjoyed our little beach retreat. It felt good to have the sun on my face and to spend so much time outside! But, according to Clem, who has been to Boracay a number of times over the years, the island has become really commercialized and crowded. I found the same thing - the central tourist areas are very, very crowded, and prices have been jacked way up. Luckily we had a cousin and some friends to show us the cheaper places and get us discounts on stuff, but next time we want a beach vacation we might try somewhere a little less crowded - Palawan and Cebu look like fabulous destinations.
This wraps up posts on our trip to Hong Kong and the Philippines. Now I'm working on posts about our post-vacation vacation to Kyoto, which is such a beautiful city. Stay tuned!
Monday, 11 May 2015
After two nights in Manila, Clem and I flew to Kalibo, in the province of Aklan, where his mother's family is from. We had the welcoming committee at the airport, and then a huge family feast for lunch; I was a bit anxious about meeting so many new people who knew exactly who I was, but everyone was very warm and welcoming. I'm going to need a chart to keep track of all the relatives, though!
Lunch was followed by a long siesta, and then just before sunset a couple of us went over to Bakhawan Eco-Park, a mangrove forest that is not only beautiful, but also prevents the major flooding that used to plague the area. The path through the forest is about 1km one way, and once we came out the other side we decided to hire a small boat to go out to the sand bar. We got there just as the sun was setting, so the view was beautiful. It was good timing too, since we were the last group the boat driver was going to take for the day. There are also a couple cantinas in the Eco-Park, but they were both closed by the time we got there.
The next morning some of the family piled into a van and drove down to Jawili Falls, a series of small waterfalls cascading into rock pools. The park around it has been modestly developed for tourists so there are small cabanas with tables, perfect for a lunch break, as well as toilets and showers and a small refreshment stand. For a small fee Clem and I went up to the falls area with some cousins, and we scrambled up rocks and across streams, stopping every now and then to put our feet in the water. Clem and I hadn't been told where we were going so we didn't have a change of clothes for swimming, which I would have liked to have done since the weather was scorching, and the water was clear and cool. Next time!
For our last full day in Kalibo we stayed around the centre of town, visiting the Museo it Akean (Museum of Aklan) and Kalibo Cathedral. The museum is small, but is loaded with artefacts; one branch of Clem's family are very involved with the museum, so one of the cousins was able to give us a tour. I was particularly taken with the cathedral; it's been reconstructed a number of times, and the inside was a gorgeous blend of original exposed brick and new plasterwork. It was empty when we stopped by, so I took my time looking around.
We also made stops to visit family, first at Thumbelina, a book store run by an auntie, and then at the home of family matriarch Lola Susing ("Lola" means grandmother, but can also be used for great aunts; Lola Susing is the sister of Clem's maternal grandfather). She is an impressive 98 years old, and we had a great time visiting with her and talking about the family. She gave us a copy of her late husband's book of poems, and wrote a lovely inscription for us emphasizing that she is praying "for a great event that may come [our] way in the near future." Message received, Lola!
While in Kalibo we stayed at the Ati-Atihan Festival Hostel, near the centre of the city. Ati-Atihan is an annual Aklanon festival that takes place every January; we missed it in Kalibo by a couple weeks, but we've attended celebrations in Toronto in the past. The hostel (more like a hotel) is run by part of Clem's family, and the original building is actually the house in which his mother grew up! From our room we could see the spot Clem was bitten by a monkey as a child. It was a great place to stay: it's clean and spacious, staff are courteous and helpful, and it's in the centre of town.
Kalibo is a nice town and is worth a visit, but what I loved most about it was connecting to pieces of Clem's past and meeting a lot of his family. After our visit we headed to the island paradise of Boracay for our real beach vacation. A post on that coming up soon!
Friday, 8 May 2015
After Hong Kong, Clem and I flew to the Philippines. He has a lot of extended family there and visits every few years, but this was my first time. We were in Manila, the sprawling capital city, for about 48 hours at the beginning of our trip, and then an afternoon and overnight at the end.
When we first arrived, we spent two nights at Hotel H2O, located on Manila Bay and next to Manila Ocean Park. We got a great deal thanks to some family connections, and stayed in an aquarium room; instead of a window, we had a giant aquarium along one wall! It was actually quite calming to listen to the water and watch the fish swim around. The room also came equipped with complimentary snacks (an easy way to my heart) and toiletries. I loved our room, and even though I was horribly sick the second night I was able to curl up with a bunch of pillows in the insanely comfortable bed and feel a little less miserable.
After arriving at the airport in Manila we were picked up by some cousins and driven to an auntie's house in the countryside for a big family lunch, so for dinner we decided to keep things simple and eat at the hotel restaurant, Makan Makan. The menu was absolutely huge, which I generally don't love, but we were eventually able to decide on a few dishes to share. It was all fresh and delicious, and I enjoyed watching the cooks at work in the huge open kitchen in the middle of the restaurant.
For our one full day in Manila, we did a lot of walking in the area near the hotel. We went first to Luneta Park, right across the street, sometimes referred to as "Rizal Park" in homage to the national hero José Rizal. The park is more of a curated area for statues as opposed to an open green space, but I enjoyed the walk, and had my very own private tour guide/boyfriend to give me a brief rundown of Filipino history. It was crazy hot and the park has few shady areas, so after one loop around we continued on our way to Intramuros, Manila's oldest district.
The district was initially built by the Spanish in the late 16th century, but suffered severe damage in World War II, during a battle to take back the city from the Japanese Imperial Army (little known fact: Manila was the second most devastated city during WWII, after Warsaw). Few of the remaining buildings are original, but many were reconstructed to look as they once had, helping preserve the architectural heritage of the district. We stopped in at San Augustin Church (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and Manila Cathedral, had a shade and drink break in the Plaza San Luis Complex, and then headed to Fort Santiago. After a walk through the famous gate and along the walls, we escaped into the air conditioned haven of the Rizal Shrine, a small museum dedicated to José Rizal. We took our time going through; Clem had been before and in the intervening years had done quite a bit of research on Filipino history, so he was able to augment the information given in the exhibitions for me, which was awesome.
After exiting the museum we still had some time to kill before family dinner plans, so we walked over to Manila Bay. It's not particularly beautiful, but I enjoyed being outside and seeing the little bit of Manila that surrounded the hotel. At dinner time we were picked up by some more cousins and driven to Clem's uncle's house in Tondo. Tito Roy is a successful butcher in his neighbourhood, so dinner was fantastic, and, in true Filipino style, plentiful! After eating we played with babies and cats (and baby cats), and even did some karaoke, a favourite nighttime activity in the Philippines (not just in Japan!). I'd heard so much about these cousins, so I really enjoyed finally getting to meet this part of the family. On a more serious note, Tondo is a district made up of a network of slums, and is not exactly the place a tourist should just wander into. Al Jazeera produced a great documentary on the area; I'd recommend giving it a watch.
At the end of our trip we were back in Manila overnight, and this time we stayed in another auntie's vacant condo near the Mall of Asia. We ventured over to the mall for a late lunch at Jollibee, the favourite fast food restaurant of the Philippines. This was the first chance we'd had to eat there, and the last chance we had before leaving, so I decided to go all out and order the typical meal: Chicken Joy (seasoned fried chicken) with a side of sweet spaghetti (yep, you read that right), and Sarsi (a Filipino soft drink that tastes like root beer). I enjoyed it, even if the sweet spaghetti was pretty crazy. And even though I don't eat a lot of fast food, everyone visiting the Philippines should eat at Jollibee at least once.
For dinner that night we tried to go to a popular Mexican restaurant in the fashionable district of Makati, but the queue was long and turnover didn't seem to be very fast. So we cut our losses and cabbed over to Quezon City for Middle Eastern food at Mister Kabab. It had been a long time since I'd had good Middle Eastern food (I'm missing Ottawa staple Shawarma Palace like crazy), and I was so happy to have a delicious beef kebab. Mister Kabab was also busy, but it's a large place with bench seating, so it wasn't long before we got a table.
We didn't spend a lot of time in Manila this trip since we wanted more of a beach vacation (more on that coming later), but I'm sure we'll be back again before too long.