Coming Wednesday

Food from the Philippines comes from a diverse culinary heritage. Post and Courier food writer Hanna Raskin offers insights into the local Filipino community and takes a look at three restaurants and a food truck.

- I sat on the front porch of our beachfront cottage reading a book awaiting sunset over the South China Sea.

The leaves on some small palms growing out of the confectionery sugar sand danced in the breeze as the sun slipped below a mountain ridge on the nearby island of Busuanga. The sky burst into a kaleidoscope of colors mirrored off the soft ocean waves.

The light show lasted nearly an hour.

I'm sure sunsets are as stunning in many other places, but it's hard to beat this exotic setting.

My wife and I and our daughter, Anya, son-in-law and three grandkids arrived to the tackily named but fashionable resort of Club Paradise for a four-day weekend stay. The trip required an hour flight south out of Manila to the Busuanga airport where we were welcomed by a small group of wildly swaying and banging drummers letting us know that we were definitely off the beaten path. Busuanga is the northernmost point at the top of 300-mile-long Palawan Island, a narrow arrow of land that juts southwest out into the South China Sea and is the Philippines' westernmost major island chain.

From Busuanga airport we boarded a van for a 45-minute drive over a rutted, dirt road through farms and small villages until we came to a landing where a slender boat with delicate outriggers that resembled an overgrown water spider waited to take us to the island resort.

Once aboard, we traveled along a tidal creek bordered with thick mangrove. After about 20 minutes, we passed a small fishing village and broke free into the South China Sea and steered toward a speck of green in the distance that would be our home for the next few days. Our boat landed bow-first on to the snowy-white beach. The crew placed a narrow wooden plank from the bow to the beach and we arrived at Club Paradise, which occupied much of Dimyaka Island.

Doing nothing

The resort is a collection of beach-hugging, individual cottages designed to look like traditional, raised Filipino huts and a pool area surrounded by a bar, game room, store, dive shop and a large dining area where the meals were served buffet-style. It wasn't fine-dining, but the entrees were tasty, nicely served and came in unending variety and cuisines, from American to Filipino to Chinese. My favorite item was the fresh-cut papaya. I am a fruit lover, but papaya and mango long have been on the bottom end of my taste. Both usually seem so mushy back in the states. But here was papaya to make you give up all other fruits. And the resort also served papaya juice. Heaven.

Eating occupied a central part of our stay on Dimyaka, along with enjoying the ocean views, the sun, the clear aqua water, reading, drinking and napping. Basically we spent the days zoned-out in paradise. Others take advantage of the spectacular diving on reefs near this island and throughout the Palawan chain.

We did dedicate one day for a trip to an island animal reserve, which was about a 90-minute trip aboard two different boats, a larger one for the ocean and a smaller one for a jungle-encased tidal creek.

The reserve is the creation of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who offered to help several African nations where leaders were concerned that poaching and development might result in the extinction of numerous wild animals.

Marcos created an Eden of sorts to protect the animals and some 100-plus species of nonmeat-eating animals ended up on the island preserve. They include giraffes, rhinos and impalas, which mostly roam free on the island under the watchful eye of a handful of custodians, one of whom guided us on a walk through part of the savannah where many of the animals graze.

One giraffe gave a sloppy kiss to my grandson, Wyatt Townsend, when he clenched a bunch of fresh leaves in his teeth and held it up for the giraffe to nibble. A few endangered Filipino animals have been added to the preserve, including the dwarf Calamian deer.

Booming Manila

The first impression a visitor gets on first arrival in this booming metropolis is: "This is one big city!" Everything seems under construction. Two or three construction cranes precariously perch like praying mantis atop high-rises across the endless skyline of this metropolis of 12 million.

But down on the streets, the ugly reality of this Third World economic dynamo (now among the fastest growing in Asia) assaults the eyes, ears and nose.

Shanties of wood, paper and corrugated metal fill alleys and every empty space. They often rise several stories high, looking as sturdy as multi-storied houses of cards. Woeful eyes stare from within. The streets form a mad tangle of noise, people and vehicles of all shapes and sizes, from buses and bicycles to luxury German cars and motorbikes with steel cage sidecars for paying passengers.

And then there are the Jeepneys. These descendants of the thousands of Jeeps American soldiers left behind at the end of World War II are now actually made new to look the way they do. Most are clad in shiny silver or brightly painted metal. The front and hood resembles a Jeep, but from the driver back, it looks more like a long station wagon with an open door at the back end where paying passengers can jump on and off. Jeepneys are the most popular and cheapest form of public transportation in the Philippines, and they are everywhere.

Ties to America

The history and culture of the Philippines has been intertwined with the United States since May 1898 when, at the beginning of the Spanish-American War, U.S. Navy Commodore George Dewey sailed his squadron of gunboats into Manila Bay, destroyed the Spanish Pacific fleet and ultimately took control of the Philippines.

Filipinos initially hailed the American victory and declared their independence from three centuries of often brutish Spanish rule. Soon, however, it became apparent that the U.S. had gotten caught up in the dying spirit of European colonialism and was going to hold on to the giant, 7,100-island archipelago. A bloody three-year rebellion followed before the American military defeated the rebels in 1902. The fight took the lives of more than 4,000 American troops and 20,000 Filipino soldiers.

The Philippines then largely disappeared from America's consciousness until shortly after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor launched the U.S. into World War II. Japan then invaded the Philippines, forcing American and Philippine forces under Gen. Douglas MacArthur to retreat to the strongholds of the Bataan Peninsula and the fortress island of Corregidor. The Bataan forces would hold on until April when they surrendered and were forced on the infamously brutal Bataan Death March. The exact numbers of soldiers who died or were killed in the march varies with accounts. But of the approximately 75,000 Filipino and American troops who surrendered, as many as 10,000 Filipino and possibly 650 American prisoners of war died before the end of the 60-mile trek. Many were bayoneted by Japanese soldiers when they fell and couldn't walk.

Corregidor, the "Gibraltar of the Pacific," bristled with cannon to protect the entrance to Manila Bay. But it would fall a month later, not long after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered Gen. MacArthur to flee the island so he could organize and command the ultimate American and Allied military victory in the Pacific.

MacArthur, who suffered a bit of claustrophobia, rejected a sub escape and chose instead a speedy PT boat and made it to Australia where he uttered the famous phrase "I shall return."

Today, Corregidor is a national landmark and visitors can stand at the north shore pier from which MacArthur escaped. Tours of the island, the bombed-out American barracks and the numerous gun emplacements can be arranged through Sun Cruises, which departs Manila at 7:30 a.m. for the hour-long boat ride to Corregidor and returns about 4 p.m.

The fee includes lunch and a guided tour of the island. You can walk through the Malinta Tunnel, a virtually bombproof, cavern complex dug through granite by the Army Corps of Engineers.

During the Battle of Corregidor, it housed MacArthur, his command staff, a hospital and supplies. Many of the surviving American cannons on Corregidor offer quiet testimony to the ferocity of the battle. The huge barrel of the largest cannon is pockmarked with shrapnel hits. After taking the island, victorious soldiers of Japan's Imperial Army posed around and on top of the giant gun.

Three years later when Americans retook the island, less than 100 of the 6,700 Japanese defenders survived.

Independence

On July 4, 1946, after WW II, the U.S. followed through with its pledge to grant independence to the Republic of the Philippines. However, the Philippines officially recognizes its independence day as June 12, the day in 1898 that patriot Emilio Aguinaldo declared independence from Spain after the U.S. defeated Spanish forces.

Modern Manila retains almost none of its colonial architectural charm because much of it was destroyed in the fierce 1945 battle for Manila when American forces retook the city from the Japanese.

The main remaining colonial attractions stand in the Intramuros, a massive walled city begun in 1571 to house the Spanish elite, government buildings, churches, schools and private dwellings. Virtually all of it was destroyed in the Battle of Manila. But part of old fortress and its walls remain, as does the San Agustin Church and the Manila Cathedral. The old fortress now serves as a memorial to Dr. Jose Rizal, the Philippine revolutionary literary hero who was imprisoned in the fort before being executed by the Spanish in 1896 for inciting insurrection.

Manila is not just the political capital of the nation, it is the commercial and the culinary capital. Like many large metros, Manila also is plagued with traffic congestion and smog.

The din of the city can be escaped with a 30-mile drive south to Tagaytay Ridge, the 2,000-foot-high remains of a giant prehistoric volcano that forms a huge bowl now filled by Lake Taal. A volcanic island cone rises out of the middle of the lake. The view of it is stunning and the community along the Tagaytay Ridge is filled with artisans, fruit and vegetable stands and woodworkers who will make furniture to order. It's also home of some fabulous restaurants, especially Antonios, which overlooks a manicured garden with ponds.

Thanks to the half-century-long U.S. control of the Philippines, it's fairly easy to communicate. English is an official language and is widely spoken along with Spanish. Tagalog, the main native language in the Manila area, also is widely spoken and efforts are underway to make it a truly national Filipino language despite the presence of more than 100 other native languages around the islands.

Given the spectacular beauty of many Filipino islands, and the recent peace treaty that ended hostilities with Muslim separatists in the South, it's only a matter of time before the islands take their place among the world's exotic vacation getaways.

Reach Doug Pardue at 937-5558 or dpardue@postandcourier.com