It was time.
Ten years had passed since our last visit to the Philippines, where my wife Marilou was born. Those ten years had been busy ones for us: our two boys Liam (8) and Quin (5) were born, we started our company, traveled to Central America and the Caribbean, navigated hazards such as super storms as well as ‘economic downturns,’ and somehow we found our way through the maze of the NYC school system admissions.
So, it was time to revisit the amazing place that is the Philippines and introduce our kids to relatives there, as well as a way of life that’s vastly different than what they know–and what we know as their parents. Marilou’s whole immediate family decided to join us, and we were a group of nine, including her parents, sister, brother in law, and their 9-year-old daughter.
The preparations began eight months in advance. The itinerary included Manila, the bustling capital, and then onward to Catandunes—the island province in Bicol where her parents are from (they emigrated to California in the early 1970s), and finally, a week in Boracay, an island well known for its beautiful white sand beaches and luxury resorts.
Marilou and I agreed completely on two things: this time we wanted to travel in business class on the most direct route possible and stay at the same hotel in Manila as last trip. So, we hoarded miles in order to get ‘upstairs’ on the long haul flights, knowing full well that we were likely spoiling the boys–but, let’s be honest, 20 hours is a long plane trip for parents headed swiftly towards 50.
We were also thrilled to return to the Peninsula Manila (also known as “The Pen” by the locals), which feels like our home away from home. It is located right in the heart of Makati, the business district, surrounded by the interconnected malls, museums, condos, hotels, and offices that make it famous. The Pen was just as we remembered it: elegant but friendly, convenient and comfortably luxurious from the moment you arrive, which is our case was well after midnight.
It is one of those hotels that makes you smile when you think of it–primarily due to the people that work there. Service is an art and they understand it at the Peninsula is absolutely extraordinary. And with kids, this is paramount. From the expedited in-room check in, to the impeccable housekeeping, to the casual, relaxed pool, the amazing breakfast, ingenious concierges that want you to experience local culture, and the large rooms with heavenly beds, it’s a winner. Add to that reasonable rates and package deals with great activities for the whole family and you have one of our favorite hotels in the world.
Our concierge suggested we visit Intramuros (Spanish for “within the walls”), the oldest district, which we missed on our last trip. It was the seat of government when the Philippines was a component realm of the Spanish Empire. We hired several guides on bicycles with side cars and packed our group in for a charming and fun ride with each driver providing historical perspective on the churches, monuments, as well as explaining what was happening in their lives. We were all fascinated and appreciative of their hard work and efforts to welcome us. It was $60 for a comprehensive tour and transportation for each family.
This is probably a good time to report that the Philippines is a country on the rise economically, but it is a great value for American visitors with dollars. Everything is cheap, and quality can vary, but it sure is nice to sign off on bills for drinks and dinner for nine people for under $100 on vacation!
Speaking of which, our drivers let us off at the Bay Leaf Hotel near Manila Bay, where the concierge had recommended we watch the sunset from their lovely roof top lounge. The panoramic view gave way to an experience that must be experienced–as the sun goes down on Manila Bay, prepare to be amazed.
Visiting KidZania was also a Manila highlight–it is an indoor play city where kids can have fun exploring the adult world of–believe it or not– working, money, responsibility, and citizenship. Set up as its own city, the experience provides a dynamic way to help kids learn by taking on role-play activities such as pilots, cooks, artists, firefighters, veterinarians, and gas station attendants. It even had a tax office. All activities are reality-based, hands-on, and interactive. Kids also get to wear realistic uniforms and use realistic work tools. Our kids tried their hand at being hotel housekeeping staff, working in the ER, delivering packages, making food, and caring for sick animals. They still talk about it!
Soon enough it was time to travel to the island of Catanduanes in the Bicol region, Marilou’s family’s home province. It’s a short flight but worlds away in all other respects. It at once throbs with energy in the main city of Virac, finding its way as a growing tourist economy, sustained by agriculture and fishing. We welcomed the departure from traffic choked Manila, and hoped we could find a way for Liam and Quin to appreciate the balance between the humbleness of the life there and also the privilege of our life in Manhattan.
The first thing they noticed, of course, was the general absence of wifi, shutting down their preferred iPad games. After a long drive through patchwork villages and rice paddies, we arrived in Payo, the town their grandparents grew up in. As we walked the streets at dusk with the kids, we saw the improvements since our last visit, which were many. One of my favorite memories of that night was discovering the best fried chicken I have ever tasted from a sari sari store (bodega crossed with food cart) on the main road through the town. Deliciously spiced with mild curry, we bought everything they had left for a big family meal for $20 and have marveled at its taste ever since. We also visited the remote village of Cagdarao and went to my mother-in-laws ancestral home in ultra rural Suminabay. Reachable only by a barca (a simple motorized boat), the kids still talk about the ride there and exploring the area. It reminds, particularly Marilou’s parents, how enormously much they achieved in their lives of sacrifice and selflessness.
The final week was spent in luxury at the Shangri-La Boracay resort. Stunning beauty, doting service, delicious food at several excellent restaurants (including an amazing Wall of Donuts at the breakfast buffet!), dynamic kid focused activities, and complete relaxation filled the time we had at this resort.
We rented a two-bedroom villa, one of 36 on this sprawling property. It had its own pool, outdoor showers, and a butler. This is when the real vacation started, and we feel into a routine that consisted of breakfast, tennis, exercise/working out, relaxing at our pool, watching the kids get better and better at swimming, and finding our way through the main town.
Senior and junior family members all enjoyed the nightly sunset ritual, enlivened by a troupe of fire dancers, amplified by pop music and delicious cocktails. Liam learned stand up paddle boarding quickly, which gave him encouragement that he did have a strong innate sense of balance that would serve him well as he grew into a young man–though it was especially sweet, he said, that he got to do it…and his brother did not.
I suppose that’s one way to illustrate the reality of a trip to distant lands with kids our age, and with parents our age. Adventure is important, as is experiencing new things and finding pathways to empathy for people who live completely differently than we do in NYC.
It can not be denied, however, that we all bring our current selves along and end up seeking comfort, fighting the familiarity of technology and connectivity, which is ultimately, the hardest challenge for any global citizen.
And I think we all agree, we very much look forward to the next time we can all be back in the Philippines.