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TRAVEL WATCH: AUGUST 2, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 4

M A N I L A   C I T Y   G U I D E

Manila Great for a Thrill, Or Just to Chill


Illustration for TIME by Emilio Rivera III
By SHIRLEY BRADY

Filipinos have long been accustomed to welcoming visitors to their shores, from the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan (1521) to United States General Douglas MacArthur (who marched through the surf on Leyte beach in 1944). Guests are often given the best beds in the house, and locals are famed for their warmth and hospitality. But it only took a few disparaging remarks last year from American actress Claire Danes on her impressions of Manila ("ghastly" was the kindest of her comments) to raise the ire of both resident and overseas Filipinos. It also fired up local pride. While Ms. Danes won't be welcomed back in a hurry, the comments she made after shooting a film in the Philippines were a wakeup call to officials. If the tourism industry doesn't work harder to show off (and spruce up) its gateway city, visitors will continue to merely use it as a stepping stone on their way to a coastal dive spot or a resort getaway. In the meantime, here are some tips on how to get the most out of your stay--or stopover--in Manila.

In an attempt to get visitors to think beyond Boracay, Cebu and Palawan, the Department of Tourism in March launched "Rediscovery Adventure," a five-year campaign to promote the nation's culture and history. It's more than just flag-waving: funds have been allocated to preserve and rehabilitate natural and manmade areas of historical importance, such as Intramuros, the old walled city of Manila. Meanwhile, the capital city's movers and shakers are trying to promote Filipino culture. Perhaps nowhere else on the planet do visitors encounter a group of people who love to dance, sing and party as much as Manilenos. Sure, the city is crowded, chaotic and more than a little zany--it's all part of its appeal.

There's a good reason why locals are in motion, whether it's ballroom dancing, salsa shaking or karaoke crooning. At the forefront of the country's economic growth, Manila has evolved into a teeming metropolis of more than 10 million people. The city's rapid rise has fostered its bad reputation as a place of gridlock, greed and grime. And while residents agree that they live in a city of sometimes frustrating contradictions, they also say outsiders must look beyond surface problems to appreciate the heart of the city, which is in turn folksy and passionate, sophisticated and cool. Just take a look at Manila's architectural incongruities--glass and steel skyscrapers soar above stone-faced images of heroes past, while ancient churches vie for custom alongside modern shopping malls.

Officials are also quick to point out the advantages the city offers to the business traveler. Its strategic location at the heart of Asia means most other capitals are only a few hours' flying time away. Big-ticket infrastructure improvements, like the recently opened second terminal (with a third slated for completion by 2002) at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, bode well for the future. Although there are still complaints (such as delays and red tape at customs), many visiting executives say that doing business in the country has become much easier in recent years, even if it still requires more than a modicum of time and patience.

Metro Manila gets down to business because its upscale financial district, Makati, works so smoothly. The expensive chunk of real estate is home to many upmarket hotels--Shangri-La, Peninsula, Mandarin Oriental and, next year, Ritz-Carlton--that stand alongside classy leisure facilities like the Ayala Center and the Greenbelt. During the day, well-heeled Pinoys and visitors cruise the sidewalks and avenues or browse the area's swank galleries and boutiques. (For local crafts, head to Tesoro's and Balikbayan Handicrafts behind the Ayala complex.) At night, the élite congregate in Makati's discos or in restaurants like Giraffe and Venezia. The Fort, a complex of chic eateries at Fort Bonifacio, is the latest trendy dining spot.

Though Filipino cuisine isn't well appreciated internationally, be sure to try local specialties like tapsilog (dried beef, garlic fried rice and egg) or sinigang fish broth with lime or tamarind. Seek out local flavors at hotspots like Barrio Fiesta, Josephine, Balaw-Balaw and Kalde-Kaldero (where the staff sing, with glee). It's the only true way to appreciate Manila--with taste, and style.

With reporting by Nelly Sindayen/Manila


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Hot Tip
It's little wonder that Malate is known as the Greenwich Village or Left Bank of Manila

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Escape Manila's mayhem with a sidetrip to Corregidor

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The island of Mindoro, four hours south of Manila, is a welcome and pleasant contrast to the congestion and chaos of the Philippine capital

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