Viaje del soul

CITY SENSE - CITY SENSE By Paulo Alcazaren () - May 5, 2007 - 12:00am
Summer is for escape and exploration — escape from the hot confines of the city and exploration of the rustic beauty that still exists in the Philippine countryside. Last Holy Week we did just that and went along with the age-old travel advice to "follow the sun."

"Viaje del Sol" is a cool package of southern destinations put together by a colorful mix of artists, potters, café and inn operators — all passionate about the rustic resource of the Laguna, Batangas, Quezon landscape that surrounds mystical Mt. Banahaw.

It was prodding from two of these magical souls that convinced us to give the 18-destination loop (artfully laid out on a large, fact-filled map) a try. My wife and I had spent the weekend on an island a few months ago and bumped into Jay Herrera, a production designer who runs Kinabuhayan Café in Dolores, Quezon. His talents extended to the culinary and the theatrical — both often mixed, as we gleaned from his tales of travelers to his neck of the woods.

Then there was the ever-ebullient Patis Tesoro, who gave me a copy of the Viaje map at one CCP function. Her description of the sunny sojourn was enough to make me put Viaje on my to-do list.

With the family packed into our SUV, we headed off to SLEX and in the general direction of San Pablo City. I do hope they finish the SLEX improvement soon. Judging by what the NLEX renovation has done to ease access to the north and improve tourism, the SLEX could do the same for southern Luzon. (Fast trains would be a better environmental option, though.)

The government should extend the expressway, too. We hit a bottleneck at the end of SLEX on the road to Batangas City. Irritating, too, was the lack of clear travel signs to mark each town we entered and directions onward from there. To add to the irritation, twice we were waylaid by misleading signs. It does not help that our roads are cluttered with billboards, election posters and related visual junk.

We reached Kinabuhayan Café just in time for lunch. The café is a quirky mélange of small pavilions glued together by a wild palette of plants, a mishmash of outdoor furniture, waylaid bits of sculpture, turtles, chickens and a duck (which was in hiding to escape the amorous advances of one of the roosters, said Jay).

Wildman Jay Herrera greeted us warmly and led us into the bougainvillea-bedecked welcome pavilion, which doubles as the indoor dining area, pool hall, museum and art gallery rolled into one. Our accommodation was few steps away, a nipa hut (one of three) with a loft (the main bedroom) and an outdoor bathroom and shower. Only the bathroom was walled off, and just barely. Natural air-conditioning from Mt. Banahaw nearby guarantees comfort and the openness of the huts makes sense and encourages interaction from the café’s guests.

We were four in our entourage and quite comfortable in the hut. Our neighbors were a scuba-diving barkada of 10. They still fit, even if almost everyone shared the expansive bamboo ground floor. A young couple opted for Jay’s tree house — a four-level construction of wood and bamboo that will bring back the kid in you.

Lunch was served outside, as were most of the meals on our three-day stay. A salad made from fresh greens plucked nearby was garnished with flowers. The main dish was chicken with a richly textured risotto. There is no menu at the café. The food served is whatever master chef Jay fancies creating that day. The meals are always a surprise and never boring — a wonderful change from staying at resorts and staid hotels. Bottomless pandan coffee and tea and local desserts add to the gustatory experience.

A lot of visitors use the café as a jumping-off point for Mt. Banahaw. Jay can arrange tours of the river, waterfalls and caves, as well as the mountain itself. We visited the river on the second day, where lunch is usually served. We opted, however, to visit another destination on the Viaje — Patis’s Kusina Salud, not far from Kinabuhayan Café.

The Kusina is actually Patis’s country estate. Sumptuous buffets are served, but we ordered a la carte. The food is Filipino and pan-Asian. The restaurant is a sprawling affair rich with color, Asian artifacts and earthy textures of old wood, and vernacular décor, suffused with dappled light from the surrounding garden. A country steam flows nearby and portions of the dining area sit near the stream bank.

After lunch we toured a bit before heading back to Kinabuhayan, where we met up with some old UP schoolmates we bumped into at Kusina Salud. 

Time flew fast for us. We vowed to visit the other destinations in the Viaje, like Casa San Pablo, Ugu Bigyan’s and Jon and Tessy Pettyjohn’s studios. We headed home sated with Jay’s food and company. The drive back to Manila was faster than the outward-bound trek. The DOT and provincial governments should really make the roads more user- and tourist-friendly.

There is a whole lot of Filipino countryside waiting to be explored. The Viaje del Sol is a great way to discover the area’s cultural soul. The heartland of the Philippines is where we can feel the slow, languid beat of provincial life — a welcome contrast to our frenzied urban existence.
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Feedback is welcome. Please e-mail the writer at paulo.alcazaren@gmail.com.
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