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Out of Africa

From the majestic natural scenery and the thriving wildlife, to the rich cultural heritage, South Africa offers a myriad of experiences unlike any other.

Joel Binamira sits completely exposed on board a custom-built safari rover. (Contributed photo)

Joel Binamira sits completely exposed on board a custom-built safari rover. (Photo: Joel Binamira)

It was our second afternoon “in the bush” and we had spent several hours tracking a cheetah without a sighting. The sun had set, a late-autumn chill set in, and our guides parked our Land Rover near a watering hole amongst a herd of randy zebras. Champagne was poured into long stemmed glasses and some salty nibbles were offered as we sat in the waning light, soaking up the moment. I figured this was the luck of the draw while on safari, sometimes you see the wild animals, and oftentimes they elude you.

Suddenly, our tracker Louis tensed up, listened intently in a specific direction (honestly, we heard nothing), and hurriedly asked if we minded chasing down a potential “kill”. Our Land Rover was back on the dirt road in seconds, some of us still nursing our cocktails. We were about to experience the most amazing ten minutes that would change the way we viewed life, fear and death. It had turned nearly pitch black, so our tracker used a spotlight to search ahead of us and suddenly, in the middle of a field, some 300 meters from the road, he instinctively spotted the cheetah which had just seconds before killed an impala, a type of antelope. We went off-road and up to within a few meters of the cheetah, a rare and utterly stunning animal, that all but ignored our presence. We managed to snap a fuzzy photo or two in the darkness without a flash and noticed how skittish and nervous the cheetah appeared.

A lion, at dusk, checking out the tourists and guides. (Contributed photo)

A lion, at dusk, checking out the tourists and guides. (Photo: Joel Binamira)

We were sitting in a completely open vehicle, parked in the middle of a vast field in near total darkness (headlights of the vehicle helped just a bit) watching the cheetah dine on some choice pieces of raw antelope steak when the blood-curling, whooping screams of two vicious hyenas let off behind us. Our tracker trained his spotlight on the new arrivals, who were anxiously sniffing from about 10 meters behind our vehicle. They kept hopping around and working themselves into a frenzy, then with lightning speed, ferocious fangs and a two-on-one attack, they managed to scare off the cheetah and grab the freshly killed antelope for their dinner. This jarring transition surprised us, but things were happening so fast we only later learned that while a cheetah is graceful, fast and a superb hunter, it must eat quickly as it is somewhat defenseless against several other poachers in the wild.

Just when we thought it couldn’t get any more exciting, seconds after the hyenas started feasting, we heard a rustling movement from the dark to right of our vehicle, the hair on our necks stood on end and our hearts were pounding so loud as a deafening roar and a massive lion leapt in front of our vehicle, illuminated briefly by our headlights and he grabbed the impala away from the hyenas! My wife muffled a primal scream of her own and she grabbed my arm as the scene unfolded before us. Seriously, it doesn’t get any more National Geographic than that!

A herd of impala, always alert and nervous that predators lurk nearby. (Contributed photo)

A herd of impala, always alert and nervous that predators lurk nearby. (Photo: Joel Binamira)

OUR PERSONAL BUCKET LIST

The author (far right) with wife Marga and daughter Isabel, and giraffes in the background (Contributed photo)

The author (far right) with wife Marga and daughter Isabel, and giraffes in the background (Photo: Joel Binamira)

A safari had always been on our personal “bucket list” so to celebrate our combined “100th” birthday (50 for me and 50 for my wife, Marga), we decided to book a ten day holiday in South Africa. We planned several days in the bush staying at the luxurious Singita Ebony lodge on a private game reserve near the Kruger National Park in northeastern South Africa, a couple of days in Franschoek, the wine and fruit producing region located a few hours from Cape Town, and finally, a few days in Cape Town. It was, without a doubt, the trip of a lifetime. The number of superlatives that we used to describe so many of our experiences on this brief holiday trumped any other holiday we have ever taken, and between my wife and I, we have managed to visit every continent except Antarctica so far.

HEADING TO THE BUSH

Four-poster bed swathed in mosquito netting at Singita Ebony Lodge (Press photo)

Four-poster bed swathed in mosquito netting at Singita Ebony Lodge (Press photo)

Tourists go on safari, locals “head to the bush.” We knew almost nothing about South Africa and contacted the folks at Asia to Africa Safaris who helped us plan our trip, and they were an invaluable resource. We don’t often rely on tour operators, but this case was a very useful exception given the difficulty of securing reservations at particular camps and hotels. My wife, daughter and I flew from Manila aboard Singapore Airlines, via Singapore, and landed early morning in the Johannesburg airport. We were met by a guide and whisked to a private air hanger/lounge at the other end of the airport, where we waited for a small private plane transfer to Singita Sabi Sand. A 45,000 acre private reserve, next to the Kruger National Park, Singita Sabi Sand is home to three hotel properties, the 12-suite Ebony (the original lodge), the 12-suite Boulders nearby, and Castleton, a 6-suite home ideal for large families or groups of friends traveling together.

Singita's dining deck (Press photo)

Singita’s dining deck (Press photo)

Singita Ebony is one of the finest small hotels we have ever stayed in. We had a two-bedroom suite with large living room, fireplace, multiple bathrooms, enormous outdoor deck and heated plunge pool all situated on a bluff on the edge of a river, where all sorts of animals large and small came to drink water. The accommodations were luxurious but lived in, local and beautiful, and somehow, totally luxurious yet unpretentious. But it was the phenomenal level of personal service that impressed the most. A private butler assigned to your family, a porter to walk you back and forth to your villa just in case there were animals in-between (which there always were – a large nyala one night, several antelope, a venomous Mozambique spitting cobra in broad daylight, bothersome monkeys and a female leopard strolling through the hotel grounds one lunch time!), as well as an experienced guide (Sipho) and tracker (Louis) with their Land Rover for twice-daily game drives and walking safaris during your stay. We had private tasting sessions with the engaging and extremely competent sommelier who picked wines out for our every meal, chefs who consulted with us to ensure we had what we wanted to eat, and dozens of other folks that just made us feel so pampered and comfortable while in residence.

Cocktails and nibbles on afternoon game drives. (Photo: Joel Binamira)

Cocktails and nibbles on afternoon game drives. (Photo: Joel Binamira)

We quickly settled into our safari groove — an early morning wake-up call, a light breakfast buffet set up in our villa’s dining room, a morning game drive for say 3-4 hours during which you stop for coffee and cake, then back to the lodge where you can enjoy a full breakfast, then rest for a few hours or take a dip in the pool or grab a workout or massage in their gym/spa, enjoy a light or heavy lunch as you please, grab a bite to eat at afternoon tea just before you head out on your mid-afternoon game drive (with cocktails and snacks), then back for dinner and perhaps a nightcap at the bar. All food and drink was included in the tariff and you had your pick of a well-stocked, South African-centric cellar that had hundreds of bottles of wine. Considering that the kitchen was cooking for just 12 villas and perhaps 18-20 guests at the time we were there, the food was absolutely five-star.

Two grazing white rhinoceros. (Contributed photo)

Two grazing white rhinoceros. (Photo: Joel Binamira)

Over four days in the bush, our game drives throughout the 45,000 acre reserve yielded daily sightings of leopards, several herds of elephants, several rhinoceros, lots of graceful giraffes, lions, zebras, antelopes, packs of wild dogs, and many, many more. We missed only the cape buffalo from the various lists of “must-sees” – but we had told our guides that was our last priority as we figured they were large versions of our own carabaos back home. The abundance of wildlife was simply amazing, and while we thought it would be normal to go for hours without sightings, there always seemed to be something around the next bend in the road. We returned with thousands of photos from three different cameras, but honestly, the best thing about being there, is being there. Savor the moment, enjoy the encounters with the wild animals, observe them up close, or afar through powerful binoculars. Sitting in your Rover watching a female leopard gnawing on an antelope that she brought some 20 meters up a tree is something you will never forget. Or coming across the lion that grabbed the impala away from the hyenas the night before, in the middle of an open field in broad daylight, napping on his back with the family jewels exposed for all to see was oddly amusing in the most natural kind of way. You leave the bush in awe of nature, with a renewed respect for life of all kinds, and personally, I wished there were 90% less humans, and several thousand percent more wild game roaming the planet.

TO WINE COUNTRY

Gorgeous views at the Delaire Graff Estate (Press photo)

Gorgeous views at the Delaire Graff Estate (Press photo)

After four days in the bush, we flew by private plane and then commercial jet to Cape Town, landing in the middle of one of those infamous cape storms. Our guide, Randall, drove us to Franschoek, a quaint little town in the midst of wine country, roughly an hour away. When the Dutch settled in South Africa some 450 years ago, they eventually set up a farming community in this area that focused on fruit orchards and eventually vineyards. Today it is picture perfect, quaint, lush and attractive region. It’s also a culinary hotspot with several chefs opening noteworthy restaurants throughout the area.

We checked into our hotel, La Residence, which was ranked the #1 Hotel in the World by the Condé Nast Readers’ Choice Awards in 2013. We settled into two fabulously appointed suites (there are only 11 in the whole hotel, along with a 5 private villas) that almost defy description. Each room is decorated in different styles, with fabrics, furniture, artwork and flowers that are more reminiscent of an opulent villa in the midst of vineyard. The service at La Residence was superb.

Our guide, Randall, drove us around to visit several markets, restaurants and wineries in and around Stellenbosch and Franschoek. We attended wine tastings at the Warwick estate, first established as a fruit orchard in 1771, 5 years before the United States declared its independence! We tried several bottles, but one of them, called “Three Cape Ladies” is notable to James Bond fans as a wine he drinks in the Bond novel by James Deaver entitled “Carte Blanche”. We also visited the Waterford estate and enjoyed a private tour of the cellars as well as a novel chocolate and wine tasting.

The opulence of the Maharani Suite, La Residence, Franschhoek, otherwise known as the Elton John Suite (Press photo)

The opulence of the Maharani Suite, La Residence, Franschhoek, otherwise known as the Elton John Suite (Press photo)

Two other properties you shouldn’t miss are the Delaire Graff Estate and Babylonstoren. The former, owned by the family behind Graff diamonds whose boutiques around the world offer some of the most enormous, rare and stunning gems, sits on a hill with a breathtaking view of the surrounding valley. Beautiful artwork in the gardens and courtyards as well as a highly rated restaurant, impressive cellars and the only Graff diamond boutique on the African continent means that you can wine and dine with a view and shop for a ten-carat bauble effortlessly. Another utterly stunning must-see is Babylonstoren, in Paarl, one of the best examples of a cape Dutch farm circa 1700, but updated with a modern streamlined sensibility. Recently purchased by media magnate Koos Bekker and his wife, Karen Roos, the former editor of Elle Décor, the farm has been transformed into a spectacular showcase of design and good taste backed by nearly unlimited funds. If you stay in Babylonstoren’s hotel, you can wander into the expansive vegetable and fruit gardens and pick whatever you fancy for your lunch or dinner. The gardens and farm shop are one of the most charming I have come across in my years of writing about produce and food.

CAPE TOWN

The Cape of Good Hope (Photo: Joel Binamira)

The Cape of Good Hope (Photo: Joel Binamira)

We spent several days at the tail end of our trip in Cape Town, one of the most beautifully situated cities in the world. It was here that we only began to scratch the surface of the highly complicated and interesting history of South Africa, and the nuances of its varied population of blacks, whites and coloureds (mixed race citizens). Our guide was an amazing resource who not only toured us around the major landmarks, but clearly explained some of the fascinating culture and history of the place. On our first day in Cape Town, we took a cable car (you can also trek up near vertical paths if that’s your thing) up Table Mountain, and from there had a panoramic view of the city, bay and part of the cape. We enjoyed a lunch of Cape Malay food, which was influenced by the Indonesian and Indian settlers over the centuries. In some districts of town, my wife and I could have passed for locals, except that we lacked the charming, almost beguiling local accent. We saw the infamous District Six where riots had broken out several decades ago with the forced removal of families during apartheid. We visited museums, shopped at local spice shops (and took home dozens of vials of vanilla from Madagascar) and searched out markets with local handicrafts.

Our hotel was located at the Victoria and Albert Waterfront, a tourist magnet with several hotels, malls, restaurants and shops set around a working harbor, with Table Mountain in the background. If you want to avoid crowds, you may wish to seek a smaller boutique hotel elsewhere in the city. We spent one afternoon just relaxing and shopping for mohair scarves and blankets made from the wool of angora goats, local hardwood bowls and utensils, market baskets and exotic leather products. South Africa has some of the finest exotic skins (ostrich, lizard and crocodile) in the world, and they often supply many of the top fashion houses in Europe and North America. Prices are incredibly reasonable for food, crafts and leather goods, and VAT is refundable at the airport.

Isabel at the Cape of Good Hope. The Cape is nearly the southernmost part of Africa. (Photo: Joel Binamira)

Isabel at the Cape of Good Hope. The Cape is nearly the southernmost part of Africa. (Photo: Joel Binamira)

Some of the most exciting restaurants have been popping up all over Cape Town in the past few years. Fueled by excellent local seafood, produce and game and young creative chefs, many of whom have trained or done tours of duty all over the world, the food scene is hot! We had an utterly superb dinner at the Pot Luck Club, of Chef Luke Dale-Roberts, who did stints as a chef in Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and even at the Sofitel in Manila. The food was a superb parade of small dishes, many with Asian influences fused with superb local ingredients to utterly delightful results.

On our last full day, we drove down and around the Cape, past small beach side towns, more produce and ostrich farms and vineyards and down to the nearly southernmost part of Africa. The views were amazing and one would be hard-pressed not to imagine the explorers and their galleons that had tried so hard to round this bend of Africa, in turbulent waters and notoriously fierce cape storms. We visited penguin colonies, passed on shark-feeding activities in frigid waters, and capped the day at the expansive Kirstenbosch botanical gardens not far from Cape Town.

THE TRIP OF A LIFETIME

Overall, our South African sojourn was without a doubt, the best holiday we have ever taken. The range of experiences, from the safari ensconced in a luxurious lodge, to the vineyards and farms around Franschoek, and the last few days in Cape Town, were unparalleled.

 

personal photos by Joel Binamira featured photo by Mike Jo

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Leisure

Club Serena: A ‘Serene Luxury’ Experience in the Heart of Cebu’s Diving Mecca

photography by GPA Art and Photography

A three-hour drive, or more, depending on traffic, the fishing town of Moalboal in the southwest of Cebu Island is an extremely popular destination for divers and weekenders who love the white sand and pink sunsets. It is also a favorite place to stay for expats looking for a laid-back life of endless coffees or cocktails.

Thankfully, the big chain resorts haven’t discovered it and places to stay are mostly small family-run resorts. But if pampering is what you are looking for, there is only one hotel to book in Moalboal. Club Serena Resort is a 1.7-hectare beachfront property perched above coral rocks, presenting a unique union of luxurious accommodations and a host of activities to be enjoyed. This hidden gem is reached through a dirt road away from the main highway. Fronting a wide swath of white sand beach, it is an easy walk past several smaller resorts to reach the main town.

Recently renovated by noted architect James Jao, the new Club Serena has 17 rooms, three swimming pools, a restaurant, and a beachfront event space, all designed with modern Filipino aesthetic. On the drawing board are more rooms to be added, an expansion of their modern dive shop, and their popular Kids’ Club program. Their food outlet, Mira, offers all-day dining, favorite among visitors and locals, as well as the growing expat community that has settled in Moalboal. 

Club Serena offers diving courses for adults and kids by their resident operator, Seven Seas Aquanauts Phil. Corp, a PADI 5 accredited diving facility operating since 1988. For a complete list of the courses and their rates, please call (+63) 917.872.6367 or (+63) 905.459.5307.

The resort encourages above-water activities as well, and they have several paddle boards and kayaks available for guests to use.

For rates and more information, visit www.clubserenaresort.com or email sayhello@clubserenaresort.com or (+63) 917.872.6367 or (+63) 905.459.5307. You can also visit their Facebook page for updates.

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Travel

This is How the M.I.C.E. Alliance Initiative will Lift Boracay to New Heights

Leveling up Boracay in more ways than one

by Ryan Daniel R. Dablo

Saying the name “Boracay” instantly casts a spell, taking the listener to a daydream of immaculate, pale beaches, swaying palm trees, the music of breaking waves, and the vacation of a lifetime. The tropical island Eden is storied and renowned – a difficult enchantment to lift from any wayward tourist’s mind. But what if we were to tell you that Boracay is so much more? Can you build upon perfection? Yes, and this, ladies and gentlemen, is how. 

One is never too far away from the beach! BNCC is only a stone’s throw away from the Boracay Newcoast Beach front.

Boracay Newcoast Convention Center (BNCC), located at the heart of Boracay Newcoast will soon host the biggest conventions, exhibitions and other large-scale events in the island starting second quarter of 2022.

After the difficulties of the past few years, the stage is finally set for a massive Boracay reboot. The creative gears turn once more, and this time they will catapult our favorite beach capital to new heights. The cornerstone of this renaissance is the M.I.C.E. Alliance initiative, short for meetings, incentives, conferences and conventions, and events and exhibitions. The establishment of the Boracay M.I.C.E. Alliance will allow focused efforts in creating sustainable and eco-sensitive tourism development projects while synergizing with stakeholders to create long-term solutions and opportunities for all partners. The alliance is set to drive awareness, readiness, and expansion of product offerings that will be crucial in making the island competitive with other M.I.C.E. destinations. Working closely with the Department of Tourism Region VI and the Tourism Promotions Board, the alliance is primed to provide support to the areas that are involved in this major undertaking.

Cleofe Albiso, Boracay M.I.C.E Alliance Chairperson

BNCC enjoys state-of-the-art facilities and can accommodate about a thousand guests depending on set-up and conduct multiple events at a time.

No one is more emphatic than M.I.C.E. Alliance chairperson Cleofe Albiso in describing how the different sectors of Boracay are pivoting from tourism to tourism plus. In brief, Boracay is challenging its own boundaries to become not just the pre-eminent tourist destination but also a corporate and business mecca. Turns out, if a venue is grand enough to host a wedding, wouldn’t it be just as grand to host a white-collar conference? Sky’s the limit for possibilities like this. At this moment, the island is abuzz with networking and making connections, training and empowering the hospitality services, polishing the infrastructure, revving up the transportation facilities, and all-around gearing up to go toe-to-toe with other M.I.C.E. hubs and be worthy of the tagline, “the best place for M.I.C.E. in a tropical paradise.” All hands are on deck and – after the extended global hiatus thanks to the pandemic – everyone is ready, nay, eager to meet and greet the guests. And, of course, we would be remiss not to point out that Boracay is more than halfway through completing such a tall order. The island is as well-oiled a machine as it could be, boasting 294 DOT-accredited hotels and resort, a staggering 4,500 seating capacity for meetings and conventions, and 12,400 room keys available in the island. Talk about volume! Plus, Boracay is already postcard-perfect, the very stuff that vacation dreams are made of. Why not turn the dial up to eleven and let it become a compass point for more than a summer getaway? This is the logical next step in realizing its vision of being not just a place to be, but the place to be.

Savoy Hotel Boracay like Belmont Hotel, and the soon to open Chancellor Hotel is also walking distance away from BNCC making it an ideal spot for both business and leisure trips.

So, yes, by all means think of the idyllic strolls on the beach, the luxurious caress of the ocean as you free-dive, the sheer delight of sand and surf while island-hopping, the adrenaline rush of aquasports, parasailing, cycling, or driving an ATV up Boracay’s foothills, the psychedelic glow of fire-dancing and party lights at night, the breathtaking sunsets, the larger-than-life adventures, or the hundred other ways it can lavish or reinvigorate your soul. Think of all of that, and then some. Because Boracay has its eyes on something greater: it is poised to become the premier starting point and last stop for tourism, entertainment, corporate gatherings, exhibits, and any other event the imagination can dream of. 

Paradise Garden’s Mabuhay Convention Center can fit 850 guests at a time.

For corporate set-ups, a 60 person function room is also available at the Isla Function Room of Paradise Garden.

Think of your company meeting. Now, think of your company meeting and the fun that’ll ensue right after. Picture that in the most scenic of vacation spots. Tempted already? Who wouldn’t be? You’re already in paradise. With business here and leisure literally just a stone’s throw away – heaven on earth, wouldn’t you say? 

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Travel

For Our Next Travel Destination, We Dream About Koh Samui in Thailand

Impressive views of the Gulf of Thailand welcome you at the Arrival Sala

Silent Sanctuaries

Mayenne Carmona discovers the Four Seasons Resort in Koh Samui is a quiet oasis to recharge and rejuvenate…

What does one expect from a Four Seasons Resort? Everything! Firstly, it will definitely be ranked no less than a five-star hotel or resort. Most importantly, it would not fall short of all your expectations: excellent cuisine, topnotch comfort at your fingertips in a well-appointed villa, courteous staff who offer impeccable service, and every other detail you could possibly need—down to the last cotton bud. After all, a Four Seasons Resort is always designed by a top-rated architectural team and interior designers.

The moment I stepped into the Four Seasons Resort at Koh Samui, I felt all my cares washed away by the soft waves of the bluest sea. The fresh air cleared my sinuses in no time, and the gentle breeze was a much needed caress to a tired mind and body. It was truly paradise regained for me and my friends. We were a motley group of career-oriented people who needed a much-awaited break from work, and this was the perfect choice for us.

Each Villa has a butler to cater to the guests’ every whim. The afternoon we arrived, we requested a sunset dinner by the beach, and much like a genie, our butler whipped up a romantically set candlelit dinner for six. A five-course delicious Thai dinner was prepared by their well-trained chef.

Our days were spent languishing by the beach, having daily massages, attending yoga classes, doing water sports and enjoying every bite of Thai cuisine. Golf carts transported us wherever we wanted to go within the resort. This vacation brought all my senses to another realm, and restored a weary soul to perfection. 

Four Seasons Koh Samui, I look forward to seeing you again!

Koh Samui is the third largest island of Thailand in the scenic Gulf of Siam. It is a 45 minute flight from Bangkok. Sandy beaches, coral reefs, coconut trees and abundant tourist resources make it a popular holiday destination.

For more information on Four Seasons Resort, visit their website at https://www.fourseasons.com/kohsamui/

(This article has already been published in Zee Lifestyle’s March 2016 Travel Issue, “Silent Sanctuaries” written by our columnist Mayenne Carmona for La Vie En Rose on pages 32-33.)

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