Exactly three years, and we found ourselves in the Queen City of the South again. This time, it was for the wedding of my wife’s cousin, but of course a little bit of sightseeing, and some food tasting came with it too. Unlike our fast-paced visit 3 years ago, this time we took it more slowly. That meant we didn’t get to see as many places as before, and we also weren’t helped by that fact that traffic in many parts of the metropolis was heavier than usual, as the the Cebu metropolitan area was hosting an international triathlon event that weekend.
Cebu also did change quite a bit during those 3 years. The Central Business District was now denser, thanks to the growing number of office buildings, and there are now more high rise hotels scattered throughout the area. A couple of decades ago, someone coined the term “Ceboom”. Well, it looks like it hasn’t stopped “Cebooming” still.
Now let’s get to those few places we saw while we were there.
There’s no meal more “Cebuano” than the barbecue (which anywhere in the Philippines means skewered meat grilled over charcoal, be it lean pork or a piece of a chicken’s innards) paired with “puso” (with an accent in “u”) – steamed rice tightly wrapped in coconut leaves. For the uninitiated, the “puso” is a very unique kind of rice preparation, and I believe its origins date back to a time when western type utensils were not yet in fashion. The product of making “puso” is a firm, densely packed, diamond shaped block of rice, that has a distinct flavor and aroma, thanks to the leaves it was cooked on. I must admit that I wasn’t a “puso” fan as a child – it’s a bit of an acquired taste – but its unique taste is something I look forward to now.
One of the most popular barbecue and “puso” places in Cebu is Larsian, a cluster of stalls with a common outdoor dining area just off Fuente Osmeña, Cebu’s main roundabout and an important landmark. The place is crowded, noisy, smoky and not really the cleanest out there – but it’s one of those places visitors just have to try. It’s like a third-world version of Singapore’s hawker centers, except that everything here is grilled and there’s no other way to cook food here but grill. Food is cheap (especially if you judge by Manila standards), quick, and it’s hard to find an outdoor dining experience like it anywhere else.
Cebu, particularly the island of Mactan, has seen an ever growing number of upscale hotels, catering to a clientele of varied nationalities. One of the most talked about is the recently renovated Mövenpick at Punta Engaño. Incidentally, “engaño” is Spanish for “entice”, and that’s what it does. Formerly a Hilton property, it was recently taken over by the Swiss Mövenpick chain and transformed into what is perhaps the island’s most modern and “visually intruiging” hotel.
From its bright and airy lobby, to the futuristic details scattered all over from reception to the wash rooms, to the dramatic lighting of its pool in the evening, it’s the kind of place the Jetsons would not look out of place in. Granted, we didn’t stay at the hotel and only went there for dinner, so we didn’t get to see the rooms, but if anything, a tour of the lobby and the grounds (even while the whole of Cebu was being drenched in rain) would be enough to say that a night here would have been magnificent. Compared to the neighboring Shangri-la though, the Mövenpick property is pretty small – I don’t think it’s even half of the sprawling “Shang” – and it’s beachfront is even smaller. But whatever it lacks in size, it makes up for in style.
We were at the Mövenpick for dinner, and while we found the hotel wonderful, the dinner wasn’t so, and that’s putting it mildly. The Sails is Mövenpick’s main restaurant, serving both an international buffet and ala carte menu. As we experienced though, going ala carte wasn’t worth it. Our orders took more than an hour to get done, and what’s worse was that whenever we called a waiter or waitress to ask where in the world our food was, the first words that came out of their mouth were “what was your order, sir?”, and that was each and everytime. It was total chaos on the dining floor, with everyone seemingly afflicted by amnesia. Even Max’s would look like fine dining next to them. Though the restaurant was very full that evening, that’s no excuse, especially for a restaurant that’s inside a 5-star hotel. And the food that came wasn’t even worth waiting for anything more than 15 minutes. Among our orders, the Salpicao was the only passable one. The Japanese-style Chicken Wings was so ordinary, I was struggling to find anything Japanese about it. And the Tonkatsu was honestly sup-par, Teriyaki Boy’s version would have run rings around it.
And what did we get for all that ordeal? Just a cup coffee on the house. Nice try, but for a 5-star resto, it doesn’t make the cut, not even close.
Now enough of sad dining stories.
Cebuanos have a lot of specialties when it comes to food, but if you were to ask me what the province’s most popular product is, I would have to say that it’s none other that red, roasted, perfectly tanned pig called the “Lechon”. Now the lechon is the de facto national dish throughout the country, except in some areas down south. However, no one – arguably – does it better than the Cebuanos. The lechon of Cebu has achieved legendary status in this country, so much so that they have, from what I know, the only airport in the country where you can get lechon by the kilo and packed for travel, right at the departure area.
Zubuchon is perhaps the most popular “export” lechon in Cebu – they’re the one that has the lechon outlet at the Mactan Cebu International Airport’s departure area – though are also other good choices within the city, like CNT. Zubuchon however, is the one that bought lechon up by a level. Us Filipinos are used to lechon stores being spartan – rangeing from the very ordinary, to the borderline unsanitary. Lechon after all is to be appreciated by the tongue, not the eyes. I have yet to set any place that sells lechon that is visually appealing – until Zubuchon. Their store at Escario St., near the Capitol, would put many Jollibee branches to shame in terms of look, cleanliness and presentabilty. For short, they put the class in lechon.
Zubuchon also experiments with lechon – putting it in noodle soups, making crispy strips out of it, etc. Hats off to them for the bravery in doing so. And one thing found, courtesy of them, is that lechon pairs well with kimchi, like Pnoy and Grace Lee, though I think the lechon and kimchi partnership wll have a more lasting impact.
We chose a budget hotel for our short weekend stay, the Islands Stay Hotel at Archbishop Reyes St.. Islands Stay is the hotel business of the popular Islands Souvenirs, the makers various Philippine memorabilia, and the hotel looks every bit as bright as the Islands Souvenirs t-shirts you would find scattered throughout the country. This small (they have less than 30 rooms I think) but bright hotel sits just a stone’s throw away from Ayala Center and the CBD – yes you can throw a stone from the hotel’s parking lot all the way to Ayala Center if you’ve got a good, strong arm – and that is its biggest draw, aside from the fact that it’s cheap. Check-in is a breeze as well, and their staff were always courteous and consistently displayed that hospitality that we Filipinos always brag about. They’ve also got rooms that can accomodate 4 people and still have extra space to do a cartwheel, and in the opposite extreme, they’re also the only hotel in the country, as far as I know, that has rooms tailor-made for single occupancy as an option…sort of like a Japanese capsule hotel on steroids. Another thing I liked about them is their cable TV. The quality of the reception and the size of the television set on our room, will put even some upscale hotels to shame.
The downside though is that the room’s walls are made of gypsum board – so if you were to play your Magic Sing in your room one night, your neighbours will definitely hear the quality of your voice. The rooms are also not spotlessly clean, especially when compared to other budget hotels like Go! Hotels and Tune, and the towels they gave on our first day looked like they’ve had their souls taken out of them already, however the hotel is still far from being shabby.
Right next door to Islands Stay is Tune Hotel Cebu, and we managed to get a few minutes to survey their rooms. What we found were nice, spotlessly clean rooms that though small (all their rooms come in one size only), look very inviting. They are just a tiny-weeny bit more expensive than Islands Stay, and if there’s just two of you travelling, I would actually recommend Tune. However if you are a group of 3-4 (or maybe even 5), than the larger rooms of Islands Stay are definitely worth checking.
Cebu White Sands
We decided to just “chill” on Sunday, before heading out to the airport for our evening flight, and scouted around for resorts in Mactan where we could spend a slow afternoon. Most resorts were either too full, or too expensive, and the only one we could contact that can accomodate us, and not cost us an arm and a leg, is the Cebu White Sands. For just 700 Php, we were entitled to a full day use of all their amenities (which is basically the pool and the beach), plus a simple buffet lunch.
The buffet was very basic – nothing in the spread stood out at all – but compared to our prior dinner at the Sails (ok, that’s the last time I’m mentioning it here), the buffet lunch felt like manna from heaven. The pool was reasonably large, and the resort itself – while not looking really elegant – was clean and most importantly, quiet, despite the fact that there was a good number of guests there too, including foreigners. The beach though was not really enticing. Yes, it’s white sand, but the water wasn’t really that clear and overall the place just didn’t give that feel for a good swim, though to be fair, Mactan isn’t really known as a beach place in the sense that Boracay and Puerto Galera are. Overall though, I have a fairly good impression of the resort. It’s definitely not one of the classiest ones in Mactan, though it’s not priced as one either, but it’s a good and quiet place for a bit of R&R (Rest and Relaxation, not recreation).
* All photos taken last August 2013, with an Olympus EPM-2 and M. Zuiko 14-42mm IIR.