/Baguio – A Great Breakaway Destination

Baguio – A Great Breakaway Destination

BAGUIO CITY | If you are thinking of a few days break
during the lengthy rainy season in the Philippines and, if at the same time,
you are looking for a respite from the heat and humidity of the lowlands then I
would suggest a few days in the mountain city of Baguio.

I had a few days break and wanted to do
something different and found that The Manor Hotel situated in the historical
Camp John Hay in Baguio offered a rainy day promo during the rainy season which
certainly meant that the rates became more affordable.  I also decided that, instead of the usual bus
trip, I would be brave and undertake the journey in my car – what better way to
start my Baguio adventure than with a road trip!

I listened to all the advice from friends,
colleagues and gathered from the internet and decided to travel via the Marcos
Highway – a trip now made much easier by using the NLEX and the SCTEX which
takes you almost all of the way to Tarlac on a beautiful highway, leaving the
congestion and bumper to bumper traffic of EDSA far behind.  Unfortunately, once you reach Tarlac the
journey becomes slow owing to the many motorized tricycles, busses and the
usual traffic associated with the Philippines and its congested highways.  But I had all the time in the world and chose
to enjoy the scenery, sights and sounds of these unfamiliar cities instead of
becoming impatient and spoiling the trip. 

Once through Tarlac the journey took me
through Gerona, Paniqui, Rosales, Urdaneta until eventually just outside of
Rosario you are left with the decision to tackle the route via Kennon Road or
to push through to Pugo and join the Marcos Highway (now known as the Aspiras
Highway which becomes the Palispis Highway closer to Baguio – this is confusing
when you are looking for the Marcos Highway on recent maps).  Having earlier decided that it was wiser to
tackle the Marcos Highway I stuck to my plans, especially as there had been
significant rains in the days prior to my road trip – and Kennon Road is known
to be treacherous for landslides.

I thoroughly enjoyed the slow, steady and
steep climb towards my destination and some of the views are breathtaking.   My only wish is that more thought had been
given to the possibility that tourists may wish to pull over and enjoy the views
in safely designed viewing areas – but no such luck.  This is one of the most scenic roads I had
been on in the Philippines and places I could pull over and enjoy the view and
perhaps a cup of coffee were nil. 
Another perfect tourist opportunity lost.

Thankfully my car is equipped with a fairly
wise GPS whose female voice always remains polite in insisting on the correct
route – she goes by the name of Doris as a tribute to good friends from the UK
who named their GPS in a similar fashion. 
Doris took me safely through the unfamiliar entry roads of Baguio and
right up to the front door of the Manor Hotel. 

My first impressions of Baguio – despite
its magical mountain setting is the same as many other Filipino cities:
overcrowded, incessant traffic and in bad need of a makeover.  Please note – these were my first
impressions.
Once Doris and I began our approach to Camp
John Hay things began to change.  The
condensation of dwellings, shops, street stalls and traffic gave way to a
winding road through majestic pine forests and a sudden sharp left turn took me
through the main gate of Camp John Hay and into the parking lot of The Manor
Hotel. 
Camp John Hay used to be a retreat for the
US soldiers in the Second World War and was reserved solely for US use until
the camp was eventually signed over to the Filipino government and could then
be accessed, quite rightly, by all citizens of the Philippines.  Some of the old military buildings still
stand today as a reminder of that historical time.
The Manor Hotel is a certainly a beautiful
hotel – designed along the lines of a luxurious log cabin.  This is further enhanced by the use of timber
in the enormous foyer where you are welcomed with a warm drink and excellent
service from the bellboys to the reception desk.  I only have excellent comments for the
employees of The Manor – they were gracious and friendly at all times without
being intrusive.  Truly top quality
service and in keeping with the grandeur of the hotel.

The hotel, despite the appearance of a cosy
log cabin, is massive and the rainy season offers you with a choice of rooms as
there are not many other guests.  I was
very happy with the one chosen for me – on the fourth floor, with my own
balcony facing the pine forest and the Lost Cemetery (more about the Lost
Cemetery later).  The room has plenty of
space with two spacious beds, comfortable mattresses and pillows, a kitchenette
and honesty bar in the fridge, well-equipped bathroom, big screen TV with
multiple satellite channels, wifi – and an unforgettable view.  Note that I did not mention an
air-conditioner – considered an absolute necessity in most hotels in the
Philippines – but not in the mountains of Benguet.  With only the ceiling fan I was kept at a
wonderfully cool temperature whenever I was in my hotel room. 

When I arrived there was a gentle rain
falling so I used the time to explore my room and enjoy the view from the
balcony – a welcome break after five hours behind the wheel.  I then called on Doris’s help once again to
guide me to the local SM Mall as there were a few necessities I needed.  SM Baguio has probably one of the most
enviable situations of any mall built as it is on the side of a hilltop
overlooking Baguio City.  I spent quite
some time admiring the view over the city and watching the late afternoon mists
roll into the surrounding valleys.  The
city sprawls over many of the hilltops but a few are reserved for the pine
forests and one can only hope for the future generations of Filipinos to enjoy
this beautiful setting that more is done to limit settlements and urban
development in the valleys and mountain tops of Baguio.

As in any mall there were a number of
restaurants to choose from and I chose to enjoy my dinner here before returning
to the hotel for a relaxing night of TV, reading and much needed sleep.

The next morning was sunny and, dressed in
jogging gear, I began an early morning exploration of the hotel and
grounds.  Situated on the backside of the
hotel are beautiful gardens fronting the al fresco dining area – at the front
is the parking lot and main entrance. 
The one side – where I was fortunate to have a room, faces the forest
and the other appears to be under renovation. 
I would always suggest asking for a room facing the forest and
preferably on the fourth floor and with a balcony.  I think the rooms facing the garden may tend
to be noisy unless on the top floor where I am sure the view would be
spectacular.

My early morning run took me through an
outdoor shopping area with limited restaurants known as the Mile High
Centre.  A kilometer further down the
hill took me to a newer centre and another hotel.  Here one can find a number of boutique type
shops, more restaurants and all in this beautiful forest setting.  I then jogged onto the eco trail which takes
you deeper into the pine forests over wooden bridges and streams and up again
into more pine forests – a thoroughly enjoyable trail run made more enjoyable
by the smell of pine forests.  Not used
to the altitude it did not take me long to be out of breath and my run changed
into brisk walk back to the hotel , a shower and a hearty breakfast.
Travelling using your own vehicle in Baguio
is not much of a problem if equipped with a GPS and I thoroughly enjoyed
sight-seeing.  A trip to Mines View is a
must although it was extremely clear and the view breathtaking I could not spot
the old mines that I was told you could see from this vantage point.  The area is full of souvenir stalls selling
the usual tacky tourist articles but I did give into having my photograph taken
with a huge and huggable St. Bernard who gave into being posed and photographed
with the attitude of an experienced professional.  It was pleasing to see that the dogs were
well-groomed and appeared to be well-fed. 

The one thing that is an absolute necessity
to buy in Baguio is the traditional grass broom – they are of a much better
quality than the ones that can be purchased in Manila (even those with the
Baguio label) so I stocked up on a year’s supply .

On the way back from Mines View I stopped
at the Mansion House which is the official summer residence of the president of
the Philippines.  It is a substantial
residence behind a set of intimidating wrought iron gates.  You are allowed into the gates for a better
view of the mansion but may only proceed about ten meters beyond the gate – any
closer to the house is forbidden – understandably security is a concern.  The Mansion House is fronted by an enormous
expanse of terraced lawn and faces Wright Park which is across the road.  I did not venture into Wright Park as I was
informed by a friendly orange seller outside of the gates of the Mansion House
that it needed some work and was not in a good state – I thanked him for his
advice by buying a good number of very sweet local oranges.
I then made my way past the Botanical
Gardens which could have been interesting as it looks like they are doing a lot
of work to the entrance area but owing to limited parking and difficulty
accessing the entrance because of the renovation work I continued on into the
city centre and a visit to the legendary Burnham Park.  It was interesting driving in the city centre
as in Manila and surrounds you are doomed to doing battle with tricycles and
busses whereas in Baguio, owing to the steep hills, there are no tricycles but
seemingly thousands of white taxis – and you do battle with them instead.  It was pretty easy finding parking around the
park assisted by roadside helpers to guide you into a parking area – and NO
parking meters or paid parking – wonderful! 
I happily gave the money instead to the person who guided me into the
parking and, I am sure, kept watch over my car as when I returned I was greeted
with a friendly wave and he helped me maneuver out of the parking bay and back
into the traffic and endless white taxis. 

 Burnham Park is a pleasant retreat from the busy city centre and does
give Baguio City and added attraction having the green and open space readily
accessible to all of its residents.  The
body of water is clean and attractively surrounded by weeping willows giving
the scene an almost English countryside feel. 
The only distractions from the potentially beautiful pastoral scene are
the garishly painted and decorated boats that are for hire on the lake.  The whole scene would look so much more
attractive with some simply painted rowing boats for hire, but instead there
are garishly painted giant swans and other unidentifiable but unattractive
water craft disguised as water creatures that do nothing but spoil the
potentially peaceful scene.   What could
be a peaceful escape from inner city life now resembles any one of the
congested roadways in the city itself.

I would have enjoyed a visit to the
strawberry fields of Baguio but owing to the recent rains and the end of the
strawberry season that trip will be delayed until my next visit to Baguio.
Finally, Camp John Hay deserves to be
explored as well and in my jogs around the area I had seen a few things that I
wanted to explore further so my final day was given over to a thorough
investigation of Camp John Hay.  Here are
a few areas worth visiting:
1. The miniature Statue of Liberty situated in
the grounds overlooking the hotel just behind the Lost Cemetery. 
  
      2.  The Lost Cemetery itself – also
known as the Cemetery of Negativism. 
Although there are a number of tombstones and from a distance it looks
as though it may be a pet cemetery – closer inspection of the tombstones
themselves show that these are not graves but symbolic graves for negative
thoughts.  This was a unique idea of one
of the camp commanders that if one of his subordinates betrayed a negative attitude
– then it would be given a name and buried so that it never arose again.
      3. The Bell House – a beautifully
preserved homestead that used to be the dwelling of the camp commander.  This is well worth a walk through and I was
lucky to have the whole house to myself when I visited and it is certainly a
step back into history.

    4. A totem pole featuring many
important American and Filipino historical characters that somehow played a
role in Camp John Hay 

     5. Seated statues of Abraham
Lincoln and President Quezon.
Much of the history of Camp John Hay points
at the long relationship between the United States and the Philippines and, as
with any marriage – for better or worse!
All that was left after a wonderful and
relaxing three day break in Baguio City, Camp john Hay and The Manor Hotel was
the return journey.  Checking out of the
hotel was handled with the same grace, speed and ease as all of the other
services that they had provided.

As my stay in Baguio had been blessed with
two days of sunshine I decided that I would descend using Kennon Road.  Unfortunately Doris did not agree and
complicated my attempts to exit Baguio via Kennon Road by insisting that I make
a U-turn to take me back to the Marcos Highway. 
However, I had the last word by somehow, purely by accident, finding
myself on the Kennon Road with Doris eventually silenced.  I must admit to being a little fearful as I
began my descent down Kennon Road as I had heard so many nightmare stories
about it being deadly.  What I did
discover is, like much of the Philippines, the Kennon Highway has the potential
to become one of the most scenic roads in the world but it is spoiled by tatty
roadside stalls, shoddy little shops offering anything and everything – another
tourist opportunity spoiled by lack of foresight and proper planning.  But if one casts one’s eyes further than the
immediate roadside but looks up at the awe-inspiring soaring peaks, the deep
gorges cut by strong flowing streams one can forgive,
just for a moment, what man has done to the beauty God created.
To echo a famous American man associated
closely with the Philippines –
 my final thoughts on Baguio:  I will return!

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