Monday, April 14, 2014

The Circle Hostel, La Union: Amidst Artists And Adventurers

I woke up next to someone new. And I wasn't sure if we were even introduced.

The scent of salty hair hung in my nostrils, and for a moment, I couldn't recall where I was. I tried to rise but a pang in my head made me plop back down the bunk. The pain disabled my brain, completely. I rolled over to my other side and came face to face with a wall made of bamboo strips. Beyond which was a figure awake and moving about —  I caught sight of between the tiny gaps.

I watched mindlessly for a while.

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There are no strangers here.

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Berths and personal spaces.
 
Was brought back to my senses minutes later when I heard a constant shuffling of feet. Lots of feet. I managed to sit up and saw the strangers I rode with, on a land journey of almost six hours the previous night. All just outta bed, and were nameless to me at that point but I greeted each with an inaudible "g'morning".

So I finally remembered where in the world I was, and how mad I was for traveling to La Union straight from Boracay. The heady concoction of eight hours on a vessel plus eight hours in vans surely was the culprit for my hammered head.

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The brekkie nook, right by the locker area.

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 The lounge/common area upstairs.

I spotted a familiar face. The figure from the other side of the wall, I soon found out, was fellow travel blogger and my homegurl Christine of JovialWanderer.com. She who managed to convince me to pursue the trip even if I already begged off days earlier. Well, she and Aldous of AldousAteTheWorld.blogspot.com who organized the weekend bloggers' shindig.

We, along with four other bloggers, were checked in The Circle Hostel, La Union. We arrived about half past three that morning. In which time I randomly chose among the bunks assigned for the group and passed out right away.

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Hammocks for rent. Such cozy cocoons.

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This lattice wall spoke to me. So I just had to try it.
 
The Circle Hostel La Union is a very affordable hostel for both surfers and non-surfers, that sits on a lot away from highway noise but just two hundred meters from the beach. Its layout is set up with the backpacker culture in mind. The open plan structure having only 2 bunk rooms, 1 hammock area and 1 lounge/common area paves way for interaction between guests. Bed in the bunk room (has privacy curtain and mosquito net) is P450 (about $10), and a hammock is P350 (about $8).

Facilities: Free WiFi (common area), lockers (bring your own padlock or rent one), toilet and bath.

A towel may be hired for P40, with a P100 deposit.

Day use of facilities is a pocket friendly P150.

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 Anyone can grab a bucket of paint and send a message through art.

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Couldn't help it.

"There are no strangers here.", says on their website.

True enough, our motley band of bloggers congregated with other guests for an uncomplicated power brekkie of pandesal all-you-want with two choices of spread. I introduced myself to the rest of our party: Samantha of greenspired.wordpress.com, RD of rdllarena.com, Rhea of rheabue.com, and Kat of katvaldez.com.

Everyone was up for surfing. Except me. 

As the sun inched higher, the crowd at the lounge thinned, group by group. Ours headed off as well, led by one of The Circle Hostel's owners Rafael Oca, to catch the early waves.

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Not exactly what we were hoping for.

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 Brief lesson from Surf Star School Of Surfing.

The waves, we were told, were too wild for us beginners. We then parked our arses on the sand, thinking we'll prolly just call it a day and start chugging beer at 8 in the morn (Okay, that was just me thinking!). But because we saw other beginners braving the shoulder-height waves, the rest said they might as well surf.

So they did, after a brief lesson from Surf Star School Of Surfing.

I watched each one attempt and stand and fall and laugh. And found myself wanting to attempt and stand and fall and laugh too. 

So I did. I was able to stand on the board on my first attempt and I was the most surprised of all. I felt so victorious that after the first ride, my thoughts went back to beer.

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First and almost last attempt.

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From left: Christine, RD, me, Aldous, Samantha, Kat and Rhea.

And beer happened during lunch at Gefseis Greek Grill. Christine and I had to bail out later that day so we took the opportunity to get to know more about the individuals in our group. Individuals from different niches. Over platters of souvlaki, we discovered common interests and frustrations. We shared stories that, although very random, entertained everybody on the table. We made friends.

There really are no strangers. Just friends we have not met yet. The Circle Hostel is out to prove that. Come spend the night, leave your inhibitions behind. And prepare to meet a new circle.


How to get to The Circle Hostel, La Union: Visit this page for info http://www.launion.thecirclehostel.com/location


The Circle Hostel La Union
Urbiztondo, San Juan
La Union,Philippines
www.launion.thecirclehostel.com


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Monday, April 7, 2014

2014 Thus Far: The First Quarter

We had the temerity to change.

Finally.

Towards the end of 2013, we moved in our little shack (okay, it's not really little and not really a shack, but it's cute to call it such) in the Philippines. It's been gobbling half of our income for a year and five months now, and has pushed me to the breaking point. Three months on since we spent our first night in it, am still not coping well with this settling down situation although the hubby and I took preparatory measures.

More on that drama some other day.

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Green Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia.
 
For now, let me blabber about all the jaunts and shindigs that kept me sane during the first quarter of 2014. And a heartbreak that shattered me into pieces. Here's the year thus far...

First day of the year, woke up to a sparsely furnished room. A room that hubby and I can finally call ours. The night before, we were able to celebrate New Year's Eve with my parents after missing the previous two in the Philippines.

Attended Jacob Maentz's The Forgotten Ten Photography Exhibition in Yuchengco Museum. The exhibit showcased a year and a half of Jacob’s documentary work from various indigenous communities around the Philippines.

Impromptu Baguio trip with Melo of www.outoftownblog.com and Julius of www.lakwastserongtsnelas.blogspot.com. Finally entered the Laperal White House, chanced upon the Ifugao Bamboo Carving Art Exhibit there, and luckily met Philippine Bamboo Foundation President Edgardo Manda.

Co-organized a The Linden Suites staycation which I dubbed Pajama Party Wherein We Don't Wear Pajamas for Pinoy travel bloggers. Sabrina of www.justonewayticket.com and Kate of www.adventurouskate.com also joined the Pinoy food pig-out and videoke madness.

Vacationed in Siargao for the first time and was hosted by Buddha's Surf Resort. Celebrated Melo's name day with an island hopping tour. And nope, we didn't surf cause our lazy arses would rather hammock-surf.

Blindly jumped in an exploration semi-conducted by fellow travel blogger Edgar of eazytraveler.com. Destination, Sulu. The night before my flight, my father was confined in a hospital for tests after a mass was found in his brain. I left him with a heavy heart. I left because that's what he wanted. He who passed me the travel bug would rather see me in photos exploring an unfamiliar place, than see me weeping in pain by his side.

Celebrated the hubby's birthday at White Beach, Puerto Galera over authentic Italian pizza and a stunning sunset. Day after, we partied like there's no tomorrow (and like there's no toddler in tow) with two other travel bloggers. Learned the basics of poi dancing whilst inebriated on the same night.

My sister, daughter Luna and I trooped to Mt. Malasimbo for the Malasimbo Music & Arts Fest for the first time. Went mainly for Jose Gonzalez. Mishka Adams was a plus. Eating a P40(!) balut was one of the night's highlights.

Broke out of my blogger shell and agreed to be a "reviewer" for Pop Talk's Third Anniversary Special. The show brought me to Boracay. It was my second visit on the island. Day before the trip, my father was again rushed to the hospital. Apparently, he had a silent stroke. And once again, he let me go while he was confined. He said, "I want to see you on TV again."

The Pop Talk crew encouraged me to face my fear of the deep. After much whining and yapping and almost-sobbing, I dove down a colossal aquarium for an "ocean walk".

From Boracay, went straight to The Circle Hostel in La Union with a bunch of new faces except for my homegirl Christine of www.jovialwanderer.com. Even though I was feeling under the weather, I tried surfing for the first time, and was able to stand on the board on my first attempt! I was the most surprised of all.

March ended with the beginning of our Cairns-Sydney roadtrip. Found ourselves in a paradisiacal place called The Great Barrier Reef.

Where we are now...

Just finished our 9-day Cairns-Sydney roadtrip yesterday — a journey of about 3,000 kilometers and we intend to hibernate here in my mum-in-law's house until we leave Australia late April. The season's perfect for swimming in sheets anyway. And for devising our lives for the second quarter, which may include one long haul flight, and a lot more sun-basking — wherein I expect to finally try on the swimmies and kaftans I fished from Zalora.

Huh? What house?


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Monday, March 24, 2014

Withlocals.com: Going Local With Locals

Immerse. Have we not heard this countless times from seasoned travelers? And have we not thought of this as — now let's be honest here — a gargantuan task to fulfill? 

When on the road, going local is how I usually roll. Many years of backpacking taught me how to trust in the good of humanity, in good karma and in the positive vibes of the universe. This idiosyncrasy of mine, and of fellow nomads, may be difficult for holidaymakers to comprehend. Undecipherable even, for the wary. 

So how do we introduce this so-called "immersion" to occasional vacationers who lack time, extra dough and well, credence?
 
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The Pasar (Market) Tour in Malaysia organized by local Khairun Halina.
 
Withlocals.com comes to our aid. 

TheWithLocals website is a "marketplace connecting travelers from every corner of the world with locals in Asia offering unique travel experiences and home dining opportunities...". It's an online platform that helps build personal relationships between travelers and locals, that could begin even when distant from each other, at the click of a mouse.

Locals sign up as hosts and offer services for reasonable rates, and travelers sign up to "book experiences". These experiences are sorted into three categories:  

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EAT Withlocals, wherein you get a real taste of the local culture by dining with a family in their home; 

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TOURS Withlocals, wherein you get to discover off-the-beaten-track sites under the guidance of your host

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and ACTIVITIES Withlocals wherein you don't just observe locals do their thang, you get to learn/do them yourself too!

"But it ain't for free!", I hear you say.

WithLocals.com believes that "every person is good at something and that there’s no greater way to earn a living than by doing something you are passionate about.". The site provides an opportunity for people, especially locals in developing countries, to boost their income by showcasing their skills and sharing their knowledge. You might have spent money on a travel agent before, and hey, this isn't really any different. Okay, except the middle-man's slashed. And isn't that a good thing?

Yes, the best things in life are free, but ain't it better if you're able to help out others?

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Ultimate experience. You may find it here.
 
Head over to their website and learn more about, quite possibly, the future of travel. 

Get in touch directly with the locals. Try to immerse, even for a fleeting moment.


[All photos courtesy of WithLocals.com]

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Sulu Sojourn: Reconnaissance

"He'll die for you."

It wasn't a line fished out of a zombie-romance flick. Nor lyrics of some mawkish glam rock song. It was literal to the core, delivered with utmost nonchalance by a first lieutenant nicknamed Mac as he thumbed towards the officer behind me.

The words sent a chill up my spine.

Just minutes prior, fellow traveler Edgar — who convinced me to book a flight at the last minute   and I arrived at the relatively young Jolo Airport. Mac and a slew of marines escorted us to a van that was to be our service for the four-day trip. It had to be a private vehicle, I was told, because the marines' pick up trucks are sometimes assaulted with grenades. I slouched on my seat and barely said anything throughout the ride to our first stop.

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This one never left my side. Bualu Bat Sanctuary, Maimbung.
 
So in what context was Mac's statement raised then? I must have smelt of fear. No thanks to the old lady I sat next to earlier aboard the turboprop plane from Zamboanga whose uncalled welcome remarks consisted of a vague historical timeline, a list of people who got killed within a three-kilometer radius from the runway where we were taxiing, and an advice to wear the hijab.  

She rounded up with "Enjoy Sulu!". Enjoy. The verb seemed like a challenge.

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First meal on the island. They stood guard while I gobbled my tiyula itum (black soup).

I attempted to sweep away morbid thoughts as I soaked up the jolt of morning rush through my window. Jolo the capital, resembled other Southeast Asian Islamic cities. Mosques, hijabs, halal food stalls, discreet/nonexistent pubs. The streets were abuzz and locals went about their business as if the socio-political turmoil in the island province is no more than an urban legend.

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 Beautiful. Deserted.

On our day one itinerary — and when I say 'itinerary' I mean a computer-printed itinerary in a spreadsheet layout, bulleted by military time  — which Mac constructed, were sights that serve as prelude to cultural immersion. Museum, the provincial capitol, old Spanish towers. I'm usually not the itinerary kind of backpacker, but for that trip it was imperative to let go of the helm.

To follow whims. To entrust one's life. 

My distress somehow faded as the day progressed. Never felt like I was under any kind of threat, and I wondered if escorts were really necessary or we were simply babied so the marines could mark a good impression.

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 Raja Baginda (reputed first Muslim ruler of Sulu) Shrine in Camp Bud Datu.

Approaching sundown, we were rushed (they wouldn't risk joyriding in the dark) to Bud Datu where the 9th Marine Battalion was encamped. Had dinner and a few beers with the officers on a balcony overlooking the capital and a mountain territory of Islamist separatist group Abu Sayyaf, before slumbering in a room setup for visiting commanders.

That night was devoid of unease. Even though we chewed on stories of casualty, of sorrow, of boredom, of finding love in a seemingly hopeless place. I drew an early conclusion that Sulu, at least at that time, wasn't as menacing as I the outsider assumed. That the place could easily be explored by a brave few when not under fire.

In the next two days, unfortunately, my sentiments made a total turnaround.

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View atop Camp Bud Datu.

Mac began his day two prologue in the van with some random report. "Meron pa sigurong bente na andun sa bundok (There are probably twenty people left on the mountain.).", he was referring to kidnap victims. Apparently separatists and extremists are always on the prowl.

Why he shared this piece of information? I must have smelt of ridiculous courage. And he didn't want to take chances.

"He'll die for you.", the words from yesterday echoed and resonated.

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He who will die for me. He who let out a muffled snicker while I sweat under his three-kilo helmet. Oh how we killed waiting time.

I put my guard back up. And it stayed on for the remaining days of our trip that was a mishmash of island hopping with fourteen marines, armed with heavy artillery; driving through no man's lands, and sometimes trudging on them; trying out wayside cafeterias, where the marines themselves are afraid to dine in; and crossing bamboo bridges in a water village to catch weavers of pis (local woven textile) do their magic.

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A looker that can mask bedlam. "Floating Cottage", Maimbung Bay.

We were introduced to a band of government officials, more marine officers, a member of the MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front), civilian women who "guard" their municipality at night (against invaders), and a community rebuilding their reclaimed area. Their choice of staying in their respective hometowns amidst the on and off unrest, to me, is unfathomable. They live in anxiety. Not the I-need-dibs-to-pay-the-bills kind of anxiety that attacks every month, but the I-could-lose-a-house-or-loved-one kind of constant anxiety. My first world issues here are nothing but trivial.

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Kept pristine, perhaps by conflict. Teomabal Island.

Was I surprised with this realization? Let's just say I was caught off-guard by something else.

Reconnaissance, or simply recon, is an exploratory mission to gather information about an enemy's territory. It wasn't my objective, but I underwent a recon of sorts. My enemies: doubt, fear, and an adolescent ignorance. I studied them. Overcame them. Handed my life to strangers who would literally catch a bullet for me, and I didn't even know their names. Lent my occasionally stuck up ears to folks whose narratives are bereft of social media lingo.

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Sunrise view from Mt. Bayug Eco-Cultural Park. Depicting hope.

I tasted victory, but there was nothing to celebrate about. Similar to my first world issues, my personal victory is trivial here as well.

I left the province with a change in character. Akin to a soldier who left the battlefield... There's simply no turning back to my old self.


Friday, March 7, 2014

Buddha's Surf Resort, Siargao: Surf's Up, Feet Up

Our twin-engine turboprop bird unsteadily circled above the island for about twenty minutes. The air was tense inside the cabin. Not so much because we were terrified of a rough touchdown, but because we were worried about not touching down at all. That the near-zero visibility will force the pilots to abort landing.

The captain came on as I tugged my daughter Luna's seat belt tighter. I caught "Try... South quadrant... Approach...". In case you missed it "Try"!

I tugged my seat belt tighter.

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Buddha's Surf Resort, nestled amidst towering coconut trees.

A few more minutes passed, then finally, the sound of screeching tires. Not the kind of landing I was bracing myself for. Twas relatively smooth. Eerily calm under the glum weather.

I heaved a sigh of relief.

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A thirst-quenching island welcome.
 
The hubby, my daughter and I hopped off the plane and huddled to share a brolly we grabbed from the ground staff at the foot of the stairs. We joined our travel buddies Melo of Out Of Town Blog, Ron of Flip Travels, and Lai of Pinay Travelista at Sayak Airport's teensy arrivals hall. Soon as we got our backpacks, we headed to the airport's parking lot and were ushered by a driver to his van where three foreigners from our flight were already waiting.

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Ze icon.
 
A van ride from Siargao's Sayak airport to General Luna costs P300 per person (one way) and can easily be arranged upon arrival (if heading straight to another town, hire a habal-habal). Trip lasts forty minutes, and passengers are dropped off at the doorstep of their respective hotels. Our accommodation was booked beforehand so we simply uttered Buddha's Surf Resort to the driver before conking out.

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Wall art at Buddha's Surf Resort's restaurant.
 
Buddha's Surf Resort lies between the municipality of General Luna and the famous surfing spot Cloud 9 (where the annual Siargao International Surfing Cup is held). A convenient location for both surfers and non-surfers. The staff promptly assisted us in unloading our luggage when we arrived and led us to the reception-slash-restaurant. Our stay was a sponsored one and the manager, Chris (with a crown of gorgeous curly locks similar to that of the hubby's before middle age deprived him of hair), gave us a quick intro of the resort as we sipped our welcome drinks.
 
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Rooms are housed in a building separate from the restaurant and communal lounge area.

Resort Amenities:

All rooms have air conditioning and hot water
Daily housekeeping
En-suite bathroom for each room
Free Wi-Fi throughout the resort
From January 2014 all direct bookings include breakfast

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Oh that humongous key chain. You certainly can't lose something like that.
 
Accommodation
 
Although the property's quite vast, the resort is currently offering only five rooms. Which guarantees guests seclusion. My family was given the superior room while the others were assigned in the family room.

The superior room on the second level was every bit ideal for our family of three. Its floor space is insanely immense. The bed, although too high for our toddler to climb on, is colossal as well and had pristine sheets when we checked in (I still dream of its softness 'til this very day). There's a flat screen telly and a hard drive that contains heaps of movies. A desk that made us digital nomads cheer, and a private balcony where we whiled away the rainy afternoons. And oh, there's a Loudbasstard amplifier in the room which we weren't able to use but raved about anyway. Its rate as of writing is P2,650 per night (about UD$60), brekkie included.

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The superior room's private balcony.

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One of the three beds in the spacious family room.
 
The family room on the ground level has two adjoining rooms with two aircon units. It also has a flat screen telly, a desk, and a balcony with deck chairs. Current price is P3,000 (US $67) + P100 (US $2.20) per head, includes brekkie.

Standard room is at P2,200 (US $50) per night. And guests could choose either queen or twin bed.

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Buddha's Surf Resort's restaurant.
 
The Food. Oooh man, the food!

The restaurant's menu has a pretty wide range of food and beverages. For starters, the brekkie choices included in the room rates are tops. The Big Buddha Breakfast is enough to last me 'til mid-arvo, and the banana pancakes (the fluffy kind, not the Thai kind) are simply amazeballs. Loved their bowl of muesli too.

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Big Buddha Breakfast for the big appetite.
 
Their mains are also smashin'! My faves are the chicken in red curry (recommended by the staff, and not as spicy as it may seem), chicken adobo, and carbonara (super duper creamy). 

The resort takes pride of their Thai-themed menu. Am not a big fan of their pad thai but I fell for their chicken mango cashew salad (cause of unavailability, they added pineapple instead of mango, which surprisingly came out well).

Upon request and with proper lead time, the kitchen can whip up a feast for a party.

On Thursdays, local artists perform at the communal lounge area. It's open to the public and you could request for your food to be served  there.

Activities

Buddha's Surf Resort is totes equipped for surfing lessons. Surfboards, motorbikes to transport guests and their boards, and pro instructors — like Marlo who *ahem* recently rubbed elbows/boards (lol) with a rockstar. In the water.

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Cause Marlo's cool like that. Photo from Buddha's Surf Resort's Facebook fan page.

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Slacklining. Where I applied most of my morning energy on. This local showed me how it's done backwards.
 
If you're a non-surfer, there are other activities that the resort can host/arrange for you. From kite surfing to diving to fishing to kayaking to stand up paddle surfing. They also organize island hopping trips. 

Won't be surprised if you'd rather 'waste time' at your balcony, sitting on a deck chair with your feet up, staring at nothing in particular. Like we did.

So will we actually spend our dibs for a resort like this? Definitely! In fact we extended our stay at our own expense — okay wait, we only intended to because the resort owner didn't let us pay for the last night as well. But yah know, the thought's there.


Buddha’s Surf Resort 
Catangnan, General Luna
Siargao Island, Surigao Del Norte
Philippines
Email: buddha@siargaosurf.com
Mobile number:  +63 (0)9199 456789 (SMS only)  +63 (0)9282 079631 (all calls)


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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Win A Staycation For Two At The Linden Suites!

I was up all night to get lucky. With the karaoke microphone.

Midnight, the after-effects of merlot and moscato were depicted by off-beat dancing. Were heard through off-key singing.

No matter how hammered, mic hoggers were on standby.

There were about seventeen travel bloggers in our Linden Suites one-bedroom suite. Fifteen Filipinos, one American, and one German. They all came for an event organized by The Linden Suites' Marketing Communications Manager Michael Anthony Sagaran and Melo Villareal of outoftownblog.com which I dubbed "Pajama Party Wherein We Don't Wear Pajamas".

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One of The Linden Suites' refurbished suites. Space matters.
 
On our agenda: Eat, drink, sing. Which we all accomplished. And then some.

After which, we crashed in our respective suites to experience The Linden Suites' refurbished rooms. Except for one, all suites on the ninth floor were assigned to our party (slightly similar to how it went down during our first staycation).
 
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A box of Frontera wine (Yes, a BOX!) from Fly Ace Corporation. Photo by Kirk Acebron of kirkanatomy.com.
 
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The buffet spread. Cebu’s Original Lechon Belly, undoubtedly, was the star of the table.
 
Being one of the early birds, I was able to peek into every type of refurbished suite the hotel's currently offering. Each suite boasts the same massive floor space. The same sophisticated design, but with a more modish touch. And all of the suites' rooms now got bathtubs!

Just every bit ideal for a staycation.
 
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The rowdy crew. Pinoy travel bloggers with Kate of www.adventurouskate.com and Sab of www.justonewayticket.com.
 
You could experience The Linden Suites' refurbished awesomeness also! Join our contest and get the chance to win an overnight stay for two in a deluxe room. Includes brekkie at Mesclun.

Prize is transferable and winner must book in advance.

Just "like" a bunch of Facebook pages, leave a comment below, and share the news to others. Let Rafflecopter lead the way.
 
a Rafflecopter giveaway
 
Open to Philippine residents. Contest runs from March 5, 2014 to March 26, 2014. Winner will be announced on March 27.

Good luck, fellow travel junkies!

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