Although boasting a picture-perfect location flanking a crescent-moon bay, with the coned peak of Mount Banahaw rising from distant mists, Manila has never been known as much of a traveller destination. Most of its grand Spanish and pre-war buildings were flattened by American and Japanese bombs in World War II.
What remained was eroded by years of political turmoil, corruption and neglect. Instead, the Philippines’ capital became known for its shanty towns and roads so jammed with traffic they make navigating Bangkok’s seem like a Sunday drive.
But Manila is turning a new leaf. With diaspora money pouring in to fund redevelopments, and smart and enthusiastic youth climbing the ranks, Manila is emerging as a trendy, cosmopolitan city vivid with local flavour.
Former crime-ridden boroughs are being transformed into cool hangout areas filled with cafes and colourful bars. Filipino designers are coming to the fore, in art, fashion and music. Restaurants serving small, dainty morsels with the pomp and ceremony that would not be out of place in Sydney and Singapore have been opening by the handful. The city is even getting a world-class “starchitect” building – property developer Robbie Antonio’s new gallery/house is being designed by Rem Koolhaas and filled with portraits by artists such as Julian Schnabel and David Salle. And the best news for travellers? Manila recently gained its first true luxury hotel.
Opening on a quiet street in Manila’s skyscraper business district, Makati, the Raffles/ Fairmont is a co-joined hotel complex, with the exclusive all-suite 32-room Raffles Hotel in a 12-storey building on one corner, and the 280-room business hotel Fairmont flanking the other.
Hushed and glamorous, the Raffles and Fairmont share hectares of seamless white marble and sparkly chandeliers peering over classical butter-yellow furniture and pots of perfect white orchids. Guest rooms are spacious and elegant, with polished wood, sumptuous linen and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city. There is a plush spa, two swimming pools and a clutch of cool public spaces, such as the sophisticated Writer’s Lounge, borrowed from the original Raffles Singapore with its pseudo-Singapore Slings, and the jazzy, dimly lit Long Bar, where, in true Filipino style, the main attraction is throwing peanut shells on the floor and listening to live bands play ear-piercing rock music.
The hotel has been a long time in the making. While this city has no shortage of hotels, nor amiable staff to service them (friendliness is, after all, second nature in the Philippines), it has been 20 years since an internationally branded five-star hotel opened in Manila.
Times are changing. Shangri-La is constructing a 60-storey, 577-room hotel at Fort Bonifacio, the former military base, which is slated to open this year. The gargantuan 595-room New World hotel in Makati has just emerged from a multimillion-dollar facelift.
It is Manila’s dining scene that is really flourishing. While their local food has never made it onto a world stage, Filipinos are among Asia’s biggest food enthusiasts.
Marketing agency Catch-on’s recent survey of global dining trends signified that an economic boom in Manila has made it one of the 10 emerging epicurean destinations in the world, alongside Shanghai and Beirut.
At the slinky Goose Station, chefs Rob and Sunshine Pengson’s two nightly tasting menus are studded with morsels such as beetroot salad with orange, goat’s cheese, pickled carrot and walnut; slow-cooked egg with air-dried bacon; and wagyu beef with red wine jus. The dishes are presented as works of art and the flavours work well, but I find there is a little too much foam, soil and steam for the restaurant to be breaking new ground.
Better, and well worth the 1½-hour drive, is Antonio’s, a classical French restaurant in what is possibly one of the most beautiful dining environments that ever existed. Snuggled in a tangle of tropical foliage, this Spanish colonial-style wooden multi-levelled building with tiled floors falls down a grassy embankment studded with hidey-hole pockets of grass and garden. The food is an equal match to its stunning surrounds; plucked straight from the restaurant’s own organic gardens and a tribe of small artisan farmers in the Philippines, Antonio “Tony Boy” Escalante cooks dishes such as crab ravioli with kaffir lime and tomato, and steamed local clams in saffron, with an equally zesty wine list.
Sadly, there are few restaurants in Manila highlighting local cuisine. Heavy with Chinese and Malaysian influences and sprinkled with Mexican-style dishes – a leftover from the days when the country was a part of colonial Spain and governed from Mexico – Filipino cuisine has never been very marketable. It’s not that it isn’t palatable, but rather that it’s hard to find and peppered with tummy-turning dishes such as balut, a fully formed duck foetus boiled inside the shell; and dinuguan, pig’s blood and entrails cooked with vinegar and chilli.
Balut and dinuguan aside, local food is where the Raffles-Fairmont really shines. The hotel’s main restaurant, Spectrum, serves some of the best food I have tasted throughout the country. Although offered in a buffet, think a tear-jerkingly sour kinilaw, which mixes raw fish, onion and tomato in vinegar, and whose roots clearly belong in Mexico and its version of ceviche. There are whole roasted pigs, here called lechon, served four different ways, and kare-kare – ox tail cooked in a mildly sweet peanut sauce.
If Spectrum is anything to go by, Manila’s local food scene may be in for a revival of its own.
The Raffles Makati has 32 suites from 14,437 Philippine pesos ($350) a night. See raffles.com.
The Fairmont has 280 rooms from 9611 pesos. See fairmont.com.