MANILA, March 29, 2004 (STAR) By Igan D’bayan - Gray air, everywhere – infinite and endless… Not to mention traffic, pollution, heat, sweat, headaches, shitty jobs, presidential race blues, assorted bits of bad news, and stress in the most spirit-crushing forms. It’s hard not to feel like miserable Morrissey while walking around crappy Metro Manila – you think the city is hosting Armageddon or the pre-Apocalypse party. So, you etch a postcard, "How I dearly wish I was not here," and hope that somebody reads it and does something. Oh what fun it is to do a Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson and other literary hitchhikers, and ride a bus or drive with friends somewhere that is not this godforsaken place. Yeah, to twist the musings of the band Morphine: Be an "observation machine… caressing the most passing of scenes with photographic love… remembering everything like a snatch of melody." Digging the view. Soaking in the scenery. Visiting a place where there’s a lake, a volcano, blue skies, lush grass, a gaggle of trees, and very few hassles.

I was listening to the "Kicks Joy Darkness" CD (a tribute to the author of On The Road featuring assorted travelers like Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Joe Strummer, Patti Smith, and Michael Stipe, among others) on the way to Tagaytay, which is one and a half hours away from Manila and light years ahead in terms of living conditions. What a welcome boon it was to get an assignment to spend the night at the Tagaytay Vista Hotel, a hotel that offers a splendid view of Taal Volcano, the world’s smallest volcano, and equally spectacular Taal Lake.

"The beauty of nature is that you never see the same thing twice," Alex Groizard, Taal Vista Hotel GM, told us when we got to the hotel. The man has gazed repeatedly at the volcano and the lake from the windows of the hotel rooms and he said there is always something new and pleasing to see each time – colors are different, clouds are different, the thickness of mist is different. It is not always the same picture presented by the Great Landscape Painter in the Sky.

"The view of the volcano is fantastic just after it rains," enthused Groizard, who hails from Majorca, Spain.

And this is one of the main draws of Taal Vista Hotel: the panoramic view of Taal Volcano and Lake from any of its 80 rooms – from the superior rooms to the suites fit for royals.

A short history lesson: The hotel, which went by the name Taal Vista Lodge, has been in existence for 70 years. One of the landmarks of Tagaytay, the old lodge was the favorite of tourists and locals because it offered, yes, the unrivaled view of the volcano (mainly due to the ridge on which Taal Vista is located). But it also had a reputation for being a dark, gloomy, decaying inn badly in need of an architectural makeover. It closed down in ’98. Enter Henry Sy and SM Investment Corporation into the picture. The SM mogul loved Tagaytay since he was a kid, particularly the Highlands. He once said in an interview that if such a wonderful place were located in China, its government would have proclaimed it a national treasure, preserved it, and developed it as a major tourist destination.

Sy got the services of FilBarcelo Hotels and Properties Management Corporation to flesh out his vision of building a world-class hotel in his beloved city. Henry’s children also had a hand in the enterprise: Betty Sy took care of the details and oversaw the whole thing, while Hans Sy fast-tracked the project.

In rebuilding Taal Vista, those involved took great pains in preserving what made the old lodge unique in the first place: its quirky architecture – classic and funky, historic and futuristic at the same time.

"It is a combination of old and new designs," Groizard said. "When I first came here it was like a war camp – there was so much to do. People remember the hotel as dark and old, but the owner invested so much money to make the hotel what it is now. And we didn’t throw things away. We refurnished what we had to preserve the look, the character of the hotel."

Now, almost a year after it had its soft opening, Taal Vista Hotel exudes a brighter, chirpier vibe (credit goes to architect Celine Borja and interior designer Manny Samson). Millie Dizon – SM 1st VP for Marketing Communications – remembered the gloominess of the old lodge, its pebble-washed floors. These days, she marvels at the remarkable difference: as if the hotel went from a medieval phase and into its own distinct renaissance.

There is the grand Main Tudor Hall, originally built in the ‘30s, with those bright beige interiors and famous arches; the newly transferred Café on the Ridge with its floor-to-ceiling glass windows (so guests can partake of the spectacular view while partaking of scrumptious buffet food); the viewing deck with its old telescopes and dome skylights; and the Bougainvillea Pavilion with its treasure trove of modern art and flora. The hotel also boasts The Lobby Lounge, three specialty shops, six function rooms (to complement the two grand ballrooms), and a business center. To be operational within the year is the new wing of the hotel, including more rooms and recreational facilities like a swimming pool, a spa and an activity center.

"Only the best for our guests – this is our philosophy. Ninety-nine percent is not enough; we’re going for 110 percent. This is our vision. We don’t settle for plain ‘okay,’ we anticipate each demand of our clients," the GM shared, adding that service is what they offer best. Hey, the Sultan of Brunei stayed in one of the suites – a testament to how fit for kings the rooms are.

The most eye-catching thing for me is the lower corridor that led to the room I stayed in, which was like a pastel fusion of two different sets in two different Stanley Kubrick films: the Korova Milkbar in A Clockwork Orange and the hull of spaceship Discovery in 2001: A Space Odyssey. So, navigating the blue, green, yellow, orange hallway, I felt like that droog Alex looking for a bit of the old ultra-violence, running into super-computer HAL 9000 which is singing "Daisy, Daisy" one last time.

Inside the room, with its subdued colors and plump pillows, I couldn’t help but look out the window and into those hills resembling blue elephants. Riding Uphill On A Horse With A Dorky Name

Top 10 things to do while in Tagaytay: 1) play golf on the greens; 2) court lady luck in the casino; 3) go sightseeing, camping, boating or kayaking; 4) have a picnic with friends or relatives; 5) visit The Flower Farm with its garden bed of chrysanthemums, gerberas, carnations and roses; 6) go sailing at the Taal Lake Yacht Club; 7) confess one’s debauchery at St. Anne’s Shrine; 8) swim at the nearby beaches; 9) buy pineapples at the city market; 10) and ride a horse uphill for a look at the crater of Taal Volcano.

I did one out of 10.

Groizard said, "We offer great accommodations, but we sell the destination at the end of the day. We are working closely with city hall. The goal of Mayor Francis Tolentino is to make Tagaytay a ‘City of Character.’ Everyone is involved and committed to make our city one of the best destinations in the country."

With this in mind, the GM said the hotel offers various packages for guests. One of them is the Dream Romance Package (P6,000), which includes overnight accommodations in a deluxe room, breakfast in bed, a bottle of sparkling wine, chocolates, body massage and flower petals on the bed. Another is the Volcano Adventure Package (single occupancy, P6,000; twin sharing, P3,240 per person, and P1,475 for the third person). This package includes overnight stay at a superior room, breakfast in the coffee shop, as well as a guided tour ofTaal Volcano on horseback.

I went to the hotel alone so sleeping on a bed full of petals was ridiculous, so I (a person whose most adventurous moment is avoiding getting squashed to death in an LRT coach) took part in the adventure tour.

I was transported to the lake at 8 in the morning. After a 30-minute boat ride, I got to the foot of Taal Volcano, which is described in travelogues as "a volcano within a volcano within another lake and a lake within an island within a lake." Not at all inaccurate, I’d say. An Ernie Baron trivia: Taal Volcano, the world’s smallest active volcano, was originally one huge mother, towering over 18,000 feet into the sky. Oh yeah, Taal Lake in older texts was called Lake Bonbon.

Note to self: When sitting on boat bound for Taal Volcano, never sit in front or else be prepared to take part in a wet T-shirt contest. At the foot of Taal, I saw the stables of horses for rent. Since I am a thin and lanky fellow I prayed to the gods that the guide wouldn’t get me the small, sickly horse I eyed on one corner – "Sea-biskwit," I believe the name was.

Thankfully, I was assigned to a tall, frisky horse with a white mane that went by the name of "Sandoval." My guide, an 11-year-old boy named Benjie, explained that the ride uphill usually takes 30 minutes. Not for this clumsy city slicker. Not for the antithesis of Clint Eastwood and all the stars of old Spaghetti Westerns. Benjie more than once accosted me for holding back Sandoval and not allowing the horse to trot freely. Well, I was just preoccupied with one thing: not falling.

The three of us trekked uphill, past slim ridges and rocky cliffs. To reassure myself, I asked the guide how sure he was that the horse wouldn’t stray off the path and tumble snout-first into the scary abyss. "Ayaw din pong mamatay nung kabayo," Benjie deadpanned. And that truly calmed my nerves, dear readers.

Another caricature: The horse sometimes veered to the left and into the general direction of the cliff, while I veered to the right and into the general direction of dear life. "Lalaki pa naman pero lampa," Benjie snapped. "Huh?" I was taken aback. The guide answered, "‘Yung kabayo po, hindi ikaw, manong (laughs)."

The view toward the top was spectacular: sloping grasslands, rocky improvised roads, trotting horses and sunburned tourists. The young guide, my trusty steed and I got to the crater after more than 30 minutes, and I was parched and a little, pardon the pun, hoarse. Seeing the crater in all its blue glory more than made up for it, though – the lake within the lake, a murder of crows, infinite skies, biblical clouds and all.

Later that afternoon, I told about the GM about my little adventure. He said, "Yes, Tagaytay is such a wonderful place. You have the volcano, the lake, flowers and beautiful weather. You have trekking and horseback-riding. It’s great to work in the hotel industry because you get the opportunity to share what’s beautiful in this country to other people."

Everyone would agree. Everyone would dig this city with character. Heck, even Jack Kerouac would put a halt to his hitchhiking.

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Taal Vista Hotel is at Km. 60, Aguinaldo Highway, Tagaytay City. For reservations, call (046)413-1000 or fax (046)413-1225.

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For comments, suggestions, curses and invocations, e-mail iganja@hotmail.com.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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