MANILA, October 5, 2004  (STAR) RENDEZVOUS By Christine S. Dayrit - While taking my masterís degree in film production a decade ago, my classmates from Boston University and I would often drive to nearby Newport in Rhode Island to visit the magnificent centuries-old mansions and summer palaces of the prominent Vanderbilt and Astor families. Such grandeur and opulence never failed to fascinate us. Perhaps the cool breeze wafting across the Atlantic and into Narragansett Bay swept the wealthiest Americans of the Gilded Age to the sheltered harbors and picturesque cliffs of Newport. It was awesome to learn that those who arrived built lavish mansions from imported marble, fine woodwork and polished crystal. The eccentricities of the rich who gave dinner parties for their dogs and draped their slumbering horses in satin sheets amused us. These mansions still stand as a reminder of days gone past, drawing visitors to Newport simply so they can set foot in ballrooms larger than modern houses that remain as inviting today as they did before.

Over the weekend, I experienced some sort of deja vu while visiting the palatial mansions in Iloilo City for the very first time. These mansions built between the late 1800s and early 1900s were constructed during the Neo-Renaissance period in Europe and the Gilded Age in America when the Astors and Vanderbilts created their homes in Newport. Proudly, I viewed the well-preserved exteriors of the grand Casa Mariquit built 200 years ago and the Nelly Gardens built in 1928. As we toured the interiors of the magnificent homes of the Jalandoni, Locsin and Ledesma families, we were floored by the exquisite balustrades, grand staircases and furnishings as well as the dramatic arrangement of space as seen in the high ceilings and massive wooden doors. As we were served merienda of native coconut suman and hot chocolate in the finest china, silverware and porcelain cups in the Jalandoni mansion, I realized one big difference Ė the mansions in Newport are now museums while the ones in Iloilo are still lived in to this very day.

Strolling down memory lane, I learned that Iloilo may have lost its title as "Queen City of the South" but remains an important part of the countryís commerce, culture, history and education. In the 1800s, this city was second only to Manila as a commercial center. This was brought about mainly due to the rise of the sugar industry in Western Visayas which used its seaport as the exit point for the export of sugar products. As early as 1837, Iloilo City already had a bank, the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank. Iloilo City can also be proud of its many firsts in the country as compiled by the late Norberto Baylen. Iloilo had the first commercial airline, luxury liner, car assembly plant, elementary school and the first modern cinema house outside of Manila.

Fast forward to the 20th century. Today Iloilo faces the challenge to be as progressive and pulsating as the current "Queen City of the South." In line with this, Robinsons Place Iloilo was launched that boasts the very first innovative concept in the night life and dining scene. According to Robinson Landís gracious Roseann Coscuella-Villegas, Paseo Iloilo located on De Leon Street is the answer to the needs of the Ilonggos to unwind, relax, have a break and share moments with family and friends.

Shopping, dining and entertainment housed in the Paseo Iloilo offers varied choices. Together with mall manager Ditas Taleon and Therese Robles of the Iloilo Photographic Society, we checked out these choices. Take for instance the Biscocho Haus which is synonymous to pasalubong. Since 1975, the Guadarrama family members of Jaro have been developing new product lines of bakery and confectionary favorites. Tedís La Paz Batchoy serves culture in a bowl. This hearty noodle soup with innards, chicharon and tasty bagoong is paired with puto or pandesal. Papa Heinz Pizza and Pasta boasts delicious treats and franchise owner Romil Locsin even offers tuna pizzas and vegetarian delights.

Planetarium Cafe is where the stars meet and shine. Ha!Ha! Ha! Comedy Bar owned by July Galang and Raha Sabordo is a first in Western Visayas to house a comedy show, full bar and restaurant and disco under one roof. Try their house specialty "Kapal Mooks" Ė deep fried pig head. Proprietor Edgar Sia II of Mang Inasal says daily customers simply canít get enough of barbeque chicken pecho or paa paired with garlic rice and coconut juice. Kimís Bob Korean Restaurant, owned and managed by the Kim couple and their Filipino partner, has a mini-grocery section where Korean fares like noodles, sake,cookies and other goodies like ice cream can be purchased. Ultra Pi is the water station with purified drinking water.

At the MIXX restobar of the Las Sisters, the Mediterranean, Spanish, Chinese, Italian, Filipino dishes served are given some healthy tweaking by their family and friends. For billiards playing venue at its best, try out Rooks Sports Bar. The future of fishing can be tackled at Go Fish, a hobby shop for fishing enthusiasts of all ages. Reasonís Bar and Resto is a music lounge and sing-along bar that is fast becoming a haven of music aficionados who want a variety of music from OPM, pop, folk, rock and jazz. According to Alfredo and Marife Mercadoís Busay Seafood Restaurant, their restaurant boasts delicious dishes served by a smiling service crew. Netopia Internet Cafť will connect you to the rest of the world through the net.

Indefatigable Iloilo Mayor Jerry Trenas and Robinsons Malls general manager Nilo Mapa welcomed everyone to the event. Mayor Trenas (a bar topnocher from Ateneo Law School) believes that tourism is the future of his city and has embarked on progressive measures to support his vision. Through the digital revolution, he advocates staunch support for computer and online website systems as an instrument to place Iloilo City back in the focus of global eyes.

That evening, our group watched different movies at the state-of-the-art Robinsons Movieworld theaters. Tita Ethel Timbol, Marj Valiente, Treena Cueva and I watched the film Notebook while Lally Herrera, Viveca Singson, Roseann and Val Villegas opted to see The Terminal. Next morning, over a hearty breakfast with Maridel and Bernard Uygongco of Amigo Hotel, we saluted the well-attended fashion show of local designers like Jaki PeŮalosa of the Designers Guild of Iloilo the night before.

Other memorable highlights of our trip included a sumptuous lunch at Breakthrough Restaurant of delicious lechon, succulent oysters and diwal (elongated shellfish), kilawin tanguigue and the sweetest mangoes from nearby Guimaras, a visit to Jaro Cathedral located three kilometers from the city proper and the breathtaking Miag-ao Church, a Unesco World Heritage Site, located 40 kilometers southwest of Iloilo City. It was built in 1756 and its restored interiors by Monsignor Claudio Sales features a P4.9 million gold leaf altar with silver refurbishings.

According to caretaker Marcelino Sentina, Msgr. Sales traveled to Europe to study how the pattern of the retablo of that period should be created. From Miag-ao, we visited Hablon in Brgy. Indajaan where intricately woven shawls and placemats made from piŮa and sinamay fabrics cost around P200 or less. Antiques, porcelain and excavated beads abound in Iloilo and we were fortunate to have seen the collection of Boy Yang and Lourdes Delotta who proudly narrated where their treasures came from. While many are for sale, they also have collectorís items that they would rather keep for posterity.

Aboard our Cebu Pacific flight enroute to Manila, I looked down and caught a glimpse of the millionaires mansions and the new shophouses of Robinsonís Paseo Iloilo. It was exhilarating to experience the synergy between the vestiges of the past and concepts for the future that exist harmoniously side-by-side. After all, in this city of love, the beauty of its culture is in the caring hands of the people responsible for its progress as well as its preservation.

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Reported by: Sol  Jose  Vanzi

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