November 16, 2004 (STAR) RENDEZVOUS By Christine S. Dayrit - Filipinos are perhaps the world’s most seasoned and generous travelers. We fly around the world and return home bringing tons of pasalubong for family and friends. It’s no wonder the balikbayan box, named after the Filipino expatriates returning to the Philippines, has become an important currency of travel – a cultural icon. The sheer number of balikbayan boxes overwhelms airline check-in counters and everyone admires their packing efficiency and handling properties.

We are as Pinoy as the balikbayan box. This thought came to mind as I made a mental count of the many pieces of luggage and balikbayan boxes as my group and I queued up at the check-in counter of China Airlines at the San Francisco airport for a dawn flight to Manila via Taipei after a 10-day discovery tour of the West Coast. China Airlines was gracious enough to allow us to take home three pieces of luggage weighing 70 lbs each. As my own boxes were being weighed, I remembered the various gifts, goodies, and personal effects I packed in like shoes, cosmetics, clothes, cologne, towels, linens, that we purchased at super bargain prices from the many outlet malls we visited during our stay in the US.

When abroad, Filipinos love to shop. For posterity, sightseeing and taking photos are a given but shopping seems to be a ubiquitous entry in their itinerary. When we shop abroad, we want to get good value for our money and thus hunt for the best bargains. When we stretch our money, it is as if haggling is a chemical substance found in our epidermis.

Believe me, in this trip to the West Coast, I visited more outlet stores than I ever have in all my life. If not for my companions composed of 15 top travel agents from the Philippines, I would never have known that there are, so to speak, a thousand and one outlet malls selling merchandise at rock-bottom prices. For these glorious finds of 80 percent off whole year-round, I have my gracious hosts Len Rivera of China Airlines and Grace Zablan Axallan of Tradewings to thank for my conversion into a shopaholic.

Several summers ago, Los Angeles, the City of Angels, was my home away from home. After sundown, my friends would pick me up from the American Film Institute where I attended film production classes or at the UCLA where I studied poetry writing. Awed by the posh homes and lifestyles of Hollywood stars on Beverly Hills, we would cruise along Rodeo Drive a la Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. Unlike Roberts though, we merely window-shopped in the sleek but extravagant shops on the palm tree-lined avenue.

On this trip, we drove past Rodeo Drive and literally snubbed the shops that sold exorbitantly priced merchandise and proceeded to the fashion outlets between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. We went to Barstowe where high quality designer brands are pegged at 80 percent off. We went crazy at the Camarillo and Cavarzon premium outlets where Banana Republic, Coach, Donna Karan, Kenneth Cole, Nike, Polo Ralph Lauren, Versace, among other uppity brands are on clearance sale the whole year round.

At Ontario Mills, my favorite outlet mall, my fashionista friends Clotha dela Paz of Golden Airy Travel and Tessa Sotto of Travelite decided to give most of us a makeover. At Forever 21, there were party dresses for as low as $3.99. Nitoy Gabrinao of Tradewings bought 15 pairs of Armani slacks at $5 each.

Since Christmas is just around the corner, everybody brought out his or her shopping list. We shopped till we dropped at every Ross, Target, Cosco, and Price Club there was. Some of us even bought the latest Plasma TV, DVDs, and digital cameras which were on sale at best buy stores.

Sightseeing interspersed our insatiable mood for shopping. The Disneyland Park took our mind away from the outlet malls and brought out the child in us with its timeless magic and fantasy. At the Universal Studios, the newest and scariest is the Mummy Ride where we came face to face with the rage of the world’s first blockbuster rollercoaster. The filmmaker in me was awakened when we went onto the backlot and behind the scenes on the ultimate Hollywood movie studio tour. We saw the sets for Psycho, Jurrasic Park, Jaws, Godzilla, Waterworld, among other legendary films. We also got an inside look at current films in production.

A four-hour drive on a deluxe tourist bus took us to Las Vegas, the entertainment capital of the world, where among the largest and most fascinating resort hotels in the world like the Bellagio, Alladin, and MGM can be found. The entire valley offers fun and excitement as well as the natural beauty of the desert.

The Grand Canyon is more than a great chasm carved over millennia through the rocks of the Colorado Plateau. This natural wonder of over a million acres is more than just a pleasure ground for those who explore the roads, hike the trails, or float the currents of the turbulent Colorado River. Its beauty and size humbled us.

It was also a unique experience to see the original London Bridge in Havasu City. The bridge originally came from Europe. It was built in the same manner the Egyptian pyramids were constructed. The bridge was shipped by boat 10,000 miles to Long Beach, California.

Solvang, a charming community, founded in 1911 as a Danish-American colony on a portion of the sprawling Rancho San Carlos de Jonata, has developed into one of the principal tourist attractions in the country. The town embodies the expression "Denmark lives in Solvang" with the village of 4,800 representing a page from a Hans Christian Andersen story.

Rising on a hilltop of California’s Santa Lucia mountains is the spectacular Hearst Castle. George Hearst, a wealthy miner, purchased 250,000 acres of ranchland that included the Mexican ranchos of Piedra Blanca, San Simeon and Santa Rosa. The blending of the architectural style with the surrounding land, and Hearst’s superb European and Mediterranean art collections, was so seamless that world-renowed architectural historian, Lord John Julius Norwich, was moved to say that Hearst Castle is a palace in every sense of the word.

The beauty and the grandeur of Yosemite National Park attract 4.1 million visitors each year. Most travelers are rock climbers, nature lovers, and photographers.

The sun had already set when we checked in the elegant Cathedral Hill Hotel located in the heart of downtown , within walking distance to Union Square. We had a sumptuous dinner at the Cheesecake Factory on the top floor of Macy’s.

On our last day in the West Coast, we checked out the landmark Ferry Building Marketplace that has been transformed into a sprawling market of perfect produce, amazing cheese, fabulous pastries and great restaurants. San Francisco’s newly renovated Ferry Building is the farmer’s market of your dreams.

On the brand new Boeing 747 China Airlines flight to Manila via Taipei, I basked in sheer luxury as the flight turned out to be my very best ride. Our group of 15 had the most comfortable shell-shaped seats with privacy dividers to enhance personal space, multiposition headrests, inflatable seat cushions, electronic lumbar supports. It had the best cuisine that featured a new healthy menu as recommended by Time magazine and the most delightful inflight entertainment system. As if that wasn’t enough, at the airline’s state-of-the-art business lounge in Taipei where we were welcomed by ground supervisor Alex Chen, we took a refreshing shower and had a special dimsum and noodles breakfast served on bone china setting. The gentlemen in our group enjoyed cognac and scotch on crystal glassware no less. We certainly agreed it’s not just where you go but how you get that spells the difference in travel comfort and luxury.

I arrived in Manila fresh as a daisy and headed to our family board meeting where I shared the boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, baklava and special cheeses from the Ferry Market in San Francisco. It was heartwarming to realize that though we may not always bring our loved ones with us when we travel, we can certainly bring home something they love from our trips.

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China Airlines flies to Los Angeles and San Francisco daily as well as to JFK, Seattle, Anchorage, Vancouver, Honolulu and Houston. For inquiries, call 523-8021 to 24.

For more information, call Tradewings at 536-2492 to 94 or e-mail tradewings@manila-online.net.

Post me a note at miladay_star@yahoo.com.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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