MANILA, May 10, 2005
(STAR) By Tanya T. Lara -  10 great reasons to visit Subic Bay Freeport

We recently spent a day in Subic Bay Freeport Zone to explore new things to do. Our guide from the Subic International Hotel, Diosdado Zita, regaled us with interesting anecdotes about life in Subic during and after the military base pulled out. Zita has worked all his life in Subic and was one of the volunteers who helped preserve the former base. He saw it become a wasteland of ash and then develop into a tourist attraction and an economic hub.

Our host Dading Clemente, whose Subic International Hotel group recently opened the Subic Diamond Casino, told us things are looking up for Subic. One of her projects – or perhaps "passion" is a better word – is to bring in more international tourists through chartered flights. The tireless grande dame of travel, Dading has been working for so many decades now to bring in more visitors to the Philippines.

In just a day, we found 10 very good reasons that make Subic a fun place.

1Subic Diamond Casino. The moment you step into the newly opened casino, you know it’s more than the usual gambling haven. For one, it’s not designed like your regular casino where you have red carpeting, low ceiling and smoke-filled air – a depressing place except for the occasional shouts of glee over a windfall.

If not for the gaming tables, Subic Diamond Casino might be mistaken for a hip hotel lobby. Tall glass windows and double-volume ceilings let in natural light, enormous abstract artworks are hung on the walls, large plasma screens are scattered around, elevated spaces create a sense of exclusivity, and there’s a huge bar right smack in the middle of the casino where bands perform at certain hours of the day on an elevated stage. It feels young, bright and fresh.

Designed by Hong Kong designer Monty Ng, the casino takes ideas from several of Diamond’s existing projects in Macau and Hong Kong. Originally, it was conceptualized around a marine theme with a blue motif. After all, it was good feng shui to incorporate as much water in the design as you can. But putting water in the design was unnecessary – after all, the casino sits right next to Subic’s bay.

"The whole design was created with a view to maximize comfort and entertainment," says Subic Diamond Casino vice president Ben Lee. "We’re positioning ourselves to be a little upscale, we even have a dress code. I had a very simple directive when I came here. One is we want an international-class casino, two is to enhance and maintain the company’s integrity and reputation."

There are 20 tables on the main floor, with several more in the VIP room for the high rollers. In the VIP room, there’s a mahjong table that visitors can use when they want to take a break from the casino tables.

"Our objective is that when the customers leave, they go away smiling whether they win or lose," says Lee. The visitors that have arrived here on chartered flights from Macau and Hong Kong have been very happy indeed. "They were very impressed with the destination. They find the place to be safe and so relaxing with the trees and the sea."

Lee adds that when he came here six months ago, he was "trying to look for the essence of the Philippines – what we can sell, what the main attraction would be. What struck me was the friendliness and warmth of the Filipinos. We came out with the motto "We Smile." You know, casino dealers usually don’t smile at you, so we thought, that can be easily fixed. During our training, the first thing we taught them was to smile – but not a professional, insincere smile – and inject a bit of their personalities and friendliness. Then there’s the customer service aspect. If the customer loses, sympathize with him, if he wins, be happy for him, encourage him. If the customer is happy, win or lose, he will come back."

When the casino was filling up its employment ranks, they made sure that they hired locals and people that have had experience in casinos abroad. It does not only provide local employment but also aims to bring in more people from abroad.

"We are offering Subic as an alternative destination to Macau," says Lee. "At our own cost, we recently flew in a film crew and models to promote Subic in the international market as a tourist attraction. We emphasize safety, nature and the beauty of the surroundings. Internationally, we’re promoting Subic as a tourist resort and family destination. Locally, we’re promoting it as an entertainment venue outside Metro Manila. We want people to think of Subic when they’re thinking of going out of town, whether for the weekend or longer."

Going to Subic has never been easier (we got there in two hours from Manila), what with the opening of the super-smooth North Luzon Expressway.

With Lee having operated casinos in Melbourne and Sydney, and the company backed by 25 years of gaming experience in Macau and Hong Kong, Subic Diamond Casino is probably the most high-tech in the Philippines.

"It’s about time the casinos came into the modern age," Lee says "We’ve got a lot of variety of games, not just the traditional baccarat and black jack." The casino’s roulette machines are automatic, the slot machines are coinless (you just insert cash and when you want to cash out, an attendant comes to you) and they’re bringing in the latest machines that have never been seen here before.

Speaking of slot machines, Subic Diamond is due to have the Global Link jackpot, which means you can win in US dollars. The machines are linked all over the world to one jackpot, which means an increased pot (the last was said to be $1.7 million). Even without the Global Link yet, we heard one lady had already won P100,000 on the slot machines, and another lady walked away with P4 million from the gaming tables.

2The beaches. The three beaches in Subic back when it was still a military base followed a hierarchy that now seems terribly discriminating and funny. They were called All Hands Beach, Officers’ Beach and Dog Beach. These weren’t just names, they were descriptions – Officers’ Beach, the biggest of the three, was only for military officers; All Hands was for all enlisted men; and Dog Beach was where the military canines were given a bath and allowed to romp on the shore.

These days, Officers’ Beach is no more (it got swallowed up by the port development, which is meant to decongest Manila’s ports), All Hands and Dog Beach (the latter now called Dungaree Beach) are always packed on the weekends since they’re not very big. But the more, the merrier, right? Modest cottages can be rented for the day or overnight. But don’t expect Boracay-quality sand, the beaches have rough, pebbled sand.

There is another beach – now named Kamayan beach – that used to be called Miracle Beach because the shore was man-made (volunteers dumped Pinatubo sand into it until a beach was created). This used to be President Fidel Ramos’ playground in Subic in the 1990s.

3Shopping and food. Admittedly, shopping is not as it used to be before the Senate ratified GATT during a midnight session back in December 1994, when imports were much more expensive and harder to come by. I remember that day so well because I was working in a political magazine and we were divided on how to slant the story given that the deadline was approaching and there didn’t seem to be a clear vote on whether to lift the tariffs. The next day, all newspapers except one, whose reporter apparently hung around patiently at the Senate, carried the headline that the Senate would vote that day when they had already voted at midnight and opened the floodgates to imported goods.

Anyway, after the naval base pulled out, Subic was the place to shop for chocolates and other goods because they were so darned cheap. At my second time in Subic, the lines snaking around Royal Duty Free were so long you had to allot at least an hour after your shopping to reach the counter. These days, Royal Duty Free and Pure Gold are still filled with shoppers. The selection is okay, but not that great considering you get the products almost at any supermarket or department store.

All around Subic are a variety of restaurants and cafes offering local food, western, Chinese, Japanese-Hawaiian, and good old pizza. Subic International Hotel has two Chinese restaurants – Diamond Villa, which is right beside Subic Diamond Casino and Golden Dragon restaurant.

4Water sports and golf. Subic’s waters are a playground for those who love water sports. Jet ski rentals can go up to P2,500 per half an hour. Other sports are parasailing and banana boating. They will give you a short beginner’s lesson before you hit the water. Scuba diving in Subic can be very interesting because apart from the corals and marine life, you can explore ships Japanese ships that sank during World War II.

After Pinatubo erupted, three to four feet of ashfall covered the 18-hole golf course. Subic volunteers removed the sand by hand, by shovel, by truck – they worked without pay and not one doorknob was stolen from the numerous empty houses in Subic (unfortunately, the same could not be said for Clark). You have to give it to them for turning this wasteland into a destination.

5History and the bunkers. The original Spanish gate still stands – well, parts of it anyway. This was the original entrance to Subic back in the Spanish times. Our guide tells us that Subic was a sanctuary for the Spanish before it fell into American hands and later, the Japanese.

Looking like hills, the bunkers were so well hidden they couldn’t fool any satellite spies. The area was so hidden that, to this day, there aren’t even lampposts on the road leading to the area. Our guide says that this was the one area where security could never be compromised because this was where the missiles and explosives were kept. Naturally, when they entered this area, they had to surrender everything in their pockets – especially matches, lighters and cigarettes. Looking at the numerous bunkers, you have to appreciate how they were able to empty the military base just months after the "lease" ran out in 1992.

Today, some bunkers have been turned into warehouses. Except for one that we spotted, which is now a garden.

6Zoobic and Subic’s rainforest. Zoobic offers a two-hour safari for P295 on weekdays and P395 on weekends. The safari offers visitors close encounters with tigers bred here. We were told that the tigers are now in their fifth generation, descend from both the large species of Siberian and the small Bengal tigers. Like any animal, the tigers are lured by food (live chickens in this case) to come close to visitors riding caged vehicles. There is also a petting zoo, crocodile sanctuary and a serpentarium among the attractions.

Subic’s forests have always been the centerpiece of its nature program. Animals here include wild boar, labuyo or wild chicken, monitor lizards, wild carabaos, different species of snakes, monkeys, and a lot more. Subic’s monkeys are probably the best spokespersons for the preservation of its forest. As you drive along the roads, you’ll spot families of monkeys that await for food to be thrown out of vehicles.

7The great outdoors. Not a lot of people know that Subic offers so many outdoor activities apart from water sports and golfing. There’s horseback riding at El Kabayo stables, trekking and jungle survival courses (we were told that it was the Aetas here that taught Subic’s US naval personnel jungle survival during the Vietnam War).

8Subic International Hotel. SIH general manager Michael Wilson has been in Subic for 11 years. He’s seen how Subic has grown in term of attractions and he says there’s never been a better time to visit Subic than now, even when the Clark-Subic link is still to be completed. After all, 11 years ago, it took almost five hours to get to Subic compared to today’s two hours.

SIH is actually spread out into 13 buildings with a total of 310 rooms and suites and several restaurants. Apart from the Bravo building where guests stay, there’s another hotel building that’s currently being renovated and this will have 67 superior rooms and four suites with 29-inch flat-screen TVs, new furnishings, and a hotel spa.

SIH has also invested in a convention center with a capacity of 3,000. "Subic is very conducive to seminars, workshops, launches and functions," says Wilson, whose hotel experience includes stints with Mandarin Oriental Group in Thailand and The Manila Hotel.

"You can come to Subic for a week and do a different thing each day. There’s enough variety in the activities and, unlike Manila, we live in the relative safety of the free port; it’s a huge guarded area."

9Ocean Adventure. The park features attractions that appeal to both children and adults. There’s a whale and dolphin show, a sea lion show, and the Ocean Discovery Aquarium. If you want to get up close with the marine animals, you can swim with the whales, dive with them and explore shipwrecks without having to bring your own gear as the park provides it.

10Because it’s there. Weekends spent at the mall are fine, but sometimes, you need a little fresh air, sunshine and new activities to perk you up – like maybe swim with whales, feed tigers, explore a forest. As one commercial says: When was the last time you did something for the first time?

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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