Davao with my mom

Kristine Fonacier takes her mom on a three-day trip to Davao and lives to tell the tale

Photos by Rhonson Ng

Writer Kristine and mom at Pearl Farm Beach Resort
We didn’t travel much when I was a child. Not that my mom and dad didn’t want to travel. To them and their generation, travel was too much effort and was far too expensive. The early 70s was a time before budget airlines and cheap hotels. For many Filipinos then, travel by air meant shelling out half a year’s wages. And with five girls in our family, any trip by land or sea was tantamount to organizing a polar expedition.

These days, things are a little different. Mom and dad, who are now in their 50s, are starting to discover the joys of travel, making time for trips abroad. We tried to encourage mom to see more of our country and last 2002, she went with Dad to Boracay, and thoroughly enjoyed it. When I invited her to join me for a mother and daughter trip to Davao for InFlight, she was delighted. “This is the first time I’ve traveled like this,” she said as we boarded the van we’ve hired to take us through four days in Davao. I didn’t know exactly what she meant, until she told me this was her first time to travel outside of Luzon, save for a Boracay trip years ago. More important, this was our first time to travel together, just the two of us. “This should test us,” I thought. Traveling together — as any duo competing in the Amazing Race will tell you — allows you to see your companion in a new light. As I was to find out in the next few days, my mom was more adaptable than I’ve given her credit for. Davao was a good starting point for our trip. It has all the comforts and conveniences of a big city, as well as the mountains and beaches just minutes away. Davao also conjures up pleasant memories. My dad used to go to Davao for business when he was younger, often coming back home with baskets of mangosteen and pomelos, coconut crabs, and the smelly and heavenly-tasting durian fruit. For us, Davao was food heaven.

Fishing at Mt. Apo Highland Resort

Day One

First up was the famous Mt. Apo, which at 9,692 feet is the highest mountain in the country. It’s two hours away from Davao City, forming a border between Davao del Sur and Cotabato. It is so massive that it deflects storms, protecting Davao City from the worst of tropical weather. In deference to my mom, we drove to Mt. Apo instead of taking the more active option of a two to three-hour hike up to its peak. After abrief viewing of the venerable mountain, it was onwards to Mt. Apo Highland Resort, located in Kapatagan, Digos City. The resort was more of a camp site, designed for the adventurous and the backpacking mountaineers. “We don’t have a bathroom!” my mother called out from inside the cottage. Mt. Apo Highland Resort had eight concrete cottages raised on stilts, framing a garden and a central camping area. Toilet and showers were located outdoors. After mom’s initial outburst, she took the long walk in the rain to the other end of the campgrounds to the shared showers, and declared it more than tolerable. By early evening, she was happily taking pictures of Lake Mirror, and of the foggy view of Mt. Apo’s peak.

Plans for afternoon activities in the area were scuppered, as the rains had turned the roads to mud. We expected sweltering hot days rather than rain and cool weather. We had wanted to visit the sculpture garden of local artist Kublai (born Mujahid Ponce Millan), about 15 minutes down the road. But the driver told us that the van could only drop us off at the foot of the dirt path that goes up to Kublai’s garden, as the path was steep and muddy and required a 4×4 to navigate. I thought I’d spare my mom more muddy walks.

Mom let them wrap an albino Burmese Python around her shoulders - said Kristine - who admits to not being comfortable around snakes
Day Two

On our second day, no one, I think, was more relieved than I was to be driving back to the city. I wanted my mother to be more comfortable. We stopped to see the famous Crocodile Farm and Zoo. My mom never had an affinity with animals, but she lets the gamekeepers wrap an albino Burmese python around her shoulders, while I could only put on a frozen smile and politely refused to get closer to any reptile.

Min Ponce, mother of the artist Kublai, invited us for coffee at the Ponce Suites The Unconvention Center, a “gallery hotel” in a residential neighborhood within Davao City proper. Kublai’s signature works – gigantic sculptures of human figures, sometimes whimsical, sometimes fantastic, sometimes grotesque – line the hotel’s façade, but it isn’t until you step into Ponce Suite’s hallways that the full visual onslaught really begins. Hundreds of paintings, photographs, and multimedia work are on display, covering every available surface. It’s virtually impossible to look at every piece, unless you devote to or three full days to tit. “This is so…unique,” my mother said, snapping away like a photographer on assignment. “For my Facebook,” she whispered.

After about an hour’s worth of camera time, we staggered into the hotel’s coffee shop, grateful for both the airconditioning and for the respite from the stimulus overload. Min once sat down with us to explain what she described as a “short but near-miraculous story of Ponce Suites” – how she had had to take out 22 bank loans to fund its construction, and how everything had just fallen into place, making the “unconvention center” a hit among the backpacker set, earning it a featured recommendation in the Lonely Planet Philippines guidebook and third place among all the Davao hotels in TripAdisor, behind only the high-end resorts and hotels.

On our way to our hotel, the Legaspi Suites, we passed familiar landmarks such as Apo View, one of the oldest hotels, the Marco Polo, the cathedral, and the park. Signs of more construction activity was quite apparent. There were sprawling, spanking-new malls, new subdivisions, and the site for the first high-rise condominium in the city. Davao is becoming more like Metro Manila or Cebu City minus the noise and the pollution. Quality of life here is enhanced by the proximity of the sea and the mountain. It’s no surprise that it came out first in an Asiaweek survey as the country’s “Most Livable City” and the 17th overall Asia.

At Legaspi Suites, check-in was pleasant and quick. We were booked in a very roomy deluxe room – two double beds, a sofa, and a dining table, and still had generous floor space left over; I’ve been told that the hotel has a reputation for being generous with space, and it looked like they earned that reputation very well. The 20-room hotel is a new build, with modern interiors, but that white painted walls and iron grillwork in balconies, and the wrought arch in the entrance give it old-world charms. On the ground floor of the hotel complex is Kusina Selera (now Bistro Selera), a restaurant specializing in every Filipino food from different regions, using the best of Davao’s local produce. We found that it had lived up very well to its fast-growing reputation as one of the city’s best restaurants, a solid reputation that is built on pretentious, very good food.

Food is top of mind on this trip, with my mom declaring that “We can’t go to Davao and not eat tuna”. The place is tuna country after all, and you can’t get tuna any fresher. We ate lunch at Marina Tuna Seafood Market and Restaurant, and ordered a run of all kinds of tuna. We found that the choice tuna cuts are reserved for the grill, or a ceviche (kilaw) and sashimi. We also had tuna eyeball soup – not to everyone’s liking, but definitely to my mother’s – and tuna kare-kare. Also on the menu were deep-fried tuna tail, tuna tendons, and, if you’re really brave, bagaybay, which is made up entirely of tuna testicles. Outside the restaurant, there is a kiosk that sells snacks – tuna burgers, tuna siopao, tuna lugaw or congee.

From marina Tuna, we headed back to the center of town for a mom-friendly activity: shopping. The Aldevinco market is traditionally the place to go and it was nothing like I envisioned from my dad’s stories. Clean and well-ordered, it was miles and away better than the claustrophobic stalls one might expect to find. Mindanao antiques and traditional clothes sit cheekby-jowl with dresses and costume jewelry imported from Malaysia and Thailand, and Davao’s signature pomelo and durian are all boxed up, ready for you to take home on your trip back. Within half an hour in Aldevinco, my mom had already managed to load our van with boxes of fruit and other local delicacies. She was also on a mission to buy pearls – Davao is famous for its pearl divers – and spent a good deal of time looking though the shops and quizzing the clerks.

Next stop was Museo Dabawenyo, a showcase of the culture and history of Davao’s various tribes, and then a stop at T’boli Weaving Center at the Pearl Farm Marina for a demonstration of traditional weaving techniques.

Any visit to the city must include dinner at least once at Jack’s Ridge Restaurant and Resort, a complex built on an overlook that affords a stunning view of Davao City and of Davao Gulf. In the daytime, it’s good way to get the lay of the land, but at night, the view of the lit-up cityscape can be truly breathtaking. “Even the restrooms have a view!” There are flyers and brochures at the entrance to any of the three restaurants at Jack’s Ridge, trumpeting the fact that the area used to be a Japanese army encampment in World War II; all traces of its military past are gone now, and the area swarms not with uniformed officers, but with large groups of merry-makers.

A full day done, we checked into the Bahia Spa & Wellness Center for a soothing aromatherapy massage. Bahia, part of the Metro Lifestyle Spa and Fitness Complex, also had a massive gym, with separate floor levels for gym workout and classes. The walk-in rate for out-of-town visitors was only P150 (about US$3.5).

It was nearly 11pm when we went back to our room. My mom was ready for bed, while I had a date for drinks at the bar with an old friend, Sharlene, who now lives in Davao and absolutely loves it. “We’ve got a nice place up in the hills. I go to the beach every other week. Sometimes I cross over to Samal Island in the morning, and then check in to the office at lunch,” she told me.

Day Three

The next morning our third day, we were off to see Samal ourselves. The Sta. Ana pier has a roll on, roll off ferry that accommodated our van for a smooth 15-minute crossing to the Island Garden City of Samal. From Samal port, it’s a half hour’s drive to Maxima House, a beautiful, two-storey house built on stilts over the water, located in the Peñaplata are of Samal. My mother, who is not a fan of the beach, nevertheless swooned at the sight of the house and of the stunningly clear waters around it.

My mom and I arrived at some compromise for the day’s activity. She agreed to brave a treetop canopy walk at Maxima Aquafun resort, just half a kilometer away from Maxima House, in exchange for a visit to Pearl Farm and its soothing spa. After being muddied and feeling tired from all the “adventure” that I put her through, the luxury and the restfulness of Pearl Farm was just what she needed. It was every bit as beautiful as my dad described it – and perhaps even better, now that it’s benefited from a renovation and an updating of its interiors. It remains, then as now, a stylish retreat done in Filipino-island style: the huge family cottages that line the garden walkway from the gate to the front desk are designed to honor the bahay kubo aesthetic, and the open-air restaurant that faces is done up with island accents.

“This is really beautiful. Maybe we can do this for a family vacation next time,” my mother said. And I expressed surprise that she would even consider a beach vacation. “You and your sisters can have the sun and the water. Your dad and I will sit in the shade with the grandkids,” she said. In the afternoon, we returned to Maxima. She sat at the balcony watching dusk and descend, while I took a kayak out into the water and paddled out to watch the sunset from the sea. Total bliss. 

How to get there
Cebu Pacific Air, Philippine Airlines, and AirAsia fly daily from Manila to Francisco Bangoy International Airport. It is easy to get taxis from the airport or anywhere in town.

Originally published in InFlight Traveller May 2012. Updated July 2015