Where do you take close friends who are first-time visitors to the Philippines?
Of course Manila just because I live here and the vibe of Manila especially at night is so different, so alive. For something historical, I'd take them to Intramuros. And then Palawan – Puerto Princesa or Coron. Palawan for me is the place to be if you want to experience what Philippine beach life is all about. I won’t take them to Boracay. During the rainy season, I'd take them to see Baguio, and go to Camp John Hay. And Bohol and Davao. Bohol still has the small-town feel and is also a haven for the adventurous. Davao has the friendliest people, good cheap food, and it’s clean, peaceful, and makes you feel close to nature. I would add Taal Town in Batangas because it's an heritage place close to Manila and recommend to have an overnight stay in Tagaytay City.
Name your top amazing things to do in the Philippines that not many people know of.
Make sure you go to the Twin Lagoons in Coron and swim through the rock. Coming from one lagoon and surfacing on the other side is just wow. During the rainy season, go to Baguio, do the lava trail all-terrain vehicle (ATV) ride up Mt. Mayon in Legazpi, in Albay and an ATV ride across hardened lahar in Pampanga. Go snorkeling at the Siete Pecados in Coron, and visit Kawasan Falls in Cebu. It’s a three tiered freshwater falls with blue green water that’s so fresh and cold. Visit Banaue Rice Terraces. For the history buff, visit Corregidor and Intramuros. Experience Davao’s amazing food at very affordable prices. They have products like marang, which like durian can be pungent but is so sweet. Tuna is really good in Davao too and there’s so many ways they prepare it – sashimi, kinilaw (ceviche), grilled. For something unique, see the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River in Palawan. Go to Apo Island in Mindoro for diving and to simply disconnect.
What is the next hot destination in the country?
I would say Dumaguete because there’s still something so rustic about it and it has beaches, dive spots that are virtually undiscovered. From Dumaguete you can go to nearby Bohol, Cebu, Siquijor. Next to Dumaguete I’d say Siquijor and Bicol. It’s time for Bicol to step up and promote its cuisine. Filipino food is still very much equated to adobo, kare-kare. Bicol has a lot to offer serious foodies like the local pinangat, laing, longanisang Guinobatan. If you want to see Donsol in Sorsogon, do that from Legazpi City in Albay. Or stay at Siama Hotel, one of the province's hidden gems. If you check out Mt. Mayon you can also see Cagsawa. I guess the problem with Bicol is that the destinations are spread so far apart you need to do so much traveling to see things. Bicol has to have airports that can accommodate at least bigger planes, have 24-hour capabilities, and direct international flights. Calaguas Island in Camarines Norte is a place to go if you like roughing it out. It's undiscovered and there you have an expansive ocean you can have all to yourself.
Your favorite hotels?
In Manila, Sofitel Philippine Plaza. It’s so unique to find a resort setting in the city. The space is conducive if you want to relax on a weekend. And it has Spiral restaurant. I like the rooms of Solaire. They’re spacious, very modern. Hotel Jen is a nice budget hotel by the Manila Bay area with good value, and while from the outside it may look a bit aged, it's a good place that provides the necessities of a smaller hotel without frills. In Boracay, I like Discovery Shores. It’s a well situated resort on the quieter side of White Beach, and has a wide beachfront. Its rooms are really spacious. I like its atmosphere. I also like The Lind in Boracay for its good location in Station 1 and the hotel itself with its nice rooms and good service. In Cebu, Crimson Resort & Spa's service has always been good. It’s the right size for a hotel with the right facilities and it has beautiful rooms. The Bellevue Resort in Bohol is nice because it’s in a wide area. It has spacious rooms and I like to have space if I’m in a resort. And it’s nice to wake up with a view of the ocean. Radisson Blu in Cebu City for its well appointed and spacious rooms, and nice bathroom. It has SM shopping mall right next door, and it's close to the pier if you’re coming from Bohol, and close to the airport.
What are the features you like in some key hotels in Makati?
I like the lobby of The Peninsula. It’s a good place whether you’re there for coffee or for a meeting or to hangout. Shangri-La Makati for its food outlets especially the Shang Palace, which serves the best Chinese food as far as hotels in Makati is concerned. Makati Diamond for its easy access to Greenbelt mall, which is right next door. And its room, which are spacious and clean. Dusit’s Benjarong is one of the nicest places and one of the best for Thai food. Umu is also one of the better Japanese restaurants among the hotels. For mid-range, I’ve done a lot of business with St Giles and I’ve never had any problems. Their rates are just right for the market.
Favorite restaurants and why?
There’s a place in Davao called Nanay Bebeng’s, which serves buffet meals, but it’s good food, not mass production. They serve lechon, tuna sashimi, with drinks. Last time I was there, I only paid P350. Puerto Princesa’s Kinabuch's dishes are good and it has the perfect atmosphere, open air, very native. Last time I went I had the tamilok (woodworm harvested from mangrove trees). If you want Cebu lechon or spit roast pig, go to Rico’s Lechon. It's so tasty you won't need gravy. In Manila, Pepeton’s in Quezon City. I like their dish called Kapalmuks, deep fried head of lechon, the meatier parts of a pig cooked like crispy pata, chicharon bulaklak (deep fried ruffled fat), and pinakbet (vegetables stir fried in shrimp paste).
Favorite shopping places?
I can stay at Fullybooked for hours. I take my guests to Greenhills shopping center for native Filipino goods and pearls, and to Divisoria for knock offs. For non-traditional shopping, I like taking them to woodcarvers’ shops like those in Paete, or Marikina for leather goods, particularly women’s bags and shoes.
What is your hometown? Do you go back to visit often? Name your favorite places to visit in your hometown
My hometown is Manila, however, my parents are from Bulacan. My mom is from a town in Pangasinan called Mangatarem, your typical small provincial municipality with a town plaza, an old church, high school and elementary schools. My aunt used to own the local movie theater. Everyone knows each other. We have our own town beauty pageant. There are sulfur hot springs, about the size of an Olympic pool, and it’s the only famous thing there. It’s very therapeutic. The local food specialty is pinakbet. Pangasinan is landlocked but has seafoods like milkfish, samara fish, shrimps and prawns.
Jojo Clemente III is the president of Rajah Tours Philippines, a 44-year-old tour operations company in the country. He served as president of Philippine Travel Agencies Association from 2007 to 2009. For the past 44 years, Rajah Tours Philippines has been servicing inbound travelers, mainly those from North America, Asia, Middle East, Europe and Japan.
Published July 2016. Updated January 2017