July 22, 2012

Bellarocca - Marinduque's Beautiful Rock

April 7-9, 2012. I've always wanted to go to Bellarocca ever since I've first read about it in a magazine years ago. I got intrigued by it's charming Santorini-inspired architecture and picturesque landscape. Seems like paradise to me and I wanted a taste of it.

So come morning, we woke up bright and early and super excited to go to to the resort. It was about an hour drive from our hotel in Boac to Lipata Port in the town of Buenavista. We didn't really have clear directions as to how to get there, aside from the very helpful advise from the resort's reservations staff to just follow the road and if need be, ask the locals for directions. Fortunately, there really is just one major road you have to follow and luckily my husband recognized the gated port even though there were no signs whatsoever (he said that the guard was a giveaway since it was very unlikely in the area).

From the jetty, it was a quick 5-minute speed boat ride to the island. It was so close I actually think it's possible to swim to the resort from the jetty, that is if you're a triathlete or an Iron-Man sort of person.

View from the jetty. It's actually so close it was tempting to jump in the water and swim to the island.

Upon arriving at the resort, we were greeted with leis and a welcome song. The main pavilion is located at the top so we have to wait for a golf cart to bring us there. It was a steep and long climb, not something you'd want to do on foot trust me. But if you're up to the challenge, it would actually make a hell of a hill training!

At the pavilion, we were served pandan iced tea while we register. There were a lot of people registering/checking-in that day and since our Terraza room was not ready yet, we were given a deluxe room where we can stay and park our things temporarily. Not to waste time, we suited up, went straight to the buffet lunch and hit the pool.

We are a big group and we got three two-bedroom-Terrazas wherein each one can accommodate 4 adults and two kids. Luckily, you get really good rates if you are a BDO Platinum or Titanium cardholder.

Huge two-bedroom Terraza
The 3 days and 2 nights we spent went by so quickly with packed activities. Here's what got us occupied at the resort:

1. Soaking up some sun in their super comfy loungers while admiring Mt. Malindig across the infinity pool. Just don't forget to apply and re-apply sunscreen to avoid getting fried like we did.

2. Flying a kite. This is actually the first time the kids got to do this and they spent a good amount of time under the scorching sun until the only thing left was tangled thread.

3. Going on a kayak race. It's comforting to know that their trusty lifeguards follow and stay close to you when you do this. Especially helpful when my kids' kayak capsized and they immediately came to the rescue. We even saw other guests who took their kayaks all the way to the jetty port in Lipata.

4. Jumping off at the Marina Bridge. Adults jumped from the ledge (where Derek Ramsey supposedly likes to jump to) while the kids jumped from the bridge. Well as for me, I've tried both. The jump from the bridge was ok (though it took twenty minutes of coaxing before I finally took the plunge) and the one from the ledge is more intense where you can really feel the sensation in your gut. Note though that you can only do this during high tide, so best schedule this in the morning.

You're not allowed to wear a life vest when you do this, so we have to ask their lifeguard to catch the kids when they hit the water and give them their vest. As expected, it took quite a while of sweet-talking, cheering, cajoling and a lot of bribing before my son finally leaped into the water. When he came up for air, we were greeted with a "THAT WAS SO COOOOOLLL!" remark and then went my daughter next. They jumped a couple more times after. Needless to say, the kids had a blast and we are super thankful to Bellarocca's patient staff who tirelessly waited in the water to catch my kids in their every jump. The experience was just priceless.

5. Snorkeling. You'll meet loads of fish and a few sea snakes (we saw one very, very near the shore, so be careful!). Again, you can ask their lifeguard to go with you and he can show you where to snorkel best. He'll even bring snacks to lure the fish to you.

6. Catching a puffer fish. Ok, so it wasn't really us who caught it, but just the same, it was such a delight to hold it and see it float in the ocean until it shrinks to its normal size.

Who wants to play throw and catch the puffer fish?

7. Participating in the art activities at the lunch pavilion. While us adults are busy stuffing ourselves with food, the kids on the other hand, got busy painting and drawing.

Not exactly Louvre-material, but a labor of love nonetheless.

8. Playing Foosball and billiards at the game room. The kids had fun playing boardgames as well. There's just something about playing Chess no-rules-style that really delights them. 

9. Enjoying the free cocktails while watching the sunset. This is actually a really nice way to cap off an afternoon of activities. There's an option for alcoholic and non-alcoholic drink so kids can participate as well.

10. Exploring the resort and looking for more breathtaking views to capture.

It was a really enjoyable, relaxing and memorable stay. I would love to go back given we can arrange for a less stressful way of getting there (mental note to self: never ride the RORO on a Holy Week).

A few more things you should know:
  • There's no Sun signal at the island, Globe and Smart have good signals though. 
  • The restaurant offers buffet and a la carte food. Buffet prices are reasonable enough though choices are limited.
  • The resort offers free wired Internet in the rooms. 

Bellarocca Island Resort and Spa
Marinduque, Philippines
Tel: 8177290
Email: info@bellaroccaresorts.com

How to get there from Manila via Roro: Drive to Dalahican Port in Lucena, Quezon and board the RORO bound for Cawit Port. From there, drive to the town of Buenavista following the road close to the ocean. Watch out for the gated/guarded port which is Bellarocca's jetty.

July 11, 2012

Masked Morions of Marinduque

April 5-6, 2012. Marinduque is a heart-shaped island located in Luzon and home to the famed Moriones Festival. Getting there via plane takes less than an hour and getting there via RORO takes much, much longer. During Holy Week, when the Moriones festival is held, going there via the latter is a nightmare. This we experienced first hand.

Our trip started at ten o'clock in the morning, Holy Thursday. I know it's already late considering the throng of people who will be heading out of Manila to make the most of the extended holiday break. I've read so many horror stories about riding the RORO on this insane time of the year -- the exodus of people, the stampede, the more than ten hours of waiting. I have actually tried to reserve a slot in the RORO but apparently, the first-come-first-served, fall-in-line even if it takes forever, is still what works there. As for the hotels, I've called like twenty of them and only one can give us a room and only because the guest cancelled at the last minute. I know, the trip is starting to sound like a disaster by the minute but we decided to be optimistic and just prepare for the worst.

It was a three hour drive to Lucena Port and another three hours via RORO to Marinduque. Knowing that the best way to entertain little kids on a really long trip like this one is to keep their mouths and hands busy -- we brought snacks, packed lunch and fully-charged DS Lites and iPads. This is a killer combo and has not failed us -- so far!

It was our first time to ride a RORO and it must be beginner's luck that we only had to wait for two hours to board the next one. Just enough time to settle our dues and have lunch.

The ship actually did not look that big from afar, but when we got inside, we were surprised at how many they can cram inside. Mulit-wheeler trucks carrying all sorts of merchandise, buses loaded with passengers and private vehicles of all shapes and sizes are parked just inches away from each other. It was actually quite unsettling to see how they "secure" each vehicle with twisted rags (makes you pray really hard for a smooth sailing). Seeing all the vehicles and the huge crowd of passengers made me wonder for a minute if we are still within capacity. But before I start looking for the nearest life vest and rubber boat, I pushed the negative thoughts away and buried my nose in a book for the next three hours.

Finally we reached Marinduque (in one piece thank God!) and we drove directly to Boac Hotel. It was small and looked more like an ancestral home that was converted into a hotel. But nonetheless, the staff was very attentive and accommodating; the room was comfortable and homy; and there's air-condition and private bathroom. Just about everything basic we need for an overnight stay.

Our room -- cozy and comfy.

So we settled in and headed to the plaza where there's a night market of some sort and a Senakulo play was being staged. My little daughter actually enjoyed it and wanted to watch some more but the rest of us are just too tired and just wanted to eat and hit the sack.

Senakulo play at the Plaza.

The next morning, Holy Friday, the streets of Boac were crowded with colorful but fierce-looking Moryons and a huge flock of people (mostly tourists armed with DSLRs) eagerly anticipating the Via Crucis. The Via Crucis or Way of the Cross is the reenactment of the sufferings of Christ while carrying the cross to Calvary. It is also one of the highlights of the festival and lucky for us, it passes right outside our hotel. We can actually just  stay at the balcony and watch it from there but we decided to go down and be closer to the action.

It was a scorching hot day but my daughter was enjoying herself picking out which Moryon she wants to have a photo with.

Jesus Christ and the two thieves carrying the cross to Calvary.
Next, we headed to the plaza to watch the crucifixion and the reenactment of the story of Longinus. Legend has it that Longinus, a Roman soldier, pierced Jesus on the side while He was on the cross. Blood spilled and got to Longinus' blind eye which miraculously healed it. Longinus became a believer after the incident which resulted in him being hunted by the other Roman soldiers and after being caught was beheaded (the beheading of Longinus will be staged on Easter Sunday).

The crucifixion.
The star of the show -- Longinus.

The whole festival was actually a little heavy for the kids but nonetheless a good way to teach them the story of Jesus.

After the program, it was still a little early so we decided to tour the province. We visited one church from each town. We started in the cathedral in Boac, then off to Sta. Cruz, to Torrijos, to Buenavista (where there's also a hot spring), then lastly to Gasan (where the Moryons are giant statues), before heading back to Boac. It took us a couple of hours to do this. Would have been really nice if we had a whole day so we can see more places.

View from the deck in Balanacan.
Vintage houses lined up the streets of Boac.
We spent the next three days in breathtaking Bellarocca. It was a relaxing vacation in paradise and it would have been a truly happy ending if the story ends there. Unfortunately, there's still the agony of going back to Manila via RORO and this time we weren't so lucky. It took us twelve long and excruciating hours  before we were able to catch a ride back to Lucena Port. 

We have probably done everything imaginable to while away the time -- eat halo-halo, peanuts, balot, chicharon (basically whatever's being peddled), upload and tag photos in Facebook, fly a sky lantern, watch a telenovela at a nearby police station, sleep under the stars on a banig, chat with the locals at how crazy the line to the RORO is each year.

The only consolation is that the ship was not as packed and we were able to get a whole bench to us so we can sleep a little comfortably. It was quite an experience and if you ask if I'll ride the RORO again, probably yes but definitely not during Holy Week. 

Some things that might help:
  • Bring anything, everything that will help you be comfortable while waiting for twelve agonizing hours (or more!) on a vehicle. Or better yet, book a flight (if you're comfortable flying on a small aircraft, that is). As of the moment, only Zest Air flies from Manila to Marinduque.
  • At the RORO, make sure your driver gets to your vehicle way before you get to your destination. When near the port, passengers tend to flock the exit areas and it'll be really hard to squeeze in. You'll be causing delay and nothing sucks more than getting stuck in the ship because you have to wait for the driver of the car in front of you.
  • Reserve a hotel room months in advance -- even as early as January of that year. You do not want to end up sleeping in some crappy "semi-furnished" hotel with roaches and lizards as roommates and bottomed-out mattresses for beds. A few in our group got to stay at such in a desperation to get a room for the night.

The Boac Hotel
Boac, Marinduque
Tel: 042-3321121 / 042-3322066 / 042-3111096
Email: theboachotel@yahoo.com
Website: http://theboachotel.multiply.com

March 29, 2012

Pinatubo Trekking

March 17 2012. If bringing a 5-yr old and a 6-yr old to a two-hour grueling hike up a once-very-destructive volcano to take a swim in its crater (with depth of hundreds of meters) isn't insane enough, then I don't know what is. But hey, I'm not the twisted travelholic for nothing :)

When I received the invitation from my mom to join her and her friends on this trek, I immediately said yes and informed her that I'm bringing the kids. And since logical thinking clearly runs in the family, she said no problem. She'll just hire a porter to carry the kids, in case they get tired. 

What to wear. A knee-length comfortable pants is the best in my opinion. At least you don't need to pull up your pants whenever you have to cross a stream, which is quite a lot. I opted to wear my Crocs prepair which worked really well for me since I don't like the feeling of wet socks and shoes on my feet. A cap, pair of sunnies, and loads of sunblock are also a must.

What to bring. Plenty of water that you can comfortably bring while continuously walking for two hours. Lunch, but you can also buy at base camp (highly recommended since they'll take care of bringing it up at the summit plus you'll be helping local businesses). Snacks, we have kids with us so chocolates, cookies and chips are a must. Light blanket, where you can sit and have a picnic or lie down and relax at the lake.

Most people I know take the package-guided tours which include transfers to-and-from Manila. For our group, someone arranged directly with a 4x4 operator so we have to pay separately for the 4x4 vehicle, the guide, environmental fee and lunch. But I still think it comes out really cheaper compared to paying per head (we're 14 people in the group). 

The kids were actually excited when I told them we're climbing a volcano and we're going to swim in its crater. So I had no problem when I woke them up at 3am so we can leave for Tarlac before the break of dawn. They just slept the whole ride and took they're breakfast (bought in Jollibee on our way) when we got to the base camp.

Carbo loading before the climb.

The ride. It was the bumpiest, dustiest and roughest ride I have ever experienced. It was an hour of lahar valleys, streams and clouds of dust. It was actually a good kind of experience, just prepare yourself for the beating your body's going to take.

The awesome ride.

The Toblerone Hills.

The trek. From the jump-off point, our guide said it's approximately 7 kms to the crater. The trek starts by crossing a stream and a narrow cliff. After which, it was a mixture of long endless lahar mountains, dusts, rocks and streams. Just make sure to stay close to your group so you won't get lost or take a dangerous trail.

Our guide/porter to carry, not our bags, but our kids.

Cookie Break.

After walking for approximately 1.5 hours, and shedding 10lbs (I wish!) we see this....

What?!? The trek is just starting?!?

This is what the guide was telling us earlier. Not so long ago, there's a path called the "skyway" where the 4x4 can travel an extra 15mins and cut the walking from 2 hours to 20 minutes! So the trek should officially start at this point. Unfortunately, this road has been damaged by heavy rains and seems to be irreparable. This part of the trek is mostly uphill and you're basically just following the stream up the summit. 

The sign says that middle-aged people should be able to do it in 18 minutes. Needless to say, it was a huge BS! Even the more experienced mountain climbers in our group finished slower that the "seniors" bracket. I would have to RUN it at race pace to finish under 15 minutes. Just to set your expectations, it is still a pretty long hike but very scenic nonetheless.

Finally, we were greeted with:

A welcome message from the DENR, LGU and PDC (Pinatubo Devt. Corp).

Now that's a view worth trekking for.

We had our lunch and was so excited to go down to the crater lake and take a dip. It was another 150 or so steps on a rocky, uneven stairs and there were a number of warnings on our way down.

Did we listen? Of course not! Haha. But seriously, extreme caution has to be exercised if you do decide to swim in the lake. Please remember that this is AN ACTIVE volcano and has already wrecked havoc a few years back and underneath is a deep abyss of deadly magma. So please, please be careful.

Moving on, the water is a deep shade of green and is so serene. I suddenly feel the urge to just sit still and admire its beauty. The sight in front of us is so breathtaking, it was actually a little hard to grasp that we are in a volcano's crater. Apparently, volcanic lakes are extremely rare because their presence requires a special balance of precipitation versus evaporation and other factors.

Enjoying the very cold and refreshing water.

The lake is packed with bikini-clad tourists swimming and sun bathing in the shore. There's even a boat which can take you to the other side of the lake where the water is supposedly warmer. The fee is PHP350 per head but we didn't really see the need for it since we were so content in staying still and admiring the view in front of us. The atmosphere is just so tranquil you'll absolutely love how it envelopes you with serenity.

By around 2pm, it's time to head back to base camp. My daughter slept the entire trek while being carried. My son, on the other hand, was still in high spirits from his swim that he walked the whole 2 hours without being carried. He was so proud of his accomplishment that he proclaimed himself a "SUPER HIKER". 

We ended our trip by feasting on old-fashioned halo-halo at base camp. Nothing beats this Filipino favorite to refresh and reward yourself.

Some things to consider:
  • There is no Globe and Sun signal in the area, including at the base camp (I'm not so sure about Smart though). So if you need to be on-call 24/7 you might want to consider this before booking your trip.
  • If you're planning to swim, wear your swimsuits under your clothes because there's no changing room at the crater lake. Bring floaters/life jackets for your kids and watch them very, very carefully.  
  • Please check if your package includes lunch for your guide. We were already at the crater when we found out that they don't have. Good thing we packed extra food to share with them.

How to get there from Manila: The base camp is located in Sta. Juliana, Capas, Tarlac. Take NLEX and exit at Sta. Ines. Go straight and turn right at the fork. Go straight then make a left at the welcome arc of Brgy. Sto. Rosario. Just follow the road and make a right at the end. You'll pass a checkpoint and shortly after is the base camp. Approximately 2-3 hours land travel.

March 22, 2012

Schengen Visa Application

Travelling to Europe is probably in most people's bucket list and the good news is that when you travel to one or more of the 25 member states of the Schengen Agreement, you only need one visa. Come to think of it, the more countries you visit, the cheaper the visa fee per country will equate to. Now, that's something worth considering right? :)

The following countries are members of the Schengen Agreement: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

The rule is, you apply at the embassy of whichever country you're staying the longest. Or in case of equal stays, apply at the embassy of your first port of entry.

For our trip this summer, me and my two kids will need to apply at the French Embassy Manila. Fortunately, the requirements are pretty much the same as the UK embassy (including the photo specifications) and the only thing we need to add is a travel insurance.

The procedure is pretty much the same as well -- you schedule an appointment to submit your application, payment and biometric data then come back to get your visa (there's no option of having your passport couriered to you).

Schedule an appointment. In our case, we just need to send an email to visa.ambafrance.manille@gmail.com. It was a very efficient process as it only takes them a day or two, at most, to respond. But effective April 10, 2012, appointments for visa applications will need to be scheduled by calling a premium hotline. This is actually sad as I find the current process simple, efficient and best of all free. I wish they just implemented an online booking system where you pay a fixed rate using your credit card. I'm not really a fan of calling premium numbers as I feel that the CSRs are deliberately trying to prolong the conversation to jack up the fees.

Prepare your documents. A complete list of requirements can be downloaded here. You will need to print a blank application form and fill it out manually. 
  • Cover letter - addressed to THE HONORABLE CONSUL, EMBASSY OF FRANCE. Explain the purpose of your trip and include a summary of your itinerary.
  • Trip details - Hotel vouchers, airline reservation, detailed itinerary
  • Proof of employment or business - Certificate of employment (original copy) or business registration for the current and previous years (photocopy).
  • Proof of income - ITR, photocopy of last 3 months bank statement/passbook
  • Proof of Identity - NSO birth certificate and NSO marriage certificate, when applicable.
  • Travel insurance - should cover the whole duration of the trip and valid for all Schengen states. You can download a list of accredited insurance companies here.
Make sure to submit photocopies of important documents (such as business registration) as the French embassy will not return them to you. Just bring the original copies in case they look for it. 

Payment. You will need to pay in cash, in Philippine peso on the day of your appointment. Current visa fee is EUR60 (PHP3430) for adults, EUR35 (PHP2000) for kids 6-11 years old and FREE for kids 5 and below. Rates may vary depending on the conversion rate for the day. Bring lots of change (20s and 50s) as the embassy only accepts exact payment and no coins.

The French Embassy is located at the Pacific Star Building in Makati. Our appointment is at 8:30am and when we arrived, there are already applicants who are already done (they start processing applications at 8am). They have a package counter where you can leave your cellphone.

When your number is called, you will need to submit only the following: passport, itinerary, hotel reservation, airline reservation and exact payment. After which, you will need to wait for your turn to be interviewed.

During the interview, you will need to submit your documents in the exact order written in the guideline. They are very, very, very particular about this so please make sure you arrange your documents properly. It was a quick interview, after which they took our photo and my biometric data. I was given a receipt indicating the date and time we should come back to know the results. The date was 7 working days after our interview. Since we did not apply through a travel agent, they returned our passports. I was also informed that there's no need for the kids to be present during the pick-up date.

There are a number of applicants at the Embassy that time but the process is pretty quick. We finished with a lot of time to spare so I can bring the kids to school.

On our scheduled pick-up date, I went alone with all our passports and receipts. Our pick-up time is at 11:00am and when I got to the embassy there are a lot of people inside. Some of them applicants waiting for their turns to be interviewed and most of them returning applicants like me waiting for the results. You will need to give your passport to the person in window 1 and wait. They'll finish all applicants for interview first before they start distributing passports. It was a short wait until my turn and I was handed our passports with our Schengen visas! Upon receiving our passports, I thanked the Consul, left and breathed a deep sigh of relief.

Finally, after two mentally agonizing, not to mention bank breaking visa applications, we can officially get psyched for our trip to Europe!

Just a few notes you might find helpful:
  • Appointments can sometimes take as far as 2 months from the time of booking so plan your travels. Remember though, that you can only send a request 3 months at the earliest prior to your departure date.
  • Make sure you follow the rule on which embassy to apply. It has to be at the embassy of the country you are staying the longest or in case of equal, stays, the first port of entry.
  •  Visa validity. You can only stay at the Schengen area up to the validity of your visa. So even if you are usually allowed to stay for 30 days but you arrived 5 days prior to your visa expiration, you will have to leave before your visa expires.
  • The photo they'll use in your visa is the one they'll be taking at the embassy, not the one you'll submit. So try to look pretty and fresh while waiting for your turn. I hadn't realized how sunburned we are from a recent trip until I saw our pictures.  

At first, I wasn't really sure if it was my daughter on the picture or her shadow! Haha!

French Embassy Manila
Office Hours: 8:00am to 12:00nn
16/F Pacific Star Bldg. 
Buendia cor. Makati Ave.,
Makati City

March 04, 2012

Bechay's First Giveaway Contest

Bechay just reached 100 followers and to celebrate this milestone, she's giving away some cool prizes. Mechanics are simple and everybody's invited to join. Read more about it here -- Straight from Bechay.

February 28, 2012

UK Visa Application

If there's one drawback to being a Filipino -- it's the agonizing ordeal of having to apply for a visa when you want to visit countries outside of Southeast Asia. In preparation for our summer trip, me and my two kids have to apply for a UK visa and a Schengen visa (I'll discuss this one later in another post). I experienced applying for visas on several occasions and it never gets easy. Each one is as nerve-wracking, if not worse, than the previous.

I decided to apply to the British embassy first. VFS Global Phils. manages the visa application center for the UK Border Agency here in the Philippines. Their office is at the 6th Flr Eco Plaza Bldg., 606 Pasong Tamo Ext., Makati City.

The procedure is pretty straightforward -- fill out the application form online and schedule an appointment. On your appointment,  you just need to submit your application, supporting documents, payment and biometric data.

ONLINE APPLICATION FORM. Be ready with your passport, itinerary and hotel details. If you can't finish answering it in one sitting, you can always save it and continue at a later time. Just take note of your application reference number. A guide to answering the online application form can be found here. If there are still questions you're not sure how to answer, you can send VFS an email. Better be safe than sorry.

BOOK AN APPOINTMENT. You can do so by calling a premium hotline (really steep rates!) or by doing it online. Scheduling an appointment online is pretty easy and schedules are aplenty. When I booked mine, available appointment dates are just less than a week away. I'm not sure though if this is always the case, so it's still best to plan your travels ahead. Be ready with your passport number when booking an appointment.

SUPPORTING DOCUMENTS. You must be able to show that: 1. you intend to visit the UK for not more than 6 months, 2. you have enough money to support yourself and 3. you intend to leave the UK at the end of your visit. Your supporting documents should provide information about you, your finances and employment and your travel details to the UK. You can download the supporting documents guideline here. You are free to include any other document even though not listed in the guideline if you feel that it will help you prove that you meet the criteria mentioned. Prepare photocopies of your original documents and a checklist of documents submitted. You can get the checklist at the VFS office during your appointment or you can request for an advance copy via the VFS helpline email -- info.ukph@vfshelpline.com. 

VISA FEE. There are a number of ways to pay for your visa fee. The most convenient for me is to purchase a Manager's Check payable to the British Embassy. Visa fee is PHP5472 for each applicant. If you're applying with your kids (like in my case), you can just purchase one MC reflecting the total visa fee for all applicants.

Our appointment is on a Tuesday and there's quite a number of applicants at the VFS office. Waiting time wasn't that long though and the staff who processed our application and captured our biometric information were all very polite and very patient. Especially when my little girl decided to throw a tantrum and refuse to open her eyes when it was her turn to be photographed! The drama started when there was a fight on who will go first during the biometric capturing. See, even kids has to go inside the room unaccompanied. It was bad enough for my daughter that kuya has to go first, but when I was called inside to help, she was left alone and that ticked her off. She wouldn't stop bawling and since I can't exactly get mad at her (at least not in front of everyone), my little angel decided to throw a tantrum of epic proportions and cause a delay. It still escapes me how we were able to get her photo that day. Our appointment was at 9:00 am and we finish in time for me to bring my daughter to her school in Makati and my son to his school in Katipunan before 12:00nn.

We availed of the SMS/email tracking service (PHP110 per applicant) and that same afternoon, I got an update that our application is being sent to the British Embassy. Ok, now time to cross our fingers and pray really hard.

The next day, Wednesday, I got an email from UKBA-Manila Visa Hub that our visas will be dispatched shortly and that our passports can be collected from the Visa Application Center in 3 days!!! Wow, I still can't get over how fast and painless it was. 

Thursday, I got an SMS from VFS that a decision has been made regarding my application and that I can pick up my documents the next day, Friday, from 2:00-3:00pm. 

PICK-UP. On your pick-up date, bring your receipt and 2 valid IDs (one for the lobby guard and one to show at the VFS office). For those who cannot personally pick-up their documents, you can send a representative along with an authorization letter, your receipt and his 2 valid IDs. Document pick-up is a breeze as it took only a few minutes. The British Embassy is by far the most efficient I've experienced in terms of visa processing. 

For queries regarding visa application, you can email VFS at info.ukph@vfshelpline.com. When you email them, you'll get an auto-reply message that says it takes 5 working days for them to respond. But in several occasions that I have to email them, it usually just takes them the next working day to respond. Talk about being really efficient :)

Just a few things you might find helpful:
  • You will only be allowed to bring your wallet, a ballpen and your documents inside. You can leave your bag/cellphone at their package counter.
  • Bring extra cash if you want to avail of their SMS/email tracking service or if you want to have your documents couriered back to you. 

Luckily, they use the picture we submitted with the application and not the photo they took at the VFS office.

VFS Global Philippines
Operating Hours:
Application submission - with a prior appointment:
Monday-Friday 08:00 - 14:00
Application submission - without a prior appointment:

Monday-Friday 07:00 - 08:00
Inquiries at visa application centre

Monday-Friday 13:00 - 15:00

February 19, 2012

Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia

Feb 8-10, 2012. Kota Kinabalu or KK is the state capital of Sabah and is located on the tropical island of Borneo facing the South China Sea. It is home to the the mighty Mt. Kinabalu, the highest mountain in Southeast Asia and from which the city got its name. 

Fun Flight. We booked our flight late last year when Cebu Pacific offered promo fares. The short two-hour plane ride was made more fun with the airline's signature inflight games. The mechanics are simple -- stand up and show your wackiest face and win a prize! Fortunately for us, my son was in the mood for games and made his best, wackiest face. His prize -- a bag which he immediately opened and stuffed with his snacks.

The wacky/bungal pose. Who could beat that?!?

Kota Kinabalu International airport is small and upon arriving, passengers are racing to get immigration cards. We have to wait for quite a while before they brought in new cards for the rest of us. I suddenly felt defensive of our own airport back home. Whoever voted it as #1 world's worst airport clearly hasn't been to KK yet. 

The Suite Life. From the airport, it was a 5-minute cab ride to our hotel at Sutera Harbour Resort. There are two hotels at the property -- the Pacific Sutera Hotel and the Magellan Sutera Resort, with the former having a more business setting and the latter with a more resort feel to it. We stayed at the Pacific Sutera but we can use all the facilities at both hotels including the Sutera Harbour Marina. Sweet! What's more, our room was upgraded to a Junior Suite! Suuuper sweeet!!!

The next day, we had buffet breakfast at Cafe BolĂ© (which comes free with our accommodation). Food wasn't so great so I was only able to eat bread, fried rice and omelette (a blessing in disguise to my forever problematic bulging tummy).  After, we headed to the Sutera Harbour Marina to do laps at their Olympic-size pool while the kids played at the slides and shoot some hoops at the kiddie pool.

Kiddie Pool at the Sutera Harbour Marina

Since this vacation should be a chance for us to laze and unwind, we pass up on visiting the park in Mt. Kinabalu or trying on the rapids of Kiulu river for a more relaxing visit at Manukan Island. We got a tour package from SeaQuest which includes transfers, buffet lunch, snorkeling gear and entrance fee.
Manukan Island

Sea. Sun. Sand. The kids had a blast playing in the water, digging the sand and picking up just about anything that interests them. Good thing the waves were calm so we can let them be while us parents lie on the sand and soak up some sun.

By 4pm we head back to the resort and this time stayed at the Sutera Pacific pool area. We ordered dessert and drinks at the pool bar and took a lot of photos while waiting for the sunset.

Smoothie and dessert at the Pool Bar.

Unfortunately, it was too late when we realized that it was NOT a good package and we could have been better off just getting the transfers to Manukan Island and having lunch elsewhere. 

Next day, we headed to the Magellan Sutera pool area. The loungers there are heaven -- big, comfy and shaded with huge parasols. The kiddie pool is a little deep for my little ones so we just stayed here for a while and went back to the Marina pools where there's a slide (kids just can't get enough of these kid-friendly slides) and the water's depth is just right for them. 

The Magellan Sutera pool area.
We checked out at 1pm and left our luggage at the concierge. We took the cab (RM12) to KK Plaza to kill the time until our 6pm flight back to Manila. The only brands we recognized there are Nike, Adidas and Giordano and the rest are clothes and electronic stores that resembles those in Greenhills. There's a Nike store that sells socks for 40% off and I just couldn't resist buying such a steal, so I took 10 pairs! :)

Soon it was time to head back to Manila, along with our tanned shoulders and sunburned cheeks. This short trip might be over but we have reasons to go back -- visit Mt. Kinabalu and go on a white water rafting.

How to get there: 1hr and 50mins non-stop flight via Cebu Pacific
Currency: Malaysian Ringgit (RM). We brought USD with us which we exchanged for RM. They only accept USD50 and USD100 denominations for exchange.