WHEN you first land in Manila, the searing heat, the manic din and traffic-clogged roads make you wonder what distinguishes this city from other hectic South-east Asian capitals like Bangkok and Jakarta.
Your first hint comes at the airport and highway toll stops en route into the city. It continues with billboards, restaurant menus, store names and signs.
All of them seem to scream English rather than Filipino - which makes it a huge boon for Singaporeans looking for a quick and easy holiday.
No need to squint at alien words or gesture frantically in sign language here.
But beyond linguistic convenience, there is much that makes Manila a thoroughly enjoyable getaway, with a - dare I say - uniquely Filipino flavour.
First, the sprawling malls that litter Metro Manila's 17 cities and municipalities are a sight to behold. Linked by aerobridges that arc over roads, they stretch for blocks on end, like mini air-conditioned cities.
Hordes of Filipinos pack the malls not just to shop but also to go to church, the dentist, art gallery, ice-skating rinks, you name it.
A large number are simply escaping the melting heat outdoors, especially since there are few parks in the capital.
That the Filipinos have 'malling' and 'mallers' in their daily vocabulary tells you something.
With the exchange rate working in Singapore's favour, a five-star hotel stay can also be had for as little as $130 a night, and a decent meal for two at a mid-range restaurant for $10 to $15.
But beyond the usual cheap shopping and eating that Singaporeans have come to expect of neighbouring cities, the real surprise that sets Manila apart from the rest is how far ahead the Filipinos are in the diet game, arguably even more so than Singapore.
Fans of diet drinks would be in a tizzy over supermarket shelves packed with diet versions of almost any drink - Coke, Sprite, 7-Up, Pepsi, root beer, pineapple soda, and sparkling mineral water infused with fruit flavours.
Then, there are the counters promoting virgin coconut oil - the latest fad believed to speed weight loss and improve skin tone. At a mere 100 to 150 pesos ($3 to $4.50) for a 110ml bottle, they are a real steal.
In restaurants, dishes that are low-fat, low-carbohydrate or sugar-less are helpfully starred in the menus. Some eateries are even more impressive, displaying signs like: 'On a low-carb diet? Tell our chef and we'll fix a meal the way you need it.'
There is also plenty of art and culture if you are interested. Manila is replete with good museums. There are also grand churches, forts and fortresses from the colonial days.
And if you, like me, need to escape the city, there are day trips to surrounding provinces. Crater lakes, waterfalls, raft rides, organic food farms and spas. Farming or gardening, in fact, is a serious retirement option for many Filipinos, a few of whom have found greater fame, fortune and fulfillment here than in their original careers.
No wonder some of them call it 'the business of bliss'.
In short, there is enough to do in and around Manila, whether you are staying a weekend or a week, whether you are a shopaholic, an art buff or a nature lover, or all three rolled into one.
What to see
- Squeeze in a day trip outside of Manila to Tagaytay, a cool, highland town about two hours' drive south-west of metro Manila, perched on the crater rim of the 406m-tall Taal volcano. The best spot from which to admire the lake is the Taal Vista Hotel in Tagaytay.
- On the Aguinaldo highway between Manila and Tagaytay are plenty of delightful stops, such as Ilog Maria Honey Bee Farm (Silang town in Cavite province, www.ilogmaria.com). Besides honey, the farm also produces soaps, honey cider vinegar, beeswax candles, lip balm and insect repellent. While you are there, try the house drink - billed as 'ice-cold honey-buko juice'.
- Tucked away along a dirt track that leads from the Aguinaldo Highway is the Nature Spa (www.nurture.com.ph). You can get massages outdoors from 525 pesos (S$16) to 1,800 pesos.
Where to sleep
- If you are after luxury, Makati Shangri-La (Ayala Avenue Corner Makati Avenue, Makati City 1200, www.shangri-la.com) is it. The five-star hotel exudes standard traditional grandeur, with plenty of marble and gold trimmings to spare. Internet rates start at $291 a night.
- For a cheaper sleep, try the Ermita Tourist Inn (1549 Mabini Street, Ermita), which charges $26 for a double. Or check out the Spanish villa-style Bianca's Garden Hotel (2139 M Adriatico Street, Malate) which offers doubles from $30.
Where to eat
- At Sonya's Garden Restaurant and B&B (Barangay Buck Estate, Alfonso, Cavite, www.sonyasgarden.com), In the middle of a fairytale conservatory, where creeping vines drape over arches and doorways, organic fare is served fresh from Ms Sonya Garcia's 16 greenhouses.
The all-you-can-eat four-course meal starts with a garden salad, freshly-baked bread, pasta with grilled salmon, and is washed down with honey-lime juice and tarragon tea. Worth the three-hour drive from Manila.
- The Makati Shangri-La has a fusion restaurant by the name of Red (Ayala Avenue corner Makati Avenue). I had the Chilean sea-bass (about 720 pesos) and a decadent chocolate cake made of pure Varlhona chocolate.
- At Ebun (Greenbelt III mall, on Makati Avenue, just off Ayala Avenue, www.manganrestaurant.com), try the tangy daing na bangus (grilled milkfish marinated in vinegar), or lumpiang gulay (spring roll). Prices are 120 to 200 pesos.
- For cheap eats under 100 pesos, check out the mall foodcourts. Try the grilled milkfish (bangus) or grouper (lapu-lapu). Or lechon, which is roasted suckling pig. Top it off with desserts like ensaymada (a sweet bun topped with shredded cheese and sugary butter cream), and halo-halo (Filipino version of ice kacang).
Where to shop
- The newest, glitziest mall is the ambitiously named Mall of Asia in Pasay city. At a cavernous 386,224 sq m, it is the largest shopping mall in the Philippines and the third largest in the world.
- Venture into the Chinatown or Binondo area, and check out the Tutuban Center Mall. Finds include tie-dye skirts for 150 pesos (S$4.50), metal-studded leather belts for 200 pesos, and funky brass earrings for 50 pesos.
- A five-minute walk away is the 168 Mall, an updated version of People's Park Complex. An interesting haberdashery alley sells all manner of lace, ribbons and beaded handicrafts, along with gift bags made from plant fibre (8 pesos each).
Getting there: Jetstar Asia flies once a day to Manila's Ninoy Aquino International Airport. Fares start from $128 one-way. Taxes are $93 (return basis), not including 550 pesos (S$16.50) for Manila airport's departure tax.
Alternatively, Tiger Airways flies into Clark International Airport twice a day. Converted from the former American 13th Air Force base, Clark is situated in central Luzon, about 80km north of Manila. Prices start from $49.98 one-way. Return tax is $90.50, plus 300 pesos for Clark's airport tax.