Panagbenga 2013

Baskin’ in Baguio bliss
By Nico Erle Ciriaco

A newbie traveler would be wont to hype on the virtues of a destination he has gone to. But to a seasoned jetsetter, what makes a trip worthwhile is the very place where he takes refuge. While he may go out to dine & wine, see the many sights, and enjoy the many sounds, at the end of the day, he’ll find comfort in the confines of his room; may it be a wayward homestay, a drive-in motel or a deluxe hotel.
Everything else around him is converted into an extended lobby, with his choice of refuge as the focal point of interest. Such was the case of our latest sojourn to Baguio City’s Panagbenga Flower Festival. Cocooned in the cozy confines of the newly-opened Forest Lodge in Camp John Hay, our trip was made memorable by the warm reception afforded to us by the Manor Group.

City on the clouds
250 kilometers north of Manila, in the heart of the Cordillera Autonomous Region (CAR), lies the sprawling Camp John Hay special economic zone. From Manila, visitors can take the five-hour bus ride via NLEX and SCTEX through the Palispis Highway (formerly known as Marcos Highway), Kennon Road or the Naguilian Road. For this trip, a Genesis bus was our mode of conveyance.
You’ll know that you’re already in Baguio once you begin to savor the crisp and clean mountain air, as well as when your eyes take in the panoramic vistas amid lush conifer trees. Baguio occupies 57 square kilometers of hills about 1,524 meters high in the southwestern portion of the Cordillera Central mountain ranges.
Baguio City, also known as the ‘Summer Capital of the Philippines,’ derived its name from the word “bagiw,” which in Ibaloi dialect means “moss.” It has morphed from what was once a greasy marshland into one of the cleanest, greenest and highly urbanized cities in the archipelago.
“Pinoys travel now. There’s a surge of nationalism pervading the air. The cleansing that’s going on has created an upbeat drive toward our ethnicity and heritage. We created the Forest Lodge because we want to give respect to all travelers and acknowledge their efforts and expense. What make hotels expensive are the frills that not many need at all. Here, we give every traveler something different for the same money they spend somewhere that’s not giving their money’s worth. We provide the things that meet their travel requirements,” enthused Tito Sobrepena, president of Club Leisure, the managing and operating arm of Camp John Hay properties.
Tourists and travelers will be delighted to know that inside Camp John Hay is a new hotel that offers deluxe amenities without creating a dent in their pockets. For a twin-sharing superior room at P2,900 for an overnight stay with buffet breakfast for two, the newly-opened Forest Lodge is truly value for money!
“We are a domestic market. And with the increase in domestic travel in Baguio City and around the country, the possibilities are rosy. While functions remain the same, you deal with people differently so your approach to each one also varies. You simply respect people and races. You don’t have to feel superior. You motivate them, build them up and give them the necessary tools so they work efficiently.
“I didn’t like Baguio when I first came here in the ‘70s. With the Kennon Road closed after a massive typhoon, the first thing I saw, upon arrival, was a cemetery! But everything changed when I saw the Banaue Rice Terraces. It was like being in Switzerland! Despite the mushrooming populace you see around, nothing has changed much in Baguio. It’s still the same through the years.
“So I stayed and pointed out what was wrong with how the hotels were run before. But I sought a commitment, which the owners gave, or I would have left. After which, I found a way to upgrade The Manor. It took me ten years to turn it inside out, eventually making it a very nice property.
“The full development of Camp John Hay is not finished yet. There’s no sports club and a town center as of the moment but in time there will be. Now, everything has become too expensive. That’s how Forest Lodge came to be. People will always seek value for their hard-earned currency.
“Forest Lodge has a complete rebranding that’s separate and distinct from that of The Manor. Travelers won’t lessen in the future, there will be much more,” enthused German national Heindrick Maulbecker, managing director of The Manor and Forest Lodge, who’s been a hotelier in the last five decades, starting his first international assignment in the south of France at the age of 21.
Herr Maulbecker did a two year stint in Thailand before starting his foray in the country that started with his management of the erstwhile Hyatt Terraces in 1979, until it was destroyed by the earthquake in 1990.
“I know more people in Manila than in my hometown so I know I’d always come back here. Besides, I also have a family here,” he continued. His return to the country began his taking over the reins of The Manor. “30-40 years ago, you need Europeans to run a hotel, unlike now. Europeans learn their profession from scratch. In the pioneering days, you work with people who don’t know a thing and you teach them. As a hotelier, you need to have a good working knowledge on everything - kitchen, a bit of marketing & sales - good housekeeping in essence. Today’s hoteliers are finance people and one day they’ll run into problems because they’re all about revenue generation. But the hotel business is not just about the money.
“I was around when the Jumbo Jet came to be in 1972. Without the Airbus phenomenon, nobody would have left their respective countries to work elsewhere because air fare was so expensive; it just wasn’t worth it. The tourists before were just the elites,” he added.

Special economic zone
At 5,000 feet above sea level, Baguio is the perfect gateway to such destinations as Sagada and the Banaue Rice Terraces; and an hour’s drive to the beaches of La Union and a four-hour drive to the Ilocos Region. “Baguio City is a world-class tourism development and destination. And Forest Lodge is the first of its kind in the summer capital. Other significant developments will unfold in Camp John Hay, under the Bases Conversion Authority mandate. These plans are made so as to attract much more tourists to Baguio. Also, more roads now lead to historical sites in and around Baguio City,” declared Congressman Bernardo Vergara, during an intimate media confab right after the Panagbenga parade.
Camp John Hay was transferred by the American government to the Department of Tourism in 1991. Since then, the administration and upkeep of the sprawling facility has been undergone by the Bases Conversion Authority.
“We can’t duplicate the Manor market here. Forest Lodge is an affordable proposition for yuppies and frequent travelers. Our rates may be low but we still blend it with our impeccable service, ambiance, and a modern twist with the Cordillera look. It’s the best deal in Baguio and inside Camp John Hay. Our guests can reserve their rooms through on-line booking. This facility is anchored on the DoT’s campaign of being ‘fun’ in the Philippines. And here in Camp John Hay, that’s very true with all the shopping spots and the techno hub of the Ayalas. We started with 55 rooms that grew with an additional 109. Phase II will add 50 rooms more. All in all, there will be 214 rooms from the Lower Ground level up to the fifth floor,” informed general manager Ramon Cabrera.
And while here, you can also savor and enjoy the gourmet cuisine of Chef Billy King at Le Chef in The Manor. Just take the pathway that passes through a rock garden and let the master chef take you on a gustatory and epicurean journey. “It used to be a small percent of people giving a lot. Nowadays, it’s a lot of people giving in a pinch. But if a million gives with that little, it still amounts to more. I think that’s going to be the wave of the future, especially in the travel industry sector,” intimated the acclaimed chef.

Annual festival
Celebrated every February, Panagbenga comes from the Kankanaey word that means “season of blooming.” Nearing its 20th anniversary in 2015, the festival reflects the history, traditions and values of Baguio and the Cordilleras through community involvement. The term was suggested by Ike Picpican, an archivist and curator of the St. Louis University Museum.
“Baguio accommodates the surge of tourists to the festival yearly. This year, authorities and parade marshals estimated the visitor count to be over two million. It is the most organized, most peaceful and cleanest installment in the perennial affair so far. We look forward as our tourist attendance still gets bigger in the coming years.
“The SCTEX extension that will go as far as Rosales (Pangasinan) will cut the travel time from Manila. The ongoing road project will hopefully be completed by May 2014. Baguio belongs to the entire Filipino nation,” reported Cong. Vergara, solon of the city’s lone district.
Floats were required to be 95 per cent organic in composition. Like California’s Rose Bowl Parade and Tournament of Roses, floats were decked mostly in blooms. Participating floats were also advised not to throw objects, like product samples, to the on-lookers so as not to disrupt the orderly flow of the parade.
Le Monet Hotel was adjudged the Best Float while the Department of Agriculture’s (CAR) campaign for sufficient food supply was named second best. Road company NLEX was the third placer. In the street-dancing category, the Kabayan Youth Cultural Dance Troupe, the delegation comprising the Kamora National High School of Kabayan, Benguet, was proclaimed champion. Their presentation, “Adivay: A Celebration for a Bountiful Harvest,” revolved around a local folktale on the deity Gadate, who helped save the Kintoman harvest and the people in Kabayan from a giant snake. Kintoman is a sweet-tasting rice variety with its very seeds believed to have come from Bugan herself, the goddess of grain.
The Litangfan Cultural Group of Bontoc, on the other hand, was named second placer with their tableau “Te-er si Saray-at” or “A Day of Rest in Bontoc.” An 8-day rest observed after the planting season, the merrymaking commences with prayers in an Ayyeng, and with songs and dances in colorful garb and ornaments. While the Apayao Ipasindayaw contingent, representing the provincial government of Apayao, was adjudged third best. Their piece, “Kabinnulig: The Love of Nature and Simplicity in Life and Industry,” captured the strong relationship between a farmer and his carabao. In thanksgiving, the feasting and merrymaking is highlighted by the haul of ripe squash in the karison, or wooden cart, which marks the farmer’s role of returning the favor for the carabao’s well-done job by taking care of his ‘animal-friend’ until the next planting season.
“Panagbenga is an occasion to thank the Lord for the trees, flowers and the environment. We can’t live without them. Our task is in doing everything to sustain cleanliness around. It is also an opportunity for Baguio people, including the whole Cordillera, regardless of tribal origin, to share in the spirit of peace. Bountiful harvests only mean more food for consumption.
“Moreover, the festival affords us to show our unique cultural heritage. Through our dance and costumes, it is only here where you get to see it. This activity sustains our tourism industry. Thus, we continue to foster the reasons why Panagbenga is done yearly,” opined city mayor Hon. Mauricio Domogan. The outspoken local chief executive was a former cultural dance troupe member who experienced a ‘costume malfunction’ during a presentation to a visiting European delegation at the Pines Hotel. His G-string went loose and fell off his body without even a loincloth for cover. Fortunately, the foreign guests all thought it was part of the choreography! Mayor Domogan is a staunch advocate of Baguio’s cultural heritage.
The Baguio Flower Festival Foundation Inc. (BFFFI) operates, organizes and manages the Panagbenga Festival to boost the tourism of the Pine City and the rest of the Cordillera region by showcasing various events, exhibitions and activities that promote their culture that’s sustained in an earth-friendly manner.
“There was a minor explosion before the start of the second day parade. The mishap happened in a contained area, in an office, that did not in any way affect visitors. The injured persons were also those who caused the accident. This is a very rare and isolated incident. The good thing is that only minor scratches and a slight fracture were experienced by the three injured persons,” assured Anthony de Leon, co-chair of Panagbenga 2013.
As the Panagbenga evolves, new activities serve as opportunities to enrich the Flower Festival; infusing it with dynamism, perspective and character revolving around the unique traditions of each group or individual that makes itself or himself a part of it. Collectively, they animate the festival by giving it color, spice, substance and character.
“Blooms are locally grown around the area and from various suppliers within the region. Majority of the flowers comes from Tabuk, La Trinidad, and portions of Tuba. Our visitor attendance is increasing on a yearly basis despite the absence of our airport facilities. Transport providers have operated more frequencies to take in the influx.
“The festival is subsidized by a tripartite source: contributions from the private sector, LGUs, and the congressman’s office. Before Panagbenga begun in 1995, only P14-15 million in business taxes was generated by the city’s commercial sector. Now, it’s over P170 million; clearly a growth indicator!
“Our panel of judges comes from the World Flower Council. This year, a flower carpet measuring 200 by 100 feet depicting the Panagbenga logo adorns the Athletic Bowl grounds,” apprized Freddie Alquiros, Panagbenga 2013 chairman.
Panagbenga’s identity reflects the richness of Baguio’s culture. The flourishing of the community spirit is the most eloquent testimony that the festival has found a home in the hearts and minds of the people in and around the Cordilleras.
“Tourism is a very dynamic industry and we want to stay optimistic,” declared Herr Maulbecker at the close of the confab. For booking dates, simply email and/or visit their Web site


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