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Corregidor: Isle of War and Beauty

5 Feb

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As the ferry pulls in to a pine-fringed cove of ivory-coloured sand, I find it hard to imagine Corregidor Island as the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific theatre of World War II. A strategic outpost guarding Manila from sea invasion since the 1500s, Corregidor was attacked from the opposite direction by the Japanese in early 1942. General Douglas Macarthur, commander of the US Army Forces in the Far East, was forced to flee the island by PT boat to Australia, famously vowing ‘I shall return’. In two days, a 75,000-strong Japanese army fought their way past 45 pieces of heavy artillery and overwhelmed 13,000 US and Filipino soldiers. Three years later, MacArthur made good on his promise and liberated the island in a daring air and sea assault that turned out to be even bloodier than the first Battle of Corregidor. The US victory was to prove decisive in ending the war in Asia.

When we reach land, I’m ushered into a charmingly retro tour bus that resembles a wartime tram and away we go into the depths of the jungle. We pass the grey, spectral ruins of barracks and mess halls, some held up by shaky foundations either damaged by shelling or worn thin by age. As we drive, our tour guide holds up a selection of items he’s found strewn around Corregidor, amongst them a Japanese bayonet, a Coca-Cola bottle from 1912 and US and Filipino currency dating back 150 years.

We stop at Battery Way, an emplacement of mortars that still have bullet holes in them, despite a thick and recently applied coat of paint. Our guide tells me to look down the barrel of one of the guns. I do so and see a bomb nestling in the base. ‘That’s still live,’ says the guide, ‘but it is probably harmless.’ I back away with a fake smile.

A delicious lunch of pork adobo and pancit canton (flour noodles with vegetables and seafood) is served on the Spanish-style veranda of the Corregidor Inn. It’s possible to stay the night at the Inn and use it as a base for activities such as kayaking, ziplining and all-terrain vehicle driving.

Our next stop is the moving Pacific War Memorial and its 40 foot-tall abstract sculpture representing the eternal flame. The rotunda features stone-etched memorials to those who died in every conflict the Philippines has been involved in, including the often under-reported Spanish-American War of 1898 when the US wrested control of the archipelago from the Spanish Empire.

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For many, Corregidor’s piéce de resistance is the Malinta Tunnel complex, that in its heyday housed a field hospital, an electric tram system, shops, storerooms and General MacArthur’s  operational headquarters. The American and Filipino garrison made its last stand against the Japanese inside Malinta and just a few months before that Manuel Quezon was sworn in here for his second term as President of the semi-autonomous Philippine Commonwealth. Although a close friend of MacArthur’s and a supporter of the US presence in his country, Quezon is reported to have exploded with anger after listening to a speech by President Roosevelt about the war in Europe and shouted, ‘How typical of America to writhe in anguish at the fate of a distant cousin, Europe, while a daughter, the Philippines, is being raped in the back room!’

With the aid of torches, we make our way through the curve-arched main tunnel and peer into alcoves containing life-size metal models of soldiers, engineers, doctors, nurses, MacArthur himself and his second-in-command General Jonathan Wainwright. Normally there’s an audiovisual presentation detailing the history of Malinta, but for technical reasons it isn’t available right now.

I am suitably sobered as we emerge from the tunnel and ride the tour bus back to the ferry port. All in all, Corregidor is a captivating insight into a momentous event in history and a poignant tribute to the thousands of young men who died in the most destructive war of all time.

Press contacts: Chit Afuang (chit@itsmorefuninthephilippines.co.uk)

Sun Cruises (suncruises@magsaysay.com.ph)

(Originally published in Globetrotter, January 2015)

An Unlikely Comeback: A Stay at the New, Improved Hotel Ivoire

4 Sep

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If New York has the Waldorf Astoria and London the Ritz, then Abidjan has the Hôtel Ivoîre. Founded in 1963 by the first president of Côte d’Ivoîre, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the hotel was an icon of the country’s post-independence boom. The writer VS Naipaul described it as ‘the extravagant, air-conditioned fairground of Abidjan’. Newlyweds from all over the country would flock to have their pictures taken in its plush lobby. Famous people from all over the world (amongst them Nelson Mandela, Michael Jackson and Muhammad Ali) stayed in its deluxe modernist suites.

But as Côte d’Ivoîre’s fortunes waned in the 1990s, so did the Hôtel Ivoîre’s. The civil war broke out and the premises immediately fell into disrepair.

When hostilities ended in 2011, the hotel was acquired by Sofitel who then began renovations. I stayed there last month and was impressed by how faithful the company was being to Houphouët-Boigny’s original vision: that the Hôtel Ivoîre should represent the very best aspects of the national culture.

Côte d’Ivoîre’s economy has always depended on cocoa, and this is reflected in the lounge bar’s menu. While enjoying the fine view of the Lagoon Ébrié, guests can sip white chocolate and passion fruit drink and munch locally-sourced cocoa beans and chocolate macaroons.
Communications Manager Batoul Zaid told me about Sofitel’s policy of exhibiting work by young Ivorian artists around the hotel. Highlights include the rural still-lifes of Paul Sika and the political collages of Abou Dé.

Hôtel Ivoîre’s successful rebranding is a feelgood reminder that Côte d’Ivoîre is renewing itself as a country and as a culture, after the trauma of the civil war. Oh, and the newlyweds have started coming back too.

Words by Tom Sykes
Photographs by C.A.R.
Press contact: Emma Lipman (elipman@prco.com)

Originally published in Globetrotter, Sept 2013.

Norwich City of Ale (originally published in Globetrotter Magazine)

17 Jun

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I was a student in Norwich in the late 1990s, it used to be said that the city had a pub for every day of the year. In fact there are almost twice as many as that, as I was reliably informed at the press trip for the Norwich City of Ale Festival (23rd-25th May). I wasn’t able to personally verify the claim, but the trip took us to a good number of beautiful and historic hostelries.

After meeting on the steps of Norwich City Hall with the Lord Mayor and other dignitaries, we were taken by retro red bus to the official launch party amid the ornate 15th century wall-paintings of St Gregory’s Church. Of course a fine selection of local craft ales was available, including many by Lacons, a respected Great Yarmouth brewery. The favourites seemed to be dry, amber-hued Encore and hoppy-citrusy Legacy.

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Day 2 began with a Blue Badge Walking Tour of Norwich’s most intriguing pubs. The Adam & Eve is an intimate hangout of cosy snugs and pretty Dutch gables. The oldest pub in Norwich, it’s rumoured to be haunted by the ghost of Lord Sheffield who was killed in the Kett’s Rebellion of 1549. Located in the grand shadow of Norwich Cathedral, the glowing white façade of the Wig & Pen is some four hundred years old. Looking out across the tranquil Wensum River, the Ribs of Beef boasts walls that date back to well before the great Norwich Fire of 1507.

We reassembled in the evening at the Murderers, a busy city centre pub full of character – and characters. There were talks by local brewers and employees of Crisp Maltings whose daring allegation that Norfolk barley is “the best” was put to the test later when Roger Protz, editor of the Good Beer Guide, led an entertaining and educational ale-tasting session.

In my experience it isn’t often that the accommodation for a press trip is so remarkable that it deserves a story all to itself. However, this was precisely true of the Maids Head Hotel, which is widely believed to be the oldest functioning hotel in Britain. Over the last eight centuries it has been the scene of high-profile trials, peasants’ revolts, large Masonic meetings and royal visits. Well-rested in the suite that Queen Elizabeth I used to stay in, I took the Greater Anglia train out of Norwich on Saturday morning with happy – if also slightly – disjointed memories.

Originally published in the June issue of Globetrotter, the magazine of the British Guild of Travel Writers