The Scent of Christmas in Baguio

When the rainy days are over and the sun is always out, it is in December when one can best experience Baguio City. It is known as the City of Pines because of its thick pine forests and cool climate. On cool days, the breeze smells like Christmas. It was for me, as a child, a city filled with Christmas trees.

Baguio City, also called the Philippine Summer Capital, is 250 kilometers north of Manila. It is a famous getaway for Filipinos from the hot and humid cities of the south or the hustle and bustle of Manila. With the developed highways and roads that lead to the north, it is not so much a hassle to drive up to this part of the country. Even public transportation is now easy. I remember how I always enjoyed the views of the tree-lined mountain landscapes as I rolled down the window of the car to feel the cool air and inhale the refreshing smell of pine.

For this trip, I decided to do more than just relish the scent of Christmas. For the holidays, I vowed to stay away from the tourist traps and instead explore the city’s little crooks and crannies – the delightful cafés, the unique residences of art, the quiet nature parks, and the hidden attractions that make Baguio the charming city that it is.

After the four-hour road trip, we settled in at Prince Plaza Hotel, which is right at the heart of the city and walking distance to Burnham Park, a famous Baguio landmark. Public transportation is not so hard in this town where you cannot miss a cab or a jeepney in the streets and fares are quite affordable; but this time, I decided to take a walk to Café by the Ruins, only two blocks away from the hotel.

Café by the Ruins possesses a charm and history that makes it unique from the other restaurants in the city. Named so because it sits on the remains of a garden theater that was destroyed in World War II, this café is made of bamboo slats and weaves accentuated by bougainvilleas that have witnessed a hundred years of history. As I waited for my breakfast, I introduced myself to the owner, Feliz, who gave me a little background on the restaurant. One thing I appreciate about this small town is the owners themselves run their own businesses, giving service a personal touch.

Café by the Ruins is known for serving dishes that are homemade, locally grown and seasonal, right from the Baguio Public Market where they have the freshest vegetables and fruits, organic rice, native coffee, newly caught seafood from the nearby lowlands, and meat produce from the highlands.

Being an art enthusiast, I was enchanted by the history of this café. It is quite interesting to know that Café by the Ruins was a result of friendship. The concept of the café started as a summer activity thought about by a group of friends, but the idea lived beyond many summers. The friends agreed that the restaurant would be a venue for community events and would provide food, friendship, and inspiration. They filled the place with arts and crafts made by local artisans that truly bring out the soul of the café. One wall in the dining area is reserved for art exhibits. Aside from art exhibits, the place hosts poetry readings and dance performances.

The next place on my list is another artsy scene, Greg Sabado’s Woodworks. This is a small store known to Baguio residents to have the best collection of furniture, accent pieces, and souvenirs made of good-quality dried wood like kamagong, molave, pine and narra. Pieces sold in the store are handpicked and chosen by the owner himself. As an interior design consultant, I often come to this shop. Greg Sabado’s Woodworks usually comes to the rescue when I need finishing accents and touches to most of my interior design projects. This time, my purpose of visiting was to shop for small wooden items to give away for the holidays. Enjoying the earthy and familiar smell of wood, I picked out kamagong bowls and plates of different sizes, molave magazine holders, and a couple of small pine wooden stools sold at very agreeable prices.

Not so far from the center of the city and very close to Greg Sabado’s Wood works is the Driving Range of the Baguio Country Club where I usually leave my sons so I can go around nearby shops and tourist sites while they practiced their swings. This is one of my favorite places to relax where I sit on one of their wooden benches to read a book or have a cup of coffee or tea. It was a foggy afternoon when we got there to watch the kids play on the greens and enjoy the white mist hovering over the driving range.

From the Baguio Country Club’s driving range, we paid a visit to the Sister-Servant of the Holy Spirit of Perpetual Adoration, simply known to many as The Pink Sisters Convent. Inside the chapel’s simple structure, I found an earthly rest where people knelt or sat behind black iron gates to offer their prayers. Inside these gates I saw the sisters in their pink garments at both sides of the altar. The lighted candles gave the peacefulness in the room a comforting glow as I sat quietly and said a short prayer.

On our way back, the sun began to sink into its sleep while the lights of the city came to life. The beautiful contradiction convinced us to brave the nippy air and take a stroll up Session Road. The strip had come alive with locals walking home from school or from work. Townspeople haggled with vendors selling souvenirs, cellular phones, and even secondhand clothes and handbags.

Although hungry, we were a bit reluctant to leave the bustling activity to head to Paliz’zata, a tiny restaurant at the roof deck of one of the many buildings that line Session Road. Right next to it is The Baguio Cathedral. We took the table outside the restaurant where we could take pleasure in Baguio’s cool air. I started off with a cup of honey vanilla chamomile tea because I was already starting to feel the chill. While watching the festive frenzy below, we enjoyed the restaurant’s specialties: the Cowboy Steak (420-gram steak, grilled tomatoes, fried egg, chili and garlic rice), Fetuccini al Quattro Formaggi (pasta with four Italian cheeses), and the simple Pepperoni and Cheese Pizza for the kids, all served in rich and generous portions.

The next day had to be started earlier than usual for us to witness the sunrise at the Mt. Santo Tomas Radar/Relay Station, a place that offers the best view of the whole city. It was still dark when we reached the top, so I didn’t get a glimpse of the mountains on our way up. Standing on high places is certainly not my cup of tea, but faced with the breathtaking spectacle, I completely forgot about my fears and instead took in the smell of a new day. As the tip of the mountain slowly peeped out from the thick clouds, the surrounding house and street lights still twinkled like stars. The vibrant shades of red and orange served as a backdrop; slowly a few seconds passed and the yellow shade of the sunrise exerted itself. In a blink of an eye, as if on cue, all the city lights were now turned off, leaving us with the panoramic view of the mountain landscapes on a clear day.

On our way back to town, we stopped by the Maryknoll Ecological Sanctuary for a nature walk. This preserved sanctuary and forest are maintained by the Maryknoll Sisters. They made a decision to devote their time to environmental awareness and education. It is a walk through fourteen stations of the sanctuary they call the “Cosmic Journey” described as “a nature walk of play and discovery into the earth’s deep interconnectedness.”

A nature expedition wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Baguio City Orchidarium, home to a wide selection of potted plants, tropical orchids, roses, mums, and gumamelas (hibiscus) of different colors. The fragrance of the flowers filled our senses and seemed to give a certain sprightliness in our steps.

Walking more briskly, we soon found ourselves at the Public Market. I remember one of my memories of Baguio as a child is my jeepney rides to and from the city’s public market. Not only did I enjoy the rides and buying the different kinds of souvenirs carved in wood, fresh strawberries, and vegetables, I was also fascinated with the variety of colorful goods and wares sold, the clever and artsy display of the shops, and the cleanliness of its surroundings. The place never fails to make me feel like a kid on Christmas morning.

Tired but happy, we prepared for an All You Can Eat Shabu-Shabu and Mongolian dinner at the Prince Plaza Hotel. While we stuffed ourselves silly with seafood and vegetables, the kids enjoyed cooking their own barbecue. The spread was capped off by a glass of martini at the hotel’s bar and lounge, Cactus Bar. We quickly settled into the sophisticated and cozy atmosphere of the bar. With its relaxing music and its finest selection of beer, wine, and signature beverages, it was impossible to leave without having another glass. Well, we filled another glass, toasting to the little secrets of Baguio that we discovered. By the end of the night, our heads were light with the spirits of the wine, the intoxicating scent of pine, and the images of the city lights shining through the mist.