1941. Bravo, Alpha, Tango, Alpha, Alpha, November. Frantic telegram messages were spelling out the name, unpronounceable to many of the retreating USAFFE (U.S. Army Forces Far East) Americans. Bataan was to be known for the barbarity of the 98km march to the death of some 75,000 Allied prisoners of war. Until then, Bataan, was better known for its proximity to Corregidor in the western coast of Luzon and was only a quiet deforested backwater sparsely populated by several generations of subsistence farmers and fisher folk.
The first try
During Martial Law, World War 2 veteran President Ferdinand Marcos attempted to push Bataan to be better known for economic development. The Mariveles and Morong Export processing zones were established and the Roman superhighway and Olongapo-Gapan road were built to connect Bataan to the North Expressway. The country's first Nuclear Power Plant was built (albeit never fuelled). Large industrial firms located to Bataan with the hope of providing employment. Unfortunately, the lack of skilled labor in the area necessitated the import of laborers from elsewhere. And with them came the infiltration of militant anti-government unions, causing the demise of industry and investment. Though known for quiet beaches, modern conveniences, apart from Montemar Beach Club in Bagac, were unheard of.
It takes a volcano
The eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 hastened the exit of the US armed forces from Subic Naval Base and Clark Air Base in Pampanga. The twinned bases, liberated from military use, became magnets for business and leisure. In time, the bases grew out of their reputation as PX shopping zones into fully industrialized centers. And with it, theme parks and luxury resorts started to abound.
World class highways
Thanks to the NLEx-SCTEx, world class highways are no longer a luxury. Thus, luxury destinations in western, peninsular Luzon are thriving. For spur of the moment overnighters, holiday makers can safely and easily hop in their luxury cars. Or luxury vans.
Luxury van? Though the concept of a luxury car and a luxury SUV is universally accepted, emerging Asia is establishing a unique trend with the luxury van. Toyota, purveyors of four wheel practical transport for all needs and sizes offers appropriate people transport in its most majestic possible guise - the Alphard luxury minivan. One can easily spot the Alphard, the Toyota Vellfire and rival Nissan's Elgrand as favored transport by budding tycoons in China, SAR Hong Kong, Japan and Indochina.
Plethora of upmarket choice
Beyond PX discount and warehouse shopping, Subic Bay, Zambales and Bataan offer more relaxing things to do beyond the rough-and-tumble whole day adventure. With less time spent on the road, a broad choice of luxury and boutique hotels now stand cheek by jowl on the Subic Waterfront. There's the Balinese inspired Segara Villas village and the doyen of them all, the Subic Bay Yacht Club. Nearby, Morong, Bataan boasts of Ayala Land Premier's Anvaya Cove, now with updated wider roads and an upcoming golf course. Anvaya's meticulous service reminds me of the day when Don Enrique Zobel paid attention to Punta Baluarte in Calatagan. There, the staff were ready to please Presidents and Oil Sheiks at the drop of a hat. The club menu is good, extensive and portions are family sized. The rooms are a match to size and amenities as to any high end resort in Phuket or Bali.
For authentic time travel into our culture's grand history of elegant living, there is Bagac's Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar built by New San Jose Builders and expertly run by Genesis Heritage hotels. The guided tours may be pricey, but they are worth it as the lovely tour guides, in period costume, do such an expert job. Mica, our guide, was very patient with my very chatty English speaking Japanese tourist companion who waved at everything (and everyone) in sight. The MariVent cafe at restored Casa Unisan in Plaza Belmonte serves authentic Filipino and Spanish dishes. The Urrutia clan's Casa Meycauayan, extracted from my hometown and lovingly restored is near the beach crossed by an arch bridge featuring relief carvings of the characters from the parlor stories of Lola Basyang. All of the houses have lovingly restored wood carvings, murals and cast iron ceilings. Casa Hidalgo, once the UP School of fine arts has found home here with far more caring owners. An authentic Escolta hotel serves as the boutique accommodations with Casa Mexico, from Mexico, Pampanga, serving as the main reception area, just a hop away on cobbled streets. The three storey Casa Vyzatina is being restored to serve as an all suite hotel. Extracted from San Nicolas, Binondo, the restored floors of alternating white Lauan, Red Lauan and purple Ipil recalls my own ancestral home in Meycauayan. The La Piscina swimming pool's motif of moss green tiles recalls the "tampisaw" kind of swimming in cool rivers of a more innocent era.
Lining these points of luxury in Bataan are another modern day luxury: young growth rain forests on the winding roads to the Bataan Nuclear Plant and the Death March commemorative highway through misty headed Mt. Samat. All those student and scout excursions for reforestation all these years is finally bearing fruit.
Travel in 5-star luxury
Ensconced in the thrusting shape of a mono-form cocoon, all 6 Alphard passengers are protected by curtain and side air bags on top of the knee bags for the front row driver. If Spas are your thing, 4 sybaritic power leather ottomans in the front and middle plus foldable ones in the back row allied with low floor easy access to all First Class-like seat pods, makes for pampered travel. Thanks to space efficient longitudinal tracks, occupants of all dimensions can easily be pleased. It is this easy walkabout headroom that gives luxury vans a superior advantage over any legroom-endowed stretch limousine. Or SUV. Staggering the seat arrangement allows for many combinations of passenger sizes and carry on luggage. The audio NXT ceiling actuators provide a new experience in sound. The interior mood can be dominated by the LED ambient lighting or the twin moonroofs. Power slide doors aid in the grand ingress and egress in high society resort arrivals and you don't have to mind your head on your descent. Rear privacy glass serve the best compromise to monsoon night visibility and discreet conceal-ability.
Rain forest in the dark
If nightfall finds you on the winding Ilanin forest roads between Subic Bay's twinkling dockyard lights and Anvaya Cove, rain sensing wipers sweep away the moisture of a humid night and the adaptive HID headlights scour ahead of you through the curves. A clever touch is the rear window wiper concealed in the rear roof spoiler. The Alphard's slab sides means one has to watch bus bow waves and gale force gusts on open expressways.
Choice of two power plants
Its platform of McPherson Struts and torsion beam rear may read "ditto" for the smaller Previa minivan, but the Alphard's refinement is of an even higher plane. Both minivans share the 167hp 2.4-liter high rev VVTi coupled to a 4-speed A/T, but for just a little bit more, the far more powerful 275PS 3.5 liter V-6 with a 6-speed auto is a more intelligent choice courtesy of tariff reductions by JPEPA. Still, the 1,920kg Alphard 2.4 can keep up with sedans at 0-100 in 12 secs, 180km/h in top and 10.8km/L cruising on smooth highways. The 3.5 V6 is the way to go with far more mid range punch, 0-100km in a little over 8 seconds, 11.9km/L on 6th gear highway cruising and a top speed limited to 180km/h. For all its loftiness, the MacPherson front and torsion beam rear kept to comfortable lean angles while gliding through the twisting Gov. Linao highway from the forested Bataan Nuclear Plant to Bagac's wye junction to Montemar.
Utility vs. Luxury?
It's very hard to uncover the utilitarian in the Alphard as its luxury is so deeply rooted. Its no mere veneer. Its far more spacious than the most luxurious SUV and has the ability to soothe as well as the best spa. Best of all, whether on the move or idling in traffic, no one, driver nor passenger, will ever feel 2nd class. And the new Bataan? Time was when going to Bataan and savoring the local cuisine meant tinned food and if one was lucky, grilled fresh catch. Today, one can enjoy excellent Tagalog cuisine at Anvaya Cove's Bamboo Cafe and Marivent in Las Casas Filipinas.
For that reason alone, I really don't miss the good old days.