For our first all-day excursion, my dad rented a van and hired a driver to take us to Tagaytay (pronounced Tah-guy-tie) where Taal Volcano, the 2nd most active volcano in the Philippines, is located. If you've never driven in the Philippines, don't. Unless you're a highly skilled New York City cab driver who can get in and out of tight spots without killing or grazing anyone for long periods of time, you can't. It's best to hire someone who can.
Taal Crater Lake
From our house in Metro Manila, it took about an hour and a half to go to Tagaytay and that's without bad traffic. And everything's relative. Bad traffic in the Bay Area means it takes me up to an hour to commute 15 miles. Bad traffic in the Philippines means you sit in place for an hour without inching forward. Fortunately, we made good time via express ways/highways and one- and two-lane roads that weren't too badly congested.
View from Leslie's Restaurant at Taal
Our driver took us to Leslie's Restaurant which had large, open area seating and from where we overlooked Taal Crater Lake and Taal Volcano. Or at least as much of it as we could see when we arrived as it was pretty foggy. We thought we'd order and wait for it to clear up so we could take better pictures after lunch but it got worse as we ate and actually started to rain. I even almost felt cold when it got windy (I never get cold in the Philippines). The food was good although we had to wait a bit as it seemed like there wasn't enough wait staff to serve the crowd. Which is somewhat unusual in the Philippines as usually there's plenty of people. But perhaps they were shorthanded because of the holidays.
In any case, after lunch, my nieces opted to get coffee from the coffee stand just outside Leslie's called Filibeans. Which I thought was a hilarious name (get it? Filibeans? Philippines?). By then it was pretty windy and started to rain so we set off, making a couple of stops though to shop at the fruit stands along the road. The fruit made such colorful displays and my mom bought some pineapples, mangoes, chicos and other assorted local fruits. My nieces wandered off and we found one sampling espasol - the vendors are free with the samples with the expectation you would buy whatever you sampled. Fortunately my niece was aware of the cultural expectation and did although she couldn't really bargain either. My other niece tried when she purchased some peanut brittle but yup, speaking English with an American accent was a dead giveaway, better than stamping "tourist" on your forehead and those vendors are no fools.
Once we had purchased fresh fruit, we made another stop at Nuvali in Santa Rosa, Laguna. I'm not quite sure what Nuvali is meant to be but all I know is we got out to look at the koi in the small lake there. And when I say koi, I mean lots of koi. Outside of Hawaii, I don't think I've seen so many and in such concentration. You could buy fish food for them and they clustered (or traffic-jammed) at the spots where the tourists were feeding them. They were literally on top of each other, trying to get to the food.
After we left Tagaytay, we made a final stop in Binan, Laguna, which is where my mom grew up and where she still had some relatives. We only stayed briefly to drop off some things we had brought from the US for them and to pick up some "puto Binan", a local steamed cake the town is known for. When I was a kid and we lived in the Philippines or whenever we went back, we would visit my mom's family and always get puto Binan. I always loved it and remember it being large, flat sheets of steamed cake, in nondescript flimsy cardboard boxes lined with banana leaves and sprinkled with coconut on top. This time around, they were much more professionally packaged but I have to say, it wasn't as good as I remembered. The fluffy texture was still there but the taste wasn't. They also had topped it with cheese instead of coconut and I don't like cheese on my baked goods. Wah. Think I'll try making puto again myself.