Sunbathing at night in Manila
THIS is something we've never seen before. People sunbathing in the dark. We're sitting outside by the pool in the steamy night air at the Sofitel Philippine Plaza in the heart of Manila, enjoying a sumptuous dinner from the barbecue grill.
It's almost midnight but chefs are still chargrilling prawns, while all around the resort grounds, people in swimsuits are lying on sun lounges with their faces up to the night sky.
The meandering pool, complete with tropical island, is abuzz with activity. Children shoot down the waterslide, matrons do a gentle breaststroke and young couples float blissfully by.
Nearby on a grassy rise with views over Manila Bay, people are relaxing on big cushions. The entire outside area is alive with people enjoying themselves as though it was the middle of the day.
It's surreal but it's a holiday weekend in Manila. The locals have checked into the hotel for a mini-break and they're not holding back.
With more than 600 rooms, the Sofitel Philippine Plaza is a village within a city and the pool and gardens an oasis within a sweltering metropolis of more than 1.5 million people.
Everything about the Sofitel is big, from the spacious entry foyer – one of the best people-watching places in the city – to the tranquil treatment rooms at Le Spa, to the fabulous 2500 square metres of the Spiral dining room.
Descending the grand spiral staircase to the dining room on our second Sofitel night to find the world waiting to be placed on our plates was overwhelming.
Chefs from the UK, China, Japan and India have been brought to the hotel to work with local chefs at the six cooking theatres of Spiral's renowned nightly buffet.
Where to start is the dilemma as guests stand bewildered in front of so much variety, colour and temptation. One guest became so overcome he began counting the dishes but gave up when he got to 340.
Few people get anywhere near sampling even a quarter of the offerings. Some don't get past the mountain of seafood, preferring to save space for the three chocolate fountains (white, dark and pistachio) and the teppanyaki ice-cream bar.
We, however, are made of strong stuff, and made it through the Spanish meats and paella, passing the pizzas in favour of the risotto, stopped for a break at the foie gras bar, even got to the laksa station before stopping at the Chinese barbecue.
Earlier, over cocktails of pleasing complexity at Le Bar near the foyer (our mojitos came to the table sprayed with rose water), we'd watched beautiful female staff glide up and down the lobby holding flickering candles to herald in the evening.
Before that, we'd snoozed on spa tables during massages, and before that, some had thought of joining the kids at the water slide.
It would be easy never to leave the Sofitel, but if you're up for some history Fort Santiago, a defence fortress and part of the walled city of Intramurous is not far away.
Fort Santiago is the place where national hero Jose Rizal was imprisoned and executed in 1896.
A prominent advocate for reform in the Philippines during the Spanish colonial era, Rizal died a martyr's death by firing squad, and you can follow his final steps from cell to execution place in bronze footsteps fixed in the fort's ground and, for an odd finale, finish a fort tour with a viewing of a section of Jose Rizal's vertebrae complete with embedded bullet.
A more pleasant and recent history can be found at La Cocina de Tita Moning, the ancestral home of the late Dr Alejandro Legarda, now a family museum and fine dining restaurant.
Tour the home with its collection of exquisite glassware, china and artworks and feel the family history come alive.
Dining in the elegant manner of the family's forefathers with formal silver service at the table surrounded by exquisite heirloom pieces will give you a taste of genteel Manila of the past.
Manila is the perfect city stop-over before you fly to the tropical pleasures of one of the Philippines 7107 islands.
Manila is easy to get to now with direct flights by Philippine Airlines twice weekly out of Brisbane.
Manila offers everything for a city fix – markets, culture, history and, of course, shopping. The Mall of Asia is just a few minutes from the Sofitel.
Locals will tell you it's the largest mall in the world. Google searches put it as the second or third, but no matter. It's big.
Maps are required to navigate this place where everything is available in its 42-hectare sprawl including an Imax theatre and large skating rink.
The writer was a guest of Sofitel Philippine Plaza and Philippine Airlines.