Divine delights of Davao
DAVAO may not feature in the Guinness Book of Records, but there is much that is rare or unusual about the city.
It is overshadowed by the Philippines' highest mountain, while the rarest eagle in the world procreates nearby.
As if that were not enough, the world's biggest bunch of bananas was harvested here (the cutter strained his back and is still in hospital), and - one of its more unusual claims to fame - a downtown branch of Dunkin Donuts holds the world record for selling the most products in a single day.
The list of Davao's achievements seems limitless. Small wonder, then, that the taxi driver on the way to the airport avers proudly that Davao is the greatest city in the world: ''It's true, sir.'' This may not be instantly apparent to the first-time visitor, who may find hot, dusty Davao not so much a one-horse town as one with 1,000 too many jeepneys.
The high, grey, forbidding facade that looks like a prison wall from the outside turns out to be the perimeter of one of the best hotels going - a slightly spurious description.
The man on the door at McDonald's (yes, ''civilisation'' is spreading its tentacles) is armed, and three gun-toting bodyguards lounge outside the Tower of Pizza while their employer tucks into mozzarella and extra mushrooms upstairs.
Until a few short years ago, the Mindanao People's Army held sway over large areas of the city, including one dubbed ''Little Nicaragua'' for its violent lifestyle, which the authorities entered at their peril.
The MPA has now been forced to take refuge in the hills, but as a memento three Air Force Pocaras regularly wheel and dive over the outskirts of the city on their way to expel the rebels from remote corners.
It would be wrong to imply that Davao, sprawled on the southern coast of the island of Mindanao, is dangerous. The circular sticker depicting a revolver deleted by a red stripe on the nightclub door is more to advertise the fact that this swish joint is patronised by the sort of people who might need to carry guns for their protection, rather than actually trying to deter them from entering.
Inside - live on stage! - Grace Jones gives way to Madonna, who is closely followed by Tina Turner and Donna Summer. The renditions by Tetchy (''our chanteuse '') are perfect copies of the real things, only marred by a complete lack of originality.
This is Davao at night, best started with sushi at the truly authentic Tsuru restaurant, in whose case the mimicry is highly commendable. Then, if the strip show at Mick Dundee's holds no thrills, and there are few for whom it does, then it's time for bed.
Away from the slap-happy, lackadaisical town centre, Davao shows itself in its best colours.
Pearl Farm is the sort of location brochure writers lust over, lavishing it with stars, drawing derisory comparisons with Utopia and tripping over themselves to describe the glistening turquoise waters lapping golden, sun-kissed beaches beneath gently waving palms.
Presided over by a walkie-talkie toting Miss Universe of some antiquity, Pearl Farm goes a long way towards matching the hyperbole.
The swimming pool is edged by a coral dam and looks straight out over the sea, while a little way back a waterfall tumbles directly out of the jungle. The dining room is lofty, enlivened with palms and the calls of caged birds, and devoid of doors and windows so meals are taken in an al fresco atmosphere.
Nothing is allowed to jar the feeling that the visitor might be playing Robinson Crusoe in a luxury theme park. At the end of a pier the two-storey Parola bar sits like a small signal tower casting its message over the ocean.
The bedrooms are built out above the water - Filipino fishing-village style. Each bamboo hut has its own balcony, bathroom and air-con.
Pearl Farm is built on Samal Island, 45 minutes across the Gulf of Davao from the city. Much of the island is surrounded by a coral reef, whose gardens, cliffs and caves are open to viewing by snorkel, but better explored with proper scuba gear. TWO wrecked Japanese ships a little further offshore provide a more haunting option, and there are dozens of other dive sites up and down the gulf.
Talicud Island, one stop to the south, features nothing more than a beach with a few shaded picnic tables. So pristine is the spot, and so tempting its combination of sun, sea and sand, that it has already been scheduled for development into another resort.
However, until the plans are drawn up and the destructive creators move in, the joys of Talicud are to be had by everyone for no more than the asking and the price of a boat ride.
Way down the scale of things - smaller, cheaper, friendlier and more homely - is the hopefully named Paradise Beach Resort. It is also on Samal Island, but in sight of Davao's foremost cement factory if you look the wrong way.
Boatloads of happy, chirruping Davaoenos pour across the straits to cluster under the Talisay trees, pose by the outsized beer bottle, poke at the resentful exhibits in the ''zoo'' and gambol on the beach.
Little cottages are set among the jungle fringes for those who want to make a night of it, but for the picnickers who can afford the 10-peso (HK$3) entrance fee and nothing more, it is enough to spend a day in their own packaged Paradise.
Thankfully, Paradise is a paradise with some limitations; littering is forbidden, loud music - the ubiquitous Filipino panacea - frowned upon, and a number of officious notices specify the times when the basketball and volleyball courts may be used.
Best of all, the waiters appear effortlessly angelic, apologising concernedly that the coffee is only instant, guarding stray bags whose owners have been diverted at the beach, and picking up fallen leaves with an air of mild distaste that anything should disturb the idyll.
In a part of the world that takes pride in its natural beauty, it comes as no real surprise that enormous efforts should have been directed into an ornithological conservation project.
The Philippine Eagle (Pithecophaga jeffreyi) is not an especially attractive bird, but it is endangered, which seems as good a reason as any to make the trek to its breeding centre in Calinan.
The conception, gestation and birth of the first eaglet, named Pag-asa (Hope), was not achieved without problems, his prospective parents being disinclined to make any sort of contribution to the project themselves.
After much fruitless waiting and watching, one of the staff imitated the mating dance peculiar to the Philippine Eagle. This proved successful, and now both the project and Pag-asa are thriving.
All the attributes of the Philippines as a whole are to be had in Davao, yet the hordes have yet to descend upon it.
It is strangely apposite that at a recreational park on the city's outskirts, opposite a bizarre 15-metre-high statue of a peasant straddling a caribou (''a monument to Filipino workers'') is the giant slogan, picked out on the grass: ''Land of Promise.'' How to get there Philippine Airlines has flights to Davao via Manila. Cost is $3,300 for economy class return flight.