Imagining a walk to remember along Manila Bay
Photos by Noel Pabalate
There is no road more beautiful than Roxas Boulevard.
And that’s because of all the roads in Metro Manila’s 16 cities, only Roxas Boulevard has a front and center view of the world-famous Manila sunset. Of all the roads in the capital, it is also the only one that runs along Manila Bay. Coastal Road in Parañaque does, too, but it’s a highway, so that the most you can do on it is to watch the bay and its mangroves and seabirds from a fast-moving vehicle.
THE WATERFRONT PROMENADE
But Roxas Boulevard, more than a road, is a waterfront promenade, designed as such, with its stretch of coconut trees swaying in the wind. Just roughly three kilometers longer than White Beach in Boracay, all 7.6 kilometers of it is lined with so much history and, if only we took care of it, Roxas Boulevard—or some portions of it—might have been as beautiful as some of the world’s great promenades, such as the 1.91-kilometer Champs-Elysées in Paris, the 10-kilometer Fifth Avenue in New York, or the 2.2-kilometer Orchard Avenue in Singapore, none of which has Manila Bay as a jewel in its crown.
At a leisurely pace of 12.5 minutes per kilometer, you can walk from one end of Roxas Boulevard to the other in roughly one hour and 27 minutes, that is if none of its many attractions delay you.
The community quarantine aside and, although some of these places, if not closed until further notice, only open just before mid-day, let’s just say you start after an early lunch at the Manila Hotel—Café Ilang Ilang is now open—and end with dinner at the Solaire steakhouse Finestra or at China Blue by Chef Jereme Leung, both of which have breathtaking views of the bay.
Just by walking past them, you may enjoy a glimpse of some of the Philippines’ most important edifices, from the revival-style US Embassy to Bangko Central ng Pilipinas (Central Bank, BSP) and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), both of which have museums in them that deserve a look, the Money Museum at the BSP and the Museo ng Kalinangang Pilipino at the CCP. There is also the Japanese Embassy, close to the former head office of the Department of Foreign Affairs, at the far end on a portion of the boulevard that doesn’t run along the shores of Manila Bay anymore.
IN SEARCH OF LOST GLORIES
But yes, Roxas Boulevard is a jewel that might have lost its luster as a great city promenade, if only because it has lost many of its sidewalks; if only because, despite its aesthetic and historic significance and its great potential as a tourist magnet and cultural hub, it has become the route of rusty, rickety, disorderly cargo trucks on their way to and from the Port Area; and if only because Manila as a city has become only a shadow of the vision out of which it was planned back when Roxas Boulevard, based on the proposed design of American architect Daniel Burnham in the early-1900s, was called Dewey Boulevard, renamed from the original Cavite Boulevard. Things, of course, are changing now, thanks to city’s current mayor, Isko Moreno Domagoso, whose vision is to dust off Manila and give it the polish of a modern city.
The ongoing cleanup of Manila Bay, an initiative of the Duterte administration, is an attempt to restore not only the lost glory of the bay but also that of Roxas Boulevard. It is also an invitation to the many attractions that continue to thrive on its path despite decades of neglect on the part of both central and local government, the businesses along the road, and the people who live there or pass through it every day.
Roxas Boulevard is lined with museums, from Museo Pambata in Ermita to the Metropolitan Museum next to the BSP and the Hiraya Gallery on U.N. Avenue.
There is also the Philippines’ most important park, Rizal Park at Luneta, where the National Hero Jose Rizal was executed in 1898. At the park, once a picnic ground for the old families of Manila, is home to many things that tell so much about Philippine history and culture, such as Kilometer Zero right between the Rizal Monument, from which the statue of Jose Rizal looks out dreamily on the horizon, and the Memorial Clock. Kilometer Zero is a reference point from which all road distances are measured on the island of Luzon and the rest of the country.
Also within the park complex are the Japanese Garden, the Chinese Garden, and the 40-foot Lapu Lapu statue at Agrifina Circle, a gift of the people of South Korea in honor of the first Filipino to ever fight foreign invasion. And then there is the Quirino Grandstand, at which the annual Independence Day celebration is held, along with many presidential inaugurations, starting with that of former President Elpidio Quirino in 1949.
Other places of interest in the area of Luneta are the Rizal Park Hotel, the former Manila Army and Navy Club, which was founded all the way back in 1898, and Manila Ocean Park, which boasts of its 55-meter Oceanarium and also its aquarium-inspired H20 Hotel. The National Museum of the Philippines, as well as the National Museum of Natural History, and the National Library, is within walking distance from the Quirino Grandstand. From Luneta, you can also walk to the Walled City of Intramuros.
Across the US Embassy, there used to be a pocket park called Nuestra Señora de Guia, which could match the quaint charm of the many park squares on the 2.5-kilometer Andrássy Avenue, a Unesco World Heritage Site in Budapest. Like its Hungarian counterpart, it was leafy and breezy, its park benches a daydreamer's dream. Sadly, a couple of years ago, enclosed in chicken fencing, it was converted into a basketball court.
JEWEL ON THE BAY
Of course, there’s the Baywalk, from which the sunset is best viewed. A two-kilometer stretch from the US Embassy to the CCP Complex, this is the spot where the phrase “Sunset by the Bay” is best applied. In the proximity lies a cluster of bars and restaurants, such as the iconic 91-year-old Aristocrat on the south side of Rajah Sulayman Plaza in front of the Our Lady of Remedies Parish, more popularly known as Malate Catholic Church.
Further down Roxas Boulevard toward the CCP, just across the BSP and a stone’s throw away from the CCP, is the Manila Yacht Club, Asia’s oldest.
Past the yacht club, you can go straight along the boulevard to EDSA, even all the way to Airport Road, where Roxas Boulevard gives way to Coastal Road or the Manila-Cavite Expressway. This stretch is also lined by hotels, big and small and of any number of stars, such as the Midas Hotel and Casino and the Heritage Hotel Manila. Or you can turn right at any point beyond the yacht club, either at Bukaneg Street or Vicente Sotto Street into the CCP Complex, or at Gil Puyat Avenue toward the World Trade Center, or at EDSA toward the SM Mall of Asia. This part is Las Vegas on the rise. Called the Entertainment City, it is home to hotel complexes, replete with world-class entertainment facilities like The Theater at Solaire, Dream Play at City of Dreams, the upscale mall S Maison at Conrad, and the $30-million fountain show at Okada Manila.
So much to do in Manila and all of these only by the bay. The dream is to make Roxas Boulevard pedestrian-friendly, designed as it was as a promenade, and maybe all other streets in Metro Manila can dream to be walkable, too.
Author’s Note: This is an updated version of an article that first appeared in Sunday Bulletin in May 2019.