Wake Up, Philippines!

A drive around Taal Lake

Posted in Luzon, Tourism, Travel by Erineus on April 16, 2009
March 21, 2009, 2:11pm

The first time we drove around the route that circled Taal Lake, we were still much too young to be issued a driver’s license. We were driven by a relative in a battered Isuzu Gemini of early 1980s vintage. The south bound drive commenced at the South Luzon Expressway, which we exited at the Carmona interchange. We then got on the Aguinaldo Highway in Cavite and reached Tagaytay City to begin the long drive around the lake.

The “Taal Circle” took us through the various towns of Batangas, from Laurel and Taal to Alitagtag and Lipa City.  The itinerary looked simple and easy on paper but our party was unprepared for the road that linked Taal to Lipa.  The said road then was unpaved and was appropriate only for trucks and four-wheel drive vehicles. The trip took almost four hours but somehow, we and the old Gemini emerged from it unscathed.

The second time we circled the lake, it was a trip that was ironically organized by Isuzu Philippines Corporation. This was in 2005, when the car manufacturer launched its luxury SUV, the Alterra. Thus, there was a sense of irony when we embarked on the same route in another Isuzu product. This time, in a four-wheel drive vehicle with a powerful 3.0 liter diesel.  It was obvious that this car could take on any bad road. Yet much to our chagrin, the roads on the same old route were now paved. Actually, they were in impeccable shape. As a result, we circled the lake in half the time, despite the slow-moving cargo trucks that hampered our lust for speed.

The third go-around happened recently, when Isuzu introduced the 2009 edition of the Alterra. So it seems that it always takes an Isuzu to circle the lake, but this time we traveled the opposite direction. We started from Lipa City and sped through Alitagtag, where all the houses on the main road were positioned diagonally.

And then we got a real close look at Mt. Maculot, from the town of Cuenca.  This is the mountain that looks so majestic when seen from the Tagaytay Ridge. From the main road, we could see the summit, known as the Rockies. It seemed just like a small hill from the town of Cuenca, since after all, the town is practically located on the mountain.

We reached Taal, the Vigan of the south, where dozens of 19th century Spanish homes can be found. The place is filled with history. It was also customarily hot in that place but thankfully, the car’s air-conditioning was on full blast.

The drive from Cuenca to Taal is very scenic though it felt surreal as the vehicle’s interiors were well-insulated. The new Alterra has a smoother ride and completely new upholstery that feels richer and more luxurious than that of the 2005 edition. The latter’s interior felt like an afterthought — the new car now feels substantial. It’s also roomier — the first Alterra featured a console that stretched from the dashboard to the backseat. It was a unique feature that could serve as a side table where drinks and snacks could be ensconced. But it did limit the backseat’s capacity. With the console now done away with, the backseat can seat three in comfort.

The Alterra has a limo-like ride, and the ride stayed that way even when the roads turned bad. When we reached the town of Taal, we didn’t take the usual route that would have had us driving up the Tagaytay ridge through the town of Laurel. Instead, the people at Isuzu chose a more a challenging route which had us driving by the coast of the lake most of the time.  It’s a much more exciting route, if you’re in an SUV like the Alterra (especially an Alterra you didn’t pay over a million bucks for). Much of the drive was done on bumpy dirt roads. So dusty is this route, our hearts went out for the people who lived along the road. Imagine the dust they have to put up with whenever a car sped by; their shampoo consumption must be tremendous.

Again, the ride felt like a virtual journey as the car enveloped us from the dust and bumpy road surfaces. To get up to the ridge, we passed through Talisay where the zigzag roads are tighter and steeper than that of Baguio’s Kennon Road. This is where the Alterra’s turbocharger becomes useful. As AUVS and vans struggled with the uphill climb, the Alterra charged ahead and passed the other vehicles effortlessly.

We arrived in style at the Tagaytay Highlands. The car felt right at home in these upscale surroundings. With its black exterior and revised, more restrained grille, the Alterra looks more elegant than ever. Coupled with the horizontal headlights, the vehicle’s front resembles the Cadillac Escalade. While the overall look doesn’t look quite as brutish as its rivals, this decidedly family car-like look serves as a mere disguise and it will have its competitors eating its dust on winding dirt roads.

Only at Tagaytay did we notice the frills that come with the Alterra. It has a DVD player with three LCD screens. And there’s a built-in monitor that guides you when you’re backing up. The Alterra is longer than a Toyota Fortuner so this gadget is very use especially when you’re parking.

We asked the officials of Isuzu why they had to equip this vehicle with a DVD player when the last thing an SUV owner wants to do is watch a movie while driving out in the great outdoors. They explained it was a feature that its main competitors don’t have.  Unlike with other Asian motorists, Filipinos are head-over-heels crazy over SUVS.  It has everything to do with bad roads, floods and image. A great pie of the Alterra’s market is composed of chauffeur-driven executives, who will appreciate the luxuries the car offers. As they said, despite the recession, the market for this type of vehicle remains healthy.  The Alterra, along with its rivals like the Toyota Fortuner and Ford Everest are still selling well.

After the grueling trip, Isuzu treated its media guests to a great massage at the spa of Tagaytay Highlands. As it happened, we hardly needed it. The trip around the lake did look like a rugged off-roading journey, but thanks to car’s comfortable passenger compartment and brawny diesel powerplant, we didn’t feel exhausted at all.



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