Excursions Living in Paradise

Grand Canal Mall, Bonifacio, Manila

Near the top of every traveler’s Bucket List is a trip to Venice, Italy’s majestic and unique city where water canals make up every one of the streets. In fact, Venice is a series of about 100 small islands on a lagoon in the Adriatic Sea, with boats on waterways the only method of transportation (aside from sidewalks and bridges, of course) between them. So, if you want to see Venice and take in its Renaissance and Gothic Palaces, the famed Central Square, and historic St. Mark’s Basilica – and much more – you only have to book a plane ticket then reserve a hotel and pay for your food and everything else. In all, that should “only” run you $5,000 or so for a week – for one person.

Grand Canal Mall, Bonifacio, Manila

But there is another way to take in the splendor of Venice’s canals, snap a family photo on a bridge over Venice’s waterways, and even take a gondola ride with a boatman who dresses in traditional Italian garb and even sings: visit the Grand Canal Mall in the Philippines.

Mall? The Philippines? Have you finally lost it, Norm?

Well, yes, I have – about the exact time I agreed to start working for AllWorld, to be honest!

But that doesn’t mean what I said isn’t accurate – you can at least get a sample of Venice with a great likeness built into a mall in the Philippines.

And I have to admit that it’s super cheesy…but…pretty awesome!

It’s actually the signature attraction to the appropriately-named Venice Grand Canal Mall located in the McKinley Hill area of Taguig, an upscale neighborhood of call centers and international business spaces in Manila.

I’m definitely not a “mall person,” but I just moved to the neighborhood, so my apartment at Morgan Suites is only two blocks away. Inevitably, a lot of the shops, services, and restaurants I frequent are at this mall, so I’m walking through once or twice a day.

The outside of the mall is notable in its own right, as it’s designed in a traditional historical Italian style (I was going to say something like “Neo-Classical,” but that would be BS because we both know I have NO idea about ancient architectural styles!). The entrance ways outside look like an ornate old church or palace you might see in a postcard, but also have dazzling modern lighting and several big fountains. But once you walk inside the mall (through tight security which will check into every bag and give you a quick pat down), you see the real attraction.

The whole center of the mall is an outdoor plaza made to look EXACTLY like the canals of Venice, Italy! As I mentioned, I think this is cheesy as hell, BUT they did a really amazing job with it, and for the average middle-class Filipino who will NEVER get a chance to visit the real thing in Italy, it’s a fun and different attraction. It’s also one of the most hashtagged and “selfied” spots in Manila, for obvious reasons.

But this is no simple photo op, as the canal dominates the whole center of the mall running an entire city block or more, with pristine blue-green waters that meander in a slight crescent. Two or three bridges span the waterways, which are made to look like traditional bridges you’d see in Venice, as well as shaded outdoor plazas to walk or just hang out on either side. They have plenty of outdoor restaurants and cafes with umbrellas so you can sit there are take it all in, as watching the jubilant crowd is part of the fun. One of the best features is an “island” in this canal, which is a small bridge that takes you to a perfectly circular modern building suspended over the water, where you can sit and drink a beer at night. Since the mall is open from around 11 am to 10 or 11 pm, the whole thing is bustling at night, with plenty of light displays and music making it a festive atmosphere.

I almost forgot to mention the gondolas! Yes, there are a handful of full-sized gondolas that roam the canal, constructed as exact replicas of what you’d find in Italy. Even the drivers are dressed perfectly to the part, pushing their way through the water with long oars and sometimes singing as they go.

I’m usually extremely cynical when it comes to commercialization and gimmicks like this, but, I must say, it’s actually pretty damn impressive. Of course, staying right there and seeing the mall every day, the novelty fades. But the Grand Canal Mall does offer some great practical options for me.

So far, my favorites are:

Robinson Select grocery store
The best option for buying food including fresh veggies – which are really hard to find – and other high quality and even western items. It certainly isn’t cheap, but just the presence of such a grocery store in walking distance is a godsend.

KarudaMcKinley Hill Yoga
Disclaimer: I’ve never actually been to a yoga class there, but I’ve made friends with one of the teachers and follow them every day online, and looks like a fantastic place for all skill levels and experience with yoga.

Big Boss Barber Shop
A really cool gentlemen’s barber shop but with a more modern and open studio setting. It’s not cheap by Philippines standards (I’m like a broken record with that in Manila!) – about $7 just for a cut – but they do a wonderful job and take their time and really treat you like a superstar. FYI I asked if I get a discount for my bald spot but was DENIED!

Gold’s Gym
Good gyms are hard to find here, and there tend to be only two kinds of gyms: the really simple, grimy, and pretty dirty local gyms (they’re cheap and full of amazing athletes but not very comfortable for westerners), and the higher-end chain gyms like Anytime Fitness and Gold’s here in Manila. Those tend to be a lot closer to the nice, airy, spacious, and clean gyms we’re used to back home – at least on face value. But they also can be really expensive – especially if you just drop in for a day or two. Either way, I thought Gold’s was my best option because it’s right at the Venice Grand Canal Mall and has a great layout. It’s on the third floor, so you’re looking out floor to ceiling windows on one whole wall at the canal and mall-goers walking around and having gun below.

Moving into my little studio apartment two blocks away at Morgan Suites, I inevitably need A LOT of stuff to get settled in, including a fan, storage shelves, curtains, kitchen and bathroom stuff, and much more. There really aren’t Home Depots or that big U.S.-style hardware and home stores here in Manila that I’ve seen, so people rely on the little local hardware stores. DIY is like the equivalent to an ACE Hardware, and it’s right in the mall. Crazy expensive for a lot of things (like $40 for a shower rod!) because most of the stuff here is imported, but it’s better than nothing and super convenient.

Dental Hub
I try to take good care of my choppers, and that means at least two visits to the dentist every year. I usually just found random dentists as I’ve traveled, which means some good ones (like in Angeles City) or some awful ones (like in Thailand). But, when I had a bad toothache and needed some real help, I was happy to see that there was a Dental Hub office right there in the mall – across from Gold’s Gym, actually! I found them to be super clean, modern with the latest tech, very professional and caring. So far, so good, and I’ll keep coming back for convenience and for that great service.

By the way, there are also several medical clinics located in the mall that look just as modern and nice, and, although I’ve been fortunate not to have to need one yet, it’s good to know it’s there!

This place is so cool – it’s a whole store dedicated to Japanese products for the home, from dishes and kitchenware to lighting, bedding, and tons of nick nacks and gadgets. Since they are Japanese (as opposed to Chinese), the stuff is good quality and works well, and priced surprisingly well. But it’s just fun to walk around and see their stuff that’s way different from items you’d find in the U.S.

Coffee lineup
As a workaholic blogger and writer, I log A LOT of time sitting there with my laptop, hunting and pecking my way to a paycheck. I do work at home for a few hours every day but I definitely need two things:

A change of scenery with actual human beings around me, and COFFEE!

The fun part of the Venice Grand Canal Mall is that there are plenty of stores that are accessible from the street (outside the mall) or inside. In fact, on one whole side of the mall sit a lineup of coffee shops – Caffeine Row as I call it. There are literally five or six coffee places and cafes in a row, from Denny’s to UCC to Starbucks, Tim Hortons (my new favorite) and Coffee Bean. If I’m at risk for being over caffeinated and bopping my head to the music in my headphones to dramatically, I can just pick up and take my act to the next café!

There are also plenty of other events, concerts, and happenings at the mall – so visit Venice if you’re in the area!

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Norm Schriever is a blogger, Amazon best-sellling author, cultural mad scientist, and enemy of the comfort zone. His work appears in the Huffington Post, Business.com, Good Morning America, The Anderson Cooper Show on CNN, NBC, MSN, Yahoo, Hotels.com, and media all around the world.
Norm grew up in Connecticut and graduated from the University of Connecticut, where he was never accused of overstudying. After expatriating to Costa Rica in 2011, he started traveling the world and documenting what he saw. He now lives in Southeast Asia, writing his heart out and working with local charities.

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