Since winning the crown at last year's Miss Universe pageant, Catriona Gray has been jet setting around the world. After her coronation in Thailand in December, her Miss Universe duties have taken her around the globe, from Thailand to the Philippines to the US to Indonesia and back to the Philippines for a quick visit.
Despite seriously racking up miles, Catriona says she has yet to master the art of packing light. "Because when I'm attending events as Miss Universe, I can't wear the same thing twice," she says with a laugh. "That always has to be taken into consideration, but you also want to keep room in your luggage for souvenirs. I haven't found the sweet spot yet."
Catriona may still be figuring out how to deal with physical baggage, but if there's one thing she's quite adept in, it's to travel with a light heart. "I don't really experience homesickness," she says with a lingering laugh that seems to convey that she can't quite believe it either. It might come as a surprise considering the tight-knit family culture in the Philippines, but not so much when you look at her past few years.
Born in Queensland, Australia, she moved to the Philippines to live on her own at 18. "In that aspect, it's not so much of an adjustment being away from my family because I'm medyo sanay na," says Catriona, who turned 25 this year.
Here's Catriona at 18 years old, when she became part of Cosmopolitan Philippines' "8 Sexiest Models" in 2012:
Living in Manila up until her big win, she says, "I miss my friends, but the thing is, I ended the lease [for my rental when I won], and now all my stuff is in storage. My life is essentially packed up. I don't have homesickness in a sense because I don't really have a home [of my own]. Even my usual life before—going to cafes, walking around, getting groceries—I can't really do that here anymore. Mostly, I miss my friends and the people. For me, home is where the heart is."
And these days, home is always just a message or a call away, no matter where in the world the crown takes her.
As of this writing, Catriona is back in Manila for a grand homecoming, but it won't be long before she's off to New York once more. She's excited to return to a warmer season than the past winter, when she experienced subzero temperatures up to -30 degrees. "Parang assault to the senses," says Catriona, who grew up in moderate tropical climates in the Philippines and Australia. "I looked like a siopao with all my layers!"
When she wasn't attending events, she was recovering from jetlag and hiding from the cold in the Miss Universe apartment in Midtown Manhattan. "I have a nice hot soak in the bath, listen to music, and chat with my friends back home. Because of the jetlag, I'm already sleepy by 5 p.m.! So I'm always up super duper early."
"In the mornings, if I can, I like to take a walk and get some brunch or coffee. I really like sitting in a café with a nice ambience, with a cup of coffee and a book. I've been to Le Pain Quotidien twice and I really enjoyed it. I know it's a chain café, but they have really good avocado toast and smoothies."
"Ano pa… I haven't gone out that much in New York. I'm not a party girl. I'm really simple—I don't do anything extra. I'm just a simple lola at heart, ganern!" she says with a laugh. "But also because I'm constantly on my toes and expressive at work, I just like to unwind and enjoy quiet time at home."
Catriona is looking forward to exploring the city more in a warmer season when she gets back. Her apartment is located right in the middle of all the action, near tourist spots that she recommends for first-timers in NYC, such as Central Park, Broadway, Times Square, and the Rockefeller Center.
"I haven't done it, but I think what would be a cool thing to do is an NYC movie travel bucket list, you know? There are so many great movies set in New York, like Serendipity. It would be cool to check out the places featured in your favorite movies."
Another quintessential New York activity that she can't recommend enough is catching Broadway shows. For her 25th birthday in January, the singer celebrated by watching the musical Dear Evan Hansen. "I love music, and Broadway is amazing. Another thing I want to do when I get back is to watch live music and go to jazz bars," says the San Mig Light endorser.
As for the food? Catriona recommends New York's famous pizza and bagels. But really, "every single cuisine you could ever want is in New York, even Filipino food." For her Pinoy food cravings, she heads to Jeepney, a crowd favorite by the same team behind Filipino restaurant Maharlika in NYC.
"Before Miss Universe, I’ve been to New York twice for quick trips. Still, it's so vast and there's so much to do that I feel like I haven't even scratched the surface," she says.
This year, the crown will have Catriona flying around the world, and she couldn't be more excited to explore new places and learn about new cultures. "There's something about traveling that makes you grow as a person. It's allowed me to better understand people and be in awe of how different yet alike we are."
When she went to Indonesia recently, she was struck by the similarities between Indonesians and Filipinos. "We look very similar. We have so many words in common, which is really cool. It makes me feel like we're even more interconnected. Indonesians are huge pageant fans, so we also have that in common."
Catriona likes to collect meaningful keepsakes from her trips like traditional dresses. In Japan, she got herself a kimono, and in Thailand, a traditional Thai dress with all the accessories. "That part of culture shown through fashion is just so beautiful. I've gained such a love for it. It's a part of culture that's accessible and relatable to our age group at the moment especially with social media. I think fashion is a nice avenue to share culture and history."
For shopping must-visits, Catriona recommends the Chatuchak Market and Train Markets in Bangkok. For outdoor activities and natural wonders, she raves about Chiang Mai, a northern city in Thailand, and the Great Barrier Reef, which is near her hometown in Queensland, Australia.
"In Chiang Mai, the temples are beautiful. We fed the elephants at the sanctuaries and made special soap from a tree bark. In that region, the food is heartier with more spices. It was an overall amazing experience. As for the Great Barrier Reef, you can see beautiful corals and fish species there. I've only snorkeled, but I do want to get a diving license to see it from that point of view."
This girl loves to eat, and she would choose simple, everyday food over fancy restaurant meals when she travels. "I want to try what locals eat on a daily basis because that's a different experience, 'di ba? And I love street food! In Thailand, I love getting pad Thai, mango sticky rice, green mangoes with chili shrimp salt, and Thai iced tea on the streets. Sarap!"
In Australia, she says you can't miss the coffee ("so good and with so many non-dairy options!"), Vegemite (the love-it-or-hate-it yeast extract spread), Lamingtons (sponge cake covered in chocolate and desiccated coconut), and Tim Tams ("I don't know what it is, but iba siya in Australia!").
Catriona says there's still so much left on her bucket list like San Francisco and Arizona in the US, Toronto and Banff in Canada, South America, and Europe. "I would love to do a European road trip and explore the rustic places in the countryside."
Though she's been all over the world, there's nothing quite like home for Catriona. "When people ask for places to visit in the Philippines, I always recommend beaches like Coron and El Nido in Palawan and Panglao in Bohol. Up north, I love going to Sagada and Batad. One day, I want to climb Mt. Pulag."
She's not one to hoard food pasalubong when she's abroad, but she does stock up on dried mangoes when she's home. "I keep testifying that we have the sweetest mangoes. Everyone's agreed with me so far! I actually brought dried mangoes for all the contestants in Miss Universe. Ang bigat, but it's worth it!"
A few days after her grand homecoming, the Department of Tourism launched a refreshed "It's More Fun In the Philippines" campaign with a focus on sustainable tourism, and Catriona is all for it. "Empowering young businesses and helping people sustain livelihoods that look after the environment will help future generations have something to inherit."
She says, "I just feel like we still have so much potential when it comes to tourism because there are so many places that even locals don't know about. If we could push for sustainability, we can showcase more of the Philippines for years to come. I hope that as a public figure now, I could also showcase spots in the Philippines to encourage people to visit and explore."
At the moment, Catriona's days are bursting at the seams—in fact, when we met her, she had five back-to-back photo shoots with interviews in 10 hours with a quick break for lunch. Her trips around the world for Miss Universe are incredibly packed and organized, and she's living for it since it's her way of creating a lasting, meaningful impact across the globe.
However, it's a different story when she travels for fun with friends. "It's great to have a plan, but it should only be a basic guide. You have to allow for it to be flexible. Some of the best experiences happen when you go with the flow. I love traveling with friends who are game, and then there are friends that are like, I can't join the Amazing Race with you, I would kill you!" she says with a laugh.
Catriona says you should look up places online, but make it a point to ask locals about hidden gems. She advises setting a budget and prioritizing what you want to invest in. "If I feel like it's worth it, I'll invest in a good private tour. Going with a huge group of people can sometimes detract from the experience. But when you have that private moment with a personal tour guide who can really explain things and answer your questions, I feel like it makes for such a different experience."
To make your vacation as enjoyable as possible, Catriona advises doing your research and taking the necessary precautions. "Check the adaptors and voltage you need for your gadgets. Get a local SIM card and always have a power bank with you. Tell your companions or your hotel where you're going and around what time you'll be back. Be mindful of your surroundings. And yes, always leave room in your luggage for shopping!"
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PRODUCED BY: Jacinda A. Lopez
CO-PRODUCED BY: Lily Tabanera
PHOTOGRAPHY: Dookie Ducay
SHOOT COORDINATOR: Lou Ferrer
SOCIAL MEDIA: Andie Estella
SITTINGS EDITOR: Jillian Gatcheco
HAIR: Brent Sales
MAKEUP: Memay Francisco for NARS Cosmetics
STYLING: Cath Sobrevega
Shot on location at Novotel Manila Araneta Center. Special thanks to Nonito Cuizon.