Of all places to plan a trip, we did it in a funeral chapel.
It was toward the end of March in 2012. Some friends and I were at the wake for a friend and colleague’s father, and we got to asking each other’s plans for Easter. Holy Week in the Philippines is one of the longest holidays ever.
I work for a daily newspaper where public holidays don’t apply to reporters and editors (except for major ones like Christmas — and that’s only because I work in the lifestyle section and we print in advance. Editors at the news desk don’t get the day off even on Christmas Day or New Year).
But Easter Week is a different story. Good Friday and Black Saturday are the only two days in the year when there are no major newspapers printed. From Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday, Manila is traffic-free and people drive around aimlessly just because they can.
It is also the only time when 95 percent of restaurants and bars are closed on a Thursday and Friday. Why? Because Jesus is dead.
So these friends and I, we decided to go to Bohol (the Tagalog word buhol means “knot”), an hour’s flight from Manila, and famous for its Spanish churches and the Chocolate Hills. My friends were friends with the Schoof family, who owns the Peacock Garden Resort, and they could book us for the long weekend.
Unlike the party island that is Boracay, Bohol is quieter and is weird in its natural beauty— and by that I mean the Chocolate Hills and the tarsiers — but more on these later.
We fly into Tagbilaran airport and I meet the Schoofs at their resort — Hans Schoof, a German fella married to Lani, and their son Chris who later married the lovely Amanda.
Their resort sits on top of a hill with gorgeous views of the sea. It is a veritable secret garden that has peacocks (hence the name) and villas that face infinity pools.
The hotel’s main lobby features — in all mind-blowing improbability — our national hero Dr. Jose Rizal’s furniture when he lived in Heidelberg, Germany, where he wrote parts of his novels that led to the Philippine revolution against its colonial master Spain in the 1800s.
Why are these pieces of furniture here? Because Hans Schoof is a fan of this country’s greatest hero, Dr. Jose Rizal. Because who will not fall in love with Rizal? The man was a doctor, a linguist, a revolutionary, a writer who wrote two novels that laid bare the excesses and ridiculousness of the Spanish colonizers.
And he wrote the most moving poem, Mi Ultimo Adios, as his goodbye to his county and hid it in a cocinilla, a small stove, on the eve of his execution (he wrote it in Spanish, as he did his novels).
His novels, thinly veiled roman a clef, were the 1800s’ equivalent to “F*ck you, Spain!”
Bohol and Rizal — you don’t think of this unlikely pairing unless you meet Hans Schoof and are staying at Peacock Garden Resort. And even as you stand in the lobby with the desk where Rizal wrote his poem “To the Flowers of Heidelberg,” it feels surreal.
But decades ago, the young Hans came to the Philippines and fell in love, and after running a German restaurant in Manila, he and his wife decided to build a resort in her home province, standing on a hill and looking out at Bohol Sea.
* * *
Nothing quite prepares you for seeing the Chocolate Hills for the first time.
You climb one hill and see them from an elevated deck — they are beautiful and weird all at once. They are perfectly formed natural wonders named after Hershey’s Kisses because that’s exactly how they look — brown in the summer and green in the rainy season.
They are a freak of nature, all 1,700 geological formations that look like someone dropped chocolate kisses on 50 square kilometers of the island — five million years ago.
We visited the tarsiers at the conservation center, with their big protruding eyes and the attitude of sloths (they sleep all day). They are the smallest primates in the world and have been in existence for 45 million years. Today, you can only find them on some islands in Southeast Asia.
My mind can’t even wrap around how long ago 45 million years is. You might as well tell me they are a gazillion years old and my lack of understanding for this length of time would be the same.
* * *
Bohol is that place where attractions range from churches that date back to the Spanish colonial period (which would later collapse in a massive earthquake in October 2013) to a gorgeous short beach on Panglao island, a man-made mahogany forest stretching for two kilometers through Loboc and Bilar towns, which was planted by the Boy Scouts decades ago, dolphin watching on Pamilacan island, scuba diving, bee and butterfly farms, reticulated pythons, and the Liter Man, a guy who is supposed to be the size of a liter bottle of Coke (we didn’t see him or wanted to).
We spent an afternoon drinking mojitos and whiskey on Panglao island, watching swimmers, snorkelers, and dive groups boarding boats.
In the evening, Rhoda and I went for a chocolate massage at our resort, which was preceded by a wine bath. I told the girl at the spa, “Don’t you dare pour all that wine in the bathtub.”
Needless to say, I was tipsy and giggly even before dinner started.
The resort’s restaurant is called the Old Heidelberg and in the original wing of the hotel, the corridors display antique hand-drawn and handwritten menus from Europe.
You can easily imagine yourself being transported to those days when the men wore hats and the ladies wore beautiful gowns just to have dinner out. Hans, a true-blue collector (including Bentleys), has about 300 cookbooks from the 1700s to 1920.
Chris and Amanda Schoof did our itinerary and they hired tour guides from the local tourism office, who were fantastic!
One afternoon, we drove a convoy of dune buggies through the forests and mountains of Bohol and our guide was a forestry major who was so passionate about every single plant and tree we saw.
By sunset, we were back at the Schoofs’ nearby private estate on a hill where we went skeet shooting. I shot a clay pigeon (or clay plate or whatever you call it), the recoil from the rifle taking me by surprise.
What was most memorable for all of us was cruising through Loboc River with other tourists. The modest wooden boat held about 20 to 30 people and served modest provincial merienda.
The boat went winding slowly through the brackish waters, flanked by forested riverbanks. It made a stop at a balsa (floating wooden platform). We got on it, and children came out singing — the young girls wore pink skirts and the boys pink pajamas.
It put a smile on everybody’s faces.
If you take the river cruise or go kayaking at night, Loboc River is lit by thousands of fireflies. Unlike Manila, there is no smog here, there is no noise except for crickets, the skies are clear and the stars shine so bright.
It was a relaxing break that all of us needed from work, from our tangled lives. This was my last trip with three good friends who left the country to work as expats the following year. Rhoda headed a major department store in Jakarta (and recruited Ryan in sales later) and she is now an expat in Hong Kong, and Danelle went to Dubai as communications manager for a hotel. And then last year tito Donnie passed away — he with the raspy voice and society column was always kind to me even when I was just starting out as a reporter.
The hospitality of the Schoofs, the simple living in the towns that we visited, farm huts against the backdrop of the magnificent hills, the five-star resorts, the churches for visita iglesia on days that we were supposed to be for reflection but we just couldn’t shut up or stop giggling, and the views as we drank vodka and watched the sun set on the Bohol Sea. And then there was a lot of laughter with friends.
In that sense, Easter became the celebration that it was supposed to be.