It occupies one of the most historic addresses in the country: One Rizal Park, Manila, a stone’s throw away from beloved Luneta and Manila Bay. It’s also one of the very few places from where you can see the water on one side and the beautiful parts of a reckless city on the other.
Writers, poets, politicians, rebels and history-makers have all passed through its doors, and it was no less than the timeless writer Ernest Hemingway who said, “If the story’s any good, it’s like Manila Hotel.” It was 1941 and Hemingway was a journalist en route to China. He and his wife Martha Gellhorn stayed at The Manila Hotel for five days.
One hundred and four years later, Manila Hotel’s stories continue to evoke nostalgia from people of all ages who remember the hotel at its different stages. Today, the hotel is having a rebirth, if you will, to bring back its glorious past as it faces tough competition from new and modern hotels.
On the long list of heads of state, royalty, celebrities, and events that shook Philippine history are Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Prince Charles, Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain, Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko of Japan, Michael Jackson, President Thein Sein of Myanmar, President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea, World Chess champion Anatoly Karpov, Spanish singer and songwriter Julio Iglesias, Korean pop star Rain, former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and President Park Geun-hye of South Korea for APEC last year.
Manila Hotel president Joey Lina — yes, the former senator, governor and DILG secretary is now a full-fledged hotelier (more on this later) — says on the significance of the hotel to the country and people, “It’s a national heritage. This should be the pride of the Filipino people. Our vision is to make Manila Hotel the true heart of the Philippines.”
The hotel is on the way to taking back its position as one of Asia’s top hotels by renovating in stages, including the presidential suite, “the showcase of any hotel” according to Lina, which was finished in time for the APEC Summit in Manila in November 2015.
Lina says the total renovation cost for the whole hotel exceeds P1 billion, and for the presidential suite alone, it’s more than P100 million. Owner Don Emilio Yap died two years ago but Lina says the patriarch saw Ilang-Ilang coffee shop and Mabuhay Palace to their completion, but not the new Fiesta Pavilion and presidential suite.
Manny Samson was the architect in whose hands the presidential suite of the Grand Dame of Manila was entrusted. Architect Samson says, “The board of directors decided that it was about time to reposition the presidential suite and the old Rizal suite. Both suites were very old, non-functional and bordering on neglect. I did not think they were being used that often.”
Samson’s design was to make what was originally an all-wood and dark suite into a “bright, light and airy space, or what we call in Tagalog maaliwalas.” Maaliwalas was also literal because the actual physical space of the presidential suite is 1,200 sqm. Today, it is the biggest suite in Southeast Asia, according to Lina.
It occupies the entire 18th floor of the Tower Building, which was added in 1975 and designed by National Artists Lindy Locsin and Ildefonso Santos. The original building was built by the Americans and opened, ironically, to commemorate American Independence on July 4, 1912.
IT INCLUDES A ‘PANIC ROOM’
Since the presidential suite is the choice of heads of state for occasions such as the APEC Summit, one room that had to be built in was a “panic room.” At a dinner with editors in the presidential suite two weeks ago, Don Emilio Yap’s grandson Emil Yap said that this room was built with bulletproof walls.
Samson adds that the hotel also engaged “the services of security experts — this time from a professional group of former CIA men. Again, our goal was that this could be the residence of visiting presidents and other world dignitaries, and that security is one of the utmost considerations. I think we achieved that.”
Samson walked through the old rooms and all the spaces around them. “We captured some wasted areas that were planters before to increase the floor area. Similarly, nowhere in the suite could you sit down with a glass of champagne and watch the glorious sunset, which is what Manila Bay is famous for.”
“Elegant” and “modern” are indeed two words to describe the suite. You walk in and there’s a large receiving area with a bar and expansive views of Manila Bay on one side and a large conference room on the other.
Through glass doors is an airy lanai with modern woven furniture pieces and a provision for a dipping pool, which will be completed next year (in the same place where it was in the old presidential suite). This is my favorite space in the presidential suite, not in small part because of the black-and-white Machuca tiles or what Samson calls “baldosin” (old-style Spanish tiles).
The lanai looks so open and airy but is actually very secure with glass roof and windows. One side is Manila Bay and the other side, down a long corridor that spans several rooms, is a view of Intramuros and its golf course, as well as Luneta.
You look out through these windows and realize that if Manila had protected its spaces from overdevelopment, all of it could have been very beautiful.
Beyond the lanai is a modern dining room with a capiz chandelier and a gorgeous, all-white kitchen. “Gone are the days when the kitchen is a back-of-the-house space where butlers do their chores,” says Samson. “We would like our guests to feel very special as our great chefs prepare their meals and also put on a show in the kitchen.”
SUNSET IN BED
After the dining room, a corridor leads to two guestrooms that mirror each other in design. Instead of the beds positioned against a wall, they are set in the middle of the room to face Manila Bay. Imagine winding down your day with the sunset or waking up to the sunrise. Both have en-suite bathrooms with separate shower stalls and bathtubs, and sensor-activated toilet seats.
And then there’s the master bedroom. Combining a blue-and-earth-tones palette from the carpet to the furnishings, which include mother-of-pearl accessories, the master bedroom has a floor-to-ceiling glass wall on the side of Manila Bay. On the same side is the bathroom, whose Jacuzzi for two is set beside the windows facing the bay. The master suite also has a private spa with massage beds for two.
So, how much does it cost to stay in the presidential suite for one night? A whopping P600,000! Lina says not only royalty or presidents have booked the room but also private individuals.
FROM POLITICO TO HOTELIER
Manila Hotel president Joey Lina always thought the hotel has the grandest lobby in the country. He enjoyed going there to eat, for meetings, and to sing in fundraising shows with then fellow Cabinet members Bayani Fernando and Angelo Reyes from 2003 to 2008.
Imagine his surprise when he left politics in 2004 and two weeks later he got a call from Don Emilio Yap. In the end, he accepted the job because it was the Manila Hotel. “If it was another hotel, I would probably not have accepted it. Another thing was the assurance of the owner that he would guide me along. In everything I do I am hands-on. I studied everything, from the front office to the door, to the back of the house and kitchen.”
That was nine years and three months ago. Sometimes he would run into people he knew in his political life— mostly ambassadors to the Philippines — “and they wonder why I became a hotelier.”
As the hotel’s president, he is part of the long welcome line at the entrance when visiting dignitaries arrive (or leave). He says the last one to occupy the presidential suite was South Korean President Park Geun-hye during the APEC Summit last year.
“Her father, former President Park Chung-Hee, also stayed at Manila Hotel. I presented her a collection of photos of her father when he was here, including when he laid a wreath in Luneta at the Rizal Monument. She talked to me about how she has fond memories of him. She was surprised to see the pictures.”
Also staying at Manila Hotel during APEC was Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who occupied the MacArthur Suite. “We had two lady presidents during APEC,” Lina beams. What happens when two heads of state want to occupy the presidential suite? Lina says the rule first-come, first-served is followed. In the case of APEC, the South Korean Embassy reserved first.
Finally, and perhaps the most famous politician after whom another famous suite was named: Gen. Douglas MacArthur. “The first honorary general manager of The Manila Hotel was Gen. MacArthur. He was military adviser to the Philippine government. Before he accepted the offer to become adviser and put up the army and armed forces here, his condition was that he would stay in Malacañang Palace, but of course the palace was only for the president. The government decided that he would stay at Manila Hotel.”
MacArthur lived in the hotel’s penthouse which occupied the entire floor. It had seven rooms and a library — it was a well-appointed penthouse and even during that time it was very expensive. To justify MacArthur’s stay there, he was made honorary general manager.
“But he wasn’t just an honorary GM, he took the job seriously!” Lina says.
When it was bombed and rebuilt during the war, the MacArthur penthouse was reduced to one-third of its original size.
“You know, there is pride in being at The Manila Hotel,” says Lina. “The hotel is different, it has its own character, which is uniquely Filipino. All the people here can laugh with our guests, we’re not stiff, we have the Old World charm of Manila, we do things with a sense of theater. We’re a work in progress and we’re still evolving.”