When my best friend who lives in Canada told me last year she was going to vacation in the Philippines in January, we immediately started to plan an out-of-town weekend. People who know me know I love Palawan for its marine life and limestone cliffs, Boracay for its White Beach and food, and the third island province I never tire of visiting is Bohol.
“Bohol is for culture, churches, the sea and amazing landscapes,” I told Maria.
Indeed, foreigners who tell people they’ve been to Boracay are asked next, “But have you been to Bohol?”
Bohol has two things no other destination in the Philippines has: the Chocolate Hills, which are 1,700 geological formations that look like Hershey’s Chocolate Kisses spread across 50 square kilometers in Carmen (they’re five million years old) and the tarsiers at two conservation centers, the world’s smallest primates that have been in existence for 45 million years.
Plus, there’s Loboc River, which to me is the most scenic river in the country with coconut trees on the banks, bent toward the water as if bowing to welcome you.
So we planned the trip in December, more than a month before she was actually arriving, bought tickets and booked at Amorita Resort and Momo Beach House, both of which belong to One-Of Collection, which manages hotels and resorts around the Philippines such as The Funny Lion in Coron, Sta. Monica Beach Club in Dumaguete and Momo Beach House in Bohol.
What I love about their resorts is that each one has its own distinct personality. They’re like children from different mothers — no two are alike and that’s the fun in it.
In Bohol, Amorita is the elegant child with its quiet villas with private pools, meandering gardens, amazing food (my God, the Peanut Kisses milkshake!) and discreet service.
Momo Beach House is the hipper version — the child that runs around barefoot in the gardens and climbs trees, the one that makes his parents laugh with funny faces, the one that catches fish on a boat with his father, only to release them again to the sea.
With Amorita located on a cliff, you can contemplate your life and probably come up with a plan for the next 10 years. If you contemplated your life on Momo Beach House’s hammocks — sandwiched between Momo Beach and the swimming pool — the furthest you will want to plan is dinner. In fact, you don’t want to plan that either. It’s that chill.
“We developed Momo Beach House as a peaceful, inspiring destination where guests can share our passion for having a relaxing lifestyle,” says Ria Hernandez-Cauton, president of One-Of Collection. “Here, we foster a nature-driven culture so that guests can get away, exhale all the big city toxins, relax, and soothe their mind, body, and soul.”
Located on Panglao island and a 20-minute drive to Amorita and Alona Beach, Momo Beach House is an eco-chic boutique resort that “has emerged as one of the Philippines’ top resort destinations, offering world-weary guests an escape from the urban fray and multiple opportunities to rejuvenate in a beachside setting.”
The 15-room resort looks like someone’s ancestral manor with its whitewashed walls, thatched roofs and a pool in the middle. The dining room is an open space with couches and wooden tables and chairs and colorful throws.
The rooms are in vibrant pastels with stunning seaside and sunset views, and a distinct architectural design theme incorporating white furniture pieces, locally sourced organic bath products, wooden poolside lounge chairs, a repurposed wine rack made from an old fishing boat, and a beachfront bamboo bar.
“Sustainability is an integral part of One-Of Collection’s business strategy,” says Ria. “The location of Momo Beach House is already blessed with a fantastic combination of sun, sea, and sky, and that’s why we designed in ways that integrated key features of these beautiful natural surroundings.”
Committed to meeting the demands of today’s increasingly busy tourists and wellness-oriented leisure travelers, Momo Beach House distinguishes itself with a wide range of features and services that make for truly holistic holidays: nature-inspired architecture, homestyle al fresco dining, environment-friendly amenities, and a homey, just chill vibe.
“There is also much more to Momo Beach House than scenes of tropical idyll. Its Beach Tree Café is an all-day dining venue with a homestyle-inspired menu designed around locally sourced organic ingredients, and an approach to food that emphasizes health, freshness, clarity of ingredients, and local availability.”
Banking on the widely held notion that a healthy lifestyle is also necessarily an active one, the boutique resort serves as a venue for regular private yoga retreats and wellness activities, with an on-call yogal instructor available to lead practice sessions for beginner and advanced yogis and yoginis. Momo Beach House also provides kayaks and standup paddleboards for guests.
“Here at Momo Beach House, our approach to wellness is holistic,” says Ria. “The facilities, features, and services in our resort are all aimed at strengthening our ability to engage with and cater to travelers who demand greater options for getting away and rediscovering themselves.”
If I was asked what I loved most about my recent trip to Miniloc Island Resort in El Nido, Palawan, I wouldn’t be able to choose only one thing because the second you land in EL Nido, you know you’re going to experience memorable moments all throughout your stay.
Located in Bacuit Bay, Miniloc is one of four properties of El Nido Resorts, a group of sustainable island resorts in Palawan that offer unique experiences amid stunning natural landscapes.
One of the most Instagrammed islands in the Philippines, Miniloc was “discovered” by Japanese divers in the 1970s. And who wouldn’t fall in love with Bacuit Bay’s towering limestone cliffs and spectacular marine life?
Joey Bernardino, marketing director of Ten Knots Development Corp., owner of El Nido Resorts, says that Miniloc island was discovered accidentally. “The Japanese divers had been travelling through the area at night seeking other destinations. When a fishing line disabled the divers’ boat, they were forced to drop anchor. When they woke up the next day, they were amazed by their surroundings.”
In 1982, “they made Miniloc an ecotourism destination way before sustainable developments had become a buzz word. When Ayala Land bought into El Nido Resorts in 2010, it kept the resorts focused on nature-based activities, minimizing their footprint on the environment, and fostering relations with the surrounding communities.”
Here are 10 things we love about Miniloc Island Resort:
1. The rustic charm gets refreshed. For a 40-year-old resort, Miniloc looks brand new. That’s because the entire resort was renovated last year, shuttered for six months and opening again in December 2018. Miniloc is famous for using local materials and architecture like traditional capiz windows and cogon roof on its water villas and cottages fronting the beach.
They made the conscious decision to retain the rustic feel that everyone loves. They also added sea-view suites and an eternity pool that looks out to Bacuit Bay— and when viewed from the gardens, you truly can’t tell where the pool ends and the sea begins.
2. Miniloc resort occupies less than one percent of the island. Joey Bernardino says, “The four El Nido island resorts have different masses or size in hectares but if we consider all the islands put together, we have only developed one percent . And once we develop them we become responsible for the entire island.”
Perhaps this is the reason why marine life surrounding Miniloc remains a spectacular showcase of biodiversity. Marigs Laririt, El Nido Resorts director for sustainability, says that could only have been made possible “by the fact that we have a well-maintained sewage treatment plant and a solid waste program that is uncompromising.”
3. Miniloc’s house reef. I love resorts with house reefs — and Miniloc’s is the best I’ve seen so far (I’ve seen quite a few number in Luzon and the Visayas). Twice every morning, the staff feeds the jackfish that jump out of the water almost like dogs do when thrown treats.
There are colorful coral reefs just a few meters from the beach, so many varieties of fish, and it was the first time I saw thousands upon thousands of jacks surrounding me — like the famous sardine run in Moalboal, Cebu.
Miniloc also has well-trained nature guides who steer snorkelers’ fins away from the fragile corrals. Diving or snorkeling in Miniloc’s house reef is one of the happiest experiences you can ever have in El Nido.
4. Entalula island. I can stay here all day and just fall asleep under the shade of the trees to the sound of waves breaking. An exclusive island belonging to El Nido Resorts, Entalula has a white-sand beach, waters so blue, beach beds, paddle boards, a bar and restaurant.
Oh, and some resident monitor lizards that like to walk to the beach from the forest behind that’s been left untouched. Miniloc takes its guests here when they want to island hop and it’s a mere seven-minute boat ride away.
5. Big and Small Lagoons at the crack of dawn. I was shocked to see that our itinerary for the second day said, “Wake up at 5:30 a.m.” It turned out it was to go kayaking at the Big and Small Lagoons.
I said, “Didn’t we just do that today?” Yes, but seeing the sunrise in the lagoons is really special — you get to appreciate the stillness of the waters and literally hear the day starting with the sounds of nature. Tourists from the mainland are only allowed in the lagoons starting at 9 a.m. Kayaking makes you work up an appetite for Miniloc’s breakfast buffet.
6. Dinner at Big Lagoon Beach. Joey says Miniloc gets booked for quite a number of weddings and when it’s an intimate one, they prefer to get married here, one of the islands owned by El Nido. They’ve also had weddings where it’s just the bride and groom without a single guest.
Here, we had a lovely dinner of grilled seafood and paella, crispy pata and so much more with live music courtesy of the staff. Mike the singer was so talented he got me Youtubing Pinoy songs for days after.
7. Seeing the constellations and luminescent planktons. On the boat ride back to Maniloc at night, Miniloc GM Mac Guerrero — who has entertained various Hollywood celebrities on the island including Oscar nominee Margot Robbie — had the captain stop the boat and kill the spotlight.
Having seen Bacuit Bay’s limestone cliffs during the day, we were now treated to its beauty at night. “Look up,” Mac said. And indeed, the dark sky was filled with stars so bright it felt like we were under a giant umbrella lit from the inside.
With the boat rocking gently, we looked down and saw the water lit up as well by luminescent planktons. I had never seen this before in my life and it felt so magical.
8. The glorious food and drinks! Since 2006, El Nido Resorts has maintained its own organic farm, using compost generated from the island resorts’ kitchens. Collectively, the resorts generate 36,000 kilos of biodegradable waste a month, which are composted. “The resulting soil conditioner has made it possible to raise a wide variety of produce in marginal Palawan soil and allowed the resorts to save significantly on food costs,” says Marigs Laririt, El Nido Resorts/Ten Knots sustainability director. “And 58 percent of all ingredients used in the four island resorts is sourced from locals.”
Miniloc is an all-inclusive resort with a buffet spread at breakfast, lunch and dinner. The variety of dishes is fantastic starting with the salad bar, grilled seafood and meats, fruits and desserts, and Filipino favorites. They change the buffet every day — some meals you get a pasta and pizza bar and others you get noodles and home faves like adobong pusit and ginataang kalabasa.
And I love the bar, which is just beside the main dining area. You have a view of the sea, and the bartenders make such wonderful drinks with top-shelf spirits. On our last night, when we got back to Miniloc from the beach dinner, Big Mac brought out a bottle of Johnny Walker Ultimate 18.
Needless to say, it was a great night back-grounded by the sound of waves.
9. El Nido community relations. Ninety percent of El Nido Resorts employees are locals and turnover rates are minimal. “Employees communicate a strong sense of pride in their islands to guests which in turn fosters among guests great appreciation for and a desire to keep the surroundings pristine,” Joey says. “It makes great sense for us to safeguard the resources that continue to attract visitors to our islands and this helps improve quality of life in general for our host communities.”
10. The warmth and kindness of the Miniloc staff. It’s true that Filipinos are naturally warm and friendly and when you pair that with the kind of training El Nido resorts provides its staff, you get impeccable service.
From the nature guides who go kayaking with you to the wait staff in the restaurant, the beach attendants taking care of your snorkeling or diving gear, the bar staff and room attendants — they all want to spoil you.
But nothing compares to the resort’s singing group that says goodbye to you at the pier. They’re plucked from Miniloc’s different departments — even the chef at our beach dinner doubled as drummer — and sing original songs about El Nido.
They sing to and wave at departing guests until the boat is literally out of sight, making you want to jump into the water and swim back to Miniloc.
Don’t look for a reason behind Dutch designer Marcel Wanders’ spaces, it may not always be there. But you can count on magic always being present.
While most architects and designers tout form following function as a design philosophy, Wanders has a different perspective. “Luxury starts where functionality ends and where the true value is personal and so has no price or reason,” Wanders once said. He also said that the things he creates are the kind that people would want to save if their house was burning down.
If I had his Knotted Chair, the design that catapulted Wanders to global fame, I’d certainly save that first, too. Or the Horse Floor Lamp that the design label he co-founded, Moooi, produces. But I don’t have either.
Instead, I experience his spaces and gain insights into his design. To be standing in the pool deck of Fairmont Quasar Istanbul and seeing the product of his fanciful imagination is a treat that every design enthusiast would love.
In the glass-walled pool overlooking Marmara Sea and the red rooftops of Mecidiyekoy (okay, let’s call it by its other name, Şişli), Wanders put what seem like trees with globular fruits at the tips of the branches. It’s a fascinating element that pulls your gaze and then suddenly releases it for you to appreciate the panoramic skyline.
What’s on the other side of the pool will also make you smile. In the lounge area with white sunbeds, blue sofas and golden gazebos, Wanders created a garden space “guarded” by statues of ladies with red flowers for clothing and hair.
It’s weird but beautiful…and fascinating. It’s also a nod to whimsy and the designer’s proclivity for the extraordinary.
US-based design firm Wilson Associates, which masterminded Quasar’s overall design, imagined two sisters coming together in the city. “The older sister brought her polished Parisian sensibility, while the younger sister brought her eclectic, contemporary New York flare. Together, they created a design jargon all their own: contemporary classicism.”
Located on a windy hill in the city’s Mecidiyekoy area (after three years, I still can’t pronounce it), the property where Quasar is now used to be a 1930s liqueur factory designed by world-renowned cubist architect Robert Mallet Stevens.
Today, it is the newest star here, a luminous modern ode to a city that prides itself on its thousand years of history.
My wonderful friend Esin Sungur, Fairmont Quasar marketing and communications director, takes us around the hotel. I haven’t seen her in two years but know well enough that on this Eid al-Fatir weekend in June, she’d make the time. And it is a quiet weekend in Istanbul—more so than Manila during Holy Week and Easter, which is saying a lot about the two mega cities.
Istanbuller who are staying for the holiday are at nearby beaches or swimming pools. Here at Quasar, they are enjoying a windy summer day and food trays from Ukiyo restaurant (Japanese for “floating world”) at their chaise lounges while working on their tans.
With the hotel located in busy Mecidiyekoy—a short downhill walk to Cevahir Shopping Mall and a subway skip to Nisantasi or Taksim—it’s a great fit for business and leisure travelers who like some style with their drinks (The Marble Bar just off the lobby) or their tea (Demlique Tea Lounge and Patisserie), and spacious suites overlooking the city.
It’s also for people who love contemporary design. “There’s nothing nostalgic about the hotel, it’s modern all the way. Except for the industrial inspiration from the iconic liquor factory in front of the hotel,” says Esin of the 209-guestroom and 25-suite hotel.
Even in a place where the city’s skyscrapers are located—there are office and residential towers in nearby Levent, the Trump Tower is a walk down the hill, and many more under construction—Quasar’s architecture stands out. The building is silhouetted against the distant yachts and ships crossing Marmara Sea, the view never letting you forget that you’re in one of the world’s greatest, storied cities.
For a property that doesn’t have wide gardens, the architectural firm Wilson Associates managed to create breathing spaces that extend into courtyards like in Alia, a restaurant that combines distinct spaces—the Spice Library, the Raki Bar and two dining rooms, one for mezzes and the other for traditional live grill.
It’s where we celebrate Ramadan Feast. While the holiday is also observed in the Philippines, it’s my first time to experience it with people who practice Islam and are fasting till the sun goes down, today for the last time this year. It’s a very hot summer, which means daylight is long, and so is the fasting.
But even when there are those who do not observe fasting, even when the restaurant’s servers have filled our table with mezzes, not a single fork is lifted, no fast is broken prematurely, until the clock strikes 8:40 p.m.
It’s not just Wanders’ whimsical design elements or the hotel’s attention to detail (the boiled eggs at breakfast in Stations restaurant are wearing knitted caps to keep them warm, which made me laugh like silly) that makes the place special, it’s also the service that makes you feel like you’re an old friend.
At the Gold Lounge, we have a long chat with Recep Kileoglu, the funny and lively manager who shows us how to make coffee from the tap (seriously, it’s like a craft beer tap).
There is an easy familiarity and warmth—like the skyline and the rooftops on the horizon that we watch from the terrace, as if I’ve known them forever.
Nobel laureate for literature Orhan Pamuk wrote his memoir Istanbul: Memories of a City shrouded in melancholy. The Bosphorus Strait, he said, is a reminder “of the difference between one’s own wretched life and the happy triumphs of the past.”
That’s a little harsh, but it’s true that you can be walking in Istanbul’s historic streets and imagine yourself in the rich past of the Ottoman Empire and in the next block be jolted back to the reality of its modernity with hip coffee shops on both sides of the strait, gleaming shopping malls, and office towers.
Istanbul—a city where I’ve made friends and visited about 15 times in the past three years (sometimes just for the weekend when I’m coming from another city in Europe, sometimes for my annual vacation and then I head to Turkey’s coastline)—is a place I’ve come to regard like a second home. A friend calls me yenge (sister-in-law) as if I were married to the city, while another tells me that I should be granted honorary citizenship.
As with any first-time tourist to Istanbul, you go to where all the guidebooks tell you: the Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar, Hagia Sofia, Topkapi and Dolmabahçe Palaces, Galata Tower, Maiden’s Tower, Eminonu and the Bosphorus Strait.
I did all that, but it was only when I set out on a tour of the Bosphorus that I fell in love with Istanbul. This strait that divides the city between Europe and Asia lends it romance the way the River Seine does to Paris, but in an entirely different way.
“To be able to see the Bosphorus, even from afar—for İstanbuller, this is a matter of spiritual import that may explain why windows looking out onto the sea are like the mihrabs in mosques, the altars in Christian churches, and the tevans in synagogues, and why all the chairs, sofas, and dining tables in our Bosphorus-facing sitting rooms are arranged to face the view,” Pamuk wrote.
On that first Bosphorus tour, the guide pointed out the palaces of the sultans, the magnificent Topkapi and Dolmabahçe, which served as centers of the Ottoman Empire and are museums today. You can look at the bedrooms of the sultans and their collections but you cannot touch them or stay long because there is always a long queue behind you.
Then something caught my eye near the first Bosphorus Bridge. It was Çiragan Palace sitting on the shores, looking so magnificent—as if every marble column and gate rose out of the bottom of the waters of the Bosphorus fully constructed.
The palace was built by Sultan Abdülâziz and designed by the era’s famous Armenian palace architect Nigogayos Balyan and constructed by his sons between 1863 and 1867. Before that, it was known as Kazancioglu Gardens at the beginning of the 17th century and a hundred years later, in 1719, Damat İbrahim Pasha of Nevşehir built a summer mansion for his wife, the daughter of a sultan.
The guide said, “The palace is now Çiragan Palace Kempinski, the most luxurious and expensive hotel in Istanbul. Its Sultan Suite costs about 33,000 euros a night.”
I thought, surely, that amount cannot be right—but it is.
The guide continued, “But superior rooms are affordable starting at 300 euros.”
And that was how, on my third time to celebrate the New Year in Istanbul, I found myself in this Ottoman Empire palace hotel—and I definitely did not book the Sultan’s Suite.
The Kempinski brand assures luxury and white-glove service— whether it’s a modern hotel such as Siam in Bangkok or a certain architecture, like the Selcuk-style The Dome in Belek—but more than that, I loved the idea of waking up, literally, to history. In Çiragan Palace Kempinski’s case, a faithfully reconstructed history.
Çiragan Palace was built during a period wherein all Ottoman sultans constructed their own palaces rather than using those before them. It is the last example of this period of extravagance. The inner walls and the roof were made of wood, the outer walls of colorful marble and a very high garden wall protected the palace from the outer world.
Sultan Abdülâziz did not live long in his palace. He was dethroned and succeeded by his nephew, whose reign lasted 93 days and lived here under house arrest until his death in August 1904.
Then the palace was used by the parliament until a great fire destroyed it in 1910 leaving only the outer walls intact and it lay abandoned for decades. Its third incarnation was as a football stadium.
And finally, in 1992, the Kempinski Group restored Çiragan Palace. Stones found still lying in the palace gardens through the years served as models for the master stonemasons to recreate the intricate latticework and marble colonnades by hand.
A mid-rise modern building was added (that’s where the affordable rooms come in!) and today it has 313 rooms, including 20 suites in the hotel, and 11 suites in the historical palace.
I am told this amazing history by two lovely and sweet women, Ciaran Palace Kempinski’s director of public relations Neslihan Şen and her assistant Cansu Baş.
“It feels very special to be working here,” Neslihan says. “Apart from the Kempinski brand, you’re looking after a Turkish heritage that means a lot to everyone. It’s a lot of responsibility because it really is the only Ottoman Imperial Palace and hotel on the Bosphorus. And it’s a lot of fun because celebrities hold their weddings and celebrations at the historical palace.”
We are having tea at Laledan restaurant, which is famous in Istanbul for its Sunday brunch, overlooking the infinity pool and the Bosphorus. The hotel’s pool is famous as well—it’s the only outdoor heated pool in Istanbul and they tell me that in winter some guests come here, quickly disrobe and jump into the warm pool—while it’s snowing.
Cansu takes me on a tour of the historical palace, which is connected to the hotel via a walkway filled with pictures detailing its history.
I’ve seen and written about presidential suites before, but nothing quite like the Sultan’s Suite. The centerpiece here is the lobby with its grand chandelier and staircase, a favorite place of brides and for pictorials apart from the terrace facing the Bosphorus.
And then there’s the two-bedroom Sultan’s Suite. At 400 square meters, it’s one of the largest suites in Europe and certainly one of the most expensive. The furniture and accessories in the room date back to the 19th century; they sit side by side with state-of-the-art technology.
The master bedroom has a marble hamam and a Turkish bath with a private steam room, rainshower and bathtub with gold-plated and crystal fixtures. The guest bedroom also has its own bathroom with a specially designed bathtub and a large window overlooking the historical peninsula.
Chandeliers, columns, replicas of paintings from the famous palace painter Fausto Zonaro, floor-to-ceiling windows and views of the Bosphorus and classical Ottoman architecture all recreate the grandeur of the Ottoman Empire.
If that wasn’t enough, Çiragan Palace Kempinski is the only hotel on the Bosphorus reachable by car, yacht or helicopter and guests of the suite enjoy complimentary transfer to and from the airport—by land, sea or air.
Royalty, heads of state and celebrities have all stayed in the sultan suite, which has received numerous awards including the World’s Most Luxurious Hotel Suite and the Most Opulent Hotel Room.
Walking back to the hotel side, Cansu tells me, “My dear Tanya, you are very special because you are the last guest for the year that I have taken on a tour at the palace.” (What did I tell you about Turkish women? They’re so lovely!)
Back in my room, I do what Pamuk wrote about the chairs facing the water. It is a new year and the past 12 months have been difficult for this country with terror attacks, but I have never seen its people bow even when the city bends momentarily.
I am sitting on the balcony and looking at the Bosphorus Bridge outlined in red lights that perforate the dark sky. I have looked at Istanbul in a million ways, in all the seasons, under all circumstances, and I have loved it in each.
How do you design the presidential suite of a hotel that’s shaped like a ship? Like the interiors of a luxurious super yacht of course! Nearly a year since its opening, Conrad Manila on Thursday launched its presidential suite — or as general manager Harald Feurstein puts it, “the crown jewel of the hotel.”
In only a short time, the hotel has become an architectural icon with its silhouette of a massive ship outlined dramatically against Manila Bay. Hospitality-wise, it has hosted some of the country’s big events in the past 12 months, including Miss Universe and the ASEAN Summit.
That it’s taken almost a year to complete the presidential suite after the hotel began operations speaks of the attention to detail paid to its design and construction.
“The entire hotel is now complete essentially,” says Harald. “This room is so special that the ownership has taken particular attention to make sure it’s perfect.”
At about 1,000 sqm., with an even split between the interior and outdoor spaces, the two-bedroom suite’s design was inspired by high-end super yachts and colors of spectacular sunsets.
Conrad Manila is a master in the art of the dramatic reveal. There is a wow factor as it unfolds its space for the first time, when the lobby elevators on the third floor open and you are directly confronted by views of Manila Bay through the glass walls and double-height ceiling.
The presidential suite reveals itself with the same flourish. In the foyer, there is a second door which, when opened, grabs your gaze and directs it to the blue waters of Manila Bay on a sunny day with the boats and ships languid on the surface.
Only after those first few seconds of “wow, what a view!” do you begin to take in the interiors. At first, you can’t put your finger on a theme until you notice the open layout of the suite, the walls, the materials and construction of the sofas that you realize it feels like you’re in a yacht.
When asked how it compares to other presidential suites he’s managed, GM Harald, who has been with the Hilton Group for almost 20 years with a stint at Conrad Bangkok before Manila, says, “It doesn’t. This is very special and unique. It’s very different from the traditional type of suite. It’s not a boxed-in type of suite where there are many different rooms. The view is quite unbeatable and the location is one of our strongest points. Just sitting here looking at the window, you feel you’re away form Manila, but you’re literally in the heart of the city.”
The living room, dining room and the bar are in one elongated space, and here you fully appreciate the nautical elements in the design. There’s an abundant use of lacquer finish, polished metal, marble, rounded forms, smooth textures and fabrics, and lines that are reminiscent of super yachts, from the windows to the louvres and the sofas.
The firm Michael Fiebrich Design of Singapore “matched the element of waves and the colors of a perfect sunset that we have before us every day,” continues Harald.
At P300,000 ($6,100) per night , the suite has a master bedroom with large walk-in closet and makeup area, a guest bedroom, study, a pantry, three bathrooms, dining area for 10, a bar with seating, and an unbelievably expansive patio with a swimming pool. Even the bar inside mimics the lines of the hotel’s exterior architecture.
Harald says, “I think people would rather have a view of the bay rather than the TV.”
Conveniences aside, technology was also put in place for Conrad Manila to keep up with green practices.
“The room is essentially in sleep mode when it’s not occupied: the air-conditioning is on fan, the lights are turned off and the curtains closed. When you arrive at the lobby, the room will know once you’ve checked in and at that point the AC will kick in and start cooling the room while you’re still in the lobby. As you open the door when you enter, the lights will come on and depending on the time of the day, there’ll be different lighting scenes and the curtains will open as well. So when you come in you will immediately enjoy the view.”
Technology was also a big part in the suite’s design. Intelligent panels on the walls control everything, from the temperature to the sound system, curtains, and the dramatic lighting designed by DJ Coalition, Bangkok. The control tablets are also mobile so you can take them with you and control the systems from different parts of the room.
One of the areas where design is complemented by technology is in the master bedroom. The bed faces wall-to -ceiling windows. So where would you put the TV? In a console table at the foot of the bed, the TV goes up for viewing with a push of a button, and is recessed when you’re done.
Conrad Manila is not a very tall building because of the height restriction in the area, but it has a large footprint. Its vast spaces have allowed it to showcase its art collection curated by CCP president Nes Jardin. For the presidential suite, he chose metal sculptures by Sam Penaso and paintings by Nestor Vinluan, Jonathan Olazo and Alain Hablo.
Located on the seventh floor of the hotel, the presidential suite enjoys butler service and access to the executive lounge, which offers breakfast and evening cocktails and all-day refreshments. “Once you are in the suite, the butler can bring you all the things you need from the lounge.”
Because, let’s face it, the stunning views of Manila Bay really make it hard to leave the room.
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.”
The first time I was in El Nido was for the premiere of French filmmaker and environmental activist Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s documentary Planet Ocean, a beautifully shot but very disturbing glimpse of how the world’s oceans are dying and our marine resources dwindling.
The second time was for a long weekend — to get out of Manila and chill, do some snorkeling and reading on the beach while having mojitos or frozen margaritas before lunch, and swim with baby black-tip sharks.
The problem with going to a place like El Nido or other islands in Palawan is you never want to go back to the city or see an office desk ever again, or make a decision other than whether to order a watermelon or a mango shake while lying on the white sand with the sun beating on your back. You never want to make any choice bigger than whether to go snorkeling or diving, whether today’s book will be Orhan Pamuk or something totally opposite like David Mitchell’s.
Palawan has its share of high-end island resorts and in El Nido the poshest and most luxurious is Pangulasian Resort, which is one of four islands owned by El Nido Resorts (the other three are Lagen, Miniloc and Apulit).
Located in Bacuit Bay, Pangulasian is also known as “island of the sun” because you can see from here both sunrise and sunset. It has a 750-meter stretch of white-sand beach and guests have the island all to themselves — it’s secluded and quiet, and everything you need is a phone call to the reception desk away.
I love the design of the villas! They’re tropical chic and Filipino with their thatched roofs looking like an elevated bahay kubo. The rugs are made of abaca and seagrass, and the beds are a romantic four-poster with muslin fabric. And there’s a surprise for you once you open the closet of the huge bathroom (I mean, the bathroom alone is like one hotel room). Inside the closet are hats of all sizes, the biggest having flaps that will shade you up to your midriff if you pull it down!
Pangulasian has 42 villas, some of them beachfront — literally 10 steps from the shore and almost completely hidden when viewed from the water — while others are set on higher ground so you get sweeping views of Bacuit Bay. Facilities include a boutique, library, a restaurant and bar, an infinity pool with beach bar, a spa, and scuba diving and marine sports shops. There is also a hiking trail that leads to a view deck up on the hill from where you can watch the sunrise.
Because it’s exclusive in both location and size, the service at the resort is personal — they know you by name, they arrange everything for you, boat tours to Snake Island, Secret Beach, Big and Small Lagoons, kayaking to the mangroves, picnic lunch on a secluded island like they did the last time I was there.
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On his second day at Pangulasian Island Resort two years ago, filmmaker and Good Planet Foundation founder Yann Arthus-Bertrand boarded a helicopter and flew over El Nido. He was suffering from jet lag, but there are two things Yann can never resist: aerial photography and the ocean.
For an hour and a half, his pilot flew him between the limestone cliffs of El Nido, a managed resource-protected area 238 kilometers from provincial capital Puerto Princesa.
He shot the poblacion (town proper) with its backpacker lodges and houses hugging the cliffs, which is perhaps the only place in El Nido that will remind you that even the remotest places get discovered soon enough and once they do it can get pretty tight.
He filmed deserted beaches, mangroves and forests, small fishing communities, boats on the water. My favorite picture of his is of a girl drying fish and looking up to the chopper in her yellow t-shirt and grinning. It’ as if she’s saying, “What you consider a vacation paradise is everyday life for me, but hey, glad you’re flying over my skies this morning.”
Yann is very passionate about his film Planet Ocean— just as he is generous. The film is free of copyrights; it can be shown and distributed for free by NGOs, TV stations, corporations and governments — because Yann wants his message to be spread and to provoke action. Also, because the film is a recipient of the same kind of generosity from outstanding underwater cinematographers from outlets such as National Geographic and Discovery Channel, friends who gave their work gratis to be used in his documentary.
The luxury watch company Omega funded the film, which cost 1.6 million euros, a modest sum really for such a documentary (one can only imagine the logistics and costs of shooting underwater and in the air in various parts of the globe, from Asia to South America, Africa and Europe) and this amount is only because 50 percent of the film’s images were given free by other filmmakers.
There is not a single product placement by Omega in this documentary, but its connection to the ocean goes back to more than a century — its first diver’s watch went as deep as 16 meters; today it can go down to 600 meters below the water’s surface.
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On my first trip to El Nido, I unexpectedly met again two friends that I had known for some years. The first was Marigs Laririt, El Nido Resorts’ director of sustainability. She’s the one who makes sure that everything about Pangulasian Resort is in keeping with green practices — from its recycling to its no-plastics rule (the villas and rooms have refillable water bottles; the toiletries are in refillable containers).
I first met Marigs when Pangulasian did not yet exist — it was still under construction. I was doing a story on the newly acquired hospitality division of Ayala Land which would be the four El Nido Resorts formerly owned by Ten Knots.
We were in a boardroom in Makati surrounded by office buildings, and it couldn’t have been far more removed from what Pangulasian would eventually become — a resort that would be the most environment-friendly in the country.
I got in touch again with Marigs last week and told her, “You know, I haven’t written about El Nido and I’ve had wonderful experiences there.” She said she had seen my story on Coron (another of Palawan’s rock-star destinations) on the blog and was “green with envy,” hoping I’d do the same with El Nido.
There is a strong rivalry between these two islands in Palawan (which by themselves have several islands!). Coron and El Nido are both famous for their limestone cliffs and caves, lagoons, white-sand beaches, marine sanctuaries and dive sites.
Although Coron has the World War 2 shipwrecks for diving, El Nido has Hollywood bragging rights. Bourne Legacy’s last scenes were shot there (three-fourths of the film were shot in Manila). And no matter how much I try to persuade friends working in Pangulasian to give me details of Jeremy Renner (aka Jason Bourne) and Rachel Weiss’ stay there, they wouldn’t! What can I say, I have stubborn and annoying friends with integrity — and probably non-disclosure contracts!
Back to the rivalry between Coron and El Nido — fortunately, we don’t have to choose. We can go to both (or to Puerto Princesa) anytime, they’re only about an hour’s flight away from Manila. But remember that Palawan has 1,870 islands spread vertically in the West Philippine Sea (no, it’s not South China Sea — it never was) and the province has three airports. Apparently many tourists, including locals, end up at the wrong airport and it’s easier to go back to Manila and fly again than to take the 16-hour boat ride between the two or to Puerto Princesa.
Marigs said, “Long before there was ‘Palawan’ the brand, there was ‘El Nido.’ I guess it’s fair to say that El Nido cut the ribbon for tourism in Palawan, especially the brand of tourism the entire province is known for now, which is nature-based. El Nido the island set the bar for natural attractions, while El Nido Resorts set the benchmark for guest experience.”
The second friend I ran into was Melanie Espina-Alvarez, wife of former congressman of EL Nido Tony Alvarez. The funny thing is that I was on a boat wearing a hat and big, black shades when this lady came on board and said, “Tanya Lara?” I looked up — she was wearing shades too and had a towel on her head (the sun was so unforgiving that afternoon). As soon as she said her name, I knew her.
Ironically, I first met Mel not in sunny Palawan or Manila, but in the dead of winter in Berlin and then we traveled together to Moscow where it was bitterly colder. And now here we were, halfway around the world, our faces covered from the sun, on a speedboat in El Nido to go kayaking alongside the mangroves.
Mel is an avid diver. She told me that Bacuit Bay in El Nido is a protected marine area, which means fishing is not allowed, and it’s ideal for beginning divers because the bay is mostly calm, being surrounded by islands so there are no strong currents or big waves.
Plus, El Nido is an easy takeoff point to the dive sites, her favorites being North Rock, South Miniloc and Popolcan Forest.
* * *
You’ve heard often enough how El Nido is so beautiful with its towering limestone cliffs, how the beaches are gorgeous and deserted, but you’re never really prepared just how shockingly blue and at turns green and clear the water is.
The only city experience I can think of that approximates this jaw-dropping awe — and one I can relate to because I’m a city girl — would be seeing Paris for the first time in your life: that slow walk from the Trocadero metro, down the steps and seeing the Eiffel Tower rising before your eyes, or that 1.9-kilometer stroll on Champs Elyseés flanked by horse-chestnut trees all the way to the Arc de Triomphe.
“The question that we are encouraging everyone to ask is, how do I enjoy El Nido’s sights and make sure that my grandchildren see them, too? Or for those not reproductively inclined, how do I make sure that when I return 10 years from now, these natural features remain this way or even more robust?” Marigs said.
In today’s world of drones and GoPros, you’ve seen the pictures on Instagram, seen the videos on Youtube. For me, it’s like I’m discovering my own country online. In April this year, after I went snorkeling in Balicasag island, I was talking to someone who was here in March and I took him to Boracay. After I told him about Balicasag, he said, “You’re so lucky you live in paradise.”
Living in flood- and traffic-prone Manila — “paradise” is not the first word I’d use to describe life here. But maybe that’s why we have all these islands to escape to.
El Nido and Coron, these two islands are what move travelers to vote Palawan as “the best island in the world” and El Nido to have the world’s best beaches. There are live-aboard boat tours that drift aimlessly through Palawan — Robinson Crusoe-type where people sail, swim, dive and camp out for the night on the shore — no Internet, no electricity but plenty of beers apparently — and eat what they and the boatmen catch from the sea.
They’re perfectly happy with that. Just the sun shining, the blue sea, schools of fish underwater, a book to read on the beach, grains of sand washing at their feet, and a tent for the night for a week or even two. And it’s paradise.
I think it would be very hard to say that of any other place in the world.
A funny thing happens over dinner the first time I am at Raffles Istanbul in Beşiktaş in October last year. I am craving mushroom pasta which I had seen in the in-room dining menu the night before, but the problem is that we are at the hotel’s Rocca restaurant which specializes in Turkish cuisine.
In this beautiful, contemporary one-year-old space where hundreds of wineglasses were used to create a translucent dividing wall, the menu is exclusively Turkish food — there is no mushroom pasta.
My (now ex-) boyfriend is chatting with the hotel’s assistant executive chef standing to the side of our table while I am making my order with a waiter standing next to the chef.
The waiter says, “I will have to ask the kitchen if they can make pasta for you, we don’t have it on our menu.”
“Well, the chef is right beside you, why don’t you ask him?” I reply.
The chef turns to the waiter and says, “Go tell the kitchen to make it for her.”
This is chef Mehmet Ali, a man so charming and kind that when he offered to make me poached eggs with yogurt for breakfast on our first morning, I couldn’t say no even if I was thinking “What? Eggs and yogurt?”
But how could this tapsilog-loving, sunny-side-up girl say no to this nice man? He would come to our table every morning and ask if he could make us anything off the menu, would chat with the bf in Turkish while I finished my eggs and yogurt.
Unlike the original colonial-style Raffles Hotel in Singapore, which started as a private beach house in 1887, everything about Raffles Istanbul is very new (it opened only in 2014). It’s located at Zorlu Center, a new complex of office and residential towers, a performance art theater, and a luxury mall.
And yet the hotel is already gaining praise for bringing the tradition of Asian hospitality and impeccable service into this old city. Public relations manager Esin Sungur says with a laugh that the Raffles philosophy is that “even before we know the question, the answer is yes.”
And, yes, Raffles Istanbul is very expensive but you do get what you pay for because luxury is indeed in the details — not just of the space or the well-appointed rooms but also in how personalized the service is.
You don’t even have to ask. The hotel goes the extra mile with its team of butlers that are assigned to every room. One of them is Hulya Zengin, who says there have been guests she’s assisted for special occasions such as marriage proposals, anniversaries and birthdays.
For one guest, Hulya and her team arranged a romantic dinner with music, flowers and candles on the balcony for the guy’s proposal. Hulya herself is newly married and maybe it’s the romantic in her that makes her want guests to have their special time, too.
For us, because I had mentioned in an email that we were in a long-distance relationship, Hulya decorated our room with balloons, flowers, handwritten quotes, and candles on the two times we stayed last year.
I was wondering why they had asked me to email them pictures, and it turned out to be a surprise. When we got there, there were framed pictures of us in the spring and summer of last year all around the room, and red balloons, sparkling confetti and rose petals scattered on the floor and bed (the confetti was a challenge to clear up).
The second time we were there, he and I were talking about whether it was easier for me to move to Istanbul or for him to expand his family’s business in Manila. He said I would never find a job as a journalist in his city; I said that wasn’t my question.
He had sent me to Bebek while he was at work the next day, that beautiful waterside and quiet part of the city. He was messaging me while I was at Starbucks overlooking the Bosphorus, that he was excited to live in Manila. I said, wait, hold your horses — you have to see the country first (he would do so four months later, in March this year).
The balloons were pink on our second stay. He met Hulya for the first time while she and I seemed like old friends by then.
The room’s decor made us forget the argument we had on the metro, when he dragged my heavy suitcase to and from the long walk at the Gayrettepe stop to get to Zorlu Center.
“Why is this so heavy?” He glared at me, his eyes almost bursting from their sockets. “When we reach the hotel, you will open your suitcase and I will throw away every unnecessary thing that you packed.” I had come from a five-day tour across Anatolya and did not actually buy anything, except for an overpriced leather coat for $800 in Izmir over which he was livid, but I had three pairs of boots, two pairs of shoes, two coats and several jackets in there. I laughed and said, “You will do no such thing.”
Surrounded by pink balloons, I opened my suitcase and handed him the chocolate-covered polvoron and dried mangoes that he so loved…and he forgot about his annoyance that I had over-packed yet again and his plan of throwing out my stuff.
On the TV’s audio selection, we found violinist André Rieu’s version of The Rose and we must have played it a hundred times in the time we spent there.
It was playing when he brought the pink balloons out on the balcony in the cold November air later that night. “Make a wish and then let them go,” he told me taking a video on his phone.
And so I did. I let go of the strings and we watched the balloons float, carried by the autumn wind into Istanbul’s dark skies until we couldn’t see them anymore.
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Designed by Sandra Cortner of Hirsch Bedner Associates (HBA), a leading firm in hospitality design with works from Atlanta to Moscow, Shanghai to LA, Raffles Istanbul at Zorlu Center was a unique project.
Istanbul itself was HBA’s main inspiration for the design with the “interiors reflecting the jewels of the Byzantine era, only worn by the Emperor and Empress of the time. These jewel tones are referenced throughout — in the palette and selected artworks.”
Cortner says, “The first question was, what would a guest coming into this landmark building expect? It would not be historical, classic interiors, for sure. Neither would the space be aggressively contemporary. It was decided to make it transitional, timeless. We needed to connect it with the destination to give the sense of place.”
“Art is part of the fabric of every Raffles hotel — incorporated into the overall design, seamlessly, which is how we came to our concept, ‘The Dream of Istanbul.’ Not everything has to be literal; you may have abstract sides to it, dreams, fantasies. You wake up in a room with a bed backdrop inspired by the chandeliers of the Hagia Sophia but they are not photographs; they are soft and volatile, painted on canvas.”
You see the references to the city’s history as you pass through the vestibule and stand under the crystal chandelier in the grand lobby: a huge abstract bronze sculpture “Lavinia” by artist Martin Dawe, which was inspired by the famous Turkish poem of the same name and a mural by French artist Jean-Francois Rauzier who reimagined the Dolmabahce Palace of the Ottoman Empire.
The 181-room hotel remains true to its DNA with the signature Long Bar (yes, it has the Singapore Sling as well and this drink celebrates its centenary this year) and Writers Bars. It also has the very popular Spanish restaurant Arola by Michelin-star chef Sergi Arola, a favorite of the well-heeled.
Another space that’s show-stopping is the hotel’s award-winning spa. Designers at Hirsch Bedner Associates made this 3,000-sqm. spa a true oasis with dazzling details.
We so loved the facilities here. Above the indoor pool and cascading from the ceiling are design elements in geometric shapes, giving it a translucent feel. The spa has three Turkish hamams, seven treatment rooms, a male and female relaxation areas with saunas, steam rooms, Jacuzzis and ice fountains; and a fitness center, yoga and and pilates studios.
If sultans still reigned in Turkey today, surely this would be the hotel they would converge, because Raffles blends European timelessness and Asian warmth— in a city that is timeless itself.
(This story first appeared in the Philippine Star in 2015 and has been updated.)
Siete Pecados or Seven Sins is indeed a strange name for a marine sanctuary, even though it really is seven islands scattered in the waters of Coron. But why not a more pleasant name like Seven Mermaids or even Seven Monkeys?
Like every bizarre thing in this country, there is a legend attached to this name — two legends in fact. One says the seven islands are the seven daughters of a fisherman who went with their seven suitors to another island against their father’s wishes. A terrible storm descended during the night and when the fisherman woke up in the morning, he saw seven islands that weren’t there before and the wreckage of seven boats. Another is of a mother with seven daughters who didn’t take care of her when she was sick. Instead they went swimming and drowned, and afterwards the seven islands appeared.
The gods of our islands and legends are very unkind. But what they take away with a curse and punishment they give back with an embarrassment of riches. In the case of Palawan, the gods gave the province 1,780 islands and islets and a 2,000-kilometer coastline. And for Siete Pecados, it’s countless coral reefs and fishes in high-definition color.
This is the place to snorkel in Coron (diving is not allowed in Siete Pecados — there are many other sites for that around the islands including for wreck diving). There’s a section where you can’t even see the sea floor, it’s covered with hard and soft corals looking like an underwater succulent garden, the tips luminescent and swaying with the current.
Interspersed between these shallow, warm-water species are the “brain corals,” looking exactly as their name suggests. They’re quite intelligent species, too, using their tentacles to catch food at night and protection during the day.
And then there are the fishes. Yes, we found Nemo, and Dory, too, swimming and hiding between the corals along with thousands others.
Apart from Siete Pecados, there are the white-sand beaches of Coron that you can make a stop at for lunch or swimming. There’s Smith Station, and farther (around an hour and a half boat ride) are Banana Island, Black Island and Malcapuya Island.
Two other places one must not miss when in Coron: the Twin Lagoons, where you swim in the second one surrounded by towering limestone cliffs; and Kayangan Lake, said to be country’s most beautiful and cleanest lake.
Kayangan has one of the best views in all of Coron, but to get there one must climb up steps that can get slippery when it rains, and then down again on the other side of the cliff to get to the lake itself.
For divers, Coron is the best place for World War II wreck diving because the shipwrecks of 24 Japanese ships that were sunk by the American forces on Sept. 24, 1944 are preserved on the sea floor. Some of them are located in shallow waters while others are much deeper, and advanced divers can dive inside the wrecks.
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Coron is located in the northern tip of the narrow province of Palawan and part of the Calamianes group of islands (Busuanga and Culion are the two others). Its airport in Busuanga is the nearest one to Manila (45 minutes on a twin-prop plane) and is actually closer to the mainland than to the provincial capital Puerto Princesa.
Coron is much more rural than Palawan’s other seaside towns such as Puerto Princesa and El Nido and I hope it remains that way.
The roads in town are very narrow, just enough for two tricyles on each lane. As tour guide Andy of Coron Expeditions explained, no one expected for Coron to become a tourist destination and it was only in year 2000 that tourists from around the country began exploring it — and we have to thank the divers for that.
In keeping with the town’s charms and local flavor is the boutique hotel The Funny Lion of the One Of Collection.
How did it get its name? CEO Nikki Cauton III once told me the story when we were in Bohol. He and his wife Ria took their family to Calauit Safari Park in Palawan. Their son Emilio, then four years old, was looking for a lion and when he was told there was none in the 3,700-hectare game reserve, he said, “That’s funny there’s no lion here.”
The phrase just clicked in Nikki’s mind and so there is now one lion in Palawan — and the 36-room hotel takes safari as its theme in the design details. The very comfortable rooms are divided into three categories — Cub, King and Pride rooms — and have leather folding seats as the ones you pack on your jeep when for a safari.
The hotel has two dining outlets — Hunt restaurant, which is open all day, and Pride Rock Rooftop Bar, which serves the most delicious cocktails.
Hunt restaurant is very popular with locals, who like to spend special weekends with family eating out. Some nights are barbecue nights while others are pasta and pizza nights. It’s a la carte menu serves special Filipino dishes and fresh seafood.
For sunsets, go to Pride Rock Rooftop Bar. Better yet get into one of the two huge Jacuzzis with a drink and watch how Palawan’s sun sets with pink, orange and blue battling it out on Coron Bay.
The Funny Lion also serves a specialty coffee that you won’t find anywhere else except in communities of the Tagbanua people, one of the oldest ethnic groups in the country.
It’s popular knowledge in Palawan that the Tagbanuas make one of the best coffees in the country but very few people outside their communities have tried it — until now because it’s available at The Funny Lion.
Resort manager Michael Mahinay was able to persuade the Tagbanua chief to blend the coffee beans for the hotel. Tagbanua coffee is very strong but doesn’t have a bitter aftertaste. Instead, it is smooth from start to finish — and will keep you awake at night. But then again, that’s how one must roar when in Coron — with an open heart for adventure.
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(I am so in love with Coron I’m going back and will be updating this story with more pictures and anecdotes.)
You really can’t get any fresher than this. The scallops that chef Raphael Ongchiong baked in their own shells were fished right outside the restaurant, in the waters of Panglao island. The crust was made out of sea urchin that was pureed with butter and drizzled with breadcrumbs to give it a crunchy texture. In fact, all the seafood in this gorgeous spread of 17 pintxos (small bar snacks), tapas and paellas were locally sourced including the chupitos (baby octopus) and shrimps.
From sea to table, that’s how Amorita opened its new tapas bar called Tomar (“to drink” in Spanish). There was sangria and wine, there was flamenco, Spanish songs, and then there were the heavenly pintxos.
In a way that the seaside cliff resort Amorita (the word means “small love”) does everything, Tomar is classy in its physical space, ambience and food. It fuses traditional Spanish fare with Boholano creativity; it mixes furnishings of wood, steel and leather, resulting in a stylish restaurant.
With all the guests raving about the food, chef Raphael smiles and says, “That’s funny because I have never been to Spain.” Trained in the classical French technique, he did research by eating in Spanish restaurants in Manila, buying books and online sleuthing.
You can say he had tough taste testers: the young couple who own Amorita — CEO Nikki Cauton III and his wife, CFO Ria Cauton. Of all their travels, it’s Spain that keeps drawing them back, and in no small part because of the food.
Nikki says that when they were brainstorming on what new restaurant to add to Amorita’s poolside Saffron restaurant, they knew right away that they didn’t want the usual Japanese or Chinese restaurant that most hotels offer.
“Like me when I travel, I usually go on a food tour more than any other activity abroad. My wife Ria and I have done food tours in Madrid and Prague. That sense of vacation can be captured through a tapas and pintxos bar and such food goes well with wine or beer. A tapas bar is a good complement to a vacation because you want to celebrate and enjoy yourself, so we want to bring in that sense of festivity to Amorita.”
The menu was conceptualized by Nikki, Ria and chef Raphael. The first thing they considered — as they did when doing Saffron’s menu — was what was locally available in Bohol. Seafood was on top of the list with the freshest fish, scallops, shrimps and octopus coming from the clearest waters.
“That’s our philosophy whenever we do something. We find what’s abundant and endemic in Bohol and then we do the project around it. What’s great is that the local produce and ingredients of Bohol very much complement Spanish food,” says Nikki, adding that Tomar wasn’t intended just for hotel guests or tourists, but also for Boholanos who want to enjoy a different kind of evening once in a while. “The chef and I are good friends and we’ve traveled a lot looking at Thailand and Bali to benchmark. We try to compete with the players outside the country, too.”
Tomar is a great addition to Saffron, which serves some of the most innovative Filipino dishes I’ve tasted like binagoongan with manga, crispy sinigang, sisig quesadilla and more. We enjoyed a late lunch at Saffron after a morning of diving in Balicasag island, where we had encounters with sea turtles and colorful schools of fish in the marine sanctuary.
And for drinks, we had Peanut Kisses shake. Yes, those little mounds of delight — not just in a shake but as a shake. It’s like combining candy, peanuts, ice cream and the entire island of Bohol in a glass, and then blending it with ice cream. It’s brilliant!
Thinking out of the box is the Cautons’ secret to making Amorita one of the best-loved luxury resorts in the country. Nikki and Ria were only in their 20s and married for five months when they started the resort and neither of them is Boholano (Nikki’s from Ilocos and Ria’s from Pampanga). Falling in love with the province and its lifestyle of biking to the mountains on weekends, snorkeling and diving in the open waters was easy and quick for the couple.
“When we started in 2007, our goal was just to keep Amorita afloat. We were doing everything, I was driving the car, serving the food, but our standard from the start was very high. Then people realized that this property in Bohol was something unique — that this level of service could be had for a reasonable price and what a surprise that it was a local brand.”
What was 1.2 hectares before with 14 villas and 20 deluxe rooms is now 5.6 hectares with 14 villas that are being renovated until October and 82 suites. Amorita is one of the brands under One-Of Collection, which prides itself on distinctive hotels and resorts in prime locations such as Coron (The Funny Lion resort), Dumaguete (Sta. Monica Beach Club) and Bohol (Momo Beach Club).
Nikki says that they may do one or two more high-end resorts like Amorita. To which we raise our Peanut Kisses shake and say, “Cheers and big love to local!”