San Pablo City, Laguna, the Philippines
November 11 – 13, 2011
San Pablo City may have its share of urban woes, both vehicular and human traffic choking its narrow two-lane streets, but within city limits a parallel universe existed. Two B&Bs in sprawling tree-dotted enclaves had become pockets of peace far removed from the bustle of the city just beyond their gates.
I was on a magazine assignment in the city with a team of writers, photographers, and editorial assistants. The trip may have been commissioned by a chichi periodical, but the ride was far from glamorous. After two hours at the back of a non-ergonomic Fiera jeep with barely any air-conditioning, we pulled into a wooden gate that led to a tranquil retreat in a grove of pine trees.
Truly a casa away from tu casa, Casa San Pablo was a bed-and-breakfast that felt like home. The quaint casitas (small bungalows) and dining hall contained bits and pieces from various old houses. Worn and repurposed, each element carried with it a history, exuding a homey ambiance that would be absent if it had been brand-new. Most of the furniture and fixtures had been salvaged from demolished ancestral houses. An antique flat iron doubled as key holder in one of the rooms. Ancient yet sturdy wooden planks had escaped destruction and reused to provide a rustic touch to the cottages. The houses of old may not have survived through modern times, but at least their contents and spirit lived on.
On the well-manicured lawn dappled by golden sunlight, several hammocks were invitingly scattered under the cool canopy of pines. Had it not been for the early morning dew, I would’ve plopped in one.
As Casa San Pablo sustained the soul with serenity, so did it nourish the body with good food. The B&B was a stop in the renowned southern Tagalog food trail, the Viaje del Sol, showcasing the specialty of Laguna cuisine, kulawo na talong (grilled eggplant in smoked coconut milk). I was not big on coconut-based dishes, but this one won me over.
Innkeeper Boots Alcantara fostered a Laguna brand of homey hospitality. The evening we arrived, we found him table hopping in the dining hall, graciously engaging diners in small talk. You may opt, of course, to dine in quiet solitude, but his anecdotes about Laguna made for a stimulating dinner conversation. He and his wife considered every visitor “a family guest,” and that was exactly how we felt in this casa.
The next day we hopped over another B&B in the city. Developed by another couple, Sitio de Amor was a farm resort, the fruit of their labor of love. The lush landscaping was, for the most part, done by the Igorot, the indigenous tribe in northern Philippines that built the ingenious Ifugao Rice Terraces. As such, the artificial touches blended seamlessly with nature’s bounty.
Romance permeated this tropical paradise of gardens and pools, attracting birds and lovers and bird lovers. One cottage opened up to a veranda overlooking an artificial lagoon with a natural filtration system. An infinity pool reflected the surrounding tree-line outlined against the clouds. Asian-inspired art adorned the main lounge and dining hall with unobstructed views of a garden, some of its herbs ended up as organic seasonings in the dishes served.
I had woken up early and, as if charmed, my feet followed a stony pathway canopied by trellised creepers. I shared this patch of paradise with a vibrant celebration of life. Vivid colors of plants and flowers, strange calls of insects and birds, and stealthy movements of amphibians kept me company. It was a solitary walk but in no way was it a lonely one.
The highlight of the resort was a literal high: a multi-level tree house, an open and airy affair outfitted with creature comforts of a well-appointed log cabin. The bath peeked at a panorama of treetops and the sky; the rooms shared the air with the surrounding foliage. Up on a sturdy tree, a closer communion with nature could be had.
Innkeeper Jorge Bondad named the resort after his wife, Amor. The name was fitting because a feeling of love truly pervaded the place. Only a few cottages, adorned with Asian objet d’art, had been built in the five-hectare compound to maintain the sense of expanse in country living. It was refreshing to see a resort that eschewed profit for the love of nature and culture.
It was to the credit of both the Alcantara and Bondad couples that we could appreciate the culture and horticulture of Laguna in the face of the region’s industrial development. The B&Bs they had conceptualized and valiantly realized were testament to what could happen if developers had soul. Both stayed true to their Spanish names: casa for house and amor for love. Casa San Pablo evoked the warmth of home and hospitality, Sitio de Amor the love of nature and culture.