It’s difficult to pin point the spot I loved the most when visiting the Philippines earlier this year. Maybe it was the stunning, postcard-perfect beaches of Boracay Island, or perhaps the iconic, World Heritage-listed, rice terraces of Banaue hand carved by the Igorots centuries ago; and chiseled along spine tingling ravines. Or was it the Bacuit archipelago? A group of islands located just of the magical and otherworldly island of Palawan, known to Jacques Cousteau as the “last refuge”. What ever it was, the Philippines, with 7,107 islands ringed by beautiful coral reef, it’s eclectic scenery; world class diving is fast becoming a real contender among the world’s best exotic destinations and should be consumed rapidly before the word gets out.
Many airlines are now catering for this growing tourism potential, with Emirates recently launching a direct daily route to Cebu, bypassing the clogged up and chaotic Manila airport, making it more accessible than ever. At the time of research however, I was unable to take advantage of these new routes but still was able to bag a direct London Heathrow to Manila Ninoy Aquino with Filipino Airlines cutting the journey’s length considerably.
Manila can be an overwhelming experience, unique to any other major Asian city with its heart, walled by a Spanish colonial wall, making it more akin to something out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. The city, since being described by author Dan Brown as the “gates to hell”, has come forward in leaps and bounds over the last few years with an ever-growing luxury hospitality industry. Shiny skyscrapers now dominate the stormy, purple hazed skyline whilst funky bars, cool restaurants and five star hotels mushroom in and around Makati, the glitzy neighborhood, which incidentally just hosted it’s first Fringe festival. Making our way to The Peninsula, zigzagging through traffic that would make the M6 on a Friday night look positively fluid, I notice these brightly coloured buses that are actually old Jeeps donated by the Americans following World War 2; which our driver tells me is one of the Philippines’s most distinguishable features.
Upon arrival at our hotel, we find an eclectic mix of distinguished Manilese and re-assuring internationals, all enjoying “The Bar” the hotels’ sophisticated in-house bar. A couple of days is enough to get a feel for what Manila has to offer, after which the stifling heat, the never-ending traffic and general chaos left us yearning for what we really came to the Philippines for: Shangri-La’s Boracay Resort & Spa.
Despite its size, at seven kilometers long and two kilometers wide, Boracay “packs a punch” and has recently been giving the likes of Bali and Phuket a run for their money. The island, which was given access to electricity just twenty years ago, used to be nothing more than a few nipa huts and fishing shacks. Now, White Beach, it’s world famous four-kilometer stretch of powdery, soft sand is sprinkled with some of Asia’s top restaurants, bars and clubs. Despite some recent unchecked growth, Boracay has kept some pockets of tranquility embodied by Diniwid Beach and Yapak, the most northerly point of the Island. It was on this peninsula that I was to find my very own slice of heaven for the next three days.
A quick fifty-minute flight gets you to Caticlan Airport, where I was greeted at the Shangri La’s exclusive airport lounge and swiftly transferred to the resort by private speedboat. While cruising, White Beach on my right, infinite azure on my left, stress levels were nicely vaporizing. Approaching the pier, I could excitedly discern, perched on a hill and nestled among lush green foliage, our private 216 sqm Loft Villa complete with it’s infinity pool. As I contemplated this blissful vista, I know “boy friend of the year 2016 award” was now, firmly within arm’s reach…
Travel, we know, can have a negative impact on the environment, which is why, increasingly; folk are looking for alternatives that offer conscience and eco friendly luxury, which The Shangri La does beautifully. It’s natural land sanctuary shelters the endangered and impressive giant fruit bat, commonly known as a flying fox, which can be spotted at sun down; whilst its marine one, havens some of the Pacific’s most flamboyant species of fish and coral. Truly, green and glamorous go hand in hand here, offering a guilt free trip.
Weaving ourselves through the resort, senses spinning out of control, we take in the various smells, colours and elegant architecture so distinct to the Philippines. Despite a good selection of restaurants at the resort, we decide to take a trip into Boracay’s heart, known to locals as Station Three, knowing we have our booking at chef Omar Ugoletti’s Rima Restaurant.
Traversing the island North to South, my brain struggles the process the hypnotic yet maddening scenes of Asia living. Above us, electrical cables hang loosely in a wholly tangled mess, which definitely would not meet EU regulations; tricycles, the islands’ main mode of transport, zoom left right and center, leaving a trail of clatter and fumes behind; makeshift “al fresco” butchers stand on the side of the dusty road with a makeshift fan, made up of nothing more than a plastic bag hooked onto a spinning metal cable, doing it’s best to deter any un welcomed fly from approaching the different cuts. I choose to fully embrace this refreshing culture shock, reminding myself that this dash of diversity and spice is a welcomed change from the aseptic London I am used to.
Filipino food, does not have the same reputation as, let’s say the Vietnamese, Thai or even the Indonesian one; but it absolutely has its own appeal and identity, simply a matter of finding it. Drawing its culinary heritage primarily from four hundred years of Spanish occupation as well as from early Chinese settlements prior. I’d been told of a place that did just this to perfection: Dos Mestizos.
Walking into Dos Mestizos, run by chef Andre Marlarky, is like taking a journey through time; the décor takes you to 19th Century Spain and it feels like this tavern would be more suited to an old trail leading to Santiago de Compostela, than the nooks of Boracay. Aside from the décor, the food was delicious. Andre served us the house special, a four-week-old suckling pig also known as Cochinillo served with Paella Negra, a classic Spanish with a Filipino twist- squid ink. There is a reason why Anthony Bourdain places the Philippines No. 1 on his “Hierarchy of Pork” on his Travel Channel blog.
Our routine for the following next few days is mainly made up of eating delicious food and drinking thirst quenching cocktails; intermittently broken up by a game of tennis, banking as much vitamin D as possible in preparation for the forthcoming European winter and at times a well deserved(ish) pampering session at The Shangri- La CHI THE SPA. The Spa’s signature massage is the classic Filipino Hilot massage where banana tree leaves are used as a tension and stress detector. The leaves are applied to your skin with a coconut lotion and areas of imbalances are detected depending on whether or not the leaves peal of easily.
Perhaps one of the most anticipated dinner we would have whilst being on Boracay, and the Philippines as a whole, would be to experience the resorts flagship, tree top restaurant, Rima. The location of chef Ugoletti’s tree top gem is like nothing I have experienced before. The setting is set high up amongst green lush tropical trees offering sweeping panoramic views and the ocean as backdrop. Our 8 course-tasting menu was an avalanche of exquisitely well-worked dishes paired with an array of incredible new and old world wines.
Our time, inevitable, was coming to end; but before leaving the island and it’s vanilla ice cream coloured beaches, I am keen to try out a couple of places that in my view should not be missed whilst in Boracay, The Lind Hotel with it’s rooftop bar and incredible sunset views; and Subo, whose kitchen is run by the talented Sunny de Ocampo. The Lind is a brand new complex with its toes dipped in the turquoise blue waters of white beach. We choose to do sunset drinks by the infinity rooftop pool before moving on to Subo for another typical Filipino dish.
Subo, in Tagalog is Tagalog, the Philippines official language, for “mouthful” or the gesture “to feed” and it’s clear that a lot of work has been put in in order to give this restaurant a true authentic feeling with up cycled Filipino antiques, stained-glass windows, open carvings, wood and artifacts. The outdoors, landscaped by landscape artist Raffy Ong contribute to this hugely and the two blend in absolute harmony offering a sense of place, reminiscent of the “Old Boracay”. When chatting to chef Sunny, he tells me that Subo is a “show restaurant” complete with a live kitchen and a Chef’s Table, live cooking classes, cultural shows and seasonal Fiesta events.
After four days on this boisterous and colourful island it’s time for us to move on, and with the benefit of hindsight we come to a conclusion that the time spent at the Shangri La’s Spa and Resort was definitely our highlight. The secret is being let out however, Boracay having recently been voted number two island in the world by Travel and Leisure.