The wind-ruffled water laps against the pylons, the thatch rustles, the coloured flags slaps the flag poles as I sit on the deck of our cabin on stilts, looking out to sea, luxuriating in a foot spa and reflexology massage, while the girls have facials and Swedish massages with the bedroom doors flung wide to let in the breeze.
When we arrived yesterday, the air was humid and heavy, the cabins becalmed on a mirror-like sea, the sun penetrating eyeballs and skulls with fierce determination. We gratefully retreated to our cool, white, air conditioned cabin and curled up on the psychedelic green armchairs with a G&T and a sigh of relief. Today the wind has cut the humidity in half, and the air is breathable.
‘Stilts’ is located on twenty four hectares at the end of the Calatagan Highway, Batangas facing the South China Sea. The trip from Manila would normally take 2.5-3 hours. (It took us four hours after an unintentional and lengthy detour down EDSA when I missed the turn-off, and a break for lunch in Tagaytay.) On a Monday, the roads are free of the bumper-to-bumper weekend traffic and once we got onto the expressway, the smooth run was only disrupted by unhurried motorbikes and tricycles piled high with people and goods, as we dipped deeper into the countryside.
We found this glorious spot last year, searching for a venue for lunch with my sister and her family, and I have been awaiting an opportune moment for an overnight stay. Our daughter and her friend arriving in the Philippines for a belated Easter break seemed the perfect excuse: a girly trip to the coast for a little R&R and an escape from the summer smog and suffocating heat in Manila.
I am glad I had been before: the coast road takes you into the middle of nowhere, and the final lap along a cracked concrete rural lane past goats and carabou is a puzzling approach to a beach resort. Yet we finally emerged into a gravelled car park set amidst colourful flower beds. Local Sherpas loaded themselves up with our ridiculous number of suitcases and ice boxes (bother, we forgot the Scrabble) and lugged them down to the sea.
Here, rickety wooden jetties weave between the half dozen or so cabins nesting above the waves, pretty coloured-glass windows in green and yellow and blue are framed by white weatherboard and palm leaf thatch. There is a double bed and a single bed in the large, cool, airy bedroom, a sofa bed in the living area and another single bed in the mezzanine loft space. We have a good sized fridge (as opposed to a mini bar) which we stock with cheeses, fresh milk and champagne, and a water cooler with enough water to last our stay, instead of the usual two small bottles. It was brilliant. Every hotel should have one.
Needing to stretch my legs, I wandered through the gardens around the pool, which were dressed in the ubiquitous tropical green smudged with scarlet and peach hibiscus, white and shiraz-coloured frangipani, hot pink bougainvillea, and other flowers with fluted orange petals I did not recognize. The trees, walls and flower beds are also decorated with painted signs full of homilies, song lyrics and pointed quotations from the rich and famous. The grass was looking familiarly burnt and dry, like an Australian summer lawn, and the water lured me to the edge of the pool, the scent of the frangipani seeping, thickly scented, through the still afternoon air.
Meals are served in an open air pavilion restaurant above the beach, a bowl of frangipani the colour of a tropical sunset is set in the centre of the table to welcome us. For breakfast, there is a Filipino buffet of rice and hot dogs, dried fish and fresh fruit, or a ‘continental breakfast’ with almost any combination of eggs and bacon, hash browns, omlettes, pancakes or sausages, which is hotter and fresher than the buffet. The lunch and dinner menu, apart from the wood oven pizzas and barbecue, consists largely of regional dishes, all made with fresh ingredients, and a heavy emphasis on coconut milk and chili: Bicol Express, tasting reminiscently of green curry; tilapia (a local freshwater fish) cooked in coconut milk; banana hearts and pork served in coconut milk; sinigang, chicken adobo, lechon kawali, sisig and stuffed squid. Soy sauce, sweet chili sauce and banana ketchup featured as ever-present condiments. Halo halo, turon (fried banana spring rolls) and leche flan add a sweet finishing touch.
For busier bodies than we intended to be, there were plenty of activities available: 21 hectares to be explored on foot, on horseback or by quad bike; kayaks, pedal boats and bancas waited on the beach; several balsa rafts float just off-shore waiting for sunset; snorkels and goggles could be hired to explore the world beneath the glittering surface of the sea. We settled for massages and facials in our cabins, and simply hanging about in a hammock to catch the afternoon breeze, G&Ts in hand. We did manage a slow stroll down a white sandy beach at sunset, and the girls got up early to ride ATVs (quad bikes) through the flower beds!
Stilts is a bit pricier than other resorts in the area, but it is also prettier, and more comfortable, and I have found that clean sandy beaches are a rarity in southern Luzon. The resort is spotless and the sea is crystal clear. We didn’t need goggles and flippers to see the fish, we could just lean over the side of our veranda. The staff are friendly, and while they didn’t always understand what we wanted (due to my limited Tagalog and their limited English), they did try!
Our final evening, we ordered take-away pizza and sat peacefully on the veranda as the sun sank sulkily into the sea, leaving the sky retrospectively musk and grey behind him. It was a blissfully tranquil break, but the hours passed all too quickly and we were reluctant to leave so soon. But we will be back next time we need a break from the madding crowd…