Five years in Manila and somehow I had never even heard of Hidden Valley Springs. It took a friend visiting from Hawaii to show me the way, and what a blissful escape from the madding crowd created by the APEC summit it proved to be!
Hidden Valley Springs is a private resort in Laguna, secreted between Mount Makiling and Mount Banahaw, a few kilometers off the highway to Batangas. We had booked a tour with Seat-In Coach Tours, which may not have been the cheapest way to go, but it saved us a lot of angst, and Bernie proved to be a terrific source of information on Filipino politics, education, tourism and history. (He also knew where to find us the best Barako coffee at an open air market in Santo Tomas. We got caffeinated merely on the aroma filling the car all the way home.)
Once off the Pan-Philippine Highway, the road narrowed and the scenery became more rural, as we dodged tricycles, children and dogs sunbathing in the middle of the road. At last a signpost directed us down a tiny lane, past banana plantations and bamboo farm huts, more dogs, and into an almost empty car park amongst the coconut trees.
It was a perfect day. Clear blue skies mocked the rain and pollution we had left behind in Metro Manila. The sweet, nutty, mocha scent of cocoa beans hung in the air. We meandered along a broad footpath through lush tropical gardens, giant ferns and tall native trees, to a bridge overlooking three clear swimming pools cradled in a narrow valley and shaded by the lush vegetation of this tropical rainforest. The pools are filled by a mountain stream that flows down the mountain and cascades into the first pools before racing over the rim and on down into the second and third, before escaping back into the valley.
A steeply winding path led down to the edge of the Warm Pools. It was mid-week and the smallest top pool was already quite full, but downstream we had the two larger ones entirely to ourselves. The water is a lovely temperature: comfortably warm, fresh and unchlorinated and as clear as glass, the bottom lined with clean grey volcanic sand. We drifted happily in the shade of the overhanging trees, relaxed and admiring of this glorious watering hole.
Eventually, we wandered on to explore the other pools on the property. The Soda Pools are so called because the strong flow of the stream apparently allows you to experience water massage similar to European spas. Hmmm. True or not, these two pools are even lovelier than the first, the surroundings landscaped to allow for sun lounges and a couple of spacious salas or gazebos tucked up amongst the trees.
Later, we rambled on, down the path to Lovers’ Pool, and found ourselves clambering up a bamboo ladder to walk along the trunk of a vast tree that apparently came down in the typhoons of 2013, and now lies across the pathway. Gripping the wooden railings to help us keep our balance, we walked tentatively along the broad, damp torso of this fallen giant. Eventually we reached the smaller Lover’s Pool, tucked cozily into the hillside at the bottom of a winding path. The whole area is kept immaculately clean, and the peace is addictive. We float and duck-dive and drift…
It is a short hike from here to the less cultivated hidden falls at the end of a kilometer stretch of bamboo walkway. Be wary of doing this in bare feet, as we did, as the joy of a bamboo massage on the soles of your feet quickly wears thin, but it made the last stretch easier, where we had to clamber over rocks and through rock pools to reach the falls.
At some stage our stomachs began to send out hints of hunger, and we sauntered up to the Veranda Valley, a large al fresco restaurant for our buffet lunch. A trio of folk singers wandered around the tables singing soporifically sweet ballads and Christmas carols, as we chewed bravely on fatty pork and battered fish fried in my not-so-favourite rancid palm oil. I’m sorry to say it, but the kitchen really lets this place down. Endless complaints on Trip Advisor don’t seem to have affected the chef one iota. Desserts are dreary, and while there is plenty of variety amongst the savouries, the only one I really enjoyed was the beef Bicol Express. I wouldn’t bother with the rest. My suggestion would be to smuggle in a picnic, or go elsewhere for lunch.
That said, the setting was so appealing, and the breeze so cool and gentle, I found myself less perturbed by the quality of the food than I expected. And the entrance fee, Php 1,800 per head, includes the lunch as well as a welcome drink and merienda, so at least it’s not an extra cost. It may seem a bit pricey for a day trip, but if you head down early – to beat the traffic and make the road trip as quick as possible – you can then dig in until dusk.
Hidden Valley Springs is a small slice of heaven, the grounds are most beautifully kept and the peace and serenity is a balm to ruffled nerves. Overnight cabins are also quite expensive, but to capture that sense of harmony and tranquility for a little longer is possibly worth the price. It really was a day to soothe the soul.