The Amazing Villa: A slice of paradise in western Palawan

By: Ed Maranan

[caption id="attachment_41714" align="aligncenter" width="648"] The Amazing Villa nests on a hillside surrounded by rainforest. (Photos by Ed Maranan and Herwig Gielen)[/caption]

The Amazing Villa nests on a hillside surrounded by rainforest.

[caption id="attachment_41716" align="alignright" width="210"] The fine-sand beach is a short stroll away.[/caption]

The fine-sand beach is a short stroll away.

[caption id="attachment_41718" align="alignright" width="240"] The gloaming at sundown on the sea[/caption]

The gloaming at sundown on the sea

More than 20 years after my last visit to Palawan sometime in the preceding century, I made a sentimental journey back to this island of mountains and rivers with a group of fellow writers and a couple of new friends. This short sabbatical we owe to the generosity of the sponsors who agreed to support the one-week Adverbum Writers Retreat organized by Fil-Am writer and environmentalist Almira Astudillo Gilles from Chicago.

The retreat—or residency—was held in a rather out-of-the-way neck of the woods along the western coast of Palawan, at a private resort simply known as The Amazing Villa, beguilingly described in a tourist website as a place offering digital detox, with the owners guaranteeing no internet  connection and no cell phone signals. The spiel may be discouraging to the gadget-dependent traveler, but it definitely casts a spell on those who yearn to recharge their natural batteries and draw inspiration from the environment.

Perhaps the only temporary drawback is the fact that the place can be reached after an hour and a half (just over an hour with a 4x4 vehicle) of sylvan-scenic but van-jarring, fat-shedding and bone-rattling ride, but this is only for the meantime, because graders, bulldozers, backhoes and construction workers are visibly doing their best at improving the feeder road system in the infrequently accessed parts of this province. From Puerto Princesa, a good motorcyclist can reach The Amazing Villa in under an hour, and despite the rough roads, there is passenger transport plying the western coastal route to and from the capital.

Lonely Planet has included Palawan as one of the 10 “best value destinations” in the world for 2014, after putting it in the Top 10 list of “the world’s best regions” for 2013, even enthusing over it as “the ultimate archipelago for adventurers”. For its part, Travel + Leisure magazine gave it the number one spot in a list of Top Ten Islands in its annual World’s Best Awards.

By focusing on the well-known natural wonders of the island such as El Nido and the St. Paul Subterranean River, however, they miss out on a full picture of Palawan’s offerings by not playing up lesser known places such as sitio Bobosawen, barangay Apurawan, municipality of Aborlan. For here can be found—tucked away on a thickly forested hillside overlooking a kilometer-long cove with fine sand and gentle surf, and from which the beach is just a 10-minute leisurely walk—the Amazing Villa, a private resort with comfortable and modern amenities, personalized service, and believe it or not, five-star Filipino and international cuisine as prepared by the owner-chef Theresa Juguan and her kitchen help.

The multi-faceted Theresa took up business management studies at St. Benilde and Philippine Women’s University, and enrolled in a baking course at the PWU’s Asian Baking Institute, but her original calling is registered midwife, which means she can deliver babies in an emergency in the deep woods. The other half of this amazing (the word applies to just about any feature of the place) couple is Herwig Gielen, a lanky Belgian who used to head a company from his country manufacturing and marketing bakery ingredients in the Philippines. And there hangs a tale, of how a mild-mannered foreigner and a feisty Ilongga got to know each other, dated for seven years, before finally getting married and settling down in Puerto Princesa where she had put up a thriving pastry business.

Sometime in 2002, they came upon a huge stretch of forest and farm land sloping down to the sea, and the owners of plots in the area were willing to sell. They never asked the owners to relocate, even inviting them to stay on their land and offering them jobs as caretakers. The only sources of income in those parts then were gathering forest products and fishing. Only one family decided to stay, and the others moved to other properties they owned nearby. Herwig is a man full of ideas, while Theresa is a dream-driven person, and together they instinctively saw something in that virginal expanse of land. They realized they could put up a bed and breakfast place in Bobosawen, despite the remoteness from the capital, if they could pitch it as a novel respite from the proverbial madding crowd. Herwig now recalls:

“The idea of putting up a home in Bulod (the name given to the place by the Tagbanua) was definitely a shared passion. We had discovered the area together after we decided that we wanted to see every beach in Palawan, for which trip we rented a 4x4, loaded it with food and a tent, and off we went for days, putting up our beds wherever the road would take us. That’s how we found our place. We both wanted to build something to enable us to stay overnight. We agreed on building a kubo, but somehow it became a Villa. Theresa, who took charge as the architect, did not want to build something temporary as she feared that it might reflect on the longevity of our relationship. She wanted us to invest in a rock-solid building (literally dug out from the rock bed of the mountain).The idea of setting up a B&B came only late last year, and in November 2012 we had our first guest. By that time, we had already built all the guest rooms, open-air bar and kitchen, and rooms for our staff. We used the rooms to host friends (both from abroad as well as from Puerto) and to host parties—one of which lasted 36 hours straight!”

Recruiting an agricultural worker, they cultivated a sprawling organic garden for the daily supply of vegetables and herbs, and put up an enclosure for free-range chickens which assure the resort a ready source of native eggs. With a generator supplying round-the-clock electricity, and continuous clean water supply sourced from nearby mountain springs, some of it filtered for drinking use, the Amazing Villa now caters to guests any time of the year. After considering several alternative sources of cheap and renewable energy, Herwig is convinced that mini-hydroelectric power is the best, given the endless water supply provided by the surrounding mountains. That should give the steadily humming diesel-fed generator a rest.

Herwig—nicknamed Gilles from his surname—not only has electrical and engineering skills but is also an experienced barista, and his menu of cocktails is quite extensive, incorporating standard and classic mixes popular since the 1930s (Cosmopolitan, Cuba Libre, Daiquiri, Margarita, Red Lion, Mojito and many more) as well as some of his own creations and variations (Caribbean-style House Swizzle, Pinoy Caipirinha, Nightcap in Paris, among others). Herwig has updated some classics and “adjusted them to modern taste”. In mixes requiring honey, he uses wild honey gathered from the rainforest, and uses muscovado instead of refined sugar whenever another sweetener is called for.

Our welcome dinner on the first day was a full spread of spicy fried rice, fresh shrimp rolls in Thai rice paper, noodles with dill, pork cutlets, green salad from the organic garden, and inihaw na lapu-lapu. The succeeding nights featured crayfish, ginataang kalabasa, lettuce and arugula salad, pork barbecue, adobong pugita (with the most tender octopus meat you are ever likely to taste), potato salad, chapatti bread with Theresa’s special sauce of tomato and spices, and beef curry with a garnish of marigold—all these dinner delights washed down every night with an infusion of freshly picked mint leaves, as well as with cocktails and chilled or iced beer. (To be continued)

For details on the Amazing Villa: 

[caption id="attachment_41721" align="alignleft" width="270"] A poet waits for sunset from view deck.[/caption]

A poet waits for sunset from view deck.

[caption id="attachment_41723" align="alignleft" width="270"] View of the Philippine western sea from the garden[/caption]

View of the Philippine western sea from the garden