As a travel writer, one can get used to everything being laid out for you just so. The press junkets and familiarization tours are all programmed to maximize what the sponsors and organizers would want you to see and experience, and then bank on their hopes that you actually write about it as positively as possible. All well and good, we all need to take a living. But when each stop is just another item to be ticked off on an itinerary somebody else thought up, what happens to the sense of adventure, of discovery, the thrill that comes from cleverly figuring out how to find that special place?
Those were the questions I was asking myself as I and three French first-timers to the Philippines were driving around twisty mountain roads in the near dark still tens of kilometres away from where we hoped to end up. As we curved around yet another tricky stretch, dodging goats and barrio lasses, one of my wards asked half-jokingly, half-nervously: “What if after all this, we get there and it’s not very nice?”
But I get ahead of myself. Tasked to tour a friend of a friend and his friends around during the year-end holidays, it was up to me to formulate our game plan for a road trip. I decided to go for broke and look for a destination that was unique, off-the-beaten-path, and one I had never been to before. I already had a pretty good idea where.
Like a city of myth, secreted away from the madding crowd, shrouded by the mists of time, I’d heard snatches about and caught glimpses of the legendary Las Casas Filipinas De Acuzar. Scooped by various websites and blogs, and even showing up as background scenery for the local production of Zorro, these tantalizing teases whipped me up into a must-go-there frenzy. This road trip was my opportunity, and I was gonna seize it, and I didn’t care if I had to drag three unsuspecting foreigners with me to satisfy my selfish whim.
One of my first beats ever as a writer was on architecture and design, and I was drawn to Philippine heritage architecture in particular. So knowing about a whole village composed of authentic 18th-19th century Principalia Mansions and original Bahay na Bato (Stone Houses), painstakingly restored and arranged around a cobblestone plaza and streets had me rabidly frothing at the mouth. Fortunately, I had fellow archi-enthusiasts and shutterbugs in tow, so they were keen on the adventure as well. I booked a room for four at the nearest deluxe resort, the rambling Montemar beach club, utilizing it as the starting point for exploring the region, and squeezing some R&R in between.
And that’s how we found ourselves in the dark, on the road, tracing our route on the map, hoping to get to Bagac in time for dinner. Mt. Samat, the supposed can’t-miss landmark to lead us to our destination, loomed to our left like an imposing black bogeyman. Thankfully, Montemar’s house restaurant El Meson just had its menu and wine list overhauled by respected chef consultant Ed Quimson, so we were properly sated and sloshed before turning in for the night.
After breakfast the next day, we decided to take advantage of our Bataan base camp and spend some time on the beach and in the sea. Though not lily-white, Bagac’s beach sand is fine, clean and algae free, and the clear water had just enough wave action going on to make swimming interesting. Swim out far enough though and you’ll be treated to an even more intriguing sight, the dome of the dormant Bataan Nuclear Power Plant surrounded by lush tropical rainforest. This prompted a few jokes about radioactive fish, but being the world’s top consumers of nuclear energy, my French companions were nonplussed.
For lunch we explored the center of Bagac town and decided to tuck into a simple meal of noodles and sandwiches in a small kitchenette right by the plaza. Barring the Burger Machine cart, it was our only option in the area, but a taste of hearty, down-to-earth local fare was just what the tourists hankered for. But the quaint shop fronts and modest homes of Bagac hardly prepared us for what we were next to see.
Now, beyond the physical effort of getting to Bagac, however scenic, what appeared to be the more insurmountable obstacle to gain access to Las Casas Filipinas De Acuzar was the seeming tight cordon around it imposed upon by its developer and management. From when I first thought of paying a visit to the site, letters, messages and phone calls flew at an increasingly furious pace between myself and various people in charge of different departments across two separate companies, just so I could guarantee my entry into this restricted area. There came a point where I almost surrendered and decided that no place would be worth the trouble, and another point where I imagined us having to sneak into the site like a Franco-Philippine impossible missions force. So when we finally hit the property’s gates, I was bowled over by two pleasant surprises.
Light streams through capiz windows in the U.P. School of Fine Arts building
One, despite our rather surreptitious arrival, the staff on-site were very welcoming. Our guide Mao, gamely toured us around the compound and even opened up some houses up for us to explore, offering some information about the development. Two, all the fuss was more than worth it, gaining a thumbs-up, even in its unfinished state, from my travel-jaded companions. This was a destination that was truly unique, beautifully thought-out, and exquisitely executed. If they can pull off the finishing touches, and all signs point to that coming to fruition, then not only Bataan, but the entire country, will have a resort that will put us on the must-see maps.
Las Casas Filipinas De Acuzar goes beyond the warm beaches, watersports, and charming country scenery that most Philippine resorts are content to offer. By bringing together this unquestionably stunning collection of heritage structures and ensconcing them in an equally dramatic setting, mastermind developer Gerry Acuzar proves himself a genius, with a passion bordering on madness. But if this is insanity, then we need more crazily passionate people taking on projects like this. Whatever you may think of the resort’s concept, it is definitely not uninspired nor mediocre. They really went all the way with this, and it shows, from the intricate details to the big picture postcard-perfect view. What started as a lone vacation house has blossomed into a 400 hectare complex complete with a deluxe hotel (housed in a recreated Escolta building), plus villas, shops, a bar and restaurant, all carved out from the gorgeously gilded heritage halls and homes that Acuzar has personally plucked from the cream of the country.
As supervised by Mexico-trained restoration architect Mico Manalo, the painstaking reconstruction of each heritage house, at least 14 by the time of our visit, with several more (and a chapel) in the process of being scoped out, is not some slapdash uprooting and pastiche job, but a careful, respectful integrated preservation effort. Once seen in situ, it’s easy to dismiss his detractors and accept Acuzar’s rationale for relocating these heritage treasures. With the government or their former owners unwilling or unable to properly safeguard these endangered structures from the ravages of time and greed, their best hope for survival is really behind the safety of Las Casas Filipinas De Acuzar’s fences. What he did was not a rape, but a rescue. Even the modern elements and fixtures that they unavoidably have to incorporate have been carefully designed or cloaked to harmonize with the architectural tenor. Anachronisms are avoided unless necessary. This devotion to authenticity can clearly be seen in the transplanted School of Fine Arts from Quiapo, the centuries-old columns have been left un-repainted, retaining the patina of age, while the new columns replacing damaged ones have been moulded from the originals and accurately display the original colors albeit in bright new enamel.
With the late afternoon sun slowly setting down into the sea, the lengthening shadows and warm light altogether cast an eerie glow on this enchanted village. As it was, with nobody around except for our small party, a few construction workers and random townsfolk who had wandered in for a stroll, we couldn’t help but imagine ourselves as temporal travellers stuck in a time warp, or ghosts come back to haunt the remains of their days.
–text by Jude Defensor, photos by Olivier Milan, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2010