There comes a point in every traveller’s life when the experience of going to a foreign place no longer feels the same, nor as exciting as it used to be when she first began. Cities blur into similar skylines, restaurants and bars. Non-cities remain precisely that—good in small doses but rarely more. The magic of travel fades into a succession of airports, suited executives and boring business hotels, or a kaleidoscope of lobster-red package tourists and concrete bungalows on dirty beaches.
Even I could not avoid that fate.
Having travelled around many parts of the world on a student’s budget not too long ago, I used to skip perfectly affordable, mid-range hotels in favour of Rs100 rooms. I was used to travelling for three months or more at a time, and had a strict travel philosophy: “It’s got to be all or nothing. Either luxury on a private island scale, or whatever I can get for next to nothing.”
While I outgrew those Rs100 rooms, I still refused to fork out any money for mediocre, mid-range travel experiences. I began hunting instead for those luxe private island retreats I’d long dreamed about. South and South-East Asia were pretty good places to start, blessed as they are with sun, beautiful beaches, world-class cuisine and culture.
More than a meal: A dish from Antonio’s. The Miele Guide
The Philippines, with its 7,107 islands, was especially appealing. Under-visited and often overlooked in favour of Thailand and Indonesia, the Philippines has a certain charm that sets on slowly, but lingers on long after you’ve left. It’s so large, with each region and group of islands distinct from each other, that it feels disjointed; and so disorganized and chaotic that it can be hard to pinpoint what exactly the Filipino experience is about. Is it about the colonial heritage of Intramuros in Old Manila, or the pine trees and mountain ranges around Baguio, where strawberries, ube (yam) jams and hot springs rule?
Why the Philippines is not overrun with tourists is the reason why it should be: It can be experienced in so many spectacularly different ways. A world away from Manila’s chaos are the islands that travellers really should be paying more attention to. There are many quaint hotels on the beaches of Palawan, Boracay and Bohol, but truly world-class luxury options are not as easy to come by as they are in Bali, parts of Thailand, or the Maldives. That is, until you land on Pamalican Island in a private jet.
Home to Amanpulo, the Aman Resorts’ lone foray in the Philippines, Pamalican Island is a private island 300km south-west of Manila. The location, in the Sulu Sea, was once an important stop on the spice trade route between China and Borneo, but later doomed to centuries of obscurity. Today, it is one of the most secluded luxury locations in Asia, and provides an otherworldly privacy worth flying halfway across the world for. The only way to get there is the Amanpulo’s own turboprop.
A hangar at Manila airport hides the Amanpulo’s dedicated lounge, and the journey—and the attentive, invisible service one expects of a hotel of this calibre—begins there. Riding in the 19-seat plane across the seas to the Amanpulo’s private airstrip, you get the sense upon landing on Pamalican Island that there will be nothing but sun, sea and pina coladas for as long as you’re there. Instead of beach huts, your nights are spent in large casitas, modelled after local village homes, either right on the beach or perched among the trees on the hills. Each casitas comes with its own chef and maid to look after your culinary and other daily needs, and with a buggy so that you can explore the island.
For the adventurous, the snorkelling and diving around the Amanpulo is sublime: that the island is surrounded by 7 sq. km of reef, with no one else to share it with, is a plus. Windsurfing, fishing and kayaking in the Sulu Sea are also popular activities for the active traveller.
The rest of us are likely to be found among the trees at the brand new Aman Spa, getting a massage, taking part in a yoga session, or just lying on the lovely white sand beaches, snacking on fresh seafood from the Beach Club.
The magic of Amanpulo is a mesmerizing one, but not one that lasts forever. On the way back to Manila, make the most of your Philippines experience by making a side stop at Tagaytay, in Cavite province just outside the capital. In the hilly, lush surroundings, Tagaytay is home to one of the Philippines’ best restaurants, Antonio’s. In a large colonial house hidden from sight, Antonio Escalante has built an international following by serving fine cuisine in an atmospheric location, literally in the middle of nowhere. The Spanferkel boneless suckling pig, foie gras three ways, lamb ribs (and superb salads and spinach casseroles for vegetarians) are among the dishes that have put Antonio’s on the Miele Guide’s list of Asia’s Top 10 Restaurants. Dining at Antonio’s is not merely about the food—which is excellent, all the time—it’s also about the whole set-up—getting to Tagaytay (good luck with the drive), finding the restaurant, arriving at the restaurant starving and having its massive doors open into a surprisingly charming villa. You then dine along its nostalgic black and white balconies and corridors, while imagining this to be the scene of a historical Filipino-Spanish movie, one in which there is good food all the time.
My Rs100 room days may have ended, but they let me into a secret. To see a country for what it is, you should live like a king or like everyone else, but never as a tourist. Luxury is never about how much you spend on a hotel room, but about priceless, not easily replicated experiences. You can find luxury in the waves of the Sulu Sea, and on every plate on the table in Tagaytay.
The world beyond the Sulu Sea
A few other private islands in South-East Asia that allow you a king’s life
Pulau Rebak, Malaysia
The Taj Hotels’ Rebak Island Resort features Malay-style timbered villas set amid palm trees in peninsular Malaysia. One of the 99 isles that make up Langkawi, Rebak Island has pristine forests and secluded beaches and, most of all, the exclusivity and privacy of a Taj hotel.
Endless blue: The beachfront of Pulau Nikoi in Indonesia.
Getting there: From Kuala Lumpur, fly to Langkawi and be transferred to Rebak by road and sea.
Cocoa Island, Maldives
The COMO hotels seem to have a trademark on indulgent luxuries, and the Cocoa Island Resort is one of their finest achievements. Choose from villas and suites carved out of traditional ‘dhoni’ boats, all on the pristine beaches of Cocoa Island.
Getting there: From Male airport, transfer via speedboat to Cocoa Island.
Pulau Nikoi, Indonesia
When a group of Singapore-based bankers got tired of holidaying in tacky resorts catering to package tourists, they bought an island in the Riau Archipelago and fashioned it into the Robinson Crusoe island of their dreams. A tiny number of eco-chic beach houses, handcrafted by one of the owners, host savvy travellers in the know.
Getting there: From Singapore, take the ferry to Bintan in Indonesia for the transfer to Nikoi.
Rates at Amanpulo start at $800 (approx. Rs36,145) a night for a treetop casita (nestled in the island’s hills) and go to $4,300 a night for a four-bedroom villa. The transfer from Manila to Amanpulo is charged at $400 per person. Service charges and taxes extra.
Adrianna Tan blogs at www.popagandhi.com
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