The hours seemed to stretch on forever, moving ever so slowly. Not in a languishing, nothing-to-do-in-the-doldrums kind of way, but in an unhurried, long overdue-respite-from-the-hustle-and-bustle-of-life kind of way. I rolled over on the large and comfy lounge underneath the cabaña by the picturesque Hilutungan Channel (home to some of Mactan, Cebu’s famed dive sites) to reach for my phone for a quick time-check: almost noon. The impeccably delicious smoked salmon omelet I had for breakfast still sat nicely in my belly, warding off lunchtime’s hunger pangs. So I rolled back over and happily drifted off to the sound of the sea’s hypnotic rhythms, as gentle breezes caressed my face in the tropical island haven known as the Abaca Resort.
Abaca, the anti-hotel
“We want this to be as anti-hotel as possible. We want it to be more of a ‘staying at your friend’s house’ sort of experience,” shared American-born Jason Hyatt, the ever on-the-go founder and owner of the Abaca Group. Jason, a chef by training and profession, moved from Hong Kong to the island of Mactan in the Philippines several years ago to develop a rest-house property owned by an uncle and his Filipina wife. In partnership with a businessman friend from Hong Kong, Jason opened a restaurant on the 5,000 square meter parcel of land which, in years past, had served as a vacation getaway for him and his family. As fortune and hard work would have it, the Abaca restaurant was born in 2006.
It wasn’t long before word of the restaurant’s first-class food and service spread like wildfire through Lapu-Lapu City in Mactan, and to neighboring Cebu City. People came in droves, to sample the finest of dishes. The success of the restaurant made Jason think: why not offer the full-on Abaca experience? Plans to put up a resort whirred around in Jason’s head, like bees to a hive full of honey.
The events that followed were more serendipitous than contrived. “We had no real plan, it was very organic. It was very challenging, but it worked out. My original concept was a chill place, at a good price, with a sort of bohemian feel, and then it just sort of got out of control – and we’re lucky it did, because we wouldn’t be where we are today,” Jason said of the somewhat arduous journey from restaurant to resort.
The “chill vibe” and exacting standards of quality are part of the Abaca guarantee, and most people do not mind that these come at a premium.
The Abaca aesthetic
Travelers the world over are lucky it got “out of control,” as Jason puts it. Around the original restaurant on Punta Engaño Road, on the island province belonging to the Philippines’ central Visayas region, nine neo-Asian inspired guestrooms have risen, each as exquisite as the other. Given that the land had a pre-existing structure, no two rooms are exactly alike, by way of room size, cut and interior décor. And although this proved quite a headache to develop, it all works rather nicely in contributing to the handcrafted vacation feel.
The Abaca aesthetic breathes clean and simple elegance into each of its six deluxe suites and three villas. High, wood-beamed ceilings intersect gracefully with more than ample space – rooms vary in size from 65 to 123 square meters, and are furnished with fine antiques and pieces showcasing world-renowned Cebuano craftsmanship.
Luxury is in no short supply: from silk goose-down pillows and feather-top beds fitted with pristine cotton linen, to handmade botanical toiletries and the best of room amenities, Abaca goes all-out in pampering its guests.
Most suites and villas have a sweeping view of the sea, with one villa ensconced within its own walled gardens for added privacy. Plunge pools are an added treat to the Garden Pool Villa and the Oceanfront Pool Villa.
Because of its intimate setting (Jason refers to it as a “micro-boutique” resort), Abaca is often booked solid for private family and group vacations. It is likewise gaining a reputation as a favorite spot for destination weddings, as the resort’s seasoned General Manager Glenn Ylanan explained. Weddings, he said, are usually held by the resort’s infinity pool, affording a stunning view of the sun and the sea.
It came as a very pleasant surprise to learn that the face of beauty and luxury has a compassionate side, as well. Abaca is highly dedicated to its sense of corporate social responsibility, and gives back to the people of the barangay (village) by way of employment, education, and other such programs that bear a significant impact on their lives and livelihoods.
Simple pleasures and beyond
Abaca’s standards of beauty and excellence extend well-beyond its accommodations into its service, and its cuisine – but we shall get to that soon enough! Smiling-faced staff members, led by Head Butler Raffy Doria, are not only shining examples of Filipino hospitality at its finest, but are also products of remarkable training. Men and women on staff at the resort are all well-aware of the fine line between good service and intruding into a guest’s personal space. At the Abaca, you are pretty much left to your own devices to enjoy life’s purest and simplest pleasures, while being able to rely on its team to respond to your every need.
Should you be up for it, water sports, diving, and snorkeling can be easily arranged. The Abaca Spa, which is managed by Jason’s wife, Anna, is also a good place to fill your day. I had the Abaca Signature Massage, a blissful combination of deep and long strokes, applying rhythmic motion and pressure with essential massage oils. Spa supervisor Debbie Cailing recommended the stimulating oil (a blend of black pepper, eucalyptus, and peppermint), as she skillfully kneaded out every knot and tired muscle in my body, leaving me completely relaxed.
Abaca’s culinary afterglow
Perhaps central to the Abaca experience is the food. Undoubtedly, the bar of resort dining has been raised really high by the Abaca restaurant.
Each meal at the Abaca is entirely gratifying, and leaves you with an afterglow and contentment of epicurean proportions. Give in to your inner hedonist, and take a trip on the wild side of excess – the food is THAT good. This should come as no surprise, given Jason’s cheffing expertise and the remarkable kitchen team behind the scenes.
Uber-talented Executive Chef Patrick McCarthy, who hails from Queensland, is primarily responsible for every masterpiece that leaves the kitchen. And – as I half-jokingly chided him – for every delicious calorie that ended up on my hips.
“People come back for the consistent quality we offer. Our diners enjoy our California-Mediterranean cuisine – it works. Dishes are light and fresh. And we always give you value for your money,” he shared.
Must-try’s include their hearty pumpkin soup, made even heartier with a hint of rich coconut milk, savory lobster linguini pasta (lip-smackingly good homemade noodles, of course), and the variety of gourmet pizzas offered on the menu. Chef Pat served us the Angus Beef pizza, which has a light and crispy homemade crust, cooked to perfection in a wood-fired oven. As I said, hedonism is the order of the day, so don’t feel guilty about having the slow-cooked beef short ribs. Roasted for 12-15 hours, this dish virtually melts in your drooling mouth. If you prefer to sample the slow-cooked pork belly, you are in for yet another divine dish: a generous helping of lean and tasty pork roasted for 6 hours and cooked in essence of curry and caramelized apple. We had it ALL, and then made room for dessert: a pecan pie so decadently delicious it was certainly sinful.
From the ambiance and accommodations, to the food and service, Abaca has taken quality and excellence to near art form. When I asked if there was a symbolic correlation of the resort’s name to the fiber so integral to Philippine culture, Jason laughingly answered “We aren’t that deep!” I beg to differ, for the ability to put people in a state of deep, uncomplicated ease and contentment is truly nothing short of profound.