Growing up in Manila, my idea of escape was the nearby province of Batangas. The beckoning smell of fresh coffee and the age-old stories of heroism from the people of Batangas are enough excuses to drop my weariness of urban life, tow my bags and ride a bus. Though I’ve made the trip to the province many times, I was what some would consider a “beach virgin” – this is my first time to enjoy the famous four-kilometer beach of Laiya, on the bordering town of San Juan.
When it comes to Laiya hospitality, Acuatico Beach Resort was said to be the epitome. Acuatico recently topped the lists of preferred holiday destination accommodations, where it is said that, as picturesque as it was, photos couldn’t capture the true essence of the resort. I had to see for myself (and photographer Terence Ver Angsioco had to prove them wrong).
Feasting and merrymaking around San Juan
Just two hours away from Manila, the town of San Juan is literally at the edge of Batangas, with the waves of the Pacific breaking upon its shores. It is home to a 164-year old history of war and bravado. A silent witness to it all is the Church of San Juan Nepomuceno, built in 1843 at the town center to replace the ruined church at old Pinagbayanan.
Despite all the tribulations the town went through, the people of San Juan remain a fun-loving and merrymaking crowd, made more festive with the drinking of lambanog, an alcoholic drink made by distilling the fermented nectar of the coconut tree. To this day, bamboo beams remain aloft for the harvesting of nectar, making San Juan a leading producer of the drink across the country.
A new product, meanwhile, is making waves abroad as a healthy alternative to processed sugar. Coco sugar, a sweetener made by boiling and drying the unfermented nectar of the coconut tree, is currently being exported in bulk to countries like the US and Japan where it is used by diabetics for its high-mineral and low-calorie content.
The townsfolk of San Juan’s love for crafts also made them famous for their pottery. Kiln-equipped shops line the town’s roadside, where locals and tourists alike can purchase anything from simple flower pots to towering jars of intricate shapes and designs.
Like the rest of the Philippines, San Juan is proud of its culinary culture. Chef Ed Salagubang’s Ang Bagong Tahanan serves authentic Batangueño dishes to a new generation of gourmands and gourmets. Courses of greens, seafood, native chicken and slowcooked pork are served, with the diners kept uninvolved but satisfied with the choice of fare. For snacks, head out to Cafeño, an ancestral home-turned-coffee-shop that serves native rice cakes and pastries with local barako coffee (coffea liberica).
Casual and symmetrical
From the town proper, Acuatico Beach Resort is just a half-hour ride away. Leaving behind the congestion of the bustling town, I entered a quaint, secluded haven as I was welcomed with cheerful greetings, smiling faces and a cold drink to quench my thirst. It wasn’t just a photographer’s dream, as some say it is; it was a writer’s, as well.
Acuatico is a small resort, serving only up to 70 guests in 21 rooms. This assures the guests of immediate and personalized service, with each Balinese-inspired room or villa uniquely designed to cater to the changing tastes of the picky clientele. Couples and small groups can occupy rooms for two like Infiniti, Casa de Playa, Vista de Laiya and Alta Vista, while families and groups of friends can occupy the Family Suite, Terraza or Estancia villas. All these rooms have been arranged around a massive infinity-edge pool, a luxury afforded only to the guests of Acuatico. “Each room has a commanding view of the Laiya beachfront and the pool, which is the only one of its kind in Laiya,” said Simonette Gusi, General Manager of Acuatico.
That night, the pool seemed to glow with dimmed lights and rustic water fountains, rippling each reflection to a distorted wonder. In a way, Acuatico is symmetry in action, a reflection of the creative output of Noli Gusi and architect Rommel Dionisio, who designed and built the resort together five years ago. I then got myself a cool drink from the pool’s floating Acua Bar before enjoying the cozy softness of my sheets.
Temptation at its finest
I raised my blinds the next morning to welcome the sunny day at Laiya. My bowl of arrowroot cookies or uraro was almost empty so I headed down the gift shop to grab a jar or two. Here, you can also buy swimming accessories and sunscreen creams, to assure yourself a fun-filled day especially with Acuatico’s free use of kayak and paddle boat equipment. To get yourself farther from the shore, you can also opt to ride a jet ski or go snorkeling to appreciate the hidden wonder that is Laiya. Of course, a dip into the glistening, turquoise sea was a must for me, especially when the tropical sun and the gentle sand were so tempting.
After having my fill of water activities, I had the rest of my day free for the numerous services of Acuatico. An hour of massage at Simona Spa was a treat for bodies tired from swimming along the shores, coupled of course with an ample amount of time in the sauna. Friends can also play a game of darts or pool at the Game Room, while kids can spend the afternoon at the Playroom, with toys and games that are both fun and educational.
Trooper with a toque
The long day left me famished, so I whisked myself away to Oceano Restaurant, Acuatico’s dining center. Located at the second floor of the resort, it featured a panoramic view of Acuatico and the beachfront, and features a wide array of Filipino, Asian and Continental dishes using fresh local ingredients.
At the helm of the kitchen is Chef Ulysses Chua, Executive Chef of Oceano, who was intent on reinventing the selections and combinations of the thrice-daily buffet. A military man for 20 years, he changed careers and delved into cooking, taking with him the discipline of service and commanding with it his battalion of cooks. That afternoon, he was kind enough to offer me the new dishes the restaurant will be serving this year.
Insalata mista di mare was a selection of fresh seafood in vinegar with hints of chili, lemon and olive oil, and to go with it was a plateful of Cajun chicken salad with honey mustard dressing. The appetizers provided a refreshing respite for my palate, with the perfect balance of sour, salty and sweet tones satisfying my hunger pangs.
I had a bit of blackened cajun chicken sandwich and the char-grilled wagyu beef tenderloin with wild cherry sauce, both of which were a feast of proteins for my stomach. Feast on these when staying at Acuatico, because as Chef Chua puts it, “if your hotel is good and your food even better, guests will surely come back.”
I ended my meal with a cup of flowing barako coffee, and sat staring upon the mirage forming upon the sea. It’s not just the pool, or the cookies, or the visit to the bar that made my stay here at Acuatico perfect, but the usual greeting across the hall and the glowing smile from every member of the resort staff. If first impressions are always like this, I thought, I was lucky they stick to me like glue.
Interview with Noel Brania, Resident Manager of Acuatico Beach Resort
Since the resort opened its doors in 2008, Noel Brania, Resident Manager of Acuatico Beach Resort, has been involved in its operations, having been its consultant for a year before finally joining the team in February 2009.
“You meet a lot of people in this industry, all of whom have the intention of enjoying themselves. I’ve seen families and couples who return to the resort months or a year after because they had a good stay,” he said proudly. According to him, 10 percent of the guests are foreign tourists from North America, Europe and Japan, while 90 percent are Filipinos, including balikbayans who return to the country when it’s summer vacation abroad.
Despite minimal marketing moves, Acuatico reached its status as an accommodation hotspot through a steady online presence made possible by checked-in guests. “Everything must have happened by word-of-mouth and guest referrals. Facebook also started its online rule in 2008, so we can only imagine the statuses and photos shared on the web.” That year, the main road into Laiya’s pristine beach was also finished, which Brania considered a timely blessing.
In recent years, Acuatico has received outstanding feedback in online review and social networking sites, assuring the resort of continued patronage from old and new guests. “We focus on service. Based on comment forms and reviews from blogs and websites like Facebook and TripAdvisor, we know that we are doing good in terms of service.” “Acuatico was intentionally built as a small property, because we want to cater to the needs of the guests individually. But hopefully, by next year, we will be adding new rooms to accommodate more guests,” he added.
There’s more to Acuatico than just a pool and some rooms, because at the heart of the resort is a zeal to preserve a gift of nature. “Right now, we take part in the community’s efforts to preserve Laiya’s beach-front with the annual coastal clean-up drive. The resorts here acknowledge that Laiya is the nearest destination to Manila with a beach of such beauty,” he concluded.