I stood on the southernmost place in Negros Island, with just about an hour left before my departure, under the rain and amidst testy waves, to do some unfinished business: walk by the cliffs, along the island’s farthest and steep edges.
Throughout my stay at the town of Siaton, housed in Antulang Beach Resort, my team has never been without anything worthwhile to do; I never had the chance to complete my cliffside walk. It was my second time in the resort yet I was faced with the same dilemma. During my first time last year, I could not walk the entire stretch because I could not separate from the pack of writing fellows which I was a part of and hosted by Antulang for the day. I could only consider myself an absolute ingrate if within this second chance of being brought here, on assignment, I would still fail to do something that I had always wanted.
The cliffside walk that scopes the less-than-a-kilometer beach strip and the 40-foot cliffs would take 15 to 20 minutes to traverse. I covered half during the sunset pictorial towards the strip’s western end, the pebble beach. I still left the half unexplored, the eastward stretch, where the gazebo is. I sought resort officer Annabel to accompany me, picking up from the half point where we had ended our pictorial. I assured her I could hike fast, could handle heights, and did not mind the tall waves. She seemed pleased, quickly grabbed a couple of umbrellas from the counter, then led me off.
There was more wind blowing than water raining on us that my umbrella broke. I apologized, which both made me and Annabel laugh. She wanted me to have her umbrella but I turned it down. Best that nothing obstructed my view. I wanted to take it all in – the sight of the waves hitting the rocks and concrete path of the walkway, the endless sea at my right, and the imposing cliff at my left. Every time a wave slapped the path a bit more forcefully, Annabel looked behind to check if I was okay. All I could answer her with was laughter, every time a wave managed to hit my feet, as I licked the sea mist off my lips.
In Antulang, it was the first time that I was exploring the end of an island by tracing its steep rocky edges. This is how an island must truly stand up to the sea, I thought. Beaches with their pebbles and sands are more of just ornaments, after all, getting blown by the winds from one cove to another. They go along with the tide. But the towering stones, the rocks and the jagged ground that hold up the island – these are the island’s bones.
Antulang Beach Resort takes the name of the sitio where it stands, within barangay Siit, in Siaton, 40 kilometers south of Dumaguete City, Negros Oriental’s capital. Siaton is the southernmost tip of Negros Island, which in turn is the southernmost great island of the Visayas. Negros is home to the Philippines’ vast sugar cane plantations and grandest ancestral homes, but none of these are present in Siaton. Here, there is only plain village life – nipa huts behind bamboo fences, goats crossing the street and children swinging on low tree branches. Antulang Beach Resort somehow appears as a brave effort at showing that this side of Negros, its farthest side down, may well be its best side, its pride. It has grown to be the sitio’s main attraction – a traveler looking for Antulang will be pointed directly to the resort and nowhere else.
I examined two of Antulang’s best suites. The presidential suite is the only one of its kind in the entire resort, spacious, has a kitchen-dining area, and ideal for couples who plan for a longer, homey stay. Its best features are its isolation and view. It is built on a part of the cliffs not closely connected to other suites, giving it a unique panorama of Sulu Sea. The pool villas are ideal for couples, too, since each pool deck overlooking the cliffside path leading to the west pebble beach, and diving haven Apo Island in the east, may be arranged for a romantic dinner set up. All pool villas feature outdoor Jacuzzis next to the pool, while some pool villas have massage areas. This makes the pool villa perfect for those who want a little bit more bodily pampering.
Despite its 10 hectare immensity, 48 rooms and suites, numerous pools and sprawling gardens, Antulang retains an intimacy. It has the dimensions comparable to standards of international resorts, yet it has a boutique look, a seeming deliberate stand to not be sleek. And if Antulang were a boutique resort-hotel, its theme would have to be arts and literature. All of the suites I checked displayed paintings by resident artist Cornelito Aro. Those at Ian’s Bar, particularly, are oil paintings and watercolors bearing the names of other artists, and the artworks’ respective prices. I was awed, seeing how Antulang has been a gallery that supports local artists, while its packed library carries the works of Philippine literature’s finest writers, the masters I adore.
We were advised to try Antulang bestsellers such as crispy pata, calamares and melon-flavored beers, but my team had the most pleasure from feasting on Antulang’s seafood and unique take on local dishes.
Their refreshing Seafood Medley packs a great harvest of white meaty chunks of tarug (a marlin-related fish), shrimps, squids and crabsticks, mildly boiled and cooled, then tossed in balsamic vinegar with a dash of salt, fresh tomatoes, onions and cucumbers. Their mouth-watering and aromatic chicken kawali, filled with spring onions, lemongrass and garlic, is boiled in peppercorns, bay leaf, vinegar, garlic and salt for 35 to 40 minutes, then roasted from 10 to 15 minutes. I was not tipped to try it, but I requested to be served their pancit tuami, which I have never tasted nor seen anywhere before. This rich noodle dish consists of miki sautéed in heaping strips of shrimp, squid, pork, liver, button mushrooms, shitake, vegetables and red bell peppers.
The star of the Antulang menu is the Seared Tuna with Wasabi Cream, a masterful play on soft textures and sharp tastes. The tender round slices of the tuna are infused with a light sourness. These generous slices of the fish rest on a thin blanket of creamy bitter wasabi, spread over a bed of roasted eggplant slices, shreds of radish, cucumber and carrots, garnished with calamansi and basil, and drizzled with pepper. Sous chef Urbano Cafino said that white wine is mixed with the wasabi to temper its bitterness, while the pepper ensures the mild spicy kick. It is so good my photographer Tabitha kept ordering it during our coverage. As for me, I had to have my sweets, and downed some panna cotta topped with chunks of watermelon, pineapple and lacatan bananas.
There was another Annabelle in Antulang, aside from my all-around guide Annabel, and who may even be more famous than the general manager Annabelle Lee-Adriano – M/B Annabelle Lee, the yacht. It is one of the best looking yachts that sail on Siaton’s shores. I had the yacht all to myself and Tabitha, for a total invasion, with captain Michael and the rest of the crew at our every beck and call.
They took us for the Tambobo Bay cruise. Tambobo Bay lies west of the resort, with calm waters that make it an ideal site to harbor other yachts and boats. A lot of the yachts bear international flags, owned by expats who have settled in Dumaguete or nearby towns. The cruise allowed us a seaside view of the beach from where I earlier took off to ride one of the resort’s horses, Michael, towards the sea, an activity the locals call salum sa dagat. We also sailed past the lighthouse and the whole expanse of Siaton’s cliffs. Sometime during our stay, we had a stopover at the beach right next to the mouth of Tambobo Bay, for kayaking and snorkeling. As much as I enjoyed trying these out, it was my time on the cruise that gave me the greatest fun. I explored every nook and cranny of the yacht, even allowed by the captain to maneuver the antique-looking steer, touch the old-fashioned compass, and sound the horn as many times as I wanted. After I had my fill of running up and down the decks, they handed me the traditional wooden fishing spool called bulonan. They said we could cook whatever I could catch. I was suddenly still for the next hour, concentrating on any movement from my line. I had a decent catch of three pieces of pugot, which is best cooked adobo-style or fried, and one fat white scaled one which none of us could name, but is said to be good as kinilaw or paksiw. I had them later for lunch, fried and paksiw, when we returned to the island.
We had another cruise on the yacht, a sunset dinner cruise, which we shared with a Canadian couple and a few more resort officers. While we waited for our gourmet dinner to be served, the wife tried out the bulonan, and her husband had some ice-cold beers. Over dinner, they praised Antulang’s view and food. When a drizzle started on our way back to the island, I called on everyone to take to the cabins I earlier discovered and enthusiastically went on ahead that one would think I owned the boat.
Annabelle Lee, the general manager, although she could no longer recognize me from last year, took the time out to have a five-hour dinner interview with me. This lady must be really fond of writers and artists, I thought. I had to first ask her, though, about the origins of Antulang, which she remembers to this day.
“Nobody wanted to come here,” she laughingly recalls of this very place where the resort now stands. As a teenager, she used to come to this formerly remote part of Siaton only to hunt. After her family saw the place and appreciated its isolation, they built their great getaway-of-a-home, which eventually became the original resort. They started out with three rooms and friends as guests. Fourteen years since, the rest of Negros’s travelers have found their way to Antulang.
Annabelle has been taking care of the resort as soon as it was opened. Despite the renown that Antulang has earned, she remains humble, admitting she keeps learning to this day. After I raved about their food, and as I asked her about how they have built their menu, she shared, “I listen to a lot of feedback from the team. We take out what’s not selling and retain what’s in demand.” She credits her crew for being the front-liners and therefore the most reliable sources of advice.
Among all of Antulang’s characteristics, it seems that she is most proud of its being “Filipino-run and Filipino-owned.” She adds, “There are lots of resorts in Dumaguete, but most of the time, these are practically owned by foreigners.” But more than Antulang being an all-Filipino enterprise, what I believe sets it apart from the rest is its constant support of writers and artists. Why does Antulang house paintings for sale? Why does it host gourmet lunches and day cruises for writing fellows? Is Antulang in any form of partnership with artists, universities, or national arts agencies? What does it get out of it all? All this Annabelle had to say to all that was, “You make a lot of lasting friendships along the way,” with a smile as brilliant as the light of day that envelopes Antulang’s cliffs on summer.
Annabelle is a professional diver too, and urged me to try out Antulang’s introductory diving, recalling some of her memorable dives, like when she saw giant manta rays. I assured her I would be content just being amazed at how I could see the sun rise and set on a horizon undivided by the sight of land, from this place on earth. We bade goodnight to the tune of what she called “the year-long slapping of the waves, the natural music of Antulang,” and with me wondering if I would have enough time tomorrow, within this second chance, to trace with my feet the farthest edges of this island, the very edges that the waters constantly caress with its tough love.