Literary scholars will tell you that legends are the stuff of which a nation’s cultural identity is (in part) made. And – on these 7,107 islands – these nuggets of our heritage are in no short supply. There is a legend (alamat) to explain just about every natural phenomenon: from how the pineapple came to be, to the creation of the rice plant, from the formation of rivers and volcanoes, to the bittersweet unions of star-crossed lovers. These time-honored stories are passed down from generation to generation, ever-evolving along the way.
In the windy city of Tagaytay, the country’s second Summer Capital, there has emerged a Little Mountain that goes by the name Hotel Monticello. Set against the cloud-dappled blue skies of the Tagaytay Ridge, its creation is the stuff of which legends are made.
The birth of this Little Mountain on a Ridge started out as a dream in the heart of Eduardo “Dondi” Valdez, Hotel Monticello’s General Manager and one of its founders. “I wanted to put up a venue which would benefit our Tourism Management students, a place to help them hone their craft,” Valdez shared, in reference to their family-owned PATTS College, which offers the particular Bachelor of Science degree alongside its popular aeronautics courses.
Aside from the Valdezes, at the helm of the business are the Dumlao and Gatmaitan families. Paramount Hotel Management Group was tapped to assist in running the hotel, alongside Monticello’s hardworking, hospitable staff, spearheaded by Operations Manager Rose Ann Alvarez.
“I was only thinking of a small 7-door facility, with a small function room, but the Chief Designer, along with my father, blew it up, really! Our Chief Designer went all out with it,” he revealed, lightheartedly. The Chief Designer of whom he spoke is no other than his mother, Mrs. Felisa S. Valdez, the hotel’s CEO and point person for all aesthetic and design concerns.
“Mrs. Valdez is a real trouper, and the driving force behind all this. Everything you see here, she has envisioned in her mind,” Dondi added.
“That’s an overstatement.” Mrs. Valdez – Nini, to friends – playfully retorted to her son’s remark, as she went on to share that her love for Italy (where she and the entire family celebrated her and hubby Ambrosio’s 45th wedding anniversary) is reflected in the name of the hotel (monticello means ‘little mountain’ in Italian), and in the names of the establishment’s penthouse suites and outlets.
Thus, as legends often go, Hotel Monticello began its evolution to legendary proportions.
Labor of love
Overstatement or otherwise, the fairly massive undertaking that is Hotel Monticello is evidently a labor of love. With its pulled-together, luxurious charm, this highland hideaway –located along General Emilio Aguinaldo Highway, central to Tagaytay City’s popular attractions – is the end-result of the Valdez family’s commitment to redefining and elevating the level of the boutique hotel experience south of the metro.
The hotel’s founders broke ground way back 2010, and poured their heart and soul into the construction of Monticello, which opened its doors to the public in April 2015, and had its grand launch in November of the same year. Mrs. Valdez would spend hours on end, poring over blueprints, while her son Dondi personally supervised the construction. This feat of love was not without its own set of challenges. In 2014, Mother Nature threw the Monticello team a curve ball, in the form of Typhoon Glenda (Rammasun). “We were at a very critical point of construction and we sustained damage, but we’ve taken it in stride and become stronger for it,” the younger Valdez disclosed.
With a room count of 41 (consisting of 35 well-appointed Deluxe and Superior rooms, as well as 6 lavish Penthouse Suites), the Monticello falls within the boutique-hotel category. However, it is easy to forget this fact, what with Monticello’s expansive lobby, flanked by grand staircases on either side, high ceilings with an impressive skylight (energy-saving and simply gorgeous!), large function rooms, overall generous common areas on each of 5 floors, and – lest we forget – three spacious elevators servicing these floors. It is at once apparent that the hotel has the feel of luxury you would expect from a much larger chain. This is not your ordinary boutique hotel; this is next-level luxe.
Even as you first step into the lobby, the luxe experience is palpable, as you take deep breaths of the hotel’s exquisite specially blended (as closely supervised by the Chief Designer, of course) signature scent. A 25-meter temperature-controlled adult swimming pool as well as a smaller and warmer kiddie pool off to the side are conveniently situated in Monticello’s gardens. By the adult pool, there is a gym which – although on the smaller side – has all the essentials for a complete and fulfilling workout (and all the fitness buffs said ‘Amen!’). For that added touch of leisurely pampering, Hotel Monticello has expert masseuses on call to knead away every last bit of tension and stress.
Milestones and special events are made even more special at Monticello, which has several function rooms (named after Mrs. Valdez’ granddaughters, Annika, Bianca, and Vivienne) and the VIA Grand Ballroom. The more outdoorsy set may opt to hold their celebrations at Monticello’s well-kept, breezy Soleil Gardens.
The “Bigorot” binge
Over the recent years, Tagaytay has burgeoned into a foodie’s haven. A plethora of coffee shops, all-day breakfast eateries, fine-dining restaurants, grill houses and more have sprouted throughout the locale, adding to the appeal of this popular vacation destination. Hotel Montecillo lives up to the delicious standard, with its very own unique culinary offerings, as created by no less than Chef JR Royol, the first winner of MasterChef Pinoy Edition.
“My family has a very intimate relationship with food,” super-talented and youthful Chef JR said. “My Dad hails from a proud Bicolano food heritage, while my Mom, an Igorot by descent, is very particular about injecting fresh indigenous products in her cooking.”
From this marriage of culinary influences, Chef JR’s visionary “Bigorot” cuisine was born, taking MasterChef Pinoy Edition by storm, and now, adding flavor to the Tagaytay dining scene. Aside from this extraordinary food fusion, Chef JR is heavily inspired by the indigenous Tausug way of cooking, which is characterized by its generous use of blackened coconut and healthful spices such as turmeric.
Deliciously exciting dining
Dining at Monticello is a deliciously exciting experience. Meals may be enjoyed at Café Mercedes (for all-day dining), Roma Piano Bar, or the poolside Trattoria Maria, or in the comfort of your own room.
The buffet at Café Mercedes always offers up innovative, delectable surprises, such as savory Tapang Barako, beef marinated and cured in neighboring Batangas City’s famous barako coffee. There’s also the Tiyula Itum (black tinola), a hearty chicken soup made with seared coconut flesh cut into strips (hence, the black bits in the soup), which is as bold as it is beautiful on the palate.
Over a lunch specially whipped-up for the asianTraveler team, Chef JR wowed our tastebuds with a starter of Dulong and Achara, finely grated fresh green papaya, julienned ripe mangoes, and carrot strips, pickled in a delicately tart and tangy vinaigrette dressing, served with dried fish fry. The dish that came next, a heavenly Ginataang Kalabasa with Tilapia, proved a divine combination: fresh, juicy tilapia fish swathed in spiced coconut cream and golden sweet squash sauce, with delicate slivers of squash topped with crunchy pechay (Chinese cabbage) sprouts on the side. More of our favorite Tapang Barako – this time, served with fried plantain bananas and a sunny-side-up egg, for the ultimate in Filipino comfort food – followed on the fins of the sumptuous tilapia. Next on the roster of dining delights, a plump and generous helping of salmon, perfectly sous-vide so all its natural flavors exploded with each bite, was served atop a bed of green pea mash with sliced sundried tomatoes. By way of a perfect ending to a scrumptious and innovative meal, Chef JR served a slice of smoothly whipped Bavarian chocolate cake topped with strawberry ice cream, yet another crave-worthy concoction.
Overall, dining at Hotel Monticello is an honest-to goodness culinary journey: each dish is a showcase of Chef JR’ approach to freshness and the food’s true flavors, resulting in well-rounded, ingeniously balanced palate pleasers.
“Our cooking philosophy at Monticello is to do more with fewer ingredients. This is a very sustainable way of cooking,” Chef JR pointed out.
“We want our guests to experience what and how it is like to be in Tagaytay, highlighting the local produce – farm-to-table – and incorporating the local sellers and local livestock farmers. This way, we build a sustainable relationship which benefits everyone.”
Making its mark
Yes, legend has it that from the seed of a humble dream to help others, watered by love and diligence of the Chief Designer and her brood, the Little Mountain took form on the Ridge. This Little Mountain is set to make its big mark on the culinary and vacation culture of the Summer Capital south of Metro Manila, in the inimitable Hotel Monticello way.