True to the popular belief that some of the greatest gifts occasionally come in the smallest packages, the most rewarding experiences can sometimes be derived from brief encounters and spaces of modest proportions. Such is the charm of Bravo Resorts’ Munting Paraiso in the coastal village of Bulak, Dauin in Negros Oriental. Just all of 4,200 square meters, Munting Paraiso nonetheless holds generous measures of beauty in its architecture, landscape, interior design and ambiance within its compact dimension.
Arriving on a late morning, sunlight filtering through the leaves of the bamboo trees lining the gate greeted me. Ensconced in the walls of the walkway that leads to the gate are curious terracotta sculptures of women, their elongated proportions reminding me of Burmese maidens who wear brass rings around their necks to stretch them to impossible lengths. This initial encounter gave the impression that Munting Paraiso conveys the ambiance of a secluded private sanctuary rather than a resort.
The wooden gate with shallow floral reliefs on the side, an intricate arch of flowering vines, and doors inscribed with the same ornate chisel work, is a veritable work of art. And when it opened, it welcomed me into a garden of serenity.
Its owner, the jovial Atty. Edilberto “Bert” Bravo, is no seasoned hotelier but simply a lover of art, beauty and life’s very fundamental delights.
“Three years ago, when I decided to buy a golf course in Sibulan and build Bravo Hotel, I also thought of developing Munting Paraiso here in Dauin,” he tells. Call it an astute business sense, but Atty. Bravo’s decision couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. A year through its construction, business magazine Forbes named Dumaguete City as one of the “7 Best Places to Retire Around the World” out of 100 other destinations worldwide.
Apart from the fact that the cost of living in Dumaguete ranges lower than many major Philippine cities, Atty. Bravo believes that the province’s natural attractions also make Dumaguete an ideal place for retirement.
“Negros Oriental has many scenic spots and environmental preserves that can be easily reached from Dumaguete. There’s the Twin Lakes of Balinsasayao and Danao in Sibulan, Lake Balanan in Siaton, the sandbar of Manjuyod, the dolphins of Bais, and the caves in Mabinay,” he enumerates.
“But the main attraction is, of course, Apo Island; it is the destination. I would say that more than half of the tourists who come to Negros Oriental come because of diving in Apo Island,” he adds. “The thriving tourism in the town of Dauin, as well as in Zamboanguita, is because of divers going to Apo Island.”
Its location facing the Bohol Sea makes Munting Paraiso the perfect jump-off point for tourists and divers who wish to cross to Apo Island. A few minutes from the resort, at the back of Dauin’s municipal hall, tourists can rent outrigger boats and reach Apo Island in a little under an hour.
But Munting Paraiso is more than just a starting post to the wonders of Negros Oriental. It is in itself a destination especially for city-weary urbanites who long to escape and spend the days in the serenity of a tropical garden.
Designed with influences from a Southeast Asian garden, Munting Paraiso embraces visitors in the lushness of greenery surrounding an asymmetrical pond. The gnarled branches of frangipani trees form an overhead canopy of leaves and fragrant flowers. Birds of paradise and lobster’s claws in full bloom, rosy periwinkles, magenta bougainvillea, golden lady’s slippers, yellow and red acapulco trees, decorative bananas, palm trees, and a host of other tropical plants line the pond’s edge to provide a natural perimeter.
Across the pond is a walkway of stone and wood where one can saunter to the middle and get lost in the caress of quietude. Occasionally, the water ripples and a soft splash is heard. The sound comes from the kois, and when you get near the water’s edge, they race to the surface in hopes of being fed, delighting the younger guests to no end.
This haven has been designed by no less than the late National Artist for architecture, Ildefonso Paez Santos, better known as “IP”.
“The garden is all-Filipino in concept. It was IP Santos who also did such iconic landscapes and structures as the San Miguel Corporation Building in Ortigas with ornamental plants hanging from the sides, Tagaytay Highlands, and his masterpiece, Nayong Pilipino. For Munting Paraiso, he assigned his most important partner, another notable architect and landscape artist, Cecilia Tence, to take charge of all the landscaping,” Atty. Bravo explains.
The carved teakwood door, he notes, has been especially made in and shipped from Bali. Wooden sculptures of the sarimanok – a mythical bird from Maranao mythology – adorn some of the public spots. In a smaller pond beside the café, three sculptures of women stand on low platforms and below them, a scattering of apples. Like the busts near the entrance, these terra cotta sculptures, Atty. Bravo informed me, were done by the highly regarded Filipino painter and sculptor Kitty Taniguchi.
He points out, “I used her because apart from the fact that she’s the foremost artist working in Negros Oriental at the moment, her art is keenly focused on sustainability – which means she’s very much aware about taking care of our environment. She has been instrumental in using clay as major medium for many of her sculptural pieces. And clay, terra cotta, is abundant in Negros Oriental.”
In all, Munting Paraiso has 14 villas housed in two-storey structures that bring to mind the magnificence of stately haciendas of yore. Designed by Filipino architect Audrey Shih, the rooms, in the organic colors of wood and stone and with a wooden cutwork detail in the in ceiling, are sleek and cool. The interiors, with woven lounge and foot rest, and furniture in dark wood have been designed by Ivy and Cynthia Almario of Atelier Almario.
My room’s spacious bath has one wall of glass with a jacuzzi tub facing a view of the Bohol Sea. At night, one can open the sliding doors to let the incoming sea breeze fan the room. During the day, bitten by the irresistible desire to laze, a weary traveler may bask in the tub while staring at the sea on a self-imposed exile of luxury.
In the corner of the resort facing the sea, an infinity pool made from a mosaic of handsome araal stones makes a tempting invitation for a quiet swim.
“Araal stones are indigenous to the island of Negros, especially in the northern towns of Negros Oriental such as Bindoy. We used it to give the pool a natural look so that it becomes a part of the environment,” says Atty. Bravo.
On the opposite end is a children’s pool and beside it, in open air, is a pool of warm water fed by the hot springs coming from the distant Mt. Talinis range in the west. Another feature of Dauin and its surrounding environs is the presence of the hot springs. During low tide, informs Atty. Bravo, one can walk along the shore and witness steaming hot water coming out of the edge of the beach.
“That’s why all the rooms are plumbed with hot spring water in the bathtub,” he remarks. Why the emphasis on hot water and hot springs? The Japanese term for hot springs, Atty. Bravo says, is onsen and that the best are those located under open skies. These are called ofuro.
“So the highest quality of onsen can be found and enjoyed here in the hot spring pool of Munting Paraiso. There is no roof, so guests can enjoy the full splendor of the sky while basking in the hot tub,” he informs with a smile. “And I believe they’re medicinal. I still feel energetic and strong, especially on days when I’m not too busy. I ascribe that to the fact that I love dipping into a pool of hot spring water.”
And what of pleasures to delight the palate? In Munting Paraiso, dining is an indulgent experience – thanks to the creativity of chef Fabrizio Forlanini. Using the brick wood fire oven, chef Fabrizio creates Italian and Mediterranean dishes – from pizzas to baked fish and pasta.
“Food is also an attraction. It’s a component of service that guests can enjoy and look forward to,” Atty. Bravo emphasizes. “That’s why we spare no effort to create delicious meals that become part of the Munting Paraiso experience.”
While the term munti may mean tiny, the attractions in Munting Paraiso are by no means miniscule. In this exquisite cocoon, the verdant garden, the views of the sea and mountain, the quiet mornings in the onsen, the warm service and the friendly smiles, offer a kind of luxury that relaxes the mind, pampers the body and indulges the spirit.