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Pearl Farm Beach Resort: Coming out of its shell

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“Over there you will find something new,” the woman said, hand darting toward the edge of a coast. “Right there,” she pressed on when I seemed confused. “You’ll find it near the beach. You can’t miss it.”

When I followed her gaze that morning at Samal Island, Davao Del Norte, I found a lush forest near the remains of a former dock. And “there,” at the tip of her pointed finger, behind vast waters teeming with exotic marine life and just over the pristine shore that meets it, was a sight that registered to me instantly as a palm tree, one towering conspicuously over the woods. “Do you see it?” the woman asked enthusiastically. I did, of course, and had she chosen not to draw any attention to it, I still would’ve. What I couldn’t see, however, was why she found it so special.

I was, after all, at the Pearl Farm Beach Resort, and the woman speaking to me was Lish dela Torre Babela, the establishment’s Marketing Communications and PR Officer. For the last 23 years, the Pearl Farm has been seen as the poster child of Samal Island, and it has been so for good reason.

A quick walk from where we were was the Parola, a tiered wooden structure that acts as the Pearl Farm’s lighthouse, al fresco bar and welcome lounge; deliberately rustic and cumbersome, it sits at the end of a long walkway donning reserved majesty as it watches over the nearby waters. Behind it, meanwhile, stands the Reception Building, which from a distance looks like the massive shrine encasing a large fixture hanging from the ceiling, a jellyfish of an ornament whose long lappets reach all the way to the ground. And nearby were the Samal Suites, a line of lean and glossy wooden houses manifest in their attempt to test the architectural potential of locally sourced materials.

Owned by the entrepreneurial Floirendo family and designed by a team led by architect Francisco Mañosa – whose sterling portfolio includes some of the most iconic buildings in Metro Manila – the Pearl Farm has no shortage of eye-catchers and head-turners ever since it opened in 1992. Here, the sight of an abnormally tall tree can seem like a matter of little consequence.

“But that’s not a tree,” Babela said, catching me off guard. “That’s actually a tower disguised as a tree.”

To be specific, she said that it was a tower built to improve the resort’s limited and long-criticized WiFi service. It was put up in March, and as of my visit, it was merely a few adjustments away from connecting the iconic resort to the Internet. But it will do so without standing out.

“Or sticking out,” Babela said. “It was designed that way because we don’t want it to be an unsightly distraction. We don’t want the rustic feel of the resort to be disrupted by a large red tower. That just goes against our design.” And with that, the tower just summarized the current direction of Pearl Farm.

Ever since the return of General Manager Josu Mikel Villaverde, Pearl Farm has been in a series of a sweeping renovation and expansions that have seen its management constantly walking a tightrope toward the future, with preservation on one side and modernization on the other. For instance, the group is on its way to fully upgrading its 70 guest rooms, but on the other hand, they wish to do so without veering away from Mañosa’s inspiration from the tribal stilt homes of Mindanao. It was this design, after all, which propelled the property to prominence during the early ’90s, and Villaverde wishes to continue relying on it as he guides the resort forward.

“[Mañosa] made this place so majestic,” Villaverde said. “Because of him, people who travel for architecture and culture find the Pearl Farm attractive. We have no intention of veering away from that.” And the result of this was something photographer Zean Villongco and I encountered constantly during our stay.

DIP YOUR TOES

Arriving at Pearl Farm from Davao City that evening in March – on the heels of Air Asia’s re-launch of its Manila-Davao flights – we soon found ourselves on an electronic car wheeling toward what would be our home for the coming days. Our route from the Reception Building was a narrow romantically lit path flanked by a hill of overgrown trees and a cliff running parallel to the coast. Soon, what could be seen beside us were the rooftops of predominantly wooden structures and a stone staircase descending to a stilted platform connecting two houses. Beside the staircase was a stone plaque which partly read “Samal House.” Like the majority of the resort, the Samal Houses, which rank as the mid-range accommodations of the Pearl Farm, were built using indigenous materials chosen primarily because of Mañosa’s neovernacular leanings as an architect. When he designed the place, he wished for the resort to cause the least amount of disturbance to its surrounding environs, thereby meriting the use of materials like bamboo, yakal, nipa and rattan to help it blend in. A number of these materials came into play during the creation of these structures, but they are not the only things that took part in Mañosa creation of the resort.

“As an artist, he defends traditional building methods,” Villaverde said, “which is why a lot of our buildings are inspired by the architecture of several tribes in Mindanao.”

These include the seafaring Sama tribe whose stilted homes became the blueprint for Samal Houses. Built over the seawater beating against the cliff, the Samal Houses, as Villongco and I discovered, provide a distinct experience for guests of the resort. Here, you get lulled to sleep by the gentle ebb and flow of tides. Here, you wake up to the immediate sight of clear waters teeming with local marine life. Here, you do not just get to see the people living the Samal Island way of life. Here, you are given a chance to dip your toes into it.

A warning, however, to those who are tempted to dive right in: you are in Samal Island. And not all waters here are safe.

DIVE IN

The more I explored the Pearl Farm, the more it became apparent to me that it transcends the traditional definitions of an upscale Philippine resort.

True, recent expansions made to the establishment have brought in the usual staples of a four- to five-star island sleeper. It now has its own gaming center located beneath a new gym, an exclusive trimaran set to ferry its guests from Davao City to Samal Island in about 30 minutes, and, yes, as soon as adjustments to its tower are complete, it will have access to high-speed WiFi. But a quick look at its history shows that it is more than a run-of-the-mill resort.

In the past, Pearl Farm was actually the breeding ground for the white-lipped oysters of ecologist Daniel R. Aguinaldo; the prized bivalves are known for producing white, gold and pink pearls. It was converted into a resort in 1992 after being purchased by the Floirendos, but it has never really fallen into the mould of one.

Explore the resort from end to end and this will become apparent. Go through its nooks and crannies and examine its collaterals and you will find the filigreed okir-a-bay pattern of Southern Philippines incorporated into the design. Have dinner at the Maranao Restaurant whose kitchen is headed by Chef Judy Cepe and you’re guaranteed to sample local flavors and the freshest of seafood. Do so on a Friday Night and you will enjoy them while being regaled by staff dressed in traditional Mindanaoan attire. Walk from the Mandaya beach all the way to the Parola, and chances are you will come across staff members of the resort who will insist on calling for an electronic car to transport you. And, if you still have time, stop by the nearby Mandaya Weaving Center to watch Mandaya tribeswomen weave traditional accessories and clothing items. Do any of these things and you will confirm one of the Pearl Farm’s aspirations: to be an effective ambassador of Mindanao.

“We want to showcase the best of Mindanao,” said Villaverde. “Its culture, its design—we want to incorporate it in this resort.” But when he said “the best of Mindanao,” he wasn’t just talking about the merits of its people. He was also referring to the natural beauty of the region.

Pearl Farm does a great job of framing this with the windows and glass doors of the suites that face the coast. It takes strides at highlighting it by offering numerous tours to surrounding locales. And it also enshrines part of it between the main Samal Island and the nearby Malipano. Guests of the Samal Houses, like myself, know this all too well, and most of us know this by being told the same thing: don’t jump into the water in front of your house.

“It’s not safe,” Babela said. “We often warn our guests of the same thing because we don’t want them getting hurt.”

One of the mornings of my stay was spent on the veranda of our Samal House, and with one sweeping look at my surroundings, I realized why she was so concerned.

Below me, a cloud of fishes was darting past the wooden pillars propping up our house. To the side, shimmering beneath immaculate seawater was a bed of jagged rocks sprawling toward the coast. And on them, scattered abundantly in groups like curious bushes growing underwater were clusters of black sea urchins, prickly echinoderms that say at least two things about the water beneath us: that it’s healthy enough to sustain exotic marine life but too dangerous for swimmers to explore.

“Plus there is a sudden drop just a few feet away from your house,” Babela said. “Again, it’s not safe.”

It’s not safe, but it is necessary at least to Pearl Farm. In its quest to showcase the richness of Mindanaoan waters, the property established a large marine sanctuary in between its two land areas, a decision that has both pros and cons. The positive: the resort has numerous snorkelling areas visually appealing to guests. The bad news: it has rendered some of the rockier portions of the coast to be virtually unsafe due to the presence of dangerous marine life.

Not that this is a big problem. Again, Pearl Farm is composed of two separate land areas. The larger of the two spans about 23 hectares, while the smaller area is the seven-hectare Malipano island. Comprising a number of beaches and what was said to be one of the first infinity pools in the Philippines, it has no shortage of attractive locations for a good dip. And with further expansions on the way, one can only expect more.

HOPE FOR THE BEST

We arrived at Pearl Farm during peak season, a busy period expected to bolster overnight stays this year and allow it to outdo the 26,506 stays of 2014. Renovations have been put on hold in order to accommodate the guests, but according to Babela, as soon as the lean season kicks in, renovations will continue.

“We’ll be completing the work on the rooms,” Villaverde said. “We’ll be doing a lot of things.”

And they certainly have much room to do that. Even though it looks fully developed, Babela admitted that Pearl Farm has yet to truly maximize the full potential of its land area because of the terrain of the back part of the beachfront.

“But we’re getting there,” she said, enthusiastically.

“There,” of course, is Pearl Farm’s ideal future, one which sees the resort as one of the finest in the country. It’ll feature modern conveniences and amenities encased in tradition and pride. It is expected to have newly renovated rooms respecting its original design philosophy and a teeming marine life that will have their share of the property unharmed.

“People can also begin enjoying better Internet connection,” Babela said cheekily. But unless they read this, chances are those people wouldn’t know how that came to be.

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