For a travel reporter, some assignments are marked by a moment in which a marvelous vista grabs you by the collar and becomes the definition of the destination. Other assignments have an atmosphere so serene— sublime, even—that such an in-your-face moment would seem inappropriate. This particular assignment is decidedly the latter.
Welcome to Siama: a destination that embodies what sublime means.
Siama Hotel is a happy paradox unto itself. Merely 15 minutes away from the thriving center of Sorsogon City proper, it is at once in the heart of everything yet detached enough that you feel like you have stepped into a place delineated by neither time nor space. Surrounded by flora so lush as to give the Garden of Eden tough competition, the hotel is not just an oasis from the maddening crowd, but also the perfect hub for a foray into Sorsogon’s environs.
Located in the town of Sitio San Lorenzo, Bibincahan, in the city of Sorsogon, Bicol Region, Siama can be reached by venturing out on a rather lengthy road trip to the province, or boarding a one-hour flight from Manila to the Legazpi Airport of Albay, and traveling one hour and 20 minutes by land.
As we pulled into the tree-lined stretch of the driveway, the Siama duo of Milo and Kat Naval welcomed us with sincere warmth.
Settling into the unhurried pace the resort inspires you to take, we munched on a hearty breakfast of lip-smackingly good binut-ong, sticky rice and coconut milk cooked in a banana leaf pouch, served with thick and sweet coconut jam; lanson, Bicol’s fluffy version of puto (steamed muffin-shaped rice cake); crispy fried dried squid; shrimp cakes; garlic rice; fresh mangosteen fruit; and freeflowing cups of hot tsokolate (cocoa).
Milo and Kat regaled us with stories of the island of gem that is Siama, as five-year-old daughter Alex darted – curious and spirited, as five-year-olds are – across the large dining area.
The wind rustled through a myriad of leaves, serenading us with nature’s own symphony longing to be heard.
“Then you’ll hear all sorts of different bird sounds; there are fifteen species here,” Milo said. “And at night, you have the crickets,” Kat added. The sounds of bliss at Siama.
Destination: Designers’ haven
The Navals are the creative minds behind Siama and behind a successful Manila-based furniture design and production company that is 15 years in the running, for which Milo, in particular, is the designer.
Milo’s acumen for beauty and symmetry is showcased through the resort’s rustic-meets-contemporary flair. A muted palette of colors on walls and floors provides the perfect canvass for his masterfully crafted mahogany wood furniture and accent pieces. The resulting ambience is so organic and pure, that space and form intersect seamlessly, and man-made objects blend flawlessly with the stunning natural terrain on which the hotel was built.
“We position Siama as a design hotel in the province of Sorsogon, focusing on the complete feel and look of the hotel – from the building to the food to the experience. We want it to become a destination in itself,” Milo explained.
With its perfectly pulled-together look, Siama is indeed on the road to becoming a design-lover’s dream destination. Having opened only in October of 2013, the hotel is already the buzz among more discriminating travelers.
Siama may be a hotel by name, but it is a home, in spirit. Everything about the place makes you feel like a guest at the Navals’ luxurious, impeccably designed home. “It’s a boutique hotel, but we do not want to give people a hotel feel. We want guests to feel that they are at home,” Milo shared. Creating a sense of home and family is breathed into every one of the hotel’s staff members, and guests can expect service that is “attentive, but not intrusive,” as Kat so aptly put it.
For an added familial touch, the hotel is named in honor of Kat’s grandfather. “My grandfather was a Chinese immigrant. He came to the Philippines, married my grandmother who is from Albay. They settled in Sorsogon. The name comes from ‘Si Ama’ (the Filipino singular personal topic marker, plus the Chinese word for ‘grandfather’),” Kat explained.
Make no mistake, though, for Siama’s homey feel is not created at luxury’s expense. Each of the hotel’s 30 guest rooms is as well-appointed as it is cozy. From having island-style “floating” beds (some ensconced within four posters, or slatted frames à la Chinese opium bed; others, a double-deck affair) to oversized writing desks and fuller than full-length mirrors, each room is a peek into Milo’s boundless creativity.
Rooms afford a splendid view of the luxuriant greenery, as well as of the resplendent lap pool at the center of the hotel. Rooms on the first floor open up to the pool area, and are perfect for families with children in tow.
There is no shortage of lush pocket gardens or semi-secluded nooks where one can while the hours away in relaxation, for Siama expertly creates a feel of natural, laid-back luxury all throughout the hotel. A sense of privacy likewise pervades, thanks to Milo’s remarkable way of having “compartmentalized” (employing not much more than the existing land form) each of the hotels’ four main areas: the Bulan, Castilla, Barcelona and Pilar wings.
Three outdoor spa rooms – enclosed in tall bamboo poles, hallmarks of Milo’s eye for beauty – provide the perfect place for stress-busting massages and treatments.
For the utter plunge into the hedonistic, Siama has a Villa that offers the ultimate in luxury. Two separate bedrooms – one leading out to a private pool, the other, to a garden – are joined by a large central living space, with dedicated butler service to see to your every need.
What is a stay at someone’s house without delicious home-cooked meals? Unlike other hotels, Siama does not have a menu – you get on the table whatever is freshest that day at the market.
“We use local ingredients, serve local dishes to showcase the region and support local farmers. We use what’s fresh in the market. We have three cooks from here, who – with the help of our food consultant – have come up with our version of the dishes, while keeping these as true as possible to the local way of cooking. It’s a new experience for travelers who have never tried the local food,” Kat explained. And not to worry, bespoke menus may be put together for guests with special dietary needs.
Whether it’s a starter of fresh seaweed with Siama’s own vinegar-based dressing, a mouth-watering dish of crabs cooked in flavorful coconut milk, or a hearty plate of chicken simmered in pili nuts (the best are reputedly grown in Sorsogon) and tomato sauce, the bounty of Siama is always self-evident and eminently pleasurable. Resistance is indeed futile, so put aside any notion of watching your calories while at the hotel.
Milo and Kat are passionate about Sorsogon province, and will pull out all stops to arrange a handcrafted tour for you during your stay. We missed some scenic spots, due to an oncoming typhoon, but were lucky enough to have enjoyed the sweeping vistas of Bulusan Volcano, capped by a tranquil boat ride on prettier-than-a-postcard Lake Bulusan at the Bulusan Volcano Natural Park.
We braved gale-force winds at Rompeolos Pier by Sorsogon Bay to buy some freshly harvested baluko, scallops measuring almost two inches across, and found only in that particular bay, for an incredible P50 (a little over US $1.00) a kilo!
The heritage homes of Juban town awaited us next as happy recipients of our admiration, and a quick stop at Gubat Beach in the town of Barcelona revealed surprising surf spots and swells to rival more well-known areas. Barcelona is also home to an 1800s coral-and-stone church and its adjacent ruins, so do keep an eye out for those, as well. Particularly enjoyable was a visit to the Balai Buhay sa Uma Bee Farm (literally “home life on a farm”), which is utterly disarming. Flowers of all sorts provide a riot of color against the verdant backdrop of fruit-bearing trees and bee hives grown on a gently sloping land with a brook running through it, plus quaint thatched cottages for guests who wish to stay the night, are all part of the farm’s unique charm.
And who can forget the Bacon-Manito Geothermal Plant, with its Butterfly Farm, Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center, Mud Pools, and Botong Twin Falls? With its multi-colored winged beauties, endangered Philippine brown deer, pools of sulfuric boiling water steaming from geysers, and waterfalls cascading in tandem, this is indeed a place of interest. But note that you need someone to pre-arrange the visit for you.
“Kaon na!” Let’s eat!
While on the road, Milo made sure we were well-fed – very much so! Sorsogon abounds with restaurants to satisfy even the most discriminating of palates.
There’s Una Pizzeria’s droolworthy dishes, such as tender porchetta, rolled Roman-style lechon with a rich red-wine sauce. There’s also Café Rosita, which offers simply scrumptious pizzas, among other things. I especially enjoyed Señor Antonio’s pizza, which is topped with bits of savory salted duck egg on a delicately crispy crust.
When at Balai Buhay, make sure to try their pukot, fresh prawns with mint and young coconut steamed in a sugar palm leaf packet.
Mango Grill serves up the tastiest char-grilled food, and a to-die-for cheesy cassava cake, while Balai restaurant’s Boodle Fight Meal grilled platter is definitely for the daring diner, a feast best shared with friends.
Back at the hotel, in the comforts of my room (sans television, but that didn’t bother me one bit), I dreamed of my future return to Siama and its sublime splendor. Kat’s words echoed in my mind: “We are not everything to everybody. We simply want guests to experience a different side to their vacation, and open their eyes to something else. Just come with no expectations – that’s the best way to do it.”
Come with no expectations. And then allow Siama, and the province its owners so dearly love, to sweep you off your feet.