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The distinctly dressed hotel staff offer up a peculiar salute – right palm lightly pressed above the left breast, followed by a short bow and a smile. It seems like a variant of the formal bow a male Victorian era theatrical or operatic performer makes after the end of a show. It’s a delightful affectation, one that ushers me into their world. For their world is nothing like what I’m normally used to in quaint little Coron town.
My wife and I have been coming to this sleepy little seaside town since 2006 and we’re used to the fact that this area is barely developed, retaining its rustic charm, rural simplicity and meager amenities while offering up its real treasures – its pristine environs – away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of progress’ cacophony. The closest luxuries available would be running water, occasional cellular signal, sometimes a decent electric fan, tricycles and a few vans for getting around.
The world of Two Seasons Coron Bayside Hotel had me in awe. This is not the usual mom and pop backpacker hostel or budget resort. For one thing, they actually have an elevator – and a fancy one at that – with a touch surface console that takes you all the way to the fourth floor, making the hotel one of the tallest buildings in the area. The spacious, stylishly designed lobby looks more at home in downtown Makati with its Italian tiles and native fiber trapezoids suspended from the ceiling. A modestly-sized anchor stands in a bed of sand like a park statue while behind it is a collection of ancient diving helmets harkening back to the days of Captain Nemo and a wetsuit that could’ve been made by Jacques-Yves Cousteau himself.
The rooms were no less opulent (The rooms have air-conditioning! Good God, air-conditioning! In Coron!) and sleek. Plush queen-sized beds and fluffy-to-bursting pillows threatened to swallow me whole if I decided to stay in and binge-watch Westworld all day on their huge Sony flatscreen TVs (with a tiny USB slot in the back to plug in said Westworld episodes). For coffee enthusiasts, an espresso maker was on hand, complete with those little coffee shots that look like foil butter buttons from swanky restaurants. A shower with dual settings (curtain and hand shower), hairdryer and a toilet with bidet all decked out with L’Occitane shampoo and bath accessories completed the bathroom ensemble. Some of the fancier suites had bathtubs with motorized curtains that looked out to the placid bay beyond, definitely something to consider for a more romantic holiday.
Two Seasons Bayside Hotel’s Baya Restaurant has this whole under-the-sea look that would make Sebastian the Lobster burst out in song, or at the very least, dance the Calypso on your dinner plate. Glass manowars and other jellyfish hang suspended on the ceiling, their hand-twisted crystal tendrils and shard-encrusted tentacles sparkling in the sunlight. At night, the whole thing lights up and starts shifting through the entire color spectrum, providing an even more beachcomber verve to the whole place.
The food’s pretty great, with recipes developed and perfected from the other Two Seasons resorts in Boracay and in Malaroyroy (more on the latter later). A lot of the fare is a sampling of traditional Filipino favorites and continental mainstays. Considering how difficult it is to get practically all the non-seafood based ingredients (which is about 90 percent of the menu), which have to be flown into Coron from Manila, the folks here have done one helluva job bringing these favorites to our table. Fresh fruits and vegetables are practically impossible to grow on the islands and livestock is difficult to raise due to the absence of edible vegetation and rough upland terrain.
We started healthy, with Two Seasons Salad, fresh greens with onions, tomatoes, sous vide egg and crisp nori, topped with seared tuna sashimi and with Chef’s Salad, aromatic greens, cashew nuts, Parmesan cheese, and sun-dried tomatoes drizzled with Asian dressing. Later on, to whet our appetites, palabok was brought in – a Kapampangan delicacy of fine rice noodles with shrimp sauce topped with shrimp, pork, crushed pork rind, scallions and fried garlic. We also had the house Tuna Melt, an open-faced tuna flake sandwich on white bread with mustard, onions, Mozzarella and cheddar cheese served with fries and a petite salad.
The mainstays came shortly after: Sinigang na Baboy (pork simmered in tamarind broth with tomato, radish, string beans, eggplant, lady finger, water spinach and green chili) and Lechon Kawali (Filipino-style crispy deep-fried pork served with shrimp paste, rice and a selection of Asian vinegar and liver sauces). Hearty, meaty portions they were, with a nice home-cooked flavor and in classy plating. Prawns Maricudo with Garlic Basil Rice was brought in next, cooked in basil, capers and roasted pepper. Sweetening the palate was an old-time favorite, the classic Halo-Halo, a Filipino dessert with shaved ice, milk, tropical fruits, tapioca balls and sweet beans served in a tall glass.
A day on the town
Part of the fun of being in Two Seasons Bayside is actually exploring the town it’s in. We hopped on a van and went on a jaunt with an eager, engaging lad named Ading as our guide. He shared some fun facts about the area which we didn’t know, such as that the town’s name was not the Spanish word for crown but a Tagbanwa word that meant ‘clay pot’ – indeed, the island of Coron is shaped as such and is highlighted in the town’s coat of arms. I was also pleased to hear about the green initiatives being undertaken in the area. Among them, the fact that Coron actually had over two hundred electric tricycles plying the routes along the town’s narrow streets and alleys.
Our first stop was the Coron Souvenir Shop. Inside the seemingly tiny shop was a riotous mishmash of native goods – ebony wooden masks, bamboo wind chimes, peek-a-boo barrel men (with spring-loaded phalluses), hardwood fertility idols, brass tube motorcycles, bead curtains, coconut fiber dolls, local fabrics, woven handbags, shark tooth necklaces and cashew nut delicacies. I could almost imagine the average European or American traveler going gaga over the plethora of oddities within.
We swung by a few local landmarks like the Coron Market, Lualhati Park and the town hall before heading up to Mount Tapyas (Mount Chipped). The mountain earned its name in WWII when Japanese artillery fire sliced off a portion of its tip and has since become a popular tourist spot because of a giant cross that was placed on top, along with a Hollywood-like sign near the summit. Getting to the aforementioned summit requires an arduous 721-step climb made so much more bearable with occasional rest stops, sumptuous views of the bay and concrete benches laid strategically throughout the stair path.
After making the trek up and down the mountain’s gentle slope, we made our way to Maquinit Hot Springs. These hot springs were gathered into pools and bricked off with cement to prevent erosion, but tastefully made to look like miniature lagoons and waterfalls. The water remains at a simmering 41 degrees, just the right temperature to soothe aching muscles after a long day spent climbing a certain mountain next door. The hot springs were surrounded by mangroves. These formed a natural border between them and the sea. Rickety driftwood bridges made passage through the mangroves themselves possible and gave one an eerie sense of mystery, as if moving through an enchanted and very much haunted forest. The highly mineralized water gave off a fishy smell at first, but eventually, I got used to it. Off to one side, bamboo and nipa cabanas were available for rent and a small store sold rum and beer for those wanting to kick back and relax after soaking in the sights and spring water. I sat under the shade and watched baby crabs pop in and out of the sand and skitter across towards the steaming pools.
As evening approached, we returned to the hotel where I decided to take a lazy dip in the bayside’s swimming pool. While cooling my heels, I chatted with Dario and Roger, a Filipino-British married couple who were guests planning a night on the town. They had been enjoying Baya’s Happy Hour and were gushing with praises for the way Two Seasons had been a staple of theirs whenever they were in the archipelago on holiday, for they were regular guests of the Malaroyroy and Boracay resorts. Before I knew it, we were joined by a Belgian and his fetching fiancé, and a Californian and his sizzling Filipina girlfriend. Suddenly, we had a United Nations informal poolside party, laughing and sharing stories under the stars with four-cheese pizza (a must-try Two Seasons staple) and beer at hand. Aw heck, who needs to look for a party when one just comes waltzing by, right in front of you?