It’s a 500-hectare sliver of heavily forested island that rises out of the shimmering Pacific waters as your plane descends for its landing, half an hour after taking off from a private hangar back in NAIA. The runway bisects the island and is also used to collect rainwater, which probably runs off the sides into underground pipes that feed the three water reservoirs.
Ecological self-sufficiency is a recurrent theme in this latest addition to the country’s tourist destinations. The resort treats the collected rainwater for potable use, and grows its own vegetables and flowers. Even the hundreds of driftwood logs that were originally scattered throughout the island are being hand-carved into furniture and handicraft items by a small community of Ifugao tribesmen expressly transplanted for this purpose.
On the way with our hosts to our guest villa, we’re struck by the stillness of the place, save for the chirping of exotic yellow and black-plumed birds from a canopy of treetops. The foliage is extravagant, the leaves unusually large in size, perhaps a legacy of volcanic soil. We can’t help feeling like we’re in Jurassic Park, half-expecting a dinosaur to burst out from behind the trees at any moment and make us his next meal.
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Welcome to Balesin, the pet project of billionaire businessman Bobby Ongpin. With his Harvard-trained skills, sharp tongue and avidly European tastes, Ongpin was probably the only person who could have converted this patch of volcanic rock into the country’s hottest vacation resort and investment property du jour.
Ongpin and his partners have built several communities with distinctive themes targeted at specific audiences. If you like Asian food and solitude, plan to stay at Phuket or the relatively isolated Bali. If you’re looking for famous European vacation experiences, try out the distinctive blue and white hillside villas in Mykonos, or the seaside Mediterranean hotel at St. Tropez, or the Spanish themes of Costa del Sol. And there’s always the main community, Balesin Village, closest to the clubhouse, with the most amenities and the best beachfront.
The attention to detail is fastidious. The detail can be as grand as the decision to build most—perhaps all—of the villages in natural coves that shelter from wind and waves and create an intimate atmosphere. Or as small as the fact that the door leading from the indoor shower room into the outdoor patio with jacuzzi lies perfectly flush with the jamb, keeping the heat in and the cold out.
And of course the food—the number one priority with any Filipino vacationer—has got to be perfect. My children kept exclaiming that it was the best they’d ever had, whether it was the moussaka at Mykonos or the salpicao at Costa or the nasi goreng at Bali. This was high praise indeed, considering what must be the formidable logistics of provisioning the resort’s kitchens from distant Manila.
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With about a thousand members now, Balesin is at just one-third of planned capacity, and the place is still growing. The latest village, Italian-themed Toscana, is due to open next year. There is still an over-water zipline to be built and, much later, a new marina club for yacht owners. Ongpin has never been one to stand still for long, and it will be interesting to see how his product might have to change as his numbers continue to grow.
Right now, for example, guests are driven around in a variety of vehicles—from golf carts to regular jeepneys—by drivers on call, for free. But when membership triples, it may become necessary to cede more autonomy to visitors, say, by renting their own golf carts, or bikes, or Segways.
The resort’s planners say they expect to end up with a largely foreign membership profile. If so, the present focus on amenities and food—so important to easygoing Filipinos—may have to give way to much more organized recreational activities, of the sort preferred by more active and outdoorsy Westerners.
And of course there’s the problem of getting there only by air. During my visit last weekend, a twin-engine 70-seater slid off the rainy runway, dumping into the drink such visiting notables as the secretary of health and a bank chairman and president. Luckily it was still morning low tide, everyone was fished out unharmed, and not even the luggage got wet.
But this may change as visitor traffic increases. Given the unpredictable Pacific weather during the monsoon season, it may make business as well as safety sense to offer a back-up bus-and-boat service, say twice a week, for guests and even staff. Leave Manila by air-con bus at midnight so they can sleep, feed them a nice early breakfast at their embarkation point in Real, Quezon, then ferry them to the island the rest of the morning while the sea is relatively calmer.
It’s a guest service that a wet-palms flyer like me would dearly appreciate.