A STAYCATION IN ESKAYA

 

Bird's Eye View of Eskaya ( High Photo 5 )

 

I just wanted a hideaway by the sea with my best friend, peace and quiet, plus a pool of my own where I can skinny dip.

 

That’s why we flew to Eskaya Beach Resort and Spa in Panglao Island, Bohol last week.

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Eskaya took its name from Bohol’s only known native people – communal mountain farmers numbering just 739 todate, with their own language, script and religious beliefs. Some say they migrated from Sumatra in seventh century A.D. Others reckoned they’re a cult, maybe a pre-colonial society, or descendants of Francisco Dagohoy’s fighters in the country’s longest revolt.

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No matter, their namesake resort carried the same exotic, isolated commune feel, a rustic opulence. The ultra-exclusive, family-owned retreat consists of only fifteen single-story, Asian-styled, detached villas (“balai”)  crowned with steeply-pitched, cogon grass- thatched roofs, each with private pools, all nestled in 40 acres of lush tropical gardens bordered by a white coral beach with the azure Bohol Sea lapping on its edges.

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The owners, Boholano couple Richard and Phoebe Lim, made their fortune in salt mining and real estate. A decade ago, they built this “very first Filipino-owned luxury resort” designed by master architect Bobby Manosa at the southernmost tip of Philippines’ tenth largest island to lure high-end travelers.

 

Now, Eskaya has made it to the list of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World. And it charges the highest room rates south of Amanpulo.

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Our De Luxe Villa with a private pool costs USD$525+ per night in the lean season and $725+ per night in peak season. De Luxe Villas with Infinity Pools go for $825+ and $1,025+, respectively; Family Villas with Private Pools for $1,875+ and $2,275+; Presidential Villas with Infinity and Spa Pools for $3,275+ and $4,275+.

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Oh, but I really needed a break. I can’t even remember when I had enough hours of sleep.

 

It was such a relief that Eskaya took care of everything, including our airport transfers – in a Mercedes Benz, no less. Our Philippine Airlines (PAL) Manila-Tagbilaran flight took one hour and our driver was there, as soon as our plane touched down.  He handed us chilled towels and refreshingly cold bottled water before our thirty-minute drive to the resort.

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Eskaya’s reception hall sits under the spreading crown of a great tree, amidst an endless expanse of garden in bloom – orange, yellows, pinks and reds against green. On arrival, they garlanded us with flowers, as if we’re homecoming queens, then they put welcome drinks in our hands before bundling us off to Balai 1, our serene retreat for the next three days.

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Our villa was tucked away among the trees, beside a gurgling mini-lake, fenced in by whispering bamboo, painstakingly positioned to ensure maximum privacy. Inside, it’s cool and airy, typical Manosa design – a dream in wood, rattan and cogon grass. Fresh flowers greeted us everywhere, on the foyer, over our king-sized bed with its gauzy net canopy, on our goose-down pillows, our study cum dresser, toilet and Jacuzzi.

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At dusk, an attendant brought in rich sweets for our tea, complements of the house – sticky rice boiled in coconut milk on our first day and steamed ground rice cakes on our second day. The attendant  returned shortly to give us turn down service – rolling down our blinds, lighting up the mosquito coils in our outdoor bath and by the side of our private pool, seeing to it that everything is in order.

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sink esk

 

Our dress cabinet held a pair of robes, complimentary abaca sandals, plastic flip-flops and an embroidered jute beach bag. We have complete signature bath amenities, free newspapers, bottled water – although tap water is potable, fully stocked mini-bar and complimentary coffee and tea. Wi-fi is free but somehow, I can’t access it and didn’t bother – after all, we came here to relax.

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The first thing my best friend did was to head straight for the Jacuzzi. I headed straight for our private pool.

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It was dark by then. The poolside was softly lit, most of the water lurked in shadow. I can make out the footpath to the other cottages leading to the beach. But it’s empty. Nothing stirs except the palm leaves and the bamboo foliage in the chill gentle wind. All the birds must be asleep too. I could hear faint music from the restaurant but even that faded off in time. It was so deliciously quiet.

 

 

On second thought, it was odd. I knew the entire resort was fully occupied because it was a long weekend. However, I can’t hear a single peep from the neighbors. From the time we came in, the villa next door and the one opposite us have their shades pulled down and I can’t see anything beyond the bamboo clumps encircling my pool.

 

The water was cold. It was my first time to swim “au naturel”. But it was liberating and so exhilarating. I floated lazily on my back and counted the stars.

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“Eskaya is the ultimate peaceful retreat, a luxury, boutique experience,” Ralph Lim, Vice President, Sales and Marketing liked to say. Too often, guests ask him if they are the only occupants of the resort because they don’t hear or see anyone else throughout their visit. “If a guest were to eat breakfast in their villa, have lunch in the gardens and dine on our private stretch of beach, they could well feel the resort was theirs alone.”

 

No wonder, Eskaya is a popular honeymoon destination. Around seven out of 10 guests are newlyweds. The owners are expanding the resort for about a year now, adding eight new villas, a tennis court and a gym. Mercifully, there’s no sound of construction. A green wall camouflages the still unfinished work.

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I still had time for a brief bubble bath before the buggy picked us up for our appointment at Handuraw Spa. “Handuraw” is the Visayan word for reverie.

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The pavilion, with huge treatment rooms and infinity pools, perched on a clifftop, next to the Presidential Villa for celebrity guests. Handuraw offers Filipino and Asian style treatments  combining music and touch therapy. Guests can have their massage personalized too, according to their needs. And they can gaze out at the sea while having their muscles kneaded.

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We sampled their Swedish massage (P3,500 for 1 hour) and found it so soothing we fell asleep halfway through.

 

They have classic body treatments using natural ingredients like the Artemis Scrub with Dead Sea and tropical salts to exfoliate the skin and the Malumo Mud Wrap using Dead Sea mud to draw out skin toxins.

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In collaboration with local therapists, the spa developed the Kahimsog Massage using Philippine camphor leaf laced with coconut oil and heated with a candle. The leaves are placed on various parts of the back, left on for a time to warm the muscles and alleviate pains, then crushed, mixed with coconut oil and used in the Filipino brand “hilot” massage.

 

In addition, they have a 90-minute Kahimsog Treatment starting with rain-stick blessing and ending with a “hilot” massage of warm “sambong” leaves. The five-part ritual includes a foot bath and submersion in a hot-steam tent called “suob”, a brief hair-pulling massage, applying “tuba-tuba” (Jatropha curcas)medicinal leaves to diagnose the body’s ailments and “dagdagay” – the Ifugao foot-massage using sticks to stimulate circulation in the soles.

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Handuraw even offers a Chocolate Hills Wrap – inspired by the brown Chocolate Hills of Bohol –  where therapists paint one’s body in rich Filipino chocolate and coconut milk before wrapping it up in banana leaves.

 

As for other pleasures – dining is another experience at Eskaya’s thatch-roofed Lantawan Restaurant which looks out into the endless stretch of an infinity pool merging with the Bohol Sea.

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Interestingly, “Lantawan” is another Visayan word which means “to view”. The pool has a swim-up bar and a jet-bubbler. Every night, they put out local entertainment by the poolside.

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I opted for the Filipino breakfast (around P900, with tax) with beef tapa, two fried eggs, rice, hot chocolate and fresh mango. My best friend sampled the Japanese menu. They serve a varied number of cuisine, including local delights like “humba” – a dish of braised pork belly with black beans – as well as the fresh daily catch. Like the resort, the restaurant exudes a romantic charm.

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Guests can also dine at the beach with a bonfire, if they wish.

 

The coastline along Eskaya’s 600-meter white beach is dotted with private sun decks.  Above is a lush green landscape broken only by cement paths for the golf-carts ferrying guests between villas and restaurant, pool area and spa. Morning and afternoon, workers sweep the coast clear of seaweeds that wash up with the tides, hauling up truckloads.

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Most of the time, my best friend and I had the whole beach to ourselves.

 

We played in the sand and in the sea, allowing the gentle waves to massage our bodies, reveling in the feel of the waters, cold one moment, warm the next. Fat rain clouds dumped a light drizzle on us as the wind pushed them past to the islands in the horizon. Then we just lay there, chatting and watching white wooden boats headed for Balicasag.

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Needless to say, it was such a relief to clear our minds – think of nothing and do nothing sometimes. Funny, my best friend deliberately left her laptop at home and forbade me to bring mine on this trip. I refused to obey, of course, though I failed to write a single story during our stay.

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No question about adventuring or visiting attractions in Bohol, though it could easily be arranged from Eskaya – dolphin and whale watching, Loboc River cruises, historic buildings and churches, Chocolate Hills and ecocultural tours, visits to the tarsier (the world’s smallest monkey) sanctuary, Cambuhat River and Village, caves, hill climbing, kayaking, island hopping, sunset cruises, Rajah Sikatuna National Park, tarsier spotting, shopping at Tagbilaran City, you name it.

 

Guests can snorkel around the island’s house reef or explore world-class dive sites a short boat ride away at Balicasag Island. Eskaya has an on-site Padi Dive Shop, a resident instructor offers diving courses that range from open water to dive master level.

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But I’ve been visiting Bohol for over ten years now, adventuring in the best places in the islands, caving, trekking and scuba-diving. For this trip, I only wanted to rest and recharge, be intimate with the sea.

 

Being close to nature, critters big and small, furry and crawly form part of the landscape. Wild birds kept us company throughout the day. But on our first night, a huge spider landed in the toilet and I was tempted to prod it. On our last night, as we snuggled in bed, a big, plump, white-bellied rat scurried up and down the bamboo beams thrice. It amused me to follow his progress but it freaked out my best friend.

 

I really wish I can rest here longer. Sadly, staycations are not meant to last forever.

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