The Philippines is a wealth of hidden gems where inaccessibility is both a blessing and a curse. Travel to and between the islands being tricky and onerous, much of its unspoilt beauty is yet to be revealed. However, for travellers looking for a quick weekend getaway, the shores of Cebu are but a hop away. Leanda Rathmell spent a dynamic weekend at the Shangri-La Resort & Spa, Mactan.
Three and bit hours after take-off, our SilkAir flight touches down at Mactan Cebu International Airport. Instantly, we are greeted with warm smiles and hand-beaded necklaces. Immigration is surprisingly swift and painless (two words not often associated with Filipino airport facilities) and our driver awaits with our car, chilled towels and delightful news that our hotel is a mere 15-minute drive away.
Our cheerful chaperone for the weekend, Clyde, greets us at the resort entrance and takes us to our sanctuary for the next two nights. Located in one of the recently renovated wings, our Casa Suite is bigger than our Singapore apartment. We have an interconnecting living room and bedroom, two bathrooms, two balconies and three televisions (one built-in above the bath) all to ourselves.
After an espresso in our living room and a tinker with all our mod-con room-gadgets, we head out to explore. It takes a solid hour to get our bearings in this expansive retreat; 350 hectares of greenery, 350 metres of white sand, 530 rooms and an infinite choice of activities could keep you busy for weeks. We spot two very large pools, a golf course, a tennis court, waterslides, outdoor table tennis, billiards and boxing equipment, a scuba centre and plenty of places to grab a bite. Peckish, we share a mango shake and some pika pika, or finger food, at Breeze. The coconut-battered calamari and mozzarella sticks and mango salsa tide us just nicely over the afternoon.
The weaving walkway leads us to the resort’s golf course where I sorely submit to defeat. A well-kept 6-hole, par 3, the course is ample for keen golfers like John, whilst short enough not to try the patience of casual players like myself. Spotting the mini-golf, I challenge John to another round, hoping for some redemption. As he pots the victorious 14th hole, my mood must be causing grey clouds gather and the rain is quick to follow.
En route back to the room, we discover the arcade zone. A godsend for kids and the young at heart, this place is equipped with pool tables, air hockey, pinball, karaoke, computer games and its very own Timezone arcade. What was envisaged as a romantic weekend quickly turns competitive. Elbows are flung and curses exchanged. I proudly emerge as the air hockey queen!
We take a dip in the pool and have an embarrassing attempt at riding the waterslide. Take note, adults are not allowed on it and the lifeguards are not easily fooled. Instead, we relax on the sun loungers and let the breeze lull us into an afternoon nap.
Showered and refreshed, we head down to ACQUA for dinner – a formal affair of Italian cuisine with a Mediterranean flair. Chef Joris Rycker wows us with a menu of canapés, gnocchi di zucca e rosmarino with tallegio cheese and grilled rib-eye with Chianti sauce.
After couple of nightcaps at the lobby lounge, where we enjoy the live band’s rendition of Clapton hits, we stop at the Ocean Club Lounge to borrow a DVD for the night. Four minutes into The Terminal and we’re fast asleep!
An early game of tennis helps to work up an appetite, then it’s down to Tides for my favourite part of the day, breakfast. As I’m half-Filipina and lived in Manila for over 10 years, Filipino cuisine, which is characterised by a bold combination of sweet, sour and salty, is an all-time favourite of mine. Though Tides offers all the delights of an international buffet, we dig into the beef tapa, longanisa and garlic rice. For a sweet finish, we enjoy gula melaka sprinkled on suman, a glutinous rice treat cooked in banana leaves, coupled with a warm cup of sokolate: Filipino hot chocolate made from roasted cocoa nibs, sugar and ground peanuts.
For a small fee of 500 pesos, we rent snorkelling gear and head out to the hotel’s very own marine sanctuary. Spanning six hectares of the resort’s beachfront, this joint venture between Shangri-La, Scotty’s Dive Centre and Amores charities is an impressive pledge to conservation and corporate social responsibility.
It teems with over 160 species of marine life, including angelfish, puffers, butterfly fish, pipefish, eels and starfish. It is also home to 70 giant clams seized from poachers in Palawan and hawksbill turtles that were handed over to the local government. Two ships were sunk to form artificial reefs and encourage coral and fish proliferation.
The shining sun and tame seas allow for brilliant clarity in the water. With the occasional break to sunbathe on floating platforms, we spend a considerable time watching the ever-changing colours of the seabed and the comings and goings of boats full of diving enthusiasts.
Sun-kissed and back on dry land, we return to Tides for a late lunch. We opt to share a bowl of sinigang, a tamarind-based soup with shrimp and stewed vegetables, and bistek tagalog, tenderised strips of steak rich with the flavours of garlic and soy sauce.
A beach escape isn’t complete without a spot of pampering. We head over to CHI spa village and enjoy 60 minutes of traditional Filipino Hilot massage, a technique using warm banana leaves and virgin coconut oil coupled with instinctive strokes and pressure. John and I emerge from our private rooms in a trance-like state of tranquillity. We continue to enjoy peace and quiet as we walk hand-in-hand through the gardens back to our room.
We have a romantic four-course dinner planned down at the beachside restaurant, Cowrie Cove. A candle-lit path leads us down the rocky jetty to our private cabana, draped in loose fabric and surrounded by crashing waves. Fresh and full of flavour, the seafood platter, warm coconut soup and grilled salmon fillet leave us beyond satisfied. As we finish with mango desserts, our waitress thoughtfully brings us warm towels and lattes to counteract the chilliness of the night. Then it’s back to the room to run a hot bath and have an early night.
I awake refreshed for yoga down in the hotel garden, followed by a quick dip in the pool before meeting John at Tides for breakfast.
We spend the remainder of our day relaxing by the beach before packing for the airport. SilkAir does not operate return flights on Sundays, so we’re booked on the 3.30pm return flight. Though we would love to stay longer, it’s wonderful to return on a Saturday night and still having the remainder of the weekend ahead.
SilkAir flies direct from Singapore to Cebu five days a week. Room rates at Shangri La Mactan Resort & Spa start at 11,400 pesos (S$345) a night.
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