When you look through a website or magazine at the parts of Villa Escudero—riding on buses pulled by carabaos, eating your food with your hands while your feet are pampered to the ankles with water rushing down from a waterfall nearby, and watching a magnificent cultural show by Ramon Obusan which perhaps brings back memories of times you learned one or two of the dances in your gradeschool PE class, you may be enticed to go there, but not sufficiently.
Perhaps you may be persuaded by the two swimming pools, five jacuzzis, raft riding on a lagoon, or the museum, which probably has one of the most outstanding collections of historical Filipino memorabilia in the country.
If you’re a foodie, you may be more likely to go because its chef, Caloy Ventura III, has worked at the Napa Valley restaurant of Francis Ford Coppola (director of the classic Godfather series; and for the young ones, Virgin Suicides). Caloy was embraced by Al Pacino (who gave him a $5,000 tip), and rubbed elbows with David and Victoria Beckham and Nicolas Cage, among others.
But Villa Escudero is far more than the sum of its parts. I personally was interested but was never persuaded to visit Villa Escudero until my husband and I went with our friends. It seemed as if one surprise was layered over another from dawn until dusk, and up until the next day. In the end I learned that Villa Escudero, unlike many other resorts, stands out because of the story it tells. It is the story of a strong nationalist and a plantation that he built around his personality; a plantation that gives visitors the chance to relive the days of old within the time-encapsulated walls of Villa Escudero.
The first thing we did when we entered Villa Escudero was ride on a little bus that was pulled by a carabao. I was surprised at the smoothness of the ride, after all, we were travelling on sandy paths.
A couple sang traditional Filipino songs in the furthest back seat. Music has a way of touching your innermost core. And the sight of carabaos pulling little buses, one after another, some with flowers adorning their heads, was very delightful indeed. I didn’t know it then, but I was immediately caught at that point by the story that Villa Escudero has to tell.
I saw cows standing contentedly in wide fields, and across a bridge there was a bathing area for the carabaos. Then we saw the villa where we would book ourselves and later, bring our bags to a lovely, spacious, cabin that can accommodate five.
Now, let me tell you that one of the reasons I was never swayed to go to Villa Escudero was because I heard the rooms were not air conditioned. Actually, you have a choice, as some are. Upon entering the cabin, I didn’t mind at all that it didn’t have an air conditioner. After all, there was a lovely hammock which I dove into, first thing. I had never felt luckier.
SLOW MOVING, OLD DAYS
After we settled in and arranged our bags, each determining where he or she would sleep, we went to the waterfall for lunch. Walking through the river with my slippers felt a bit like a natural foot massage.
The buffet suited our diets perfectly, as we can only eat seafood and vegetables. I was surprised that we would be eating with our hands, but they were flexible enough to give us plastic cutlery.
Having a meal in Villa Escudero goes beyond its spectacularly delicious food. It is an experience involving all your senses—the sound of the waterfall, the tasteful delights, the comfort of feet in flowing water, the sight of nature on one side, the entertainment hall on the other, a river that extends, it seems, forever in front, and the soothing presence of the waterfall behind. A caressing wind all about.
It preps you perfectly for its cultural show. By then you realize that you are, indeed trapped in a story and you are one of the characters in it. It is a Filipino story and it goes back in time, something that doesn’t usually happen in a resort. It is as if you are in your own country 100 years ago. The experience is quite splendid.
After the show we met and talked to Cocoy, then we headed back to our cabin. Two of our friends are beginners in yoga, and the third is a yoga teacher. Because one of the beginners has a bad back, the yoga teacher demonstrated how he should be exercising. His wife, who would be helping him in this particular daily exercise, watched closely.
Afterwards, we had merienda on a long table facing the lagoon watching the rafts gliding here and there. Unconsciously, we all got into a slow moving pattern, the way things probably happened in the old days, when carabaos pulled carretelas slowly and peacefully, and subliminally, defined the pace of time. We were inherently imbibing this special type of slowness and assimilating the way life must have been in those days in a plantation.
Later that night, we had dinner and afterwards were joined by no less than Don Ado Escudero himself. What stories he told, what a life he has led in his 84 years.
He recalled the Japanese occupation and how one whole town was completely burned down by Japanese soldiers, with only one house left standing. Don Ado said he managed to purchase two chairs from that house.
He also spoke of how he came to build the church in Villa Escudero. It was designed by a Spanish priest but amid the Spanish American war, it was never built.
One day, Don Ado said, he came across the church plans which had been kept in Malacañang. He was given permission to keep the plans, and that was how the cathedral in the plantation was built.
As for the museum, he kept everything he could, and managed to get the rest whenever, and wherever. The museum has so much more, so many different items that you would never imagine could be so fascinating: clothes that every President wore when each took his or her oath of office; traditional pieces of furniture; a baby’s crib beside the mother’s bed; a collection of keys that filled up an entire, large rounded table, its silver glistening beneath the glass.
DREAM COME TRUE
You may think this lush plantation was built on an extravagant budget. The truth is, it was built on a dream, and Don Ado found ways to make his dream come true.
For example, the plentiful chandeliers in the covered dining area appear to be made of wood. Instead, Don Ado made the design using metal, which was then painted to look like wood.
When you enter the museum, the ceiling has a painting style, trompe l’oeil, that makes the flat ceiling look recessed. He recalled that a professional painter was charging him a rather high price for it. He decided to approach a professor-friend and asked for his best art student. The student executed the trompe l’oeil to perfection at a fraction of the cost. So remember, when you are in Villa Escudero’s museum, look up.
We didn’t swim in the pool as it was full, as were the jacuzzis. Next time, I will try the jacuzzis. Also, I wasn’t too keen on riding the rafts, realizing I would have to paddle it myself.
And now, I will tell you about the hidden acts of kindness of Villa Escudero. I don’t know if you remember the time that a number of pit bulls were trained to be fighting dogs by some Koreans, and televised in a Korean TV channel. The police discovered the hideout where these dogs were being kept, some 300 of them, and arrested the men.
The dogs were traumatized, but volunteers and an animal group took care of prepping the dogs so that they would be capable of resuming a normal life. Some 200 of the pit bulls were adopted, leaving 100 others behind. Don Ado donated some land beside his resort where the last batch of 100 dogs are staying, and a larger shelter home is being built to protect the dogs better when it rains.
We were able to visit the dogs and I was surprised at how much they loved to be touched and petted by people. They were just lovely, and each one had a different face from the other. One dog didn’t even look like your normal pitbull dog’s face would. This area is not part of the resort, but it is part of the story of Villa Escudero, a story of giving a second chance to those who are helpless.
There is another hidden kindness at Villa Escudero. All the buses that are pulled by carabaos are electrical, making it less of a burden for the carabaos to pull tourists around the plantation.
Finally, we learned that workers in Villa Escudero come from families that have worked there for four generations. There is housing for 100 employees, but other employees who don’t live in the plantation come from the surrounding area. Those who I spoke to informally said they get 13 month pay, Christmas bonuses, health care, and profit sharing.
That made me very happy. You see, I have issues with some billionaires who own huge malls but hire employees on a six-month contract basis. This spares them of the need to give their workers 13-month pay, Christmas bonuses, health care, much less profit sharing.