Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Amanbloggo: Amanpulo Resort and My First Philippines Trip

No enhancement here: this is really just how it looked
One of the nice things about living in the tropics is the relatively easy access I have to places that were considered quite exotic and idyllic when I lived in America. (Of course, it’s fair to say visiting a place with snow on the ground is considered just as exotic to those who have grown up in the tropics.) The jewel-like islands of places like the Maldives, Indonesia, and the Philippines are all but a short flight away, and even more far-flung locales like the Seychelles don’t take an inordinately long time to reach. But honestly, with some of the world’s most spectacular islands in the region, there’s never much reason to spend a long time on a plane when living in Malaysia.

I recently took my first trip to the Philippines, an archipelago of 7,107 islands, which is still only good enough for second place in Southeast Asia, with Indonesia’s count far eclipsing that number. Nonetheless though, I was excited to add another new stamp to my passport. The plan was to take a red-eye flight to Manila, where I’d stay for a few hours before heading south on a private chartered plane to a tiny island in the middle of the Sulu Sea for a few days of R&R. Well, you know what they say about the best-laid plans…

Turns out that about the time my flight was set to depart, Manila was being manhandled by one of the dozen or so typhoons that lashes the Philippines every year. For all the lack of natural calamities Malaysia is blessed with, the poor Philippines makes up for it – volcanoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, typhoons, you name it. So significant swaths of metro Manila were inundated with typhoon floodwaters, so my flight was delayed not one hour, not two hours, but five hours. My flight that was already scheduled to take off at the ungodly hour of 1:20 am didn’t leave the ground until 6:15 the next morning, so I spent a miserable night languishing in the ridiculously and needlessly vast KLIA2 – the new low-cost carrier terminal that’s just insanely overlarge. If you ever catch a flight there, wear comfortable shoes, that’s my advice, because you will be doing a lot of walking.

So I of course totally missed my 7:00 am flight to Pamalican Island, but there was an early afternoon flight, as well, so they rebooked me on that one. I was staying at a resort called Amanpulo, and anyone familiar with the Aman group of resorts knows that exemplary service is their hallmark. I didn’t have to expend any effort at all – they followed my delayed flight from KL, sorted everything, sent the driver (in a Mercedes hybrid sedan, no less) to await me at the Manila airport, then whisked me away to their private lounge where I had already been rebooked on the 1:00 flight to the island. So I chilled out in the lounge for a while, enjoyed drinks and snacks, and then boarded the 18-seat Dornier 228 turboprop and left right on time bound for Amanpulo, a 70-minute flight south from Manila.

Tagged and ready to go!
The rather squarish Dornier 228 – our private charter
Flying over a colorful hodge-podge of ramshackle homes
in metro Manila
The next-best thing to being in
the cockpit itself
I just thought this was a cool snapshot with the village
going right up to the edge of the cliff on an island
south of Manila

It was really quite cool onboard the small plane – I sat up front to get a closer look at the cockpit. As this was a private chartered flight, there was of course no cockpit door or anything like that. It was fascinating watching the pilots do their thing, taking us up to only about 10,000 feet or so (as the cabin was not pressurized). We flew over azure waters and mountainous islands and since we weren’t so terribly high, I could still make out plenty of details – villages, waterfalls, fishing boats plying the coastal waters. And before long, Pamalican appeared in the distance, unmistakable as I had seen the photos from the resort. A small, narrow island only 500m across at its widest point, with exceptionally clear, shallow waters ringing the land, mostly notably to the north of the island.

Following a textbook landing, we exited the small plane onto the private airstrip, each of the disembarking guests getting festooned with a fragrant jasmine flower lei. I was greeted by my personal “guest assistant” as they’re called, and we zipped off on a little golf cart to have a short tour of the tiny island and its myriad facilities.

Aerial view of Pamalican Island
Photo courtesy of Amanpulo
The main clubhouse and pool in early evening; though this isn't
my photo, it looked a lot like this on that first evening... the weather got
better and better with each passing day
Photo courtesy of Amanpulo
And here's the island... just 500m across at its widest point!
My casita was #23, just by the picnic grove
One really cool thing about Amanpulo is that each of the rooms – a private house called a casita – comes with its own “Club Car” golf cart, a little electric-powered buggy whose “roof” is a giant solar panel to assist in charging the battery. I asked for a regular bicycle, too, and it was delivered to my casita promptly. It was so nice having my own on-demand transport to go anywhere or just to take and explore the island. Usually, even at posh resorts, you have little choice but to either walk or call reception and ask for a buggy to come fetch you. This was a great change of pace.

Refined minimalist quality at Casita 23!
My welcome goodies
Just a small part of the gorgeous
bathroom; I availed myself the use
of the soaking tub several times
This was the view from my casita on that first day...
a bit overcast, but still beautiful
My bike and buggy... I'm sure I need
hardly mention which got used more
And the room, of course, was typical Aman: understated luxury, perfectly executed. Nothing was over-the-top, everything was just nice. I was right on the beach, with a suitably stunning view of the turquoise seas fronted by soft, sugary white sand. Only a tidal influx of seaweed ceaselessly washing ashore kept the scenery from being an absolute postcard.

Hobie cats on the beach
Usually I take a friend along on trips like this, but this time, I felt I just needed a solitary escape. Relaxing, reading a book or two, chilling out to some tunes, swimming in the sea… that’s what sounded appealing to me on an island retreat, so that’s pretty much what I did. I spent most of my days lazing on the bed, on the sunlounger, snorkeling, splashing around in the ridiculously clear ocean, reading, soaking in the big bathtub, and just trying to unwind a bit. The first day was mostly cloudy, but each day got progressively sunnier, and by the third day, I managed to get fairly cooked while out on the reef snorkeling. I had rather half-heartedly applied a thin coat of sunscreen before leaving my casita, but didn’t bother with my back (a good reason to bring someone along, perhaps?) and that’s exactly what got broiled with less than half an hour’s direct exposure. Yikes. I’m peeling like a sad red onion as I write this blog entry, but it wasn’t really a super bad sunburn... certainly glad I rolled back over when I did, though. Another 10-15 minutes and I think my back would have been seriously scorched.

Predictably, I had scheduled my deep tissue massage service at the spa for that same evening, so the fresh sunburn on my back rather kept the experience from being as enjoyable as it may have otherwise been, but honestly, as it was a fairly therapeutic massage to begin with (as opposed to a strictly relaxing one), it might never have been all that blissful in any case. That said, the massage really was quite good and mysteriously did away with some persistent soreness in my lower back and legs, so go figure. One of those “cruel to be kind” experiences, I suppose. Surprisingly, given the frankly exorbitant cost of flying to and staying at Amanpulo, their signature massage service is pretty reasonable, particularly given the skill of the therapists and the absolute top-notch quality of the spa facilities. You’d pay as much or more in any number of Las Vegas hotel spas and get a less satisfactory, and considerably less personalized, experience, so that was a pretty pleasant surprise.

I was out and about one afternoon with the buggy and this great pterodactyl of a fruit bat took flight from one of the trees overhead, presumably having had its sleep disturbed by the wind swaying the tree. The beast, with a wingspan comfortably surpassing three feet, circled lazily above me a couple of times and I seized my camera and fired off a few shots. Later, on the ground, a more colorful, if considerably more diminutive, island inhabitant – some sort of pigeon, I think – was scurrying about and slowed his wandering just enough for me to grab an image. So I guess here on Pamalican Island, the mammals fly and the birds waddle. There were also some strikingly yellow and black birds, quite sizeable really, frequenting the trees around my casita, but I was never quite agile enough to get the camera and capture a shot. I got one, shown here, that’s not going in any magazine soon, but at least somewhat blurrily shows the strong coloration of this bird which, from what I can gather, is a black-naped oriole.

A giant bat takes to the air
The view from near the pier
A shallow tidal bay against a crescent beach
Most of the "roads" on the island
looked like this
A colorful pigeon being camera-shy
A poor shot of a beautiful oriole
Looking down the beach from my little patch of sand
By day three, the weather had improved and along with it,
the view from my casita's deck
Day's end
After two days of drab evening skies and no
sunset to speak of, there was finally a nice one
on day three
The clouds on the horizon provided a strong contrast against the
sun-dappled ocean below

On a tangent here, I must say that Amanpulo gets just about everything right, but on one count, they have fallen victim to one of the most insidious infestations to worm its way into high-end hotels and resorts around the world: the nefarious capsule coffee machine, in this case, a Nespresso. I hate these things. Absolutely, unquestionably hate them. First of all, whatever these machines make is going to, by definition, suck. There is simply no way to duplicate a cup of properly brewed, quality coffee by mixing hot water with some sort of capsulated concentrate. There’s a reason you see devices like these in precisely NO proper cafés. No coffee connoisseur would ever permit such a blasphemous contraption in his or her home, either. The machines are also singularly wasteful, as you have to use one of these silly foil capsules for every cup of coffee, and though the foil is presumably recyclable, there’s an environmental cost of producing and packaging them that far outstrips an equivalent bag of coffee beans.

I hate you, little Nespresso!
And of course, once you buy their stupid machine, you’re beholden to it, having only one choice should you want coffee, which is to buy their capsules. These things, even ordered online in bulk, are at least $1 each, usually a bit more. These devices are the coffee equivalent of the inkjet printer. But most irksome of all, they simply never work. Never. I have used these stupid, evil little machines, of various brands, all of which presume to be upmarket and chic, in over a dozen hotel and resort properties in both Asia and Europe, and not once – not one single time – has one ever worked to plan. I remember a particularly diabolical episode at a posh resort in Bali where the staff had to actually replace the bloody device three times to get to one that even remotely did what it was supposed to do. But even under the best of circumstances, these stupid things just suck at delivering on their most basic premise: providing a decent, hassle-free cup of coffee. Point in case: I popped in a capsule, preheated the water, waited for the blinking light to go steady, did everything I was supposed to do, then took a great breath and pressed the “big cup” button. A horror show of noises emerged from the contraption to announce that some coffee-like substance was on the way, and sure enough, a stream of thick brown goo spurted into my cup followed by a stream of hot water, filling what is by nobody’s definition a large cup to begin with exactly one-quarter full. Like always! I hate these stupid machines! So I can either drink my grand ounce of coffee and just live with it, or I can push the button again and get another diluted stream of hot water/coffee capsule remnants. It usually takes three times pressing the button to get the cup up to three-quarters full. And after all that, guess what? It sucks. The resultant dreck is not even close to what anyone would consider good coffee. A sachet of rubbishy instant Nescafe would yield better results.

Now before anyone chides that it’s just supposed to be an espresso-sized shot, then why have two different cup sizes? Why stock the machine in a room with normal-sized coffee cups if the machine is wholly incapable of filling them? So hear this, luxury hoteliers of the world, I beg of you: resist the siren song of savvy marketers who would sell you these ridiculous machines under the guise of providing your guests with a more upscale, more enjoyable coffee experience. They’re crap. They’re wasteful, they don’t work, they don’t produce real coffee, and they’re not even a cost-effective choice for you, given the exorbitant price of those wasteful little branded capsules that you’ll then be locked into buying. Most of your guests, if polled, don’t want a tiny little cup of fake espresso, but would prefer a proper cup of actual coffee more often than not. Put a quality drip-brew coffee maker in the room, provide good coffee in little filter pouches, and be done with it.

Departing Pamalican Island
So four days in this paradise of peacefulness, the coffee machine saga notwithstanding, and then it was back to the urban chaos of Manila. One fun thing I saw in my short time there was something I learned is called a “jeepney,” a popular means of transport – both public and private – in the Philippines. After WWII, American troops packed up to return home, and hundreds of surplus Jeeps were cheaply sold or given outright to the Filipino people, who over time customized the vehicles for local use. Metal roofs were added, chassis were extended, bench seats were put in to accommodate more passengers, and all manner of kitschy décor was added to the vehicles, from giant Mercedes-Benz logos to Texas longhorns. The garish colors and decorations of these jeepneys has now come to be a unique symbol of Philippine culture, and the government now regulates their use. Today’s jeepneys are also a mish-mash of surplus parts, mostly from Japan, but it seems unlikely, of course, that any of the originals would still be in use.

I had enough of a layover in Manila to venture out from the Amanpulo lounge, so I went to nearby Makati, one of the 16 cities that comprise metro Manila, and apparently a haven of business, shopping, and entertainment. I didn’t have enough time to really explore much, but I did stumble across a Wendy’s serving up actual bacon cheeseburgers, so I had to indulge. They also had some other surprising meals on the menu… take a look.

Always interesting to see other countries' interpretations of
American fast food standards... this is a Wendy's in Manila
In the Philippines, pork chops, Salisbury steaks, and spring rolls
are regular fixtures on the menu at Wendy's!
One of many wildly colorful "jeepneys" plying the
streets of Manila
Hysterical... I wasn't sure whether to be impressed
or mortified by these things

Before long, I made my way back by cab (in a veritable crush of higgledy-piggledy traffic – more jeepneys!) to the comfortable Amanpulo lounge, where a driver was standing by to take me to the main airport terminal. I was flying from the lamentable terminal 4, which is about as dire an airport experience as you could hope for, even more dismal than the old low-cost terminal here in KL. Fortunately, I didn’t have to languish here for long – no epic flight delays this time around – and was soon winging it back to KL.

Despair at Terminal 4
All in all, a nice introduction to the Philippines, but being ensconced on a tiny private island isn’t really anything that paints a remotely accurate picture of the country, and I didn’t stay in Manila long enough to experience much more than a traffic jam and a cheeseburger. So perhaps I’ll go again another time and check out Cebu or Boracay or this place called El Nido, which isn’t too far from Pamalican Island, but a bit less posh and exclusive.

The view from shore on my final day
A thin slice of R&R paradise on this tiny Philippine island