Slowly beats the heart

Bellinda Kontominas discovers a quiet alternative to the throngs of Bali and Thailand.

A drive along the coastal road that rings the Filipino island of Marinduque reveals a slice of daily life, flashes of poignant and often comical vignettes. A fat black pig sleeps against the cool cement bricks of its owner's home; a farmer splashes his overheating water buffalo as it ploughs a soggy rice field; men play pool at an outdoor table set against tropical rainforest; and a sleek karaoke machine takes pride of place in the front yard of a dilapidated shack.

Life is slow and peaceful on this island, known as the heart of the Philippines due to its geographical location as well as its shape.

It's a mere 30-minute flight from the shambolic chaos of Manila, but Marinduque might as well be a world away.

As we journey from the island's airport in the capital, Boac, to a small jetty on the southern shoreline, in some parts it is so quiet that dogs sleep on the road.

From the jetty it takes just five minutes on an inflatable boat to arrive at Elephant Island, one of Marinduque's eight satellite islands, which looks like a giant pachyderm dipping its trunk into the Sibuyan Sea and is home to Bellarocca Island Resort and Spa.

If Marinduque seems far removed from Manila, Bellarocca is on a whole different continent.

Spectacular whitewashed buildings cling to the cliff tops like a Greek island that has tired of the Mediterranean and decided to call Asia home. It's a strange combination, but the resort's assistant director of sales and marketing, Sheila Evano, explains that the developers were forced to retreat from the original plan to build traditional Filipino hut-style accommodation when those structures were flattened by a typhoon during construction.

Taking inspiration from the island's steep, rocky cliffs, the new resort - including a 30-room hotel and separate house and villa accommodation - was built to look like the Greek island of Santorini.

Bellarocca and Marinduque feel completely off the beaten path, the perfect antidote to the well-trodden resorts of Bali and Thailand. You won't find throbbing dance music or salesmen flogging their wares on the beach. Nor will you hear the familiar twang of fellow Australians; most holidaymakers are from Asia.

Inside the hotel, the aesthetic takes on broader European influences, with Spanish-style tiles and decor in the entry foyer and broad archways on balconies.

The island's electricity comes from Marinduque and staff at check-in warn guests not to be concerned if there is a blackout; generators will soon kick in. It's a good thing, too, because minutes later I'm left standing in the darkness of my room - in seconds, the lights return. Thankfully, it's the only episode.

I'm staying in one of six Hotel Suites, which have a large living and dining area with lounge and a separate bedroom with adjoining full bathroom. The bedroom and living areas each have a flat-screen television and timber floors that lead onto a full-length balcony with a blissful outlook over the pool and across to the green tropical forest of Marinduque.

The resort mainly caters for couples planning a romantic escape, but it also attracts small families and the occasional group of young professionals. There are six cliff-side villas and four garden villas, each with their own plunge pool; 10 two-bedroom, two-storey "terrazas", ideal for two couples travelling together; and one private, three-bedroom guesthouse - set over three storeys, with its own cinema room, pool and rooftop terrace - often rented by larger families attending a wedding on the island.

The resort also has 19 "casas", or houses, which remain unfurnished for now, awaiting an upgrade of the airport runway to allow more capacity for flights to Marinduque, Evano says. But this is expected to change by the end of the year (work on the runway is due to start in October), and there are also plans for a new wellness centre.

Everything about the resort seems designed for romance. Weddings take place in the meditation sanctuary, an intimate pavilion surrounded by bright bougainvillea and sea views.

Private dinners can be arranged for couples in the tea house, which overlooks the ocean and sunsets. Up 300 steps is the island's lookout, where many couples have become engaged - no doubt overwhelmed by exertion and those spectacular 360-degree views to nearby Tres Reyes, Banton and Mindoro islands.

Guests can even have a massage alongside their partner in glass-enclosed cliff-top treatment rooms, which have some of the best views on the island. Those concerned about privacy needn't worry; blinds are drawn once the massage begins. If you prefer, a therapist can come to your room, but you'll miss out on having a peaceful pre-massage spa among the treetops.

Though slight of frame, the massage therapists have hands of steel and know exactly how to poke, prod and knead the muscles for maximum relaxation.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served as a buffet with appetising Filipino and Western selections, though there isn't a huge variety. It's understandable, however, with the limitations involved in shipping regular, fresh supplies from the mainland. We're told the chef is happy to cater for personal requests.

Staff are on hand to escort guests by golf cart wherever they need to go on the island; a must when commuting to and from the ocean-side plunge pool with bar and sunbaking deck, or when hiring watercraft such as jet-skis, kayaks and windsurfers.

They also escort guests on day trips to the unoccupied Dos Hermanas and Tres Reyes islands - about 30 minutes by speedboat - for a truly private experience, or to Marinduque, which is known in these parts as "the mainland".

We journey to the mainland and drive 50 minutes along the main loop road to Boac. Compared with the popular island of Boracay further south, Marinduque has remained largely off the radar of Western tourists, and this is evident in the capital city, where word quickly spreads of our presence and locals are particularly bashful at requests to photograph them.

The island's seafaring lifestyle has remained relatively unchanged for 300 years. Fishermen continue to live on the sand in stilted huts made of bamboo and thatch, despite regular destruction by typhoons. Their wares are displayed daily at Boac's public markets.

Vendors sell fruit and vegetables, eggs and spices and woven goods, including a special crown used in traditional putong greetings.

Huge cuts of meat hang from a hook next to the butcher, who proudly holds up a whole pig's head as we pass by.

Other stalls flog fabric, clothing, shoes and toys from Manila.

Nearby, the Boac cathedral, built 340 years ago as a fortress to protect the town from Muslim invaders from the southern region of Mindanao, has daily services and up to four services on Sundays.

Its grand altar, built in the baroque style with intricate carvings of saints, would impress even the staunchest non-believer.

One of the oldest buildings on the island, and formerly a jail, courthouse and municipal school, is Marinduque Museum, which is well worth visiting for its collection of historic and cultural artefacts. It's a slice of everyday Filipino life, as real as the sleeping dogs and pigs and the karaoke machines. Chinese clay and ceramic pots from a junk wrecked off the coast in the 12th century reveal the early days of trade in the region; clapping sticks called Katutung (various lengths of wood that produce different depths of sound) are displayed; fine sheer shirts and other garb showcase traditional clothing woven from abaca fibres of the banana plant; and a variety of fishing traps - cage traps, bamboo shrimp traps, dip nets - are an insight into the island's long-held fishing success.

We head back to Bellarocca, passing more uniquely local sights. A toddler plays with his toys in an outdoor cot made of bamboo; children learn to ballroom dance on a basketball court; and yet more local dogs scurry from their sleeping spots in the middle of the road. This truly is the heart of the Philippines.

The writer travelled courtesy of Philippine Airlines and Philippine Department of Tourism.

Three things to do

1 Filipinos flock to Marinduque for the Moriones Festival, which takes place during the Easter Holy Week. During the festival, which dates back to the 1870s, local penitents re-enact the crucifixion dressed in the heavy masks, helmets and tunics of Moriones, a parody of Roman soldiers during the time of Christ.

2 Marinduque is home to a series of caves and waterfalls, including Paadjao Falls in Mogpog, which has a spectacular 30-metre drop but can only be visited in good weather. Bathala Cave is a complex network of 20 caves in Santa Cruz, of which only four are open to tourists. Kuwebang Simbahan (or Church Cave) is the largest of the group and owes its name to its church-like interior with stalactites and stalagmites that resemble an altar and a church bell. In the same complex, the Python Cave is occasionally guarded by rock pythons, which are normally dangerous, aggressive snakes but are said to have never harmed anyone inside the caves. marinduque.gov.ph.

3 For a strange and wonderful experience, visit the Marinduque Lepidoptera (or butterfly) Farm. The owner, Emerita Sevilla, provides a warm and friendly tour of the cages, where you can find hundreds of Idea leuconoe butterflies, which can be bought for 20 pesos and released while making a wish. Sevilla breeds and sells these "wishing butterflies" for weddings, funerals and debuts, describing the practice as "a very environmentally friendly confetti".

Trip notes

Getting there

Philippine Airlines flies to Manila seven times a week from both Sydney and Melbourne, with connections throughout the Philippines and across Asia. 1300 888 725, philippineairlines.com.

Zest Air flies daily from Manila to Marinduque. flyzest.com.

Staying there

Bellarocca Island Resort and Spa, Marinduque, has hotel rooms from $US680 ($649) a night or two-bedroom villas from $US2200 a night, including airport transfers and breakfasts. +63 2 817 7290, info@bellaroccaresorts.com, bellaroccaresorts.com.

The story Slowly beats the heart first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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