Ten years ago few people had heard of Siargao, a tiny but lush island ringed by crisp white beaches and flanking the far eastern reaches of the Philippine archipelago, let alone were able to pronounce it (sher-gaw). The splotch of diminutive humped mountains crowding a clutch of azure blue lakes was known only by a castaway crew of hippies relishing in Siargao’s lazy tempo and intrepid surfers after the perfectly hollow waves found at Cloud 9, a reef break fuelled by the Pacific Ocean’s Philippine Trench. Getting there was the problem. It’s part of the Mindanao group of islands, known as the badlands of a country considered the Wild West of Asia. Journeys involved multiple long and treacherous ferry rides through kidnap country.
That started to change in 2011 when Siargao scored an airport and a few weekly flights from Cebu City, the Philippines’ second biggest metropolis, an hour away. Then last year Siargao got Dedon Island, its first upmarket luxury resort.
It’s the hobby horse of Belgian-born Bobby Dekeyser, a former goalie for German football club Bayern Munich-turned entrepreneur and founder of Dedon, a line of high-end outdoor furniture manufactured in Cebu. Dekeyser bought the former Pansukian Tropical Resort in 2010, turning it into what he dubs an “outdoor living lab”, where Dedon furniture is tested for its durability and practicality. Stays come with an all-inclusive price tag, including meals prepared using produce from the resort’s organic garden, booze, excursions and massages.
Although not on a private island – as its name suggests – Dedon Island is raising the bar for luxury tourism developments in the Philippines. There are luxury villas designed by French architects Daniel Pouzet and Jean-Marie Massaud, who have also designed some of Dedon furniture’s signature pieces.
With the smallest stretching over a spacious 93 square metres, the villas mimic the traditional Tongkonan houses of Tanah Toraja in Indonesia’s Sulawesi province, with roofs covered with thick thatch. Inside, four-poster beds built from local timber and wrapped in metres of sumptuous mosquito netting frame hand-carved jungle murals that took up to six months each for a craftsman to complete. The bathroom is centred by an open-sided rain shower lined with local rock. But it’s the villas’ decks that take first prize, a sweep of wooden floors framing a Dedon Swingrest, a circular lounge chair for two peering over a garden alive with crimson hibiscus and at night, yellow glowing fireflies.
Living with Dedon products is one of the big pluses of this resort, basically because it would cost an arm and a leg to buy it all yourself. It’s scattered everywhere throughout the 4-hectare resort: from the egg-shaped Nestrest chairs hanging from crooked coconut palms on the strip of powdery white sand, from the breezy restaurant to the boat; wherever there is a possibility for a seat, swing, or lounge, Dedon’s furniture is occupying it. It’s even where you don’t expect it, like laundry baskets and the villas’ outdoor shower heads, which were made exclusively for the resort.
It’s a breezy barefoot place well suited for lazy Siargao, a 450- square kilometre swath of coconut palms and subsistence farmers where water buffaloes spend days submerged in muddy ponds, chickens dawdle across the road and mobile phone signals fade into oblivion.
Indulging in the island’s great outdoors was Dekeyser’s objective, and consequently the resort offers, a range of activities, from massages to yoga classes, fishing and learning how to surf on Cloud 9.
Taking advantage of one morning’s big blue skies, we head out on an island-hopping tour. Our first stop, Guyam, is little more than a clutch of coconut trees ringed by sea. At Daku, a larger island lined with a powdery beach and pastel-coloured wooden boats, we feast on a pre-prepared lunch of Philippine curries and noodles before floating, toes up, in the crystal-clear water.
There is a coral reef off Daku that we later explore with snorkels. Sadly there is little to see; most of the coral heads have been smashed to smithereens by cyanide fishing, which in theory is illegal in the Philippines but in practice is used prolifically to collect aquarium fish. A few Nemos and other colourful fish snoop around the debris. “The government has their hands in their pockets”, one of Dedon’s staff members says quietly when I ask if the coast is protected. “If only they could see the potential for tourism.”
Perhaps they can. One concern I keep hearing while on Siargao is the rapid pace of development consuming the island. Direct flights from Manila are scheduled to begin by the end of the year. Half a dozen resorts are under construction on nearby beaches, some of them with private pools. Locals fear it will turn into another Boracay, referring to the small island on the northern tip of the Visayas and the Philippines’ most touristy island. “We’re waiting for Hilton to arrive,” Dedon’s activities manager, Sean, jokes.
The next day we head to the famous surf break Cloud 9, which is overlooked by a wooden pagoda for competition watching. The surf is small and sets are few and far between, but, despite this, there are at least 50 people competing for the odd wave. You can almost hear them sigh as our busload of beginners pull up. We are each given a long, fat Malibu board and a young board-shorted local who helps us cheat by pushing us onto the waves rather than making us paddle for them. It’s fun and we all manage spectacular wipe-outs and the odd wobble to our feet.
Dedon’s activities list is long and noble, but what they don’t mention is that you need to share them with the rest of the in-house guests, and their children. We were lucky enough to be there with two amiable families. Even so, squeezing into the resort’s jeepney with five adults and three noisy kids doesn’t exactly ring of luxury resort where prices hover above US$1000 a night.
Island idleness also permeated through the resort. I would like to have used the groovy beach bar centred by a spectacular Dedon pylon, but in three days I didn’t see a staff member there. There is only a menu for breakfast, after which you eat what you are given. Hats off to the resort’s attempts to minimise waste but chicken twice a day with not a vegetable in sight is a bit much to take. Similarly, the wine list, when available, lends itself more to a wine shop bargain bin rather than an exclusive top-notch resort.
That said, kicking back in a Nestrest after an activity-filled day followed by a two-hour massage with a glass of wine that is topped up by your personal waiter – ours was a delightful young man called Larry from Siargao who started at Dedon six months ago and now has the skills worthy of a Michelin-starred restaurant – while watching the sky and ocean merge into a hazy shade of blue is hard to beat.
Dedon Island has nine villas, with rates starting from $US532 a person, a night based on double occupancy, including transfers, meals and activities. Most travellers at Siargao will inevitably find themselves overnighting in the city of Cebu. The 301-room Cebu City Marriott Hotel is an ageing old dame, but the service is sweet and the location is unbeatable; just steps from Ayala Mall and the multiple dining options offered at the Terraces. Pay a bit extra for access to the executive lounge for evening cocktails and canapes. Rooms are from PHP 4500. See marriott.com
Three more Philippines island resorts
Pangulasian Island, palawan
This private island getaway has 42 thatch-roofed villas with stunning views of Bacuit Bay. Come for the nature, spotting hornbills in the surrounding jungle, or exploring the multi-coloured coral gardens of the Palawan Biosphere Reserve, which surrounds the hotel.
Ariara Island, Palawan
A 50-hectare private island in the Sulu Sea, Ariara accommodates a maximum of 18 guests exclusively in its eight beach cottages and jungle villas. There are 30 staff and activities galore, including a 10-metre speedboat for wakeboarding and a qualified diving instructor for discovering the 13 Japanese naval wrecks offshore.
Abaca, Mactan Island, Cebu
Abaca has just six suites and three villas, all with big decks overlooking the Hilutungan Channel. Minutes from Cebu City and its international airport, Mactan offers luxury with easy access. The restaurant, overseen by Australian Wade Watson, is among the Philippines’ best, with dishes like risotto with roasted tiger prawns.