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Coming out of seclusion

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Once an off-the-grid destination preferred by expats, Misibis Bay is opening up to welcome adventure-seeking weekend warriors.


WORDS MIRA CATHERINE B. GLORIA

About an hour by car from Legazpi City, the epicenter of Albay’s tourism boom, Misibis Bay Resort in Cagraray island pokes along at its unapologetic pace. First-time visitors often remark that time seems to stop in this five-hectare island resort, and the only sound you can hear is that of small waves crashing against the breakwater in the distance.

Far from the frenetic scene of popular beach destinations like Boracay, the island itself is a sleepy gem. You’re more likely to encounter dogs snoozing in the middle of the road than vehicles zooming by.

That off-the-grid vibe was the reason Bicolano construction magnate Elizaldy Co and his wife decided to acquire the property nine years ago. “They had a vision to build a luxury hideaway, one that would put the island on the country’s luxury tourism map,” Carlo Librea, the resort’s area general manager, told High Life in an interview.

Misibis Bay was planned initially as a residential resort development, and the first minor structures built were cabanas near the beach. Mr. Librea said the plan changed when the owners realized that the resort was increasingly attracting visitors, mostly foreigners, looking to spend a day (or more) in the island.   

“There was also this perception of Bicol, especially among Manila residents, that it’s a place where they can employ a kasambahay (maid), whom they’ll bring to the city. The owners wanted to change that so they wanted to build a luxury resort that would change Bicol’s image,” Mr. Librea said.

Thirty-seven opulently designed villas were built with rates that go as high as Php50,000 a night. Despite the rates, Misibis Bay easily gets fully booked on weekends, Mr. Librea said, adding that the resort’s inaccessibility made it even more appealing for guests looking for a weekend getaway.

Before the Sula bridge connecting Misibis to mainland Albay opened in 2013, the resort could only be reached by crossing the Sula Channel through a barge or a water taxi. Back then, and even to this day, Mr. Librea said that some of the resort’s regular guests choose to be flown to the island via helicopter, which has never been a problem since the resort has four helipads.

“[Guests] liked the idea that it was secluded, hidden in a remote island,” Mr. Librea added.

But Misibis Bay would not stay hidden for long. Five years later, the resort expanded with 53 smaller standalone structures called casitas. A convention center was also built to accommodate multinational firms looking for a venue for their corporate events. The resort also became a popular venue for weddings as it offered three options for would-be newlyweds: a wedding by the beach, in a garden, or in a chapel at the top of the hill. And last year, the resort unveiled a condominium-style waterfront building called Pacific View, which houses 60 rooms, bringing the resort’s total number of rooms to 150.

Mr. Librea pointed out that Misibis Bay’s sprawling property helped the resort expand without compromising its secluded charm. The villas, the casitas, and the condo-style rooms—are built in clusters and are spaced far apart and shielded from each other by lush tropical gardens for absolute privacy. And with five hectares of land, Mr. Librea said there’s no way guests cannot find spots on the island they can have all by themselves.

For those looking for something to do, there’s a dizzying array of island activities to choose from. Guests can sign up for water sports like windsurfing, stand-up paddle boarding, and water skiing, to name a few. They can also go snorkeling at the marina or venture out on a galleon shipwreck dive at the Sula Channel. The resort also offers boat tours to nearby islands, which include lunch featuring grilled seafood and fresh fruits served on a banana leaf.

Another popular activity among guests is driving an ATV (all-terrain vehicle) up the hill early in the morning and exploring the Cagraray Eco Energy Park. Inside the park, guests can pay the resort to ride a 200-meter long zipline. Hiking further up the hill, they will find the resort’s popular wedding venues: a moss-covered amphitheater overlooking the Albay gulf, and the glass-walled Stella Maris chapel, which offers breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean and Mayon volcano.

STAYING AHEAD OF THE GAME
By now, it’s safe to say that the owners of Misibis Bay have accomplished their goal of making Bicol known not only for its photogenic volcano. But the Co family, which also owns four other hotel properties in the region, did not stop there.

A few years ago, the family decided to tap Enderun Hospitality Management to run their properties, including Misibis Bay. Having the hotels managed by Enderun, which is known for its culinary school, meant changing each property’s strategic direction, streamlining its operations and re-training its staff—all designed to maximize overall return on capital.

For Misibis Bay, Mr. Librea said Enderun “polished” the menu, elevated its standards of hotel service, and upgraded the amenities inside the rooms and villas. The “Enderun touch” is more apparent in the way the resort staff attend to guests. Anyone you meet at the resort is ready to lend a helping hand, and can answer guest inquiries whether it’s about the schedule of water activities the next day or where to find an extension cord to plug in chargers for electronics.

Mr. Librea said the management makes an effort to employ locals. The owners, through a foundation, also enlist women in the communities in livelihood programs such as buri weaving. The resort buys these buri hats and baskets and offers them as welcome gifts for resort guests.

“As the Philippines grows its destination properties—you now have Bohol, Siargao—it gets more competitive [for resort owners],” Mr. Librea said. “So they really need to be creative, aggressive and innovative.”

He revealed that Misibis Bay will soon open a “glamping” site within the property. Glamping (a portmanteau for “glamorous camping”) offers the experience of outdoor camping with hotel-like comforts like large beds and en-suite bathrooms. Cliff jumping and other extreme sports may also be added to its list of resort activities next year.

Misibis Bay may no longer be Bicol region’s hidden gem, only visited by those in the know. As the island resort continues to attract discerning travelers in search of a tropical getaway, it also continues to come up with new resort features to stay ahead of the game.

“The challenge now [for resorts] is how to be creative. Guests would always look for things they haven’t experienced. When you have the money, you will always try to find the best thing your money can buy,” Mr. Librea said.