By Victoria Mendoza Fritz
OURS is a land of kings.
But who knew that? Antonio Pigafetta did, apparently. In entry after entry of his diary, as recounted in The History of Mindanao by Reuben Canoy, the tireless chronicler of Magellan’s expedition refers to meeting “kings” in Cebu and its environs further south.
We are given a taste of this rich royal heritage of Mindanao in the latest vision to rise in Balesin. The Balesin Royal Villa is a private enclave within a private enclave, in the exclusive, for-members-only island resort off Quezon Province. A royal experience, one could say.
Kudos to management for veering away from Europe for inspiration. It would have been tacky, to say the least, to have a faux Buckingham Palace with turrets sticking out like a sore thumb on the gently sloping sands of a tropical island.
Instead they looked south for insight. The entrance driveway to the compound is guarded by the likeness Rajah Sulaiman on one side, and Lapu Lapu on the other, leaders the equivalent of kings in their own space and time. A real live guard mans the entrance to screen on comers, as only Villa guests may come in.
This stirred my curiosity about our own royal heritage in the Philippines.
The National Commission on Culture and the Arts says the first Sultan of Maguindanao, Shariff Kabungsuan, was enthroned in 1520, a year before the arrival of Magellan. He established the first sultanate in Mindanao. At the height of its power, the sultanate of Maguindanao had control over the entire mainland of Mindanao. The rulers in Mindanao turned out to be more successful in warding off the conquistadores than their Luzon counterparts. According to the Filipinas Heritage Library site: “Spain never got to conquer Mindanao, except for a few small ports.” In my mind, the rulers of Mindanao have every reason to be proud, and to deserve the title of “king.”
In The History of Mindanao, one section is subtitled, “Rajahs and Kings.” Canoy notes that “Pigafetta consistently used the title of King for the ruler of a place.” Later Canoy quotes Pigafetta himself: “We landed; the two kings (Rajah Kolambu of Butuan and Rajah Siawi of Surigao) embraced the captain-general [Magellan].’”
Although this royal tradition preceded the arrival of the Spaniards, and the Spanish conquerors themselves recognized it, the government of the modern Philippine nation does not recognize local royalty as it runs counter to the Constitution. Legally, the state does not recognize the sultanate system.
Looking at an aerial photo of Balesin Royal Villa, the majesty is apparent as it stands on the shoreline.
While the spark that brought about this grand edifice may have been our royal tradition, the design and touches were not limited to all things in Mindanao. Instead, the owners looked all around the archipelago for inspiration.
The fountain that first greets guests driving into the compound is patterned after a historical landmark, the Carriedo Fountain in Quiapo.
Driving up to the main entrance, one stands underneath the prettiest ceiling seen in these parts, a rendition of the calado pattern used in embroidering the traditional barong Tagalog.
The double doors open onto a salon, bordered with a winding staircases on each side leading to the suites on the upper floor. The salon’s granite floor can appear daunting and cold. But then, this is not a backpacker’s hideaway. It is a summer retreat fit for a king.
In the dining hall are tables elegantly set, with one seating as many as 20. The private group staying the weekend can have their meals served here upon request. They can choose a multiple-course meal from any of the restaurants located at the uniquely themed resorts around the island: Balesin Sala (serving Filipino dishes), Balu Warung (Indonesian), Phuket Salathip (Thai), Thanassis Taverna at Mykonos (Greek), Les Restaurants de St. Tropez (French), Casa Grande at Costa del Sol (Spanish), and Trattoria Toscana (Italian).
Glass doors open onto the terrace, where one can choose between a circular and an elongated freshwater swimming pool on each side of the deck. Each suite on the ground floor likewise opens to this terrace. A discreet stairway on the left side leads down to the secret beach, one long enjoyed by the previous owners who have been coming here since the 1970s.
It is upstairs however, where the experience really gets ramped up.
The space dedicated to 10 royal suites on the ground floor is occupied by only four Maharlika suites on the upper floor. Each is an expansive 317 square meters, with its own living room, and a sitting area in the master’s bedroom, with a complementing smaller bedroom. The granite floor and marble table tops do lend it a royal touch, but can appear hard and formal. The canopy bed and cushy sofas soften the look markedly, with the overall feel admittedly sleep-inducing. And there is that rare privilege afforded the master’s bedroom — a view of both the sunrise and the sunset, overlooking the bed on each side. The room opens onto a deck, fitted with a jacuzzi, and hidden from view. It is quite possible to test your bravado and bathe au naturel.
Among the wealthy, privacy could well be the most valuable commodity. It is this well-guarded privacy that makes Balesin the most exclusive of high-end resorts. It does come at a steep price. The entire Royal Villa can be had for a night, for a quarter of a million pesos. Short of that, the minimum booking required is five royal suites for the Villa to open its doors to guests.
Upon request, a butler is available for each room, which makes it possible to have the ultimate luxury — breakfast in bed.
We do not need to look beyond our shores for authentic royalty. They still rule in sections of Muslim Mindanao.
Meanwhile, a bona fide royal experience is a mere 20-minute plane ride away. The Balesin Royal Villa is yours for the night, if you can spare the royal change.