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The great escape to Balesin

04/08/2012 | By: Michael Kho Lim, The Daily Tribune

The summer sun beckons and greets me early when its rays lead me to a private island called Balesin. It is located 90 air miles east of Metro Manila, about 60 nautical miles from the coastline of the province of Quezon or a four-hour banca ride northeast from the town of Infanta. It is also just about 35 kilometers northeast of Mauban, Quezon, and is situated near the island of Pollillo.

Balesin Island was quite unfamiliar to me that I had to ask where it is and how long the travel time is from Manila. When I was told that it’s in the province of Quezon and that it only takes 25 minutes to get there, I was perplexed because I’ve been to Quezon, and it took me several hours to get there. I was informed later that a chartered plane would take us to Balesin.

On the day of our departure, we arrived early at the hangar of the blue chip developer that acquired and developed Balesin-Alphaland Corp. After the very friendly and hospitable staff members served us breakfast, we still had some time to go around the hangar to check out the different aircrafts stationed there. When we were ready to leave, one of Alphaland’s staff members gave the pre-boarding and safety reminders at the luxurious departure lounge before we were sent to the plane.

Even if lots of people I know have apprehensions about boarding small planes, I still got on the Cessna Grand Caravan that carries only 12 passengers. I was fortunate enough to be seated on the first row, right behind our very entertaining and accommodating pilots. And I truly enjoyed the experience since I can see how they operate the aircraft. It was like fulfilling my childhood dream of becoming a pilot.

We hovered around Balesin Island before finally landing. From above, we could see lush greenery and some locals tirelessly working on developing the island. When we landed, the fresh, cool breeze of the island welcomed us.

It’s difficult not to fall in love with the place. I don’t like crowded beaches like those in Puerto Galera and Boracay even if they have the best beaches in the country. So the idea of just being in a remote private island without the crowd is just too attractive and enticing for me. Add to that Balesin Island’s 7.3-kilometer of pristine white sand shoreline set against its 190 hectares of virgin hardwood forest.

In fact, according to Balesin’s project director Marco Diaz, over 90 percent of Balesin is untouched and preserved. “We intend to keep it that way. We integrated the trees into our plans and made our structures fit into their environment.”

The discovery of Balesin

Balesin got its name from the towering saltwater banyan trees that grow on the island. The name is the combination of two Filipino words: balete or banyan tree and asin or salt.

A legend also says that Balesin used to be the hideout of the infamous 16th-century pirate Exekiel, who seized galleon ships and whose treasures are said to be buried deep beneath the island. This is why Balesin used to be a favorite stop for treasure hunters. After the Japanese occupation of the Philippines in World War II, however, Balesin became a favorite vacation spot of the Japanese.

It was only in the 1960s that the late property businessman and licensed pilot Edgardo “Ed” Tordesillas discovered Balesin Island. He formed Balesin Corp. in 1966 and took control and ownership of the island. In 1969, Tordesillas started bringing his family to the island by piloting small planes on weekends. It has then become a private sanctuary for the Tordesillas family ever since.

Entrepreneur that he was, Tordesillas decided to develop and run a resort on the island in 1976. He introduced the “island resort community” concept and subdivided about five percent or 20 hectares of the 424-hectare island into 100 residential beach front lots with cuts of 2,000 square meters each and sold them to select individuals.

Since then, Balesin has become an exclusive resort where lot owners built their vacation houses and accessible only via chartered aircraft. The island later attracted foreign tourists from nearby Asian countries and some parts of Europe when the island was slowly gaining some international publicity.

Under Tordesillas’ management, Balesin flourished. The resort began to deteriorate, however, when he passed away. The other companies of the Tordesillases also faced financial problems since some of his children were not into property development.

Fortunately, investment banker and business magnate Roberto “Bobby” Ongpin, one of the exclusive members of the Balesin resort and who frequented the island and really fell in love with the place, decided to purchase the property in April 2010 and pledged to renovate and develop the island to a world-class luxury resort. Ed Tordesillas was Ongpin’s good friend and used to be Ongpin’s deputy at the Ministry of Trade and Industry during the Marcos years.

Now, Balesin Island Club is under the management of Ongpin’s Alphaland Corp.

Themed villages of Balesin Island Club

As soon as the members and guests get off the plane, they are greeted by a guitar player who serenades the visitors with a kundiman. Then they are escorted to the welcome pavilion where they are received and given fresh leis, a cold towel and a refreshing drink.

Diaz, who is also director for tours of Balesin Island Club, acted as our host and presented the whole island club to our awe and excitement.

As a testament to Alphaland’s commitment to delivering only the best and finest project development, Alphaland contracted the services of EcoPlan from Miami, Florida, as its master planner and tapped different notable architectural firms to handle the whole island club’s design and execution.

There will be six themed and authentically designed hospitality villages on the island as inspired by six world-class beach destinations from around the world. And Alphaland Corp. is proud to say that this is the only concept of its kind worldwide to date.

These villages include Balesin Village from our very own country and Bali Village from Indonesia located at the western side of the island facing Lamon Bay. Then there are Mykonos Village from the Greece; Costa Smeralda Village from Sardinia, Italy; St. Tropez Village from the French Riviera; and two honeymoon suites on two separate smaller islands located at the eastern side of the island facing Pacific Ocean. Lastly, there is Phuket Village from Thailand located at the southern tip of the island.

“Each village has been meticulously designed and constructed to resemble the destination it’s patterned after, and with the authentic cuisine that you can feast on in each village, you will feel as if you’re traveling around the world as you explore the island,” explained Diaz. “Each village is unique, but what they do have in common are the five-star amenities in the villas, including Jacuzzis, indoor and outdoor luxury beds, landscaped pools, and a five-star specialty restaurant that serves signature cuisines that are based on the theme of the village. There is island-wide Wi-Fi access on Balesin, direct to home TV via Cignal TV as well as our very own Smart 3G cell site.”

The island also has its own emergency medical center with an on-island doctor and a cardiac clinic with ambulance. Defibrillators are also made available in various locations on the island for cardiac emergencies, and an emergency air transportation is readily available anytime for any emergency situation. The island is guaranteed free of any tropical disease, and no vaccination is needed to visit the island.

Regular boat patrols with highly-trained enforcers with police and military backgrounds rove in and around the island 24/7. They ensure the safety of all the guests in the island and protect the island from any outside intruders.

“We have also done all of our environmental studies and have built structures ideal for the Pacific islands in sheltered, elevated and secure locations,” emphasized Diaz. “Balesin is protected by the surrounding islands from tsunami risk. All the man-made structures have foundations all the way to the bedrock and are built for 250-kilometer winds — the same standards employed by Guam.”

There will also never be an issue of power outage in the island as three 750 KVA generators will be installed to supply power to the island.

Forty villas will be built in each village. Each suite will have a spacious bedroom with a king-size bed, coffee machine with a complete set of coffee and tea pods, outdoor garden shower, private sundeck with whirlpool, barbeque facilities on the sundeck/lounge area, plunge pool and a 24-hour golf buggy service. Intercoms are also installed in each villa to communicate with the staff for room service, spa treatment or emergency situations.

From the welcome pavilion, Diaz toured us around Balesin Village. Even though it's yet to be completed, the beauty and elegance of this Filipino-themed village is already evident.

For example, the indigenous architectural design of the function rooms and restaurant are carefully thought of and the artifacts used as decorative embellishments are authentic, brought from their actual locations such as the giant drums and antique chests that really came from Marawi in Mindanao. In the same way that the doors installed in Bali Village were shipped from Bali, Indonesia.

During lunch and dinner, we were able to eat at the Sala, Balesin Village's specialty restaurant, which served us authentic Filipino dishes such as binakol and kilawin, grilled seafoods, paella negra, among others. All the seafood served in the restaurant is guaranteed fresh and comes straight from the sea. The Balesin Village is expected to be completed this May in time for the operations of the whole island club in June or July.

The second themed village located on the same western side of the island is Bali Village. Designed with the idea that Bali is known as the land of the gods, Bali Village will exemplify true Balinese architecture by making it in harmony with nature through the use of generous open spaces and courtyards with wooden decks. Set against the backdrop of its majestic volcanoes, Bali is also known to be a mystical place that enthralls its visitors. To somewhat simulate this setting in Balesin Island Club, Bali Village will be facing the grand Sierra Madre Mountain range of the Luzon mainland. The Bali Village is the last to be completed in the island and will be ready by June 2013.

On the eastern side of the island is the Mykonos Village. Inspired by the colors of Greece's flag, Mykonos will be a village of white-washed houses with flat roofs, blue windows and wooden doors, and flowered balconies. The village will be an excellent model of Cycladic cubic architecture complete with narrow, winding streets where authentic a Greek taverna and café will serve tzatziki and souvlaki, among other Greek cuisines. The Mykonos Village is expected to be completed this June in time for the operations of the whole island club in June or July.

Also on the eastern side of the island is the Costa Smeralda Village. It will follow the "neo-Sardinian" architectonic style, which enriches and merges nature with the structure and maintains the continuous harmony of the sand, sea and sky. This architectural design was created by Jacques Couelle, one of the most distinguished architects of the sixties who built the famous hotel Cala di Volpe in Sardinia, Italy. An Italian café patterned after the renowned Aga Khan in Porto Cervo, Sardinia, will also be erected here. The Costa Smeralda Village is expected to be completed by February 2013.

The last village on the eastern side of Balesin is the St. Tropez Village. St. Tropez is said to be the playground of the rich and famous and a favorite destination of people in high society, sea lovers and enthusiasts of arts, history, culture and heritage. St. Tropez Village will replicate the setting of the French Riviera in the southern region of France. Set against the waters of the Pacific Ocean, St. Tropez Village will also have inland lakes and white sand beach similar to that of Pampellone. There will also be the Crêperie that will satisfy one's craving for crepes and French cuisine. The St. Tropez Village is expected to be completed this December.

Completing the six themed villages in Balesin is the Phuket Village located at the southernmost part of the island. Regarded as the “pearl of the south,” Phuket is characterized by its crystalline blue-green waters, limestone cliffs and powdery white-sand beaches. The villas on the island are situated on top of rugged cliffs and will have their own cove that's ideal for surfing and boogie boarding. There will also be a café that serves authentic Thai cuisine. The Phuket Village is expected to be completed this September.

Balesin thrives on the natural beauty of its wide array of flora and fauna, some of which include bougainvillea and frangipani, yellow orioles, forest doves, Philippine Scops owl, Philippine coucal, Tabon birds, monitor lizards, lobsters, land crabs (kuray), mud crabs, deep-sea crabs, yellow-fin tuna, mahi mahi, groupers, parrot fish and other coral fishes. Local wildlife flourishes since bird hunting is prohibited, and there are long stretches of marine sanctuaries being maintained in the island's waters.

Designed to be one of the most eco-friendly resorts in the world, Balesin Island Club has its own water purification system and nine top-of-the-line sewerage treatment plants, whose output is Class A chlorinated water that will be used exclusively for landscaping. There is also no septic tank in the island and never will be. Sewage will never be released into the water aquifers that will eventually flow into the sea.

The island's runway is actually a water catcher, which harvests more than 101 million liters of rainwater per year and supplies potable water throughout the island. Two lakes (10,000 and 30,000 square meters) in the island also have a storage capacity of 60 million liters.

"Sustainability is one of the prime development philosophies of Alphaland, and this is true for Balesin, as well as our urban residential projects that are LEED certified," affirmed Michelle Ongpin, senior vice president for corporate communications. "At Balesin, we want to give you a place that has it all-the wonders of nature, the luxuries of first-class living, and the most enjoyable activities, while ensuring that the place can thrive for many more generations to enjoy."

Club membership

As a private getaway destination, membership is required to access the beauty and luxury of the Balesin Island Club. There is a one-time membership fee of P2 million, which will be P2.5 million by April to May, and go up to P3 million by June or July when the club is fully operational. Membership is by invitation only.

"At Balesin, we aim to provide you with a unique, luxurious and exclusive island experience," Ongpin added. "With all its natural wonders, it's a world unto itself, giving you that sense of remoteness and serenity. Yet, it's just a quick flight to and from Manila."

Membership is also targeted at foreign tourists such as those living in the nearby countries like Hong Kong especially since Balesin is only a two-hour plane ride. Alphaland Corp. is looking at getting a total of 5,000 foreign members and only about 400 to 500 Filipino members. The 1,500-meter paved runway that took about three months to finish is actually built to accommodate bigger regional aircraft that can carry about 40 passengers coming in from nearby Asian neighbors such as Hong Kong, Singapore and even Sydney in the near future.

A member gets to enjoy a total of 14 complimentary villa nights per year, which could be spread in any of the six themed villages on the island, and used up in one visit or spread throughout the year. The member also gets to enjoy subsidized flights to and from Balesin Island via the Cessna grand caravan.

The member will also have access to the 3,500-sq.m. clubhouse, which houses seven two-bedroom clubhouse suites and four one-bedroom manager suites. It also has its own 1,100-sq.m. freshwater infinity pool, 400-sq.m. children\'s pool, four outdoor whirlpools, children's playground, sundeck, cabanas, recreational rooms and clinic.

Members will enjoy a lot of activities on Balesin Island. The club has an aquatic sports center that allows one to go water skiing, wakeboarding, diving, snorkeling, kite boarding, windsurfing, kayaking, sailing and even fishing.

The club also has a fully covered sports center that houses indoor and outdoor basketball and tennis courts, three badminton courts, table tennis room, food kiosk and a gym. There is also an equestrian center where one can go horseback riding around the island, and a wellness center that offers spa services.

Balesin has not just changed the landscape of tourism in Quezon, but also improved the lives of about 800 local villagers by providing them employment in the island. Majority of the men are working in the construction and development of the project, while most women are being trained to form part the hospitality staff. Everyone in the island is working 24/7 on three shifts just to meet the target deadline of finishing the project on time. Indeed, the project has transformed the municipality from being fourth class to a world-class destination.

"Some well-known leisure destinations have become overcrowded with visitors and establishments, resulting in a compromised natural environment," remarked Diaz. "For Balesin, we had a total master plan making doubly sure that none of our structures or construction methods would in any way harm or interfere with the island's natural beauty. This is also the main reason we want to keep Balesin members-only."

For more information on Balesin Island Club, log on to www.balesin.com or call (+63 2) 846-6205, +63917-8825742, or e-mail sales@alphaland.com.ph.