May 15, 2017

Balai La-Hi: Marinduque’s Secret Hideaway

Sometimes I can hear my heart crushing under the weight of all the dreams I stopped pursuing. It feels like I’m stepping on pieces of me that I didn’t even know were buried on the ground I’m standing.   

I was scribbling those lines while, taking in the serene, picturesque view of Tayabas Bay from the rustic beach cottage of Balai La-Hi. It’s true, you can get overly dramatic and be inspired to start or finish your own novel when staying at this amazingly beautiful place I recently discovered in Marinduque.

Balai La-Hi is a private beach house turned bed and breakfast place owned by visual artist and filmmaker Rafael “Cholo” Hidalgo-Laurel. Cholo directed the 2005 award-winning Star Cinema thriller-classic Nasaan Ka Man. The name of the house is very Filipino suggesting native ancestry; but actually La-Hi is the abbreviation of his two surnames – Laurel and Hidalgo. The land belongs to his family for ages, but he was the one who stylishly rebuilt, expanded and enhanced their former family rest house to a provincial retreat and haven that it is now.

It must have been years since the last time I set foot in Marinduque and I promised to return. But not during Moriones Festival or Holyweek as I don’t want to experience anymore the super-duper long queue and mass of people at the port of Dalahican reminiscent of the (now defunct) Wowowee crowd. I can still vividly remember the horde of people waiting for eternity and running like crazy towards the Ro-ro as if it was Noah’s ark. It was both funny and scary as it could cause a stampede any moment. I heard that this is still a perennial problem until now. So I returned on a regular weekend, and indeed there is less people (but taking the JAC Liner bus from Manila to Dalahican on a Friday night is another horror-queue story). I am just glad of what awaits me in the island province. As they say nothing worth having comes easy.

Balai is a short three-minute walk from the Port of Cawit. Actually, I could already see it the moment I disembarked from the ship. Since I was very early for the check-in time and Ate Celia, the kind and bubbly caretaker of the house, wasn’t still around, it was the resident dogs Gus and Machuka who warmly welcomed me, and kept me company until Ate’s arrival.
Balai is composed of three structures, modern and native in style. The main “white” house has that homey-feel with the dogs lazing on the sala’s carpet, family photos and artworks hanging on the wall, and bookshelf filled with bestsellers, including a set of Harry Potter.

The sala opens to a lanai overlooking the sea. The view is to-die-for.

The kitchen is well-equipped and guests could use it for free.

On the upper floor of the house are two lovely rooms with a shared terrace. The Gentleman’s Room has a gorgeous four poster iron bed and a study area. Part of the wall is adorned with gentleman’s hats. According to Ate Celia, this is where Cholo stays when he is visiting the island.

The Sunrise Room, on the other hand, has a big four poster wooden bed, and the only room where to best view the sunrise.

A small cottage beside the main house is Marlon’s romantic cottage, ideal for honeymooners.  It was named after Cholo’s good, old friend and filmmaker, who built and designed the cottage. I was so surprised to find out that Marlon is the Marlon Rivera who plays the spiteful director who hurled tagos-sa-buto-at-kaluluwa cuss words against Ate Vi in Ekstra. Anyway, the cottage has a queen-size bed with a kulambo, kitchenette and an outdoor breakfast nook with hammock.   

I spent an ample time on the hammock just sea-watching and listening to Moira dela Torre’s “Malaya”. I could feel the tender heartache with every words expressed “Kaya sa natitirang segundong kayakap ka, maaari bang magkunwaring akin ka pa” with the gentle sound of waves in the background. Nope I wasn’t heart-broken, senti lang.

Porto Rafael is the newest two-storey house still under construction, and named in honor of the patron saint of travellers, the blind, and bodily ills. What I like about Porto is that the ground floor is covered with small stones and pebbles.    

Balai has a pocket-size garden fronting the sea. It also has a balete tree at the back of the house, adding a mysterious charm.

Staying overnight at Balai comes with a complimentary simple breakfast of warm bread and eggs. I also requested Ate Celia to prepare my favorite seafood feast. The tilapia, shrimps, and crabs she cooked tasted fresh and divine.  I wanted to cry har har.

Twenty minutes away from Balai is the jump-off point going to Tres Reyes Islands – a chain of three islands named after the three Kings of the Nativity - Gaspar, Melchor, and Baltazar. The islands boast of a coral beach with crystal-clear turquoise waters, underwater caves and stunning rock formations. I enjoyed swimming and snorkelling despite the strong waves.

Back at Balai, Ate Celia made a bonfire by the beach. Being at this place, away from distractions and confusions of city life, truly lights your fire.

I had a peaceful and magical stay at Balai. One night is very bitin. I can say that Balai is now my new-found home in Marinduque. It’s an idyllic refuge for the weary souls and a wonderful home base for the ever-curious adventurers. Promise there are so many things and activities to do in this historic province whose towns and festivals date back to the Spanish-colonization era. 

Completing the Balai experience are the spectacular sunrise and sunset that can be viewed from the shore or grounds of Balai. When I witnessed God’s beautiful creation, I also saw a ray of hope and motivation… that we should stop staring into life’s darkness for too long. And we must never forget that everything shining above us could also shine within us. 

From Manila, take a JAM or JAC bus (terminals in Buendia or Cubao) bound for Dalahican Port in Lucena. At the port, take a Cawit-bound Ro-ro vessel (another option would be to take Balanacan-bound Ro-ro but if you take this route you need to ride another jeepney bound for Cawit). Better take the 2 am Ro-ro to catch sunrise in Marinduque. From Cawit Port, Balai-Lahi is a short three-minute walking distance. Travel time (bus and boat) usually takes eight hours. From Balai, Tres Reyes Islands can be reached by taking a jeepney bound for Buenavista. Get off in Brgy. Pinggan, the jump-off point; there are several boats that can be rented there for island hopping.

Balai La-Hi
Barrio San Rafael, Cawit
Boac, Marinduque
Tel. No.: 0918-9225898
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