|The entrance to Siargao Island's legendary Cloud 9 break.|
By ONDINE COHANE
We sat facing a weathered wood pagoda set in an emerald sea, the perfect swimming distance from a private beach lined with crooked coconut trees. Grilled mahi-mahi that arrived via a banca, a Filipino fishing boat, just an hour earlier was seasoned with calamansi (a citrus fruit native to the Philippines) and served with grilled eggplant and squash from the resort’s organic farm, accompanied by a bottle of crisp white wine. Steps from the restaurant pavilion was our villa with its huge bed swathed in a white mosquito net, an open shower surrounded by local shiny white pebbles, and swinging outdoor daybeds. The pummeling of an unforgettable surfing session hours before made the idea of crawling back to such luxurious digs even more appealing.
We were on Siargao (pronounced shar-GOW), a teardrop-shaped island that’s just one of the Philippines’s 7,000-plus, and the southernmost refuge for travelers before the less politically stable region of Mindanao. Even to Filipinos, the island, on the country’s Pacific-facing side, is not all that well known. Before the airport opened here in 2011, it was an overnight ferry ride from Cebu (which Magellan put on the map when he landed there in 1521). And it’s still not so easy to reach: the two-flight, roughly four-hour trip from Manila (including a layover in Cebu) has only the semblance of a schedule part of the year because of mercurial weather.
But the island is known to surfers, largely because of its fabled break, endearingly called Cloud 9. It stands in the firmament of the best rides on the global circuit, a fast and powerful monster because of the water that sweeps in from the Philippine Trench in the Pacific Ocean. In the fall the arrival of the habagat, a weather system fed by southwest winds and easterly currents, creates even more monumental tubes. Local lore credits a drug runner-turned-surfer with putting Cloud 9 on the radar — and in the decades since, it has drawn world pros for an international tournament hosted by companies like Billabong and Quiksilver. A small industry of hippie-style guesthouses, bars and surf schools has followed.
My interest in the island was already piqued — I have invariably found in my travels that surfers get to the best beaches first, before mass-market tourism arrives. And then came word of the opening of Dedon Island Resort, a gleaming nine-villa property. Stays there come with a full menu of adventure sports, from surfing to deep-sea fishing, and it has amenities like an outdoor cinema and a private chef using organic produce from its farm. But it also had a $1,600-a-night price tag for two attached (rates have since dropped a bit) and a Web site that used enigmatic terms like “outdoor living lab.” I wondered who was taking two small planes from the Filipino capital to spend that kind of money on an island that they most likely couldn’t place on a map.
To find out, we left from Siargao’s tiny airport and followed an international mix of young backpackers and surfer types off the prop plane to the waiting fleet of jeepneys — colorful and ubiquitous fixtures of Filipino roads that are part bus, part jalopy, part canvas of personal expression. Cobbled together from former United States army jeeps and random spare parts, they barrel along at alarming speeds with passengers hanging out the open doors and bags haphazardly perched on top.
Dedon’s, however, was unlike any jeepney I had seen. It was done up in mirror-like chrome and shining cream paint, kitted out with terry-cloth seats like beach loungers, piped-in lounge music, and snacks of dried coconut and pineapple. As we traveled, Marlo, a resident surfer who doubled as the resort greeter, pointed out huge carabao, Filipino water buffalo, plowing bright-green paddy fields on one side, and small thatched fishing huts suspended over the water’s edge on the other. School was letting out for the day and children waved to us from the back of their parents’ motorbikes as we crossed through a little village. Then, nothing but empty, white sand beaches flickering between clusters of sloping palms.
When we arrived at the huge lattice gates to Dedon at the end of a long dirt road, it was clear that these weren’t your usual surfer digs. Woven chairs that looked like big bird’s nests swung from coconut palms, a trampoline sat surrounded by a lattice enclosure, and large, traditional-style wood villas were linked by raised walkways past gardens full of blooming frangipani and wild orchids. On one side, a pool and secluded beach offered views of the ocean and islands beyond; on the other, channels of mangrove lagoons were the gateway to kayaking into secluded canals. After dinner, we lingered on oversize sofas and listened to soft rain falling on the roof. (It was February, the tail end of the rainy season.)
The foosball table beside us was a reminder of the resort’s genesis. At Dedon’s center is Bobby Dekeyser, a former soccer star from Belgium who, after a career-ending injury in his 20s, turned to the high-end outdoor furniture business, producing pieces in Cebu, known for their high-quality weaving. Once there he discovered Siargao on a side trip and decided to make the property a showcase for his designs, as well as an introduction to his personal Shangri-La. The result is exactly what is advertised: a kind of luxury camp for those who want both high adventure and high design — and have the money to enjoy them in such an isolated spot.
“We are both very active, and in the course of a week we went mountain biking, stand-up paddling at sunset through mangroves, wakeboarding, and surfing in the open ocean,” said Tania Reinert, a guest from Hong Kong. “It is one of the few places that still takes a while to get to, and it feels really remote, based on fishing and farming cultures.”
Siargao is indeed a gateway to a particularly beautiful and unspoiled region of islands and island culture. Taking advantage of a clear morning, Sean, the resort’s Kenyan-born activities guru, took us on a boat tour. We floated by Pansukian, nicknamed Naked Island, and past Guyam — really just a coconut grove ringed by sea. At a larger island called Daku, fronted by a powdery beach, fishermen mended their nets, children showed us their little brightly painted wood boats, and cockerels crowed periodically in the village’s front yards. The wood-shaded structures set along the headland are crowded with locals on the weekend, Marlo told us, but on this weekday we were alone. It was hard to imagine such beauty remaining undeveloped in other parts of Asia, and in fact a bill to protect Siargao and the outlying islands as part of an ecological preserve was approved by the country’s congress.
After we digested a beach picnic, the sky turned ominously gray so we quickly headed to the break, where we planned to try out our rusty skills. I hesitantly clambered to my feet on the next wave, but didn’t get far before swallowing a lung full of seawater. But after a few rides I settled into a smoother rhythm. Soon a driving rain began, but our small group continued to catch the growing swell. Afterward we lay under towels in Dedon’s motorboat, shivering from the ocean and rain, drinking fresh coconut water, exhausted but happy.