One hot day, while walking down the northern end of Boracay’s fantastic white sand beach, my friend Paul pointed up to a house that I had never noticed before—a tree house pretty high up on the hill, which probably had a jaw-dropping view—telling me that one morning, after a night of partying, they stumbled upon the strangest thing: huge boulders on the beachfront near Fridays that were apparently being hauled up to the house, one by one. Being a designer, I was immediately intrigued to see this house and find out where all the boulders were going. I discovered later that it belonged to a young couple from Manila and their five children, who I eventually met in Boracay and who invited me to see the house.
The first thing I noticed was how effortlessly the house blended into its environment—in this case, a steep hillside thriving with a jungle of trees, big, old, and beautiful. There are two ancient and majestic ones in particular that the owners endearingly refer to as Malakas at Maganda. Several gnarled branches cover parts of the structure, and a flourish of treetops crown the shingled roof. You would say to yourself: This is a house that has successfully adapted to its surroundings, like a perfectly built bird’s nest.
Wherever you are in the house, outside is inside, and you are living in the trees and surrounded by the ocean.
A year later, I was invited to help produce the husband’s 50th birthday party, an opportunity that brought me a little bit closer to the house. With his wife at the helm, we all assembled at the tree house months before to discuss the preliminaries of the event and to finalize the designs that would transform the beachfront of the resort where the party would be held in, as well as the surroundings of the tree house itself.
On our way up to the house, we walked on what appeared to be a natural pathway into a huge garden exploding with foliage and thousands of bursting tropical plants. Even from this vantage point, you couldn’t really see the house as the garden landscape practically enveloped the entire multi-tiered structure; layers of plants foil the view until you reach the first steps leading up to the house—Ah, I thought to myself, so that’s what the boulders were for. Veined, smooth, and enormous, they lead you to the first flight of stairs. Yes, it was a tiring climb, but also a quick nature hike to get the endorphins going before the view at the house took your breath away all over again.
The entrance corner that is the main foyer leads to an open pavilion where the owners entertain many of their family and friends. Ample sofas at the main seating area have hosted several intimate parties that have started at sunset and ended at sunrise. The center of focus, of course, is the view of the beach and of the horizon, which seems to wrap around the house and set it free. There is a live tree trunk in one corner that juts from floor to ceiling, reminding me of the couple’s circumspect regard for the environment when they decided during the planning stages with the architectural firm of Leandro V. Locsin, Sr., that none of these entirely indigenous trees would be touched during the construction of the house—a badge of honor that will stay with the house for as long as it stands.
You walk around the open pavilion and into the dining area, where a single solid rectangular piece of narra wood has been made into a massive table for 12 and where lunch is served. Wherever you are in the house, outside is inside, and you are living in the trees and surrounded by the ocean. The branches of the boddhi (dapdap) trees and the spectacular Alstonia Scholaris (or dita as it is known locally), filter in sunlight from the glare of the morning sun. During inflorescence, the dita fills the night air with a pungent yet sweet fragrance akin to intensely crushed coriander seeds, lending true feelings of nostalgia and reminding me of what Boracay was like when I first came here in 1982.
The pantry, the only enclosed room on this floor, is where we run to before lunch to fix cocktails that will help our souls meld with the surroundings. I come back to the table with a wet glass of gin and tonic, and we casually start to discuss the business at hand. For this milestone birthday celebration on the beach, we are to expend most of our energy into procuring more plants (rather than cut flowers) that will be used to transform the venue’s sand into jungle. The same plants will ultimately be transferred to further embellish the garden at the house. This called for carefully chosen plants from Negros and Panay and a school-of-fish bamboo fence constructed to cordon off the entire area of the venue’s beachfront.
You look down on the beach and out into the ocean, glazed margarita in hand, and for a moment you are reminded of what Boracay was like 20 years ago.
Unfortunately, Nature can be brutally antagonistic at times. Weeks after all the work had been so thoroughly put together, a howler of a typhoon drew strength and blasted its way through the islands, one of the worst hit areas being Boracay itself. The garden was not spared, but spirits were not easily shaken and the staff of the tree house quickly went into action to patch up the damage—and with the help of time and fastidious care—the garden was miraculously restored! The house itself came through without a scratch, as it was designed to recognize the multiple faces of intense tropical weather: The inch-thick moveable glass walls that seal the entire pavilion when not in use can be opened up to allow any tempest through. Everything can be tucked away for shelter in the pantry and in the three bedrooms of the children below.
The same environmentally sound and weather-capable design is applied to the master’s bedroom—itself a separate tree house with a wraparound verandah big enough to hold a family-size hammock hitched onto one of the trees that grow right beside the structure, adorned with jungle epiphytes that bloom exotic when their time comes.
In this intimate and much higher part of the tree house complex, one appreciates the 360 degrees of uninterrupted view. Inside, you sit on white canvas-covered sofas set amidst warm hardwood floors, shielded from view by wooden blinds. At times, you may gaze up into the ceiling—a meticulous composition of wooden poles set against clapboards inspired by traditional Filipino dwellings. The same treatment is used in the entertainment pavilion, which, at night, is lit up with a warm, ambient glow.
In the wooden deck that separates the two tree houses—both of which are on the longest stilts I have ever seen—lie three cushioned chaise lounges with towels rolled up and discreetly placed in a wooden tub nearby. Here also is where the infinity pool is strategically placed, mirroring the immense sea and sky in front of you, reflecting the sunsets that make Boracay so world-renowned. The rippling pool is intentionally aligned with the angle of the beach, creating the illusion of pool and sea as one body of water. You look down on the beach and out into the ocean, glazed margarita in hand, and for a moment you are reminded of what Boracay was like 20 years ago.
It’s a sad thing to think about, what this island used to be. I mean, it’s still a magical place, no doubt about that, but it’s just not what it used to be. It literally used to be a place one only imagined existed, in romantic adventure novels and movies—a fictional place. But Boracay was real. And it was ours. It was an island that belonged to its rightful owners—nature. Now the island is rapidly being sequestered by man, and vast tracts of precious natural land filled mostly with coconut trees are being replaced with big swanky hotels with lots of concrete. If we’re not careful, the island will one day vanish before our eyes. What’s left of Boracay should remain untouched in order to preserve its beauty, integrity, and dignity. Places like Baling Hai and Puka Beach, and natural homes like the Spider House in Diniwid and this peaceful tree house. These are the places that give the island character—and once you lose that, it’s goodnight nurse.
The tree house is a marvel in Boracay because it is a fairly large and comfortable home built around huge 100-year-old trees—none of them which were chopped down to make room for the house, and the effect is a total oneness with nature. The old, thick trunks coming through the floor and into the ceiling and the branches tangling in and around the house camouflage it in earthy foliage and embrace it like it was always a natural part of the land. The house has essentially “naturalized” itself and reached a point of environmental significance where it should never be torn down and, in fact, should be preserved as a mountaintop reminder of what the Boracay lifestyle used to be—back when you were stuck in paradise and you lived where you could, be it right on the beach or up in a tree.
This article was originally published in the March 2008 issue of Rogue.