A Backpacker Meets 5* Resort Luxury: What I Learnt Staying At Shangri-La Mactan

I’m a do-er. A jam-everything-in-so-I-don’t-get-FOMO kind of traveller. Someone who would choose a sketchy night bus to combine travelling with a (poor) night’s accommodation – and, because I haven’t learnt yet, immediately follow it with a day of intense sightseeing.

There’s a few downsides to this kind of travelling though. The most obvious being an exhausting burn-out that catches up with you when you desire it least, leaving you about as active as a steamed vegetable.

When I had the opportunity to stay at the Shangri-La Mactan Resort and Spa in Cebu, The Philippines, I was of course very excited. A few cheeky stalks of #shangrilamactan and #happytobeachhere on Instagram showed me that this place is beachside heaven. However I can’t deny that part of me wondered whether I’d be able to cope with this unfamiliar ‘stay at the resort’ kind of travel. I admit – I’d actually never done it before.

For this reason, (as bad as it may sound), these thoughts crossed my mind: Would I get mind-numbingly bored or feel isolated in such a paradise?

Well, I had 2 nights and 3 days to experience the resort facilities to find out.

This is what I learnt as a backpacker staying in luxury accommodation for the very first time.

Time Set Aside For Relaxing Is Essential

The stay at Shangri-La Mactan couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. Just as my body struggled to come to terms with the unfamiliar germs and backpacker exhaustion crept in, we arrived into the lush retreat hidden within one of the Philippines most populated cities.

Unwinding – in the form of some enjoyable activities followed by attempting to stay still for a while – was to commence immediately.

 

Getting Some Vitamin Sea

Take less than 10 steps into the ocean from the private Shangri-La beach and you will find yourself in the underwater world of the resort’s very own eco-marine reserve – a truly impressive free amenity to have on your doorstep.

Considering snorkelling is my all-time favourite water activity, of course the first thing I had to do was jump straight in.

The eco-area is a fine example of what a protected zone can do for sea-life. Pristine corals, giant clams and a diverse range of tropical fish seem to completely thrive here. The underwater creatures are certainly not shy of humans either – multiple schools of fish intrigued by the intruders, boldly danced all around us.

Snorkelling carelessly atop the crystal clear water in my own time, as opposed to an activity scheduled on a rushed boat tour, was bliss.
Though just in case I got too zen, it was time to amp things up a bit with some adrenaline-fuelled fun.

Further down the beach from the marine reserve is an activity centre where guests can partake in various water sports such as paddle boarding, kayaking and jet-skiing.

Feeling the need for speed we opted for the jet skis and bombed it full pelt across the ocean, pushing ourselves to catch the waves ricocheting from passing boats.

James Bond eat your heart out.

Making Time for (Chocolate) Tea

On the second day of the stay, we were kindly invited to attend the ‘Land of Chocolate’ – a tour and high tea experience at Shangri-La Mactan’s new cacao plantation. For a chocoholic, I couldn’t think of a more heavenly way to spend an afternoon.

In the brutal late afternoon heat of the Filipino sun, we meandered through the beautifully shaded vegetation of what felt like a secret tropical garden. It was a luxuriously sensory experience. Banana leaves rustled in the gentle breeze and the scents of fragrant wood and jasmine blended delightfully with the odd hint of nutty, sweet chocolate.

What met us at the heart of the hideaway was a picture-perfect setting. The wooden table itself was a masterpiece – terracotta pots and burlap bags brimming with coffee beans lay strewn on the table, intermittently lifted with bursts of pink, white and orange flowers hand-picked from the resort’s abundant garden.

Although Filipino chocolate isn’t on the world culinary map, the country does produce some fantastic cacao beans. In an effort to support local farmers investing in the trade and, not to mention to spread the news about Filipino chocolate, management created this unique experience. It is so unique in fact, that you will not find it at any other Shangri-La hotel, or even elsewhere in the Philippines.

Here, amongst the garden oasis, we met Amelyn, a very sweet and highly skilled chocolate sommelier. After studying for over 2 years for this very specific role, it was clear she knew her stuff. Who knew talking about chocolate could be a full-time career?

Amelyn not only taught us about the cacao plants, but also allowed us to get hands on with the traditional methods of cacao production such as winnowing and conching – words that before this were completely foreign to me.

I also learnt the importance of not blowing your hot drink (instead you swirl it) as Filipinos believe this attracts bad spirits. Luckily, despite one subconscious blow, the spirits decided to let me off in order to enjoy the rest of my stay.

Then came the part I had been eagerly awaiting – the tasting of 3 hot cacaos from Cebu, Davao and Bohol accompanied by a yummy traditional sticky rice and mango dessert.

Each hot chocolate had such distinct characteristics – one creamy in texture and fruity in taste, one dry and nutty, the other a yummy balance in between the two. I thought chocolate from the same country would basically taste the same, but just as wine picks up characteristics from the grape variety, terrain, climate and manufacturing method, clearly so does chocolate.

Pool Lounging

Full to the brim and in a definite sugar coma, now was the perfect time to blob out and catch some rays down by the pool. The resort actually has two pools – both of which are absolutely enormous. The first, the larger more family-orientated pool has tonnes of sun loungers and to one side, a kids slide and baby pools. The other, exclusively for ocean wing guests, is a stunning ocean facing infinity pool. Both are surrounded by striking palm trees and extremely well manicured vegetation.

Taking a sunset dip in the infinity pool against a pink sky was such a treat, especially as we had the pool completely to ourselves.

Hostels and cheap guest houses are all very well, but at the end of the day, they’re only somewhere to plonk your head at night. Relaxing in a beautiful environment and indulging in room you don’t feel the need to leave, even only for a couple of days, is for me the key to feeling reset and recharged.

 

Having Everything You Could Possibly Need Is Bliss

Who knew that a resort could so thoughtfully consider everything you would need on a holiday and put it all in one, single complex. Yes, I know this is largely the whole concept with a resort but the extent to which Shangri-La Mactan have covered all eventualities is astounding.

Upon arriving, like an excited child, I immediately dumped my backpack in the plush room and set off exploring. The resort was vast. An entertainment room, mini golf, a shopping arcade, free daily activities such as yoga or Zumba – each discovery brought me a little bit more joy than the next.

Three days here was not going to be enough.

Wining and Dining

I am so used to spending evenings wandering around an unfamiliar town hunting down a restaurant to eat at, so it was quite a shock to discover there are 8 bars and restaurants here – 8!! You could eat a new cuisine in a new environment for every single day of your holiday and more.

Stocking up on seafood, noodles and sushi at the all-you-can-eat buffet at Tides, the restaurant specialising in international food stations, I actually didn’t feel like I was in a resort at all. Instead I could have been in a luxury restaurant in the heart of Manila (though the generous wine buffet no doubt helped my mental transportation).

Each restaurant provides something completely unique for guests. For comfort Italian food in a cosy environment there’s Acqua, for al fresco seafood, Cowrie Cove and expertly crafted contemporary Chinese, Tea of Spring. And, I’m sure it goes without saying, every restaurant is a gentle, and largely air-conditioned meander from your room.

The Best WiFi

Then there is the WiFi. Yes, I know this is a first world topic, but in a world where you want to upload your travel photos to Instagram immediately and keep up-to-date with the world, you may be surprised how hard it is to do this in The Philippines.

The WiFi in the Philippines is the worst I have experienced in all the places I have travelled in Asia. It was an unpleasant shock – especially as I had work to do and was not prepared with a back-up. It’s one of those things you don’t realise you really need, until you don’t have it.

The only place during my 2 week travels where the WiFi worked like an absolute dream, was here at Shangri-La Mactan. In fact, it worked right up to the waters edge on the beach, can you believe. The best part of all – you didn’t even need a password or login. Just open, high speed connection resort wide.

And there I was worried about isolation.

The Memories You Create On Holiday Are Priceless

You’ve worked hard, saved relentlessly for your trip, so why not splurge a little and make memories that will last a lifetime? I often look back on budget trips I did and regret not doing a tour, or skipping out a destination to save some money. But I’m starting to learn that you won’t look back fondly on the times you didn’t do something. This trip was going to be different. A $10 massage every night and eating 3 meals out a day if I wanted? You betcha.

Romantic VIP Dining

With this new motto in mind, I jumped at the opportunity of a ‘romantic dining experience’ offered by the hotel. What I wasn’t prepared for though, was just how breath-takingly intimate and exclusive it actually was going to be.

Walking through the twinkling Cowrie Cove restaurant, we were taken outside into the inky blueness of the night. How beautiful I thought – al fresco dining is my favourite. But we were led beyond the outdoor tables of the main restaurant and instead down a narrow walkway that jutted out into the sea like a pier.

What we saw in front of us at the end was the most romantic setting I have ever experienced – a solitary ocean-front observatory. Dressed with swathes of chiffon elegantly pinned back and glowing with warm mood lighting, it was a scene straight out of a luxury magazine.

If the petal love hearts on the ground and table setting wasn’t enough to wow us, then the food and treats than ensued surely would.

The four course dinner focused on fresh flavours and showed off the quality of the local produce. The first course was mackerel, served in a ceviche-like style with lots of citrus flavours complimented with a coconut jelly. It was the ideal dish to serve alongside the fresh ocean breeze and it was absolutely my favourite course of the whole evening. The huge strawberry cheesecake for dessert was a very close second.

As we finished off our wine and watched the fish jumping out of the sea from our private theatre, the waiter slipped my boyfriend a bunch of flowers to give me. As a total hopeless romantic, I think he beamed from the generous gift more than I did! What a cute way to end an already incredible evening.

Memories don’t get much more special than this.

 

You Can Leave the Resort!

It’s not some secret society that if you want to leave, you’ll then become an outcast. I guess it’s kind of weird I thought the adorable reception staff would even bat an eyelid at the mention of it. Jumping at every opportunity to help, I discovered the staff are more than happy to arrange any transport or tours, even if that means leaving their little paradise.

For those compelled to seek the hustle and bustle of city life, Cebu can be reached only an hour by taxi from the resort.

Here are just a few ideas of things that you can see and do in Cebu City:

The Taoist Temple

Built by the prominent Chinese community in Cebu in the 1970s, this temple is a reasonably modern tourist attraction and place of worship.

The temple is a wonderfully colourful work of art. Visitors can admire the ornate architecture of the tiered, multi-storey temple inside and out, as well the expansive views from the top.

Sugbo Mercado

If you’re a foodie, you’ll absolutely love a visit to Cebu’s biggest food market located next to the SM City Jeepney Bay Terminal. With food stalls, live music and casual atmosphere, it’s the perfect place to try some new Filippino street eats and experience a local atmosphere.

The food market is open during the evenings every Thursday – Sunday. It’s worth venturing out for, though make sure it’s early so you can grab one of the plastic tables as the place packs out.

Basilica Del Santo Nino

This basilica is Cebu’s oldest and most iconic church dating back to 1565, to the early Spanish colonial era of the Philippines.

A visit to Basilica Del Santo Nino is worth adding on to any Cebu city itinerary simply to be overwhelmed by the incredible age of this building. Many places this old in the Philippines have collapsed over the years due to natural disasters such as earthquakes.

Photo Courtesy of Everything Cebu

Upon returning to the resort, you really appreciate the tranquillity of the setting all the more.

My stay at Shangri-La Mactan was a true lesson in ultimate relaxation and the benefits of a little self-indulgence every now and again. Between the hostels, I’ll be sure to book a few nights of luxury in future.

If you would like to look into booking your retreat to Shangri-La Mactan, prices start from $185 per night and can be booked via their website or any major booking agencies.

Thank you to Shangri-La Mactan Resort & Spa for my complimentary stay and activities! Naturally all opinions are still my own.

 

All photos unless otherwise credited are © Tamara Thurman

 

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