Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Hotel Pontefino: Cozy nest for big dreams

My first stay at the Hotel Pontefino in Batangas City was in 2004, when the hotel was barely a year old. Perched on a hill in barangay Gulod Labac, the boutique hotel glowed with a light yellow paint tempered by an abundance of black lines, contrasting with the predominantly gray, dust-layered and weather-beaten colors of the city. I was charmed by it.
Batangas City, the capital of the province of Batangas, was in the midst of major constructions, being an important urban center south of Manila and the main industrial hub of the Southern Tagalog Region. Hotel Pontefino, the only de-luxe hotel in this part of the country, was a cocoon, where everything was neat and cozy. Its interiors were minimalist and clean, contrasting with the hubbub in the city. The pools at the back reflected the clear sky and overlooked the city and its growth.
The hotel was built in anticipation of the city’s growth. Some may think Batangas is an odd choice to build a hotel in, but the city, located 112 kilometers south of Manila, was identified as a “regional growth center” and a “special economic zone.” A major highway is being built to cut travel time from Manila to Batangas. Several big companies, including oil refineries, have set up their plants in the province. The construction of an international port, an alternative to Manila, is underway.
It was with these developments in mind that the hotel was established by the Hotel Concepts Inc., whose chief executive officer Ricardo Ramon Gutierrez is the owner and founder of the Chateau group of restaurants. For this his first hotel venture, he partnered with lawyer and landowner Antonio Pastor, who comes from a prominent family of Batangas. The venture is entirely Filipino, and Gutierrez envisioned establishing the first modern Filipino hotel chain, starting with Hotel Pontefino, which will serve as bridge between Filipino excellence and the world (The hotel’s name is from the Spanish words ponte, meaning “bridge”, and fino, “fine”.)
When I went back to the hotel three years later, it was under a new management team. Business had been slow in the past years, according to Danny Cabulay, the new chief operating officer. The anticipated international port was taking a tad longer than expected. Fortunately, the companies and plants—Shell Eastern Gas, General Milling Corp., Pacific Flour Mills, Chemphil Bulk Terminal and Himmel Industries, among others—in the province are still doing good, and their expatriate employees, usually on a long-staying basis, form a major part of the hotel’s clientele, at about 60 percent.
The new management team was brought in to revitalize operations, and Cabulay was happy to announce that the hotel has been experiencing full bookings since March of this year, when he took over, which was not achieved in the previous years. Cabulay, who is a former dean of Far Eastern University’s business school and who has an extensive experience in hotel management, came in with Joel Catibog, the hotel’s operations manager, and Mylene Villanueva, its director for sales and marketing.
There will be no drastic changes in the hotel, but they are working on its strengths. Currently the hotel has 60 rooms—40 premium rooms and 20 suites. I experienced the coziness of its rooms anew, but now I was in one of its Fino Suites, a larger room with a king-sized bed, and its own living and dining areas. The interiors were in the relaxing light colors of white, yellow and ochre complementing the light wood parts.
Designed by Yoly Zimmer and Erik Paras of Design Access Limited, the interiors project a global Filipino feel. The Filipino-ness here is simplified and made more subtle, manifesting in the warm colors to mean hospitality. It is more of the colonial Filipino and reminiscent of Spanish villas.
Another outstanding thing about Hotel Pontefino is its food. The hotel has two food outlets located at the lobby: the cafĂ© Robusta and the fine-dining Pastorelli. Hotel Pontefino serves Italian, Asian freestyle and the so-called New Batangas cuisines. The original chef Dennis Edillon created dishes in tribute to Batangas, taking its popular dishes and ingredients, and adding sophisticated twists and using them in creative ways. In my recent trip, many dishes were still there, and it was still a pleasure to dine in Pastorelli. I delighted anew in the New Batangas fare Balayan Caesar’s Salad. It is your usual Caesar’s salad with Romaine lettuce, croutons, grated parmesan cheese and bits of bacon, but made special with the famed bagoong (fermented fish sauce) of the town of Balayan, which is used to flavor the Caesar dressing, adding a pleasant kick of spiciness.
Pastorelli also serves the most famous of Batangas dishes: the bulalo soup, beef and bones simmered into a broth. Here, the broth is cooked with other vegetables. It is a nice and warm comfort food especially for travelers.
The maliputo, the fish endemic to Taal Lake, is served here, simply seasoned with salt and pepper and grilled over lava rocks. Other items on the menu are bulanglang, a vegetable stew with fish tofu, and tapang Taal, pork jerky from the town of Taal. These are best eaten with the simple steamed vegetables of okra, eggplant, tomato, bitter gourd and sweet potato leaves to be dipped in Balayan bagoong with a dash of calamansi.
For dessert, recommended are the Batangas Crepe which has a filling of muscovado sugar and crushed peanut brittle, and Barako Mousse, mousse flavored with Batangas-grown coffee popularly known as barako. Of course, ask for barako coffee to go with these.
These Batangas and Filipino fares are offered along with pastas and ravioli. The other items like appetizers and soups are also good. I loved the cream of asparagus soup and the appetizer of baked mussels, which was cooked with gingered butter, fish sauce, lemon and Emmenthal cheese.
The gastronomic adventure is a good way to launch an exploration of the Tagalog province of Batangas. At the southwestern part of Luzon, Batangas is rich in culture and heritage, and the hotel is tapping this resource to offer its guests. Until now, Cabulay said that people are still raising their eyebrows at the hotel’s location, which is away from the beaches for which Batangas is known.
Hotel Pontefino initiated several tour packages for their guests to discover the culture of the province. Well-known is the Batangas heritage tour in which guests are taken to the town of Taal where the old basilica stands proud and imposing, overlooking clusters of charming old houses. Taal is one of the few places in the Philippines with a concentration of old houses. Here in Taal are the ancestral houses of Filipino historical figures including Marcela Agoncillo, one of the makers of the Philippine flag.
Along with Lumban in Laguna, Taal is also known for its embroidery, and clustered around the marketplace are shops selling embroidered clothes and items. With these dainty things and at the opposite end, the town, and the whole of the province, is also for its balisong, the fan knife. In the barangay of Balisong, several stores line the highway selling the eponymous weapon in different sizes. They also sell pens with knives on the other end as souvenir items.
Also popular is the tour of the Taal Volcano and Lake. The package includes boat ride on the lake and trekking to the crater of the small volcano. Take also the church tour in which seven churches are visited, namely, the Minor Basilica of St. Martin of Tours of Taal, San Jose church, Our Lady of Caysasay Church in Taal, the Lipa Cathedral, the Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and Infant Jesus of Batangas City, the Carmelite convent of Lipa City and the Church of the Immaculate Conception of Bauan.
The packages are the hotel’s way of promoting the tourism in the province, as well as answering the perennial questions about its existence here.
After the tours, the hotel offers its spa services for relaxation. Masseuses are available for the usual massage therapies and the not-so-usual hot lava stone massage of Mexican origin.
On the more “sober” side, the hotel has facilities for business: A business center and function rooms for conferences and seminars. The function rooms can accommodate 30 to 150 persons. The Executive Conference Room has a 10-person capacity. The hotel has no big ballroom-type room for big events, but near the pool, it has an air-conditioned tent that can hold as much as 500 persons. And the pool area, which can accommodate 200 persons, is ideal for al-fresco events. Hotel Pontefino is fast becoming a landmark in the area, where local parties and weddings are held. A ballroom that can accommodate 800 to 1000 people is in the planning.
As development in the city continues, the area around the hotel is bound to change. A hotel residential community of about 60 townhouses called Pontefino Residences is going to be constructed near the hotel. Behind it, seven hectares of what is now forest will be converted into a retirement village with 107 units. These plans will be underway in two to three years.
Complementing the hotel, the owning company is setting up a hotel school somewhere in Batangas to supply the demand of the hospitality industry and of Hotel Pontefino itself as it progresses into the realization of its initial vision. Another Pontefino hotel with 60 rooms is planned to open in 2009 in The Fort in Taguig City. The company is eyeing San Francisco in the United States for the first Pontefino abroad. Also, there is talk of building resorts in Boracay, Panglao in Bohol and Basco in Batanes.
Port or no port, Hotel Pontefino is charging on with its own developments and expansions, relying on itself to stir up activity and building bridges of fineness in the region and into the world.

Contact Information
Hotel Pontefino is at Pastor Village, Gulod Labac, Batangas City. The hotel can be contacted through telephone number (043) 723-3466, fax (043) 723-3488 and mobile phone 0917-505-4231. The Manila sales office is at Unit B, 11th Floor, Agustin I Bldg., No. 28 F. Ortigas Jr. Ave., Ortigas Center, Pasig City, with telephone (632) 635-9364 and 631-8310, fax (632) 636-0435 and mobile phone 0917-505-4215. Email and visit Web site

1 comment:

BatangasNgaun said...

nc pic and nc blog.. i wish i could stay at that place..anyway if you want to go to beach anilao, laiya and balete is the best place