There are beautiful places which make you stop in awe, but afterwards you pass by. And then there are beautiful places which take up permanent residence in your heart long after you have left.
Zambawood, a quiet resort along the volcanic beaches of San Narciso, Zambales, was the latter for me.
The beach’s stretch of volcanic sand, trees, and creeks
I did not think much about it when I got an invitation. All I knew was that Zambawood was a luxury resort, and thus would offer the usual luxurious trappings. The weekend would be about enjoying those trappings, communing with nature, bonding with friends, and possibly meeting new people.
What I did not expect was that not only would Zambawood give me all that but much, much more.
Luxury amid raw beauty
Upon entering the gate of the 26-hectare property, our van passed by lush groves of pine-like agoho trees before we saw the wooden “Zambawood” sign. We walked through a bamboo double door and found a deceptively simple white bungalow, albeit with a small fountain at the side of the entrance, which was partly concealed by abaca curtains.
Zambawood’s welcoming structures
Beyond the curtains was a surprise – the hallway opened up into a spacious, high-ceiling living room, which extended outside to a clear blue infinity pool. A white cloth hammock, which I later learned is a 40-year-old keepsake from Venezuela, hung invitingly in front of the pool. And, beyond the pool was another grove of agohos. Farther out was the beach.
The house opens up into the pool, trees, and the promise of the sea.
Two ways to refresh – the infinity pool seemingly stretching into the grove of trees, and the Zen-inspired shower in the bathrooms
The 450-square-meter house blends modern and indigenous design, and local and international furniture. There are black cement floors but also native hardwood floors, mostly from yakal. The living room has a weather-resistant white sofa and the entertainment room has a billiard table, flat-screen TV and speakers. The house is tastefully decorated with furniture and ornaments from Indonesia, India, China, and other countries. The beds are covered with colorful Indian spreads.
From a 100-year-old Indonesian gong (top left) to a high-definition TV (below left), the old and indigenous meet the modern in Zambawood.
Between this luxurious beach house and Zambales’ famous volcanic beach and agohos, I was beginning to understand one of the resort’s taglines: “There’s a reason movies are made here.” In fact, Zambawood’s name combines “Zambales” and “Hollywood,” though “wood” can also refer to the trees in abundance, the resort owner later pointed out. Zambawood has been a location for music videos and movies, one of them “Puti,” an indie film starring Ian Veneracion and Jasmine Curtis-Smith.
Zambawood’s abundant agohos
Personalized luxury and hospitality
If you look around the living room, you won’t miss the family picture among the trinkets and ornaments, showing that this resort is also a family home. In fact, most of the furniture and décor are personal items bought from over 25 years of travel and living in different countries. In essence, the family is sharing their home – and pieces of their lives – with resort guests. And, owner Rachel-Fernandez Harrison and the staff welcome resort guests much like the way visitors are welcomed at a friend’s home – with much warmth and hospitality.
I had long associated five-star and luxury establishments with efficient but cool and impersonal service. At Zambawood, there is efficiency but none of the cool detachment. So, even as the chef, Martin, prepared our breakfast, he joked that he had a “surprise” for us. From time to time, we watched him cook and chatted good-naturedly with him. The manager and the staff overall have a light and easy energy, even during busy moments. Rachel herself is very real and accessible, putting on no airs.
Chef Martin and his creations – the “surprise” of pandesal wrapped in bright cloth to keep it warm (top right) and gourmet yellow fin tuna burger (bottom right)
Part of the generous lunch prepared especially for many of us who are seafood lovers
Rachel says that the house, which can accommodate 10-27 people, is personalized according to the guests’ needs. If the guests are a couple, a honeymoon suite will be arranged. In our case, our rooms are set up for groups – perfect for bonding.
There can also be additional or customized services, if guests desire. You can have a relaxing massage at the open-air hut. You can also eat under the trees or by the beach, instead of in the house.
Take a nap or have a relaxing massage here.
A love story and an advocacy
Amid all the resort’s luxury and surrounding natural beauty, what truly stands out is the story behind it.
Rachel, an architect, built Zambawood as a home for her son with autism, Julyan, now 21 years old. Rachel says Julyan has difficulty verbally expressing himself and can throw tantrums and destroy objects out of frustration. For years and across different countries, Rachel researched and tried everything she could to help Julyan.
Finally, she decided to return to her roots, her hometown in San Narciso. From her family’s lot she built a home for Julyan, where he swam, surfed, and tended a small organic farm. Being close to nature, especially the routine but rewarding work at the farm, was very healing for Julyan. Now, he is much calmer, and his tantrums far lesser. When we saw Julyan at the farm, he looked very much at home. I greeted him and he said hi, too.
Rachel’s love for her son was the foundation for Zambawood. Photo by Marky Go
Rachel divides her time between Julyan in Zambales and her husband and Julyan’s two brothers in Singapore. Eventually, as the cost of maintaining the house piled up, she decided to open the house to guests. Zambawood has just started accepting guests a few months ago.
It is Rachel’s dream that Zambawood one day hold camps for people with special needs like Julyan. Even having lived in First-World countries, she had difficulty finding a place that would take in people like Julyan, even for short activities. “So I created that place myself,” she said emphatically.
Hearing this story, I remembered Taj Mahal, a powerful emperor’s monument to his deceased wife, and marveled at how love can build such architectural wonders. While Zambawood is not of that massive scale, it is undeniably a testament of Rachel’s love for her son. As an architect and a mother, she might just have designed one of her best creations.
So when Rachel and her staff welcome guests like me to the resort, it is an invitation to step into that space of love too. No wonder Zambawood feels like home.
There is magic in Julyan’s presence as well. While Rachel’s years in service as a flight attendant and her staff’s service training help, I believe it is Julyan – though not all attend to him directly – who helps them deliver the kind of service and presence I have never felt among the upscale establishments I have gone to so far. Being around Julyan teaches them to be attentive, patient. To be fully there. This is Julyan’s gift to them. And that is now their gift to us.
Supporting locals, wellness, and the environment
Rachel’s advocacy extends to other areas too. Also because of Julyan’s organic farming and doctors’ advice for him to eat natural, unprocessed foods, Zambawood prepares healthy dishes with ingredients straight from the organic farm and fresh, seasonal produce from the local market. For meat dishes, the chef and staff make healthier yet still savory versions. Guests particularly attest to the tastiness of Zambawood’s organic chicken because of its natural diet of herbs and spices.
With guide and caretaker Mang Dante’s help, Julyan is able to attend to the farm (right). One of the organic farm’s products is free-range chicken, with chicks being fed a natural diet (left).
Environment seems to be part of her advocacy as well. Many of the parts and furniture in the house are made from reclaimed or recycled wood. Most of the wooden floors, bed frames, and glass panels are from abandoned old houses. Many of the local furniture – some she designed herself – are made from trees fallen by typhoons or old age.
Some natural and recycled elements – the agoho poolside chairs (top left) and acacia table (top right) are from typhoon-fallen trees. The towel rack (bottom left) is made from natural bamboo and the native clay jar used as raincatcher (bottom right) is from Rachel’s grandparents.
What Rachel is most passionate about aside from Julyan and her family, though, is helping locals. Seeing the wealth of other countries in her travels, she sees the possibilities for fellow Filipinos. So she employs mostly Zambales locals in Zambawood and at the moment sends two kids of theirs to school.
She also sells piña clothes and other native products handmade by Filipinos and whose raw materials come from local farmers. “Hopefully, there will be a Zambawood store in the future,” she enthused. She also wants to fulfill a childhood dream: design stylish clothes from indigenous materials and of course, sell them at the store.
Products locally made from indigenous materials for sale at Zambawood. One bag is Rachel’s design but not for sale.
Magic and memories
Sunset is one of the most magical times in Zambawood. Aside from the sky’s show of changing colors, resort staff provide an open white tent with sun loungers, wine, and chips for guests to better enjoy the show. Plus, an ATV to explore the shoreline.
We took photos, drank, talked, and enjoyed one another’s company while watching the sky. The moment was very quiet, yet animated with our conversations and crashing waves.
Trio of fire – sunset, lamps, and bonfire
I felt I could not ask for more that day until I saw the twinkling lights at the resort. Light spilled through different cutout patterns from lamps on the wall, lamps hanging from the ceiling, and lamps on the floor and tables. The trees and the house were bathed in soft, ethereal light.The infinity pool itself was aglow with iridescent colors. My friends and I took a dip in this pool of changing colors before having dinner under star lanterns.
…everywhere, including the pool!
The next day I greeted the sunrise and walked along the beach to find two fishermen encircling the waters with their net. They were catching tadpole-sized milkfish fingerlings. Their wives waited on the shore then sorted and counted the fingerlings.
I was glad that even in a luxury resort, I met some local fisherfolk. Through them I felt more in touch with the sea.
The rest of my stay passed all too quickly – another dip in the pool, a gourmet lunch, and a photo opportunity with all the people I met.
Another of Zambawood’s taglines is “We make beautiful memories here.” With the wild landscape and seascape, the luxurious beach house and facilities, and the energy of a welcoming, loving home shared by Rachel and Julian’s community, how can you not make such memories? I certainly made many for my brief stay. And I look forward to making more again.
Note: Zambawood has so far welcomed families, groups of friends, and teambuilding sessions. Packages are tailored to guests’ needs, and rates vary depending on season and number of people. For a quote suitable for your group and your budget, contact Zambawood on their website.