The 16 rooms, surrounding the main hall on the 1,000-hectare property that is now known as Casa San Pablo in San Pablo, Laguna, were built slowly but steadily, the proverbial one brick (or piece of wood) at a time. It is a journey that mirrors the quest of many a traveller who had sought a time of rest in the place. Like its rooms, a dream is built one arduous and adventurous step by step.

“It is important to dream,” affirms An Mercado-Alcantara, the other half of the husband-and-wife team who owns and develops Casa San Pablo. “Ours – creating this place – is achievable. It represents our image as innkeepers. We represent a dream that others can aspire for.”

That’s one reason why An and her husband Boots take the time to talk with their guests, regardless of whether these are a family staying the weekend, a lone writer in transit overnight, or dozens of young call center agents on their first team-building exercise. Boots sometimes drives two hours in the early morning from his office in Metro Manila to San Pablo to personally greet guests who are just about to check in – then drive back again after seeing to it that they are properly taken care of.

Setting the foundation
It is the personal touch that sets this bed-and-breakfast apart from the larger posh hotels with more lavish amenities, cultivating a base of repeat customers who bunk in every year or every couple of months. After trying out several B&Bs in their many travels, the couple soon wanted to have their own, one that would offer their guests immersion in the culture. In Casa San Pablo’s case, it would mean taking a tour of the greater Laguna area, partaking of its food, visiting its towns and historical landmarks.

Their foundation began with the huge house – now the renovated Main Hall – on the Alcantara estate, a former country home where Boots’ family and extended clan spent their vacations and would occasionally open to the locals as a day resort. To build the first six rooms in 1997, Boots sold his car for P800,000 and used the money as the start-up capital. Although the main design would be Filipino eclecticism with a touch of European, no two rooms would be alike. Built of old sturdy wood and furnished with memorabilia and icons from different eras, one room would be decorated with miniature cars while another would be adorned with art work. Some would be cozy spaces with a double bed while others would contain lofts that made them comfortable for entire families. “We were going for vintage nostalgia,” says Boots, “At the same time, we did not want our guests to focus on the quaintness, because there is a history and a legacy to the place.”

Launching the tours
While San Pablo is Boots’ hometown, it was An who wanted to create a sense of greater community between the Casa and its guests and the surroundings outside its walls. “The resorts with ziplines – that’s not our ball game,” she maintains. “We are creating a hometown brand image. Our hometown is a place that we feel others should know.”

Cooking tours were the first on their game plan, introducing the guests to the provincial cuisine. The Coconut Module shows how the classic buko pie and gata made from native coconut milk are prepared by local kusineros using a banggaheran and native pots inside a nipa hut. The Lake Pandin Native Cooking Module takes guests on a fishing expedition on a raft and then teaches them courtesy of the same kusineros how to make dishes out of the fish, shrimps and other sea bounty that they caught.

A grander tour brings the guests around the entire San Pablo twice including its seven lakes, while giving them a first-hand experience of the popular restaurants in the place as well as the hole-in-the-wall eateries and local bakeries. The restaurant in Casa San Pablo’s Main Hall serves the guests Filipino cuisine for breakfast, lunch, merienda, and dinner.

Casa San Pablo also seems to be designed for the creative types or artists who just want to create their vision in peace. After carving a place in the magazine publishing industry, An herself has found a new calling as a clay artist. “I felt a connection the first time I put this piece of clay in my hand,” she remembers. It took months of training with clay masters and daily practice, but soon enough what started as a hobby became a part-time business. Last Christmas, Casa San Pablo sold Nativity-related figurines like belens for home décor. An also gives art workshops using clay to guests who are open to trying their hand in the craft.

The corporate market
Pottery-making workshops and the provincial culinary tours are just the first phase in a series that will bit by bit unleash creativity-related activities in the place. While Casa San Pablo has been getting its fair share of weekenders and weddings, it has been approached by corporations who want to give their employees something restful and yet unusual.

“We started getting corporate clients by 2000,” says Boots. “We created a teambuilding facility and had to build conference facilities.” The usual tracks where teams have their relay race are laced with materials restored from old bottles and paper, with a few sign posts extolling the virtues of preserving the environment. The conference room is a small, intimate space that invites casual conversation as sunlight and fresh wind enter through the windows.

While holding true to their foundation, the Casa San Pablo owners will always be in a state of reinvention, while creating a community that will develop a fondness for their hometown the same way they did.

Address: Barrio San Roque, San Pablo City, Laguna, Philippines.
Phone: (+63 2) 211 2132 | Fax: (+63 2) 724 7023.
Cellphone numbers: (+63 920 )967 5277 or (+63 917 ) 812 6687
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