MANILA, Philippines – There are two types of unforgettable vacations. The first is where you explore an exotic land that couldn’t be farther from what you know; where the sights are new, the people are strangers, and the food wriggles at your fingertips while it fights for its life. The second is where you find comfort elsewhere and allow yourself to abide by its flow. In Puerto Princesa, Palawan, there is much to be discovered: the subterranean river, dreamy Honda Bay, and a number of postcard-worthy beaches, islands and forests. Disconnecting from so-called “real life” is part of the territory, but the truth is, we crave connection to our everyday realities more than we realize. A bed that’s not scratchy with sand? Check. Reliable WiFi? Check. Muck-free bathrooms and decent hair conditioner? Double check. We love the outdoors when they stay outdoors — the indoors need to be neat, clean, even a little cushy.
Hue Hotels and Resorts recently opened its first 122-room hotel property in Puerto Princesa, adding urban comforts to the city and elevating lodging options for both tourists and locals. This is where you’ll find the second experience — a place to unwind after a day of gallivanting, without having to worry about a thing. Call it a vacation within a vacation. Sticklers for ambience will find Hue Puerto Princesa particularly refreshing. The design reflects a tropical aesthetic that incorporates local culture and craftsmanship. Balinsasayaw wood carvings and mangrove-inspired floor tilings greet guests as they walk into the wide open Hue lobby. The rooms are furnished with rugs and fabrics by local craftsmen, and the pool area, which overlooks the city rather daringly, carries the spirit of the town fiesta on its banderitas-inspired floors. Hue Hotels and Resorts managing directors Dexter Lee and Dennis Lee shared all these little details with us during our many meals (and drinks) at Matiz Restaurant and Tapas Bar, Hue Puerto Princesa’s dining arm, operated by Chef Gabby Prats (get your hands on his ginataang santol, cashew kare-kare, paella, and thrice-cooked bagnet when you visit).
“We’re not by the beach, we’re in the city. So we wanted the beach to come to the city,” says Dexter Lee. “Having the people see the pool along the highway is going to be eyecatching.” It’s a standout all right, what with swimmers visible from the street below. “That was part of our design brief: the weirder, the better,” adds Dennis Lee, who also shared how important it is to them to have cool parents they can see eye-to-eye with when it comes to business.
In bringing Hue Puerto Princesa to life, they had a clear plan that involved them taking on a rather huge responsibility: that is, to contribute to the community in both the short and long-term. When it would have been easier to build a standard hotel with standard features, they opted for the opposite. “We didn’t want it to be a basic hotel, we wanted something design-friendly that people in the community will be proud of, because Puerto Princesa is really booming. You have tourism up North, and business and agriculture down South. Five or 10 years down the road, I think the city will really grow. A lot of people think that budget hotels are more suitable for Puerto Princesa, but we thought differently. If we elevate the quality of hotels in Puerto Princesa, hopefully the others will follow suit and that’s really the goal. Similar to Boracay, which started with pension houses, and now more nice hotels are coming out. It’s three-star pricing, still affordable, but it’s not a budget hotel,” says Dexter.
If how the owners treat their guests is any indication, those who check in at Hue will be in for a party. The vibe is chill but festive, with no less than top mixologist, “Liquid Maestro” Kalel, having created the bar’s signature drinks — all of which are delicious and available past midnight, which is rare in Puerto Princesa where most bars close just around that time. In a city where, as Dennis mentions, most of the restaurants and bars have more of a homegrown feel, Hue brings in a dining and hang-out experience that’s cosmopolitan yet still accessible and untimidating (the restaurant, Matiz, has a separate entrance that’s inviting even to non-guests). The rooms are spacious and Instagrammable, with pops of color and texture to distinguish them from your run-of-the-mill bedtime box. The hotel has a spa (with adept spa attendants; try their transformative two-hour Asian massage and emerge from the spa room a new human), a ballroom that can fit 300 pax, conference rooms for 50 to 70 pax, and a fitness center.
The Lee brothers, also managing directors of property development firm Luana Lifestyle and Leisure Hotel Inc., have a not-so-brief history in business, with their company running successful community malls in Cavite. Their leap into the hotel industry is an exercise in diversification, a result of having acquired properties in Palawan and Boracay. With their experience in thriving in localities, the Lees operate with a spirit of inclusiveness that embraces local culture and champions local trade, while their knack for design and what’s hip with the kids stems from their love for travel, interiors and the overall island life. They will be opening a second Hue Hotel in Boracay in June. Both hotels are operated by Hospitality Innovators Inc. (HII).
What’s the philosophy behind Hue? It’s to add a new shade to the spectrum of travel experiences available in a location, consequently encouraging that location’s evolution. “We have the same advocacy as when we do in retail. When we build something, we want it to uplift the community. That’s one thing that’s constant in all our developments,” says Dennis. “Bringing in local suppliers came from that support for retail development also. In the retail projects we develop, our tenants are the locals — business beginners — that’s our real target. That also sets us apart from other developers.”
Luis Monserrat, founder and CEO of HII, and Hue Puerto Princesa general manager, agrees. “When partnering, we like to make sure that the property is well-planned. We also look at the kind of owners we’ll be dealing with. It’s really important that there’s alignment in terms of vision and how the properties are going to be managed,” Monserrat says.
Hue Puerto Princesa general manager Chris Guballa adds, “It’s really about providing a new experience to the people of Puerto Princesa as well as tourists. We want them to stay in the hotel and visit Puerto Princesa for the hotel.” So far, the feedback from both locals and tourists have been promising, referring to Hue as the development that has been missing in the city.
With the opening of Hue Hotels and Resorts Boracay coming up, are the Lees already searching for the next location? “Right now our focus is to get the two hotels up and running, but yes we are planning to build more hotels. That’s the reason why we built Palawan and Boracay at the same time, to set a footprint and get the momentum going,” says Dexter. As for their next location, he adds, “Nowadays it’s not just Boracay, Palawan. There’s Dumaguete, Siargao. The more secret it is, the cooler you are. And that’s going to have something to do with our decision point for our next location.”
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