Art/Style/Travel Diaries

Sulubaaï: Three couples discover eco-paradise

In Palawan is a beautiful private island lost and regained by the painstaking work of Fred and Chris Tardieu

Sulubaai: Paradise lost and regained

Couples ready to set out to sea

When we visit beautiful places, we are entranced by what we see, what we experience, and what we eat. Farthest from our mind would be our impact on the communities as well as nature. Sulubaaï (Pangatalan Island) in Palawan has given us a chance to take a good, hard look at how we can give back to places that have given us so much.

Fred and Chris Tardieu put up the Sulubaai Environmental Foundation as they rehabilitate their piece of paradise, with its mangrove forest and marine life.

Renato and Maritess ‘Tokie’ Enriquez posing for keepsake photo before lunch .

Gabriele and Julie Boschi

Gippy and Hindy Tantoco

Upon the gracious invitation of Fred Tardieu and his wife Chris, three couples prepared for a week in paradise, their curiosity already piqued as there was not much information about the island, only that it is deeply involved in ecological projects. The owners, through the Sulubaaï Environmental Foundation, have been continuously and tirelessly working on marine conservation as well as restoring and maintaining the ecological balance of the island. Anything that has to do with nature and its preservation has always been close to the hearts of Renato and Maritess “Tokie” Enriquez, Gabriele and Julie Boschi, and Gippy and Hindy Tantoco. Janet Oquendo, who has been Renato and Tokie’s go-to for travel, organized discovery activities for the week like delightful jewel boxes.

The journey to the island started with an early morning flight to El Nido, a 90-minute car ride, and a quick speedboat ride. As the boat sliced through the pristine waters, Fred talked about his foundation, which works with the Prince of Monaco Foundation through the support of the luxury watch brand Blancpain. As much as the crystal-clear water and glorious sun begged for full attention, Fred’s passion for preservation of nature’s bounty was so powerful that the group immediately understood that beneath the surface, hard work and true dedication are necessary for generations to continually enjoy this.

Dining at the beach front under a thatched canopy

The entire Sulubaaï team came out and gave the warmest welcome, offering cold towels and buko juice. The first glimpse of the pristine beach tempted everyone to jump into the water, but first things first. Trekking up the walkway to the main house, the team members chatted with the guests, and one could immediately feel the sense of pride and love for this island paradise. No surprise that most of them have worked on the island for a long time, coming from neighboring islands.

The greenery was painstakingly planted by Fred’s team over the years. Bare and denuded was the original state of Fred’s paradise when he acquired it

The island itself is not large, just right for an afternoon of exploration. The pathway was filled with lush plants, almost a forest. The greenery has been painstakingly planted by Fred’s team over the years. Bare and denuded was the original state of Fred’s paradise when he acquired it. Years of neglect, use, and abuse of the island’s resources and its surrounding waters brought the island to an unimaginable state. The old photos clearly showed the gargantuan task the Sulubaaï team undertook to sculpt it into its present state.

The view from the house

On top of the hill was the beautiful home of Fred and Chris, lovingly built and decorated. It was design heaven, its interiors evoking another era, an elegant fusion of French Colonial and Asian influences. One could imagine Ernest Hemingway seated at the corner having a cup of coffee and smoking away. Every corner was a testament to Chris’ love of design.

The lanai was exquisitely furnished with giant bamboo furniture, lacquered to perfection with beautiful seat cushions and throw pillows. The gigantic coffee tables were full of Chris’ treasured books and items from all over the world, all fitting perfectly to tell the story of this beautiful couple’s life.

Soaring ceilings framed the stunning view of the pristine waters of Palawan. There are no words to describe the view, it is simply breathtaking. A pool set on the edge of the house proved the perfect place to watch the sunset, but each hour of the day gave its own mesmerizing light and shadow display. Suffice it to say that countless hours during the group’s stay were spent just immersing themselves in nature’s cinematic offering.

There are three bedrooms in the villa, all very comfortable.

It was such a delight to go from room to room, each, as always, perfectly furnished with a set of sliding doors leading to a deck of loungers and swings and a pond full of koi.

None of the guests expected this level of gracious living, perfect in every way. Knowing that this is the way Fred and Chris live every day made it even more special. The island experience is authentic in every way, not crafted by luxury hotel manuals.

Massage area

Dining set-up

The first meal and succeeding meals were served in gorgeous tableware collected by Chris over the years, cooked to perfection by a very shy young cook who put out dish after dish of healthy, delicious, and beautiful plated masterpieces. Let’s go back to the food later, but we shall let photos speak for themselves. We were definitely spoiled rotten by the island’s kitchen team. To this day, the couples are still dreaming of some of the dishes they had there.

Shells of  shoe crab

Hearty fare on the beach

The next day was spent with Laur, the island’s resident conservationist. Laur, speaking in a beautiful French accent, showed photos and videos of the shocking state of the island when they started and how they rebuilt it slowly.

Afternoon walk around the Island of Pangalatan. Low tide allows us to walk around the whole island.

One of the most important parts of conservation, which is usually overlooked, are the mangrove  trees. These trees have been growing in abundance all over Palawan for centuries, until enterprising individuals turned it into a commercial industry. Thousands, if not millions, of mangrove trees were cut and made into charcoal, as it is said that this gives the best charcoal. Mangrove trees serve the same function for marine life as corals do underwater. Its network of roots provides shelter, food, and breeding ground for countless marine life. One swipe of an axe can destroy the lives of millions of future fish, crabs, shellfish. The mangroves protect the island from erosion, protect the inhabitants from nature’s fury come typhoon season, and give much needed shade and shelter for the birds and insects.

The foundation is now educating residents on why the mangrove trees are important, what happens when they are wiped out, and what they can do to restore this gift

The island, as with many islands in the country, has been stripped of this all-important tree. Laur showed the group how they painstakingly planted each stick of mangrove tree they could find—an act so simple that one can only wish this was taught in schools. The foundation is now educating residents, especially the children, on why the mangrove trees are important, what happens when they are wiped out, and what they can do to restore this gift. Education is key to nature’s survival.

The next stop was a tour of the nursery. Fish fingerlings are placed in enormous tanks, sorted by kind and size. This gives them a better chance of surviving, as opposed to fending for themselves in the wild. Upon reaching the size suited for survival, the fish are placed back into the water.  Overfishing, dynamite fishing, and other harmful practices have shrunk the fish population so much that the days of seeing abundant fish in these areas are almost gone. Marine sanctuaries are now cordoned off and guarded by the coastal police, 24 hours a day. But again, the key is education, teaching the fishermen how to fish in an ecologically responsible way, and explaining why they need to do that in order to preserve the bounties of nature for their children and future generations.

Laur showed the team how to make artificial reefs from concrete and metal bars. These artificial reefs are installed all around the island waters, and have substantially grown the reef, thereby enlarging the home and sanctuary of marine life.

A chance to see the reef development generated such excitement in the group. Tokie and Renato, both avid divers, could not contain their excitement, while Julie and Gippy came out of their long hiatus from diving and donned wetsuits again. Hindy went through very thorough diving lessons with an ace divemaster and earned a dive certification, and emerged with a love of diving. Seeing fish and turtles frolicking where it was once just fragments of coral and sand lifted our spirit and restored our hope for future generations.

Our diving adventure was one for the books. Our lone fisherman, Gab, opted to stay out of the water—truly an exhilarating afternoon for everyone.

The collective efforts of the foundation focus on marine conservation, utilizing innovative technology, and sustainable practices aimed at safeguarding the health of the coral reefs and marine life. They have established coral nurseries, employing advanced techniques to promote the growth of new coral colonies. Through outreach programs and educational initiatives, they have successfully engaged and inspired individuals to become stewards of the ocean.

Janet Oquendo (fourth from left) taking the group on a tour around the islands barangays.

An island adventure is not complete without island hopping. Off we went to see beautiful deserted islands—some with towering jagged rock formations with bird communities hidden in their folds, others with pristine beaches where the group stopped to take a dip. A quick ride through a water avenue revealed a thick mangrove forest, restored to its former glory through education and conservation efforts.

Renato having his afternoon nap

Palawan has always been known for its raw beauty, and this time, it did not disappoint. On our way back, our group spotted a structure of leaves and bamboo and a table on a nearby deserted island. With a twinkle in her eye, Janet announced to us that this was specially prepared for the couples: a picnic by the shore, with a beautiful table setting, pillows, delicious food, and a pristine beach—truly a picnic fit for royalty.

Lounging before lunch at the front of the Island; every meal was in a different location.

The food enjoyed throughout the week was exceptional. From homemade jams and freshly baked bread to curries, beautiful salads, grilled fish, and just the most delectable desserts, one could easily imagine having these dishes in renowned restaurants.  Each meal came with fine tableware, set in stunning location.

Maritess ‘Tokie’ Tantoco, Julie Boschi and Hindy Tantoco enjoying the sun, sea and sand.

The Sulubaaï team showcased locations on and around the island—picnic on a secret beach, on the lanai facing the most gorgeous view, in the courtyard surrounded by the beautiful garden, and even a birthday dinner for December babies Renato and Julie along the main beach. By the third day, the group realized that each meal was a gastronomic feast prepared by the young chef. Of course, they all insisted on meeting her and giving her the praise she deserved.

Afternoon walks around the island, typically in the water when the tide was low, provided some up close and personal encounters with the wildlife. An early morning fishing trip of Gabriele, Hindy, and Gippy yielded some delicious fish. Lazy hours spent on the hammock underneath the lush trees gave the group front row seats to the grand orchestra of nature’s music.

The authors and their fellow weekenders in Sulubaai

The weekenders enjoying the fine sand

Much can be said about this unforgettable island, but one must experience first-hand what it has to offer, a chance to see and experience the treasures this country has and more importantly, to understand the passion to preserve this for future generations. Fred is now working on a project for this rare piece of paradise.

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