The secret of El Nido

Lihim is the name the Araw Hospitality management group has chosen for this property not because it is beautiful but because it is exactly that, as nature designed it

LOVE NATURE Panoramic view of Lihim resort

“Lovers find secret places inside this violent world where they make transactions with beauty,” said the 13th century Sufi poet, scholar, and mystic Rumi.

This is how I felt when I eloped into a secluded lagoon in El Nido, my heart bruised, but open to healing, and where I found myself, above the turquoise waters, whose surface was a looking glass that offered a peek into the storied underwater life of Palawan or otherwise a reflection of the bright, blue, wispy cloud-covered sky, I was in a relatively new resort beguilingly named—Lihim.

Lihim is the Tagalog word for “secret.” It ranks high on my list of Filipino words that ignite the senses, up there with gunita or its more popular synonym alaala for “memory,” pangarap or panaginip for “dream,” and pangako for “promise.”

RESPITE Balinaud Villa interior

But Lihim is the name the Araw Hospitality management group has chosen for this property not because it is beautiful but because the sprawling property is exactly that, a secret, as nature designed it, hiding it in deep, emerald forests, tucking it away on the expanse of Bacuit Bay, with limestone cliffs soaring around it like sentinels. Nestled in this natural fortress, and designed as a sanctuary and hideaway, replete with rooms and corners for complete, enriching, replenishing solitude, Lihim is deserving of its name. 

“We wanted a Filipino name and something that aligned with the overall feel of the property, being in a densely forested area. I also wanted a name that was easy to recall and pronounce,” says Araw Hospitality’s chief astounder/chief operating officer Raffy Ladao, who also shared that from the moment they first set eyes on it, it had been the name by which this hidden piece of tropical paradise appeared to have wanted to be called. 

When I asked him over dinner at a secret cellar, a small space teeming with an expansive selection of wines and spirits but also made strictly for very intimate excursions, if he ever worried that the name would be associated with illicit affairs or forbidden desires, he smiled, “Doesn’t all that add to the appeal?”

It does. There is no judgment in this forest-shrouded tropical resort. This is why it is called Lihim. This is also why the 16 villas sprawled over 30 hectares of a hilly terrain are built in such a way that they are worlds within a world, hideaways within a hideaway, secrets within a secret, unapologetically remote from each other, some of which reachable only by furnicular or an uphill climb.

ROMANTIC GETAWAY Photo of the Duli Villa Private Plunge Pool of Lihim Resort (Cover design by Jules Vivas)

But each villa, built in the tradition of Philippine huts with thatched roofs covered in anahaw leaves, opens up to a soulstirring view of the bay or the forests from its wraparound balconies to which some of the bath suites extend. Having breakfast on the balcony or even in bed in my suite, I might as well have been in the sky, at sea, in the forest, deeply anchored in nature.

A luxury nest is what each villa is, made to rejuvenate body, mind, and soul. Open and free flowing, casting away the boundaries between indoor and outdoor, the design of the villas and the private lounges, well-appointed with local art and the necessities of five-star vacations, redefines the experience of a getaway.

PAMPER YOURSELF Panari Spa Signature Bamboo Massage

I was alone, but not really, because each villa has a designated butler, to whom I can turn should I wish for anything, such as an island tour or a special menu or to organize cocktails with friends at the poolside, or even to help me pack or unpack. The butler is also responsible for the turndown treats I would look forward at the end of each day. He would be the first to warn me of rain or sweltering heat or strong winds to help me decide on the activities I’d like, whether a bonfire or a kayaking expedition or to go to town.

“We wanted to break away from the run-off-the-mill resort and provide an experience that is both memorable and uplifting,” says Raffy, who himself is a different kind of COO because you could swim with him, drink with him, party with him. He is a certified beach person and a lover of these adventures as well as the island life, so this is more than business or work for him. As a result, Lihim integrates wellness, sustainability, and community, allowing guests to commune with the island’s very soul and essence.

But there is more outside of Lihim, which is why I am tempted to give it more five stars, especially under the star-encrusted skies of Palawan. The boutique resort also has a collection of islands for its private use on Bacuit Bay, in which one can seek even more seclusion. As if carved out of the limestone cliff on Cadlao Lagoon is a lounge built to conform to the natural landscape. Interested parties can book this island getaway for a day and leave it to Lihim to take care not only of the meals, which can each be customized to the preferences of the guests, but also the activities, such as a breath work session or a sunset cocktail party for two.

Speaking of sunsets, there is also a private lounge on Pinagbuyutan Island, which is only accessible via Lihim Resorts. It’s different from Cadlao, as it appears to float over massive, National Geographic-worthy rocks on the shoreline, a front row lounge seat to the majestic sunsets with which El Nido has been blessed. More of these pleasure nooks are in the works on other equally private islands like King Kong and Sabang. It’s a project that excites Raffy and his team at Araw, to whom, more than anything else, it is experience that defines luxury.

Panari Spa at Lihim, in my book, is a certified unforgettable experience. The spa, cocooned in a lush spot in the forest, has programs, amenities, and treatments crafted to bring body, mind, and soul to source and to harness the healing power of nature. My first treatment, the Warm Bamboo Signature Massage, chosen from a collection of therapies, body wraps, scrubs, facials, and IV drips showcasing the use of various techniques and locally sourced oils, I booked in-room and I swear by it, with strokes my weary flesh, tired skin, and stiff muscles had never been subject before.

If you could get rid of yourself just once, the secret of secrets would open to you. —Rumi

But at Panari Spa, I had a soundbath with a Belgian nomad and shaman by the name of Imana Lightweb (You can find her on Instagram). She hardly touched me, but at the end of the healing session I was ready to confess to her my gravest sins or to whisper to her my most shameful secrets in the hope of lifting the burden off my soul.  It’s not that intense, but it is that intense. More than emotional healing, what it offers is soul healing. Also on offer daily at Panari Spa, which guests can book anywhere they want, whether in their villas or any of the private lounges on the islands off Lihim, are yoga, meditation, and breath work. There’s also a fitness studio equipped with state-of-the-art equipment, and an in-house trainer.

Have I spilled the beans on El Nido’s best kept secret? Yes and no, but it is Lihim and it is so designed—whether you come alone or with a lover, a paramour or otherwise—to remain or feel like a secret. | @lihimresorts on Facebook and Instagram