The setting sun casts a silhouette, framed beautifully by an arc from one of the casas.
I must admire how the resort owners have scoured the archipelago for such decaying structures, disassembled them, and then reassembled them -- brick by brick, plank by plank, as they say. Not that this endeavor, apart from being business-driven, has been spared from criticism from some sectors who argue that they aren't actually preserving them because the houses have been uprooted from their original locations, however. But personally, I think most of these structures would have rotted away nonetheless because of our people's collective lack of appreciation and concern for history. But whatever. To each his own, I guess.
A section of the plaza, bound by reconstructed houses and replicas, and dotted by metal sculptures depicting scenes of kids having fun, playing traditional Filipino games that have long been forgotten with today's dominance of electronics.
But how was our Las Casas experience? Here's a rundown.
Upon entering the gate, this attempt at recreating the look and feel of a bygone era was already evident when the guard who let us in was dressed as a guardia civil. Well, all of their staff were dressed in period costumes. There is a designated parking area, and vehicles are only allowed to enter the cobblestone section to drop off and pick up passengers and luggage.
The guardia civil suddenly became shy and conscious when My Bibe started snapping photos from her phone.
Check-in went smoothly, and we were handed sago't gulaman as welcome drinks. My only comment is that none of the front desk staff bothered to tell us about even the most general of features and facilities of the resort. I had to ask.
A section of the reception area. If this were a hotel, this would have been the lobby.
While a number of the casas at Las Casas also serve as accommodation options, particularly for families and big groups, room-type choices are all housed under Paseo de Escolta, a replica of typical commercial buildings in Escolta, Manila, circa early 1900s. As with the original, the ground floor is occupied by shops while the upper two floors serve as hotel rooms. Paseo de Escolta, by the way, is my personal favorite because of its fantastic facade.
My Bibe enjoying a "Doña moment" from one of the balconies of the Paseo de Escolta.
Our room, a studio deluxe type, was on the second floor. It was nice and spacious, had a concrete and tiled floor, lots of dark wood furniture and cabinets, and two doors that each opened up to a small balcony. The bed was partially covered by curtains, presumably for that four-poster feel, and the bathroom was huge with a bath tub and a separate shower area. There's a perfectly-functioning air conditioning unit, a flat screen TV, a personal fridge, a coffee-making facility, but no WiFi.
Overall, it was a nice room but it was very poorly lit. I mean, it was really dark. Also, I didn't like that while ours was a concrete floor, the one above us was wood because you could hear all the noise from above, especially from the heavy-footed ones.
Lots of dark wood. But we had to part the curtains because the room itself was also dark.
The view from one of our balconies.
The bed, bound by curtains on two sides.
The bathroom, as seen from the mirror's reflection.
We had a peek into Casa Candaba, which, according to the caretaker, was mostly reserved for VIPs and as such, was quite pricier than other accommodation options. It had a spacious living area, a posh dining room, and walls and ceilings with replicas of paintings by the likes of Amorsolo. If we were to believe the caretaker, he said we can rent the whole place for Php 100K a night.
A section of the living area, undeniably oozing with grandeur.
The dining area.
The caretaker was also kind enough to show us into one of the rooms on the ground floor. It was, well, grand, but a bit dark.
What I appreciate in this room, though, is all those details from floor to ceiling.
It's a no-brainer that Las Casas is a place for picture-taking. Lots of it. The scenery is beautiful, bound by distant mountains on one side, and the open sea in another. Apart from the casas and the bridges, I also appreciate the number of monuments and sculptures depicting various Filipino traditions and games.
Me enjoying my Señor Santibañez moment. In the distance are a number of ongoing construction projects, including a Maranao house (from Mindanao), a church, and more houses.
There are two bridges here, both with arcs that allow for boat rides along the river.
Also impressive are their metal and stone sculptures depicting traditional Filipino ways of living and other customs. Here we see a woman carrying a banga (earthen jar), another one sorting harvested rice from chaff with the aid of a bilao (winnowing basket) and the blowing wind, and another one with her kid in tow.
A bunch of kids doing the palusebo, a traditional Filipino game where players race to scale a greased bamboo pole to snatch the prize at the top of the pole. Other games depicted in sculptures here include luksong baka and sipa.
There's an hourly walking tour to the casas from 8:30am until the afternoon. We didn't join any of them, though, as we prefer to explore on our own. Besides, you couldn't take much photos when there's a crowd in the room. So while we didn't get to visit all of the casas, we were content with the ones we checked out. Probably the only downside to this approach was that we didn't get to hear about the history of each structure.
The structures were beautiful, no doubt, and I can't help but admire all that attention to detail that are evident in both the interiors and the outside of these heritage houses. While the stone parts may no longer be original, that's easily forgivable with all the architectural beauty that they've managed to salvage.
The Casa Candaba, where that "VIP treatment" I've mentioned earlier is offered. No surprise, though, as this mansion, originally from one of the most prominent families of Pampanga in the 1780s, also served as the residence of the Gobernador General when visiting the province.
The Casa Mexico. One thing I love about these heritage houses is that most of them have balconies or terraces.
The Casa Jaen I, which served as the residence of the first mayor of Jaen (in Nueva Ecija?).
I love the recreated stone pillars and arcs that support this wooden house.
This is the strip of wooden stilt houses, the other side of which is facing the sea.
We heard people talking inside, so we knocked and asked what was behind these huge doors. We were told this was where the owners stayed when they're at the resort. Oops!
Another section of the same casa where the owner stays. Just look at the details of that ceiling! And the statues, too!
Inside Casa Jaen I.
This one here has one of my favorite interiors of all the casas. Magnificent walls, grandiose columns and ceilings -- the works! A section of the ground floor of this structure houses the chapel. This structure is really huge!
Attention to detail. They don't make them like this anymore.
At night, this looks kinda freaky, especially with those candlestick-style chandeliers.
I don't know about you but this little angel here looks freakish to me. That's My Bibe in the mirror, taking a moment to rest in an empty carriage.
There are two restaurants at Las Casas: the main attraction, Cafe Marivent, which serves Filipino and Spanish cuisine, and the Italian restaurant La Bella Teodora. As to why there's an Italian restaurant when the whole place had a Spanish colonial era theme baffles me, but I'm glad it's there because we didn't quite like Cafe Marivent.
Both establishments have similar interiors characterized by stone walls and arcs. La Bella was much roomier, though, and had a good view of rice fields and distant mountains on one side. I also love that they have an old-style pugon (brick oven). Probably the only downside to La Bella was that it was located at the far end of the resort, that is if walking was a problem.
Inside Cafe Marivent.
La Bella Teodora at night.
At daytime, La Bella provides a nice view of green fields and distant mountains, thanks to its huge arched windows. Nice breeze coming in, too!
La Bella's old-school pugon.
Back to Marivent, we were expecting the best-tasting Filipino food here but were totally disappointed with their kare-kare that we had to place an additional order of tortang talong just to have our fill. The breakfast that came with our accommodation was served here, which wasn't much, as you're stuck with either tocino, longganisa, and daing na bangus. There's a different breakfast menu, however, but we didn't bother.
The food at La Bella was much better. Their brick oven pizza was good, as was the tiramisu. A bit pricey, though, but the Marivent menu wasn't cheap either.
Good o'le brick oven pizza.
Also, every afternoon at the plaza just right outside Marivent, there's some street food being sold. Among a host of other things, there's pork barbecue, hotdogs, daing na pusit (dried squid), fish and squid balls. You can also order fresh buko (coconut) and shakes, which they all get from Marivent.
Facilities and services
While Las Casas may primarily be a place for lots of picture-taking, there's also a few other things in store here. There's a small pool that's supposed to be patterned after a batis (stream or brook) but personally I think they didn't get it right in the execution phase. There's also a gray sand beach that offered an unobstructed view of spectacular sunsets -- far better than Manila Bay.
For those who prefer it indoors, there's a game room that offered billiards and table tennis. And for the religious, there's a chapel where Catholic mass is heard every Sunday, probably until that huge church they're building is done.
Meanwhile, there's a strip of establishments along Paseo de Escolta that includes a convenience store that sells everything from freshly baked bread, coffee, junk food, and cold drinks, to toiletries, local delicacies, and even cooked food (if you want a cheaper alternative to their restaurants).
The Paseo de Escolta at night, when most of the shops are already closed.
There's also a spa, an antiques shop, a souvenir shop, and one offering photography services, Fotografia de la Escolta. This one's interesting because their packages include period costumes already. Prices start at Php 1,080 for a 10-minute session for one and Php 2,080 for a 20-minute session for two. This includes one large souvenir print and a nifty native-designed USB stick where all the digital copies are saved.
A group of folks dressed in period costumes ready to board a horse-drawn carriage for their photo session. I took pity on the horse, though. He seemed so small in relation to the size of the carriage he's pulling.
The game room.
The pool. The deepest part is only 4 feet.
A sampling of Las Casas's unimpeded view of its glorious sunsets.
The chapel. I wonder if Padre Damaso suddenly shows up.
Las Casas also offers conference and banquet services. Clearly, there's no shortage of halls and function rooms here with all the casas they have. They're airconditioned, by the way.
One of the banquet halls. This one's atop Cafe Marivent. Look at the gorgeous ceiling!
Another one of them open spaces where parties can be hosted.
Boat rides, tours, and some other stuff are also offered. Just inquire at the reception because as it is, they don't really volunteer such services.
If you're checked in at Las Casas on a weekend, then you're in for a treat because there's a cultural presentation every Saturday at the plaza that runs for about an hour and a half from 6pm. There's a stage set up and high school kids showcase traditional Filipino dances like Itik-Itik and Sayaw sa Bangko interspersed with old Filipino song numbers by their resident vocalist and guitarist duo.
My favorite had to be the Singkil, that epic dance from Mindanao. It was the longest of their numbers and the most colorful. It made the final number Tinikling look anti-climactic even if they've modified the dance to incorporate Sayaw sa Bangko for that supposedly added wow factor.
The epic, 10-minute long Singkil. As called for by the dance itself, this is the only time during the whole show where the kids didn't have to smile and instead, put on the fiercest expressions that they can muster.
A leveled-up Tinikling, where the difficulty level was raised with the use of benches.
While I was already happy with the show, it was nice when after the final number the kids went to the audience to let them try the Tinikling for themselves. I wanted to join them (I once danced this in high school) but I was holding back. Maybe next time.
Some members of the appreciative audience trying their best to not get their feet stuck in between clapping bamboo poles.
Overall, our two-night Las Casas experience was a good one that I wished we could've stayed even one more night at least. Despite our noisy neighbors upstairs, the poorly-lit room, and the disappointing fare at Cafe Marivent, it's still a place worth visiting, especially for those who are into photography and into being photographed. However, it isn't for those seeking an active vacation, as this is a place more suited for taking it all easy. I just wish there was a ferry service from Manila Bay that went straight to the shores of Las Casas so I can skip the three to four-hour drive.
I don't know how to get to Las Casas by commuting because it's still an hour away from the highway in Balanga. But if you're driving, here's how:
Via San Fernando Exit
From the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX), exit at San Fernando, Pampanga and go straight along the highway until you reach past Balanga, Bataan. Turn right once you see a sign directing you to the Mt. Samat memorial and drive through a zigzagging a road. Once you see the Philippine-Japan Friendship Tower, turn left at the fork. Keep right for the rest of the drive. You'll soon see signs directing you to Las Casas.
Go straight until the end of NLEX and enter the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTEX) going in the direction of Subic (not Clark). Exit at Dinalupihan and turn right on the provincial highway until you reach past Balanga. Follow the remaining route as in the San Fernando option.
The San Fernando route is shorter but you also run the risk of getting stuck in traffic along the roads there. The SCTEX option is much longer but you're guaranteed a smooth drive.
For more information, go to lascasasfilipinas.com.