Above: Mangenguey’s villa serves as a communal dining and living area.
A couturière-turned-resort owner has big plans for her small Philippine island
By Katherine Jack
Photography by Katherine Jack*
Our banca outrigger skips over the water, weaving between pearl farms where strings of oysters hang from bobbing black buoys. The shallow sea is dotted with the limestone islets of the Calamianes, an archipelago at the northern fringe of the Philippine province of Palawan. I peer through translucent water at the blur of colorful corals and watch as flying fish skip over the waves. An hour and a half after departing Busuanga—the largest of the Calamianes’ four main islands, about a 60-minute flight from Manila—Mangenguey appears in the distance, its densely forested profile outlined by a long, white-sand beach. The only structures visible from the boat are a small house and the wooden pier to which we’re headed. Helena Carratala Mander, the island’s current leaseholder, is there to greet us when we arrive.
“It’s one thing to have ideas, another to be able to translate them into reality,” she tells me as I step off the boat. Helena, a striking, hazel-eyed Spanish woman in her late fifties, has lived here for six years now, and is passionate about her plans for the place. “Once someone tells me what I want to do is impossible, I go for it—it’s part of my karma to prove everyone wrong.” And on Mangenguey, it seems she’s done just that.
“The idea of Mangenguey is really a cocktail of the different elements of my personality,” Helena continues as we walk down the jetty. “I am a political activist, an artist, a social butterfly, a cook, a matriarch, and an entrepreneur, so my idea for the island contained all those things. I feel I’ve had such a colorful life—dared to do things that many people don’t even dream. I wanted to create something wonderful for my grand finale.”
It took Helena the best part of two years to conceptualize her pièce de résistance: a small, idiosyncratic resort on an otherwise uninhabited island that she hopes will someday double as an artists’ community. Helena describes it in much more florid terms: “My vision is like something out of a wonderful old adventure novel—as if an extravagant, 18th-century lady is lost at sea after pirates attack her galleon. She lands on this tropical island and tries to re-create memories of palaces left behind.”
Yet Helena was not drawn to the Philippines just by chance. Her paternal grandmother was born in Manila, but was forced to return to Spain during the Spanish-American War of 1898. Still, the family nurtured a strong connection with the former colony, a connection that eventually rubbed off on Helena. “I was raised in Barcelona, but in a sense, I grew up with the Philippines,” she tells me. “My grandmother used to cook tinola [a soup-based dish with chicken and papaya] and arroz caldo, a kind of congee, and we were often visited by Filipino guests.” So when, at the age of 15, Helena met her future husband Xavier Guerrero, son of a prominent Filipino family, she felt sure that it was a “touch of destiny.” Helena arrived in Manila in 1969 as an 18-year-old bride. Despite not being able to speak a word of English or Tagalog, she felt a natural affinity with her surrounds. “From the moment I stepped into this country,” she says, “it was like a love affair.”
When a young Jean-Paul Gaultier came to Manila in the early 1970s to run the city’s new Pierre Cardin boutique, he hired Helena as his assistant. Gaultier taught her draping, drawing, and dressmaking, a tutelage that enabled Helena to launch her own label, Azabache (Spanish for “jet black”), in 1974. Her bold designs were a resounding success, and Helena soon became a fashion icon of ’70s Manila: one local magazine dubbed her “the glamorous rag-trade empress of Manila’s haute-couture set.”
By 1982 her marriage to Guerrero had ended, so she decided to take her talents to New York, along with her two young daughters and just enough money to start her life afresh. She unveiled her latest collection during New York Fashion Week in 1983. Later that year, she met Richard Mander, a cabinetmaker and construction consultant; they married in 1985 and had a son, Theodore.
After what she describes as “almost 25 years of self-exile,” Helena returned to the Philippines in 2004. “Richard and I were becoming disenchanted by life in the U.S. and had been talking about retiring somewhere else for years. When I came back to this country, I saw that it had so many of the components we were looking for,” she recalls. Richard’s only request was that they live somewhere by the water. Helena narrowed her search down to Palawan, famed for its island scenery. From there, it was just a matter of time before they found Mangenguey.
I realize early on that Mangenguey (pronounced “man-gen-gay”) is Helena encapsulated—earthy and wild, yet very sophisticated. “I have always played on those two extremes of my personality,” she says. We’re shown to our beach cottage by Zanji, Mangenguey’s butler. A cool breeze wafts through screen doors—Helena’s brand of tropical architecture keeps you in constant commune with nature. In the bedroom, the walls are made from sarwali (plaited bamboo) painted a rich teal and hung with sketches from Helena’s New York fashion collection. A hammock has been strung between two coconut trees in front of our veranda; across the beach, a French family, the resort’s only other guests, sit in wicker chairs, reading and chatting.
Behind the three cottages, a sandy garden of tall shade trees and blindingly purple bougainvillea opens onto a handsome white villa. On the ground floor, there’s a spacious open-plan living area, dining room, and kitchen; a pair of luxurious suites sit on the first floor, their antiques and polished bathrooms somewhat at odds with the eco-chic design of the cottages. “I didn’t want to create a uniform look, like all the other resorts,” Helena tells me. “I wanted the buildings to appear eclectic and organic, as they might in a town or city. Some are simple, whereas others are more extravagant, but there’s a common aesthetic concept behind everything.”
One afternoon, Richard suggests a tour of the island. It’s a mere 13 hectares and won’t take us more than an hour and a half to explore by foot. We set out for the interior, where the Manders have plans to develop a number of private residences. We amble along the beach and then climb up a steep path into the jungle. As we cross the island, Richard points out the plots of land where custom-built residences will be available to investors on 50-year leases as of next year. Amid the homes there will be restaurants, a library, and an amphitheater, which will be used to host live opera and dance performances alongside films and documentaries.
“I want it to provoke, inspire, and excite,” says Helena.
Art and culture will play an important role at Mangenguey. Helena tells me she plans to use profits from the resort and residential community to support artists, who will be able to visit the island for free provided they contribute their skills in some way toward its development. “If we saved all the wildlife, but neglected the poets, we would be living in a very lopsided world,” she explains. “I really want to cultivate the human spirit through the arts.” There are no rules as to who can apply to live on the island, and no formal application process. Instead, “in the spirit of creativity and internationalism,” Helena wants artists to write to her for consideration. “Anyone from a photographer or furniture designer in the Philippines to a scribe or painter from New York can apply,” she says. While contributing to the resort, the visiting artists will have access to a studio, where they’ll be able to create and display their works and participate in informal, salonlike discussions.
Helena and Richard are also working with villagers on the islands around Mangenguey, providing them with both jobs and much-needed skills. “Most families in the area have very little experience in anything besides fishing,” Helena explains. To this end, she’s already started instructing local fishermen in trades such as carpentry and masonry, and when the residential development begins next year, will start a “living school,” where the architects and engineers hired to work on the construction projects will take on young apprentices and teach them the tricks of their trade.
Continuing our walk, we reach a dwarf hardwood forest where wild orchids cling to the trees. The flora soon changes, and we find ourselves surrounded by giant cactuses and ferns. This is perhaps the highest point of the island, with steep cliffs dropping down 100 meters to the crashing sea below. From this vantage point, I begin to understand how the island got its name—mangenguey, Helena tells me, means “the loud sound of the waves.”
The rest of our days on Mangenguey are leisurely. We stroll along the island’s beaches and snorkel about the shallow reefs that lie just off shore. Although we fail to catch sight of the resident dugong, which grazes on the sea-grass beds around the island, we do find a pair of baby reef sharks swimming near shore, marooned by the low tide. Conserving this habitat is at the forefront of Richard and Helena’s vision for Mangenguey, and they do so by keeping a careful watch on the reef, ensuring that it is not over-exploited by fishermen.
In the evenings, oil lanterns light the way from the cottages to the villa. Hermit crabs scuttle over the sand, devouring fallen fruits and seeds. The night sky is speckled with stars from one horizon to the other; on the water, the bright lights of squid boats dot the dark seascape.
Helena, who was also a successful caterer and restaurateur during her New York days, is a fabulous cook; her cuisine is a mélange of her varied influences and rich imagination, with an emphasis on the Catalan dishes of her youth. Everyone eats together, and so we join the French family and feast on dishes like scallop ceviche with tamarind leaves, seafood paella, and, for dessert, an absolutely decadent chocolate con churros. Each morning we enjoy café au lait with a selection of breads and cakes brought in daily from the finest patisserie in Manila.
When it is time to leave, we make our way back across the sea and I watch as the island disappears into the distance. Like the pearls being cultivated in the water around us, Helena’s forward-looking ideas are gradually taking form on Mangenguey. I can’t wait to come back and see their final shape.
Philippine Airlines (philippineairlines.com) operates daily flights between Manila and Busuanga Island. Bus and boat transfers from Busuanga’s airport can be organized through Mangenguey resort (63-920/954-4457; mangenguey.com; doubles from US$200).
Originally appeared in the June/July 2010 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Calling All Castaways”)
* Top photo courtesy Mangenguey resort