In Philippines, a garden of peaceful delights

One woman's idea of heaven on earth is a welcome retreat

Destination: Asia

October 17, 2004|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

Every morning, it is somebody's job to scatter freshly plucked flowers across the surface of the stone basins appearing at random throughout Sonya's Garden.

Pie-sized, pale pink blossoms float in one urn, cradling smaller, purple blooms. A velvety storm of fuchsia and yellow flowers drifts in another vessel, itself nestled in an abundant bed of impatiens.

The flowers, as well as the tinkling of chimes and outdoor futons shrouded in netting, lure visitors to Sonya's Garden, a lush retreat 45 miles south of Manila, into untold languorous reveries.

As if describing a dream, they speak of a paradisiacal compound where visitors stroll through English gardens, consume delicious organic food grown on site and buy Filipino crafts in a charming country store.

"It's my paradise, my lifestyle, my idea of how life should be lived," says proprietor Sonya Garcia, a regal figure in white often seen walking the grounds wearing a wide-brimmed hat.

The life Garcia lives and promotes is reflected in her artful affinity for blending disparate elements into a singular vision of serenity. Spanish colonial architectural references commingle with Balinese and Vietnamese touches. Bougainvillea blossoms with marigolds and coleus in the garden. Meals are served on gloriously mismatched plates. Salads of fennel and arugula are tossed with mango and jackfruit.

Separated from her diplomat husband, Garcia returned to her native Philippines in the early 1990s after living abroad for 10 years. Outside the resort town of Tagaytay, she created a secluded redoubt on nearly four acres where she tends her garden and lives a contemplative, self-sufficient life in an airy, three-story cottage.

I had come to Sonya's Garden on an afternoon off from a program that had brought a group of American journalists to Manila, the capital of the Philippines and its largest city. Metro Manila felt like a fever dream, a tangle of culture and history where wealth and poverty frequently intersect.

After several days of traversing the gridlocked city, though, my colleagues and I were ready for a glimpse of the Filipino countryside.

Like others who have made their way to Sonya's, we had heard about it by word of mouth. "We don't really advertise," Garcia later told me.

Cluttered landscape

In a hired van, we hit the clogged highway leading out of town, bemused by, of all things, poetry. Every few kilometers, lines from Joyce Kilmer's poem Trees improbably unfolded sign by sign as we drove south.

Off the highway, past several American automobile plants, we climbed toward Tagaytay, passing roadside produce stands selling buko (coconut) pie, jackfruit, mangoes, papayas and fresh coconut milk in recycled plastic soda bottles. Bunches of plump little bananas called senoritas dangled from the stands like tropical chandeliers.

For a few pesos, we bought one bunch, enough to sustain our potassium levels for days. Later, we would donate the remaining senoritas to our driver.

Approaching Tagaytay, in Batangas province in southern Luzon, the landscape filled with terraced pineapple plantations, gated communities and exclusive golf courses as well as much more humble settlements. Its cooler climate and postcard views of Lake Taal have made Tagaytay and its environs a popular weekend destination for wealthy Manilans, many of whom have built palatial homes on a ridge overlooking the lake.

(The late dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda, left incomplete a particularly opulent mansion on a scenic piece of land now frequented by curious picnickers.)

Tagaytay's elite don't seem to be too concerned about the Taal volcano, which sits in the lake, (itself the caldera of an ancient volcano), and has claimed thousands of lives over the centuries. It last erupted in 1965.

Beyond Tagaytay, (pronounced ta-guy-tie), views of Lake Taal and its volcano were marred by resort architecture with no character. In about 20 minutes, we reached the municipality of Alfonso in Cavite province. A right turn on a rambling dirt road led to Sonya's. It was an instant respite from Tagaytay's desultory clutter.

Sonya's oasis

We found a place at once civilized and wild, down-to-earth and spiritual. Under an arbor, two old men conversed in Tagalog, the Filipino language. From another direction came the chatter and pot-clanging of Sonya's kitchen staff.

Originally, Garcia did not intend to welcome guests. At the urging of friends though, she changed her mind and opened a restaurant in 1999.

Sonya was persuaded that her peaceful existence could set a valuable example for others. "Because this is how I would enjoy my life, I'd like to share with a lot of people," she says.

She has since added cottages for overnight stays and can now accommodate wedding parties, family reunions and business meetings. Visitors may also study gardening, cooking, flower arranging, yoga and meditation. Garcia's expanding retreat has been a boon for the neighbors whom she employs.

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