Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar (named after its owner and collector, Jerry Acuzar) is a one-of-a-kind beach resort and museum that has a treasure trove (more than 30 as of this writing) of Spanish-era Filipino houses transported piece by piece from their original locations and reconstructed along cobblestone streets.
This open-air museum/resort occupies a sprawling 800-acre beachfront hidden behind a small, quiet seaside village in Bagac, Bataan, three to four hours west of Metro Manila.
A guard dressed as a guardia civil (all resort employees are dressed in period attires) greeted us at the outpost and pointed us to the main entrance where we parked and paid for our entrance.
We checked in as day guests ($18/person), which includes a guided tour of the old houses, dining at any of the three restaurants (tour package comes with optional all-you-can-eat Filipino buffet for $33), the use of the beach area, snack and refreshments at the end of the tour. An overnight stay at the resort starts at $80, rates vary depending on the house or room.
After deciding on the a la carte Filipino restaurant, we hopped on an open-sided jeepney to shuttle us there. We crossed a bridge with balustrade railings arching over a river that runs parallel to the beach. At the other end stands an imposing Victorian-style hotel, a reproduction of Hotel Oriental that was within the walls of old Intramuros where the likes of Jose Rizal stayed during its heyday.
Following a satisfying lunch of charbroiled Filipino fare, we returned to the reception area to begin our tour. Our lively, lady guide with a microphone gathered our group, offering us wide-brimmed hats for protection from the intense midday heat during the one-hour plus walking tour.
We took off our shoes before entering each house as tradition dictated, out of respect for the homeowners. We started at Casa Baliuag 1 (the houses are named after the place of origin), the 1898 house contains elaborate floral wood carvings. It was built for the wealthy Vergel de Dios family in Baliuag, Bulacan.
The bottom floor is typical of bahay na bato, or house made of stone on the first floor and wood on the upper main floor. Like most of the houses of the period, grand staircases lead to the spacious living room surrounded with capiz-shell windows. Vintage photos and paintings, santós (religious statues) and other 19th to early 20th century objets d'art adorn the rooms, and a four-poster bed takes up most of the bedroom space.
And like other wealthy homes of the period, it has a “secret” side door for servants (aliping saguiguilid) to come in and out of the house discreetly without getting seen by guests in the living room. Only trusted servants (aliping mamahay) were to use the main doors.
The kitchen wraps around the back, which is now a showcase of domestic implements of those days. Our guide showed us how a charcoal-less clothes iron works – skillfully balancing and straddling a plank of wood, over a rolling pin causing it to roll and press a piece of clothing underneath.
A pair of square woven baskets tied together by a string turned out to be a suitcase from the olden days called tampipi, carried clutched beneath the traveler’s armpit.
Next door, Casa Cagayan, four smaller all-wood houses sit on stilts, built in the early 1900s for the common folks of more modest means. A quaint, batis (river) inspired swimming pool is nearby for the exclusive use of hotel guests.
Casa Luna, owned by the Novicio family, now houses a museum. Built in 1850, its original location was in the town of Luna, La Union – named to honor its revolutionary heroes and brothers Antonio and Juan Luna, whose mother was a member of the Novicio clan.
Casa Biñan is a replica of the house of Teodora Alonzo, the mother of the national hero Dr. Jose Rizal. Only the wooden door, stairs and a few planks are from the original house in Biñan (the planned donation of the original house by its current owner fell through amid protests from preservationists and town locals).
Casa Hidalgo, built in 1867 in Quiapo, Manila, was designed by the first Filipino architect to practice in the Philippines, Felix Roxas y Arroyo. It was owned by Rafael Enriquez who opened his elegant home to young artists like Juan Luna and Felix Hidalgo. The mezzanine served as an art studio and this was where the University of the Philippines School of Fine Arts began with Enriquez serving as its first director.
After the school transferred to Padre Faura in Manila, the mansion went into decline becoming a dormitory, a bowling alley, a shooting location for pornographic films, and an abortion clinic at various points. Now fully restored, it is back to its auspicious beginning with an art gallery on the first level.
Casa Lubao (c. 1920) was owned by the Arastia and Vitug families of Pampanga. It was used as a Japanese garrison during World War II. The story goes that a Japanese colonel stopped his soldiers from burning down the house, in gratitude for the kindness of the Arastia family, who unwittingly hired him as a driver and gardener while he was spying for Japan before the war.
Our animated tour guide entertained us with other juicy details surrounding these historic homes. One of the bedrooms in the Biñan house served as a prison for Teodora’s sister, where her jealous husband locked her up by after he learned of her affair with a guardia civil officer while he was away traveling. She cried by the window from where she dropped a note of despair to a guardia civil below who brought it to authorities, resulting in freedom for her and jail for her husband.
Casa Unisan (c.1839), the infamous Maxino house from Quezon province, was the scene of a family massacre in which only one girl survived. The entire house is made of hardwood. It was known not only for its beauty, but also for its tragic history. The ground floor is home to the Filipino restaurant, Marivent Café.
Casa Bizantina (c.1890), the collection’s centerpiece, is a three-story intricately designed mansion from Binondo, Manila. The Instituto de Manila (now the University of Manila) rented it for elementary and high school classes until 1919. It survived World War II but not neglect; it was passed on to various tenants and taken over by informal settlers who stripped the interior of its precious ornamental details painted with real gold. It was dismantled and moved to the resort in 2009.
Paseo de Escolta, built with old and new materials, recreates commercial buildings in Manila’s most fashionable district of the early 1900s. It has 17 rooms, on the upper level above the shops on the street level.
Guests can have their pictures taken dressed in period costumes at the camera shop and browse at the souvenirs stores which are, however, quite lacking in mementos, postcards and books worthy of this unique, grand resort and heritage museum. Fortunately, we took these photos as remembrance for when we travel back to the future.
How to get to Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar:
The drive takes about three and half hours. From Quezon City, take the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX) all the way to Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTEX), go in the direction of Subic Naval Base, and exit at Dinalupihan. Turn right at the intersection to Roman Highway (this portion takes about 45 minutes) through meandering stretches, going up and down a mountain, and you should see Mt. Samat with the cross on top, which means you’re in the right direction. When you get to the Philippine-Japanese Friendship tower by the three-road intersection, make a left, and keep an eye out for small, easy-to-miss signs leading to the resort.
Omar Paz, a San Francisco Bay Area graphic designer and former art director at Filipinas Magazine, is happiest when traveling in the Philippines which never ceases to amaze him with new discoveries and places to visit.
More from Omar Paz:
June 2, 2015
Get thee to Batanes before the maddening crowd photo bombs your vacay.