My Trip to the Philippines: Tremors,Tornado & Super Typhoon
Leah Walker December 5, 2013

After a thirty-hour journey, I finally arrived to the Philippines–Cebu to be more specific. Actually, Mactan, to be precise. I sat seaside on the deck of Cowrie Cove, the al fresco restaurant at the Mactan Shangri-La. Supposedly, there are sweeping views of the ocean, but the sky was pitch black on that night, thus morning would have to reveal the turquoise water of Cebu Straight. As the tide rolled in, I breathed in the salty air. It was rejuvenating after such a long journey.

Tremors

 

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Dining with Lara, the Assistant Communications Manager for the resort, was a welcomed treat on my first night. As someone who was raised on Cebu, Lara was a wealth of information. We chatted over lobster, prawns, and black pepper squid—a veritable feast and a seafood lover’s dream. The only break in the conversation came when I noticed my water glass trembling.

“Oh, that’s just an aftershock. We’ve had over 3,000 of them.”

The nonchalant tone of her voice took me by surprise. I suppose being a Filipina, Lara is used to such things. It was just two weeks prior that a magnitude-7.1 earthquake shook the nearby Bohol province. Since then, Mactan Shangri-La has been the center for relief in the Philippines, utilizing their resources in order to help those from the surrounding area in need.

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Bags of rice, bottled water, and other necessities were again being delivered by boat the next morning to their adopted communities of Daanbatayan, an area about 140 kilometers north of Cebu. This was an area in dire straits, Lara explained. Upon hearing about the efforts of Shangri-La, I was inspired. The help didn’t feel as if it was done out of obligation, instead the effort felt genuine with a sense of family and unity.

Tornado

 

My last night on Cebu, I sat in the beautiful open-air bar of the Shangri-La with a lovely glass of pinot noir. The sky was electric and a light rain fell as the thunder boomed. Coming from dry West Texas, there’s little I like more than watching a thunderstorm. By my second glass of red, the winds picked up and the rain became more intense. The Shangri-La staff scurried around closing the massive wooden shutters. There was a serious storm coming, and they knew it.

As the conditions became more intense, I thought it a good idea to return to my room, but not before taking a short video of the storm. When I turned around, a luggage cart barreled straight towards me. I avoided it only to nearly be hit by a giant vase that flew off the concierge desk. The broken pieces of glass were mine fields on the floor. Tables overturned and the wooden shutters hung onto their tracks for dear life. More vases crashed, and the floor was slick from the rain pouring in.

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Fighting the powerful winds, I had my sights on the elevator. Suddenly, a staff member pulled me into a small room next to the front desk and forced the door closed. She trembled, while I felt a rush of adrenaline.

“This is my first time,” she somehow managed to utter.

No more than 25, she bent at the waist and continued shaking. After five minutes, the roar of the wind calmed. It seemed safe enough, so I retreated to my room. From my balcony, I watched as chefs, managers, maintenance workers, front desk personnel, and every other staff member available, made sure that guests were safe, and then cleaned up the storm debris. Shutters laid across couches in the lobby. Umbrellas and chairs were strewn across the lawn and in the pools. Tree limbs were broken and foliage was scattered about.

I rose with the sun the next morning. With the exception of a few uprooted trees, there was no evidence of the storm. Breakfast was served promptly at 6:00 am, and the lobby was immaculate. It wasn’t until I was about to check out that I learned that a tornado came off of the ocean and ripped through the resort. So strong was this twister, it split a nearby house in half. Having grown up on the South Plains of Texas, that certainly wasn’t my first encounter with a tornado, but it might be the most memorable.

Cebu Ocean

What impressed me more than the cleanup effort was the precaution taken by the staff. I know that tornadoes can drop out of the sky with little warning, and the speedy effort ensuring the guests safety was unparalleled. Enough can’t be said about the unselfishness of the young lady that pulled me to safety. During a time of great turmoil and danger, she showed her true character. In the moment, I’m sure she wasn’t thinking of her duties with the Shangri-La. Instead, her actions were genuine and truly compassionate. I wish I knew her name, because I’d love to express my utmost gratitude to her.

Super Typhoon

 

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The tone for my stay on Boracay was set upon arrival to Caticlan Airport. Greeted by a Shangri-La employee, I was whisked away in a van and delivered to the exclusive welcome lounge where a private speedboat was waiting to take me to paradise. If my five-night stay were a book, I’d be hooked with this first chapter.

My description and photos can’t begin to do justice to the magical island of Boracay. It’s no wonder that this tiny island, just seven kilometers long, was named Travel + Leisure’s overall best island in 2012, and runner-up in 2013. The thirty-minute speedboat ride cruised past the famous White Beach and countless boats with their signature Boracay blue sails. As the golden sun dipped into the azure water like a cookie into milk, my senses were on full alert and my eyes darted from one picturesque vision to another.

What I’ve discovered through my extensive travels is that there are countless beautiful places in the world and many stunning properties, but what sets the Boracay Shangri-La apart is their staff. My vision of what constitutes a world-class, five-star resort was shattered the moment I stepped foot off of my Philippine Airlines flight. I could write ten thousand words describing the absolute luxury at this resort, but without the people who work there, the Shangri-La would be just another pretty place.

Boracay Sail

From the young man who stopped stacking pebbles to wish me a good afternoon to the hostess who greeted me each morning by name to Patti, the Director of Communications, who ensured my stay was perfection, I couldn’t ask for more. Every single employee, no matter their position, made it a point to say hello to all the guests. Their sincere smiles were a welcomed change from many of the stuffier places I’ve visited. I felt that they were genuinely happy that I was on Boracay.

On my third day on Boracay, messages of concerned rolled in. The largest recorded storm in history to make landfall was heading directly for the Philippines. With over three thousand islands and a coastline of over 1,000 miles, I wasn’t exactly concerned. Besides, I live in Houston and have been through a hurricane or two in my day. It never even crossed my mind to leave the island. If something was going to happen to me, well, I was already in Heaven.

Throughout that day, the winds picked up and the formerly glass-like ocean was rough. The sound of the roaring waves could be heard from my seaview suite. There was nothing but a bit of sand and some plants that separated me from the ocean. A red flag indicating the beach’s closure was stuck in the sand, and gray clouds bullied out the blue sky. Letters updating guests on the intensity and trajectory of the storm were regularly placed in rooms. Based on these updates, it appeared as if Super Typhoon Haiyan, otherwise know as Yolanda in the Philippines, had her sites on Boracay.

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The following morning, it was breakfast as usual. However, in the open lobby area the massive artwork was tethered to pillars, window glass was taped with giant Xs to help prevent shattering, sandbags sealed open areas, and tables and chairs were secured. This scene was all too familiar to me. A typhoon signal #4 had been raised by PAGASA in the Visayas region. The coast guard suspended all sea travel, and the airport canceled all flights. Shangri-La closed all outdoor activities at 11:00 am and indoor activities at 2:00 pm. Guests were encouraged to be in their room by 4:00 pm through the next morning; that’s when the strongest part of the storm was projected to roll through Boracay. Dinner, along with updates on Yolanda, would be brought to our rooms.

My GoPro was mounted onto my balcony window with an industrial suction cup. Taking a photo every 60 seconds, I wasn’t sure if it would actually sustain the winds. Around 2:00 pm, I still had full cable television, Internet, electricity, and phone. I spoke with several BBC producers and actually did a live interview just before losing phone, Internet, and some cable stations. Most of the channels that remained were in Filipino. I could only infer that the storm was strong, but had no clue exactly where it was heading. With so many islands in the Philippines, it was too difficult to understand, so from my bed, I watched the ocean get angrier by the hour.

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By 6:00 pm, the sky was black and nothing was visible. My only indication of the conditions was the roar of the waves and wind. I knew Haiyan was coming. It was just a matter of when. I felt fortunate that I was in a secure place, but as we all know, when Mother Nature if feeling wrathful, safety is just an illusion. I thought of the people I’d seen in town who live in shanties and prayed they’d found sufficient shelter. Waiting for a storm to hit is a helpless feeling even in the best circumstances, so I went to sleep, hoping that all would be ok the next morning.

I awoke around 5:30 am and looked out the window. Skies were grey, the beach was littered with a bit of debris, and white caps rose up from the still-rough water. For the most part, the Shangri-La was no worse for the wear. I threw on some clothes and walked to the beach. The red flag indicating the closed beach laid flat against the pole. Winds were nonexistent—a far cry from a few hours before. At 6:00 am, the Shangri-La staff was quickly transforming the common areas to their original state. Breakfast was served as if the storm was just a blip on the radar.

With the Internet and phones still out of service, everyone at the Shangri-La literally and figuratively was on an island. A power pole fell across the road to town and there was no safe way to cross. We had no idea how the rest of Boracay fared, much less the other islands in the Philippines. I was supposed to fly to Manila that morning, but the airport was without power and no flights could leave. There are certainly worse things that could happen other than staying an additional night at the resort.

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Without phones or Internet, the Shangri-La staff furiously worked to help guests rebook flights. What could have been a maddening situation filled with chaos was quite orderly and efficient. A satellite phone was secured and guest relations made calls to airline offices in Manila in an effort to organize new departure dates. I imagined that there were thousands of people in my same situation all over the country. And without power at the airport, there’s just not a whole lot I could do. I knew I was in good hands and wasn’t worried a bit. Thus, that day was spent at the beach.

The next morning I was packed and ready to go in the lobby by 7:15. There was a chance that I could get out on the 10:00 am flight. My bags were loaded into the speedboat, and I was taken to the airport. It was absolute madness. Surrounding businesses busily cleaned up, while would-be passengers waited in long lines with their luggage. There was no rhyme or reason and nobody really seemed to know what was going on. I handed my passport over to Jayson, my Shangri-La knight in shining armor. I was then taken back to the lounge where I waited. Filipinos and visitors poured off of boats a bit bewildered. In the distance, I watched kids playing basketball as if nothing had happened. Still, I wondered what had become of the rest of the Philippines.

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About two hours later, Jayson returned and suggested I go back to the resort for lunch. There was a slight chance that I could get out on a 2:30 flight. He would stay at the airport and send word should the opportunity arise. I agreed and made the 30-minute boat trip back to Shangri-La, where I was given another seaview suite. It wasn’t yet clear if I would be staying an additional night, but the resort wanted me to be comfortable while I was on the island. After another delicious lunch, I retreated back to my room and waited.

The phone rang, and on the other end was Franz, the Front Office Manager. There was room for me on the last flight out, but I needed to get to the lobby immediately. Like a hot knife through butter, I was on the boat headed back to the Caticlan Airport. Jayson greeted me at the van and took me directly to the Philippine Airline counter. My ticket was reissued, and before I knew it, I was sitting in Shangri-La’s airport lounge.

One would think that the Shangri-La service would end there. After all, I had a seat on a plane bound for Manila. Set to start their vacations, Jayson and another staff member, were also on my flight. Upon landing, they both made sure I retrieved my baggage and delivered me to the Philippine Airlines customer service office since I needed to reschedule my flight to Hong Kong. Not only were the two Boracay employees there to help, but also a Manila Shangri-La employee. I was absolutely floored. On multiple occasions, I pleaded with them to go on, but they refused. All three gentlemen waited outside of the airline’s office until I was rebooked.

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And just when I thought I’d experienced the best service ever, I was proven wrong. Since I was too late to make the last flight out for the evening, the gentleman from the Manila Shangri-La phoned Traders Hotel and booked me a room for the night. On top of that, the hotel’s car picked me up from the airport. Flabbergasted is an understatement.

The generosity shown from these three men was simply an exclamation point on my trip to the Philippines. Yes, I know that Shangri-La is an exceptional brand known worldwide for their luxurious accommodations, but my experience during these two weeks was more than simply fancy hotels. It wasn’t the brand that pulled me to safety during a tornado and it wasn’t the brand that stayed with me at the airport in Manila. I truly believe it’s the quality people that Shangri-La employs that is the real key to their success.

It wasn’t until I arrived in Hong Kong that I truly learned of the devastation in the Philippines, most notability, Tacloban. My heart broke for the people who lost loved ones, along with everything they owned. Flashes of Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans entered my mind as reporters spoke of rising water and the horror stories surrounding the storm. I knew I’d dogged a bullet and was even more grateful not to be in Haiyan’s direct path.

After tremors, a tornado, and a super typhoon, I’d made it to Hong Kong’s Kowloon Shangri-La in one piece. I was lucky–there are thousands of people that weren’t. I thought of every single person I’d met while visiting the Philippines, and I hoped that their loved ones were safe. It’s one thing to see a tragedy on the television, but this hit me very close to home. During my brief stay, I’d met many wonderful Filipinos, who I now call friends.

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I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone in the Philippines that I encountered during my two-week trip. From the taxi drivers to the counter ladies at Jollibee to the airport security to the shopkeepers, every single person I had interactions with made me feel welcome. In all of my travels, I’ve never experienced such a friendly group of people. Even with the immense earthquake followed by the devastating typhoon, I noticed the strength and positive outlook of the Filipinos. It was inspirational and heart warming in light of these terrible tragedies.

I would be remiss if I didn’t offer my sincerest appreciation to everyone at the Shangri-La Resorts. Lara, Mildred, and Marco in Cebu and Patti, Mellissa, Franz, Jayson, and Amit in Boracay–all have my eternal gratitude. These special people, along with their entire staffs, ensured that my husband and I, along with every other guest, were safe and well taken care of. And lastly to Gabby in New York, who’s diligence made this entire trip possible.

Note: There are affiliate links in this post, meaning I make a small commission if you make a purchase through my links. It costs you nothing more, but helps keep me stocked in French wine {and a roof over my head}.

Leah Walker

Leah’s a luxury travel and food writer who has as many stories as she does shoes. She documents her experiences whether that’s in the lap of luxury or riding through a swamp in an airboat. Leah freelances and has contributor/editor roles with The Daily Meal, The Daily Basics, Bonjour Paris, France Today, Luxe Beat Magazine, Four Seasons Magazine, Forbes Travel Guide, and is a travel ambassador for Atout France USA. Leah’s thrilled to call Paris home after being awarded the coveted three-year Compétences & Talents visa from France, though her talents don’t extend to speaking French. Yet.

35 Comments

  1. Wonderful post Leah, such a shame what happened in the Philippines. I visited Boracay about 7 years ago and fell in love with not only the beauty of the islands but the spirit of the people. Great to hear that you made it out unscathed and had such a wonderful experience with Shangri-La!

  2. Gorgeous, Leah! The photos are beautiful and your words evocative. You always transport me and I can travel vicariously through you.

  3. An amazing story, such contrasts between the luxury aspect and the danger and aftermath of the storm in other parts of the Philippines. Sometimes there is a guilt factor of a “why me” surviving unscathed which I am sure crossed your mind.
    The resorts went out of their way to help you – impressively so actually. I wonder how many resorts in the world have disaster plans. It’s a question I have never thought to ask GM’s, but I will now.
    I hope that your story gets legs and that people continue to pray for the people affected the most.
    Great photos by the way!
    Cheers,
    Priscilla

    1. There definitely was some guilt, especially after seeing the aftermath once I arrived in Hong Kong. I would imagine that most resorts have a disaster plan, though I doubt many of them would be able to execute them quite like the Shangri-La did.

  4. I hope you left a good tip for the underpaid employees of shangrila. It is one of the most expensive hotels in the Philippines yet only pays its employees around $3 an hour and routinely makes them work 12 hours a day. Staff in Boracay are currently being forced into taking unpaid leave as they have huge problems with the electricity supply and are currently using generators. I know of some employees who have been working 16 hours a day just to make ends meet.

    1. It’s quite sad that out of the over 3,000 words that I wrote, you decided to comment about something you have no first-hand knowledge of.

  5. WOW! Leah! What an experience.

    Sounds like the Shangri-La staff were incredible and that you were very lucky to be in such a secure place.

    So what ever did happen with the Go Pro? Did you manage to get footage of the storm?

    1. It was my first time staying with the Shangri-La, but you can bet it won’t be my last. Despite the weather issues, I had a great experience.

  6. Hi Leah, I’d been following your Philippine adventures on Facebook when all this was happening, I’m very glad you are safe And that you were still able to see the beauty of the places despite the natural disasters. I do hope you get to visit at a better time, imagine how much more enjoyable your time would be! I grew up in the Philippines and earthquakes are a regular occurance. I cannot count the number of times I experienced them and earthquake drills are also a regular practice in school. Agree about the Filipino hospitality – the closest place I’d ever been that had the similar warmth and openness of people would be Ireland. Two very different places, I know, but they are the same in that when you leave the country, it is the people’s touch that lingers the most.

    1. Thank you so much for following along.Your earthquake drills sound like my tornado drills. I suppose every place has it’s natural disasters. It’s funny that you compare Filipino hospitality to the Irish. I did so in an article for a media outlet. I also included the Kiwis in that group. I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s experienced this wonderful hospitality.

  7. I stayed at the Shangri-La earlier this year and there was a thunderstorm coming up, too. Not quite as strong as yours but still impressive…

    BTW, there’s a nice Moevenpick hotel down the same Mactan Island beach. It sports a fancy beach club. Otherwise I enjoyed Panglao island just South of Bohol a lot. Check out its Ananyana boutique hotel! I wrote about it here.

    1. I saw the Moevenpick, but didn’t visit. Thanks for the tip on Pangalo Island. There are so many places I want to visit in the Philippines.

  8. Leah, I have to say that while not under the same circumstances, I felt that extra level of genuineness by the people at the hotels I stayed during my visit to Manila earlier this year. How wonderful to visit a culture where people are so eager to help visitors feel welcome and have a good experience. Clearly the staff at the Shangri-La were superb in taking care of you, well above and beyond even good customer service. Thanks for sharing this story, I know it is not easy to put all the events, thoughts and feelings in words but you did it splendidly.

    1. I agree with you, Raul. It is such a wonderful thing when people go out of their way to make visitors feel welcome. I’ve only felt that way in Ireland and New Zealand. The Filipinos are right at the top. Thank you!

  9. wow, quite a triple threat during your stay… and I can recall watching your facebook posts as the events, especially the big storm, unfolded. I am glad you are safe and continue to be amazed about the Philippines and their hospitality. Also, hopefully this story gets legs and people don’t just read it but also follow-up with taking interest in helping the Philippines and the Filipinos.

    stay giving, Craig

    1. It’s my hope that more people learn about the Philippines, but not just for the current troubles. That short time I spent in the country was crazy, but at no time did I want to leave. I think that says a lot.

  10. Amazing story. The Philippines is a great country, and I enjoyed their hospitality for three weeks several years ago. My heart goes out to the people who lost loved ones and are still suffering. Amazing that the staff went way out of their way to make sure you were taken care of.

    1. I didn’t realize you had been there, Ted, though I’m not surprised. I could have stayed much longer for the beautiful country and the beautiful people. I’ll most certainly be back.

  11. giving back is important ALWAYS. in times of tragedy, it is easiest to think of doing. but i think it’s important to do in the good times too. we are so fortunate for all we have that others do not.

  12. Sounds like it was quite the adventure and good on the Shangri-La on their service. It really sounded like they went above and beyond. Reading this it really felt like I was right there with you. I can imagine me freaking out the whole time so good on you for keeping calm and going with the flow.

  13. What a story! So glad you were safe. I have heard so many wonderful things about the Philippines – including the beauty of the country and people. I hope to one day get there.

  14. loved your story and moved by your kinds words about the hospitality of the Filipinos 🙂 I’ve been to both Shangri-La’s and their service is superb — thoughts like “i’m so spoiled and i can stay here forever” run through my head, I think they would have carried me off the boat if i asked them to.

    I hope you get to visit the Philippines again sans the extreme weather disturbance — there are other nice places like Palawan, Siquijor/Dumaguete and Bohol — sadly, their old Churches are gone 🙁

  15. Go to Amanpulo ,and el nido in Palawan. Offers luxury too, and wonderful hospitality at same time. Panglao in Bohol is gorgeous as well. So many paradise islands in the Philippines…it’s so hard to choose! Philippines has such diverse and such gorgeous landscapes, beaches, and sceneries. But I would agree that the people are what makes the country more special than the rest! I’m Canadian myself and never experienced such warmth and hospitality more than I have when I visited the Philippines! So underrated, and terrible misconception about the country! What a shame!

  16. Wow, what an ordeal for some bits of that. Glad you came out unscathed! And what a stellar person that one girl is.

    Though this resort style travels is vastly different than the kinda’ travel I do, it does sound marvelous.

    And damn beautiful photos!

  17. I was following on Facebook to make sure that you were OK! Glad that nothing more serious happened to you but of course, as you acknowledge, many others weren’t so lucky.

    The staff sound great, and characteristic of the Filipino people that I’ve had the good fortune of meeting before. Truly friendly, hospitable, sincere and kind. Hopefully the areas affected by the storm will be able to get back on their feet soon and rebuild.

  18. hi Leah,

    You were hit with a vase? how did it go? i live in maribago mactan few kilometers from shangrila, we call tornado ” buhawi” and it was uprooting a tree inside shangrila… good that you are safe .. our church tent was knocked down.. and that same tornado went to parkmall … 2013 was full of weird natural calamities, there was earthquake, typhoon and tornado ..

    1. Oh, no, I wasn’t hit with a vase. It shattered right at my feet however. I did see the uprooted tree inside the Shangri-La grounds. I hope 2014 goes better for the Philippines in terms of weather. Y’all were punished in 2013. 🙁

      1. ohh sorry about the vase but i hope your feet is okay… yup i really hope 2014 will be fine and clear skies..

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