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Earlier this year, my boyfriend and I traveled to Bohol, one of the Philippines’ 7,000+ islands and a common tourist destination because of the famous Chocolate Hills.

I booked our accommodations through Airbnb, as I frequently do on travels throughout Asia, after reading a handful of positive reviews on the site. Suffice it to say I didn’t do much research. Upon arrival, I was absolutely blown away by the home I had booked.

What I saw when I walked through the front door of my Airbnb.

La Casita de Baclayon is an eco bed and breakfast started by a mother-daughter team originally from New Zealand.

Sally Pedersen, the mother in question, spent over 30 years working in Asia and the Pacific as a governance and capacity-building specialist. She worked for the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in Manila for over a decade before moving to Bohol in semi-retirement.

Her daughter, Emily Pedersen, left for university around the same time her mom moved to Manila. She studied tourism and physical education during her undergrad in New Zealand, then got a master’s degree in Edinburgh in environment and development, with a focus on sustainable tourism and a thesis on community-based tourism in the Philippines, before moving to Bohol herself.

Emily moved to Bohol first, to volunteer for a small NGO that was organizing ecotourism activities around the town of Baclayon.

“When the NGO wound up its program in the town at the end of 2010,” Emily explains, “I identified that there was still a lot more work to be done and more support needed for the local government unit (LGU) without the NGO running the town’s tourism program.” She volunteered her time as Baclayon’s tourism officer for three years, doing work like building a marketing presence and a five-year master tourism plan for the area.

“As I was already based in Baclayon, and Mum was nearing retirement from the ADB but not yet ready to return to NZ, we established a nonprofit non-stock corporation supporting the development of livelihood programs for the people of Bohol, and particularly of Baclayon,” Emily goes on. “We began to work on our dream of running a eco-friendly accommodation establishment from which we could also work on livelihood development projects that we were both interested in doing.”

“Having participated in projects at government level, and becoming very aware of the difficulties in achieving successful outcomes in such projects, my goals upon retirement were to help impoverished communities in the Philippines grow sustainable livelihood programs by working at the grassroots level,” Sally adds. “And to showcase the Philippines, and especially Bohol, to the whole world.”

Sally and Emily in the beautiful home they’ve built.

They’ve built the perfect showcase at La Casita de Baclayon.

Their home is the most beautiful I’ve ever visited.

Because you don’t have the context to understand what that superlative means to me, let this contextualize it: I consider myself lucky to have been in some pretty cool homes in my 29 years, including one on a stunning hillside with an infinity pool that looked like it emptied down into California’s Napa Valley, Jefferson’s Monticello, and the cool houses that my friend’s dad and uncle built by hand in both Jamestown and Beaver Island, Michigan.

I was even invited to stay overnight in the incredible guest house at the custom-designed home of chef Duc Tran, a famous restaurateur in Hoi An, whose open home was featured in The New York Times. The gorgeous living space centers around the kitchen, is filled with warm locals woods and the art of Duc’s three young girls, and is across the street from some of the village’s iconic rice fields. (That might be the second coolest house I’ve ever been in.) Also, I don’t often use superlatives.

Perhaps one of the reasons I loved my stay at La Casita de Baclayon so much was because I celebrated my birthday there. Sally and Emily made me feel like a niece and cousin that just happens to live far away rather than a complete stranger.

One morning, Sally drove my boyfriend and me to the Baclayon port before the sun rose to get on a boat she had sorted for us the night before. We were heading to the dolphin feeding grounds just off the shore of nearby Pamilacan Island, the home of Ricky, our private boatman for the day.

After about 45 minutes, Ricky idled the boat, and it didn’t take long for him to point out the first group of dolphins headed our way. We saw around 50 dolphins jumping out of the water that morning, some swimming right up next to our boat and others further away, silhouettes the shape dolphin jewelry always takes, with the sun rising behind them.

Ricky laughed and laughed at our gasps and our joy. He said we had to tell Mum Sally about our success once we got back.

We spent the day on the island, where we met an American man from Utah who helped build the island’s first secondary school and otherwise spent our time playing cards and drinking from coconuts knocked off of a nearby tree.

When we got back to La Casita de Baclayon that evening, we put a dinner order into Emily and headed back to our room to get cleaned up for the meal.

The Orchid suite, where we stayed. Not pictured: The lovely in/outdoor bathroom.

When we came out to the large table in the open lounge area, Sally surprised me with an ube cake and a bottle of wine, as well as some Tamsi jewelry that my mom had thoughtfully ordered ahead of time.

The ube cake that I enjoyed for my birthday. This is how much was left after we were done. We had to save room for Emily’s delicious dinner. Sally assured us their helpers would enjoy the leftovers.

One of the Tamsi pieces I was gifted for my birthday.

From Sally and Emily, I got a set of coasters and a card that was hand-painted with pastels.

Raffia dyed with mahogany bark and has been made into coasters. Photo credit: Charisse Aya-ay.

I may have gotten teary-eyed a few times on my 29th birthday. And this may have been because we’d only booked La Casita de Baclayon for three nights, and we had to leave the next day.

In addition to the magical experiences I had at La Casita de Baclayon, the home itself is so incredible that it’s worth describing in every exquisite detail.

For one thing, it’s designed to suit the environment. The home is meant for the property and the property is meant for the home. It’s a reinterpreted Filipino Bahay Kubo, which some have called “the original sustainable house.”

According to the National Association of Home Builders’s 2015 report Green and Healthier Homes, almost one-third of home builders (31%) report that they are currently doing more than 60% of their projects green, and more than half (51%) anticipate doing that level of green work by 2020.

Regardless of trends in sustainable housing around the world, I’m a big advocate of functional in/outdoor living and a smart layout that renders air conditioning unnecessary, even in a tropical setting. The home’s open layout and few walls mean that the sea winds aren’t blocked and the space is naturally ventilated.

The cogon (grass thatch) roof at La Casita de Baclayon keeps the open lounge area shaded and provides both insulation and allows for dissipation of heat. The large vents let warm air out and keep cool air in. As the saying goes, “hot air always rises.”

Large indoor ponds with circulating water actually help keep the home cool, as well, because of the water that evaporates in the process. I thought the ponds were just there for the lovely soundtrack.

Impressively, the house was constructed almost entirely by hand, by at times nearly 100 workers. It was completed at the end of 2013, after both the Bohol Earthquake, and then Typhoon Haiyan (known as Super Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines) only a few weeks later, left Bohol without electricity for months. Sally and Emily were closely involved throughout the process.

Not only is the home sustainable, but the furnishings and décor also pay beautiful, thoughtful homage to Filipino arts and culture.

Paintings by Filipino artist Felix Teologo Tiglao – “Indio Mother and Daughter on the Way to Church,” “Fisherman’s Wife,” and “Indio Woman of Pasig.” “Indio” means native Filipinos, i.e. without Spanish blood.

From Emily: “Our take on a Filipino ‘shrine’ of antique Santos or venerated Roman Catholic saints. Catholicism is very important in the Philippines, but is mixed with a large degree of paganism that has endured from before the Philippines was conquered and converted to Roman Catholicism by the Spanish. Almost every home will have a shrine and a crucifix in the living room of the house, usually of Santo Niño, a very important saint for Filipinos, who is venerated as miraculous. Of the saints in our shrine from left to right – Santo Niño, the wall hanging is of Saint Vicente Ferrer (patron saint of builders and reconciliation), the tall figure in the corner is Immaculate Conception (whom Filipinos pray through to reach God), Saint Vicente Ferrer again, and the small colorful santos is again Immaculate Conception.”

From Emily: “A large, child-size antique “bastidor,” a religious mannequin that would have been in a church which they would have decorated in elaborate clothing and accessories.”

A touch of color.

Sally and Emily can tell you more about their art and furniture if you stay at their home. They are extraordinarily knowledgeable about the pieces they’ve surrounded themselves with. The art alone at La Casita de Baclayon is crying out to be compiled in a coffee table book.

“We were inspired a lot for our interior design from our travels throughout Asia, our joint love of Mexican and Spanish design, as well as all of the furniture, art, antiques and textiles that had been accumulated from living in the Philippines,” says Emily. “We wanted to acknowledge the colorful history and culture of the Philippines as a former Spanish colony, while also showcasing its own unique identity and culture as an Asian nation.”

Every detail at La Casita de Baclayon has been considered, down to the pillows on the chairs and breakfast served under the courtyard’s mango tree.

Photo credit: Orlando Ducay.

Yes, even the breakfast is gorgeous. Emily cooks the guests’ meals using locally-sourced produce and homemade preserves. The food is delicious, but if guests can’t finish their meal, the scraps are composted.

Emily’s other project is Tamsi jewelry, a nonprofit organization that employs local women in their creation of beautiful, authentically Filipino jewelry.

Emily sports some Tamsi jewelry. Photo credit: Charisse Aya-ay.

“Tamsi is our brand from which we market products that we have developed to help fund El Casa Familia’s projects,” explains Emily. “Tamsi is the local name for a small yellow sunbird, similar to a hummingbird, which are common in our garden when the trees are in flower.”

“We try to apply the same ethos of sustainability of La Casita in Tamsi; development of natural dyes for raffia from plants we have in the garden over chemical dyes, use of wood in jewellery pendants from trees that have fallen over naturally, and eco-friendly packaging doing away with any use of plastic,” she says. “I have always enjoyed art and design and being creative, and working on Tamsi and dreaming up new designs and products is quite cathartic for me.”

A Tamsi necklace gift-wrapped. Photo credit: Charisse Aya-ay.

Sally has been working on some raffia projects, as well, using natural dyes.

Raffia dyed with “sibukaw” wood. Photo credit: Charisse Aya-ay.

Rolls of woven raffia that we have dyed with mahogany (brown) and turmeric (yellow).

The bed and breakfast is also home to nine dogs and about the same number of cats, many of them rescued, and all of them seemingly very happy to have La Casita de Baclayon as their home.

Sally and Emily employ local staff to work on their gardens and work with local drivers and boatmen to do things like take you to and from the airport or on a boat trip to nearby Pamilacan Island.

Ricky, our boat driver to Pamilican Island, the woman who ran the restaurant where we spent much of the day while on the island, and our driver to and from the airport all spoke highly of Sally (often referring to her as “Mum Sally”) and what she’s doing to promote tourism in the area.

A birthday party Sally and Emily held at their house for the 1st birthday of their helper Tata’s child. Photo credit: Charisse Aya-ay.

Sally and Emily are interesting, passionate, kind women who are doing important, inspiring work in the small community of Baclayon.

They are the epitome of the Wanderful spirit: community-oriented, empowering, embracing, authentic, respectful, and more.

Their work is inspiring for others looking to do something similar, and their home is the type of place in which any Wanderful woman would dream of staying. If you do seek them out, be sure to plan a stay longer than I did!

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Sarah Aldrich

Author Sarah Aldrich

Writer, editor, marketer, PR professional, and literacy advocate with international awareness. An open-minded word person in pursuit of learning and new experiences. I quit a job I enjoyed at Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and left my family, friends, and beloved dog to join my boyfriend in moving across the world, in search of adventure and new experiences. I arrived in Da Nang in August 2015.

More posts by Sarah Aldrich

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