, JANUARY 11, 2007 (STAR) RENDEZVOUs By Christine S. Dayrit - (Your diamonds are not in far distant mountains or in yonder seas: they are in your own backyard, if you dig for them," declares writer Russell H. Conwell.)

It is the beginning of the year and priceless moments beckon. The temperature outside rises and even the fog in the highest mountain peaks slowly begins to disappear, unveiling the breathtaking view it temporarily covered. As with many things in life, just because you cannot view it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. All of nature will be at peace if we will it to be. This is the time to challenge your spirits, to explore the uncharted paths and discover the gems that sparkle from within. Be a swashbuckling buccaneer or a pastoral poet. Whatever journey you take, trek the road less traveled and savor the difference.

I recently visited a refreshing weekend enclave in Lipa City, Batangas, owned by Charley Leviste-Antonio, a dear friend and grade-school classmate at Assumption. Fondly called Charley’s Bed & Breakfast, it is located within the Levely Manor Estate. Like a pearl of great price, it is an impressive property accessed by a mahogany tree-lined driveway covered with pebbles and reminiscent of grand country estates in the South of France. For a while, I felt transported to the exquisite countryside of Provence where lavender stalks gloriously sway to the gentle breeze wafting their sweet fragrance, where chamomile tea is gently poured into delicate china cups and gourmet vegetable gardens in pretty greenhouses are complementary creative pastimes.

Levely Manor, designed by architect Dan Lichauco, offers guests a distinct experience – that of European-inspired farm estate living. Here, guests will feel as if they were invited by one of the family members to join them for a weekend in a warm and elegant atmosphere. Upon arrival at the Main House, guests are treated to a delightful cocktail of red wine and Charley’s very own rosemary-roasted cashew nuts prior to an introduction to the Manor’s facilities, presided by the innkeeper and host – Charley herself.

The 1,200-square-meter Main House with a distinct European-inspired architectural style is composed of a grand foyer, a large living room with a two-story-high ceiling; a dining room called "Charley’s," which is actually the Manor’s restaurant; a large kitchen that caters to all guest meal requirements; and four en suite rooms.

The Manor’s luxurious accommodation facilities, fitted by interior designer Anton Baretto, features comfortable furnishings with rich fabric in subtle earth colors and is complemented by expansive views of the estate seen through large glass windows. The Honeymoon Suite, with its own private balcony, is ideally romantic with a four-poster queen-sized bed; the Family Suite with two twin beds; and the Executive Suite with a queen-sized bed. All suites come with an attached private toilet and bath featuring toiletries from world-renowned L’Occitane.

Adjacent to the Main House is a two-story library. A haven for bibliophiles, it contains volumes of old history books that make for interesting reading.

The Manor’s backdrop is a spectacular ranch or – better yet – a "horse hotel and spa," as Charley puts it. Thoroughbreds grazing on green grass add to the rustic experience. The ranch also doubles as a training ground for Charley’s younger sister, Olympic equestrienne Toni Leviste, who also runs the European-inspired stable – the only one of its kind in the Philippines.

After an interesting peek into the Manor’s superb and luxurious facilities (which will become available early this year), we were ushered into Charley’s, the intimate main dining area (and restaurant), for a delightful meal.

Charley’s is a newly opened restaurant in Levely Manor where guests experience a unique brand of culinary delight – of dining in a luxury family estate – either inside the home’s air-conditioned dining area, on the trellised terrace, or al fresco in a nearby gazebo by the greenhouse. All venues offer expansive refreshing views of the estate. To complete the dining experience, guests are served by gentle female helpers and not waiters. Dishes are served family-style in a casual ambience where requests for second helpings will always be accommodated.

Set lunch or dinner menus are changed on a weekly basis and consist of a complete five-course meal inclusive of hot and cold beverages such as Batangas’ own kapeng barako, mint or tarragon tea, lemon grass iced tea, and pandan iced tea. All dishes are meticulously prepared by Charley’s executive chef Popit De Leon, a graduate of Les Roches, Switzerland.

The menu leans toward decidedly French tastes with influences from other cuisine like American, Italian and Thai, blending to create a truly unique cuisine. Apart from using only the best and freshest ingredients Batangas has to offer, the hallmark of Charley’s cuisine is the on-site greenhouse where fresh herbs like oregano, tarragon, rosemary, mint, basil, chives, dill and coriander are hand-picked to flavor most dishes. The marriage of these two abundant pleasures is the highlight of Charley’s cuisine.

After a restful evening in one of Charley’s comfortable and luxurious suites, you wake up to yet another sumptuous treat – breakfast of a different kind: scrambled eggs with oregano, Chef Popit’s homemade ham and sausages, local pandesal accompanied with kesong puti, suman and bibingka, and chocolate eh.

For those who want to bring home a taste of Charley’s, fresh and dried herbs, bottled dressings and oils, and even Charley’s homemade herbed olive oil kesong puti are also available for sale.

Lipa City is quite unique in terms of its location. It is situated in the center of the country from the northern province of Batanes to the southern tip of Sulu and from the eastern periphery of Surigao province to the western international boundary of Palawan. The city is in the center of Region 4, right in the heart of Batangas province.

While in Lipa City, the Levely Manor can be a wonderful base for other activities. One may visit the San Sebastian Cathedral, which is reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel with its entire ceiling covered with religious murals.

Lipa also has a famous garden known as Anihan Botanical Garden. Located in Barangay Bulacnin, one can visit this place to enjoy the cool air of the Batangas countryside and its greenery. The late Belen Ocampo filled two hectares of her nine-hectare property with indigenous as well as imported exotic plants, creating the quintessential showcase and living classroom for plant specialists and laymen alike. Each area carries a specific theme, from herbs to perfumed plants, cacti, roses, bamboo, poisonous trees creepers, bonsais, orchids and others.

Test your skills and play a round of golf at the Malarayat Golf and Country Club or Summit Point. Both clubs offer world-class facilities in an all-year cool weather and exhilarating views of the cloud-tipped Malarayat Mountain Range, with the sound of bamboo trees whistling and the rising and falling calls of birds.

Finally, one may also indulge the senses and seek wellness and healing at The Farm at San Benito. Also known as Hippocrates Health Resort of Asia outside the Philippines, The Farm is one of the few truly medical spas or alternative medical health resorts in the world. It aims to reinstall harmony, balance and improved lifestyle through rejuvenation and relaxation into a person’s life.

The world we live in is waiting to be explored and rediscovered. We often say we simply don’t have the luxury of time to relax, enjoy and unwind. The truth is, the time to relax is when you don’t have time. Remember, you only live once; but if you do it right, once is more than enough.

* * *

Charley’s Bed & Breakfast, located along Gov. F. Leviste Highway in Lipa City, Batangas, is open on weekends only. All visits must be strictly prearranged. For details and reservations, call Charley Leviste-Antonio at 0920-9507032.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved