This spring I found myself in Manila, perhaps an unlikely choice for a city vacation, but the obvious first stop if your ultimate goal is to loll on any of the Philippines’ 7,107 islands, as mine was. Most visitors to Manila spend a layover night at the better-known chain and luxury hotels in the Makati commercial/financial district, but I opted for the city’s grande dame, the Manila Hotel. It sits on Manila Bay across from Intramuros, the 158-acre walled settlement the Spanish built in 1571, and Rizal Park, named for José Rizal, the national hero the Spanish then executed by firing squad in 1896. Overlooking both, the hotel is testament to the end of Spanish occupation two years later, and the start of American influence in this part of the Pacific. It’s also a pretty comfy place.
Ten years after the Spanish-American War, U.S. diplomats and businessmen still needed a place to stay, so construction started on the five-story (and five-star) Mission-style Manila Hotel, which opened on July 4, 1912. Soon it became the capital’s “Address of Prestige.” From 1935 to 1941, General Douglas MacArthur lived at the hotel with his wife and son while he built the Philippine Army. Today, his quarters are known as the MacArthur Suite, and are still decorated with his military medals, family photos, original furniture, and a drawing of him smoking his corncob pipe. You can ask the concierge for a tour, or rent the suite for $2,550 per night.
MacArthur’s residency ended when Japan attacked on December 8, 1941, and parts of the hotel were destroyed. But a major refurbishment started once Ferdinand Marcos claimed power, and Imelda undertook a very visible course of public spending. This included 12 new floors, topped with a four-bedroom presidential suite with private elevator, private pool, and copious faux Louis XIV-style furniture, including a marble phone with gold-colored base and, later, a gold-colored fax machine. (This suite rents for $2,550 too, and both come with 24-hour butler service.)
On the hotel’s ground floor, just a few paces from the crystal palm trees of the Champagne Room where Imelda frequently dined, the hotel keeps an archive of photos and clippings of its illustrious guests, from sports and entertainment figures (Hemingway, Hope, Jackson, and Filipino welterweight boxing champion Manny Pacquiao) to diplomacy (Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Kissinger, and first-term congressman Manny Pacquiao, now minus the satin shorts). In 2010, rooms were renovated throughout the hotel with marble baths (starting at $180), and a new spa and fitness center was built. Additionally, an executive floor with a “MacArthur Lounge” was designed for President Benigno S. Aquino III’s inauguration to create an enclave for his family. The hotel’s now preparing for its centennial in 2012, featuring a year of special events.
With an eye toward periodic instability in the Philippines, the Manila Hotel also offers one more “amenity”: a walk-though metal detector and x-ray machine for luggage, plus a security detail “managed by retired officers with adequate experience and training on the art of intelligence and investigative actions, firearms and explosives” (as the brochure puts it). Which is to say I spent a safe and comfortable night, before continuing on to the beach. www.manila-hotel.com.ph