Escape to the islands: From New York to Boracay

Designer Elena Fernandez gave up life as a jetsetting designer 18 years ago in favor of an idyllic island life in Boracay, with a knock-out address on top of a hill

by Ces Rodriguez. Photos by Daniel Soriano

The good life: Elena Fernandez relaxes on her veranda overlooking the infinity pool

It was a clear day when I first met Elena Fernandez* in one of the guest rooms she designed for Punta Rosa resort in Boracay. There was a knock at the door and I opened it to this petite, brown-skinned woman with long straight hair, in a white t-shirt, denim mini skirt, black slippers, and backpack, an altogether chic and laidback look. She’s slim, something she attributes to the long trek up the steps to her hilltop house in Bulabog. Perhaps. But it just might be down to good genes.

We sat at the verandah where there is a view of the breathtaking White Beach. This is Fernandez’s first interview and she is a reluctant participant. Nevertheless, she is warm and friendly.

Fernandez and her family left their native Puerto Rico when Fernandez was 10 to move to New York. She did not speak a word of English, but like most kids quickly adapted. She went on to study Fashion Design at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) in New York, which eventually landed her a job as a designer for a firm that made clothes for big name brands like Victoria’s Secret, Christian Dior and Next. Work also required that she travel all over Asia to speak to buyers and look after the different manufacturing plants. As quotas continued to increase, the company set up shop in the Philippines, a place she found easy to relate to. The culture and lifestyle was similar to the South Americas. “This is the only Asian-Latino country that I could relate to,” she said. She did not need any interpreter in dealing with business as everyone spoke English. As she hopped  from one Asian country to another, Manila became her base from 1977 and as a respite from her demanding and stressful job, she would spend weekends touring around the different island in the Philippines, traveling on a small plane owned by a friend.

The famous Boracay sunset, as seen from Fernandez's home

She recalled that they once landed in Caticlan and took a tiny pump boat that she said was “as big as my hips” to get to this beautiful island with a white sand beach. She didn’t know the name of the island. After two years, she was back, a trip that was totally unplanned.

Her friends said they were taking her to this beautiful island of Boracay and she went along, only realizing on arrival that this was the same island she found so enchanting. Her trip with friends to Boracay became more frequent, traveling on board the now defunct airline they called “Pacific Scare”.

“You didn’t know if you would land safely and there was no airstrip so you land on the grass,” she said. On the island, Fernandez and her friends would play their stereo music, powered by car batteries. “There was no electricity, no resorts or restaurants, just cottages; and we would look for fishermen to buy fish from and we would have grilled lapu-lapu (grouper). We also pumped water from the well and drank from there; it was the most spectacular place to be” she fondly recalls.

Eighteen years ago, when the Philippines became too expensive a manufacturing base and her company moved to India, Fernandez decided to stay. She was first based in Manila running a boutique hotel business, Bianca's Garden Hotel in Malate, which she moved to Boracay in 2012. Then she finally moved to Boracay where she set up True Food, an Indian restaurant, and True Home, a boutique resort designed in a Spanish colonial style. She eventually sold off both businesses, going off to build a bar called Luna Negra which she sold off again. People on the island would call her to ask for help in setting up their own shop and other businesses and she was always there to help. “I’m the Boracay yellow pages,” she says.

Life these days is managing the Punta Rosa Resort in Station 1, which she also designed and helped build for a good friend.

In the afternoon she welcomed us to her house, a steep haven she built “plank by plank” for a year and half. She had earlier warned us that we would be trekking to reach her house and go up “many stairs,” 126 steps to be exact. Sure enough we were all panting by the time we reached her door and Fernandez was ready with glasses of water.

Fernandez’s living room has a breathtaking view of Bulabog Beach and an infinity pool. It’s a serene house designed with furniture and accessories from all over Asia, like the intricate dining table from India, the doors from Thailand and Indonesia, the cabinet from Pampanga, the three-way life sized mirror made in Manila that Imelda Marcos rejected. All these had to be lugged all the way up to the house.

The only personal things from Puerto Rico were a small hand-carved shell of a fruit, which she leaves hanging in one of her bathrooms, and the voodoo doll that her grandmother had made for her. “Well, actually it’s not a voodoo doll. It’s a doll to protect me from bad spirits wherever I go,” she hastens to add.

Her home is uncluttered and as we moved from one room to the another, the breeze followed us, blowing in from the sea through to the big open doors and windows. As we stood in the living room looking at the view of Bulabog Beach and passing a sailboat, Fernandez said: “I wake up to the beauty of Boracay every day. This is my million dollar view. And when it gets crazy down there I stay right here.”

*Name changed to respect the interviewee's request for privacy

Originally published in InFlight Traveller December 2010 to January 2011. Updated November 2015