Words by Ivery del Campo
Steve and Lilyan, the couple who own and operate MAHAL, a 42-ft. Fountaine Pajot Cruising Catamaran, insist that simply talking about MAHAL won’t do justice to the experience of sailing with it. You have to be on board to know for yourself what’s unsayable about it, what prompts converts and devotees to exclaim, “Why haven’t I tried this before?”
You have to be on board, away from it all (yes—away from the milky white sand beach), with the wind blowing across your face as you see the island recede in view on the horizon. Don’t worry, you’ll return to the beach you came all the way to Boracay for, but only after the more transcendent experience of being pulled away to see the metaphoric forest that you’ve missed for the trees.
Steve and Lilyan say nothing pre-emptive about the MAHAL experience as we carefully navigate the rocky, shallow waters of Bolabog in a dinghy (rubber power boat) on our way to the catamaran, sitting pretty away from the reef and the beach. After taking my husband Don and I on a quick tour of MAHAL’s stylish interiors, confident that the experience will grandly introduce itself, Lilyan takes us to the deck then leaves us there for a while as she, Steve, and the crew pull up the sails for a magnificent sunset cruise.
We are in Bolabog because it’s the habagat season, when strong winds blow from the west in Boracay. All water sports and activities that would otherwise be in the western White Beach are moved to the eastern Bolabog Beach, whose waters are friendlier this time of the year. It rained all day, the sky is overcast, there is no promise of a red sunset, but Steve happily remarks that with the wind, it’s the perfect sailing weather. It’s going to be all good.
As though the cosmos conspired to have Don and I converted to the cruising lifestyle, the rains stop. There is still no sunset, perhaps to drive the point that it’s not just these external things, however beautiful they are, that instill precious rest in those who come to MAHAL.
Alone in the deck, Don and I feel the wind in a way we’ve never felt it before. It’s as though the wind is carrying away all our troubles, deeply relaxing us. We start laughing and say, “life is good!” There is still the threat of rain, the surroundings are gray and gloomy, but we’re in high spirits. We hear Bob Marley’s music, and here comes Lilyan with a coleman loaded with ice-cold drinks. “We make sure that our guests are well hydrated!” she chirps as she sits with us for a chat that turns out to be more refreshing than the drinks.
What It’s Like to Go on a Cruise
MAHAL is a luxury sailing experience provider in Boracay, and it operates all year round since it started in February 2010. Before that, Lilyan and Steve live hectic but very successful lives as power players in the Shanghai PR and high-tech field. But one weekend vacation in Boracay made them fall in love with the island—the beach, the marine life, its wonderful people—and they knew right away that they would like to move in to start a new life. As Steve and Lilyan put it in the MAHAL website, “Life is an adventure and you never know what is going to happen, when, where, and why.”
So the couple bought MAHAL, sailed away from it all, and started living in paradise. They put up the luxury sailing business D’Boracay Sailing Experience (DBSE), and made it their mission to share a cruising lifestyle with guests who go on their dream vacation in Boracay. Both ASA (American Sailing Association) certified sailors, Steve and Lilyan can take you aboard MAHAL from onshore to surrounding seas, even to the open seas like a trip to Palawan, Subic, or any of the 7,107 islands of the Philippines.
Lilyan, however, as the one who mainly runs the sailing business, didn’t leave behind the traits that made her such a successful PR and Marcom in Shanghai, except that now she has learned to balance them with a cruising lifestyle. “I’m very picky and my standards are very high,” shares Lilyan. “Back in Shanghai, my clients like to work with me because I’m very professional, I write the best press releases, I deal with top media, I love my work, I’m rigorous and I never settle for less. But living in Boracay has taught me to take it easy, to enjoy the precious things in life. Do you like going to spa?”
Lilyan continues, “When you’re too focused on your work, no matter how enjoyable it may be at first, it will sap your energy and make you less efficient eventually. At some point you may need to stop for just a while, to reconnect with yourself, to step away and reassess things from a distance. You’ll be surprised at how much clearer your mind will be, and you’ll go back to work with renewed energy and perspective.
“That’s what going to spa does. And it’s a lot like what going on a sailing trip does, too.” Lilyan says this as we look at Boracay and the neighboring islands on the horizon. There is no noise and clutter, and you’re not too far away from the world that matters to you. You’re still looking at it, but from a place that clarifies your mind, body, and spirit.
“I’ve tried different spas in Boracay, I totally enjoyed it and I can’t stop talking about it to my friends! You see, when you satisfy a person with excellent service, that person will spread the word for you. The same goes for MAHAL. We don’t go around vigorously campaigning for it. I just give my guests what in my standards is the best sailing experience possible. Steve and I make sure that MAHAL is cozy, fun, and intimate; as for the food, I have to be fond of the food myself or I’ll change the caterer. I take my guests to places in these islands that please me the most, like a cove in Carabao Island this season where the water is so fascinating, it has so many shades of blue and green.”
So Steve and Lilyan just “cruise” around, and through word of mouth—without trying very hard—word got around that “sailing in style” aboard MAHAL is one of the best things that one can do in Boracay.
What MAHAL Means
Mahal is Filipino word for love, and it’s so fitting that a couple on a strong relationship is what animates the catamaran. Incidentally, a catamaran is a two-hulled structure, which makes it stable for sailing on the waves. This also makes it easy to walk on the deck without losing your balance when the boat is in motion.
It can be said that the two hulls of MAHAL are Steve and Lilyan who, despite cultural differences (Steve is American, Lilyan is Chinese), have learned to live harmoniously like yin and yang. Yes, they occasionally bicker like normal couples do, but their devotion to each other is apparent in an understated way.
“You were both successful when you left Shanghai. Is it just the beauty of Boracay that made you leave it all behind and move in here?” I ask.
Lilyan answers, “It was my husband’s dream and I just helped fulfill it. But now, I’ve come to love it!”
Steve and Don come in and they are just talking about how Lilyan was so bubbly the night before celebrating her birthday, and how she danced like there was no tomorrow. “When that happens,” Steve says, “I have to stay sober so I can watch over and take care of her. She loves dancing.”
“Lilyan,” Steve calls to his wife. “Don here just asked me a question, and it didn’t take long for me to answer it.”
“What is it?” Lilyan asks.
Don asks, “For you, what is the best place in Boracay?”
“Uh, it depends,” Lilyan muses, “if you want to talk about the best place to eat, for example—“
Steve interrupts. “It didn’t take me that long to give an answer!”
“So what was your answer?”
“Home!” Steve exclaims. Of course, the home he shares with Lilyan in a paradise under the sun.
There’s More to Boracay Than Just Island Beauty
It’s getting dark, and MAHAL starts turning to the direction of Steve and Lilyan’s “home” on the shore.
“You mentioned that the choice then was between moving to Boracay or Hawaii. What made you choose Boracay?” I ask.
“I remember the first time I set foot in the US. Right off the airplane, I had the sudden feeling of freedom. Freedom is the essence of America. For Boracay, the essence is different. Boracay is still, after all, an Asian destination,” continues Lilyan. “I say it’s Asian because of the intimacy. Intimacy with nature, intimacy with people, the community. I’d rather not use the word ‘hospitality.’ What we feel with the locals here is a sense of warmth and belonging.”
Clearly, love and intimacy are important components of a cruising lifestyle. Lilyan can “cruise” along in dancing revelry because Steve is just around to support and protect her. Guests aboard MAHAL exchange energies and revitalize one another when they party, talk, and enjoy each other’s company. Steve and Lilyan treat their crew with respect, and they are rewarded with friendship, trust, and professionalism.
“Mahal” not only means love; in the Filipino language, “mahal” also means expensive. “But it also means dear or important,” Lilyan says, “or valuable or priceless. To some, a MAHAL cruise may seem expensive, but after the experience you’ll realize how everything is totally worth it.” I say, the experience is definitely more than what you pay for.
“When guests come on board, I do what I can to give them the best experience ever without being too conscious of the cost. Yes we’re doing business, but it’s not always about the money. I believe that when you sincerely want your guests to enjoy, and they did, they share the joy to others and then you will always have guests.” Lilyan adds that she derives pleasure from interaction with guests, and that pleasure, too, is priceless.
The Real Meaning of a Cruising Lifestyle
Steve and Lilyan can impart so much because they live and breathe the cruising lifestyle. They have a taste for the finer pleasures of life. Whenever guests come on board for a family reunion, a business function, a big bash for a party, a wedding anniversary, a romantic proposal, or just an intimate date, they make sure that guests enjoy every minute on board for an ultimate leisure vacation at Boracay. Aside from great food, great company, and great service, what Steve and Lilyan impart is a vision of life as yin and yang—a holistic approach of balance, love, and intimacy.