A certain mountaintop in the Visayas might still be a patch of wild terrain today if Michel Lhuillier had followed a divergent career path in his youth. “He wanted to become a farmer when he graduated from De La Salle (University),” revealed his wife, Dr. Amparito Llamas Lhuillier, the light-heartedness evident in her voice as she shared the fond memory. Instead, his dream of a pastoral life was deferred for a few decades while he pursued a more lucrative trajectory in jewelry and finance. Now, after raising their family and building a business empire together, the indefatigable couple is enjoying that long-awaited bucolic lifestyle in the hills high above Cebu.
It took nearly a decade of planning and building, but Michel and Amparito eventually transformed nearly a hectare of steep, mountainous environ into a surprisingly intimate residence by distilling their shared love of nature into three unique gardens that surround the family home.
“It took two years just to fill in the slope and build up a level area for the house,” explained Amparito. That stunning structure, designed by the eminent architect Filoteo Jacinto and decorated by noted interior designer Conrad Onglao, features an expansive, airy lanai that blurs the boundary between indoor and outdoor spaces. With a stunning panoramic view of Cebu and Mactan islands beyond, the home’s interior flows out to a lush greenspace that is as welcoming and elegantly sublime as its namesake.
Amparito’s Garden was the culmination of her close collaboration with Cebuano landscape artist Jaime Chua and is a verdant reflection of the lady of the house. Her longtime support of
native Filipino resources, for instance, found an organic interpretation in turf. “This is carabao grass, a common grass,” she said of the thick expanse of lawn. “You will never see bald patches because we take care to fertilize it well.”
When the garden serves as a gathering place for friends, the natural carpet is soft underfoot as guests mingle among the rest of the fanciful foliage.
Neatly rounded topiaries of Fukian Tea provide a subtle foreground to the magnificent mountain views while stately Phoenix Silvestris palms, their trunks bristling with previous growth, stand sentinel around the house. Exotically named plants conjure equally exotic environments, like the Fish Tail ferns that would look right at home swaying beneath ocean waves, or the potted Xanadu philodendron and its ruffled fronds, whose mysterious origins were recently traced by botanists to distant Brazil. Even rarer South American specimens are the Peruvian ferns that grace the Lhuilliers’ lanai. “I have never seen them in any garden I’ve been to and now we’ve propagated them from the first three pots my husband bought,” divulged Amparito.
Just as her space reflects her sociable spirit, so does her husband’s oasis echo his introspective nature. Fond of solitary hikes in the mountain, Michel worked closely with Jacko Zialcita, who is responsible for the greenspace in Makati’s Rockwell Center, to preserve the original sloping terrain with terraces, waterfalls, and paved walkways lined with dainty Vanda orchids that invite carefree meanderings. “It is a place where you can forget all your problems,” Amparito described, adding that she always knows to look for him there. “Every day when he comes home, he goes down with a flashlight or he’ll take naps. It is his treasure.”
Michel’s Garden has a vein of wildness threading through its meditative aura. Canopies of branches filter the sunlight while giant ferns reach out to brush against passers-by. Plants harbor tiny insects and sometimes larger denizens: much to the Lhuilliers’ surprise and the consternation of their gardeners, the aptly named Staghorn ferns apparently found favor as a habitat for local snakes. Amparito accepts it with a Gallic aplomb surely learned from her husband. “Maybe they like our garden. After all, we must share the mountain.”
In hopes that their children might spend more time in Cebu, the couple constructed two smaller abodes within Michel’s Garden with the help of architect Celine Borja. The contemporary houses feature the clean modern lines favored by Michel and are executed in natural wood and stone materials that honor their organic surroundings. Floor-to-ceiling walls of special storm windows from Kenneth and Mock Designs, Inc. withstand mountain gusts and provide some of the most spectacular views in the whole property.
They lent their names to sanctuaries meant to be shared with loved ones, but Michel and Amparito have one more special place—a secluded spot they call simply the Oriental Garden. “We are always inspired by nature. In the morning, we open our shutters and from our bedroom we look out over this beautiful place,” she said of their private back garden where slender reeds of Golden Buho, Horse Tails, Thai and pole bamboo stand amid graceful stone statuary and large shallow vessels of bromeliads.
The Lhuilliers are lauded as incomparable hosts and prominent figures of society, but they also consider themselves to be grounded and approachable folk. “Michel is more the quiet type, but I love to talk to people of all walks of life,” Amparito declared candidly.
Nevertheless, it is clear that they prefer each other’s company above all others. Married for more than 40 years and still as affectionate as the college sweethearts they once were, Michel and Amparito cherish the life and home that they have built.
Her pride in the beauty they’ve created is clearly conveyed. “We got the right people (to help us) plan well to create a work of art,” she affirmed, but made it clear that these sanctuaries bear more than just their names. “Our touch is in everything. We did what we wanted, not what others wanted.”
“On Sundays, we will sit in Michel’s Garden and have drinks and canapés,” Amparito continued to confide. “Every night, we walk around the gardens for an hour and see the sky, the lights of the city.”
“We are not enclosed by walls and we never feel tired. We live in nature and what God has given us is in front of us every day.”
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