By CJ Juntereal
There’s a tendency to get lost, deliberately or otherwise, when one walks the winding paths of the Donatela Hotel in Panglao Island, Bohol. The more prosaic explanation is that the directional signs are as minimal as my sense of direction. But I prefer to say that it’s because I like the sense of adventure.
The resort’s owners designed the rambling eight-hectare property with a sense of whimsy. And so, just around every bend in path could be a giant reclining Buddha surrounded by water lilies in a pond, or giant stone ants marching in a line. Sometimes a delicious scare waits around the corner—a stone komodo dragon basking in the sun or the squat figures of Balinese deities lurking in the bushes. Donatela’s gardens are lush and green with all kinds of plants and trees, while flowers add splashes of tropical color. One corner of the resort is devoted to an animal sanctuary that houses rescued animals like a variety of colorful exotic birds, a peacock whose tail feathers look like jewels, some friendly monkeys, and a Palawan bear cat. The resort also has an equestrian center with some beautiful horses and ponies. Lessons can be had there, from beginners to classic dressage.
I’m a little ashamed to say that this was my first visit to Bohol, and while I missed the beachfront access of a resort along Alona Beach, Donatela’s serenity and luxury more than made up for it. It must have been the infinity pool, deserted in the early afternoons except for an attendant holding out a fluffy towel, and birds dive-bombing the water to get a drink. Or it could have been my spacious villa, one of just 12 in the entire property, each one secluded and surrounded by its own garden. Outside, the villas look like nipa huts. Inside, a lot of the furniture is bespoke; the travel desk and a cunning bar on wheels made me feel like I was on an old-time luxury safari, except that there was a Bluetooth sound system, unlimited Wifi, and a king-sized bed piled high with pillows. The bathrooms are large, with lots of space for luggage and clothes, and more than enough places to hang things.The bathrooms have a separate door to the outside, perfect for when you don’t want to track water and sand into your room.
Donatela, which used to be named Tarsier Botanika, is now managed by Enderun Hospitality Management, which could account for all the thoughtful details that made me never want to leave the resort. They even had a diffuser tucked away in a corner of the bathroom for guests who want to use their own essential oils. The Enderun group always makes it a point to incorporate local details and warm hospitality into the hotels they manage. At Donatela, general manager Herve Martin and his staff serve local kakanin for the afternoon/evening snacks that are sent to each villa.
I was told that Bohol considers itself an eco-cultural, agro-industrial tourism destination. During our stay, the resort arranged for a few activities that showcased what Bohol has to offer. We took a dark, silent cruise on the Abacan River to hunt for fireflies among the mangroves. Fireflies congregate only in a certain kind of mangrove tree, lighting it up like a million blinking Christmas lights. We rode a large boat, but the more adventurous can opt for a firefly tour by kayak. Another morning, we were up at the crack of dawn to go dolphin watching and do a bit of snorkeling around Balicasag Island. The highlight of our trip was catching a sperm whale flip up its tail before diving into the depths.
I thought it was nice that the resort’s staff chose to bring us to tourist sites with an environmental focus. Instead of the more popular places, we visited the Philippine Tarsier and Wildlife Sanctuary in Corella, which is where Lito Pizarras works. He’s known as the “Tarsier Man” and he has spent 30 years taking care of the tarsiers.
In between all our activities, we ate, almost constantly. We were introduced to the food of Bohol at lunch at Gerarda’s, an old house converted into a restaurant in Tagbilaran City. The restaurant is most famous for the way it cooks kinampay, a fragrant variety of ube grown in Bohol. I’m used to eating ube in the form of sweet ube jam, but in Bohol it is eaten as a meal, simply sautéed with onions or garlic and sometimes a little meat. It is close to the hearts of Boholanos because it sustained them during World War 2, when they were unable to plant rice. At Gerarda’s the kinampay was cut into strips, and simply sautéed, highlighting its naturally sweet flavor. Other dishes worth a try at Gerarda’s are dinakdakan, pinaupongmanok, pork kilawin, and a deliciously addictive crispy tadyang (beef ribs).
We ate most of our other meals at Donatela. It was hard not to, as the main restaurant, Paprika, is set on a cliff overlooking a dazzling blue South Bohol Sea. Below the restaurant, closer to the water is a hidden little area with a few deck chairs. It’s great for a little peaceful sunbathing or sunset cocktails, as the resort can set up a bar area if requested. Paprika serves mainly continental food. We ate breakfast on its wooden deck, shaded by large umbrellas and feasting on freshly baked croissants, delicately buttery and flaky, and Danish pastries with homemade jam.
Lunches and dinners can be as heavy, or light, as one wants. The restaurant makes Asian Salad heaped with lettuce, water chestnuts, bell peppers, caramelized walnuts, and a tangy honey and sesame oil dressing, or a refreshing pomelo and shrimp salad. There are also seafood dishes like smoked kingfish carpaccio, tagliatelle frutti di mare, and beautifully done frito misto. Deep-fried seafood is usually greasy, but this version was light and crisp, not over-cooked, and perfect with just a squeeze of lemon and some salt. Seared ahi tuna drizzled with a sweet-salty sauce and served with sushi rice was another dish light enough for summer weather. I usually crave grilled meats when I’m by the sea, and Paprika serves delightful grilled lamb chops on a bed of creamy polenta. The star of the restaurant’s menu though, is tomahawk steak—thick, nicely salted, seared with a nice crust until it is just rare and juicy, and served with grilled vegetables and gravy. It’s one of the reasons Paprika is popular with tourists from other resorts, who walk over for the food and the beautiful view.
Donatela’s Filipino executive chef has a wealth of experience working for international hotel chains around the world, and it translates into his cooking. On our first night, we had dinner by pool and feasted on grilled fish and prawns, spicy seafood curry with freshly made papadums, and a tasty Korean beef stew. The hotel’s pastry chef makes desserts that are worth saving space for. A giant cream puff, bigger than my fist, is drizzled with shiny caramel and stuffed with dark chocolate pastry cream. The New York style cheesecake is rich and dense, while lemon meringue pie has lemon curd that manages to be fresh and tangy without being too sour.
I confess, I never got lost when walking toward Paprika.
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Donatela Resort is located at Km. 16, HoyohoyTawala, Panglao, Bohol. Rates start at P16,000. Visit the resort’s website at www.donatelahotel.com or email email@example.com