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Locale: Three Days at the Donatela

In Panglao Island, people don’t like things to change too much, too quickly.

Driving into the gates of the Donatela in Panglao Island, what strikes you most is the silence. At ten minutes away from the newly opened Bohol Airport, followed by a short drive into a small backroad, I suppose that’s to be expected. What I didn’t expect was how absolute that silence would be.

Everything here feels quiet: the rooms, the gardens, the snaking paths that lead you from one part of the hotel to the next. It’s a fairly large place, the Donatela, and with only 12 villas that dot the entire property, you could go on for days and not run across any other guests.

I decide that I like that very much.

This was going to be home for the next few days, and after flying out from an especially hectic city like Manila, I was ready to get lost on my own.

Panglao is a sleepy island in the southwestern part of Bohol, home to sprawling empty spaces and beaches at the edges. The Donatela looms over one of these beaches, sitting on a cliffside right above a small cove. From here, you can see other islands, though they seem lost between the sea and a sky that’s just as blue.

I decide that I like that even more.

But right now, I’m about meet Herve Martin, the resort manager, and he walks up to me and says “Welcome to the Donatela.” Or something like that. I don’t remember now exactly. But you get the point. I take a welcome drink from a tray and we get to talking.

He tells me that the Donatela wasn’t always like this. This polished, this serene. Enderun Hospitality Management came in around 2017 and developed it as luxury property, an off-the-track place where you could spend the holidays in peace. Before that, it was called the Tarsier Botanica, a series of gardens that had tarsiers roaming around the place, with modern rooms designed to look like Ifugao huts.

Herve says there used to be 67 gardeners tending the property–the place is that big. He says they still joke about how dead leaves never even got the chance to fall to the ground. The gardens and the rooms are still here, but there aren’t quite as many gardeners now. The tarsiers are no longer here, either. Being a near-threatened species of tiny primates now found only in Southeast Asia, they’ve since been relocated to a nearby sanctuary.

Between the silence and everything else in here, it’s hard enough to remember there’s anything else to see outside. Only, there is, and there’s plenty of it. Over the next few days, I’m going to see that firsthand. And that’s about to start now.

I board a van with Herve and a couple of people from Enderun. Like me, they’re out to see what’s beyond the Donatela. And so we begin.
Herve is both resort manager and tour guide today. He tells me that people here don’t like things to change too much, too quickly. As we go around the island, I get the feeling that this is true. Farming remains a common occupation; old women sew nipa leaves into rows to use as roofs; fishermen take their daily haul from the boats and into the towns. If the Donatela seems reclusive, so too, does Panglao.

Irma Bunachita practices a jewelcrafting art handed down from the Spanish times.

We stop by the workshop of Irma Bunachita, one of Panglao’s jewelers. On her porch is a small desk, with pliers and cutters and hand tools, hammers and rivet blocks and a blowtorch. What she’s practicing is an art that’s been around for centuries, an art that was handed to her by her grandparents, the filigreed necklaces, earrings, and bracelets once used to dress up statues of saints, back when the Spanish were around. Now, you can buy them off of Instagram from some seller in Quezon City, though with designs that are a little more modern. Irma tells me that this isn’t an easy job, that she’s thankful to have hands that don’t shake, even at her age. But more than anything, what she wants is a protege. More than one, if that’s possible. “Even when I’m gone,” she says in Filipino, “I want someone to continue it.”

We pay a visit to the blacksmiths of Panglao, who use old, discarded leaf springs and turn them into blades, bringing new life to the wasted metal. They make scythes and bolos and knives, each one meant to be used at the farms. In this way, the automobiles on the island pay their wages to the land, even at the end. 

We drive past tracts of farmland, walk into an ancient church, drink from a well that’s supposed to cure diseases, sample the local food, buy pastries from a bakery that’s been following the same recipes for decades. Clearly, this is a place that’s carried on without much need for anything else outside of the island.

The blacksmiths of Panglao turn old leaf springs into farming tools.

By the time we get back to the Donatela, I’ve had my fill of the outside for the day and stay in my room. The Ifugao huts that inspired these things must have been pretty technical creations for their time, because even now the design works for the tropics. The woven nipa roof slopes downward, and keeps the rain and the sun out. The walls slant inward and are covered in woven pvc instead of more traditional, natural materials, presumably for its toughness. The walls’ covering was custom-made by weavers from Cebu, making them unique to each hut. On the ceiling is a chimney-like structure which vents the heat on warmer days.

And while the room appears rustic on the outside, the inside is as modern as you could hope for, though built mostly with native materials. Almost everything that’s wood is made of mahogany, which is abundant in Bohol. Custom furniture fill out the spaces, and leather artwork from Spain adds a nice touch. More than anything, the room feels comfortable, lived in but not worn out. I’d tell you more but I fall asleep almost immediately, so there’s that. I suppose I just feel at peace.

The next morning, I get up before dawn. Today, we’re heading out to see the other islands. I take a seat in Paprika, the Donatela’s restaurant, which is set on the most scenic part of the hotel, and was once the only fine dining place in the area. I watch the sunrise. Here, they bake their own pastries, each artisan trained in the French tradition by the previous owners; they smoke their own bacon with mahogany shavings collected from the workshops around Bohol; and they make a killer Tomahawk steak, which I would only recommend if you’re sharing it with someone else. That thing is massive.

By 8 am, our boat arrives and we set off for the other islands. Out in the sea, you get a better look at Panglao. Even at this distance it is a wonder, with all the cliffs and beaches and greenery.

We spend the rest of the morning at sea and drop by Balicasag Island, with its lone tower and its multitude of boats. We stop by Virgin Island and walk along the lengthy sandbar, picking out some seafood from the small stalls that have cropped up along the beach. Overhead, a small drone buzzes across the sandbar, giving its pilot an unhindered view of everything. I may not be able to see it, but you don’t need a drone to imagine what that view must look like.

Image by Aurelio Icasiano

We head back to the Donatela by noon and take a look around. And here, it is quiet once again. The stables, the pool, the grotto, the gardens, the safari villas: each one seems to exist in a pocket outside of everything else. I consider taking a ride on one of the horses, but decide to go to the spa instead. So much for action. But as I begin the hour-long session, I leave my regrets at the stables.

By evening, we take a ride to the Abatan River. It is the last thing on the itinerary, and the last evening I’ll be spending in Panglao. The Abatan is known for its fireflies, perhaps one of the last places you’ll find them this close to a city.

As we board the small boat, the guide begins his spiel. There’s a legend here, he says. The fireflies, they’re supposed to be attracted to the spirits of the departed. They concentrate, he says, on the areas where the spirits are. Still, he goes on to explain that it’s more likely due to the mangroves. We watch the tiny insects as they blink in unison.

Nobody knows exactly why they do it, how they blink on and off at almost the same time. It is a beautiful thing to see, like Christmas lights in the middle of summer. And if the spirits have anything to do with it, then I’m all for believing in them.

The boat floats on along the river, and above, you can see the night sky. It is the clearest view  I’ve seen in a while. Unlike the fireflies, the stars hardly blink at all. I try (and fail) to take a photo. I suppose it’s one of those things you have to see in person, anyway. Because it’s one thing to catch it on Instagram, and quite another to see it live.

The next morning, I meet Herve and the others over breakfast at Paprika. One last meal, one last conversation, and we’re off to fly back to Manila. As I head to the airport, I say my farewells to the Donatela, to Panglao. I know that when I leave, it won’t make a difference. Life on the island will remain the same. It won’t change too much, too quickly. But that’s just the way people like it here.