Ride horses, bask in nature at this Panglao, Bohol sanctuary resort

Steph Arnaldo

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Ride horses, bask in nature at this Panglao, Bohol sanctuary resort
Just a 5-minute drive from Alona Beach, Donatela Resort provides a nature-centric respite away from the bustle of the tourist destination

MANILA, Philippines – Pebbled pathways surrounded by untouched foliage, exotic birds flying about, and a peaceful silence that only being away in nature can give. Donatela Resort is a private respite in Panglao that’s less focused on the bustle of Bohol’s beaches and more on the undisturbed experience a raw nature sanctuary can offer domestic and foreign tourists looking to recharge.

A five-minute drive away from Panglao’s famous Alona Beach, Donatela Resort first opened in 2010 as “Tarsier Botanika,” formerly owned by French-Filipino couple Nicolas Maurice Jean Moussempes and Patricia Muassab Moussempesa. After closing in October 2022 due to the devastating effects of 2021’s Typhoon Odette and the pandemic, Tarsier Botanika reopened as Donatela Resort in December 2023, and is now being run by Enderun Hotel Management.

DONATELA RESORT. The Panglao, Bohol sanctuary keeps nature untouched. John Roxas/Rappler

The Moussempess initially transformed the empty 7.5 hectare-estate into a botanical, Bali-themed sanctuary that had the “essence of of calm and beauty in a natural environment, aimed to promote the preservation and appreciation of exotic flora and fauna,” Mimi Dib, Donatela Resident Manager told Rappler. It was vital to “provide education on the importance of wildlife and environment,” so the opened Donatela’s own Equestrian Area, which may be one of the most unique features from a resort in Panglao.

A maze of nature
EIGHT VILLAS. Each resort villa is inspired by the traditional Ifugao home. John Roxas/Rappler

Donatela is secluded from the noise and bustle of Alona Beach and its busy strip of restaurants; the location is hidden enough that you’ll have to drive through non-cemented, bumpy side roads to get there. If you want to be where the beach life is at, that’s not Donatela’s intention; however, if a faraway getaway is what you want to retreat to after a tiring day of island-hopping, diving, and sightseeing tours (which the resort can organize for you too), Donatela can provide that exclusivity.

NATURE’S FINEST. Bamboo shoots and lush foliage surround the pathways of the resort. John Roxas/Rappler

The property is designed like a garden maze, with each corner bountiful in greenery, marshy ponds, and vintage animal statuettes. There’s not a lot of signs and outdoor lights, so it’s easy to get lost in the thick of it, which in a way allowed us to take a mindful stroll, zone out, destress, and discover nature’s little surprises along the way.

The foliage landscape is not perfectly manicured, and not every area is meticulously groomed. Although it’s not an elaborate 5-star resort experience, it isn’t trying to be – the unpretentiousness brings its own genuine charm, as Donatela allows its greenery to grow how nature intends it to be.

MAZE. Every area of the resort is within walking distance. John Roxas/Rappler

“Here, nature is the landlord. We do not disturb. We are only the humble tenant,” Mimi said.

It could get eerily quiet at night – we’d only hear the sound of crickets and the chirping of various birds during the day. The complete silence was jarring at first, plus the fact we hardly saw any fellow guests and staff around – it felt a bit uninhabited. However, we eventually grew accustomed to feeling “alone” – it’s like we had the whole place to ourselves. After all, the resort was built to co-exist with nature, and not demand anything from it.

One-of-a-kind villa

Donatela’s eight luxurious villas are located roughly in the same area, but dispersed far enough from one another to provide distance and space for a private experience that is respectful of neighboring guests. Each villa has its own private garden.

GARDEN VILLA. Donatela’s Garden Villa is the most affordable lodging option for two. John Roxas/Rappler

According to Mimi, the villas lean towards a more Filipino design, inspired by the traditional Ifugao hut found in the northern part of the country and designed by Nicolas Moussempes himself.

POOL VILLA. The spacious pool villa comes with a private plunge pool and lounge chairs. John Roxas/Rappler

We stayed at the open-plan Pool Villa, a beautiful 120-square-meter villa that houses a large bedroom, living room, and a spacious bathroom with double sinks, vanity dresser, walk-in dressing room, lots of storage space, and an open shower. The villa comes with an outdoor patio balcony at the front, with daybeds and a dining area. It overlooks the villa’s private plunge pool and poolside lounge furniture, with a front view of the garden’s floral backdrop.

OUTDOOR. The Family Villa has its own patio balcony. John Roxas/Rappler

It was our favorite relaxing spot to enjoy the ala carte breakfast in – freshly-baked bread, butter, marmalade, jam, fresh fruits, and our choice of breakfast meats and eggs were delivered to our villa every morning on the dot.

LIVING AREA. There is a three-seater sofa, mini-bar, and desk. John Roxas/Rappler

The fully air-conditioned, homey Pool Villa with wood-beamed ceilings balances its cozy, rustic concept with premium furniture, native elements, and contemporary and vintage details.

FOR SLEEP. A separate space is dedicated for the bedroom, with its own television. John Roxas/Rappler

There’s a king size bed with a special English Chippendale bamboo headboard, a steamer trunk, three-seater sofa, English traveler’s desk with a lamp, a music system, mini bar, pod coffee machine, and two Netflix-ready televisions – one in each room. The WiFi connection inside the villa is reliable, and the villa didn’t feel short of amenities.

COMFORT ROOM. The walk-in dressing room is beside the His and Hers sinks and open shower. John Roxas/Rappler

We noticed classic paintings, historical masks, and curious artifacts around – apparently, the previous Tarsier Artistika housed the couple’s “cabinet de curiosite,” a personal collection of artifacts they acquired over 40 years of traveling around the world.

“Nicolas Moussempes assembled his electric ensemble of art and objet d’art from several auction houses, European and Asian art dealers, and fine galleries. On display there were classic European paintings including 16th century Dutch and Italian masters. Romantics, impressionists, expressionists, modern and abstract paintings, Chinese ceramics, scrolls and porcelain, oriental carpets and even 1930 Aircraft Radial Jacob engine and a large collection of West African Masks,” Mimi said.

Just staying inside our well-stocked, luxurious villa already felt like a relaxing staycation on its own.

Giddy up
EQUESTRIA. The path to Donatela Equestria is gravelly and rough. John Roxas/Rappler

The Donatela experience wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the prized Donatela Equestria, an equestrian center located inside the resort. It houses two horses and three ponies in a 20×60 dressage arena and a 15-meter covered round pen for training.

RIDING PEN. Guests are allowed to free horseback ride in the equestrian pen. John Roxas/Rappler

“Our aim is not only to train guests the proper way to ride but also to introduce a humane way of training the horse to make them calm and willing to work without force. All of our horses are kept in the best conditions – given paddock time, exercised regularly, and treated kindly,” Mimi said.

STABLES. Donatela’s treasured horses and ponies are kept safely here. John Roxas/Rappler

“In the center, we do not administer unnecessary drugs to ease lameness, shoulder, and back problems compared to most centers in the Philippines. Our horses work willingly and have a strong bond with all handlers. All our grooms have been taught to practice patience, respect and care for our horses as a means to a successful training program,” she added.

TOUR GUIDE. Part of Donatela’s activities is a horseback ride tour around the property. John Roxas/Rappler

Guests can enjoy a casual horseback ride around the property, guided by the handler. We were taught the basics of riding, and we were allowed to steer the beautiful animal around the resort. It was a fun bonding experience, both with my companion and with the pony, and it was a novel way of taking a guided resort tour not on our feet. It was just as fun to be allowed to free ride around the pen after the tour! The handler was also adept in taking our best photo ops around the property.

MEMORABLE. The handler advises where to pose for the best photo op. John Roxas/Rappler

Throughout every phase of our stay, Donatela’s staff was welcoming, accommodating, and efficient. From transportation, reception, to dining, the hospitable and warm service was reliable – requests were promptly catered to, questions were quickly answered, and the guest experience was smooth. However, there was no telephone in our room (requests are made via Viber or SMS) and the front desk’s services end at 9 pm every night, so service isn’t technically 24/7 here.

PAPRIKA. Donatela’s sole restaurant comes with a bar, lounge area, and al fresco dining. John Roxas/Rappler

Donatela also provides a shuttle pick-up upon request; aside from airport transfers (Donatela is just 15 minutes away), the driver can pick you up and drop you off at Alona Beach during the day, but only until 9 pm. Our driver was never late – he picked us up from our villa and a nearby restaurant always on the agreed time.

AT NIGHT. Paprika is open from breakfast until dinner. John Roxas/Rappler

If you’re too lazy to walk a bit farther up, the shuttle can also drop you off at Paprika, Donatela’s fine-casual dining restaurant that’s located at the end of the property. The cliffside al fresco restaurant is beautiful both night and day, overlooking a sweeping view of Bohol Sea with stairs that lead down to a closer look at the choppy waves.

OVERLOOKING. Guests can dine in front of a panoramic view of the glistening Bohol Sea. John Roxas/Rappler

Paprika’s spacious outdoor deck is great for picturesque dining, with sea-view verandas, all-glass air-conditioned dining rooms, strewn lights at night, and a private wine room and dining gallery.

CLIFFSIDE. Guests can take the winding road downhill to get closer to the sea. John Roxas/Rappler

The menu is a mix of Filipino, Asian, and European fare, with hotel-level prices that are quite steep that it may be best to share meals instead, especially on a budget. My two dish picks were the Seafood Kinilaw and the Shrimp Sinigang – you can’t go wrong with native favorites.

KINILAW. Freshly-cut tanigue is soaked in spiced vinegar with cucumber, mango, tomato, and onion. John Roxas/Rappler

There are also desserts and cocktails on the menu, as well as a complimentary appetizer of hummus, bread sticks, bread, and a balsamic dip that I had to snack on before every meal.

SINIGANG. The native tamarind-based soup can come with shrimp or fish. John Roxas/Rappler

We also took our post-swim lunch of pizza, fruit shakes, calamari, shrimp poppers, and ice cream at Donatela’s main Pool Bar, where your meals can be delivered to by the poolside. There are 14 dining sets around the resort’s main public pool, with umbrellas and reclining lounge chairs for chillaxing.

POOL AREA. Take a dip, have a meal, or read by the pool. John Roxas/Rappler

Spa treatments and full-body massages are available at Donatela’s quaint spa. It doesn’t offer the works and zen ambiance of a lavish spa experience, but I appreciated my masseuse’s precise technique and perfectly moderate pressure during my relaxing 90-minute Signature Massage (P2,500).

SPA. As of now, Donatela’s spa services are offered in one massage hut. John Roxas/Rappler

As of now, the spa is only limited to one tiny kubo, which is a bit cramped in space and meant only for two. The other huts are still being renovated after Typhoon Odette’s damage.

“It really has been a challenge for us in restoring the botanical gardens, while maintaining the uniqueness of the villas and other structures of the resort,” Mimi said. Because of the lingering effects of the pandemic and the typhoon, there are a few unkempt areas of the sanctuary still under recovery.

“However, the team has been working tremendously hard in restoring the beauty of the resort. We have been blessed to be surrounded by beautiful landscape and scenery. It is our job to maintain the authentic beauty.”

RUSTIC. Native elements and a cozy vibe make up the villa experience. John Roxas/Rappler

Donatela is currently working on adding three more Garden Villas and another Family Villa, as well as more spa villas, a spa lobby, and a fitness center as well. Rates for Donatela are fairly reasonable, especially during off-peak season. The Pool Villa that can fit up to 3 pax can go for P16,000+ per night; the Honeymoon Villa for P13,000+; the Family Villa for P12,000+; and the Garden Villa for two for P7,000+, with each one inclusive of breakfast for two and access to the pool.

“Here, we expect our guests to experience and gain appreciation of the basic luxuries in life – wholesome food, fresh air, tranquility, and peace – the important things in life that matter to the senses,” Mimi said. At Donatela, the priority is gifting guests the privacy, space, time, comfort, and freedom to just be. I– And on some vacations, that’s really all you need. – Rappler.com

For more information on Donatela Resort and Sanctuary, you can visit Donatela’s website.

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Steph Arnaldo

If she’s not writing about food, she’s probably thinking about it. From advertising copywriter to freelance feature writer, Steph Arnaldo finally turned her part-time passion into a full-time career. She’s written about food, lifestyle, and wellness for Rappler since 2018.