Ray of Light: Inara Resort Shines Bright In Siargao
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Ray of Light: Inara Resort Shines Bright In Siargao

Jun 10, 2023

By Audrey Carpio

Photography By Mati Olivieri

Photographed by Mati Olivieri.

Two days after the devastating Typhoon Odette (known internationally as Rai), ripped through Siargao on December 16, 2021, shattering the airport and taking down all communication lines, Natalia Zobel, who was in Manila, found a way to the island via helicopter. She couldn’t reach anybody on the island and was worried about her team. “When we started coming into Siargao, all we could see were toothpicks,” she recalls. “All the coconut trees were toothpicks. Then we started seeing rubble, just rubble all around.” Natalia and her companions, realizing the typhoon was much, much stronger than first thought. The chopper landed in Malinao, an area 20 minutes south of General Luna, the island’s main hub and home to the waves that made Siargao surf-famous. Natalia began distributing water filters and whatever food they could bring to the surrounding neighborhoods.

Inara, the boutique resort she had built and opened just four months earlier, was not spared. Despite the conditions, Natalia was able to open their doors, so to speak, by offering Wi-Fi access to anyone in the community. With the help of Next Gen, an NGO founded by young business leaders, Inara was one of three locations in Siargao with internet access, a vital channel for communicating with the rest of the world during the weeks there was no mobile signal, and almost three months without power. Mati, the photographer, recalls finding himself in the same courtyard—now restored—with dozens of other desperate residents and tourists trying to send a message out.

It’s incredible to imagine how this serene and verdant place, just a year and half earlier, was a site of both ruin and hope, a place where the community came together. “I will never forget how the community helped and [supported] each other to survive,” says Marco Deleña, the resort manager, who along with the rest of the staff, hunkered down in the kitchen while deafening winds howled outside for hours. “Our first focus was helping our team rebuild their homes. We were able to have [a] strong relationship with our neighbors, and a lot of strangers became our friends.”

To the casual onlooker, Inara looks just like it did when it first opened—a bright and breezy Filipino-Mediterranean villa, a hybrid architectural and aesthetic choice that reflects Natalia’s background. But with the hard lessons learned from Odette and the realities of climate change, she took the opportunity to rebuild differently. “So now this is all metal,” she says, pointing to high ceilings of the Salakot villa, so named for its hat-shaped roof. “They’re metal beams that we cladded with bamboo. That way I can sleep at night.” The cogon thatch that gives the suites its tropical island touch are all synthetic, designed to withstand storms and last much longer.

Natalia’s first encounter with Siargao was in 2007, when she went on a surf trip with some friends. “I googled ‘surfing Philippines,’ and this was the only place. And it was amazing. We fell in love with it,” she says. Back then before there were direct flights, travel to the island would entail a seven-hour journey. She purchased her beachfront property some 13 years ago, and initially conceived of putting up a room of her own that could be an Airbnb when not in use. “Then I started thinking we needed a more upscale option in Siargao. I saw that there was a gap in the market for it. So okay, let’s make it Filipino, and very comfortable. And then later came the service,” she says of Inara’s evolution to focus on excellent Filipino hospitality. “It became a luxury boutique hotel, and that’s where we are now.”

If she had built a hotel from the start, the guest rooms might have been placed closer to the beach, Natalia points out. But the resort’s layout, with its pocket gardens, cozy lounge areas, and jungle-like paths, make Inara a delight to wander around, taking in all the decorative details that she has thoughtfully placed: capiz chandeliers and Moroccan lamps, a collection of walking sticks, fruit arrangements from the garden, colorful African textiles and other prized souvenirs from her travels. On the main lawn sits a keepsake from her recent wedding: a vintage swing set—the kind found in playgrounds of old—given new life with a coat of yellow paint.

Inara has two wings: on one side of the road is the cortijo (Andalusian farmhouse)-inspired compound with suites bordering a pool and an open-air foyer where guests can hang, have a meal, or play a round of sungka, the Philippine version of the mancala game. On the side closer to the beach is the Salakot suite, which has its own spacious sala surrounded by lush greenery. There’s a second pool, a rooftop dining area, and Natalia’s personal favorite spot, an area right on the beach, shaded by a large Talisay tree and cooled by the amihan winds. A short distance away is Hanoyoy Island, a small island where she and her husband would walk to during low tide, or swim to when the tide is high.

“Ms. Nats was very hands-on while building and setting up Inara. She created her dream space with love and respect,” notes Marco, who believes that her attention to detail and love of design imbues the resort with a different vibe at every visit. Natalia was so hands-on that, during the first construction phase, she lived on the grounds with her construction crew for over a month, without electricity. Most of the wood and rattan furniture, if they had not been sourced from Evangelista, were also designed by her.

“I’ve always loved the home. And I’ve always loved entertaining and having people over,” Natalia says. In Manila, she partners with her sister Bianca Zobel and their friend Maria Parsons at Lanai, the home accessories store and floral and event styling service that they launched in 2016. “I really love the hospitality industry and I feel like I wish I studied it, because everything we’re doing is on the go. I never studied design, you know, so it’s all just learning, learning how to do it.” Natalia’s sense of style and entertaining knowhow comes not from studying, but from living it—growing up in large family homes surrounded by beautiful things, escaping to sun kissed coasts over the summer, and coming together in festive gatherings that celebrate life.

A stay at Inara is well-suited to travelers looking for escapades beyond the action of General Luna. Natalia has been adding tour experiences as she scouts them, from hiking to the top of Corregidor island, picnicking among the mangroves, or taking a speedboat to Bucas Grande where you can swim in a lake of stingless jellyfish, or for the really adventurous, partake in this wild canoe trip where you dive into a cave, swim through a lagoon, climb up a cliff, crawl through a hole, and then jump back out into the lagoon. Deep sea fishing, apparently, is also especially good in Siargao.

“That’s what we want for Inara, you kind of live like a local here,” Natalia says. “We’ll show you where to go to feel the local experience.”

If you come to Inara, there’s a chance you’ll catch Natalia there as she plans to spend a third of the month on the island. She’ll be pottering in the garden, checking on the menu, or adding little personalized details, always finding ways to make things not just better, but superb. She’ll also be completely barefoot, and you’ll realize that this is an unspoken invitation for you to kick your shoes off and feel the earth, the sand, the sea beneath your feet, and just live.