This lionhearted couple started as dreamers and became hospitality innovators

When they were only 27 and newly married, Nikki and Ria Cauton bought a rundown property in Bohol and turned it into award-winning luxury resort Amorita. Seventeen years later, they set their sights on Palawan with four resorts.   

There’s something to be said about millennials born at the beginning of their generation. Coming into the world in that first year of the ‘80s up to the middle of the decade, they were in that transitional period that saw the wholesale shift from analog to digital; they biked outside and played computer games; they had computers in their classrooms and used the internet to learn.

They were young adults when social media emerged, and they were new to the workforce when the global financial crisis happened in 2007.

With all these shifts in the financial, cultural, and social fabric that held the world precariously together, everybody thought that millennials would easily fold at every challenge. Turns out we were all wrong—because there were many who were dreamers and doers.

The luxury cliffside resort Amorita in Bohol: When Nikki and Ria Cauton bought it, it was a rundown property that they gutted, built again, and turned into an award-winning resort.

At 27, Nikki Cauton and Ria Hernandez-Cauton bought a rundown property on Panglao island with the attitude that they could start three things all at once. First, they had been married only five months and were planning to start a family; second, Nikki was also starting his law career; and third was this 1.2-hectare seaside property with 14 villas and 20 deluxe rooms that were in bad shape. 

But they were young and lionhearted—brave, determined—and they had already fallen in love with Bohol where, for many years, they would go biking up the mountains and snorkeling or diving in the sea on weekends.

Nikki and Ria were a young and determined couple who got into hospitality at the same time they started a family.

This property had breathtaking views of the Bohol Sea and sunset on Alona Beach. Of course they would make it work—even if they had to use their bare hands. Which they actually did when they helped clear rubble, trash, and old hotel furniture that you’d be embarrassed to put outside your house for free.

They named the resort Amorita; Nikki was the CEO and Ria was CFO. He told me years ago that their goal back then was simply to keep it afloat. “We were doing everything. I was driving the car to pick up guests and serving food—but our standard from the start was very high. Then people realized that this property was unique—that this level of service could be had for a reasonable price and what a surprise that it was a local brand.”

For the Cautons, growing their resort brands was like raising their family. These two new Funny Lion cubs in Palawan had a particularly long labor because of the pandemic. But by now Nikki and Ria are seasoned hoteliers.

You’d be forgiven if you thought Amorita was one of those expensive international chains when you see their elegant villas with dipping pools, the tropical gardens that Ria’s mom helped organize and plant, the complete privacy, and the activities they set you off to with a picnic lunch like you were their kids going to the Chocolate Hills, Loboc River or Balicasag island.

Now with 98 rooms, suites and villas, four dining outlets and two infinity pools, Amorita has been sweeping awards for 16 years for customer service, food, and accommodation, and in both romantic and family categories. The awards come from fancy groups like the World Luxury Hotels to the more critical market that writes no-holds-barred reviews on Tripadvisor as soon as they are in the car on the way to the airport.    

Amorita is just one of the boutique hotel brands in their One-Of Collection Group of Resorts, all of which have remained consistent with what Nikki and Ria started in Bohol.  

Local wherever they go

Amorita’s seaview villa with its own dipping pool.

If you happen to be in Amorita while you’re on a strict diet, don’t even try. You can kiss those skinny jeans goodbye—if they’re still a thing.

The opening of their new Spanish tapas bar seven years ago gave an indication of the kind of high-level dining Amorita would roll out in the coming years—not just for their guests but for Boholanos. During pandemic, the resort organized one-night-only monthly dinners called BEATS (Bohol Eats) starting with local restaurants Sisa and Bougainvillea.

It was meant not just to lift people’s spirits but to signify to chefs—one of the first groups to lose their jobs during the lockdowns—that they would continue after this global crisis. Amorita flew chefs from Manila such as Florabel Yatco, Robby Goco, Josh Boutwood, Margarita Fores, Jordy Navarra, Angelo Comsti and Bryan Koh, and Rob Pengson. It was a stellar cast and every single one of those nights was packed by locals.

Coron, Palawan was the first island to have The Funny Lion brand. This property has since expanded and added more rooms and pools.
Palawan continues to attract foreign and domestic guests with its unspoiled natural beauty.

Anyway, back to the specialty tapas bar Tomar. That opening night in 2016, they served the best aged tapas and Manchego cheese, olives, tomatoes, and stuffed croquettes. As good as these were, it was actually their Peanut Kisses shake that I found addicting.

For those who don’t know, Peanut Kisses are a local Bohol delicacy shaped after the Chocolate Hills. They’re a crunchy peanut mix invented after World War II by a local family that owned a peanut farm.

Serving local specialties in a creative way, working with cooperatives for their amenities and souvenirs, and hiring local staff are ways that One-Of Collection integrates into and serves the communities they are in.

In 2013, the Cautons started another brand called The Funny Lion. This time, the market was the fun, adventurous travelers whose budget was for four-star resorts but wanted five-star service.

How do they know which property to invest in? Ria says, “You get that pitik sa puso, your heart beats fast and loud. It’s not a mathematical calculation, it’s not something you can explain but it is something.”

First to open in Palawan was The Funny Lion Coron, located a few minutes by trike to the main town. Also nearby is Mt. Tapias, if you happen to wake up at 5 am and feel the need to climb 721 steps before breakfast; Maquinit Hot Springs, the Spanish Churches, Kayangan Lake, and the marine sanctuaries and dive sites.

The coffee they serve at TFL is grown by the indigenous people of Palawan called the Tagbanwas. Puerto Princesa native Mike Mahinay, who was then the TFL resort manager, said that he met up with the chieftess to convince her to supply the resort with the coffee beans that her tribe grows on the mountains.

In the past two years, TFL has opened two more resorts in El Nido (2022) and Puerto Princesa (2023), and the practice of giving a nod to their host community remains.

Like-minded people

(Seated, second from left) Atty Nikki Cauton III leads The Funny Lion team: (from left) Coron RM Jay Barinque, El Nido RM Nilo Quizon, Puerto Princesa GM Mike Mahinay; (second row) director of marketing Kata Agmata, director of sales Bambi Samson, chief of strategy Joy Ann Bautista, and COO Lyba Godio

Nikki and Ria Cauton now have five children—three boys and two girls. Sometime in January, the couple was at The Funny Lion Puerto Princesa to train the new staff, exactly what they did 12 months before, when TFL El Nido was launched. As soon as that TFL opened, it started collecting awards and citations like it was collecting coffee cups from tables at the end of breakfast service.

At one point, TFL El Nido and TFL Coron occupied the No. 1 spots on Tripadvisor for both islands. TFL Puerto Princesa, meanwhile, had its soft opening in December 2023. Beside it, a second Amorita property is being constructed, which is One-Of’s fourth resort and second brand in Palawan.

The Funny Lion El Nido opened in December 2022.
Some of the top-floor rooms have a view of Bacuit Bay.

On that training weekend, the couple had brought along their younger kids to Puerto Princesa and one of the boys sat in the dining room crying. He did not want to leave the resort, he loved it here, he loved swimming in the pool overlooking Honda Bay with his dad. Nikki says, “This is now his favorite Funny Lion.”  

For the Cautons, growing their resort brands was like raising their family. These two new TFL cubs in Palawan had a particularly long labor because they were interrupted by the pandemic. But by now, Nikki and Ria are seasoned hoteliers. They’ve faced challenges in building resorts before, they’ve instituted innovations in their operations, put in place sustainable green practices, and built a remarkable, resilient team.

Nikki and Ria Cauton at TFL Puerto Princesa, which opened in December 2023. The couple believes that Puerto Princesa, with its own charm and Honda Bay activities, should get a lion’s share of Palawan’s tourist arrivals.

Ria says that what they discovered about themselves was that they still love the creative process. In 2016, when they first saw the four-hectare property in Puerto Princesa, “there was that rush even when you don’t own it yet. You get that pitik sa puso, your heart beats fast and loud. It’s not a mathematical calculation, it’s not something you can explain but it is something.”

They also learned that they can’t do everything themselves like in the beginning. She continues, “At a certain scale we needed more likeminded people to carry the vision and help us execute it.”

Nikki adds, “That vision is to create one-of-a-kind experiences for guests—and that each and every destination is different, that’s why we called it One-Of Collection. That’s the challenge, how to differentiate each property but still having that brand standard that ties it all together.”

Swimming pool at TFL Puerto Princesa. The resort was designed by architect Ed Ledesma and interior designer Eric Paras.
A delicious spread at the resort’s open dining room.

Some brands lose their soul when they scale up; others never manage to scale up at all. Ria describes theirs as being “small but at the same time big. It’s that gentle balance that lets our guests know that we care for them, that we’re sincere and they can feel that. With the amount of detail and attention we put on each property, they feel that. With the way our staff interacts with them, they feel it too—because they’re living that vision.”

Ironically, one of the measures of their success, according to Ria, was when media people stopped asking to interview her or Nikki because they didn’t need to.

Six degrees of separation

One-Of Collection COO Lyba Godio with The Funny Lion Puerto Princesa GM Mike Mahina, TFL Coron RM Jay Barinque, and TFL Puerto Princesa RM Nilo Quizon

In 1990, a playwright from New York named Juan Guare wrote an off-Broadway show called Six Degrees of Separation, which was later adapted into a film starring Will Smith. The story was loosely based on a decades-long theory by the Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy.

I mention the American writer first because it was his work that brought into popular culture the theory that despite great physical distances between people, the world was actually shrinking. In one of his short stories, Karinthy’s character says that any two individuals in the world could be connected through, at most, five acquaintances.

For instance, you start with Juan in the Philippines and randomly pick Jean in Haiti. These two don’t know each other. The theory is that when Juan randomly picks a person he knows who then picks another person who is the most likely to find a connection to another connection to get closer to Jean, only five people are needed from Juan to Jean. Meaning, only six degrees separate one person to another unknown person in the world.

(Photos above and below) In 2023 Palawan received 1.5 million visitors, according to a report by the Provincial Tourism Promotions and Development Office (PTPDO), a little less than double 2022’s 814,621 visitors.

In the local hospitality business—and for One-Of Collection in particular—Juan is a female and her name is Lyba Godio.  

The One-Of Collection chief operating officer has worked in some of the country’s high-end resorts like El Nido’s Pangulasian Resort, Amanpulo, and Dos Palmas; in the Maldives at Komando Island Resort; and in Malaysia at the Banjaran Hot Springs Retreat. She’s been a general manager, a resort manager, head of sales, and so on.

She’s a COO but it seems one of her super powers lies in HR. Lyba has a knack for picking out future resort managers when no one yet knows what they are capable of. Past and present resort managers of their brands got to work with her at one or another resort before joining One-Of.

TFL Puerto Princesa general manager Michael Mahinay worked with her in Amanpulo. She first hired him for Dos Palmas right after he graduated from college in the early ‘90s. TFL Coron resort manager Jay Barinque, Lyba hired from Huma; and TFL EL Nido resort manager Nilo Quizon from Balesin.

Every time Lyba speaks of One-Of employees, she speaks of them with pride and familiarity like she raised them. She talks about how, when the lockdown was first announced, Jay led the Coron team in helping stranded international tourists find flights back to Manila; and for one couple, Jay found the last seats on a chartered flight when no one else would take them.

Nikki and Ria with their their children. They owe the name The Funny Lion to one of their kids.

How Nilo Quizon brought smiles to guests at Amorita when he would wear his Spider-Man costume for their children’s birthdays. How Mike trained Jay to take his place as resort manager. In fact, when you get to know their stories, you realize just how remarkable their careers have been—all of them starting at some of the lowest ranks in a hotel.  

It’s no wonder Lyba, Nikki and Ria are so proud of them. “The recruitment process is really important to us, we look for people who have the same mindset and vision as ours; the skills we can augment or teach,” Ria says. “That’s why we’re also not expanding left and right, we’re at a level that’s comfortable for us. Our people have learned to expect excellence from each other.”

Lyba was also one of the first to recognize that these young, millennial dreamers were quite serious about getting into hospitality with a different approach and a unique set of values.

Safari inspiration, Funny Lion hopping

And then there were three: One-Of Collection’s lions in Palawan give travelers the option to explore more of the province with just one hotel brand.

Puerto Princesa is seen as a gateway to other Palawan islands, often passed over, never really on anyone’s Palawan bucket list. But for the TFL team, the provincial capital has its own potential.

“People are surprised that we’re here but we’re happy to build a TFL in Puerto Princesa. It’s a city in a forest; food supply is not a problem, neither are water and electricity; and there are established industries doing well here,” says Nikki.

Now that all three Funny Lions are open, Nikki says that guests who want to experience the different offerings of the three islands can do it via TFL. They can fly from Manila to Puerto Princesa, do a land transfer to El Nido, and then to Coron, or vice versa.

Ria adds, “The weather is so good, it’s relatively flat, the air is clean, and there are excellent schools and hospitals. People have relocated their entire families here because these institutions are present.”

Designed by architect Ed Ledesma, construction began in 2018. The plan was to open in 2020. During the pandemic they slowed down because they didn’t want to finish without knowing when they could open. Then designer Eric Paras, who had worked on El Nido and the expansion wing of Coron, started with the interiors and furnishings.

Each TFL has its own distinct character and design: TFL El Nido is a stone’s throw away from the town center’s restaurants and bars.
TFL Coron’s extended wing and pools embrace the forest around the resort.

An inspiration for this property is a safari resort in Africa where the Cautons once vacationed. The property was filled with edible plants and trees and their kids had an educational experience about nature.

Now they’re in the process of doing the same at TFL Puerto Princesa, with siniguelas, calamansi, dayap, kaffir lime, and other edibles. “How do we add to the guest experience beyond the rooms and pools? The resort in Africa was also owner-run and they explained to us the cycle of life in the bush, which our kids really enjoyed.”

Now that all three Funny Lions are open, Nikki says that guests who want to experience the different offerings of the three islands can do it via their resorts. They can fly from Manila to Puerto Princesa, do a land transfer to El Nido, and then to Coron, from where they fly back to Manila.

(Above) Amorita’s Saffron restaurant in Bohol. (Below) Inspired by safari game reserves, the little touches of The Funny Lion make for quiet, affordable luxury.

TFL Puerto Princesa takes guests to Honda Bay for picnic and snorkeling. TFL El Nido has the private Papaya Beach where they can paddle board, swim, and sunbathe surrounded by the limestone cliffs;  and explore the dining and party scene.

TFL Coron, which undoubtedly offers the most diverse activities including shipwreck diving and kayaking on the lagoons, can offer the longest stay. “Each property is different—TFL Coron is like entering a forest, El Nido is in town, and Puerto Princesa is just off the city center,” he says.

“We’re going to have special packages,” says Ria. “When we travel abroad, it helps if you’re dealing with only one group for your accommodations as you travel from city to city or even change countries. Everything can be synchronized.”

Nikki and Ria believe in Puerto Princesa so much that they’ve invested in two hotels here (Amorita is literally next door to TFL). We’re pretty sure that the city will soon have its lion’s share of Palawan’s tourist arrivals.

After all, look what they did in Bohol when they were only 27.

The new lifestyle.