In the Northern most part of the Western Visayas, about 200km north of my home in Iloilo, stands Boracay – a travel destination revered for its pristine white sands, and blue water so clear you can see straight to the bottom of the ocean. A place where the beaches seem to stretch to infinity, and no one has ever complained of a bad day. If this sounds too good to be true, read on.I groggily stepped out of my hotel on Saturday morning, smelling nothing but fresh ocean air. It was 6:00am; too early for most of the local businesses to start their day, and way too early for the legions of hung-over vacationers to infiltrate the beaches. It was just me, and a couple of other early risers who were already in the water. The sun was just coming up over the horizon. It was perfect.
I was staying in Station 2, which put me in the centre of the Boracay social scene. Armed with nothing but time, I casually flip-flopped down the beach. Shopkeepers were sleepily attending to their little strips of land, cleaning up errant litter and maintaining the aura of perfection along the beach.
Aggressive vendors are a big part of the Boracay experience, and there’s no escaping them. Turn around, and you’ll have a half dozen grifters asking you to pay 10x the price for island souvenirs, sunglasses, or experiences such as scuba diving or sailing. Even children get in on the hustle, building incredible sandcastles, and then charging visitors for the right to have their names engraved for the day. A few of the youngest entrepreneurs were at it right away, starting early in the hopes of a decent pay-day.
Before I knew it, 7:00am had rolled around, and one of the coffee shops had jumped out to me. Through the corporate maze of Americana that had forced their way on to the beach, like Starbucks, McDonalds, and Subway, stood a much more humble bamboo construct, advertising fresh coffee and home made calamansi muffins. Breakfast was calling to me at Real Coffee.
I secured a seat on the second floor, sitting next to an open-air window where I was able to overlook the beach. I ordered a Boracay Buzz; a frozen mocha blended with a banana, and one of the calamansi muffins. I have grown to love the calamansi fruit, which resembles the key lime, but has a more orangy lemon flavor. The muffins were not a let down. They were fresh, incredibly moist, and clearly used the real fruit instead of a flavor substitute. The drink was sugary and rich, designed to give you a burst of energy; but given my aversion to sugar, I was destined for a morning of sluggish regret. However, I was on vacation, and pain was no factor. Not with beach chairs being set up along the ocean, calling to me to rest until breakfast had digested.
By this time, my friend Eric had woken up and found his way into the water. I sat in a chair nearby, sleepily moving in and out of consciousness, waking periodically to swat away the vendors who felt that I really needed to hear about their cashews for sale. “I’ll give you a special price,” they lied, with a smile that was impossible not to love.
Within a half hour, I was feeling refreshed enough to start getting through our day, and Eric had already managed to negotiate a sailboat for the two of us. Eric is a sailing nut, and after chatting with several vendors, and slogging through a string of alleged “best prices”, he had finally secured a reasonable rate of 1000 pesos for 3 hours on the water.
The sailboats aren’t like the ones we’re used to in North America. It isn’t free-standing, instead relying on a double-outrigger, as nearly all Filipino boats do. Between the outrigger arms sat synthetic netting, where each of us took a seat in order to maintain the balance of the boat. Within minutes of cast-off, I was lounged out, soaking in both the sun, and occasionally, a giant unexpected wave. When you’re on the verge of unconsciousness, those suckers pack more punch than a Boracay Buzz.
After nearly an hour and a half, we found ourselves on the Northern most part of Boracay island, known as Puka Beach. Puka Beach is away from the noise of the main stations, attracting richer visitors who are interested in one thing only: the beach. Everything here was just Beachy, from the bikini clad Barbie’s tanning next to their Ken dolls, to the kids splashing in the shallow waters, and the occasional errant beach ball that would come rolling past like a Carribean tumbleweed. Paradise.
Up the beach about a hundred metres was an outdoor cafe, which seemed like an ideal place to stop for lunch. The menu was small, but the options all good. Given this was likely the only trip I was going to make here in my lifetime, fresh charcoal grilled seafood was the only option. I ordered the squid, and a cold buka shake with no sugar. About 20 minutes later, I was greeted with perfectly charred skewered whole-calamaris, and fresh coconut water blended smooth with ice. Outstanding.
Bellies full, we made our way back to the boat, and sailed back around to our starting point. After nearly 3 combined hours of lying on the netting, my stomach and back were lined with hundreds of diamond creases. I looked like a grilled cut of beef from a premium steakhouse, and after that long in the sun, I certainly felt well done.
While we initially considered going jetskiing, after all the time we’d spent on the water already, taking an ATV through the mountains seemed like a much more exciting proposition. We were promised a 1-hour adventure, and negotiated a much more reasonable cost than the usual “best price”. The vendor hustled us into a jeepney, and drove us to an abandoned amusement park about 20 minutes off the main strip. The empty park, adorned with colorful cartoon characters carried the same kind of heavy eerieness you’d expect at the start of a horror movie. Would we make it through the afternoon without being attacked by an evil clown, or being co-ersed onto a rickety rollercoaster and plunge to our deaths?
There was definitely an air of bad news here; but it turned out it came in the form of the shady ATV vendor. The “one hour mountain adventure”, it turned out, would feature driving at the heart-pounding pace of a special needs snail, parking at the foot of a mountain, climbing the 10 stories to the top, and … well, standing around there for a half hour, looking at stuff.
Don’t get me wrong, once I stopped seeing stars and reached the peak of the never-ending stairmaster, the view was breathtaking – but it was hardly the trail-ripping once-in-a-lifetime trek I was expecting. For the sake of maintaining our twisted sanity, Eric and I decided to share a tender moment next to a heart-shaped wreath at the peak, pledging what sounded suspiciously like wedding vows to the now wide-eyed bartender, who stopped slinging mango shakes long enough to come over and investigate.
Sweating like hogs, we headed back to the main strip, where we spent the remainder of the afternoon soaking in the warm water. As the sun began to set, we changed into fresh clothing and made our way to happy hour at a bar named, and I swear I am not making this up, Nigi Nigi Nu Noos E Nu Nu Noos.
Of course, happy hour on any part of the beach means “2-for-1” drinks. Eric was happy to work over a pair of pina coladas, while I stuck to a couple of vodka cranberries. While I can’t recall the specific timeframe of happy hour, if memory serves, it ran roughly from “opening until the party stops”.
By this point, the sun was nearly down and the last of the beach bums were starting to pack it in to prep for dinner. I’m a total lightweight and was feeling tipsy, so it seemed like a good idea for us to do the same.
We made our way to the pricey, but wonderful buffet offered at the Henann hotel. The Henann caters to a more upscale crowd, charging upwards of 750 pesos for the meal (~$20 Canadian). Given that I didn’t know what I wanted to eat, but I knew I wanted quality food and lots of it, this place was perfect.
The buffet has dozens of stations, ranging from options like oysters, crabs, sushi, steak, sizzling sisig made to order, local vegetables, and lots more. Eric and I loaded up, with plate after plate of the incredible offerings. It was the perfect blend of local Filipino staples, and home comfort food. Despite the hefty price tag, by local standards, this would have cost at least $40-$50 a head back in Canada. I was eating like a king on a peasant budget. Lord, have mercy.
Dinner took place outdoors, where a an all-girl group seranaded us with cover song after cover song, going to the Spice Girls well so many times they had to defer to lesser known hits like “Too Much” and “Viva Forever”. Eric hated every second of it, made worse when I started crooning along.
Once we had effectively stuffed ourselves to the point of resembling manatees, we rolled out of the dining area, and back to the beach front near our hotel. The chairs had been packed up and replaced with athletic mats and knee-high tables. We ordered more drinks, smoked grape flavored hookah, and took in the entertainment, which ranged from a couple of decent fire-dancers, a so-so cover band that focused on one-hit wonders like Duncan Sheik and Loreena McKennitt (unlikely CanCon!), and of course, about 4500 vendors who genuinely believed our lives would not be complete until we had the latest in laser-pointing technology.
After a few hours of just chilling out, we packed it in, effectively ending one of the most relaxing, and entertaining days of my life.
It’s not a wonder that Boracay always ranks near the top of just about every travel guide’s “places you have to see before you die”. The only complaints come from the locals who remember it “as it was” before it grew to be too commercial; but with interest comes evolution, and the corporate leeches aching for a cut of the action is an inevitable part of any area’s growth.
Boracay has a little something for everyone. Couples looking for an island get-away can enjoy all-night dancing til their feet fall off, perfect beach weather, snorkelling, diving, and more. Families can go island hopping, eat at any number of the hundreds of restaurants, and live the paradise lifestyle. Hotels range from inexpensive hostels for under twenty dollars a night, to pricey 5 star affairs that will set you back hundreds.
I arrived expecting a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and left trying to figure out when I’d get the chance to visit again. It’s the kind of special magic you feel at Disney World, or Las Vegas – an over-stimulation of the pleasure senses that leaves you wanting more, and more importantly, makes you never want to leave. It truly doesn’t get any better.