A friend of mine used to travel to Boracay in the 1980s. Like someone else I once met who in the late 1980s and early 1990s would spend six months a year on Koh Pha-Ngan in Thailand, he bemoans the changes — aka development — of Southeast Asia’s tropical islands.
No longer are they the deserted, white-sand-beach paradises of 20 or 30 years ago. In places like Boracay, generators have been replaced by electricity supplied by under-the-sea cables from the nearby town, and thatched bungalows on the beach have disappeared in favour of resorts. Now, all of these islands are commercialised.
I never had the chance to visit Boracay in the 1980s when it was a travellers’ Mecca, an end-of-the-journey reason to brave long uncomfortable bus and boat journeys and budget airline trips with the likes of Aeroflot or Biman Bangladesh. So, I don’t know what I missed. My reference points are instead Phu Quoc in Vietnam and Koh Chang and Koh Samet in Thailand, islands that got picked up by the developers much later.
What I do know is that I like what Boracay has become (I’m not the kind of nostalgic person who yearns for a world that no longer exists). As developed island holiday destinations in Southeast Asia go, it’s one of the best. Even Travel & Leisure has bequeathed it with accolades, voting it the best island in the world in 2012.
It lacks top-end accommodation. Except for a few properties including the Shangri-La and The Astoria, Boracay doesn’t really go five-star. But it has everything else; water sports activities, go-karting, golf, nightlife, shopping and food options, lots of them. Nothing’s overpriced. The beer is cheap, too, sitting in the VND30,000 to VND40,000 a bottle range. It has also done something that few other island locations have managed to do, the beaches are spotlessly clean and the sea crystal clear.
But a step back.
I went to The Philippines on a media jaunt sponsored by Cebu Pacific, the country’s largest airline, and the Philippines Ministry of Tourism, which means that my experience was tailored and that in the ensuing write-up, I would have to like the place. For me this was a risk. In my mind there was always the question, what if…?
It also meant an early-hours-in-the-morning flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Manila, and then a few-hour stopover at the Belmont Hotel by the airport, before moving onto the domestic terminal for our flight to Caticlan.
Fortunately I’ve travelled enough in this region to separate the wheat from the chaff, and from the moment that I stepped on the boat in Caticlan Port that transported us from the mainland to Boracay, I knew that I was going to like the place. Crystal clear seas, perfectly white sand, and old-style fishing boats converted into people carriers have that kind of effect on me.
The same concern for the environment was apparent after we checked into our hotel, Le Soleil de Boracay, and headed out onto the beach. Not a piece of litter in sight. And once again, that sea, the type of azure that people travel halfway across the world for.
Three Days of Paradise
The main beach area is on the east of the island and is divided into three stations — Station 1, Station 2, Station 3 — each having its own set of water-sport activities. We were staying in Station 2, right by the D-Mall, which meant we had no beach road jammed up with traffic typical of places such as Kuta in Bali or Patong in Phuket. Instead, between the resort and the sand was a path. The beach here is palm-fringed, smoking is not allowed on the sand, and on the non-beach side of the path were the hotels, restaurants, bars, cafés and souvenir shops.
Yes, the place is commercial, and yes, you won’t get the peace and quiet of a deserted beach or a self-contained resort, but in return you’ve got the non-stop activity of the town. So, for restaurants, nightlife, souvenir shopping, hair plaiting, massage and daytime activities, this is where you should be.
Our itinerary included an ATV ride to the highest point on the island, helmet diving, parasailing, an island-hopping tour, ziplining, snorkelling, a picnic seafood lunch, a tour around the small local zoo, dinner on the beach, hotel inspections and a visit to the golf course. It was non-stop. But it was fun. Our hosts were phenomenal.
I did feel at times that more independence would have been nice — when I travel, I like to wander and see what I can discover. And on the last afternoon on Boracay, I managed to get a few hours to myself to look around and explore. I took a tricycle taxi, found the souvenir shop area, checked out the beach around Station 3 and perched myself in a beachside bar to do some people watching. A mixture of people has been attracted to Boracay. From Chinese and Korean families through to Russians, Americans, Europeans, Australians and a large number of Filipinos.
What amazed me was the laid-back sophistication of it all. The Philippines, despite being in Asia, has a lot of western influence — note the abundance of fast food restaurants. Boracay is no different. Yet, despite the constant buzz of people, there was something tranquil about the place. Maybe it’s the effect of being by the sea, or maybe it’s the way of The Philippines. There was never an air of aggression here — something which you can often experience in the beach areas of Thailand or Vietnam. Instead, the ambience was easy-going and chilled. And that, together with the sand and the sea, keeps this former backpacker island feeling a little special.
Places to Stay
We visited a number of resorts in the Station 2 area, these included Le Soleil de Boracay (lesoleil.com.ph), where we stayed, The District Boracay (thedistrictboracay.com), The Boracay Mandarin (boracaymandarin.com) and Boracay Regency, (boracayregency.com) a resort with a buffet restaurant famed for its dancing chefs (I saw them, they really do come out and dance). Mid-range accommodation costs around US$60 to US$100 a night, with the top-end going for US$200 to US$400. There are a number of good four-star options on the island. In terms of prices versus quality, the best of the limited five-star properties we came across was Discovery Shores (discoveryshoresboracay.com).
In Manila, we stayed at The Belmont (thebelmonthotels.com) and on the last day had dinner at the five-star (you should see this place) Solaire Resort and Casino (solaireresort.com). With 800 rooms, this property is not only enormous, but it’s a slice of Las Vegas in The Philippines.
Water sports in Boracay are amazingly well-priced compared to elsewhere in the region, and in my experience, professionally run — there is an obsession with safety. Parasailing, for example, costs around 2,000 pesos (US$40 / VND900,000) per person for 20 minutes of airborne buzz factor. Worth every penny.
We flew with Cebu Pacific (cebupacificair.com). The airline operates flights to Manila and then Boracay from both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. The round trip, including all taxes starts at around US$300 per person. The airline has routes to almost every island and airport in the Philippines, so it’s a good option if you want to get around the country’s 7,000 islands.
Photos by Nick Ross