It’s like a dramatic painting by Gauguin. I am on a palm-fringed, screensaver of a beach. People are frozen in their tracks, distracted from whatever they were doing. All are watching the surreal scene of the sky turning a deep salmon, then purple and flaming orange. It’s both a public spectacle and an intimate event.
Families with children, couples and solo travellers all come out of their hotels and congregate here to watch this unforgettable evening spectacle on White Beach. In the distance, silhouetted against the sky are the traditional outrigger boats with triangular sails, called paraws, where people take an evening cruise. Some sip wine and toast the spectacular sunset, others go crazy snapping photos and then there are those like me who just dig their feet into the sand and enjoy the moment. It’s just another sunset on the island of Boracay.
Boracay, one of the 7107 islands of the Philippines, is one of Asia’s most popular tourist destinations. The tropical island, just seven kilometres long and about one hour away by air from Manila, is home to some of the world’s best white-sand beaches fringing the warm waters of the Sulu Sea. Each area of the island is named after the island’s three boat stations: Station 1 – home to White Beach and high-end resorts; Station 2 – the liveliest part with restaurants and bars; and Station 3, where the budget accommodation is found. Once we land at the Caticlan Airport, we have our own van and speedboat to whisk us away to our luxurious hotel on Boracay Island.
“This island was little known until the 1970s when a German travel writer [Jens Peter] declared White Beach to be the best beach he had ever seen. The beach then attracted a flood of backpackers in the 1980s and, today, it has the most luxurious resorts and hotels,” explains our guide.
At one end of the island is the ultra-luxurious Shangri-La Resort & Spa, a private enclave in the island’s north favoured by celebrities. This property covers 12 hectares and includes two private, white-sand beaches with villas and a private butler service. Another high-end boutique property, Asya Premier Suites, has rustic treehouses towering over a private cove.
Our home away from home is the spanking new luxury property The Lind in Station 1. I love the design aesthetics of the hotel – it radiates a cool tropical vibe with the entire resort done up in pleasing aqua tones using recycled local materials. I also admire the motifs of the seashells, fish and boats, on everything from cushions to towels.
My room is an oasis – with sleek and minimalistic interiors, set off with creative lighting, accent rugs and back-lit headboards. The hotel offers a culinary feast with six restaurants, each with its own distinctive, creative dishes. I love waking up to the abundant breakfast buffet with lots of fresh products. I load up on tropical fruits from avocado and mango milkshakes to cut fruits.
The best part of the resort is the infinity pool that overlooks the beach from three levels high and has an unobstructed view of the sunset. An extra stylish touch is the cabanas that look like birdcages (modelled on local shrimp cages) and can be used to have a drink in seclusion! The lobby lounge and bar +36, named after Boracay’s area code, is close to the infinity pool and ideal for sunset cocktails.
Over the next few days we explore all that the island has to offer. We snorkel Boracay’s clear turquoise waters to discover sponges and turtles, rays, sea snakes and snapper. My favourite is a ride on the Yellow Submarine where we descend 20 metres, surrounded by different hues of aqua. Outside my window, I see colourful schools of parrot fish, moray eels and turtles, and divers who point out the undersea wonders.
I also choose an easy alternative to scuba diving – helmet-diving – which involves donning a super-heavy 30-kilogram helmet and descending into the water led by an expert dive instructor. The guide lowers me down on the ocean floor and I feel as weightless as if I were walking on the moon. While I walk hesitantly at first, I soon gain confidence and pose for photographs with my friends as I feed some bread to the fish that surround me. Back on terra firma, I give myself a pat on the back for having conquered my fears.
Come evening, the beach explodes into a hive of activity, morphing into a neon wonderland. There are small tables with tea lights, bean bags and small cushions set on the sand, fairy lights strung around the palm trees and live music spilling out of most waterfront restaurants. I decide to chill in a bean bag on the sand and take in all the activity around me. “Every Filipino can sing and dance,” says our guide and I have to believe him.
On small makeshift stages, talented singers croon soulful numbers – reggae, jazz, rock – and dance to the music while women twirl their batons and gyrate to their own rhythm in acrobatic fire dances. Here, the restaurants offer barbecue dinners with seafood: crabs, lobsters, giant prawns and all kinds of fish. One of my favourite memories is the dancing chefs and waiters at the Boracay Regency Restaurant: they break out in dance and jive to music with guests joining in.
The next day we decide to get a bird’s-eye view of the island and I opt to parasail for the very first time. I gulp back my fears and strap myself into the seat with my friend, and ascend from a pontoon on a boat in the ocean. As we go up, screaming our lungs out, the sheer beauty of the panoramic view of the entire island – the cobalt blue shallows and stretches of silken sand – stun us into silence. For the more adventurous there are kite-boarding and windsurfing lessons at Bulabog Beach.
We then take to the water in a small paraw – a local boat with bamboo outriggers – and beach hop from secluded beaches such as Yapak (Puka Shell Beach) and Bulabog to Crystal Cove with its subterranean cave.
To get a peek into the culture of the island beyond the beach and sun, we visit the Bihasin Ati Living Heritage Village, which is home to the Ati, the indigenous people of the island. This is now a very small community restricted to this land and managed by Christian missionaries. They showcase their culture in a small, sand-bottomed museum, with drums, baskets and tribal artifacts. Nearby, on a tiny strip of beach, children play volleyball as the women weave baskets.
On my last day on the island, I spend my morning walking along the sand as white as talcum powder on White Beach, which is lined with thick groves of swaying palms and dotted with tourists playing Frisbee, hawkers selling hats and shades and children crafting elaborate sandcastles on the beachfront.
There are distractions aplenty: from getting braids on your hair to a quick massage in a booth or a henna tattoo on your skin. I head to the luxurious Spa at the Lind, and have a traditional hilot massage, which uses banana leaf strips and virgin coconut oil to help ease tension. I literally levitate after the massage as it fills me with energy and results in a relaxed body and mind. I leave the island in a ‘Boracay state of mind’… relaxed, chilled out, and pampered. •
Photography by Shutterstock and Shangri-La’s Boracay Resort & Spa.
Fly to Manila with Philippine Airlines and connect to Caticlan Airport on local carriers such as PAL Express (previously Air Philippines) and Cebu Pacific Air. Head to the Caticlan Jetty Port, which is a three-minute tricycle ride away. From this port, another boat will take you to Boracay Island in just 15 minutes. Note: Most resorts will arrange the logistics. philippineairlines.com
Where to stay
• Shangri-La’s Boracay Resort & Spa is luxury all the way and has perhaps the best location on the island. shangri-la.com/boracay
• Boracay’s newest resort The Lind, has beautiful Mykonos-esque rooms, an infinity pool and cabanas shaped liked traditional shrimp traps. thelindhotels.com
The local tricycle taxis are the best to get around, charging around 20 PHP per person from one station to the next.