Azure waters, palm-tree fringed white sandy beaches, and ever-so-friendly locals complete the picture postcard that is Boracay. Ranked among the most beautiful islands in the world, this gem in the Philippine archipelago is truly a slice of paradise.
Words: Chitra S Photography: Adam Lee
Located approximately 315kms south of Manila and 2kms off the northwest tip of Panay in the Western Visayas region, Boracay comprises three main barangays (villages) – Manoc-Manoc, Balabag and Yapak. Relatively tiny compared to other Southeast Asian island getaways like Phuket and Bali, this dog-bone shaped island measures only 7kms in length and is just 1km wide at its narrowest point. It is believed that the island’s name stems from the word borac meaning ‘cotton’ in the local Aklan tongue, which alludes to its soft-as-cotton fine sand beaches.
But like all beautiful islands, Boracay has its own romantic legend. My guide, Bobby Casimero, a native islander or Boracaynon, recounted a tale told to him by his grandmother when he was just knee-high. According to legend, the island was first inhabited by a couple who were deeply in love. The husband, Bora and his wife, Acay decided their island home should be christened Boracay – a testament to their everlasting love and, to ensure the memory of their love would live on long after they had passed. I personally couldn’t find any documentation to verify this legend but the story is an appealing one and besides, Boracay certainly seems tailor-made for romance. At every turn, I found myself wishing my other half was with me to share the glorious beauty of the island. Taking cover from the sun beneath the shade of a palm tree while Casimero rattled on, I imagined spending a lazy afternoon or two lying with my partner in a hammock, with just the sound of waves lapping against the shore for company.
Decades ago, before word of the island’s beauty became widespread, White Beach on the western side of Boracay was a backpackers’ haven, and a place to chill out and watch the world go by. It may be hard to keep development at bay, especially now that tourists are flocking to Boracay in droves, but the island still retains a laidback vibe that cannot be replicated, at least not in this part of the world.
White Beach is split into three main zones named after disused boat stations that used to serve particular stretches of the beach. Station 1 is home to boutique hotels and fi ve-star properties while Station 2 offers mid-range accommodation. Station 3 offers lodgings that are easy on the pocket and is the preferred choice of backpackers and shoestring travellers. All three areas front the same gorgeous beach so, it really doesn’t matter where you are based and, considering the entire length of White Beach stretches only about 4kms, it is possible to walk from one end to the other. Motorised vehicles aren’t allowed onto the sandy pedestrian pathway, which is the strip of land between hotels, restaurants and shops, and the rest of the beach.
From sunrise to sunset, White Beach is the island’s vibrant hub. During the day, colourful paraw (sailboats) and bangka (pump boats) line up at the shoreline ready to ferry passengers to outlying islets. Tourists and locals pass time with games of beach soccer or volleyball, and little kids walk around with baskets of trinkets for sale. The scene, however, changes as the sun sets, when makeshift stalls hawking everything from instant tattoos to ‘designer’ sunglasses take over the beach. Having hawkers cajole you into buying a fourth pair of sunglasses may not be everyone’s cup of tea but bargaining on the beach for trinkets and ‘I LOVE BORACAY’ T-shirts is part of the island’s charm. And once the sale is closed, reward yourself as I did, with an ice-cold bottle of San Miguel from one of the many beach-side bars.
Sitting on a deckchair, on the beach and under the stars on my first night on the island, I was coaxed into a lazy stupor by a combination of, I believe, San Miguels, the evening breeze, and strains of reggae wafting from a band performing on the beach. As the night wore on, I traipsed the entire stretch of Stations 2 and 3, and was promptly entertained by even more musicians performing under makeshift tents, and firedancers that could sober anyone up with their daring routines. The easy-like-Sunday morning feeling is what makes White Beach and Boracay a much-loved and favoured destination. Boracaynons like Casimero, however, prefer Puka Beach in the northern end of the island. Named for the cone-shaped shells of a sea snail found on its shores, Puka is a much quieter stretch of beach. There are other beaches along the island as well, like Diniwid on the West and the secluded Ilig-Iligan in the East. If you are keen on exploring different beaches on the island, do your homework first or enlist the assistance of a local guide.
Waking up bright and early on Day 2 of my Boracay jaunt, I boarded a bangka from Bulabog Beach to Crystal Cove Island Resort (www.crystalcoveisland.com), a private island dotted with man-made sculptures of no particular theme. There was a voluptuous nude woman, various animals, and life-sized figures reminiscent of Easter Island statues. Curiosities aside, it is the island’s beautiful coves and aviary that attract boatloads of tourists daily. I was told the island gets its name from crystal rock formations that are found on it, but unfortunately, I never did come across any. “The exact location of the crystals is a well-kept secret; only the owners know where it is,” said Casimero of the hidden gems. Luckily for me and other visitors, the island’s natural coves were the bigger draw.
It took me about 30 minutes to trek from one end of the island to the other, in order to explore the coves. Navigating my way carefully down a steep stone staircase, I entered the first cove, which was ideal for snorkelling. The second cove further along the island took a little more work though. Crawling on my hands and knees through a narrow tunnel, I was rewarded with stunning sea views. The island also offers a bird’s eye view of the surroundings, which includes Boracay and other nearby islands and islets. After exploring the coves, I got back onto the bangka and headed out to the open sea for more snorkelling. Boats plying the Boracay-Crystal Cove route often stop along a reef near Crocodile Island (so named for its snout-like appearance), allowing passengers to explore the rich marine life there. Feeling a little tired, I decided against diving, and watched as my more adventurous fellow passengers took the plunge. Joining them was my experienced boatman who dived straight into the water sans equipment to bring me a starfish, seahorses and pretty shells, which were promptly returned to the water after a very brief show-and-tell session.
The afternoon heat was taking its toll on me when Casimero tapped my shoulder and enquired if I wanted an ice-cream. With neither a cooler nor fridge in sight, I thought the sun had gotten to his head, until I spied a couple of canoes racing towards our boat.
As the boatmen paddled closer, I could see that one was laden with coconuts while the other had a little cooler box packed to the brim with ice-cream cones. Needless to say, everyone devoured the ice-cream and had their fill of coconut water right there in the middle of the sea!
Bye bye Boracay
Just as I was settling into the island way of life, and much too fast for my liking, Day 3 rolled around and it was time to leave beautiful Boracay. That morning, I awoke to a puddle of water in my room courtesy of a leaky roof and a tropical storm. The dismal weather echoed the way I felt about leaving Boracay behind. I packed my bags with a heavy heart, but as the sun finally broke through the dark clouds, lifting my spirits, I told myself I would one day return to Boracay – the island of everlasting love.
Journey to Boracay
Though the island is sometimes described as far-flung, it is easy to get to Boracay with AirAsia. My flight from Clark to Kalibo in the Aklan province took just about an hour. From Kalibo, which is the gateway to Boracay and home to one of the largest festivals in the Philippines – the Ati-Atihan, I hopped on a bus to Caticlan. The journey through the rolling hills of Aklan province took me past little towns and villages, paddy fields dotted with carabaos, and along a scenic coastal road to the port at Caticlan. From there, it was just a short 10-minute boat ride to Boracay.
When to go
The weather is great during the summer months from March to the end of May but make reservations early as this is the peak holiday season in Philippines. Summer is also the best time to enjoy White Beach before the onset of the Southwest monsoon season (June – Sept), which results in choppy waters on the west of the island. During the monsoon, boats taking visitors to outlying islets or back to Caticlan set off from Bulabog Beach on the opposite side of the island.
Things to do
PARAW SAILING These boats with eye-catching sails ply the waters of Boracay, offering rides to tourists game for adventure. An average paraw can accommodate four to six passengers. www.boracayinsider.com
KITE AND WIND SURFING Touted as one of the best places to learn kitesurfing in Asia due to its perfect winds, Boracay is a favourite haunt of kitesurfers or kiteboarders. Before kitesurfing was all the rage, the island was popular with windsurfers. Every January, the Boracay International Funboard Cup, which features windsurfi ng and kiteboarding events, attracts extreme sports enthusiasts from all over the world. www.islakitesurfing.com, www.windsurfasia.com
D’MALL PLAZA The biggest shopping area on Boracay, this pedestrian mall along Station 2 is packed with shops selling everything under the sun, as well as restaurants and bars.
GETTING THERE Philippines AirAsia flies twice daily to Kalibo from Clark. Go to www.airasia.com for details.