La Isla Bonita

Welcome to the beach capital of the Philippines

There’s oohing and ahhing as the island comes into view from the windows of our twin-prop plane swooping in to land. We pass wind turbines and postcard- perfect waters. “Mate, that’s beautiful, that’s beautiful,” comes the broad-accented affirmation from one surfer to another in the seat behind me.

Soon we’re bumping down to land at the small airport adjacent to the island and garlands of beads are being draped over our necks by Cebu Pacific airline staff. Then it’s from plane to boat, ferried over to the island in a catamaran with the afternoon sun glittering off the crests of the waves. The bleariness of airports peels away and that island feeling takes hold. Welcome to Boracay. Our guides escort us by van down the island’s main road to our beach accommodation, the Mediterranean-themed Le Soleil de Boracay (rooms starting at USD133++).

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Boracay as a tourist destination began emerging onto the scene sometime in the late 1970s with the first trickles of pale- skinned European backpackers finding their way to its unspoiled shores and bedding down in simple nipa huts at night with nothing but candles and kerosene lamps. Today, of course, it’s another world. These days, and justly so, it’s a world-class travel destination. Because of sensible ecological management and waste treatment, the waters remain pristine, and the sand retains its natural whiteness. Smoking and littering on the beach itself is, blissfully, prohibited and closely enforced. The sunsets are as majestic as ever, if not even more so, enhanced by the many intersecting sails of boats in silhouette.

But it’s more than just a pretty face. Boracay is a recreationist’s delight. Activities abound, from helmet diving to the bottom of the ocean to parasailing up with the gulls, both on land and at sea. EXO Travel has organized a thrilling line-up of activities for us. First up is quad biking. The trail follows the road up to the top of Mt. Lubo – Boracay’s highest point – where the entire island stretches out below.

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Ranked among the more surreal experiences of my life, helmet diving – the act of strapping a fishbowl helmet onto your head and descending in an upright position to the bottom of the ocean – comes as a pleasant and somewhat unnerving surprise. The preparation feels something like a dress rehearsal for 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea as you wait on a ladder up to your waist in the water for the helmet to be placed onto your head, and the 30kg weight of it carries you straight down to the bottom like an anvil. It’s a jolting experience at first, with the sudden pressure on your eardrums, the Vader-like hiss of oxygen being piped in from above and the general weirdness of being upright and breathing on the ocean floor. Shoals of tropical fish flit around us, swimming right up to our faces inviting us to reach out in a childlike sense of wonder and touch one, which is near to impossible. It’s a dreamlike sensation and like nothing else you’re likely to experience. Re-entry to the world above is disorienting as we’re lifted back up onto the ladder by soft hands. I find myself back on the floating deck, staggering toward my companions on submarine legs in the sun.

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Then, after a quick transfer onto another motorboat, we’re strapping into the harness of a bright orange parasail. From the bottom of the sea suddenly we find ourselves hoisted up above the waves, carried on warm air currents in gentle dips and glides until the boat is but a tiny speck throwing out its wake onto the blue. Looking down at our feet swinging over the seagull’s kingdom, we soar high above the roving fishing boats, twisting palms, and sparkling bed of the sea sprawled out to the horizons. Reluctantly we are reeled back in again from our brief vertigo sublime, dunked gently down into the swell and then back up again until our feet touch down onto the deck.

But like a loud and brightly-colored billboard, Boracay proclaims more, more more! For the activity junkie the island offers hit after hit. We barely have time to recover before we’re back on the water again, this time experiencing the “Flying Fish” – a giant inflatable tube dragged over a swell at breakneck speed by a speedboat as we cling on white-knuckled for dear life, and falling off is half the fun.

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When the Sun Sets

Even with all of the above there’s still snorkeling, jetskiing, kiteboarding, zorbing, golfing, a small zoo and a 600-meter-long zipline still on the list to do. Activities aside, there are plenty of chances to simply relax. At night fire dancers come out, swinging glowing embers on the end of chains while moving to the latest top ten hits. Filipino reggae bands meanwhile belt out cover songs, serenading holidaymakers lounging on sofas set up on the sand.

Boracay’s beaches come to life at night just as much as its waters do during the sunlit hours, carrying the air of a summer carnival by the sea. The whole foreshore is a smorgasbord of hotels, shops and restaurants offering everything from Israeli to Indian to Italian cuisine, with a steady stream of international tourists moving from bar to bar riding the buzz.

The Regency Hotel (rooms from USD164++) is hosting its nightly buffet (USD13++) on the beach, bustling with patrons and blue-shirted waiters working the tables like a 1920s ball scene on the sand. Chinese families stack up plates of shrimp and crab claws. Dinner reaches a crescendo when the chefs, along with some suspiciously synchronized patrons, break into a choreographed dance routine. After gorging ourselves on seafood and cold beers we have a little exploration and discover one of the island’s more obscure attractions, the Hobbit Bar – staffed entirely by dwarves. We wash down dinner with Tanduay Rum as a sad- eyed troubadour belts out the blues on her guitar and little people move between tables delivering drinks.

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Our last day is spent island hopping the atolls and exploring the reefs in between on our catamarans. A sun-browned lad paddles up on his board with a cargo of coconuts and a machete. He hacks the tops off while still straddling his board and passes them over to our boat, 20 pesos apiece. Days could be whiled away like this. Lifetimes, even.

There’s just enough time for some last- minute souvenir shopping in the markets around D Mall, and I end up with a bag full of name-carved key rings in the likeness of ukuleles, surfboards and palm trees. When all’s said and done, it’s surely the sunsets that will leave the lasting impression of Boracay. There’s a good reason that it carries a reputation as a premier holiday destination.

Cebu Pacific offers daily flights to Boracay from Manila while Vietnam-based EXO Travel provides tailored tours to the island and around Southeast Asia.

Images by Tayne Ephraim

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