With Christmas rapidly approaching, the festivities of the holiday season and the spirit of celebration around the city of Manila are impressive for someone who has never experienced them before. For someone like me, who spent well over two decades celebrating this time of year in ungodly temperatures and surviving blizzards that could often engulf cars and bury our house to the roofline, the fantastic displays of decorated trees and beautifully lit streets are a little bizarre against the backdrops of palm trees and people in t-shirts and shorts.
In a country with an overwhelming 90% Christianity rate, the religious significance of this holiday only adds to the importance and passion of those celebrating it. The towering statues of religious icons can be seen looming over the swarms of people out celebrating what seems to be the other almost universal religion of Filipinos; shopping. The staggering crowds that can emerge at this time of year and traffic they bring with them are the perfect excuses to escape to a tropical paradise known the world over….Boracay!!
Arriving in Boracay from Manila
It only takes a short one hour flight from Manila in a plane that has me saying a few silent prayers before takeoff. Not a big fan of small planes. After landing on the narrow runway, we get ushered to one of the bangka pump boats that ferries us from the mainland Caticlan airport to the island itself. It’s a quick ride over the choppy water and we’re promptly met by a shuttle that takes us to the hotel.
Bangka Pump Boat
Boracay is separated into three districts; Yapak in the North, Manoc-Manoc in the South and Balabag in the center. The island is shaped like a dog bone that measures only seven kilometres across its narrowest point. There are two main tourist beaches; Bulabog, which runs along the eastern shore and is world-renowned for the strong winds which make it a favourite for para-sailors, kite and windsurfers, and White Beach that offers most of the 5 star hotels, resorts, shopping districts and restaurants in the area.
Eating in the trendier restaurant district here is one option but there’s also D’Talipapa, a great wet market, which has more restaurants. You can just select the seafood you want to eat from the market and have it cooked in one of the restaurants for a small fee. Bulabog is supposed to offer a much quieter and serene getaway for those not wanting to brave the densely populated White Beach but I want to be where the action is and I hear we’re headed to just the place.
The driver takes us through Manoc-Manoc and looking out the windows on the drive along the narrow and winding streets offers a view of the contrasts that seem to define this island. Small shacks and food stands line the road while tourist resorts and multi-million dollar hotels glow in the background along the beach.
We get dropped at the entrance to a district called D’Mall where a waiting hotel employee ushers us off the road towards the hotel. Within a few feet of being off the busy street we’re on a sandy path that runs between the rows of shops, eateries and clubs. There’s a little of everything here with trendy board shops, high fashion stores and phenomenal restaurants, even a climbing wall and small ferris wheel in the centre courtyard.
It’s a Friday night and the crowds are thirsty and hungry as they make they way in and out of the bars and restaurants in bunches. It’s a business trip for my girlfriend and we’re anxious to check into the hotel, grab a bite to eat and dip our toes in the water before getting some solid rest for what will no doubt be a long day tomorrow…..at least that was the plan.
The Tides is perfectly located right in the middle of the D’Mall area and surrounded by some of the best food and shopping spots. Along with the prime location, the hotel boasts a swanky rooftop pool, restaurant and lounge complete with a spectacular view of the ocean. The modern room, with its cool floating tub and rainfall shower head, almost convinces me to call it a night but I’m starving!
FRIDAY NIGHT IN BORACAY
Fifteen steps from the hotel entrance are a handful of restaurants including a great seafood restaurant that had some amazing garlic prawns. There’s blues floating out from strange little place outside the hotel entrance called D’Hobbit House, which serves a ton international beers and is staffed entirely by little people.
The quick walk to the beach after dinner doesn’t offer any spectacular views, but it’s a great opportunity to scout some potential hangouts and finally plunge my feet into the fine white powdery sand that makes this island the most popular beach destination in the Philippines and one of the best in the world. It lives up to its reputation.
There are some amazing sand sculptures up and down the white beach as we casually stroll along with the live music of the endless beach-front bars and restaurants. It’s not hard to imagine spending a few weeks here rather than a few days. I’m already anxious to take this all in again in the sunlight but can’t resist checking out the scene after dark.
EATING AND DRINKING
The selection of restaurants and bars up and down the beach is pretty unbelievable. The appeal of this tropical paradise has lured so many foreigners into calling it their home that there are tons of eateries offering authentic cuisine for every palate and budget. Like so many other amazing destinations that begin as well-kept secrets, inevitably its explosive popularity brings destructive consequences, with over-development a huge concern. I try to ignore the annoying fact that, despite so many great spots offering local food, coffee and delicious tropical drinks, Starbucks remains one of the busiest spots on the beach.
My girlfriend and I are waiting for her aunt to come join us and stop in front of Pat’s Creek Bar. Comfy benches and candlelit tables are laid out right on the beach surrounding the stage that sits in front of the water.
The band is already starting their first set and I was surprised at the mixed crowd. The soft reggae has heads bobbing, both balding and deadlocked.
Along with the tropical drinks and sizzling platters of stellar bar food making their way to the tables, hookahs are available by request and the smell of sweet sheesha fills the air as we take a seat to order appies and drinks.
I love it here and we sat and enjoyed our drinks listening to some of the music before reuniting with Chaya’s aunt.
We’re all together again and leave the chill vibe of Pat’s and travel north up White Beach. There are tourists from all over the globe here enjoying the bar scene that ranges from sleek and sexy nightclubs, to simple huts serving ice-cold beer and everything in between.
There are many great live shows along the beaches of Boracay, but the fire dancers are supposed to be one of the best. These….errr…..ladies and gentlemen were really entertaining and we had a blast watching them perform. There’s no entrance fee, only a commitment to a minimum bar tab while inside. This proved not to be an issue for us and I’m feeling a little giddy as we ponder our next stop.
My girlfriend makes friends easy and by the time the show ended we we’re off to a bar called Guilly’s Island with two Swedish girls, a guy from Singapore, two other Filipinas and, of course, four of the fire dancers. We took the short walk and enjoyed the music and packed dance floor until it was time for a late night wobbly ride back to the hotel with the two of us on the back of a motorbike. Sleep is needed…….
Despite the unmistakable dryness and taste of sand in my mouth, I’m up and out the door early. I want to see more of Boracay and desperately need something to hydrate my poor, battered body. I take a walk up the beach to check out a place I heard has the best shakes on the island. After only seeing the beach late last night, the view that greets me puts a smile on my face that hangs there for the thirty minute walk to Jonah’s Shakes.
With a white sandy beach stretching as far as the eye can see and sailboats and windsurfers enjoying the turquoise water, it’s a perfect morning.
The walk on my way to grab some fresh papaya and mango shakes takes me along the strip of cafes and restaurants that sit right off the beach and where early risers and all-nighters alike are filling up on much-needed coffee.
A guy on the beach stops me and tries to sell me on a day trip to go island-hopping or parasailing. All I can think about is breakfast, but the papaya shake has cured my morning nausea enough that I’m sold on the idea of getting out on the water today one way or another. I pitch the idea of an island-hopping trip to my girlfriend and her tita Lai over breakfast and they’re both interested in some time on the water after they do a little work. Not surprisingly, when I mentioned the deal I got offered, Chaya just grinned at her aunt, who already had a bit of a smirk on her face.
We’re back on the beach after breakfast and find some guys from the same company selling the tours. This lady is like the black widow of bargaining and these poor guys never stood a chance. Less than 2 minutes is all it takes for a 70% discount on the tour. Moments later Chaya and I are sporting some imitation Oakley and Ray-Ban sunglasses for less than half the asking price. The extra cash will be better spent on Pina Coladas and cold beer later anyways.
Following the Boracay Shoreline
We’re off on an island adventure to explore the sights around Boracay and visit the island that houses the Crystal Caves. We journey out onto the waters around Boracay in a Paraw, a simple sailboat that takes us along the shoreline and we pass several secluded beaches tucked into small coves. The cliffs along the water are home to both resorts and spectacular beach houses with million dollar views of the ocean.
Island in the Sun
There are tiny mounds of rock covered in greenery, barely large enough to be called islands, that sprout up from the water as our bangka casually putters closer to our target.
The wind starts to pick up and the waves grow in size as we hit the open water and sail past the true to its name Crocodile Island on our journey to Crystal Cove.
CRYSTAL COVE ISLAND
Crystal Cove is an island that is undoubtedly one of the highlights of this island-hopping trip. We admire the crystal clear water as we sail up onto the finely ground puka shells that make up the shore of this 6 acre chunk of land.
There are only a couple other boats here and it feels like we have the island to ourselves as we talk a walk along the beach and soak up some of the warm sun. It’s a great opportunity to take a closer look at the shells, once a favourite of tourists to take as keepsakes, now protected to maintain the beaches for future generations.
There are huge flocks of birds flying in unison overhead and then finding their perch on rooftops and trees as we start to explore the island.
Tropical gardens surrounding small ponds are spread out around the entrances to the two caves. Despite the warning signs, the floating tropical lilies are so dense on the water it looks like you could walk out and hover on top of them.
Tropical oasis on Crystal Cove Island
The small 200 peso entry fee is definitely worth what this weird tropical wonderland has to offer. Looking out from one of the many structures, the landscape is bizarre and beautiful.
Along with the driftwood and stone built structures, there are lots intricately decorated stone pathways and hand crafted furniture and sculptures.
A winding staircase takes us underground to the first cave where the waves are crashing hard into the rocks. On calmer days you can swim out here and check out the windsurfers at the other end of the island.
The second cave requires a quick dip into waist-high water before crawling through the narrow tunnel that opens into an amazing little grotto.
We have time to grab a snack and enjoy the views before heading back along the path leading to the boat. The water along the beach here is so clear, it’s not hard to imagine how the island got its name. I took lots of pictures here and put them all into an album for you to enjoy.
It’s been a while since I’ve been swimming in the ocean anywhere tropical and I was pumped to do some snorkeling along the reefs. The boat drops anchor in twenty-foot water and I’ve already got my mask and snorkel on.
The water is teaming with brightly coloured schools of tropical fish weaving through the coral and rocks. I get tossed a few pieces of bread and they all swarm and circle me before disappearing an instant later. I have a few minutes to just float and enjoy the underwater world then hop back into the boat and finish the tour by heading North past Shangri-la and Manny Paquio’s resort.
We anchor again on a quiet beach with a hut serving up cold drinks and some tasty grub. I wander the deserted beach to take a few photos and then enjoy the calm and quiet ride back with the sun starting to set over the horizon.
I had a fantastic time exploring Boracay and the surrounding islands. Here’s some of the video footage I shot on the tour.
The ladies pass the gazebos offering massages right on the beach and stop in for some well-deserved pampering. A trip back to the hotel to get cleaned up and a Mexican feast while overlooking the ocean cap a really memorable day. I’m too exhausted to do anything but crash.
Boracay is an amazing tropical getaway. Everything from sinfully luxurious hotels to nipa beach huts and a reputation for some of the country’s best restaurants catering to all tastes and budgets. It’s worth the trip to experience the vibrant nightlife or get out and enjoy the activities like diving, windsurfing and kiteboarding. Too much for one short trip but I’m already planning my second visit in February.