I’ve always had a sentimental attachment to the Philippines. I was raised by a Filipina nanny, and in the past twenty years I’ve worked with so many colleagues from the Philippines that addressing someone as ate (sister) or kuya (brother) almost comes naturally to my Chinese Singaporean tongue.
It seems to me that everyone from the Philippines carries the heart of their country wherever they go, in their resilience, sense of family, and a truly unquenchable joy for life that has always made me wonder – are those 7000-plus islands really full of singing, dancing, laughing people all day long? Is it really more fun in the Philippines, as my friends all said?
I decided it was time to find out!
The one place everyone from the Philippines has always insisted I must see is, of course, the world-famous Boracay. The descriptions were irresistible – white beaches with sand as soft as talcum powder, turquoise waters so clear you can see fish darting about the coral reefs without getting wet, beautiful sunrises and sunsets.
There was only one reason I didn’t go sooner: Boracay wasn’t always easy to get to. These days, however, AirAsia can fly you direct to Kalibo International Airport from various cities.
From Kalibo, you’ll need a ride to the ferry terminal, where you’ll experience the cheerful chaos of hundreds of people flooding onto vessels ranging from creaky wooden bangkas (outrigger boats) to shiny powerboats, carrying everything from picnic baskets to golf clubs.
I highly recommend you have your hotel or resort pre-book a transport facilitator who will then arrange all transfers, right till they drop you at the doorstep of the resort. Although most people in the Philippines speak some English, and it’s not that hard to make your own way, it’s not much more expensive to just skip the hassle.
And hey, what’s your hurry anyway? The drive to the ferry terminal is scenic, taking in wide green vistas of Philippines’ lush tropical land, and the boat trip across is even better over a sparkling blue sea. Just relax and enjoy the ride.
I hadn’t realised it, but we had actually booked our flights during Boracay’s biggest festival – LaBoracay, held over the May Day weekend! Huge, colourful nonstop parties would line the beach, and various live bands and DJs were expected to keep the mood going all night.
Boracay’s beach (and yes, the sand is as white and soft as talcum powder!) is divided into three ‘stations’. Station 1 comprises more upmarket hotels and resorts; Station 2 concentrates all the parties and nightlife; and Station 3 right at the end of the beach is a quieter haven for those interested in sea sports and activities.
As newly certified scuba divers, we were eager to experience the reefs, and our resort at Station 3, DiveGurus, was a perfect option. There were up to four dives daily, of various levels, led by experienced and very friendly divemasters and instructors for those wanting to take their certification. We immediately signed on for two dives for the next two days!
We spent the evening exploring. At festival season the beach was wildly busy, with party-goers in colourful swimwear swarming from one club to the next. A truly staggering range of musical genres battled for attention all over Station 2, from sentimental love ballads to pounding electronic dance music. The atmosphere was one of uninhibited excitement.
We took a walk all the way to Station 1, where we found the Virgin’s Grotto (also known as Willy’s Rock), a little stone outcrop which was only accessible at low tide, upon which was a lit-up altar to the Virgin Mary. We also found Jonah’s Shake Shack, which makes the most famous creamy, delicious mango shakes on the beach!
Boracay might be famous for the beach, but it’s not all beer and chips (thankfully). At D’Talipapa, the covered market, you can find traditional Filipino restaurants where you choose your own freshly caught seafood, which is then cooked for you any way you like. You can also find plenty of souvenirs here, if you need some pasalubong (a handy Tagalog word for ‘gifts you bring home from your travels’).
You can also explore D’Mall, which is not a single building, but rows of shops and restaurants arranged around a central square. We decided to try chicken inasal, barbecued chicken with rice and spices. It may sound simple, but it was delicious!
After a stroll, we settled down at Beach Hut Bar at Station 2. Unlike the two clubs beside it, which were pounding with dance music, the vibe here was relaxed and bohemian. Large beanbag cushions were set up around small wooden tables, so you could sprawl out in complete comfort, while a mellow-voiced guitarist crooned jazz and blues. Despite the noise on either side, his singing was surprisingly clear, the swaying palm trees around us acting as a sound buffer.
We treated ourselves to outlandishly named cocktails, and bought freshly roasted peanuts from one of many vendors strolling up and down the beach, carrying large tin buckets. Flavoured with salt and garlic, roasting hot, the peanuts were a simple and delicious bar snack. Other vendors roaming the beach sold taho (beancurd jelly with sago), a variety of crackers and chips, and unusual items like boiled quail eggs.
The next morning, after a delicious Filipino breakfast at our resort of rice and longganisa (Filipino sausage), we met our friends for an island hopping adventure. One of the most popular activities in Boracay, it starts early in the morning under a brilliant blue sky – the best possible way to start your Boracay holiday – and if you want you can hire a whole bangka to yourself.
We went first to Crystal Cove, a popular spot for photographs against the amazingly clear azure waves. There, you can climb down into a cave that opens up into a pool, which then continues right out into the sea. Although the island was crowded with other tourists, I couldn’t resist jumping in and swimming out of the crevice, like a mermaid in a storybook!
The highlight, however, was snorkelling at Crocodile Island. There are no crocodiles there, fear not; the island is only shaped like a crocodile! The waters are clear as glass, and a variety of tropical fish play among table and brain corals. To tempt the fish towards you, you can scatter breadcrumbs in the water – then get your GoPro ready for the colourful swarm!
A word of advice: before you jump excitedly in the water, take a moment to remember which bangka to go back to. If you wander too far off, like I did, when you turn back – every single bangka looks exactly the same!
We stopped at Puka beach for lunch. My Filipina friend remembered Puka beach being secluded and empty when she first went to Boracay as a teenager. Now there is a row of little eateries offering local cuisine (I had a delicious seafood sinigang, or sour soup) and cold drinks – not at all an unwelcome change!
Lunch over, it was time for our first dive! Divemaster Ronnie, hearing we were relatively inexperienced, ran through the basics with us again as we set up our equipment for a visit to a coral garden just off Crocodile Island. Boracay’s waters are alive with multi-coloured corals, starfish, sea slugs, and an amazing variety of tropical fish, from the ever-famous clownfish (“Nemo”) to snake-like pipefish. Turtles and rays have also been sighted in these warm waters.
Sunset in Boracay is a spectacular wash of colours spread all over the sky like a Waterhouse painting, and it’s no surprise this is the busiest time on the beach as families, surfers, divers and partygoers alike all head out to take photos. Many also grab a spot on one of the catamarans for a sunset cruise, rigged up with netting so you can lie back and watch the sky change colours as you cruise along enjoying the breeze. Unfortunately, being there at LaBoracay meant it was a bit of a stampede trying to grab a catamaran before the sun went down!
Once the sun dropped below the horizon, the candles, fairy lights and flashing neon signs came on! When at D’Mall, we had noticed a very interesting restaurant-pub named the Hobbit House, and decided we had to try it for dinner. It was designed to look very much like a ‘hobbit’ house from Lord of the Rings, with round doors and low furniture; and to our surprise, many of the staff were little people! One of the staff told us that the original owner created the Hobbit House specifically with little people in mind, and all the initial service staff had been hired on that theme. Not at all politically correct, but certainly interesting; and the lechon (roast pig) and crispy pata (pork knuckle) we had were not bad either!
After dinner we strolled down the beach to ‘walk and plop’, as one of us described the process – to stroll till we found a nice spot, and ‘plop’ down for a drink. The best place we discovered was BigJ, a laid-back beanbag-and-shisha spot with a breathtaking feature – firedancers.
In fact, there were firedancers at many places along the beach, especially at Station 2, but the ones at BigJ were eye-popping. Athletic and graceful, the dancers were truly innovative with their flaming fireballs on chains. One, dressed in a grass skirt and glasses, performed a hilarious topsy-turvy version of the song Let It Go, and another blew flames in shooting arcs as if he was a fighter in an arcade game – amazing!
The next morning we were up bright and early again for parasailing. One of the most popular activities in Boracay, we had wanted to do this earlier but were thwarted by the huge queue. At half past eight, however, there was no queue, and we had the powerboat to ourselves. Along the way, we experienced a second bonus of our early morning start – dolphins!
Dolphins, explained the boatman, are actually not uncommon in the early morning in Boracay, but for us they were amazing as they jumped, spun, and leapt curiously after our boat. They were still there as we each went up in the two-person parasail, a magnificent sight creating sparkling ripples in the bright blue sea.
After that wonderful experience, we were excited for our second dive at Balinghai, two walls of coral running parallel to each other at a depth of up to 40m. Sharks and tuna have been sighted in the deeper waters, while the shallow part of the reef features lionfish, triggerfish and bannerfish. Brightly coloured nudibranch and brilliant blue sea-stars, enormous corals and anemone can all also be seen.
For divers who have more advanced certification, Boracay also offers a wreck dive (the Camia is a cargo boat sunk at a depth of 18m for the purpose of housing fish), night diving and cave diving.
Our friends left that evening but we had one more night, so we spent the rest of the day just relaxing on the beach. Having had enough activity in the last two days, we decided to find a quiet spot on the beach to have a dip.
Now, I’d like to add a special comment: Boracay, because of its amazing natural beauty, and dramatic colours, is an extremely popular place for marriage proposals. The options are countless – on an island, on a catamaran during the sunset cruise, during a romantic candlelight dinner on the beach, and even – as DiveGurus has organised – at the bottom of the sea!
Fortunately this was not what my boyfriend chose, since I might well have floated away from astonishment! But he did choose a beautiful, secluded spot on the beach, with the sun, sand and sea all creating a perfect, everlasting memory.
That’s right! Congratulations are in order on social media right away!
After such excitement, it was just as well we had a massage lined up to calm down with! Bella Isa at Station 3 came highly recommended on TripAdvisor, and they did not disappoint. Prices were slightly higher than the more straightforward beach-side massages, but still reasonable (especially compared to Singapore), and the service was certainly faultless! We had a full body scrub and oil massage to undo all the kinks and knots, and ended with hot cups of ginger tea.
We left Boracay the next morning after one last lingering look at the magnificent sunrise. I am not at all surprised that people keep coming back. And yes, my friends are right – it is definitely more fun in the Philippines!
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ABOUT MEIHAN BOEY
I’m a 39-year-old avid traveller who will take any excuse to travel, from running a marathon to diving a reef! Although I have a full-time job, I have also been a freelance writer since 1994, and am also the Vice President of the Association of Comic Artists of Singapore, encouraging young creators in the country. I love budget travel as it gives me a chance to explore many more parts of the world that I would otherwise not have a chance to get to.