Ever heard of Boracay? If not, you’ll be kicking yourself (and booking tickets) in about 5 minutes once you’ve finished reading this post.
Nestled in amongst the Philippines 3,000+ islands Boracay is 10.32 square kilometres of beachside bliss and home to about 15,000 people, give or take the constant stream of partygoers, kite boarders, scuba divers and general beach lovers who visit the island year round. 315 kilometres south of Manila Boracay can shine even brighter after it was named 2012’s ‘Best Island in the World’ by Travel + Leisure, and I think they were pretty much on the money.
I lived in Boracay’s Station 2 section of White Beach (read on, I’ll explain these in a moment) while doing my PADI Divemaster traineeship with Calypso Diving in early 2012. If you’ve ever dreamed of a beach-change, that’s what I had, and it was bliss.
With AirAsia adding on flights daily and the easily accessible awesomeness that is Boracay I decided it was time for a proper guide, so here it is: Denea’s Guide to Boracay.
BEFORE YOU GO:
- Bring. Sunscreen, lightweight clothing, mosquito repellant, aloe / sunburn cream, thongs / flip-flops, Panadol (yes, you will have a hangover at least once while on Boracay), sunglasses, toiletries (i.e. contact solution), Philippine Peso (as much as you think you’ll need for the trip, excluding your hotel fee if you’ve already paid it), camera, iPad/tablet (I wouldn’t bring your computer but most places have free Wi-Fi so if you fancy staying connected bring a smartphone or an iPad and you can Skype home and make them all uber jealous), an appetite, a thirst, your sense of adventure.
- Leave. Fancy clothes (they’ll just get sandy), high heels, expensive jewellery, jackets and jumpers, inhibitions, cares and hangups about yourself in a bathing suit.
- Do. Get your currency changed at home before you head to Boracay, or in Manila airport. The ATM’s on the island are often out of cash and will charge a 200peso withdrawal fee, no matter who you bank with.Break some large bills into small-denominational notes to use for tips along the trip to the island, everyone expects a tip and if you’re expecting to pay with a 100peso note, they’ll be quite appreciative, and accept the whole thing.
- Book your hotel. A good hotel with air-conditioning should cost you between $40-$70AUD per night. If you’re being quoted much more than that you might be looking in the wrong places. Arrange your hotel before you leave home so you’ll have somewhere to dump your bags and hit the beach immediately on touch-down. During the peak season it also might be difficult to find accommodation if you haven’t pre-booked. Scroll down for my recommendations of where to stay for various budgets. My Boracay Guide is a great resource for island info and hotel bookings.
- Learn a few bits and bobs of Tagalog. Language is not a prerequisite for Boracay, due to the enormous amount of tourists that visit from all corners of the globe the locals are well-versed in many languages and particularly English. If you are language inclined a few good phrases to know are:- Magandang araw! = Beautiful day! (used as ‘hello’ and ‘good afternoon’ too)- Sarap nito. = This is delicious. / This feels good.- Salamat. = Thank you.- Paalam. = Goodbye.
Get ready for one of the best holidays you’ll ever have.
GETTING THERE: fly from your home city to Manila, and then you have 2 options.
Fly into Caticlan. Caticlan airport (er-international airport *snicker*) is just a 15 minute boat ride from the island of Boracay, it’s the easier option but it also means a more expensive flight and less frequent services.
At the moment Philippine Airlines are the only ones flying into Caticlan, there’s rumours of AirAsia taking up the route and direct services from Shanghai but we’ll wait and see..
Fly into Kalibo. Kalibo is 2 hours drive from Caticlan and the ferry port which takes you to Boracay. It’s a cheaper flight and quite frequent. Zest Airways, AirAsia and Philippine Airlines all fly from Manila to Kalibo. Make sure you allocate 2 hours travel time from Kalibo to Caticlan so aim for early-to-midday flights.
Bus from Kalibo to Caticlan. On arrival in Kalibo Airport, after you’ve stopped to take the prerequisite picture with the ‘Welcome to Kalibo’ mural on the tarmac, grab your bags and pick one of the transfer companies lining the side of the room. Look for the words ‘air conditioned’ and ‘including ferry ticket’. The bus, plus ferry ticket should cost you 200pesos. Watch for them to load your bags onto the bus, then get in, and be quick about it as the buses won’t go until they’re full.
Ferry from Caticlan to Boracay. Unless you’re a local you’ll need to pay a 50peso ‘conservation fee’, this happens at the window outside the ferry terminal, get in quick or you’ll get stuck in line with everyone else. Pay, head through the security gates and out onto the ferry dock. Lined up along the wharf will be a collection of wooden ferrys with traditional Philippino outriggers. Hustle to get on the one that looks nearest to full, these also won’t leave until they’re chockablock with passengers.
Trike to town. If a porter helps you with your luggage, tip him 10pesos per bag. Everyone on the way to Boracay is in a good mood so try and make friends with someone on the boat and share a trike with them into town. If you are alone you’ll be charged the whole fee. Trikes will be waiting at the end of the ferry dock and once you’re on one, tell the driver your hotel and pat yourself on the back, you’ve made it to Boracay.
ACCOMMODATION: Boracay is regularly featured as one of the world’s best honeymoon destinations, as well as one of the best places to party hard and have some seriously crazy fun, so for whatever you’re looking for in a holiday, your hotel is a good place to start.
The dog-bone shape of Boracay allows for two main beaches – White Beach with its gentle waves, calm sands and paddling-pool-like conditions and Bulabog Beach on the other side of the island, whipped by whinds, strewn with fallen palm leaves and an international destination for kite surfers.
White Beach is split into 3 main sections, they are numbered Stations 1, 2 and 3 with 3 located closest to the ferry terminal. In between Stations 1 and 2 is the main shopping hub of D’Mall and the turn off from the main road to Bulabog Beach.
Thanks, amusingly to the population of Parrotfish dwelling in Boracay’s waters the sand on Station 1 is smoother than silk and a heavenly treat for your tootsies. As you travel down the beach toward Station 3 it gets gradually coarser but still beats most sand you’ll have ever seen.
The prices trickle downwards through the stations as well, the Shangri-La owns its own beach past Station 1 and Friday’s Resort is a popular splurge for couples. Also past Station 1 away from White Beach sits Spider House, Station 2 is a solid middle ground and home to the famous Calypso and Pinjalo Resort and National Geographic Dive Centre. There’s something for everyone on Boracay.
Fancy and romantic. There’s no place on Earth like Mandala. Cradled by secluded trees and speckled with pebble paths, elegant water features and a calming smell of rainforest and incense you might as well have your own island when you stay at Mandala. Chic wooden villas combine sustainability with feng shui to create luxurious villas inside the spa and resort complex above Station 3. Daily yoga, a menu of massages, and endless pampering possibilities make Mandala a destination worth every cent.
Fun and funky. Around the cliff face past Station 1 Spider House‘s network of white catacombs connected by smooth tunnels set into the hillside offer an Alice in Wonderland experience for those on a budget, as long as you don’t mind doing without air-con, that is. West-facing rooms catch the cool afternoon breezes and mean that you’ll be perfectly positioned for sunset, whether you’re still in bed or down at the over-water Spider House Bar. Dangerously delicious cocktails, the best pancakes this side of Texas and some seriously crazy clubbing (if you hit the right night) make Spider House the place to stay and play on Boracay.
For the diver. Established before Boracay’s main road was even complete Calypso Resort and National Geographic Dive Centre remains one of the islands most renowned and respected PADI diving institutions. Luxurious little cousin Pinjalo Resort is a quick skip down the side lane way from Calypso and offers the tree-lined version of Calypso’s beach-front elegance. With an outdoor pool for dive training (or a dip for those preferring chlorine to saline), happy hour from 5-7 at the wooden boat shaped bar and expert instructors and dive masters who know the island’s underwater world inside-out Calypso will keep you water-side, relaxed and scuba geared up without breaking the bank.
The Shangri-La, Victory Divers and Fisheye are also age-old contenders for the dive trade on Boracay. With established and experienced instructors and a network of exciting dive sites it’s best to call or email ahead and book your dives in advance.
For the kiteboarder. If you’re heading to Boracay to fly, Bulabog’s your beach, and Mangorider’s Apartments is your new home. The 40-square metre sun deck means relaxing in the breeze anytime you fancy from breakfast to post-boarding beers, chill in the air-conditioned rooms or step out onto the sand right outside your door. Mangorider’s ain’t cheap but it is a stellar stay if you have the dosh to spare.
WHAT TO DO: Boracay may be a tiny island but there’s no shortage of fun and games to keep you occupied for far longer than your holiday, even if you’re there for 4 months as I was you’ll still be hard pressed to experience it all.
Eat. Prepare your tongue, there’s something for every tastebud on Boracay. Unlike other SouthEast-Asian destinations you don’t need to worry about belly bugs on Boracay, due to the island’s constant stream of overseas tourists most restaurants take care to serve only the best and never send away an unhappy customer.
Mongolian BBQ is a beach-side favourite and can be found at a number of resorts along White Beach. Generally an ‘all-you-can-eat’ flat fee you need to clean your plate before you can go for the next round but with succulent pork, creamy chicken curry and sizzling seasoned beef you’ll be through bowl 3 before you know it. Calypso offers a delicious Mongolian BBQ, as does Mango Ray.
All-you-can-eat ribs occurs at Nigi Nigi Noo Noo’s on a Friday and is well worth every peso. The ribs are slow cooked and basted in BBQ sauce. Don’t wear white and have seconds, you can always wash it down with more cheap, cold beer.
Who would have thought you’d find the quintessential Spanish restaurant 50 metres back from White Beach at Station 2, but Dos Mestizos delivers, and delivers, and delivers, and delivers. Crunchy croquettes, home-made liver pate, chef Andrew Malarky’s mama’s meatballs and very naughty sangria are a must for any gourmand on vacation in Boracay.
True Food‘s authentic Indian, Yellow Cab pizzas and Cowboy Cocina‘s Sunday Roast also deserve a lip-smacking look-in and for a snack snag a fresh corn on the cob just outside D’Mall from 4pm with plenty of butter and salt.
Drink. If it comes in a bottle, crack it open and slam it down is the theme of most brews and beverages on Boracay. Taps are reserved for hand-washing only but bottled water is cheap and readily available.
San Miguel, San Mig Light and Red Horse are the standard perpetrators and always served cold, and cheap. Happy hour knocks 5-10pesos off a 50-75peso brew and obviously they taste even better when they’re happy.Every bar on Boracay serves cocktails, some are better than others but all will find you on your bum at some point throughout the night, the local rums are lethal but so, so delicious.
Cocomanga’s is famous for its shooters and 15-shots right-of-passage, if you’re on Boracay to party, don’t be shy and lift that shot glass sky high.
Twice a week the Boracay Pub Crawl runs from Juice Bar and includes an absurd amount of free shots and a t-shirt that will inevitably get shredded, altered, drawn on or tied into odd knots by the end of the evening. It’s also a great way to meet other visitors and a guaranteed good time.
Dive. Whether you’re terrified of the water or a qualified Master Instructor Trainer there’s somewhere to dive and someone to dive with on Boracay. The crystal waters around the island vary slightly in temperature from 26 in the winter to 28 at the peak of summer, so a thin 3mm wetsuit should do the trick, even if you’re a cold water wuss like me.
Boracay is chock-a-block with dive shops so look for one with PADI accreditation, gear that looks clean and well cared for, tanks that are kept out of the sun and have a chat with the instructors and dive masters before you sign up to dive. Most shops run 3-4 dives a day to sites around the island, Yapak is famous for it’s negative-entry, swim down start and stunning shark and manta spotting opportunities. Channel Steps whooshes you along a high-speed drift through the channel between Boracay and Caticlan. Boracay’s 2 wrecks are both worth a look-in, Camia II for the amount of marine life now clinging to its ballasts and the freshly sunk Tribird, a Yakolev Yak 40 which plunged to its upside-down underwater resting place in March of 2012.
Kite. Some of the best winds in the world whistle along Bulabog Beach, across the island from White Beach. Whether you’re an experienced kiter or a rank beginner you must give boarding a try during your stay on Boracay.
Hangin Kiteboarding was the 1st kiteboarding centre and school on Boracay, and it remains one of the best, email ahead and arrange an instructor and be prepared for drinks after the winds die down at sunset.
Shop. From Angry Birds shaped thongs to shining saltwater pearls there are plenty of things to buy on Boracay, just be prepared that most of them sport the name of their island loudly and proudly. Depending on what you’re in the market for, as the bar staff at your favourite drinking destination where they go to buy their pearls / bathing suits / thongs / etc, or if they know someone who can point you in the right direction.
The fake sunglasses sold on the beach aren’t worth a glance as the UV rays they’ll let into your eyes will end up giving you a solid headache.
The pearls sold by street vendors can be quite good quality, ask them to burn the outside and scratch it against glass to make sure it leaves a powder but no scratch on the pearl. Depending the size and on your bargaining abilities you could pay from 90 to 250 pesos per pair.
Get a massage. You can spend anywhere from 250 to 2,500 pesos for a massage on Boracay, depending on your budget, location and desired experience (no, dirty minds, I don’t mean like that!).
Mandala Spa’s massage therapists are world-renowned for their healing hands and despite the bill you’ll feel like a million bucks.
Beachside massage tables line the beach and ought to cost about 250pesos (you’ll get a discount straightaway if you say ‘um’ when offered the experience) for an hour. The ladies outside Calypso are particularly worth their pesos.
Upstairs above 928 Cafe & Grill is my personal favourite massage destination, for the price, that is. Everyone who works at Haplos is trained in the same massage routine so you’re guaranteed to get a repeat of your last relaxing experience. Calming smells waft through the bamboo structure aided by the fans that constantly cool the open room and beautiful-smelling massage oil make Haplos one to revisit as often as you like during your time on Boracay.
Chill. On one of the most epic beaches in the world there’s nothing quite like slathering on the suncream and relaxing on your back in the cool breeze to the gentle lapping of sea on sand.
Most hotels place reserved beach lounges with umbrellas outside their establishments, ask your concierge or the guard standing near the chairs to snag one for you; if you ask nicely he’ll probably place a cocktail order for you too while he’s at it.
Devour a book, sit alone with your thoughts, make new friends on the sand or hang in a beach bar; whatever chillaxation means to you, Boracay’s got it covered.
Sail. Hiring an outrigger sailboat (also known as a paraw) is a must for any trip to Boracay, provided you have enough mates to split the bill. BYO a case of whatever you’re drinking and hop on the boat at Station 1 to sail around the island at sunset, it’s a pretty special experience.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Regardless of your reason for visiting Boracay, let the island take you in, flip you around and show you the best time in the Philippines. I’ve never seen anyone leave without first making plans to return.