The Serene Side of Boracay
The Philippines' most famous island is experiencing a few growing pains, but still has plenty of patches of paradise. Her shades duly shined, JENINNE LEE-ST. JOHN scouts out the serene spots.
Published on Oct 6, 2016
WHEN THE SPACE ORB APPEARED OVER the treetops, the chattering of 50 revelers dissolved into the hushed murmurs of the mildly confused. What was rising so rapidly over the dark night? The giant globe, constantly changing colors from rose to chartreuse to amethyst to cantaloupe, reached its zenith on the back of a fairy. It bobbed down directly atop our heads and Tinkerbell tossed a bunch of rose petals, sparkling the clattering of 50 simultaneously dropped forks. The balletic acrobat reached down and touched my fingertips, then ascended again, gliding up and down our parallel banquet tables, up and down in the sky, flipping and twirling and pirouetting all the way. Mesmerized, we looked down at our place settings and realized the huge balloon she was floating from was mirrored in the 50 caramelized-brownie-filled chocolate demispheres that had just appeared in front of each of us. As it happened, we too were floating, on a transparent platform jerry-rigged in the middle of the spa pool. Like all good magic acts, this one had been meticulously coordinated.
A hop, skip and a jump on White Beach. Bloomberg/GettyImages.
We had been warned that an amazing aerialist was going to perform at Shangri-La's Boracay Resort & Spa that night. However, we had all enjoyed at least five glasses of Chateau Clinet whites and reds—when one of the winemakers flies in from Pomerol, France, to offer tasting notes, it's rude not to fully appreciate each pour, right?—and so may have forgotten the evening's schedule.
I was at Reservations in Paradise, an annual, exclusive wining and dining extravaganza at the Shangri-La where two private coves and an intuitive butler service in the only-ocean-facing rooms certainly help the event live up to its name. But Boracay is a complicated animal. Tourist arrivals hit an all-time high last year, breaking the 1.5 million mark. And for the first time, foreign tourists (led by the South Koreans, who can now fly nonstop from four airports) outnumbered domestic visitors. This is a boon for businesses, and is encouraging investment in more upscale resorts, but it also is stressing an out-of-date infrastructure and leads to foot-traffic jams on the most-populated beaches at Stations 2 and 3 even in the off-season. Rather than rave all night with dwarves, which certainly could have been fun, my objective was to rediscover paradise beyond all the partygoers.
French cheeses wash down well with a vintage Chateau Clinet 2000 at the Shangri- La. Courtesy of Shangri- La.
By sheer coincidence, I was following in the footsteps of my brother, who had honeymooned here a month earlier in a bi-level private-pool loft villa. His praise of the service bore out for me at one breakfast when line cook Shyne, noting my disappointment at finding no pork on offer for the congee, specially marinated and sautéed some for me and stirred it into the creamiest, best-seasoned rice porridge I can remember. My sister-in-law, meanwhile, reported that the spa, with its sunny courtyard bathtubs for mid-treatment soaks, was the best she'd ever experienced. This, of course, is where they opened Reservations in Paradise, and my research was off to a good start.
YES, BORACAY IS A TOURISM BUCKET-LIST CHECK-BOX, BUT you still can find yourself completely alone on some parts of the island, specifically on the northern and eastern shores—and under the sea. I set out with dive instructor Mem Tekin one sunny afternoon ready for a leisurely sail to the dive site. Out we chugged westward, looped around and stopped. About three minutes and 100 meters from the pier on the headland we'd just left. There was a coral wall parallel to the island, Mem had just been down there doing some clean up, and said the water was calm and crystal clear.
Here's where I learned my first lesson about diving in Boracay: the tide can change in the amount of time it takes to wetsuit-up. The seas were a bit choppier—not ideal for my first back-roll entrance—and cloudier than when Mem had left them an hour prior. But a few swirls of sand couldn't mask the riotous Disney movie that came alive down there. Using a wipe-board, Mem pointed out the characters we met along the way. There were moray eels, peeking out of rocks and intertwined with each other like Ursula the sea witch's poor unfortunate souls from The Little Mermaid. I would've burst into song if it didn't mean spitting out my regulator. There was an iridescent blue-and-black banded sea krait, a normally white-striped bugger that is extremely venomous. In general, they attack humans only if threatened, so you don't wave your hand near their faces—unlike all the adorable clown fish who love coming out to play like little pups when you beckon them. In one big pink anemone we found Nemo's entire family, his mom leading the way. We found a tequila-sunrise-colored puffy Indian cushion star the size of two hands, and several long and lanky blue sea stars, all the very definition of the color indigo.
Boracay Westcove, Diniwid Beach. Sonny Thakur.
Just as we neared the hour point, and the end of the wall stretching from Santos to Balinghai, we came across Red. She was an adult hawksbill turtle aged 25 to 30 that Mem knew and had named for the streak of red algae growing down her back. We followed her for a bit then silently agreed that her sudden appearance was an auspicious climax to the dive, and so ascended. I had known how close the shoreline was when we went down, but it was a renewed surprise to see its proximity after surfacing from the world below. Beauty is never far in Boracay, the distance between surrounded and solitude a quick journey.
SPIDER HOUSE POKES OUT FROM THE PROMONTORY THAT divides the near-empty northern Boracay beaches from the central. We took a trike (the island's version of a tuk-tuk) from the Shangri- La down the back roads, got off at a sandy path and walked to a beach filled with beanbags sprinkled about like so many giant jellybeans. We followed the coastline into the rocks, with auberges and restaurants built into them like a miniature Cinque Terre, under a cavernous tunnel and up some steep steps to the laid-back living room that is Spider House. People lazed on couches, benches, pillows, in nooks and lofts, all perched over the sea. If you want to swim, there's a platform open to the ocean, and a floating dock to clamber upon and sunbathe. The joint was full but the scene was serene. The hand-cut fries salted by the sea were divine (though the accompanying banana ketchup is not recommended) and a piña colada in a Mason jar completed the island-hipster aesthetic. There was even a box of puppies sleeping in the shade. I could see why my butler back at the Shangri-La had nearly jumped for joy when I told him we were headed there. "Whenever I have a day off," Vicente said, “I spend all day at Spider House."
The floating platform off Spider House, Diniwid Beach. Sonny Thakur.
Sadly, we didn't have all day, as I wanted to visit the less-extolled but equally beautiful windward eastern shore. Bulabog Beach is base camp for the surfers, kitesurfers and windsurfers. Protected by an offshore reef, the line of which you can clearly see in the distance through the fluttering sails, it’s a 2.5-kilometer hippie 'hood that's the antithesis of the hectic stations on the west side. It feels like Venice Beach meets Uluwatu—full of aquatic athletes, some who move in for months during the windy season spanning November through April; dreadlocked blondes reading books on their decks; a shirtless guy sitting on a piece of driftwood in the shade picking out tunes on his guitar alone for hours. The surf schools-cumbars are laid-back and don't take themselves seriously: Jimmy Cliff and trippy-era Beatles played from every other place's speakers, one of which was clearly DYI, with MADE IN BELGIUM inked on the top corner in Sharpie.
Kitesurfing on Bulabog Beach. Francisco Guerrero.
The farther south you venture, the busier things become. This was made plain on the Hobie Cat sail we took back on the west coast down towards White Beach, from which we could see the population multiplying on shore, and in the ocean. There's a new water sports dock moored out in the middle of the sea off Station 3 to cater to all the demand for parasailing and the like, and our captain was not impressed: "Chinese tourists think it's exciting when they're doing nothing," he remarked laughing as a banana boat crawled by, its riders squealing despite the glacial pace.
Discovery Shores, just below Willy's Rock and its landmark Virgin Mary statue, is at the least-trafficked tip-top of Station 1, just daring all the hoi polloi to wander up. Check in and it's pampering on arrival. Welcome drinks and souvenir bracelets and photos, sure. But also a welcome footbath—a mini spa treatment in your room that consists of a soak in warm, fragrant water, a peppermint scrub and a generous massage for the tootsies to ease you into vacation mode. It's pretty genius. The premium rooms (for now; a set of mini-villas is being built next door to open later this year) are top-floor duplexes with hot tub-bedecked porches from which you can survey the pool, the social, sand-floored lobby and the ocean beyond. If Shangri-La is an ultra-exclusive suburban enclave, Discovery Shores is a fashionable urban cloister of pied-à-terres.
In a two-bedroom premier suite at Discovery Shores. Courtesy of Discovery Shores.
You'll want to venture into this city center and claim a beachfront daybed. And then you're not going to want to leave all day lest you miss any section of the parade of treats that marches by intermittently: fried shumai, pandan water, mango-and-tapioca creamsicles. The sunglasses butler shined my shades so well I could wear them all night. Head butler Jigs recognized the guest on the bed next to ours from his visit three months prior. Our amicable dinner waiter, Herman, offered a refreshingly honest anti-recommendation about a beer ("I just tried it and I don't really like it") and then brought us our selections in the different glasses with which the hotel serves women and men.
The island is all mapped out for you. Courtesy of Discovery Shores.
ON THE SECOND EVENING OF RESERVATIONS in Paradise, the flying fairy was up to her tricks again, this time in a clear bubble the size of a moon bounce. Performing an aerial silk act from ribbons dangling from the top, she rose twirling as the structure inflated until it looked like an enormous plastic canelé. The lighting glowed violet, and the waves crashed behind her, and she used her inhuman strength to keep spinning and soaring even while the structure deflated back down, and she could gracefully emerge from her bubble.
That dance of ensconcement and emergence is a good way to look at getting the most out of this merely 10-square-kilometer island. Not that bubble bursting is always the most comfortable. An Australian winemaker and his wife told me they were startled at the dramatic contrast between the hotel's luxury cocoon and the poverty in the center of the island that you pass en route to the main drag.
The second evening of Reservations in Paradise, the flying fairy. Courtesy of Shangri-La Boracay.
It was a fair point. It wasn't in anyone's original plans, but since boats were banned from docking on the beaches to stave off aquatic and visual pollution, intra-island transport all became by land and all the back doors became front entrances. (Visitors interested in helping out the island's residents—many from the Ati ethnic group, whose old word borac for cotton, in reference to the sand, gave the place its name—can volunteer or donate to local charities like Babies of Boracay, a growing preschool and community center with nutrition and education programs for babies and kids up to age six.)
One must venture into the hoopla of central White Beach if for no other reasons than to sink one's toes into those famous tufty sands, and to marvel at all the humanity. In D'Mall, the commercial and party zone straddling Stations 2 and 3, I lingered in the covet-worthy swimsuit shop called Nothing but H2O, and carnivore's delight of an import shop, Heidiland Deli, with its pastis-lined walls and picnic-victual-stocked shelves. (Both are near the climbing wall and the recently renamed Hobbit Tavern, famed bar of live-music and little people.) For my midday ice-coffee fix, our photographer's favorite calamansi muffins and a balcony-view over the buzz—from massive sand sculptures to mermaid swimming lessons—we grabbed a snapshot-covered table at Real Coffee.
A colorful spot to spend the day at one end of White Beach. Sonny Thakur.
For dinner, a group of us devoured a feast fit for a Tudor king at modern Filipino restaurant Mesa. The crispy-skinned suckling pig, carved at the table and wrapped in pancakes, Peking duck-style, went down deliciously with the prosecco we had brought with us. Yes, we burst a lot of bubbles that night, too.
Shangri-La's Boracay Resort & Spa Barangay Yapak; +63 36 288 4988; doubles from P15,500.
Discovery Shores Station 1; +63 36 288 4500; doubles from P12,600.
The Lind The Miami-meets-nouveau-modern hotel on Station 1. The roof boasts an infinity pool and birdcage loungers in a pretty garden. Station 1; +63 2 835 8888; doubles from P17,690.
Movenpick Resort Boracay This revamped resort soft-opened in June 2016. Punta Bunga Cove; +63 36 288 2256; superior doubles from US$207.
Spider House Diniwid Beach; +63 36 288 2350.
Mesa Henann Regency, Station 2; +63 36 288 6111.
Real Coffee 2F Sea World, Station 2; +63 36 288 5340.
Subo Filipino family-style, friendly and rustic-chic. Calle Remedios, Station 3; +63 36 288 2849; dinner for two P2,000.
Prana Healthy, farm-to-table cuisine nestled in the trees. +63 36 288 5858; dinner for two P1,200.
Los Indios Bravos Pan-Western gastropub fare paired with Philippine microbrews. Bulabog Beach; +63 36 288 2803; dinner for two P1,200.
Scotty's Dive Center Shangri-La's Boracay; +63 32 231 5060; divescotty.com; dive lessons from P1,000.
Isla Kitesurfing Bulabog Beach; +63 36 288 5352; lessons from P3,000.
Reef Riders Kitesurfing and stand-up paddleboarding. Bulabog Beach; +63 908 820 2267; lessons from US$50, rentals from US$10.
Reservations in Paradise Annual all-inclusive fine dining, wine tasting and entertainment weekend. Check with Shangri-La's Boracay for details on next year's event.
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