A month on one of the most beautiful islands in the world, nothing but what to have for your next meal, or where to go for a sunset drink to worry about….Boracay is a place where you can do as little – or as much – as you want….I did mainly the former. For the first time ever I returned from a holiday not thinking: I need a holiday to recover from that holiday. Perfect? Well, it might be the last time I’ll ever go…..
It takes 3 and a half hours from Singapore to Kalibo….but you’re still nowhere near Boracay when you get there. From Kalibo, it’s a two hour bus ride to the jetty (600 pesos) – Caticlan – then a 10 minute boat ride across to Boracay, then a tricycle ride from the port to wherever you are staying, which could be a 10 minute or a 30 minute ride depending on which station you are in (the more upmarket Station 1 being the furthest away). Eventually I arrived. I got dropped off at La Isla Bonita hotel, just inside Station 3, and from there I walked around trying to find a hotel. I found one after a 10 minute walk further into station 3 – just behind Cocoloco restaurant and bar. A simple room, and within minutes I was sat at the rustic wooden bar of Cocoloco enjoying the first san miguel pilsner of my trip as the rain drizzled down.
When Veronica arrived a few days later, I had already checked out of my simple hotel and booked into a wonderful, modern apartment called Sundown Beach Studios. The German-owned place above a German restaurant was a real find – and I got it at only 4,300 pesos a night – a snip at the start of peak season. The room was minimalist chic, with modern art sculptures, a big bathroom with rain shower, and a huge terrace with a table and chairs and two sunloungers, overlooking the beach and ocean in this tranquil part of Station 3. There are only four rooms, and the place feels like a millionaire’s summer escape – it’s exclusive, modern, private, and the service from the house boy, a friendly young chap called Gim, impeccable. The German owner, Jurgen, was always friendly, and saved my life one morning when I staggered down with the kind of hangover only 8 bottles of red horse can produce, and he introduced me to the soothing world of Alka-Seltzer which transformed me miraculously from a pale, shaking shadow of a man into an almost fully-functioning human being.
“We were somehow woven into the social fabric of this little part of Boracay….”
And so days went by when Veronica and did nothing but chill on the terrace, reading books and listening to the sound of the ocean, waiting for the ping-pong sound created by Joey, the local owner of the next door Red Pirates bar, and his German friend, who played beach tennis at exactly the same time each day, the time when the sun starts to sink into the ocean, when the island kids come out to play, cartwheeling and backward-flipping down the beach and into the ocean, when the smoke from a hundred BBQs starts wafting through the air teasing out an appetite taken away by the sweltering heat of the afternoon. And so Veronica and I saw routines, saw the same people doing the same things everyday. We began to be recognised, everybody began saying hello, the local musicians dedicated songs to us, the people in the restaurants waved and smiled as we passed, the bar staff knew our drinks….we were somehow woven into the social fabric of this little part of Boracay -station 3 – the only part of touristy White Beach left that still maintains a sense of community. Much of that community spirit is fostered in Red Pirates.
Red Pirates is a bar unlike any other in Boracay. It’s possibly the most rustic, housed in a native bamboo shack style building. There’s a tiny wooden bar in the sand, with around 6 stools are around it, and a few small wooden tables roughly hewn from trees. Bob Marley flags are draped everywhere, along with the skull and crossbones flag symbolic of pirate ships. They have beanbags outside in the sand. Through the course of the average week, the bar attracts a large number of Station 3 expats – a genial bunch of old men who all seem to be from the north of England – and their local girlfriends, as well as a fair few local sailors. They have good live music every night – always an acoustic guitarist or two, and a percussionist playing a cajon, although this instrument is often passed around those who wish to have a go. The owner is Joey, and his portrait hangs behind the bar. He’s a friendly guy, a basketball fanatic, softly spoken and invariably shirtless. He has long black hair, a huge smile, and with his white coral necklace, big earrings, and ankle beads, he resembles a Native American (or a Red Indian for those not on the PC bandwagon). Rody could be his son, but he isn’t. He’s a local who sometimes works on cruise ships and has travelled the world, but when I asked him what his favourite place was in his worldly travels he answered “Here. My island.” And that is true of all the locals here. They love their island, but they are scared of the changes, and this is why the Red Pirates have found another island to escape to and set up in once Boracay sinks under the weight of hundreds of thousands of package tourists. Which it will in approximately 5 years. Red Pirates was the place Veronica and I ended up more often than not. The mojitos are made with fresh mint leaves grown in a garden Joey has planted by the river on the mainland.
There are, of course, other places for entertainment. Still in Station 3, you have The Treehouse – an amazing bar and restaurant seemingly built in the trees. They have great live music here. Hey Jude is a good spot for dinner, and Cocomangas next door has a good selection of cocktails. Tiki bar is also a good choice for Japanese food and drink. Perhaps the best in this station though is Chantal’s beach bar – it’s 30 pesos at sunset time for beer or cocktails – their caipirinhas are the best on the island.
“We usually ended up in Bom Bom bar, probably the best place for live music on the island.”
Veronica and I also went to Station 2 on a number of occasions for the good food, drink and party atmosphere. We usually ended up in Bom Bom bar, probably the best place for live music on the island. The place is always packed, but we always got a table within a few minutes, and it was always worth it – the musicians, though high on Red Horse (the strong local beer), always gave a great acoustic performance. Next door is Exit Bar – a place full of local characters – including a heavily-tattooed Italian man called Fabio who likes to come out wearing only his swimming shorts (though they might have been boxer shorts) and ends up so drunk I’ve no idea how he makes it back to wherever he stays in one piece. Boracay is full of such washed expat rouges. They’re harmless, but can be a little annoying at times.
Veronica and I enjoy a shisha pipe – and there are countless cool beach bars that have unbelievably comfy beachbags of sofas to lounge on a suck at your water pipe. But the most extravagant place to do this is at the top of a building called District. The hand-made glass shisha pipe (which lights up as you smoke through it) there is designed in Germany, the flavours are so complex they come with tasting notes like in a wine menu, and it’s so potent the staff only give you a 30 minute timeframe to enjoy it in, and they watch you like hawks. At 750 pesos, it’s an expensive smoke, but quite possibly worth the extravagance.
Around the back of station 2 is ‘D’Mall’ – an open-concept shopping mall on the sandy floor full of restaurants, bars, and souvenir shops. Here, the Hobbit House is an attraction, not just for its extensive beer selection, but for the hobbits who staff the place and wear t-shirts that proclaim ‘I love midgets.’ In Station 1, Veronica and I often enjoyed a drink at White House Beach Resort – a great DJ, good happy hour cocktails, and free entertainment from the beach vendors selling their neon-lit wares.
“The sand is fine and powdery – at it’s best in Station 3 and Station 1….”
Of course, the bars are the reward for spending the day doing nothing more than walking up and down the beach. The sun-drenched days are lazy in Boracay. Veronica and I did very little. Staying in Station 3, we were almost 4 km from the end of station 1. This is the length of White Beach, and walking up and down the beach is entertainment in itself. It’s beautiful. The sand is fine and powdery – at its best in Station 3 and Station 1, and the sea is like a swimming pool, calm, warm, and turquoise. Traditional sailing boats – paraws, line the shore, and vendors hassle you about taking their boat around the island or for a sunset cruise. It’s not too in-your-face, not aggressive by any means, and any exchange involves lots of genuine smiles and easy chit-chat. We sometimes walked all the way past Station 1 and around the rock to Diniwid Beach – another kilometre away. We bought snorkels and a mask and here was the best place for snorkelling. Diniwid has more of a local feel to it – it’s a small cove, and this is where the local fishermen bring in their catches every day. There is a spectacular restaurant here at Nami resort – and we had delicious pasta here while overlooking the beautiful beach. We also chilled out at Wahine beach bar – a fabulous, rustic place with multi-coloured bean bags and colourful umbrellas to shade you from the sun. Sunsets from here are pretty spectacular.
“It is a place, however, for chilling on the sand, drinking Tanduay rum, and watching possibly the most spectacular sunset on the island.”
Of course, a trip around the island, and a sunset trip, are two of the must-dos while in Boracay. Being my third time here, I’ve done them all before. This time was a little more special. To celebrate our 1-year wedding anniversary, Vero and I booked a sunset cruise with Red Pirates on their big paraw. We loaded the boat with a bottle of local Tanduay rum, 6 san miguel lights, and some coke, and headed off, just the two of us and two crew, on our own little sunset cruise. With a calm ocean, this is a perfect way to spend the late afternoon. We passed Station 2 and 3, and came around to Pukka Shell Beach. This beach is relatively unspoiled – although that is set to change with the construction of a new super-resort. The sand here is deep and golden, the sea is deep right off the shore, and the waves are big. It’s not a place for swimming. It is a place, however, for chilling on the sand, drinking Tanduay rum, and watching possibly the most spectacular sunset on the island, and that’s exactly what Veronica and I did. We enjoyed ourselves so much that by the time we sailed back we were trolleyed. From the Red Pirates, we walked straight to Station 2 and into the wonderful Spanish restaurant Dos Mestizos for fantasic paella valencia washed down with the best sangria I’ve ever had, all to the sounds of acoustic spanish folk music. “If I could leave you with one piece of advice it would be: do things together. Find hobbies to do together. Find ways to spend time together. I wish I’d have done that, but now I’m stuck here alone looking for a sailing partner”, explained Peter, a 60 year old englishman who had been talking to us all night not taking the hint that this was our anniversary. Still, the poor old git had some sound advice. Peter was divorced with children, his ex-wife back in England, and he was living alone in Boracay, an old man with bad legs who needed a walking stick – and Boracay isn’t very forgiving on the legs. He had a sailing boat but nobody to sail with. He invited me and Veronica, he gave us his number, but we never saw him again. Poor Peter. There are many Peters in Boracay, washed up old souls with nowhere to go, chasing an unclear dream that gets further away with the passing of each day.
“…we spent our days windsurfing, and our nights enjoying sumptuous international cuisine..”
After two and a a half weeks in the spectacular Sundown Beach Studios, Veronica and I fancied a change of scene. We moved to Bulabog beach – a popular kitesurfing spot. We stayed in a place called Levantin – a reasonably priced place right on the beach ‘where the sun rises‘ – and we spent our days windsurfing, and our nights in Los Indios Bravos drinking Englishman in New York craft beer or delicious red wine and enjoying the sumptuous international cuisine. Either there or at Levantin’s own bar. The beach itself is disgusting, and the water more so – sewage pipes run from into the sea pumping out filth. Still, the windsurfing is not bad, just be careful not to get a rookie kitesurfer wrapping their kite around your sail as happened to Veronica.
“Veronica got to try our being a mermaid…”
Bored with Bulabog, we moved back to Station 3, this time to a more budget friendly location – Surfside resort and spa. It’s a Japanese-owned place. Service as a result was impeccable, the rooms were spotlessly clean, and we got free iced green tea from the Japanese restaurant in front. Back here we were able to once again visit our favourite Station 3 restaurant – Cowboy Cocina for their delicious breakfasts and even better lunches. We were also able to go to Red Pirates again, and be sucked back in to the easy vibe of friendly station 3. Strolling down to Station 2, Veronica got to try out something no girl really stops dreaming about, no matter hold old they are – being a mermaid. In one of the dive shops here you can rent mermaid tails, and a girl teaches you different mermaid poses. It’s certainly a novel idea, and one that seems to be pretty popular here. It only works if you’re slim.
“Boracay is practically sinking it’s so crowded…”
So….Boracay is still paradise…..but at the same time it isn’t. It’s practically sinking it’s so crowded. It’s especially full of Koreans and Chinese, who go on dive trips 40 divers to a boat. “They don’t give a damn about the marine life, they just walk all over the coral…..all they are about is getting a photo of themselves” moaned one of the English dive masters I talked to at Red Pirates one night. He also explained that all the dive companies take them to the worst reefs, in order to protect the nice reefs. The Koreans and Chinese seem oblivious to that. Another worrying trend is the rise of STDs on the island….and apparently the Russian girls are to blame, as “they sleep with the beach boys and give them diseases, and the beach boys sleep with other girls, and it spreads around” as one English girl who is dating a beach boy told me mournfully. I imagine the hundreds of prostitutes and ladyboys who come over from Manila and Cebu for business is another factor. Other problems are the unchecked construction going on all over the island. The place is full of poorly built hotels. The roads are not maintained. The traffic is horrendous. God knows where the millions and millions of dollars Boracay makes from tourism goes. Not on infrastructure that’s for sure. Not does it go to the native Boracay people. They line the beach path begging every night in front of loud beach bars with banging music, black-skinned with tight curly black hair, children in their arms who know only to stick out a hand for money, even babies are placed on mats in front of them, somehow asleep to their nightly lullaby of Pitbull or Beyonce. It’s a cycle of poverty and dependance. Drugs are rife, drug-pushers everywhere. It wasn’t like this the first time I visited, 6 years ago.
And so, and this is a strong statement but one I sadly have to make, Boracay is finished. Yes, other popular S.E. Asian beach destinations like Bali and Phuket have prostitutes, drug-pushers, beggars and thieves etc….but they are contained in Kuta and Patong respectively. The island of Boracay is too small, and these trappings of a popular tourist destination in Asia – drug peddlars, prostitutes, beggars, crime, ceaseless construction etc spill over into every part of the island. You can’t escape it. Boracay now has a burger king, mcdonalds and starbucks too. That’s not what you expect on a small paradise island. Or thieves. I spoke to people who had had all their money stolen from the beach in the 5 minutes if took for them to have a refreshing swim. Yes, many of the locals are still very friendly. The beaches are still amazing. It’s still the most beautiful island I’ve ever been to….but… it’s all over for Boracay, unfortunately. Not right now….but in 5 years or so. Especially when the new Boracay airport is built. I spent a month there. I saw the beauty, and the ugliness. The parties are amazing, the music, the fireshows….but the other, seedier side of entertainment is rife. Aggressive ladyboys howl in the night trying to get a trick as families walk past. We saw a huge gang fight when we were there on the beach, in full view of vacationers. I still love the place….there are still places that are not overrun…it’s still magical…sunsets spectacular….but I doubt I’ll ever return. Perhaps I’m greedy to want such places all to myself. Perhaps I’m being too harsh….but this was my third time and I have seen the changes and I am shocked as to how quickly Boracay has started to burst at the seams. Goodbye, Boracay, and thank you for the wonderful memories