Catharine Hamm finds that dream destinations don't always meet expectations.
Can a million and a half people be wrong? That's how many tourists are expected to visit Boracay Island this year.
Can Travel & Leisure be wrong? That's the magazine that crowned Boracay the best island in the world.
Can TripAdvisor be wrong? That's the website that dubbed Boracay a Travellers' Choice 2013 Winner.
After my visit last year to this island 250 miles southeast of Manila, I decided that, yes, they could be wrong. Or misguided. Or I could be.
I'm guessing that the visitors / voters aren't people on the far edge of middle age who fancy themselves beach connoisseurs. Maybe they don't suffer guilt about the poverty or the damage to the environment. Maybe they were smart enough not to come at the height of habagat, typhoon season.
If that's the case, maybe they would enjoy this respite from the smog and traffic and heat and humidity of Manila.
Actually, I enjoyed the respite from the smog and traffic of Manila. (The heat and humidity came with us.) I liked the sands (once they were cleaned each morning) along the renowned White Beach and the bathtub-warm waters. I found the people quite wonderful.
But what I didn't find was the hoped-for piece of paradise that would shoot to the top of my favorite sun and sand destinations.
If Boracay had been a first date, there wouldn't have been a second. We just weren't right for each other. I should have known that almost from the minute I arrived at the hotel.
The prop plane that deposited my friend Jan and me at the Caticlan airport was filled with eager visitors, all of us ready to strip off the workaday suit after the hour's flight and put on the bathing suit.
But it wasn't quite that seamless. First, there was a boat ride, which reminded me a little of those cigarette boats that go flashing across the waves in Miami Vice. (This wasn't, I should add, a cigarette boat, but the captain drove it like one.) Then there was the ride to the resort in the back of a van, where we had a view of the water standing in the streets after recent rains and the rows of ramshackle snack shops and houses that lined the roads, which were like pot-holed obstacle courses.
Obstacles overcome, we were soon in our room at Boracay Regency, which had a king bed, another smaller bed and a welcome plate of fruit. And one more thing: a placard on the nightstand that said, “Linens stained with HENNA TATTOO, COCONUT OIL OR HAIR DYE will be charged accordingly.”
I was sure it wasn't the linens that would be charged accordingly, but I didn't understand why I would be. Or, more to the point, what would I be doing that would cause me to damage the sheets like this? It was such a problem that the hotel had to laminate the warning. But why?
We got an inkling as we ate dinner at Christina's, the hotel restaurant. From our outdoor perch, glasses of wine in hand, sun casting purplish shadows over all, we realised we were sitting along a sort of promenade. Boracay is divided into three “stations” along this strand of beach. We were in Station 2 (3 being more budget oriented and 1 being more exclusive).
Station 2 that night was home to a company team-building event, where a tent full of people was being entertained by a bad comedian with a high-pitched giggle — so high pitched that I briefly considered a fourth glass of wine, even though I was still on my first.
And then began the parade of people. There was no boardwalk, per se, but there was a constant stream of people along the sand. By the time I finished my very average lapu lapu (grouper), I was ready to find out where they were going and why.
They were going shopping at the stands selling jewellery and gewgaws of all stripes. They were going to party in the numerous bars that promised tropical refreshments. They were going to pick out a lovely seafood dinner from booths where the entrees were on ice.
And they were going for henna tattoos and coconut oil massages, offered by eager young entrepreneurs. It was all a bit overwhelming.
And sad. Children were begging, the occasional mum with a baby and another child with hand outstretched.
We didn't need a henna tattoo or a coconut oil massage, and we didn't want the guilt. We needed air conditioning, a couple of anti-inflammatories and a good night's sleep plus the promise of Discovery Shores, the hotel that had started me on this Boracay fever dream.
Travel & Leisure had voted it the fourth best hotel in the world. Never the optimist, I felt certain — although I don't know why — I'd find my peeps and my place in the sun.
I headed for White Beach early the next morning. The sky was a dull gray, the colour of some of the pearls that vendors were already hawking. Workers were clearing the detritus from the sand, while kids and their grown-ups frolicked.
In the growing light, I could already see the paraws, the blue-sailed boats that flashed parallel to the shore. Might as well be out on the water, I thought, and get a feel for the island.
Instead of booking a boat on the beach, I arranged it through the hotel, and later that morning, we boarded the outrigger Kevin 2 and soon were beyond Crocodile Island (which does look a little like a croc) and at a snorkel stop.
I jumped in with my snorkel gear and relaxed a little, until I remembered that the coral that I could now see clearly has been so badly damaged that the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported last year that less than a tenth of it remains in its original state. Coral is critical for marine life. I wasn't helping.
I got out of the water.
We cruised over to Crystal Cove Island, where other visitors swarmed its sea caves and crowded around what were billed as hawks and Philippine eagles. They looked as bedraggled as the island felt. It was time to head for Discovery Shores, which, Travel & Leisure said, would provide “barefoot elegance.”
It was a bit of a hike to our room at Moorish-looking Discovery Shores, but things were looking up. Our accommodations included a living room, a bedroom and a small kitchen, where everything was dotted with small yellow flowers that contrasted with the brilliant white of the linens and the walls.
Our bellman explained the large water-filled bowl on the floor on which yellow flowers floated: Someone would be by soon to give us a welcoming foot massage. As we waited, we perused the tray of welcome sweets and tried a little pandan water, made from pandan leaves brewed in a light syrup and water. It was a little like the US South's equivalent of sweet tea, which isn't my cup of tea.
The masseuse was MIA, it seemed, so what to do next? We could have gone swimming, but the pool was being repaired so we repaired to the Sandbar. There was no parade here, no one trying to sell us anything (except a Diet Coke and a mojito). We also sat outdoors at the nearby Indigo restaurant. By now I was a creature of habit and again ordered the lapu lapu, which didn't taste appreciably different from the previous night's dish.
We were leaving the next morning to catch an early flight back to Manila so we couldn't sample the spa, but that was OK. No number of spa treatments was going to change my impression of Boracay, a place for partyers or rich people, of which I am neither.
This wasn't a love match — not for me. Maybe 30 years ago when Boracay and I were less overdeveloped.
We said our goodbyes and headed back to Manila, where the smog and traffic and heat and humidity welcomed us with open, sweaty arms. It was good to be back.