Its white sand beaches, warm blue waters and easy-on-the-wallet style make Boracay a contender for the ultimate beach escape, writes Belinda Jackson.
THIS morning, I jumped off my outrigger, bought a pair of pearl earrings for $2 on a near-deserted beach, jumped back on the boat and sailed off. Boracay, you delicious creature, you've taught me an essential lesson: one must always carry change when island-hopping in South-East Asia.
We're bombarded with deals for those well-worn paths to Bali, Thailand and Fiji but why have we forgotten the Philippines and its best-known island getaway, Boracay?
Even though it's coming into the off-season, during my visit in late April, the sky is a perfect blue after Manila's smoggy 40-degree heat; the sea so clear I can admire my newly manicured toes underwater.
"But it's so clouuuuuuudy now," laments Boracay local Belle, with that endearing, rolling Filipino accent. "You should see it in the high season."
To put you in the picture, there are two main seasons in equatorial Philippines: hot and wet and hot and dry. The low, rainy season runs from mid-June to mid-October; the high season from late October to June. Showing the Philippines' multicultural roots, there are also peaks at Christmas, Easter and Chinese New Year.
The journey from Manila to Boracay is itself a mini-adventure. First, there's an hour's flight to Kalibo, then two hours' drive to the port of Caticlan and a quick boat trip to the island. After an uneventful flight, we gun it in a minivan, skimming between the quintessential Pinoy public transport - bus-like jeeps called jeepneys that are as brightly painted as a 1970s air-brushed shaggin' wagon.
The road is lined with mango trees, palms, rice paddies, shops selling elaborate wedding gowns and the traditional Pinoy shirt, the barong, and loads of breeze-blocker canteens. There are Jersey cows, banana palms, watermelon stalls and schools, thatch-hut eateries and the occasional buffalo. It's all so ripe and fertile.
Boys on three-wheeler motorbikes cruise the roads, loudspeakers blaring election slogans, and the van decides it would like to vote for Bong Revilla, just for his funky name and toothy election-poster smile.
The drive is a good chance to catch a glimpse of Filipino village life: the roofs of jeepneys packed with suitcases and grinning boys, the girls at the snack stands, students in their bright school uniforms. It seems a cruelty to lock them up in the classroom on such a balmy day.
At Caticlan jetty, we're hustled out of the heat and into a cool waiting room and offered icy drinks and lemongrass-infused towels. Our boat, a private craft belonging to the Shangri-La Hotel, is bright white and packed with attentive staff who handle us like fragile eggs down the gangplank for the sedate 20-minute crossing.
Most hotels and resorts on the island have their own boats, including the photogenic paraws; sailing boats on which the local boys hang out and chat, waiting for their craft to be hired.
This is not the island on which to entertain your castaway fantasies. Boracay is well and truly on the map. "Oh, Boracay? It's soooo been done," an expat tells me with a luxuriously enormous eye-roll. Sure, the '70s are long gone, a time when there was no electricity and fish swam into your waiting arms. But when you say done, I'm thinking crowded beaches, polluted water, rubbish-strewn sands, the chance to form an intimate though short-term relationship with your neighbour or check the footy scores of country Australian leagues. None of which applies to this island.
The great thing about Boracay is that the locals know it's a gem and treat it accordingly. Unlike other winter-sun destinations we Aussies flock to, the waters are a true azure. There's not a scrap of litter and no cars (though the trikes are noisy enough). And let's just say no to black volcanic sand beaches. Boracay is fringed with Omo-bright sand. The main beach, a four-kilometre stretch, is named simply White beach.
Boracay, shaped like a dog bone, is easy to find your way around. Each area is named after the island's three boat stations, again in simple style: Stations 1 (home to White beach), 2 and 3.
One end of the seven-kilometre island is dominated by the five-star Shangri-La Hotel, which opened its gates just a year ago. Before this exclusive affair came to town, with its private beaches and butler service, the wearer of the luxury crown was the now three-year-old Discovery Shores Boracay, a laid-back luxury pad on White beach.
Pinoy boys hang around Main Street lazily selling fake designer sunnies and Rolexes while sporting outrageous tattoos - my favourite is a Superman emblem splashed across an overly confident brown chest. Nearby, I grab a pair of orange Havaianas thongs, for half the price back at home, at a little beach stall in the island's main hub, D'Mall, a collection of shops selling bargain and boutique beachwear. It's also home to the renowned icy-juice shop Jonah's, a Korean snack bar refuelling hungry honeymooners and the ever-present food stands doling out the standard cheap Filipino fare of chicken and pork asado.
Along the beach, lovely Filipinas are religiously well turned out, with perfect glossy hair, make-up and clothes, which does serve to occasionally make you feel like a sweaty frump. However, on the upside, this means cheap beauty salons. Friendly little spas line the foreshore, offering beauty treatments as well as full-body massages by trained therapists for a couple of bucks. If you're truly laid-back, don't even bother going into the spas, just flop under a likely palm and wait for a beachside masseuse to wander by.
Ladies, when packing your Boracay wardrobe, there is but one rule: no heels. This place has true democratic fashion, where everyone, no matter how glam, is sporting flat sandals or even going barefoot on that delicious sand.
Every evening, the restaurants and bars along White Beach spill out towards the sea, from Discovery Shores' glam Indigo bar, serving its signature passionfruit mojito to a well-heeled crowd, to low-key bars comprising a few beanbags pulled around little tables, on which sit tall Arabian water pipes for smoking scented tobacco.
The mid-range resort, Fridays, lives up to its reputation for huge seafood meals, while the poolside Cielo bar at the Shangri-La is the best place to watch the sun set over the ocean as you sip a divine lycheetini.
There are bars with two-hour happy hours serving bottomless sangria, rave joints with DJs, and cocktail dens whipping up creations with the omnipresent mango and the calamondin - the Philippines' own little lemony lime. Whirling fire dancers work the foreshore with nothing but a strip of lycra between them and the flames and children craft sand sculptures, a hat in front for spare change. On a post-prandial amble along the moonlit main beach, I have the Black-Eyed Peas' song Bebot, which translates as "hot chick", in my head.
"Four out of five Filipinos can sing," my friend Terry tells me - and she's not kidding. The live bands start at sunset and don't stop until 3am. Our find is Pat's Creek Bar, close by D'Mall, where a few guys on a small timber stage croon tuneful reggae and acoustic numbers to a chilled-out, appreciative crowd of Filipinos and foreigners. We drink Red Stripe beer, massage our stomachs and agree our 20-minute walk has negated a week's hard eating. Tomorrow, we decide, we'll be positively svelte after island-hopping.
The Philippines has 7107 islands, making it the world's second-largest archipelago after Indonesia. About 4000 of those islands are inhabited and Boracay is easily the best known. On our morning cruise, we spy a handful of little islands off its coast, covered with caves, mango trees and strangler figs. Surely one of these is the secret home of the Phantom?
For five passengers, there are four boys on the boat fetching soft drinks, handing out snorkelling gear and organising a massive spread of prawns, chicken, garlic rice and crabs for an island picnic. As we pull up to grab supplies, we're besieged by a small army of boys. They clamber on the outrigger's stabilisers and do backflips singularly, in tandem and en masse until we pull away again, leaving them a handful of pesos that they laughingly stick on their chests. Then we pull into deserted Puka beach, home of my beautiful South Sea pearls, and have a quick dip in the perfect waters before heading to a renowned fish hang-out to meet the non-human locals.
I'm a lazy snorkeller. I'm happy diving about for a while but then it's back on the boat for a spot of lolling.
Later, of course, I'll gnash my teeth as the other snorkellers return.
"Amazing! I saw a turtle! And sea snakes!" they rave. Yeah, yeah. Hey mister, I learnt that clown fish love muesli bars. And I bought three coconuts from a young boy who paddled up to our boat on his surfboard, whipped out a machete from heavens knows where, expertly sliced the top of a coconut off, whacked a straw in and, bingo, three for 100 pesos, please miss. Best $2 I've spent on this trip. Lunch is a marathon affair of scoffing crabs and drinking beer but it's educational, too. Terry waggles a crab at us and declares it's gay. "Who'd like to eat it?" Bizarrely, there are a few takers for gay crab. Maybe it wasn't gay but more a hermaphrodite, a well-known occurrence in these liberal, warm waters of the Sulu Sea.
We inspect its wedding tackle closely before consumption.
By now, nothing surprises me. It's all so tactile in the Philippines: from Terry patting my arm affectionately, to the boat boys who handle me like a queen as I walk down their little gangplank; the tiny tropical fish nibbling at my fingertips and the customs lady, who lovingly caresses my buttocks during the pre-flight metals check.
After a week on the islands, I can say, hand on my heart, that I would happily brush off the other international contenders for Aussie winter-sun holidays in a heartbeat. The 7½-hour flight to Manila is far shy of Bangkok and only a couple hours more than to Denpasar. Regularly named in the top-10 world's best beaches, Boracay is cleaner and whiter and, yes, it's cheaper. English is widely (and well) spoken, even by taxi drivers and shop assistants, so getting around isn't a herculean effort.
And after a recent trip to another island, where I was all but devoured by traders, it's worth asking: is it a hassle? Filipinos are just too cool to do the hard sell. And with beautiful Boracay on their hands, they don't need to.
The writer was a guest of Philippine Airlines
Boracay is a one-hour flight from Manila to Kalibo, then two-hours' drive to Caticlan port and a 20-minute boat ride to the island. Philippine Airlines flies Sydney-Manila five times a week from $901 return, 1300 888 725, philippineairlines.com.
Five-night packages priced from $2442 a person, twin share, include return airfares Sydney-Manila and Manila-Kalibo, boat transfers to Boracay, four nights at the five-star Shangri-La Boracay Resort and one night at the Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila, with breakfast daily. Travel between July 16 and September 16, book by August 31, Viva! Holidays, 1300 468 482 or see a travel agent.
Discovery Shores is a luxury 88-room hotel whose Mandala Spa is considered one of the best on the island. Rooms priced from $340/double, including breakfast and transfers. +632 288 4500, discoveryshoresboracay.com.
Fridays Boracay is a 40-room resort on Main Beach, its beach restaurant is good for big eaters. +632 810 2101, fridaysboracay.com.
See + do
The Shangri-La is luxury personified. Even if you're not a guest, book in for a seriously long Italian lunch at Rima, which has an excellent wine list. 1800 222 448 (Australia), www.shangri-la.com.
The simple beachside Sun Spa does full-body massages for $17 and manicure-pedicure deals for $15.50, +632 288 5915.
Philippines Tourism, (02) 9279 3380, philippinetourism.com.au.
With the kids
THE cheapest thrills on Boracay are the little motorised trikes that are the island's main transport. Agree on a price before getting in.
Hire a boat and head to Crystal Cove picnic spot, a perfect little island with shady cabanas, caves to explore and shallow white-sand beaches. You can rent a villa for up to five people for $90 a day, BYO food and drinks, or request a picnic from $22 a person. +632 288 7482, crystalcoveisland.com.
Every shop seems to sell or hire out snorkel gear. The clear water and abundant tropical fish make Nemo-spotting simple.