Cool change in the jungle

Behind Boracay's world-famous beach, Debbie Hunter rides a wave of relaxation at a luxe retreat.

Boracay's most popular form of transport features few creature comforts, especially for generously built tourists.

As our Filipino tricycle driver carefully weaves past oncoming traffic along busy Boracay Boulevard and the petrol fumes of the motorbikes ahead invade our nostrils, the breeze does at least provide some relief from the intense tropical heat and humidity for me and two other passengers squashed inside the brightly painted metal sidecar.

Our discomfort is fleeting and, we are soon to discover, worth it when we pull off the road and make the long drive up to the gates of Mandala Spa & Villas.

Inside the estate it is quiet and cool, the noise and heat blocked by the lush jungle setting. No doubt the kind of serenity that used to exist on this island before it became one of the hottest beach destinations on the planet.

On a heavily wooded hilltop, Mandala Spa overlooks the small island's most famous tourist attraction - four kilometres of blinding white powder-fine sand.

By day, White Beach is a mecca for sun worshippers, the clear pale blue shallows and indigo depths a refreshing playground for waterbabies of all ages. At night the silica strip becomes a dance floor and lounge bar.

Cleverly hidden behind the coconut palms that line the length of the beach are sprawling resorts and backpacker hostels, souvenir stalls, a boutique shopping mall, international restaurants and bars - all of which are meant to attract the tourist peso.

But all that seems a world away as my therapist, Jen, from the nearby island of Bical, escorts me up the wood, coral and pebble stone steps to one of four thatched spa pavilions.

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I'd shed my damp clothes earlier for just a tiny sarong (I get to keep) and thongs. On the terrace overlooking the exotic gardens, my tired feet are treated to a herbal bath laced with with floating hibiscus. Lingering tensions are washed away.

I'm then invited to choose from four lightly scented aromatherapy oils for my main treatment.

As well as being a world-class yoga retreat, Mandala Spa offers a

health and wellbeing menu. Listed are a range of massages, wraps, scrubs and facials as well as the much-talked about signature Watsu and Water Dance water-based therapies.

I choose the relaxing lavender-infused oil for a 90-minute lymph drainage massage.

It's a much more gentle type of massage than I am used to and I soon find myself drifting into sleep. The soft music and Jen's deep breathing, combined with gentle rocking and massage, eventually win over and only a mosquito buzzing past my ear briefly interrupts my short reverie.

The experience is hypnotic and after some ginger tea back on the veranda, it's a real effort to drag myself to the shower and prepare for the journey back to my hotel for the customary beachside barbecue and bar hopping.

Fortunately, if you never want to leave, you don't have to.

The 2.5-hectare estate has 12 luxurious guest villas. Featuring vaulted ceilings, teak flooring, capiz doors and traditional thatched roofs, four are surrounded by gardens and eight have ocean views. Their minimal decor comes complete with burning incense, bamboo privacy screens, designer Italian bathroom fixtures and four-post king beds draped with mosquito netting.

It's sheer honeymooner heaven, complete with thoughtful extras like fruit baskets and flower baths.

If you thought getting a few Bob Marley hair braids and a deep tan was all it took to totally chill out, this place will make you think again.

The writer was a guest of Philippine Airlines, Peninsula Manila and Philippines Tourism.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

Philippine Airlines flies five times a week to Manila from Sydney and Melbourne. See philippineairlines.com. Phone 1300 888 725. Fly from Manila to Caticlan Airport, then transfer by ferry to Boracay. The trip from the airport to Boracay takes 30 minutes.

Getting around

Tricycles carry four passengers maximum and cost about 10 pesos (30 cents) a passenger. Some hotels offer private transfers.

Staying there

Mandala Spa & Villas costs from 14,500 pesos a night (minimum two nights) including daily breakfast, daily yoga class, round-trip transfers from Caticlan and one Mandala Qi massage a person. Breakfast is served in the resort's award-winning vegetarian restaurant, Prana. The innovative menu is available from 7am to 10pm. See mandalaspa.com. Le Soleil de Boracay is a 70-room Mediterranean-style hotel opposite White Beach. See lesoleil.com.ph. Discovery Shores has the largest guestrooms on the island. See discoveryshoresboracay.com.ph.

Further information

See philippinetourism.com.au or phone (02) 9279 3380.

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