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Beach holiday in Asia: Boracay, a hidden Philippine gem

By: Monica Pitrelli

Arriving under the cloak of nightfall is not how I typically choose to kick off a beach holiday. I’m more of a welcome washcloth, sundowner by the pool kind of girl. But getting to Boracay post-sunset, post-dinner, post-nightcap meant that the storied boat ride from Caticlan to this tiny, white-sand paradise was out of the question. Our boat ride was in complete darkness – the water, the coastline and the island would remain a complete mystery till morning. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let me back up six hours or so. My husband and I are halfway through our 50-minute flight from Manila to Caticlan when a brusque flight attendant’s voice reverberates over the loudspeaker. A collective groan emerges from the passengers.

Lost in visions of daiquiris by the pool and strolls along azure-edged beaches, I nudge my seatmate for info.

“We are being rerouted,” he replies. “The Caticlan airport closes at 5pm, so we can’t land there.”

O-kay.

Instead, we land at sundown in Kalibo and deplane with a horde of disgruntled, Boracay-bound passengers who swarm upon the diminutive airport. As my husband and I talk tactics – he’s going for the luggage, I for bus tickets – we spot two young men heading straight towards us. The words on their uniform shirt pockets are a welcome relief – “Shangri-La Boracay Resort & Spa”.

“Mr and Mrs Pitrelli, follow us. Have a seat here. We’ll get your luggage, bus tickets and some water for your journey.”

So we do. Within half an hour, our tour bus is inching along the one-and-a-half-hour path to Boracay, past dimly lit houses and windowless churches. Two island tours for the price of one, I rationalise, as we angle down the spaghetti-strap thin, one-lane road.

Once in Caticlan, we are escorted to the Shangri-La’s waiting room, before boarding the resort’s private boat for the final leg of our destination.

Boracay is packed full with wide beaches
Boracay is packed full with wide beaches

 

At First Glance

The next morning, I flip the switch for the mechanised curtains shielding the floor-to-ceiling glass villa walls. Finally – our first glimpse of Boracay’s beauty. At the highest point of the 12-hectare property, our villa has a magnificent view of the cliff-side resort, the floating gazebo entrance dock and two private beaches. Built in 2009, the resort rests on the northern tip of the island, away from the nightlife and colourful characters of White Beach.

When a trip is designed around R&R, like this one, room specs reign supreme. Our modern bi-level treehouse villa is jaw-dropping. As expected, we spent a good amount of time in it: playing board games in the spacious top-floor dining room, soaking in the spa bath on the balcony and reading in the cosy, ground-floor bedroom.

An ingenious architectural plan and creative landscaping ensure that there is always a secluded hammock to find, a quiet place to discover. The entire resort is connected by a series of secluded paths; you can take a stroll or call for a golf-cart.

I have been to a few Shangri-La properties in my day, including, of course, the original right here in Singapore, but I have never seen one like this. If the sheer beauty of the resort wasn’t enough, the service standards are some of the best that I’ve experienced in Asia; this, I’m told, is due to a combination of the naturally friendly disposition and work ethic of the Filipinos.

There are all sorts of watersports in Boracay, with the strong winds
There are all sorts of watersports in Boracay, with the strong winds

 

Parasailing and Paradiso

Located in the province of Aklan in Panay, Boracay is a dog-bone-shaped island, seven kilometres long and one kilometre wide at its narrowest point. Of the 12 main beaches, the most famous are the easterly White Beach, with its 4km stretch of restaurants, shops and nightlife, and the opposing Bulabog Beach, renowned for windsurfing and kite-boarding. Although November to March is traditionally considered high season, year-round tourism has done away with the slow season. There are just two seasons: peak (Christmas, New Year and Chinese New Year) and non-peak.

We timed it right – we are here for the hot season, which is toasty warm and mostly dry. Mostly being the operative word, we discover, when our eyeballs are pelted by tiny raindrops while parasailing one afternoon. Coming from a part of the world that regularly rations water because it hasn’t rained for six months, I’ve always loved rain showers in the tropics. But it’s a different story when you’re being dragged by a boat hundreds of metres in the air without anything to buffer the burn. No matter – we loved it.

Boracay
Boracay

 

Activities on Boracay run the gamut from A to Z. Literally. The list starts with ATV rides and Ariel’s Point cliff-diving to ziplines and zorbs (the latter entailing stuffing yourself into a clear ball and careening down the side of a hill). Most people come to dive or to party, or just to enjoy. And over the past decade, I’ve learned to appreciate the art of doing nothing.

Post Script

Scheduled to leave Boracay on our anniversary, our flight back to Manila was cancelled, so we missed our connection to Singapore. Again, the resort came to our rescue, helping us to book a room at the Trader’s Hotel in Manila (a sister property) and battling it out at the airline ticket counter to get us re-booked onto another flight.

That evening in Manila, a car from Trader’s was waiting for us when we arrived. We spent the night touring the city and taking in the sights around Manila Bay. On the advice of a hotel attendant, we celebrated over krispy sisig, a very chewy, very oily dish that we later discovered consisted of fried pig snout, cheeks and ears, and chicken liver and heart. There is room for improvement in next year’s celebratory meal.

The one thing I learned about Boracay is that half the adventure is getting there and back. But you never know – my friends and colleagues have come and gone without so much as a glitch. Too bad for them.

GETTING THERE
A direct flight from Singapore to Manila is around three-and-a-half hours long. In Manila, you’ll need to change terminals to catch a short, 50-minute flight to Boracay. Regular shuttles (20 pesos per person; less than $1) run between the airport terminals. A three-hour layover in Manila is highly recommended. Most people opt to fly into Caticlan, as it’s close to the ferry terminal that runs regular boats to Boracay. Note: Domestic airlines are notorious for delays and cancellations, so bring a good book (and a sense of humour).

WHEN TO GO
November to March (high season) are marked by cool nights and warm days with moderate rain and winds that blow from the east, thereby protecting White Beach. April and May are hot and mostly dry, while June through October (low season) see moderate to heavy rainfall and humidity.

STAY
Splurge: Shangri-La Boracay Resort & Spa

A luxury resort with private villas, private boat to and from Caticlan, spa, multiple restaurants, onsite water sports centre and activities for the kids. www.shangri-la.com/boracay

Save: Two Seasons Boracay Resort
An urban beachfront resort with infinity pool, family suites and roof deck bar close to restaurants, shopping and nightlife. www.twoseasonsresorts.com

Super-save: Pahar Resort Terrace
Part of Dive Gurus, this simple beachside accommodation is backed by an attentive and friendly staff. Perfect for people who prefer diving to frills. www.divegurus.com/3.html

EAT
Splurge: Rima
The Shangri-La’s high-end Italian restaurant specialises in Tuscan creations. Open from October to June.

Save: Paradiso Grill
Beachside you-pick-’em seafood restaurant where snapper, giant prawns and crab are weighed and prices quoted at selection, ensuring no Newton Circus-style surprises when the bill arrives.

Super save: Real Coffee
Coffee shop hut on White Beach, serving all-day breakfast and much-loved calamansi muffins.

PACK
Most of the airlines from Manila to Calibo only allow 10kg of checked luggage. Carry-on luggage allowances are also low. Pack light.

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