Boracay - Best Luxury Beach in the World?
Is Boracay’s famous White Beach really the best in the world, as numerous other magazines have judged it to be? Certainly, its perfect proportions make it a strong contender: x miles of straight and wide white sand, decorated with brilliant-white banka boats. The palm trees sway gracefully in a breeze which is sure to blow at least some of the pollution and stress out of the weariest of visitors, many of whom leave feeling healthier and better-rested than they have for years.
The answer to this question is, in my opinion, dependant on who the traveller is. For those looking for comfort and facilities, the answer is maybe ‘yes’, as such travellers can afford to escape the throngs by staying in one of the spacious and exclusive resorts on White Beach. Whilst I can no longer recommend Boracay for budget travellers, it has a wealth of facilities to attract better-heeled visitors the Tirta and Mandala spas, the Fairways and Bluewater golf course and enough excellent restaurants to keep a satisfied grin fixed onto the face of even the most exacting of gourmands.
The title ‘best luxury beach in the world’ is one which I am not personally qualified to award, but I do have a good idea of the best luxury beach destinations in southeast Asia. Phra Nang beach, located in Thailand’s Krabi Province and home to the fantastic Rayavadee Resort, is my personal favourite, as I am not a golfer and so don’t care that there is no course nearby. For golfers, on the other hand, Boracay is hard to beat and is also a great destination to which to bring young and also grown-up children, for whom an active bar scene and fantastic water-sports are available. It’s always windy on one or the other side of the island, so this is a great place for sailing, windsurfing and kiteboarding.
Boracay - Then and Now
Nineteen years ago I was negotiating my HSBC employment contract renewal with my very affable manager Tony in Hong Kong. I told him that, whilst I personally wanted to renew, I was unlikely to be able to do so, as my wife missed her mother’s help in looking after our young children and so wanted to go home to Oxford. Whilst this was true, what I was really doing was using this fact as a ploy to get better renewal terms. I sometimes do this to take the confrontational element out of negotiations – I say that, whilst I personally would like to accept the deal on offer myself, someone else won’t agree.
When I told Tony that my wife missed her mother’s help with the children and that we would therefore probably not be renewing, he asked me if I’d like to take her on an expenses-paid holiday for a week, while he moved in to my house with his lovely wife Liz and looked after the children, all three of whom were in nappies at the time. I was astounded at the kindness of his offer: when I wrote earlier that he was a nice guy, the reader can maybe now understand why I thought so. He suggested an island that neither I nor anybody else I talked to had heard of, an obscure little place called Boracay.
A few weeks later we boarded a light aircraft in Manila, feeling quite light ourselves without a baby and two toddlers to carry. Small children and airplanes don’t, in my experience, mix well. I remember my worst such experience was a flight from Hong Kong to the UK in which my youngest, Natalie, got an earache and howled the whole way home. I had to carry her around the plane for twelve hours solid. Despite all my sweet-nothing-whispering, jiggling about and back-patting, she just wouldn’t stop screaming, which she did so vociferously that she kept all the cattle-class occupants of a big-top 747 awake. For a while I tried staying in one place, so leaving most of the plane in peace, but then had to move on when the looks I got from the surrounding passengers got more and more frosty.
The flight nineteen years ago to Boracay, in a tiny and ancient single-prop plane, was eventful. When I say the plane was ancient, I mean it was ancient nineteen years ago. The pilot, when he wanted to open his window to throw cigarette butts out, didn’t have an electric button at his disposal, so wound down the window with a handle which resembled the one on the Ford Capri I was driving at the time. At one stage the plane entered thick cloud and was hurled up and down like a yo-yo, occasioning much mirth from the pilot at our expense when we gasped in fright. Midway through the storm the pilot started thumping a meter on his dashboard, which I realised after a while was the altimeter. Then I realised that it was stuck.
We were being hurled around with no idea of altitude and in virtually zero visibility. This seemed pretty bad, but I told myself that this was probably reasonably normal in a light aircraft, so there was nothing to be particularly alarmed about. Then the most unnerving thing happened - the pilot stopped laughing and, picking up a small crucifix, started muttering prayers to himself. The landing strip on a nearby island wasn’t much of an improvement. Almost as bad as the one en route to Everest Base Camp in Nepal, which is perched at about a 20% angle on the side of a mountain – the downhill take-off there is truly terrifying, for the passenger knows that the plane either gets airborne or falls off the mountain. The landing strip near Boracay started at the water’s edge, so as soon as the land started, we started to land. Not a comfortable experience: during the approach to land we were so close to the sea that I thought I could sea fish nibbling the coral.
My flight to Boracay a few weeks ago was also unusual, in that I was weighed at check-in, which has never happened to me before. I hasten to add that it wasn’t just me who was weighed. That would really have spoiled my day, if the check-in clerk had taken a look at me and said “I’m sorry Mr Ramsden, but you’re going to have to hop on those scales, so we can check whether we need to get hold of a bigger plane to cope with your enormous weight”. When I saw the reading on the scales I started beating myself up for the excessive number of pies and pints I’ve consumed over the last 48 years (most of them in the last 47 of those), but then stopped, as I recently made a New Year’s resolution to feel good about myself despite my increased girth. I was a bit worried by the possibility of being charged extra, but then realised that, if this were to happen, then my travelling companion Fon’s diminutive size would mean that we would end up in rather than out of pocket. It transpired, however, that we were not being weighed for the purposes of fare calculation but to ensure that the aircraft had enough fuel on board. This was a bit worrying – were they trying to save on fuel by taking only just enough with us, in order to avoid burning the extra fuel needed by carrying a surplus? I hoped not.
Nineteen years ago we stayed at Fridays, which at the time was the only luxury resort on the island. A couple of days after checking in my wife and I were snorkelling just outside the resort, when six military helicopters came screaming over the jungle in a scene straight out of the film Apocalypse Now, thankfully minus the napalm. One of them landed on the beach between Friday’s and us. Out jumped 6 heavily armed troops, followed by a middle-aged lady, who was greeted warmly by the hotel manager. I was curious about the dignitary’s identity, so took off my snorkel and started walking back to the resort.
The then-manager saw me and came hurrying over. “Mr Simon”, he said, “so very sorry but would you mind moving rooms?”
“Yes I would mind” I replied, “I’ve got the best bungalow on White Beach” (the bank was paying – happy days).
“I know, so sorry, Mr Simon, but maybe a free bottle of Dom Perignon and two plates of surf and turf might change your mind?”
“I don’t know, who is it who’s more important than me anyway? I’m also really important myself, you know – well, to myself, anyway”.
“Mr Simon, it’s President Aquino”.
As soon as I heard who wanted my room I know it would be best to agree, but I didn’t do so too quickly, as I wanted to extract the maximum advantage from the situation. In the end it was well worth moving rooms to get spoiled rotten for the rest of our stay by a grateful resort manager. I’ve got to confess that I completely took advantage of the situation, ringing up room service and ordering fine wines and cake at daft times of day.
I was delighted, a couple of weeks ago, to see that Fridays remains a really lovely place, presumably partly at least thanks to the efforts of the place’s approachable and friendly manager Philippe Bartholomi, with whom I enjoyed a late and leisurely lunch. The only thing about the meal that I didn’t like was that I couldn’t finish all the food, as I had to save space for a dinner appointment elsewhere just a few hours later. I find it a most uncomfortable feeling to leave food. Whilst I habitually leave a mouthful or two (which I’m told is because my brain wants to fool itself that I don’t eat too much) I don’t feel good about leaving half a plateful, so Philippe had to twist my arm a bit to get me to try the tiramisu.
The food outside the resort was pretty awful nineteen years ago. When I asked for a doggy-bag in one place, it wasn’t because I wanted to finish the dish the next day, it was because a friend of mine had a dog that I was fond of. Nowadays the food on Boracay is sensational, really excellent – and I should know, as I did extensive research on the subject. Terrible job I have, isn’t it, sitting in sun-kissed beach-side restaurants quaffing fine wine and scoffing cakes. Someone has to check places out, though, or the reader might end up sick after eating somewhere where the sanitary standards are less than ideal, which is a real possibility on Boracay.
My recommendation is to only eat in luxury resorts or in the following restaurants: Friday’s, Aria, Cyma, Hama and Dos Mestizos. This last establishment is owned by Mr Binggoy, who is possibly the friendliest person on Boracay, if not the planet. Whilst he seems incapable of accepting a drink, he is a dab hand at handing out free tasters of his establishment’s fine wine. If you have shallow pockets then I don’t recommend Boracay as a destination, as the really excellent things about the place are also all somewhat expensive.
The facilities, as well as the food, have got a lot better over the last nineteen years. I went scuba diving for the first and almost the last time in my life there nineteen years ago. Before I left Hong Kong to travel to the island I had got myself trained up as a PADI-certified diver. Diver training in Hong Kong leaves a lot to be desired, I don’t recommend it. Visibility is about half an inch, due to the, how do I put this politely, foreign matter in the sea. At one stage, in order to qualify for my PADI license, I had to take off my mask and mouthpiece, then put them back on again. This was no easy task in zero visibility, so I ended up with a mouthful of Hong Kong ‘water’ down my throat, then in bed for a few days afterwards with a stomach complaint.
Back to scuba diving on Boracay nineteen years ago. My mouthpiece leaked from the moment I started using it, so that with every mouthful of air I also got half a mouthful of water. I should have abandoned the dive, but didn’t, as I was young and even more foolish at the time than I am now. Whilst this wasn’t really problematic at shallow depth as the water volume admitted was small, it became so deeper down, as more and more water entered the mouthpiece every time I breathed. I panicked, which made the situation much worse, as my short and shallow breaths meant that I didn’t have enough puff to clear the water from my flooding mouthpiece. I was swallowing loads of liquid, but knew it was unsafe to surface, due to the depth. By now I was really terrified. Just as I was about to swim for the surface, despite the decompression sickness I knew would follow, the dive-master swam up to me and gave me his spare mouthpiece. I thrust this in my mouth, but couldn’t clear the water from it, as I had no oxygen left inside my lungs with which to expel the liquid. I started to thrash and flail about as the panic got worse. The dive-master saw this, took off his regulator, grabbed hold of me none-too-gently, then blew a lungful of air into my mouth.
This was the first and only time in my life I have been grateful to a big hairy stranger for giving me a kiss (no, that doesn’t mean that on the other occasions that I had such a kiss I wasn’t grateful, it means that this was the only occasion). I was then able to expel the water from the regulator and use it to surface with. After vomiting copiously I swore that I would never scuba dive again, but subsequently have. The last time wasn’t successful either, but only because I had a hangover the size of a horse. I remember feeling rather annoyed with my drinking partners of the previous night, who had told me that diving instantly banishes hangovers. Believe me, it doesn’t. This experience on Boracay was a long time ago when the sole scuba place was a badly-funded and amateurish outfit which accepted all-comers, qualified or otherwise. The many different companies offering diving on Boracay’s gorgeous reefs now include several PADI 5-star outfits, so I have no hesitation in recommending ‘acquaholics’ to come and enjoy the superb diving here, as they need not fear a repetition of my experience of so long ago. I know this because I checked out the standards by asking several outfits if they would take an unqualified diver down – they all, reassuringly, refused.
Boracay’s lights now work a lot better than they did nineteen years ago, then they worked only occasionally – and never at night.
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