The island of Boracay may not yet provoke the same envious squeals as Saint Tropez, Bora Bora or The Maldives, but this Filipino jewel, best known for its immaculate white beaches and tranquil waters, is already a magnet for globe-trotting celebrities.
Spanish heartthrob, Antonio Banderas, was one of the earlier converts, stepping ashore here in 2007 – around the same time that world champion boxer Manny Pacquiao, now a Filipino senator, bought a resort on exclusive Diniwid Beach.
Hollywood glamour couple Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt gave the tropical hideaway their stamp of approval when they spent a week in seclusion at the island’s ultra-luxurious Shangri-La Resort & Spa, a private enclave in the island’s north. Although Boracay has always attracted local “Pinoy” celebrities – mostly bikini models and soap stars from Manila – the arrival of Brad and Angelina has given the place serious cachet.
Until the 1970s Boracay – part of the Visayas island chain, 350kms south of Manila – attracted few visitors, but when a German travel writer declared White Beach to be the finest stretch of sand on the planet, the island’s fate was sealed.
The construction of Caticlan Airport, on the neighbouring island of Panay, quickly transformed Boracay (pop. 12,000) into the Philippines’ single most popular tourist destination.
Strip development along White Beach and an influx of tourists from Korea, Japan and Russia has robbed the place of much of its former serenity, but Boracay continues to thrive. For party types, the lure of White Beach, with its beach bars, Happy Hour cocktails and grilled lobster joints, remains irresistible. But those looking for something more contemplative will need to venture further afield – well beyond the reach of the touts and hawkers who now ply their trade along this astonishing 4km stretch of white sand and nodding coconut palms.
The pristine beach itself does not change, but the ocean front promenade, commonly known as White Beach, is in a constant state of flux, with new hotels, restaurants and shopping malls springing up with almost indecent haste. If you’re looking for Starbucks, surf wear shops, karaoke bars, nightclubs, wood-fired pizzas or a pub employing dwarfs then make a bee-line for Boat Station 1, the beating heart of Boracay.
Manila’s beautiful young things can be found partying on the rooftop terrace at The Tides, Boracay’s grooviest boutique hotel.
Tacky, crowded and irrepressible, White Beach will not appeal to everyone but if you want to book a PADI diving course, hire an outrigger canoe for the day or enjoy a cheap massage on the beach ($8 an hour), this is heaven on a stick. Some of the island’s best eating joints are to be found in D’Mall, an ill-assorted collection of burger bars, drinking dives, souvenir shops and fashion outlets. Try Hama for excellent Japanese cuisine, Aria for Italian fare and Lemon Café for authentic espresso and scrumptious breakfast – the coconut pancakes are delicious.
Jump into a motorised three-wheeler known as a “trike” and drive to Manoc-Manoc, a semi-rural district just south of White Beach.
Most people come here to visit Mandala Spa, the island’s most famous oasis of indulgence. The spa specialises in Hilot, the traditional Filipino system of healing that promises “profound and enduring benefits for the mind, body and spirit”.
The spa is a welcome antidote to the frenetic people watching and consumerism of White Beach; those who cannot tear themselves away should book into one of the 13 Balinese-style thatched villas.
The opening of the Shangri-La Resort & Spa in 2009 transformed Boracay from a carefree hangout into a world-class travel destination. Built with care and imagination, the immaculate property covers 12 hectares of gardens and native forest – and includes two private, white sand beaches.
Rumours have it that this is where Brad and Angelina stayed during their visit and it’s easy to understand why. Each of the luxurious 219 rooms, suites and villas is decorated with handcrafted furniture and Filipino artefacts. The views are superb.
To visit this lovely crescent of white sand is to step back 20 years to the way that Boracay once was: intimate, tranquil and supremely laid-back. The diabolical access road, which is full of potholes, keeps most ordinary tourists at bay. Dine on Nami’s famous clifftop terrace restaurant or at one of the inexpensive beachfront eateries. Once safely ensconced, however, it is unlikely that you will want to venture much beyond Diniwid – unless it’s for a cocktail at Boracay West Cove, a wonderful slice of architectural whimsy overlooking the blue expanse of the Sulu Sea.