Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Boracay Island | Philippines

     The school holidays mean one thing for me here - where am I going next? Christmas was spent at home, and Chinese New Year was all about Cambodia. However, while Cambodia was great, that holiday did leave me pretty exhausted, and when tired is my natural state these days (you try working 46 hours a week with 2-6 year olds!), I decided relaxation was my priority for the Easter holidays. I still wanted to go somewhere new and do some exploring, but not as intensely as in Cambodia. So I settled on some time in the sun by the sea, by heading for the Philippines. There are over 7000 islands that make up this country, so choosing where to spend my 10 days was important. After some online research, and some advice from the Filipino teacher at my school, Boracay and Palawan won out, as they consistently showed up as the top choices. I knew this would make them the busiest too, but they would be the easiest to get to and to find things to do in, since they're used to catering for tourists like me, so it was a price I was willing to pay. Boracay was my first stop, and after a 2 hour flight to Kalibo, followed by a bus-ferry-van transfer, I was there for four nights. I chose Lazy Dog for my hotel - budget was one deciding factor of course, but this place also had the advantage of being away from the busiest part of the island, but still just a 10 minute walk to everything I'd need.

Palm trees, sand and ocean on White Beach, Boracay, Philippines

White Beach, Boracay, Philippines

Sunset from White Beach, Boracay, Philippines

     When possible, I like to spend my first day in a new place familiarising myself with it. This isn't always possible when I stay places for just a night or two, but with four nights and three full days here, I had plenty of time. I slept through most of the morning to start with - sometimes I feel like this is wasting my time in a new place, but since I can no longer sleep in regularly, like I did when I was a student, I relish the Sundays and holidays when I can! Then, when I slowly roused, it was time for some leisurely strolling around the island. To get to White Beach, the main place to be on Boracay, I passed through D'Mall, which I expected to be a shopping centre, given the name, but is actually a couple of pedestrianised streets of shops and restaurants. There's the standard souvenir shops, but also water sports gear, clothes and accessories, and various types of cuisine available. I nearly stopped and did a double take though when I spotted the "Hobbit Tavern", which is staffed by little people! I stopped off in a cafe for some lunch (and my caffeine fix, in frozen form - trust me, I've done travelling without coffee, and it's not an experience I want to repeat...). 

     Rather than head straight to the beach to flop in the sand, I opted to do some more exploring first, knowing well that once I lay down, I'd struggle to find motivation to get back up. I wandered along the beach front instead, as there's basically a little street running along the beach, with yet more shops, alongside plenty of hotels, and a million guys trying to sell you activities. Usually a quick shake of the head is enough to get rid of them though, and none of them were very pushy, thankfully. While there are plenty of things I'm comfortable enough doing alone, these sorts of activities seem like they'd be far more fun with friends, and most were things you can do just about anywhere (banana boats, helmet diving, parasailing etc). I was keeping an eye on the island hopping adverts though, as that was something I was interested in doing, since I know there are other small islands around the bigger ones, like Boracay, and many places that are more easily accessed by boat than by land. Every stand seemed to be advertising the same thing for the same price, so in the end I just picked one at random and booked it for the next day.

     I'd walked pretty far along the beach front by this point, so I decided to turn and head back. I was going to walk along the sand instead this time, to avoid being bombarded by salesmen again, but it was burning the soles of my feet within seconds, so I had to rethink that one. Large stretches of the sand are given over to sun beds, belonging to the hotels behind them for the most part, so I wandered past them until I found an emptier space to stretch out on my towel, not wanting to have to pay for a bed. Then it was a very peaceful couple of hours of alternating between lying in the sun, and cooling off in the water. White Beach is popular for good reason, as besides the proximity to the hotels and shops, it's pretty beautiful! It's kept very clean of rubbish, the sand is soft, fine and white, and the sea is clear and a postcard-perfect shade of blue. There's some algae to wade through at first, but it's soft and a very cheery green colour, so didn't bother me that much. I can't do endless beach days like that when on holiday, as I'd get bored, but it's a pleasant way to pass a few hours. And while Boracay is busy, White Beach is so long that there's plenty of space for everyone without it feeling totally rammed.

     Later in the day, the restaurant behind my chosen spot began laying out beanbags and low chairs and tables - investigation revealed that they had happy hour on during the sunset! I don't like going out to drink alone ever - Boracay has great nightlife apparently, but it's not something I chose to experience while I was there - but a cheeky cocktail on the beach with the sunset? That I can manage. I sipped away on my frozen margarita, watching the sky turn orange and red, and the sail boats turn into silhouettes on the horizon. As the sun eventually dipped below the waves, I dawdled back along the beach, and grabbed some dinner on the way. As I've said, I'm comfortable travelling alone for the most part (though I still get nervous about things going wrong...), and there's only a few activities, including going out drinking, that I'll skip. Eating out alone is a funny one, because it does make me feel a little awkward, but I can't exactly live off of snacks for a week. I've slowly gotten better at it this holiday though, and while there might be a few funny looks, most people don't really care what I'm doing. Then it was back to the hotel, some wifi catch up (not as easy to find in public places here, and the connection anywhere is pretty slow), and bed before my trip in the morning.

Crystal Cove island, near Boracay, Philippines

Ocean and island view from Crystal Cove, near Boracay, Philippines

Sail boat silhouette with reflection at sunset on White Beach, Boracay, Philippines

     I had to drag myself out of bed considerably earlier on day two, to make it to the beach for my island hopping trip at 9am. I've done a few boat trips in the past, some much better than others, so I wasn't sure what to expect of this one. It was a pretty big boat, with at least 30 or so people aboard, but all crammed into one space with nowhere to move around really. The majority were Filipino, which surprised me at first, as you don't expect locals to do activities like this, but then I realised when there are so many islands in the country, many of the people actually just holiday on other islands. We were all asked to wear the life vests at first, which I never normally do, but then they were more lax about it for the rest of the day - although some passengers had their's on for nearly the whole time, even on beaches, which amused me a lot. I've never been so grateful for all those years of swimming lessons!

     Anyway, the first stop was Crystal Cove - and there was the first catch. What they don't tell you when you buy your ticket for the trip, is that you then have to fork over another 200 pesos for entrance to this private island! It's only equivalent to around £3, but it was irritating to not have been told that in advance. The alternative was waiting on the beach for an hour though, so I handed over the money and set about exploring the island. It's a small island, walkable in the time we had, and the trail runs along the cliff edges, for beautiful views across that expanse of perfectly turquoise water. There was one section that other people seemed to be skipping too, so I got a rather peaceful moment of solitude there, since the rest of the island was buzzing with several boatloads of people. The main draw is the two coves you can explore, both involving narrow spiral staircases to access them. They were pretty cool as a more unique feature, but quite small, and I preferred taking in the surrounding views to spending much time in the coves.

     The next stop was a skip over to the shore near Caticlan, where the tour company provide lunch in their buffet restaurant. The lunch itself was fine, nothing exceptional, but I didn't expect much when they make it in bulk every day like that. The surrounding area was interesting though, as it was pretty remote! No town to speak of, and not a very picturesque area, making me wonder why they chose that spot for their restaurant, besides proximity to Crystal Cove. There was a group of local children playing in the water by the dock, splashing and shrieking and jumping from the dock itself. They were far from the only children I saw doing the same thing during my time here, and it seems that most of them spend the majority of their time on the beach and in the water - indeed, whenever boats dock anywhere, within moments there will be children climbing along them and jumping from them! It looks pretty fun though, and makes a nice change from all the children I see in other places, glued to whatever piece of technology they can get their hands on.

      We sailed back along the front of White Beach, passing our starting point. It reminded me of just how long that stretch of sand is, though we were too far away to see much in the way of details. I enjoy spending time on boats though, so even though this was a longer stretch between our stops, I didn't mind at all. I never had much to do with bots when I was younger, but as I've spent more time on them in recent years, I've discovered that I really enjoy being out on the water, and when the view is as pretty as Boracay is, then there's really no cause for complaint. Other than being squished on a seat in between dozens of other tourists... I've definitely had more comfortable boat trips, and there's still been none to top my Caye Caulker snorkelling day. We stopped just beyond Station 1 (White Beach is slit into 1, 2 and 3) to do some snorkelling at this point. Again, it was quite amusing from my point of view to watch many of the other passengers barely move away from the boat, often clinging on to the outriggers, and still in life vests. I swam further away, sans vest, and there were plenty of colourful, tropical fish to be seen. Again, if I'm being bluntly honest, not the best snorkelling I've ever done, but it was nice to get to see some sea life, and just swim around in the water for a while. Particularly being in deeper water too, as White Beach is very shallow for a long time. We were also greeted by a man in what was basically an ice cream boat - a tiny vessel that he brought alongside ours to try to sell to everyone. He seemed to do pretty well too! Our final stop was Puka Beach, further along the shore, but still part of Boracay island. It was noisy at first, as there was a football tournament going on, but further up was more peaceful. It's much smaller than White Beach, but just as pretty, and more secluded as it doesn't have the street along the back - though it is lined with boats along the shore instead! I couldn't relax much here though, as we only stayed for about half an hour, before finishing up the tour. Overall, it wasn't the best boat trip I've done. The staff didn't seem very interested in what they were doing at all and there were far too many people crammed in, which made the whole thing seem very bland and of poor quality. I'm glad I went to see a bit more around the island though, beyond the tourist-nest of White Beach, and I'd have likely been quite bored by day three if I hadn't done this.

     I stayed on White Beach for a while after the trip, since we came back quite early, stopping for a snack and coffee first. I ended up staying for the sunset again, this time watching from the beach, closer to the shore than the previous night, and was rewarded with some pretty good photos from it! I must have spent at least a good two hours there over the course of the sunset, as I was also entertaining myself with people watching - definitely one of the best places I've been for it! Boracay seems to draw every sort of person here - there were families, groups of backpackers, retirees, the locals - and I heard more languages than I could count, or even recognise! There were plenty of unusual sights to see, like the man walking around in a rubber ring the whole time, or the guy taking photos in the tiniest pair of "Boracay" souvenir speedos, and games to watch, like the local kids playing a ball game, and the guys practising break dancing in the damp sand. As it gets dark, the restaurants light torches, or turn on fairy lights strung form the plan trees, and start up the music - there was everything from electronic dance coming from one place, a live acoustic guitarist in another, and a group of drummers on the sand, with one of them chanting and dancing along to their rhythms. It was utterly fascinating to watch everything going on, but eventually I did have to drag myself back to the hotel, and to bed.

Bulabog Beach, Boracay, Philippines

Night on White Beach, Boracay, Philippines

Fire dancers performing on White Beach, Boracay, Philippines

    For my last day, I decided to start off with the beach on the other side of the island, the less well-known Bulabog Beach (which is actually closer to my hotel). It's a popular place for kite surfers, but is otherwise much quieter than the other side of the island. It was very nice to be somewhere a bit more peaceful for a while, and I strolled up and down through the shallow waters for a while. Looking out to sea, with more of that perfect blue - I mean, will that ever get old? I don't think so - and the palm tress leaning out into it, it was very beautiful. However, the sands of the beach itself were pretty disappointing compared to White Beach, as there was rubbish strewn all over the place, everything from cigarette packets to old tires. I even saw a kid who had built himself a toy boat out of scrap polystyrene! Originally I had thought to spend some time relaxing here, but I didn't fancy lying down amongst all that (though there were other people about  who seemed to be fine with it - so after my stroll, I went back to the cleaner, albeit busier, sands of White Beach.

     I while away the afternoon again, swimming and sunbathing and reading and people watching. Not a particularly eventful few hours, but it was so nice to unwind and enjoy the fact that I didn't have to be doing anything! Instead of staying on the beach until sunset though and returning to my hotel around 7pm, I decided to head back early and change, then go down to the beach again later, to see if there was anything more to see later on. I wasn't staying out for the nightlife, as mentioned, but after seeing all I had the night before, I wanted to see a bit more before I left Boracay the next morning. I got dinner at a Mexican place in D'Mall, and demolished a rather excellent plate of nachos! On the beach itself, I chose a spot to sit down in front of the restaurant with the acoustic guitarist/singer, as he was playing a selection of very chilled-out music, which was highly appropriate to my mood - certainly more so than the pounding samba music in one of the neighbouring places, or the wailing "singing" of the woman on the other side. The sun had already set, though the sky wasn't yet dark, and I spent a while watching some people play with light up toys in the shallows (which are sold by dozens of vendors along the beach every night), and the local children build more of the "I love Boracay" sand sculpture-signs, which pop up every day. Many of them were taking requests for personalised birthday or anniversary signs too, and adding tiny candles in carved hollows for the photos of the finished piece.

     After a while, I went for another wander along the beach - something I quite enjoy, as you might have guessed from the number of times it's been mentioned in this post! - and was rewarded with something quite special - fire dancers! They were performing in the beachfront area of a restaurant, but their stage was side on, and could easily be viewed from the beach by people not dining there, like me. I think I stood there for about half a hour watching them - they were amazing! They had several different props to set alight, and all of them came incredibly close to their bodies, but never burned them. They moved with such speed and precision, and clearly hours and hours of practice go into this art - yet the end result feels primal and raw somehow, as they work with something so uncontrollable and unpredictable as fire. They danced with their bodies, and made the fire dance through the sky, creating shapes and patterns in the dark and setting the night ablaze. I was utterly captivated by them, and it was sometime before I dragged myself away, and off to bed again.

    Overall, Boracay is a beautiful island, and I can see why it has become so popular. Sometimes I don't mind going to such busy places, especially when travelling alone, as they are easy to access and I feel a bit safer than in more remote places. But Boracay is very, very busy, which is a bit of a shame now, as there were moments when I felt like I could have been anywhere. It gave me no sense of what life is really like in the Philippines for its local people. However, it's beauty is certainly a redeeming factor, and watching everything happening on that beach entertained me enough to make up for it being so busy. And it definitely helped me to achieve my main goal this holiday - relaxing, on a beach, in the sun, in a very pretty place.

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