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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Boracay Island Philippines

On the Filipino island of Boracay, one place stands out the most — White Beach — a 4km-long tourism attraction lined with pubs, five-star resorts, budget chalets, restaurants, tattoo parlours, souvenir shops, professional hair-braiders and just about anything a tourist could want. This stretch of beach may just boast the softest, whitest sand in all of Asia. The water is clear and welcoming, but the main lure of White Beach is its breathtaking sunset, which takes place between 5.30pm and 6.30pm, depending on the time of year.

Surprised to discover that Boracay is a great hunting ground for funky tees, ultra-cool souvenirs, trendy beachwear, handmade picture frames and notebooks, lamps and totes of every shade and size, silver jewellery, pewter, carvings, leather bags adorned with puka shells, beads, bells and more, native rugs, paintings etc.

The shops selling custom-designed sandals and apparel, and the witty “attitude tees” with such catchy slogans as “Miss You-Can’t-Afford-Me” printed right across the chest — brilliant!

For some reason, dream catchers are exceptionally popular here even though they are an American Indian artifact.

Interestingly, the Tourist Center is a nice place to browse in. Basically, it’s a convenience store, mini market, pharmacy, bookstore, money-changer (note: it’s probably the only place on the island that accepts the Ringgit), ATM and information counter all rolled into one.

At the Plazoleta, a small native-style shopping plaza, you’ll find original handicraft. But if you are going for broke, then D’Mall is the place to be. It’s a maze of fashion, food and speciality shops that will keep you occupied for hours. The best thing about shopping at White Beach is that almost every stall is different. There are hundreds along the beach, and, at first glance, it may seem as if they are all the same, but take a closer look and you will be pleasantly surprised.

Oh, and if you get thirsty from all that shopping, note that the official “Happy Hour” is from 5pm to 7pm, when prices for alcoholic beverages get very enticing. But then again, drinks are relatively cheap even outside of happy hours, so no hour need be an unhappy hour.

As far as food options go, it’s a bit of a problem since everything looks good, the portions are huge and the prices are reasonable, especially the fresh seafood.

The small attap-and-bamboo outfits hiding in the shadows of the bigger outlets tend to serve reasonably-priced local food like rice and a variety of dishes, while the classier joints are more cosmopolitan, serving everything from Italian and Moroccan, to Spanish and Thai.

For something light, you can always drop into one of the many bakeries for their freshly-made cakes, bread and desserts. They make for great snacks while you shop. Meanwhile, fruit shakes made from any tropical fruit you can possibly think of are widely available. These are great energy boosters for the shopper-on-the-go.

After gobbling down some “light” fare, we made for the award-winning Lemon Cafe for lunch. Located at the heart of D’ Mall, Lemon Cafe offers cheese and chocolate desserts that are worth piling on the pounds for. And the main courses are absolutely lovely. Its airy ambience with walls of lime green and sunny yellow makes the café a great place in which to sit back and people-watch.

The Hobbit House, a bar cum restaurant with an extensive American, Filipino and Asian menu, staffed by — as the name suggests — friendly “little people”. No matter how full you are, though, you must make some room for one of Asia’s most famous exotic delicacies — the balut, a boiled duck egg containing a three-week-old embryo. Having heard so much about it, my friends and I just had to try it. A taxi driver told us it’s best to either eat it in the dark or with our eyes closed tightly!

Eaten with vinegar or salt, the yummy yolk, the half-formed embryo and some hard white stuff we couldn’t make out, turned out to be quite nice — if you can get past how it looks.

Fun in the sun - Boracay is located in Aklan province, 345km south of Manila, a dumbbell-shaped island in a nation of some 7,000 islands. It is accessible by air from Manila or Cebu through two principal gateways: Caticlan airport or Kalibo airport.

Boracay generally has two seasons: wet (Habagat) and dry (Amihan). The showers are usually from June to September, so the best time to visit is from October to May. The Christmas and New Year season is a particularly exciting time because most Filipinos are Roman Catholics and, be they rich or poor, will celebrate in a big way with lots of parties by the beach.

White Beach is “divided” into Stations 1, 2 and 3 — the first being the cleanest and most beautiful.

Accommodation is quite expensive in Station 1 and 2, so my merry friends and I did what any budget traveller would do — we bunked together in a cheap chalet on the “outskirts” of Station 3 (no view of the beach, I’m afraid) and blew our hard-earned money stuffing our faces, shopping and getting wet!

Like all island holiday destinations, Boracay has more than enough water activities to keep you occupied. There doesn’t appear to be any lifeguards here but security is tight. Every few metres or so you will find armed security guards and police personnel. A local said that security is very tight during the peak seasons because the government wants tourists to feel safe.

You may want to skip the typical activities like jet skiing, windsurfing and snorkelling, but kiteboarding at Bulabog Beach, on the eastern side of the island, is apparently worth a try. My friend says it is much more of a challenge than surfing.

Island hopping is another option to consider. You could take a boat-ride to the north of the island at sunset for a spectacular sight of hundreds of fruit bats flying over to the mainland to feed. Or why not sail into the sunset on a beautiful yacht. A massage by the beach is a must, since White Beach is one of the world’s most beautiful beaches.

Now, if your entire holiday plan is to just laze by the beach sipping piña coladas from dusk till dawn, and you can only make time for one water activity, then try parasailing. The price per person is 2,500 pesos , which is, admittedly, pretty steep but worth every sen. Trust me, you haven’t fully appreciated the beauty of Boracay until you’ve hovered above it. It’s only then that you can really see the contrast between the crystal blue water and pristine white beach.