Somewhere in the skies en route to Manila, a Danish businesswoman (import and export, that kind of thing) tells me she’s going to the Philippines to scout for seamen. I tell her I’m going for sea and sun. ‘Seriously,’ she laughs, ‘the Filipinos are excellent sailors – the best in the world.’
A few days later, as my friends and I hunt for beaches off Boracay Island in a yacht, I think of her remarks as our captain steers with squinted percipience and choreographic grace through a gauntlet of high rocks. The rocks seem to roll back as we glide inwards, revealing an uninhabited white beach. We take off our shirts and play frisbee in the shallows. Cosy and romantic, Balinghai Beach is the sort of pristine island paradise that gloomy city dwellers download for laptop wallpaper.
Boracay, located right in the heart of the Philippines, about 200 miles south of Manila, is beaded all over with beaches. Their names parade across the map like revellers in exotic masques – everything from Diniwid and Punta Bunga to Tambisaan and Bulabog. I first fall for these sandy stretches while viewing them from the Tablas Strait off the Sulu Sea. I cruise the island with a group aboard a 13m-long catamaran; every boat has a name and this one is called Mahal – the Tagalog word for love. Steve and Lilyan (he’s from Boston, she’s from Shanghai) launched Mahal and D’Boracay Sailing Experience (www.boracay-sailing.com) last year on Valentine’s Day. Now, the couple offer daytime and sunset cruises from Dhs295 per person.
We’ve chosen the sunset variety, perhaps because we couldn’t resist the idea of drinks and canapés as the gloaming arrives. Lilyan anchors Mahal on White Beach – a 9km stretch, which is the island’s most famous – and we disembark at Discovery Shores, a stunning resort that juts inland. The love boat has left me famished, so I join friends back on the beach for a round of tender sirloin and some sweet little Argentine something-or-other in a glistening, bulbous glass. ‘This would be the perfect place to get married,’ says the girl to my side. She flaunts a divine excitement on her face as if wearing some miraculous, newly found skincare product. ‘Mmm,’ I sigh, pretending to consider marriage. ‘Not for me.’ Later, one of the senior staff confides that if I ever decide to rent Discovery’s private beach, I don’t necessarily have to get married on it. A child of the ’80s, I’ve lost touch with ceremonies somewhere along the way, but I’ve survived MTV and the Reagan era with my creativity gloriously intact: instead of a wedding party, I imagine a debauched Def Leppard concert or a bloody re-enactment of the Battle of Gettysburg. The possibilities are endless. The beaches, too, on Boracay seem endless.
Later in the holiday, we sail north, waving at a tribe of shapely and sculpted surfers at Puka Shell Beach. We negotiate the northern tip of the island and beaches are everywhere, calling like sirens, but we persevere with fixed purpose beneath the steep rock shanks of the east shore, scuttling under the 100m summit of Mount Luho. Wide-eyed endangered tarsiers, I imagine, are clinching the branches of kumquat trees, looking down on our trawler with simian trepidation.
Boracay brings out the explorer in me. Even though I’m not the pilot, my confidence at sea increases in equal measure with my intrepidity. ‘Heck,’ I think, ‘I could be a Filipino seaman.’ I feel like Robinson Crusoe, Caliban and Flipper rolled into one. I am the walking definition of fearless – until someone tells me our next stop is Crocodile Island. My quixotic imaginings puff up like a wreath of smoke. I’m scared.
Yet it turns out no crocodiles exist in Boracay outside petting zoos –Crocodile Island is so named because it resembles a crocodile’s head. Here, we anchor and go snorkelling. Floating 10 metres above the sea floor, peering down through crystal-clear waters, I buoy myself among the casual tango of Boracay’s tropical fish and admire the full spectrum of its colourful coral.
My final evening is taken up with a massage at the Shangri-La Boracay, where our crew is treated to the sounds of a live Filipino band and a fire-dancing performance, before capping the night off with dinner at Dos Mestizos in central Boracay. This Spanish restaurant is the best in the area and offers up mouthwatering paella, brimming over with brown rice, fresh shrimp and lobster.
After dinner, by the bar, I run into yet another traveller from Denmark. ‘Is there some epidemic of Danes in the Philippines I don’t know about?’ I tease. He is a muscular traveller here on honeymoon with his wife, a golden woman with a white smile. They are perfect together – entranced newlyweds in a humming little bar. ‘Do you think this guy knows any Johnny Cash?’ says the Dane, looking over at the middle-aged Filipino
singer doing soulful yet melancholic, island-flavoured takes of Western pop songs on the stage. ‘I do,’ I say. ‘Let’s get one more drink,’ says the wife. We all quieten down, nursing our drinks, and settle into the casual offerings of our last night on Boracay.
Need to know
Fly direct from Dubai to Manila with Emirates from Dhs2,597 (www.emirates.com), then take a one-hour local flight from Manila to Kalibo or Caticlan for about Dhs500 return (www.boracayflights.com).
Where to stay
Shangri-La Boracay Resort and Spa
Amazing beaches, spa treatments and luxe rooms await. Rooms from Dhs1,460 a night.
Barangay Yapak, Boracay Island, Malay, Aklan (+63 36 288 4988)
Boracay Regency Beach Resort
Try this lower-priced beach haven, a great alternative option with a full spa. Rooms from Dhs515 a night.
Balabag, Boracay, Malay, Aklan, www.boracayregency.com
Where to eat
This venue, set right on the beach, incorporates mangoes in most of its dishes, specialising in home cooking with fresh, natural ingredients.
A DJ plays chillout music while guests ogle the huge live prawns in the glass cases outside. We’d recommend the delicious baked scallops with cheese.
Boat Station 3, White Beach, 10001
For a feast of Spanish foods from tapas to paella made with seafood fresh from the local area.
For a more touristy experience, head to Friday’s for standard all-day-dining and themed dinners, with regular shows including local dance and fire dancing.
(+63 36 288-6200)
History and geography
• The island of Boracay is located 315 km south of Manila.
• The local population is around 12,000 people and consists of two ethnic groups: the Ati and Aklanon.
• Ati people are related to aboriginals who arrived from nearby Borneo 30,000 years ago.
• Aklanons are thought to have arrived during the Iron Age and were named after the river Akean, which means ‘frothing water’.
• The location of Boracay remained a local secret for generations, but in the ’70s the island became a tourist destination. Tourism continued to grow during the ’80s, when Boracay became a popular backpacker destination.