Sun, 28 Sep 2003

Boracay Island: Another beach paradise under the sun

Ivy Susanti, The Jakarta Post, Boracay, Philippines

It was a sunny Saturday in Metro Manila. Our group, consisting of journalists from seven Asian countries invited in conjunction with the Visit Philippines 2003 campaign, rushed to the check-in counters at Manila Domestic Airport.

We were fresh and ready to go for a new adventure awaiting us on Boracay Island, the number one tourist destination in the Philippines.

As way of introduction, we had been told the island had exceptionally white sand on its very clean beaches. While this very short introduction left us smiling in anticipation, one group of the traveling journalists soon groaned in disappointment after an official from the Department of Tourism announced that we had to pay our own way for most of the activities on the island.

"If we can't dive or do water sports, what else can we do at the beach?" an upset female journalist implored.

Well, taking a dip or baking under the sun should be OK for most of us, shouldn't it?

For those of us whose countries are blessed with beautiful, world-renowned beaches, traveling to another land offering basically the same may not be much of an attraction.

But this small island -- which is located on the northwestern tip of Panay Island in the Visayas chain in central Philippines -- does have its own special attractions on offer that are unlike Kuta in Bali, or Pattaya in Thailand.

First we had to get there. The 45-minute flight with trip sponsor Philippines Airlines took us to Kalibo, which is the capital of Aklan province in the northern part of Panay. It was damned hot in the small airport as the air-conditioning was not working due to a power outage.

We were then escorted to an air-conditioned bus and quickly stuffed our baggage on board and took our seat. The bus hit the road and we started a one-and-a-half-hour ride to Panay, Caticlan.

We cruised the dusty narrow road flanked by one-story houses and farms. The tall palm, mango and other tropical fruit trees raced past. Dull houses exposing bare stone walls or the wickerwork of bamboo walls stood a distance away from each other. We passed a few small food and grocery stalls (akin to warung in Indonesia), adorned with various sizes of banners for a cola company and sporting the giggling image of Taiwanese pin-ups F4.

Wishing we had our own cool cola in our hands, we finally arrived at Caticlan jetty port in the afternoon. Many of us awoke from dozing off to the salty smell of the sea nearby. The hot wind blew the sand on our feet. We untied our shoes and stepped onto the beach, cooling our feet in the fine white sand. The porters were carrying the baggage to a motorized outrigger (or banca in local language) that anchored near the shore.

There are no piers at the landing points. We were stunned by the emerald glows of the water that rippled and gently washed out from the shore. Never mind if we had to wade out to reach the banca. Eventually we rolled up our pants, tottered along in the ankle-deep water and climbed a small, wooden ladder to the boat.

We sailed for about 20 minutes before disembarking on the White Beach. Here, we were transported with minivans and pickups to a restaurant and then our lodgings.

"There are only a few minivans and no taxis here. Traveling in cars is forbidden, so we always ride in a tricycle (a motorbike with a sidecar)," a tour guide explained.

For those of us accustomed to the trappings of urban life, the journey proved quite an adventure. As a senior Vietnamese journalist in our traveling group quipped, "It takes the Air Force, Army and Navy to get to this island."

We entered Boracay Island, which you can call a lost paradise if you want. We strolled on the beach while enjoying the breeze and listening to the sound of the waves kissing the talcum white sand. About 100 meters from the point where the sea meets the beach, there are "walls" built with bamboo poles and canvas to shield the shops, diving schools and restaurants nearby from the sea or storms.

At the beach area, tricycles are ready to take visitors on an excursion. A tricycle can take six people in one go, providing that there is no spacious baggage in the sidecar. The fare of traveling on the flat area is P5 per person per trip (50 pesos is equivalent to about US$1). Touring the island by tricycle costs some P150 per hour.

However, while gliding on the hilly road across the island, be prepared to roll up your sleeves and push the sidecar up or else it won't be able to climb (See, that's why you are not advised to load the tricycle). If you want a private outing, rent a motorbike or mountain bike; but stay away from the beach area or you will get busted on that no-motorbikes charge.

One part of the group stayed in the hotel with a beachfront view, while others stayed in bungalows at the rear of the beach. When staying at the latter, one had to wander through alleys that led the way to the open sea, and sometimes bumped into the locals who love to greet foreigners or into surfers hurrying to catch the next big wave.

Local residents live in the interior part of this island and some of them have opened shops or restaurants in the beach area to cater to visitors. From locally made pizza to pancakes and burgers, you are assured of not starving throughout your expedition on the island, which measures seven kilometers long.

The absence of international fast food restaurants is not some small stand against globalization. It's more about that trek from the big city.

"There are many things that we still have to import from Manila. Consequently, prices are more expensive here," said Elizabeth Gutierrez, who works as a bar attendant in a resort bungalow.

Gutierrez, who is originally from Manila and came with her husband to make a living, said that the cost of land on this secluded island was very high so they rented a house.

Since Philippine law bars non-Filipinos from owning land or houses, some foreigners have married local people, then started a business in the name of their spouse. The most common ventures are resort hotels and restaurants.

Tourists visiting this island are mostly Japanese, Koreans and Europeans; many billboards and signboards are conveniently written in Japanese, Korean or German.

"The backpackers from Europe make up our loyal customers. But in general, the visitors here are from Japan or Korea," said James Lynn Turner, a Texan who owns the Orchid Hotel.

Along the beach, local people sell jewelry and ornaments like necklaces, bracelets and rosaries. Most of them are made of seashells, which have been skillfully carved and decorate. They are sold between P15 to P100, but prices differ among vendors.

"These are original seashells," a vendor claimed. "The shells go to Cebu to be cut and engraved. We created the necklaces and bracelets and sell them."

Apart from the sounds of the wind and waves, local people also keep tuned in to local radio stations and karaoke is also common here. Strangely enough, all we could hear from the radio stations were oldies tunes from the 1970s and 1980s, the likes of the Bee Gees and Billy Joel. No Beyonce Knowles, no Justin Timberlake, no Linkin Park, no Inul Daratista, thank you very much.

Hey, wait a minute. The only "contemporary" song that came around was the Tagalog-version of Qing Fei De Yi, the Meteor Garden soundtrack originally sung by Harlem Yu. So here we are, living together in a virtually borderless world.

That remoteness from the capital city is definitely no guarantee of backwardness. We could still surf on the Net at one of the Internet cafes along the beach, all of which used the Broadband connection (and how many Internet cafes in Jakarta that used this system?). Browsing the websites costs you some P7 to P10 per 30 minutes.

During nightfall, the island was blanketed in darkness. There were no streetlight and no neon signs, the only light coming from the bustling restaurants or late-hour shops and from the moonlight. But fear not, because police and security guards tour the beach with rifles on their shoulders, night and day.

Water sports, such as diving, snorkeling, surfing, yachting or sailing, are the major activity offered in most parts of this island.

There is no need to cram your luggage with the equipment. On this island, you could rent the latest equipment for windsurfing and snorkeling or diving at an affordable price (between P150 and P200 per hour). They also lease jet skis (water scooters) and speedboats.

If you want to sail by outrigger, you can rent one at P150 for half day or P250 the whole day. Don't know how to dive? Take a crash course at PADI international diving school here. There are also sailing courses along the beach. Charters are available on a yacht to cruise to neighboring islands, such as Romblon and North Palawan.

Do try the "island hopping" trip by motorized outriggers, and dive or snorkel in one of the islands. This service will cost you P750 for two to three hours and is offered by many resorts and private outrigger owners. And do not forget to bring your camera, especially if you are keen on underwater photography.

If you are ready to head off to Boracay, here are some final suggestions: Follow the dress code of the beach (comfortable T- shirts or sleeveless tops, swimsuit or shorts). Don't leave home without your sun protection cream and umbrella or raincoat.

Also, bring drinking water or bottled mineral water when you are off to sea. Finally, never forget your sandals as you take a stroll on the beach!

-- I-box:

More information at, including accommodation bookings.

Inquiries on package tours from Jakarta: Philippines Airlines - Jakarta office 15th floor, World Trade Center building Jl. Jend. Sudirman Kav. 29-31 Jakarta 12920 Tel. 526 8668, Fax: 526 8656