We visit the newly reopened island to get reacquainted
The sense of excitement and anticipation upon docking in Boracay never goes away. Since the island’s reopening to visitors in October of 2018, eager beachgoers have returned in droves, drawn by the promise of a new, improved Boracay. On the first day it reopened, the port recorded 3,068 tourists registering to celebrate; three months later, the Department of Tourism (DOT) reported that the number had grown to 270,000.
What greets those hundreds of thousands of tourists on the “new” Boracay is what the Thais might call “same-same but different”. Boracay is as gorgeous as it has ever been — with a few tweaks, designed to put the holidaymakers’ paradise on the road to long-term sustainability. First-time visitors are greeted by a glimpse of the glorious white-sand beach as their boat comes in closer to the island, unblemished save for the people enjoying the sand and surf. More seasoned visitors, on the other hand, might be curious to see if there’s more to the changes to the beloved holiday destination than just the white sand sans plastic chairs and cordoned-off areas.
Perhaps the noise level is the most noticeable difference on the beach. Gone is the gauntlet of obnoxious music emanating from competing establishments up and down the beachfront.
And the beach itself is now more… well, there’s simply more of it. With new rules in place prohibiting establishments from encroaching onto the sand, we are now spared the odd sight of diners eating at restaurants with outdoor grills next to sunbathers. Beachgoers have reclaimed the large swathes once cordoned off by hotels, and they can now walk down the beach without fear of being accosted by vendors hawking everything from
tours to massages to sunglasses and souvenirs.
Once more, it is just the clear blue of the sky against the pure white of the sand. Once in a while, a stray breeze smelling of sunshine and tanning oil wafts past — the only thing roasting on this beach are beach bums getting their tan on. Boracay’s famed White Beach has been cleaned and democratized, and it now welcomes us all back once more.
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The sea, crystal clear and calm, beckons when it becomes too hot from the incessant beating of the sun. The idyllic beauty of Boracay is realized in the simple act of walking (barefoot!) into calm and pristine waters, devoid of anything but the purest and softest sand and the occasional fish. But the hum of island life is returning to its pre-closure pace. Tourists are turning up in larger volumes, and with it the activities
that come with having the ultimate beach vacation.
The paraw — a modernized version of a traditional sailboat, and therefore an eco-friendly way to hop around the surrounding islands or just enjoy swimming and snorkeling — is still a crowd favorite. Their sails, now stripped of corporate logos, are actually quite picturesque, even when they school tightly around Station 1. At sunset, the shore seems fuller than ever, with everyone who has an Instagram account flocking near the water to get the perfect shot.
It’s definitely a different vibe, now that partying on most of the island has curfew restrictions (10pm at D’Mall and no partying whatsoever at the beachfront). The multi-day bacchanalia of LaBoracay that drew tens of thousands of tourists to the island during the May 1 Labor Day holiday is now a thing of the past, along with the trampling crowds that paradise-seekers used to disdain on the “old” Boracay. Now it seems that the island is set to reclaim its spot as a dream destination for travelers looking for a restful beach holiday.
Only 19,200 guests will be allowed onto the island at any one time as part of the government’s strategy of limiting the number of tourists there. All beachfront business establishments have been pushed back 30 meters from the water line. Single-use plastics are no longer allowed on the island and visitors are encouraged to make themselves aware of such ordinances to help the island in its efforts to keep clean.
There is still a long way to go. Everything that has been done is a step in the right direction, but it’s still a drop in the ecological bucket, and real, long-term sustainability still has a question mark that needs to be addressed. Everyone, residents and tourists alike, has a responsibility to be mindful.
Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat has announced that there are three phases to the rehabilitation — October’s reopening was but the first phase, a sort of island-wide soft opening. The second phase is supposed to be done by April 2019, while the third and final phase is scheduled to be completed by December 2019. Considering the state of the island, a year’s worth of clean-up and rehabilitation is quick; more conservative estimates show that it could take up to two years for full rehabilitation.
The old and the Hue
But for now, the sun is shimmering in the golden hour and Station 3 is casting long shadows down the beach. Deep into Station 3 is where one would go for the “real” Boracay experience — this is where the locals go. At the Surfside bar, the international clientele who are having beers just after a lazy lunch are just as likely to be long-time Boracay residents as guests at the small resort at the back. The owner himself — a polite, good-natured Japanese guy named Jiro Asanuma — counts himself as one of the former: a Boracay denizen and bar fixture. He is happy to welcome visitors, but politely directs us to the front desk for all business-related concerns that might surface after five o’clock. “After five, talk to Linda,” he says, gesturing at the smiling woman standing a few feet away. “I might be drinking,” he adds, only half-joking.
Surfside is by no means fancy: It’s like the rural resorts that used to dot White Beach before the big tourist boom began. Everything in Surfside is simple, unpretentious and chill, including Jiro, who you will most likely find very happy at happy hour. That’s the thing about Boracay: there’s always a happy hour and a great sunset to go with it.
At the other end of Station 3, and set off from the beachfront, is Hue Hotel, one of the largest hotels to have opened shop in the last few years. As the second location of the newly minted hotel brand (the other, opened barely a year before the Boracay location, is in Puerto Princesa), the new entrant is having a go at making itself a destination in its own right.
It needs to. With nearly all possible spots on White Beach taken up, Hue’s location between Stations 2 and 3 and facing the street might have posed an insurmountable challenge for others; here, they thought of it as an opportunity.
Hue’s ground floor is a wide-open atrium that is open to the public, with an indoor/outdoor pool (it’s inside, but there’s very little by way of door or ceiling). Nearly half the ground floor is designated as “Station X”, a reference to their location between stations. The pool is also open for public use: As with the pool clubs of Bali, entrance can be bought for a fee of P1,200 — nearly all of it consumable at the poolside Prisma bar. The island’s first food hall, Streetmarket, is also here, made up of stalls of standout dining options. There is Fat Rice, whose name alone should win it accolades, but whose chili crab will have you licking your plate. Winner Winner gives an incredible buttermilk fried chicken dinner. And it’s a sin to leave Boracay without sampling some fresh seafood, so there’s Percy Seafood for some fresh oysters, poke or, if raw isn’t appealing, excellent fish and chips.
Coffee lovers will enjoy Little Wave, a specialty coffee shop with non-kitschy ’60s malt shop vibes. Across the way, Supermagic Burgers & Ice Cream is home to the best burgers on the island. Top the meal off with some frozen custard made from real milk and eggs and a pastry from the Tart Shop before waddling back to the pool and plopping onto one of the lounge chairs nestled in the water, cocktail and sunscreen in hand.
If you’re wondering what there is to do in Boracay now that hard partying is verboten, this is one answer: You do nothing. This is a vacation, and the heaviest lifting one should do is hoisting a plate of good food off the table, and then only to ask for more.
Get up and go
And here’s another answer: Relax by doing more. Boracay is, after all, also a haven for outdoor sports junkies, and with the clean-up, there is ostensibly a better outdoors to sweat in.
On the eastern side of the island, Bulabog Beach, with its long, shallow lagoon, is known as one of the best kitesurfing locations in Asia. The beach strip is home to many kitesurfing schools that teach beginners and rent equipment to those who have more experience in the sport. Gearing up for peak kiteboarding and windsurfing season — from April to November — Bulabog’s clean-up is proceeding slowly but surely.Everywhere on calmer White Beach, paddleboarding is also picking up as an alternative to once-popular activities like banana boating. Other water sports like dive tours, helmet diving, parasailing and jet skiing are back in operation as well. As of this writing, there are no final guidelines for what activities and water sports are allowed on the beach and in the surrounding waters, so do check in with your hotel or tour operator for up-to-date information when you arrive.
It’s difficult to leave Boracay at this point because it feels as if the island is being reintroduced slowly, like an old friend with whom you might need more time before you’re truly reacquainted. Boracay has been through a lot, but it’s coming out better for it, or so we hope. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” a local business owner tells us during an early morning stroll on White Beach, just before the tourists wake up. “It’s more peaceful.”
This kind of faith comes with a price. It can’t have been easy to sit and wait and hope and pray for the best, but that’s what many of Boracay’s citizens have: faith. Boracay is, for them, the best island the Philippines has to offer. And they aim to keep it that way, for a very long time.
Hair and makeup: Renen Bautista
Styling: Krista Peñafuerte
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Cebu Pacific flies to Caticlan and Kalibo from Manila and Cebu.
This article first appeared in the March 2019 issue of Smile magazine.