Boracay in the Philippines is the newest hot spot

Don’t try to hoof it to the newly
relocated Jungle Bar, at least not from Boracay’s main strip, White Beach,
where it used to be a mainstay – you’ll never find it. Instead, hail a motorized
rickshaw to Bulabog Beach, hang a right past a barren strip of bamboo shacks,
and look for the colourful, ghoulish lanterns dangling from the coconut trees,
which give this tiki bar the quirky feel of a Tim Burton-inspired guerrilla
camp. The decor will probably be familiar to most Bob Marley-listening beach
bums, right down to the rooster named Pedro dozing on the bar, the shirtless
Filipinos eating grilled fish, and the $10 cocktails with profanity-laced
names. All that’s missing is a drum circle.

Yet this kind of anything-goes vibe
is getting harder to find in Boracay, a speck of an island smack in the middle
of the Philippines that in recent years has been making the leap from low-key
tropical backwater to Southeast Asia’s newest hot spot. Even the Jungle Bar,
which used to be squeezed in along the main walkway of White Beach, had to move
this year after being priced out. It’s now in a desolate cove on the other side
of the island – as close to Siberia as you can get on a slip of land about
eight kilometres long and 1.5 kilometres wide.

The Philippines’ tourism ministry
has pushed to promote and develop many of its prized islands and to draw more
visitors than the usual weekenders from Manila or honeymooners from Korea. Boracay,
with its long stretches of powdery white sand and
kite-surfing-and-dive-friendly coral reefs, remains the crown jewel, if not yet
the cash cow, of the Philippine Islands.

“They’re going crazy on Boracay
because they want it to become the next Thailand,” said Margaux Palau, 34, a
local diving and yoga instructor originally from Spain, referring to Thailand’s
touristy shores. “Boracay is much nicer, if you ask me, but it’s also much
farther for most people, which is why it’s still unknown.”

But that is changing. In the first
quarter of this year, the country’s prime tourism season, the number of foreign
visitors to the Philippines was up by 8 percent from the same period a year
ago; Boracay, which is less than an hour’s flight from Manila, had a 20 percent
spike in tourism. Last year, this island’s 650,000 tourists – a third of them
foreign – marked an all-time high, according to the department of tourism.

Most of the island’s attractions
can be found along White Beach, its three miles of soft sand lined with thick
groves of swaying palms. For better or worse, this part of Boracay has embraced
its inner Phuket, with barking masseuses, all-you-can-eat buffets and resorts
with more waterfalls than the Amazon.

The rising population and frenzied
pace of development have put stress on this fragile island. To ease roadway
congestion, a new byway is under construction, and plans are in place to clean
up the sewage-tainted waters farther offshore. Meanwhile, a number of new
Gatsby-esque villas and vacation homes are laying claim to the island’s
limestone cliffs and virgin coastline.

Expansion of the closest airport,
in Caticlan,a short ferry hop from the island, is also planned.

Bare-bones cabanas catering to
backpackers are giving way to fancy resorts with all the perks. The
tree-house-like cottages of Nami, an exclusive resort, were eclipsed last year
by a new development, Shangri-La, which has its own private lagoon. The
tiki-style bungalows of another resort, Fridays, were recently one-upped by
Discovery Shores, whose “beach butlers,” down pillows and sunken pool bar have
added a contemporary touch to Boracay.

While the dress code still skews
beach style – de rigueur flip-flops, loose Hawaiian shirts – at least one woman
in stiletto heels was trying her best to navigate the sandy boardwalk. The
influx of visitors has even prompted a “Bor-a-CAY please, not Bora” campaign
among natives, a gentle jab at those who truncate the island’s name.

But the island’s emerald-blue
waters have a way of keeping almost everyone happy. After all, you can
kite-surf in the morning, dive through underwater caves and shipwrecks in the
afternoon, and still have time for island hopping by sundown – just flag down
any of the pawans, or outrigger sailboats, along White Beach. If a water sport
exists, chances are you can find it on Boracay, and someone will likely shove a
flier in your face to try it out for a “low price” (“Sir! Dragon-boat racing?”).

On land, there’s also plenty to do.
Behind D’Mall, a touristy maze of T-shirt stands in the middle of the island;
look for Leonardo’s pond-side motorbike-rental shack. Take a spin up north to
Puka Beach, a gorgeous, secluded cove whose prickly sand is actually a bed of
snail shells. Or make the heart-stopping descent into a nearby limestone cave,
armed only with a flashlight and a young guide, to inspect the squeaking fruit
bats and squirming snakes (wear shoes, not flip-flops, as the descent is
slippery).

The less-bustling side of the
island near Bulabog Beach is also well worth a visit, with its Swedish-owned
surf shops and squat bamboo huts that double as guesthouses. The brackish
waters are not really for swimming, but the steady winds and shallow coves make
it one of the world’s premier spots for kite- and wind-surfing.

Cap off a day on the water with an
early cocktail. Happy hour, with its seaside pig roasts, fire-eating shows and
karaoke sing-alongs up and down White Beach, is as celebrated a ritual here as
Sunday Mass. As crowds filtered through the beach side cafes, an ‘80s cover
band belted out tunes on stage while the DJs at Hey Jude Bar began setting up
their turntables.

“The Boracay night life is easily
the best in the Philippines,” said DJ Surf, a 25-year-old half-Filipino,
half-Briton with swirly tattoos across his torso. “But I’ve seen photos from
way back when there was nothing here – just an empty beach, a forest of coconut
trees, some happy locals and a bunch of hippies who to this date are still
here.”

One of those hippies is Joey
Gelito, a Filipino better known as Captain Joey and a Boracay resident since
1989. With his long mane of jet-black hair, strong cheekbones and seashell
necklace, the captain, 44, looks the part of a pirate, which he plays up to
full effect at his Red Pirates Bar, a mellow hut of thatched bamboo and nautical
paraphernalia.

He also gives island tours on his
fire-engine-red sailboat, which come with coolers of San Miguel beer and end at
beach side barbecues.

Captain Joey says he welcomes the
boom in business, but not the construction and development everywhere.

“I just stay on the beach to avoid
the noise,” he said in a raspy voice. “I prefer the quiet, to preserve the best
of Boracay.”
As the Euro-style clubs and karaoke palaces filled up with hard-partying Koreans
and Europeans, DJ Surf offered his take on the island’s newfound fame among
real estate developers and the Manila elite.

“I don’t feel we’re overdeveloped,”
he said. “I know some people do, but in my line of work as a DJ here, more
development means more jobs for people. If there’s more people on the island,
the more the merrier it is to make them all dance.”

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