By Sandra Ramani
For decades, the central Philippine island of Boracay, about 200 miles south of Manila, was a closely guarded secret—just a beautiful, low-key getaway for in-the-know city folk and a few intrepid foreigners. But now, the secret is getting out: Inspired by tales of pristine white-sand beaches, excellent diving, and still-affordable prices, visitors from all over the globe are helping to make this one of the Philippines' most visited—but thankfully, still laid-back—destinations.
Lauded on several "World's Best Beaches" lists, Boracay's picture-perfect shores are wide, shady and covered with powder-soft white sand. The most popular stretch is White Beach, the two-and-a-half mile long "main drag" backed by a string of restaurants and bars. Here, you'll find hawkers peddling straw hats, cold beer, and sunset sails on outrigger paraw
boats. On the opposite side of the island, quieter Bulabog Beach is the domain of kite boarders, windsurfers—and the rest of us who just like to watch. In between are several smaller beaches and picturesque coves, most of which feel hidden even during the busy season; explore by foot, boat, or tricyle tuk-tuk (about $2.50 per ride) and find your favorite.
Tucked between the Sulu and Sibuyan Seas, Boracay boasts plenty of crystal-clear blue-green waters for swimming and snorkeling; multi-day water sports courses are available for newbies. Boracay's vibrant underwater world and its variety of dive sites—think deserted islets and abandoned wrecks populated by sponges, sea fans, barracuda and reef—have helped rank it among the world's top scuba sites. Above water, kite boarders flock to the eastern beaches for perfect wind.
The Social Scene
Families, honeymooners, divers, partiers—sooner or later, they all converge on White Beach, the island's social hub that's informally separated into three "stations" (former ferry stops). Station 1 is the domain of backpacker digs and a few bars; Station 2 holds the bulk of the dining, nightlife, and shopping; and Station 3 has more higher-end hotels and the most picturesque parts of the beach. During the day, stroll through the open-air D'Mall shopping complex or weekend craft market, taste a fresh fruit shake at Jonah's, or pop into the Real Coffee for their all-day breakfasts and homemade calamansi
lime muffins. For dinner, Station 2 has everything from beachside barbecues with live entertainment to Mexican, Greek and even German fare. Then later, hit one of the several lively, DJ-fronted, sandy-floored "clubs" where the house drinks are potent, most likely flaming, and well-under $5.
The Filipino spa scene reflects a mix of indigenous healing traditions and European, Chinese, Indian and American influences. Open-air massage pavilions and small spas along White Beach offer styles like Swedish, reflexology, and Thai, for about $7–$11 per session. At the gorgeous CHI Spa at the Shangri-La Resort, fragrant body scrubs incorporate local ingredients like lime, pommelo, sand, and Sampagita (the Philippine national flower), while the traditional hilot
massage uses banana leaf strips and virgin coconut oil to help ease sore tension.
With budget backpackers and beach bungalows, there's an option for every wallets. At the charming Lazy Dog B&B, near Bulabog Beach, the clean, cozy rooms come with single or queen beds, a/c, cable tv, an attached bathroom, and free wifii—plus a hearty breakfast—all for about $28–$69. At the South Beach-chic Astoria, enjoy a sleek swimming pool, on-site restaurant and bar, and 39 colorful, fully-equipped rooms starting at $153. For the ultimate getaway, nothing beats the Shangri-La Resort & Spa, where every room—from spacious standard to butler-attended cliff-top villas—has an ocean view, the food ranges from gourmet Italian to sunset-view seafood, and the amenities include a full dive center and private beaches. Rates start at around $360.
The Fine Print
It's best to visit between October and May for mild temperatures, lower humidity and nice breezes, but prices are significantly higher over Christmas, Easter, and Chinese New Year holidays. The easiest way to Manila's Ninoy Aquino International (MNL) is with Philippine Airlines' direct flights from Los Angeles and San Francisco. Once in Manila, there are hourly flights to Caticlan Airport (just a 45-minute hop) on local carriers like Air Philippines and Cebu Pacific; from there, it's a short ferry ride across the straight to Boracay island. Guests booked at the Shangri-La enjoy private speedboat transfers to and from the airport included in their rates.
Photo Credits: Overview of Punta Bunga beach and Jetty Port Courtesy Shangri-La's Boracay Resort & Spa, Paraws at sunset by iStockPhoto / BlueOrange Studio; White Beach by iStockPhoto / choongmin63; Banana Leaf Spa Treatment Courtesy Shangri-La's Boracay Resort & Spa; Infinity pool by Banyugan beach Courtesy Shangri-La's Boracay Resort & Spa