31 March 2016

Paradise City

In mid-March we took a trip to Boracay, island paradise. Boracay has crystal clear turquoise waters and incredible white sand beaches that stretch for miles. Unlike some other beautiful places, Boracay really does look like its Google images. I’m not a huge beach vacation person -- I live in San Diego -- but Boracay is undoubtedly the finest beach I’ve ever seen.

With that out of the way, I’ll spoil my own review: Don’t go! Yes, Boracay is incredible and warm and lovely, with a wide range of enticing daytime and nighttime activities, but it’s also incredibly overrun with tourists. Like Chinese and Korean tourists. Like bajillions of them. Like there are so many that the street solicitors have been trained to yell at you in Chinese/Korean if you look Chinese/Korean. So if you enjoy getting accosted by people trying to sell you things every twenty feet as you stroll around, by all means, go to Boracay!

I’m not here to do an in-depth review of Boracay, as there are plenty of blogs and websites that can help you do that, but I’m here to jot a few things down. Both to preserve my own memories and to link to in the future when I suggest to friends “Hey, don’t go!” But if you must, here are a selection of enthusiastic reviews to check out, the sweet to my spicy.
Getting There
The easiest way to get to Boracay is to fly into Manila and then grab a local plane to Caticlan. The harder, but much cheaper, way is to fly into Kalibo and then take an hour-and-a-half bus ride to Caticlan (which is what we did, not altogether by choice). If you can afford it, fly into Caticlan and save yourself the headache.

Let’s stop here and address my number one issue with going to Boracay: Flying there sucks. My friends already warned me that flights were regularly delayed and I had planned long layovers in both Manila and Kalibo to insure we would catch our flights. Well, we missed them. Mainly because Air Asia is a piece of shit and delays were six hours on the way in and then a cancelled flight on the way home. Basically I had to repurchase passage on Philippine Air and spend the night at Manila airport. And from what online reviews tell me, Air Asia is notorious for this, and fighting for money back is a long and agonizing process.

Other than the extra twenty-four hours of travel we had to take to get from Taipei to Boracay, it was a breeze! I’d recommend upgrading to a nicer bus if you go from Kalibo to Caticlan, as riding in roomy, and air-conditioned, comfort was only 600 pesos, about thirteen U.S. dollars. Most websites quote prices for super cheap vans, but I’m old and can’t deal with that. Also, be prepared for fees everywhere: the jetty for the ferry, the airport, there’s just fees fees fees.
Where to Stay
The first question to ask yourself about Boracay is if you want to party or not. If you do, staying near Station 2 is probably the best. All the bars are there, the nightlife is there, and it’s hopping at night. If you’d prefer a little luxury and some quiet, the bougie people stay at Station 1. Personally, I preferred to stay at Station 3 because it was both quieter and not that expensive. As it turned out, Station 3 was perfect because the beachfront was way less crowded with people, boats, and lights. While it may be a bit sleepy, the walk to Station 2 is only ten minutes away.

Also, Station 3 is where a lot of the ocean activities take off from, so if you’re gonna do all that stuff, it’s super close. We ended up staying at B Pod Hotel for about $85 a night. I also looked hard at the Current by Astoria, which was slightly more expensive and much bigger (and looked more impressive from the outside). But B Pod was cute and worked out just fine. And again, their beachfront was mostly empty which served me just fine.

For the more offbeat, you could stay on the eastern side of the island, on Bulabog Beach, which houses most of the kitesurfers. I didn’t get to check out this area but it seemed to be a laid back spot. Also, my friends recommended staying at Spider House, which is way up on the north-west side of the island, and overhangs the ocean. It’s beautiful, and looks incredible, but I’m glad we didn’t end up staying there because it’s more remote and it would have been a trek to go to Station 1, much less Station 2/3. Also, while Spider House’s bamboo treehouse look is pretty cool, there wasn’t much to do there. Granted I was just there for an afternoon. But if you want to sit up high and take selfies with the rest of the guests, go for it.
Fun in the Sun
There really are a ton of things to do in Boracay. Well, if you like water. If you don’t, I don’t know why you’re here. All the vendors offer the same things: scuba, kayak, snorkel, glass-bottom boats, banana floats, parasail, island hop, standup paddle, zip lines, ATVs, mermaid swimming, etc. While we initially went there with the idea that we wanted to try a few things — such as the intriguing helmet diving — we ended up just doing two things: renting a private boat and parasailing.

For my money, if you’re with some friends and going to drop 700-800 pesos each on a group island hopping slash snorkeling trip with six to eight people, just shell out the 2,400 pesos ($50) and rent an entire boat. It’s way nicer to have your own space, you feel like Poseidon, and that’s for four or five hours of cruising around. Note: There’s a lot of extras on top of that though, such as entry fees for Crystal Cove if you want to go there, snorkeling fees, rental money for snorkel masks, and even little kids demand money if they give you a hand stepping onto the boat.

After renting a private boat the first day, that’s all we wanted to do, so we ended up doing that twice. The only other thing we did was to go parasailing, which was pretty amazing, even for fifteen minutes. I’m afraid of heights but parasailing is like a dream. It’s not exciting or scary at all, and it’s impossible to keep a smile off your face while you’re basically flying.

I heard there’s awesome cliff diving at Ariel’s Point, but I’m not into jumping off high things so we didn’t go. But a few of my friends said this was their favorite thing to do. Goody for them. Hard pass for me!

Night Life
I wish I knew. Actually, no I don’t. The last thing we wanted to do was to party with slammered tourists. Call me old but if I’m gonna party I’d rather do it elsewhere. If there was a all-night beach party with some Bieber and Taylor, I would have reconsidered, but the only parties we saw were small things on the beach or clubs trying to lure people in. No thanks.

One of the live musicians at dinner did an acoustic cover of "Return to Pooh Corner," which is my number one all time jam, so that was nice. And all the drunk people sure looked like they were enjoying themselves, as I desperately tried to side step away from them.

What to Eat
Hell if I know! The food in Boracay was A-plus disappointing. I went to the Philippines to eat Filipino food but I forgot that we were basically in a resort town so the food was mostly Western. While things weren’t super pricy or anything, the selection was less than inspiring. Basically the highlight for me was eating tosilog and tocino every morning, and other than that the food in Boracay was not happening. Unless you like pizza, of which there was a tremendous selection.

D Mall, located in Station 2, seemed to have a lot of (Asian) restaurants but the much talked about D Mall was basically just a glorified strip mall as far as I was concerned. If I had been inclined to explore more, I would have gone off toward the main road for local eats. We took a few meals at Treehouse Beach Resort's bar, mostly because it was open late.

One spot we did check out, on the recommendation of my friend was D’Talipapa, the fish market. You need to take a tuk tuk to it, maybe a five minute ride, and the market itself isn’t all that large. What D’Talipapa did have is a shit ton of seafood vendors. You could get just about anything, and everything was absolutely fresh. And expensive! I mean, maybe you shell out for lobster back home but I’m (a) not a huge seafood person and (b) not into $70 lobster, so we didn’t buy anything. Aside from purchasing the actual food, you also pay the nearby shops to cook and serve the selections for you. Note, the fishmongers are super aggressive. And they all speak Chinese! Not like just a few simple words here and there, like the vendors by the beach, but pretty complete sentences and phrases. "你想要什麼? 龍蝦? 龍蝦"

The lone culinary highlight was going to Real Coffee and Tea Cafe for their famous calamansi muffins. Not because the muffin was that great, even though it was good, but Real Coffee and Tea was an oasis of calm, overlooking the beach and lofted right above the boardwalk. Nice. In general, let’s just say that after five days in Boracay I hadn’t eaten any lumpia, pansit, or adobo, and I was ready to get the hell out of there for some real food back home.
Overall: A++ beach, C+ everything else
Boracay is beautiful, but the secret is out. Everyone is there already! Not even that, tourists flood there from other parts of Asia and while it may be interesting to see the usually mild mannered Chinese and Korean tourists on spring break, it was not for me. My Filipino and Filipino-American friends all recommended Boracay (altho not unanimously, with some suggestions for Cebu or Puerto Princesa) but I reported back to them with my so-so time. Mainly from all the extra travel I guess.

Also, I just don’t like going to a place where everything is so distinctly for tourists, and all the locals are there to make money off of them/us. It's like you're just defensive all the time as you go everywhere, and I don't enjoy feeling like I have to bargain because it feels sort of terrible to haggle over someone’s livelihood. "Take advantage of me, I’m here to suck away one of your country’s natural jewels, I’ll pay 125% of what you ask!" is sort of my attitude. I guess these type of trips are just not for me. Boracay was a beautiful resort town, and if you want some breathtaking photos to show people back home, it's perfect.

My main pro tip for anyone planning to go is: bring a local! If I had gone with my Filipino friend, who took AMR and George last year, I'm sure my experience would have been very different. So next time I go for the whale sharks. Or maybe I'll just stay home and watch Discovery Channel. Or just re-watch this Blake Lively versus shark trailer for The Shallows over and over again.