Boracay makes a bold claim: home to a beach regularly voted the best in the world. After seeing some pretty spectacular beaches elsewhere in Asia, we decided, despite Boracay’s hefiter price tag compared to elsewhere in the Philippines, White Beach was something we needed to see for ourselves.
Obviously the crown of ‘Best Beach in the World’ is massively subjective, but Boracay puts forward a strong contender. White Beach has the powder-soft white sand and full spectrum of blues, turquoises, and indigos between sea and cloudless sky. It has coconuts fresh off the palm trees and seafood skewers fresh from the fishing boats. It has sailing boats gliding along the horizon, incredible snorkelling metres from the shore, and show-stopper sunsets.
So far so good, but this is far from a secret. With this impressive reputation came the crowds, and with the crowds came the pricey resorts, midrange hotels, all-you-can-eat buffets, souvenir stalls, tour touts, and the words that, after a while on White Beach, began to strike fear into our hearts – ‘Station 2’…
White Beach runs almost the whole length of the western coast of Boracay with beach-front addresses categorised by the three boat stations. Station 3 (home to small beachfront apartments, backpacker-budget accommodation, a steady stream of bangka boats coming and going) and Station 1 (home to bigger resorts complete with fancier restaurants, set back from the wider stretch of beach) were the quieter, calmer ends of White Beach.
The thing about 2 is that it’s unavoidably between 1 and 3, so walking between Stations 1 and 3 always meant battling our way through the sudden explosion of people, dodging a flailing selfie stick, tuning out the constant cries of “massage-maam-sir”, “island-hopping-today-maybe-tomorrow”, and pretending not to notice the branches of Starbucks, Subway and TGI Fridays. Station 2 did have one gem hidden in the crowds. Inside the open-air D*Mall was Smoke restaurant. The chilli chicken, spicy garlic tofu, chicken curry and pork sisig were some of the best – and cheapest – meals we ate in the Philippines.
The rewards at either end of Station 2 were well worth the battle in the middle. Treehouse in Station 3 was great for a lunch eaten relaxing on floor cushions high up on the bamboo platform overlooking the palm trees. It was here that we saw a flyer for Snorkelling with Steve. Steve, a Cockney-turned-Aussie, turned up with snorkel masks for each of us and a wealth of knowledge about all the fish living just a few minutes’ swim off the coast of Station 3. Yep, ‘living’. We’d always thought of fish has roughly having certain habitats but basically swimming around all the time, but Steve had been finding the same few fish in the exact same spots just off the coast for years. For just 200 pesos each this was a really affordable Boracay activity. Better than renting our own masks as Steve knew exactly where to find different fish and coral, and better than joining a full day trip as we swam straight out, snorkelled with a private guide and were back on the beach an hour later. We saw clown fish in colour-matched anemone nests; a tomato coloured clown fish living in dark red anemone and two bigger orange clown fish in bright orange anemone that swam right up to inspect the masks peering down at them. Seeing how inquisitive they were, Timian swam down and came nose to nose with Nemo! Further along in our loop we saw bright blue idol fish, dog-faced puffer fish, huge sea urchins, and a couple of big blue starfish before swimming back to Station 3 in time for the cheapest happy hour in Boracay at Shantal’s bar.
The ‘hour’ in happy hour is meant in the loosest, ‘island-time’ sense of the word; Shantal’s happy hour was from 2-8pm and was by no means the earliest or longest. We found one even better value option for a happy hour cocktail; stalls along the beach sell fresh, cold coconuts for as little as 70 pesos (with a little bargaining) that can be topped up with some Budget Mart local rum for 39. DIY sundowners followed by a 55 peso shawarma wrap eaten on the beach watching the local kids carve incredible sand sculptures was a great way to save some pesos for pricier activities we had lined up.
After watching the kite surfers from our hammocks on Bulabog beach on the eastern side, seeing jet skis zip around in the distance from Station 3, and parasails hanging lazily in the sky, we were inspired to get off the beach and into the air. We picked parasailing as we’d recently been jet skiing in Langkawi and, although the pro kite surfers make it look easy, it seemed like we’d probably need a few lessons before kite surfing was more fun than face-planting. All the water sport stalls are at the far ends of Station 1 and 3. Fending off the touts’ offers of “very special, very secret” prices, we figured out that it’s only Diamond Water Sports that runs the parasailing from their huge floating HQ platform just off the coast from Station 3.
From the platform we were directed to a speed boat. Strapped into our harnesses and attached to our parasail, we were booted off the back of the boat and, as the line unfurled and the boat sped off, we were lifted higher and higher into the air. We had incredible views over the whole island, all the way over to the water and kite surfers on the other side. 15 minutes didn’t sound like long when we paid, but feels like much longer when you’re up in the air… half an eye on the view and half an eye on the suddenly very thin-looking rope connecting you to the boat below!
Sometimes we hung serenely, completely still. Other times we took an accidental stomach-churning look down to the cavernous gap between our toes and the sea, or were swung unceremoniously to the side when our sail caught a breeze. After about 13 minutes, view sufficiently viewed and one too many accidental look downs, our boat started reeling us in and we were welcomed by the crew’s best Poker Face dance on the back deck before they caught our feet and pulled us down to the deck.
Beyond water sports, the best activity on Boracay is exploring the beaches. From Station 3, we walked through Station 2 and into Station 1 where, at the far end, a neon cross marks the spot where a path clings to the edge of the rocks and winds round to Diniwid beach. The cross sits above a scramble-through-sized gap in the rocks where a shrine has been placed.
To avoid the 45 minute walk there were e-trikes and shared tricycles on the main road, or cycle rickshaws on the sandy path along the beach. These cycles seemed to be by far the slowest option; by now we were used to the kissing-teeth sound the drivers made instead of a bell as they tried, and failed, to get past the people.
Whilst the other beaches on Boracay couldn’t compete with White Beach for sand and sea perfection, they all had their own things going for them. Bulabog was almost deserted apart from kite surfers.
Puka Shell beach on the northern coast was, as the name suggests, less white and more shelly, but bamboo sun loungers and gazebos were free to hire for the price of a drink which was a great deal compared to the 300-500 peso daily rates on White Beach.
Diniwid beach had the best sunset spot and, Boracay institution, Spider House. At the far end of the beach the path narrows and seems to disappear into the cliff.
At the other end we emerged onto Spider House’s huge terrace extending out over the water and settled in for one of Boracay’s classic show-stopper sunsets.