Boracay has been voted Best Island in the World multiple times but it wasn’t until I caught sight of it for the first time that I understood why. From the plane coming into land, I glanced out of the window to see a dazzling stretch of white sand meeting aquamarine water along the entire west coast and you just can’t argue with a vision like that.
Originally famed for its beauty, Boracay soon became one of the backpacker hotspots in the Philippines and with that reputation came the parties, the watersports and the hawkers. Who wouldn’t want to drink, laugh and dance on the beach in total paradise? But in the end, this overdevelopment, driven by thousands of tourists arriving each day, led Boracay to make worldwide headlines in 2018. The President ordered that the island, branded a cesspool, closed to tourists for an extensive clean up operation.
To help us understand why the island desperately needed some TLC, this video by the Philippines Department of Tourism is worth a watch:
So, what’s it like to visit Boracay now?
Honestly, I was dubious about booking two nights in Boracay. It’d be my first experience of the Philippines and its former reputation had me envisaging another Patong Beach in Phuket, full of rubbish and devoid of character. In the end though, I couldn’t resist seeing the difference that environmental clean-ups could make and it was an easy place to recover from jet lag.
So, there I was in February 2019, on a plane descending towards Caticlan airport when I caught my first glimpse of Boracay. After an entire day of travelling to the Philippines, glancing out of the window to see that long strip of coastline broke through the exhaustion to bring a whisper of excitement to my belly. I couldn’t stop staring at it and while my mobile photos don’t do it justice, I wanted to share completely unedited shots so you can get a taste of it.
We had to wait a little while longer to finally set our backpacks down though: once you get to the ferry port, you’ll need to show a reservation for one of the approved hotels who meet new environmental guidelines before you can buy your ticket. We opted for 357 Boracay, a boutique hotel in Station 3 and after a short wait at the port, we were on our way. The short boat ride flew by and after another wait for our van to show up, we finally reached our accommodation.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from 357 Boracay but discovering that the pictures on Booking.com were outdated was a nice surprise. Rather than the rather luminious green and yellow walls I’d seen on photos, the whole hotel is now done out in restful blue and whites, with pretty shell designs on the walls and beach-style wooden furniture. Our names were up on the welcome board – a super cute touch that had us grinning as we sipped our fruity cocktail, finally able to relax after three flights, two buses and a boat ride.
If you decide to stay on White Beach, you’ll have a choice between basing yourself in Station 1, 2 or 3. This is basically just three parts of the beach, each with its own distinct character and vibe:
Station 1 – Upmarket hotels with a relaxed feel. We didn’t actually make it as far as Station 1 during our stay but many people online rave about this section of beach so if you aren’t on a budget, splashing out on a property here could work for you. You’re also closer to the Northern tip of the island which I hear has some great snorkelling spots
Station 2 – By far the busiest area of White Beach, you’ll find tons of restaurants, entertainment options and shops here. Honestly, I didn’t love Station 2. The sand here was absolutely packed and it was really jarring to see chains like KFC, Starbucks and Subway occupying prime locations on the beach. However, if I was a solo backpacker looking to meet people, this is where I’d probably choose to stay.
Station 3 – So, I’m biased. We stayed in Station 3 and I think it’s definitely the best location for a couple of reasons. Firstly, this part of the beach is stunning, litter-free and quiet. There’s also a great mix of affordable but decent accommodation options and it’s closest to the boat jetty, meaning shorter transfer times when you’re impatient to arrive in paradise.
Of course, you can also choose to stay in the other, less touristy areas of Boracay and if we’d have had an extra day on the island, I’d have loved exploring these quieter parts too.
As far as first impressions go, Boracay was a hit. Wandering outside our hotel room, blinking in confusion at the bright sunlight (it was past midnight UK time), the sand was soft and clean beneath our feet. The pristine waters stretched onwards into the distance without any of the impurities the photos before closure showed; excess chloroform, litter and cigarette butts.
For sunbathing, we stuck around Station 3 where the beach was quiet and the water calm. You’ll also find restaurants along the entire stretch of beach so no matter where you stay, there’ll be something delicious for you to tuck into. One look at our sandy feet and dishevelled hair had us stucking to low key places, like the Japanese restaurant next door that served delicious aubergine – it’s not just an emoji guys – and a takeaway pizza place. Sadly, I quickly discovered that Filipino food isn’t the most vegetarian friendly cuisine.
Although it was tempting to stay in our beautiful beach bubble the whole time, we ventured up to check out Station 2 after the morning sun left us a little pink in the chest. As you walk along the beach, you’ll notice plenty of signs with the new rules and regulations for Boracay, along with recycling bins at regular intervals. We stopped for fried ice cream along the beachside path lined with vendors selling classic tourist tat, restaurants, bars and cafes; eating smugly as we imagined the February cold back home.
When it came to things to do in Boracay, everyone mentioned D’Mall online but it wasn’t at all what I expected. A series of side streets winding between the beach and the main road through Boracay, D’Mall contained clothing boutiques, gift shops and more restaurants. Great if you’re on holiday to shop but not our idea of paradise so we skedaddled pretty quickly.
What about the other activities Boracay is so well known for? While the late-night beach parties may be banned, life goes on and there’s still tons to do for adventure lovers. Parasailing, paddleboarding and snorkelling are all permitted and sunset boat tours looked incredibly popular. Talking of sunsets…
Sunsets on west-facing White Beach are famous and honestly, I think they’re some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. There are 180 degree views of the sun’s descent from virtually any vantage point along the beach, the sky turning from clear blue to orange to burning red in the space of a few moments. No matter how you choose to spend your days and nights in Boracay, take a few moments to sit on the sand, breathe in the fresh sea air and enjoy the sight.
When the sun goes down, the once-famous nightlife in Boracay is much more chilled out than before. Many bars are now required to close around midnight and while jet lag had us crashing into bed before then, we still indulged in a few cocktails on our route home. Luckily, just a couple of minutes after we ducked into a bar, the heavens opened so we took advantage of happy hour, sipping deceptively strong drinks and feeling raindrops splash onto our shins. And then…a power cut.
At the time of writing, the renovations aren’t over and if you venture onto the main roads outside the beaches, the construction work is still ongoing. But all in all, I was overwhelmed by how genuinely beautiful Boracay is. I can understand why tourists flock to the island, and also why the authorities felt it so important to intervene before it was too late.
At the same time, the Philippines has so many beautiful islands and I know that I’ve barely scratched the surface of this incredible country. So for that reason alone, I wouldn’t say that Boracay is somewhere that you should visit above all else – particularly if you’re planning to head off the beaten track instead. If you do choose to stop there though, you won’t regret it from the second you step on that beautiful beach.
Are you tempted to visit Boracay?