We had big expectations of Boracay, a tiny 7 km long island in the Philippines that was awarded best island in the world in 2012 by Travel and Leisure magazine, and last year the main beach called White Beach was voted best beach in Asia by Trip Advisor. We had visions of relaxing on the beautiful powdery sandy White Beach and a tropical paradise, glorious sunsets and kids happily playing on the beaches.
Well to be honest when we arrived that first night and headed down to White Beach, we wondered if we’d made a bit of a mistake. Far from the isolated tropical paradise we’d expected, we found it heaving with people, complete with Starbucks, Pizza Hut, TGI Fridays and McDonalds right on the beach, traffic jams, hawkers trying to sell pearls, peanuts and boat trips every two steps, loud 90’s rock (it was never good the first time around) and tackily named cocktails advertised everywhere which provoked Miss-5-who-can-now-read into asking ‘what does that mean?!’ Everyone just seemed intent on partying loud and hard and it didn’t seem like it was going to be that family friendly after all.
But as we soon discovered once we got out and explored a bit more, it’s only a small strip of White Beach like this, and as we got a little bit off the beaten track it really is a wonderful place, and a great choice for a family holiday.
Here’s what we got up to in Boracay:
1. Exploring White Beach (and how to stay away from what I described above!)
White Beach is the one you see in all the tourism marketing – a long stretch of amazing white sand and crystal clear blue water that’s divided up into three areas called Station One, Two and Three. The whole beach is very touristy and jam-packed come sunset, but it’s such a lovely beach that you can easily find a spot to suit your tastes.
Station One: the western end of White Beach, this is where some of the more pricer resorts are and the beach seems a little less crowded. There are some good beach restaurants and bars and it’s a nice place to hang out. This is where we spent most of our time at White Beach.
Station Two: this is the bit we arrived in our first night and where all the action is. Party central if that’s what you’re into but it was just a bit too much for us. D’mall which is the main shopping strip in Boracay is situated here, and it’s worth a wander.
We had dinner one night in one of the restaurants here and Sophie and I had a coffee ‘n pedicure girls morning which was fun.
Station Three: the eastern end of White Beach and where more of the backpacker and mid-range accommodation is located.
One thing that White Beach does have is AMAZING sunsets, in fact the best we have seen anywhere in the world. We really enjoyed finding some of the quieter beach bars and having a drink while watching the sun disappear below the horizon. It’s also worth sticking around for around 20 minutes after the sun goes down, as the sky turns the most incredible pink and yellow hues.
2. Lazing the day away at Puka Shell beach
Puka Beach was more our style. A beautiful stretch of white sand, coconut palms and not a McDonald’s in sight, where you can rent a sun lounger for free if you buy drinks and/or eat there. There’s also plenty of space if you just want to lie on your towel for free.
It has a way more rustic feel than White Beach, with small beachside huts that serve you food and drink and it’s a lot less crowded.
The kids loved sandcastle building, running around, impromptu gymnastics here and we really enjoyed swimming in the crystal clear water.
We even came across a bridal party having their photos taken – then next thing they were asking the kids to have some photos taken with them!
It’s worth getting there in the morning, as the beach gets more crowded in the afternoon and fills up with boats taking people on daytrips around the island.
You can get to Puka Beach by taking a tricycle, which is the main method of getting around the island. It’s a kind of carriage built into a motorbike and a cool way to navigate the island.
3. Chilling out at Spider House
We found the coolest bar and restaurant in Boracay, if not the world we reckon! Spider House is a bamboo treehouse that clings to the side of the cliff at Diniwid Beach, which is around the bay from Station One at White Beach.
It’s a really pretty walk along the cliff path, then you climb up into the actual restaurant itself which has panoramic views out over the sea and Diniwid Beach.
We first visited at sunset and loved it so much we went back the next day! Get there early though (like 3pm!) if you want to nab a good table for sunset as it is very popular.
The next day we headed back for lunch and had a great pizza and enjoyed lazing the afternoon away listening to the great chilled out music they play.
We spent the afternoon climbing down the bamboo ladder that hangs off the side of the restaurant and swimming to a pontoon which is anchored offshore.
We had so much fun jumping off it into the water.
You can also stay at Spider House, the rooms look very basic, but have amazing views as they are open to the air. An added bonus was the resident 3 week old puppies, soo cute!
4. Diniwid Beach
Diniwid Beach is a cute little bay around the corner from White Beach that’s a great spot for swimming or watching the sunset. You can also get a tricycle there, and it was great to drive down there and get a glimpse into where the local people live in houses put together with corrugated iron, plywood and bits of bamboo.
Where we stayed
Originally we had booked to stay in a hotel at Station 3, but a couple of weeks before we arrived we found a great deal for Hotel Soffia. This hotel was a bit different from the standard Boracay experience in that it is up in the hills of Yapak so you get peace and quiet, along with beautiful views of the island. We had a king sized bed plus a sofa bed and a really good sized room.
They have a free shuttle bus that runs hourly backwards and forwards to D’mall and Station 2, which takes about 7 minutes. We found this to be fine and were really glad to jump in the jeep and escape the hustle and bustle of White Beach. They also have free pick up and drop off from the ferry terminal.
The best thing about Hotel Soffia is the wonderful pool which looks out over a stunning view of the island. The worst thing was the hotel restaurant which was a bit average and expensive, but we mostly ate out down at White Beach most nights anyway.
The staff were very friendly and welcoming, especially when we came back from Bohol they remembered us and were saying ‘welcome back’. They also stored some stuff for us when we went to Bohol.
We paid $88 NZD / $59 USD per night, which is a great deal by Boracay standards! Check out the latest prices for Hotel Soffia on Booking.com
What we ate
Because it is so touristy and there is lots of pizza, burgers and fries, we found it hard to get traditional Filipino food. The Filipino food we did see looked a bit greasy, fatty and unappetising. But there were some standout meals that we had on Boracay:
Lechon: Filipinos are big on pork and they make the most delicious roast pork called lechon. It’s a bit like the consistency of pulled pork in that it pulls easily apart and melts in your mouth, delicious! It’s served with rice and vinegar, chilli and shallot. We had this yummy one at Mamita’s Grill on the beach at Station 1 (the place with the Superman statue!)
Pizza at Spider House: Not only is the view great but they do a good pizza as well.
The best place we found on White Beach for a sunset cocktail was Aplaya – The Beach Bar and Italian Restaurant. It’s in between Station 1 and 2. They did yummy capriskioska cocktails and it’s two for one at happy hour. We also had a good pizza here (we ate a lot of pizza on Boracay!)
We also had a delicious light dinner one night at the Wahine Beach Bar at Diniwid Beach.
Again, it’s a popular spot and a little bit full of the ‘beautiful people’, so get there early to nab a beanbag to watch the sunset.
How to get there
Boracay isn’t the easiest place to get to. There are two airports – one at Caticlan which is very close to Boracay, but these are tiny planes and have restrictions on luggage. We went via the route most people take and flew to Kalibo airport (we went with AirAsia from Kuala Lumpur), then getting a taxi, van or bus to Caticlan port. You then jump on a bangka (motorised outrigger boat) across the sea for about 10 minutes and voila you’ve arrive at Boracay.
We did 3 of these options with our coming and going back and forward from Bohol:
Option 1 – Taxi: when we first landed in Kalibo from Kuala Lumpur the kids were tired, so we opted for a private taxi. This was the fastest way to get to Caticlan port and took us around 1.5 hours. But it was also the most expensive option at 1500 pesos / $33 USD including the bangka ride to Boracay.
Option 2 – Shared Van: When you arrive at Kalibo airport or the port at Boracay for your return journey, there are loads of people outside ready to sell you a van ticket. This involves sharing a van with around 10 people and can be a bit crammed and takes longer than a taxi, around 1 hour 40 minutes. We did this option twice and it’s fine, and a cheaper option than a taxi at 750 pesos / $16 USD for 2 adults and 1 child (under 5’s are free) including the bangka ticket.
Option 3 – Public Bus: We got back to Kalibo quite late from Bohol, so we stayed a night there before heading back up to Boracay. We were right by the bus station so thought we’d give the public bus a go.
It was quite a cool experience as we got to travel with the locals, the bus had good air conditioning and was reasonably modern. It was the slowest of all the journeys at 2 hours because you stop along the way to let people on and off. But it was also the cheapest also at 402 pesos / $9 USD for 2 adults, both kids were free. They also play movies on the bus – beware they aren’t always age appropriate, but our 4 year old absolutely LOVED the violence of the Avengers 😉 Once you reach the port, it costs 100 pesos / just over $2 USD for the bangka crossing.
Option 4 which we didn’t do is a tourist bus with Southwest Tours, which is like Option 3 above but without the locals and it doesn’t stop along the way.
Another note is beware of all the taxes that seem to be a part of life in the Philippines. It seems like everywhere you go there are one or two extra taxes that you aren’t expecting. In addition to the above costs, you also have to pay a Terminal Fee of 100 pesos / $2 USD and Environmental Fee of 75 pesos / $1.60 USD per person.
Also when you leave Kalibo airport there is a whopping 700 peso / $15 USD per person Departure Tax that we weren’t expecting that put a bit of a dent in our daily budget! We wouldn’t mind paying so much if we could see where the money was going or it was actually built into the price of things. But instead it just feels like you’re constantly shelling out for random taxes and bureaucracy that aren’t actually going towards the things they’re supposed to (the environmental tax for example). It’s hard to budget as well when you don’t know the total cost of things in advance (end of rant!!)
So was Boracay a good choice?
The longer we stayed at Boracay, the more we grew to like it. It certainly is a beautiful place, and not that hard to find some stunning off the beaten track places if the action of White Beach isn’t your thing. There was certainly plenty to do and the beaches were fantastic and generally family-friendly. We’re pleased we went there, and the Philippines as a whole and would love to come back and explore some more one day.
The amount and pace of development in Boracay is frightening though. The whole island is pretty much a building site, as the race is on to cater for the ever growing numbers of tourists wanting to check out this paradise. There didn’t seem to be a lot of thought and planning going into some of these developments and we did wonder about the long-term effects on both the environment and local people. It’s a small place and there’s big demand for land, so what does that mean for the majority of locals who live a pretty simple existence. Most of the developments looked like they were the work of multi-nationals rather than local investment 🙁
Our advice – go sooner rather than later so you can experience some of the lovely beaches and friendly local people, before it gets completely over-run and turns into a tourist ghetto!
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