Boracay from The Lap of Luxury

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Boracay has changed — a lot. And as far as I am concerned, for the better. That’s what I’ve found lately when I hie off for five days to this tropical playground south of Manila. In my quest to survey the best of the best of 2010, I discover a destination that has an even more remarkable international flavor, be it in the mix of crowd, cuisine, or beach action. Here, then, is Boracay as seen from the lap of luxury.

Scoping the White Beach strip

As soon as I land, I can’t wait to head out to White Beach, where all the glamorous tourists are. That is foremost what I came here for, after all: an uninterrupted barefoot walk along the whole 3-km stretch of fine white sand, a longish dip in a sea gently lapping in tongues of liquid crystal, my eyes drinking in everything along the way.

And what a sight to behold it all is. What a great happening place, with each face etched with a permanent smile, as if to say, “Ready to party!” Name a country that loves to party — they’re all here: the Americans, Chinese, South Koreans, Japanese, Brits, Aussies, Germans, Belgians, Swiss, Russians, Romanians, French, Italians, and Arabs. Not even cosmopolitan Manila, where I’m from, has such an emerging accent.

Every conceivable space seems to have been developed to satisfy the preferences of Boracay’s top clientele, which are some of the world’s most beautiful people. We’re talking here of a 30 billion-peso-per-year industry, doing brisk business from every square inch of white sand. With land pegged at Php50 thousand per square meter, most investors would be dissuaded, yet the likes of Manny Pacquiao have reportedly been lured to purchase property.

Just walking the entire stretch brings immediate rewards. Here, blinding-white blondes work hard on their tan in increments of scandalous skimpiness. Boracay is clearly temptation island to the weak. There, muscled boys preoccupy themselves with their chosen activity for the day: sand-boarding, jogging, volleyball, parasailing, Frisbee. In front of one resort at Station 1, the north end of White Beach, a wedding reception is about to be held, with a striking magenta motif. Everybody seems to be happy busily doing nothing and everything, creating memories in style or simply watching the waves foam and sputter. Nearby, a local boy in dreadlocks slips his arms around a pretty blonde. They kiss, oblivious to whoever is looking.

By nightfall, swarms of fingerlings in shades of white swim past me. Children watch their carefully built sandcastles – their ephemeral art — demolished by the high tide. Every place within a few strides of each other offers something novel to tease the palate. Manila has nothing on Boracay when it comes down to globalized cuisine. Back home in Manila, I’ve been hunting for pork schnitzel with polenta or roesti for the longest time, with no luck. It took me this entire Cebu Pacific flight to find that kind of meal within a few feet from my hotel. It’s easy to get corpulent here, if I don’t watch out.

Aria

I first sample Aria’s authentic Italian offerings. Aria — Italiano for “air,” “ambience,” and “solo song” — is a place owned by Juan Elizalde and Paolo Occhionero. It is right across Café del Sol in D’Mall in Station 2, right in the middle of the action.

Occhionero hails from Puglia but grew up in Asti, Piemonte. The chef, Gino Amodio, also has southern origins and grew up in Tuscany and Marche in Central Italy. Chef Gino has been a chef in Italian cuisine in established restaurants in Japan, Thailand, and Italy.

The à la carte dishes come one by one in a parade of enticing plates. Gran Misto Aria is a tasty vegetarian mix of tomatoes and mozzarella cheese, grilled bell pepper salad, eggplant mash, and deep-fried zucchini slices, served with foccacia bread. The presentation alone is more than appetizing. The zucchini scapece, which uses a marinade of vinegar, garlic and mint leaves, is said to be typical of Napoli. Rimini, Italy, the world’s gelato capital.

Dos Mestizos Spanish Restaurant

Next, I head off to Dos Mestizos Spanish restaurant, still in Station 2, to try their tapas bar. Chef-owner Andre Malarky welcomes me with a glowing face.

Dos Mestizos does not disappoint, judging from the dishes I try: beef salpicao, Spanish chorizo, paella Valenciana, albondigas, gambas, and liver paté. The salpicao bits have the right balance of softness and chewiness, plus a hint of crunch. I like the albondigas the most because of the tender way the meatballs fall apart in the mouth, the meat made even more scrumptious by the thick tomato paste. A few minutes after my meal, what do I hear from the dining area but an Aussie couple congratulating Andre on their offerings. The tapas buffet is said to change every week.

Andre, I learn, is a nephew of one of the original owners, Binggoy Remedios, a tall, tousled, salt-and-pepper-haired man. Andre’s girlfriend, Caroline Schoenenberger, a native of Cebu and Sibuyan, is also present, freely joining in the conversation.

Binggoy lectures me on the Boracay life. “We moved here for the lifestyle. We wear no watches. We lose track of time. Everybody knows everybody.” Ramon Cojuangco Jr. (of Asya resorts), for instance, is just plain ‘Choy’ to him. “We wanted to keep it small,” he adds, referring to his baby, Dos Mestizos. “Well, we ended up working 15 hours a day (sighs), but we love it anyway. I guess we can’t stop progress despite our lifestyle.”

I ask Andre what he considers the best of Boracay, and he lets us in on the following: 1) Station 3 is best for backpacker accommodations. 2) The Red Pirates is a bar reminiscent of Boracay 20 years ago. 3) Rock ’n roll parties are held in Exit Bar. 4) Puka Shell Beach is a secluded beach made of fine puka shell bits. (I wholeheartedly agree, having gone there before.) 5) The Boss’ concert at MO2 Wave Bar in Boracay Regency rocks!

Someone tells Andre off that he is revealing too much of their secrets. Caroline adds, “Everyone has their own best-of list and unique Boracay story,” as if to challenge me to go find your own.

In a sectioned-off part of the resto, a resident jazz band lead by Butch Bautista, a long-time local musician, plays a mean number. The scene reminds me of Manila’s smoky bohemian districts.

Binggoy continues: “Boracay hasn’t really started yet. Boracay is our little Ibiza. People come here to party, and it’s safe.” André apparently agrees, “Yeah, everything you want in a beach. And you can still check your email.”

Rima Ristorante

After another bright day, I am brought to dinner at Rima Ristorante. The setting is romantic. Lighting is limited to a candle replacement technology called Neoz, which gives off a candle’s glow minus the smoke. Executive Chef Gianluca Visciglia feeds me his favorites from his part of Italy: Tuscany and Northern region. Gianluca, or Luca, studied in Florence and came from Mactan Acqua, Shangri-la Cebu. He had worked there two years.

The dinner is an exciting array of creations. The appetizer, Marinated and Seared US scallops with Herbs Served with Asparagus and Truffle Foam, has a light, subtly exquisite taste, and I am at a loss for words beyond that.

The Ravioli with Cèpes in Gorgonzola and Walnut Sauce oozes with concentrated umami, the best ravioli I’ve ever tasted.

I prefer my tuna rosy pink and quickly charred on the outside, so the Oven-Baked Pistachio- Crusted Tuna with Sautéed Asparagus and Truffle Air looks overcooked for my taste. Those who want tuna flesh baked, however, will surely have fun relishing the spicy roughness of the pistachio encrustations against the juicy chewiness of oven-cooked tuna flesh.

The Arborio Rice with US Beef Tenderloin in Red Wine Reduction delivers, as expected. This risotto is indulgently flavorful, thanks in part to the pan-fried duck liver and red wine sauce. It is also richly filling, thanks to the apple mash and rosemary-flavored potato.

The Salmon Carpaccio with Organic Arugula and Cherry Tomatoes in Balsamic Dressing looks pretty and is a guilt-free munch of disparate textures.

For dessert, I have Panna Cotta with Mango in Galliano Liqueur with Vanilla Flavor plus a Classic Tiramisu with Pistachio Nuts. A perfect finale pair to all that feasting.

While having dinner, Chef Luca engages me in an animated conversation on the differences between Parmigniano Reggiano versus Parmigniano Padano cheese, among other things Italian. The former is more flavorful, he says; the latter grainier and less crumbly. “We call the supermarket-bought canned version ‘Parmesan cheese.’”

Rima, Luca explains, literally means “rhyme” or “rhythm.” With only 35 seats, it is really all about intimate dining “where the service and the food go together.” I can clearly see that.

Bar-hopping

The best of Boracay can be found beyond the beach and the restaunrants, too. Along the makeshift street that parallels the beach, I pad my way to find a random bar I might consider cozy. I can’t decide which to choose next between some of Boracay’s favorite hotspots, Paraw, Juice Bar, and Guilly’s.

I stumble on one of Malarky’s recommendations, MO2 Wave Bar, right in the middle of an old-school rock concert. Think Metallica, Def Leppard, and the like, as interpreted by a resident band, The Boss. Beach bums of all colors, sizes and shapes pass by, either amused or bemused. Some literally bump into the performers.

One couple stands up to dance to a ditty they have requested, most likely their love theme at another time on another beach.

Fire-dancers

Fire-dancing performances are a dime a dozen. I meet Alkin Sabil, 23 years old, who claims to be the island’s first fire-dancer. He says he’s learned his trade from Hawaiian fire-dancers he watched on video. The rest of the fire-dancers are as young. Yeah Aragon, another fire-dancer, twirls his baton in graceful arcs and circles of fireball. Playing fire with Yeah is Ray Leonard Ramos, a brown version of Justin Timberlake, only better. He shows off his simple manly moves coupled with breathtaking magic tricks.

D’Malling

In the late early ‘00s, when I first came here, the path that led from D’Mall to the beach was still unpaved, and consisted of white sand.

But now, D’Mall has turned into an upscale outdoor mall, with sand. I spot other unique realities of Boracay life: Ladies of all ethnicities love their hair braided cornrow-style. It makes them look like little girls again. Pants look totally inappropriate here on anyone. Understandably, one doesn’t visit a fun island like this to go to work, and the sea breeze is best enjoyed in shorts. Maybe that’s an improvement. Back in the earliest days, it used to be that clothing was optional, or so I’m told.

Tired from all that walking, I rest on a neat-looking park bench. I strike up a conversation with one of the locals. His name is Edward Malanay, 28, a front desk officer at Real Mariz Hotel, and was born here. He says he loves cliff-diving at Ariel’s Point, riding the Zorb (where a person gets into a giant plastic bubble and is pulled by a speedboat), and reef-walking. I never thought adventure here has evolved so much as to include extreme sport.

I survey some of the little enterprising folks in the area. I find tattoo artists John-John Rentuma and Giovanni Gabiana, both from Cebu, and Mike Mendoza, the proprietor. They charge a minimum fee of Php5000. They say their earnings typically reach Php50 thousand per month. I try to line up for a henna tattoo, but the queue is quite long. Weather-beaten but youthful skimboarder Carlos Gumboc waits for tourists eager to learn surfing on the sandy shore for Php250 per hour. Sidewalk vendor May Tolosa hawks native trinkets that have impressive craftsmanship. She says she earns Php100 thousand a month during the peak season. Among her notable wares are unique key chains from which hang bottles of miniature sand art. I buy one, plus some anklets, which I know my friends back in Manila will like. If one gets here at around Christmas time, it won’t be hard finding gift items that can only be found here.

I also check out D’Talipapa, Boracay’s public market, and among my most remarkable find is a tubful of the rare diwal or angelwing clams, which I heard are a rare delicacy here. I am surprised they are palm-sized.

Mandala Spa

All that exploring tires me out, so I speed off back to Station 1 for a much-needed spa treatment at Mandala Spa. This spa owned by German Dieter Schrottman is unique for two reasons: the inclusion of the native hilot massage style as well as other traditional massage methods, and their offering of a detox menu right after. These are options not found in other spa places here.

First, I submit myself to a hibiscus floral footbath, which softens the most neglected part of my body. Next, I get the hilot treatment using coconut oil, then finally, foot massage using bamboo sticks.

Hilot, says my masseuse Jael, focuses more on the meridian lines instead of the pressure points of Chinese reflexology. “Meridian lines” refer to the spaces in between the pressure points. Hilot is supposed to be traditional, but I’ve never tried it before. Happily, it proves to have a unique Filipino identity. A dull electric pain is felt as Jael runs her dexterous fingertips through the invisible meridians on my back. There are no intensive bending and flexing as in shiatsu, Swedish, Thai. It’s not an extreme sport, but just as salutary after an hour and a half. The steaming-hot bimpo (hot towels) and bentosa (steamed inverted glasses) soothe. These ministrations are supposed to restore whatever imbalance I have in me, and I think I have lots.

The hilot is complemented by a Mountain Province-style foot massage. It uses bamboo sticks to poke at and tickle my soles, giving an equally invigorating effect.

The Mandala Spa experience won’t be complete without considering their “detox de luxe” treatment, a seven- to 14-day cleansing diet composed mainly of herbs, fruits, and vegetables. Mandala is really serious about the wholeness and holistic health of its clients.

Bulabog Beach

I discover a footpath that leads to Bulabog Beach, located opposite White Beach. This is where all the surfing activities happen, though it’s not windy when I arrive. I stop by Amihan, a humble Japanese- Filipino eatery run by Takashi Tawari, a long-time resident. It is the only place of its kind this side of the island. I order some gyoza (Japanese potstickers) and a cold noodle dish called somen. Tawari gives me a lecture on gyoza, which I discover to be mainly ground pork, cabbage, leeks, and ginger.

A Japanese woman in shopworn clothes stops by for an order. “One Bicol express and one rice, please. Take out!” she says in a Nihonggo accent. A Yorkshire terrier on a leash precedes her, its head enclosed by an inverted plastic lampshade. She explains in Japanese: “It’s meant to keep the dog from scratching its itchy face.” Mr. Tawari laughs, as he translates the lady’s explanation in fluent Tagalog.

Later, I chat up some wiry surfer dudes waiting for the wind and find them a friendly bunch. Peter from New Zealand raves about the Hangin Kite Center, which holds foosball leagues every Saturday night. Nate, a New Yorker in his mid-30s, talks about how he enjoys the Jungle Bar’s full moon parties the most — “with all those drums, fire, drinks, music, and babes!”

Cocktails at Treetop Villa (Shangri-la Boracay)

I take a shuttle to Shangri-la Boracay’s Treetop Villa for cocktails and to catch the sunset.

Treetop Villa offers unspoiled vistas and an unobstructed view of the aquamarine-cerulean sea. I swirl and sip some Merlot and munch on walnuts, purple grapes, and brie cheese. As if on cue, the sun turns from burnished gold to reddish yellow. The sky is then painted with variegated shades of pink and purple. All types of clouds are represented too. With no two sunsets ever alike, an everchanging witness to a masterpiece is ensured with every visit.

I spy an eagle-like movement in one of the thick shrubbery to my right. It turns out to be a giant fruit bat, a type of flying fox inhabiting the island’s highest point called Mt. Luho. The sky painting changes each time I take another sip. What a way to end a day in Boracay. This is easily the most romantic thing to do in this place for the more discriminating. A holiday spent here surely spells a big difference from spending it elsewhere on the island.

Long-term luxury can be somewhat tiring even to the sybaritic, enough for one to yearn for spartan living at home. But the knowledge that one isn’t here for the long haul snaps one back to one’s senses.

But I can live here for good, I think. Boracay’s sand is something I’m glad to see permanently stuck between my toes. As long as the daily commute in Manila takes me forever, in stark contrast to the one-hour flight from NAIA 3 to Caticlan Airport, I won’t be missing home, I’m afraid.

Everyone may know Boracay, but not everyone knows how much Boracay has changed its face, offering the best of creature comforts not found in other destinations. In the end, the best of Boracay all depends on one’s own Boracay story. I remember what Caroline Schoenenberger said at Dos Mestizos. “The best thing about Boracay is not doing anything at all, just watching the sunset, swimming at the beach.” I’d say that’s my own Boracay story too.

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