When I unpacked after my trip to Boracay, the sandals I'd worn on the blindingly bright White Beach had tiny grains of sand spirited away in every crack in the leather and trapped in the fibre of the stitches - an indelible memory of my recent holiday. Boracay, on the northern tip of Panay Island, about 345km south of Manila, is the most seductive of the Philippines' 7107 islands. It's also the best-known to western travellers, who were first lured here in the 70s by the talcum-soft sands of White Beach, the rainforest-covered hills and the promise of an uncomplicated life in an uncomplicated place - lazing on the beach and swimming in the soupy Sulu Sea by day and sleeping in bamboo huts by night.
These days, the Europeans are still coming, but the majority of Boracay Island's tourists are Filipino. Surprisingly few Australians visit, despite the offer of the same kind of elemental, laid-back scene that draws so many tourists to Bali. Visitors who do make the journey find an island that mixes a bustling, Kuta-like commercial heart with gorgeous, unspoilt getaway spots. Part of Boracay's great appeal is the warmth of the Filipinos, an all-singing, all-dancing people if ever there was one. There is an instant familiarity about the place, not least because everyone speaks English, but there is also a strong and distinctive local culture highlighted by a powerful affinity with the sea.
Certainly, the heart of tourist Boracay and the soul of Filipino Boracay are never more than 100 metres apart. While the pretty young things of Manila and beyond lie on the sand beneath coconut palms or zip along on jetskis, parasailers and banana boats, just a little way inland there is a scene that is repeated in thousands of tiny villages on thousands of Filipino islands. Motorised trikes named Jiffy Boy, Four Sisters and Bong Bong roar along a narrow road with their customers hanging on for dear life, people queue to buy sachets of shampoo and sweet biscuits from glass jars at the sari-saris (convenience stores), browse the DVDs at the rental shops or belt out Mariah Carey and Backstreet Boys standards at the videokes.
The same holds true at the two shopping areas running between the beach and the road. D'Mall Plaza is an outdoor pedestrian strip lined with souvenir shops and boutiques (one fashion outlet doubling as a sex-toy store), cafés and moderately upmarket restaurants, including an outpost of Manila's famous Hobbit House, where the service staff is comprised of little people. Parallel, about 20 metres away, is D'Mall Palengke, which is all fish stalls, sari-sari stores, clothes markets, butchers and restaurants with open-air kitchens and plastic stools. It's all a bit ramshackle and ad hoc.
White Beach today, however, is a vastly different scene from the tranquil setting of the 70s - in part due to the emergence of new high-end resorts, such as Discovery Shores and Mandala Spa & Villas, which cater to a very different clientele from those wistful backpackers of old.
Discovery Shores' director of sales, Leeds Trompeta, who spent his childhood holidays on the island, says the face of Boracay may have changed over the years, but its heart remains the same. "When I first stepped on this island in 1982, it was so laid-back. There was no electricity in the evening and in the daytime you could walk for two hours without seeing a single person. There was so much open space," he says. "Fast forward to today and there has been lots of change - there is now so much more of a choice in terms of restaurants and resorts, and Boracay now caters to all types of travellers, from the backpackers to the five-star market.
"But the real charm of Boracay is that it has its own subculture. When people get here they automatically switch off from their city worries. They walk along the beach and become one with the island. The beaches here really are the finest I have ever seen."
The four-kilometre strip of White Beach, which runs from the southern tip of the island to a rocky promontory that separates it from the much quieter Diniwid Beach, is almost constantly active. You can't help but be captivated by its innocent charm. One afternoon I watched, in quick succession, peppy cheerleaders practising their routines, a hotly contested beach soccer tournament, school-aged brainiacs competing in a physics contest, the stage being set up for the finals of a Miss Tourism contest, people wading through the shallows to Willy's Rock, and a bunch of bikini-clad girls and hunky boys enjoying a Gidget-style beach bash.
But just after sunrise, as the masses sleep off the night before, you can have White Beach almost to yourself. Early morning is a lovely time for a walk or swim, with most of the vendors yet to hit the beach and the breakfast places the only site of activity.
An undulating sandy path runs the length of White Beach, sticking close to the endless line of bars, hotels, apartments, restaurants, dive shops, internet cafés and other tourist enterprises. The absence of cars and trikes makes it a pleasant stroll at any time, although it can become quite busy given Boracay's popularity with holidaying Filipinos. Canvassing the sand is the usual procession of vendors hawking everything from sarongs to sunglasses, but they are not especially persistent and seem well regulated.
Alfresco businesses set up beneath the coconut palms: henna tattooists (hotels have signs on their beds warning guests they'll be charged for henna stains on sheets and pillow slips), masseuses and masseurs, caricaturists, jewellery sellers, touts for island hopping, scuba trips and banana-boat rides, and the occasional beggar.
As idyllic as White Beach can be, there are serious environmental issues concerning locals, and there are dark mutterings that money allocated to deal with a green-algae problem caused by effluent outflow into the sea has been diverted to other areas. Hopefully the issue is taken seriously because the beaches really are what bring people to Boracay Island. There is little beyond the sea and sands to distract the attention away from the coast - unless you are a golfer who might enjoy the classy 18-hole course at the Fairways & Bluewater resort and country club.
Viveca Hutchinson, a native Filipina who manages Sandcastles resort on White Beach, says recent hotel developments including Discovery Shores and the imminent Shangri-la property have elevated the quality of service on Boracay, but that the appeal of the place remains largely elemental. "The powdery white sand on the gently sloping four-kilometre-long beach, the watersports, the nightlife, the diverse cuisine - it's a potent combination and that's why Boracay clicks," says Hutchinson.
One of the best ways to appreciate the natural beauty is to circumnavigate the island aboard a bangka (wooden pumpboat). Starting from Diniwid Beach, you will motor past White Beach where you'll notice that none of the construction is taller than palm-tree height. While the near-constant hubbub of voices and music on the beach is virtually inaudible, the activity on the water around White Beach is indeed frantic. Scores of moored or motoring bangkas - their long and spindly outriggers making them look like money spiders - fight for space with traditional sailing boats called paraws, speedboats towing screaming tourists wearing parachutes, banana boats, flying fish or ski chariots (inflatable chairs), as well as kayaks, scuba-diving boats and inter-island ferries. Add countless little bamboo pontoons with thatched roofs to the mix and it's a scene of cheerful and endearing chaos.
Hidden around Boracay's eastern tip is the wild and unprotected Bulabog Beach. Buffeted by prevailing winds, it's a windsurfers' paradise. The beach itself is fine, but the near-constant winds make it less appealing than White Beach for sunbathing or swimming - a moderately risky exercise in any case given the number of boards whipping about on the water. Beyond Bulabog is a string of beaches, all of them pretty and little developed but all at the mercy of the wind. My bangka heaved and struggled through the chop until it reached the protected north of the island.
There is access to Boracay's own Bat Cave from the northern coast, but it's better approached by land, with a guide and a flashlight. Beyond the Bat Cave is pretty Puka Shell Beach, also called Yapak Beach, named for the shells used in jewellery. The sand is a little grittier than at White Beach, but it is clean and the beach is generally all but deserted.
My bangka circuit of Boracay ended back at Diniwid, a lovely, relaxed place connected with White Beach by a concrete path that skirts the headland and has a statue of the Virgin Mary cut into a niche in the rock. She's a little the worse for wear, with a broken nose and a few wilted flowers in a vase in front of her, but the Madonna has a fantastic aspect overlooking the sea and sands.
Diniwid's setting is reminiscent of a quiet cove on Sydney Harbour, right down to the boats bobbing in the bay. But there is also a handful of cheery bars with bamboo chairs thrown onto the beach and a couple of low-key, authentically local restaurants. It is a blissful place, with an atmosphere so different to White Beach's evening clamour.
Diniwid Beach ends abruptly at a tall cliff that houses Nami Villas, one of Boracay's best hotels, and a series of private apartments, all of which cling almost organically to the steep slope. Nami uses a clanky open-air lift to carry guests and restaurant patrons the 50 metres or so up from the beach. It's worth the ride to enjoy the view from the restaurant's terrace - it's spectacular at sunset over a cocktail. Another wonderful way to say goodnight to the sun is to take a bangka along the island's western shore. In the soft, almost liquid light of dusk, Boracay's beauty is close to overwhelming.
After sunset, the party atmosphere amps up, with dancing on White Beach and music emanating from every restaurant and bar. Among the most popular is Cocomangas, a lively, friendly place whose famous promotion is the 15-shooter challenge. The premise is simple: if you're still standing after 15 drinks you win a T-shirt. I preferred sipping my happy-hour two-for-one cocktails while reclining on a cushion on the sand and watching the stars appear. After all, I needed to be up early to claim my sunlounge.