I've been snorkeling most of my life and never got certified to go scuba diving. It has always seemed like adding 90% more hassle and expense just to get a 10% better view. For people like me there's helmet diving. No classes, barely any instruction, just put on a giant helmet and descend.
There's some pressure in the ears at first, and I worry about those tangled hoses on the platform deck, but after I start relaxing it's a nice sensation. We're weighted enough that we can walk on the bottom, but our steps are springy and our bodies feel light. Tropical fish swim right past my face and when I hold up a ball of bread a worker hands me, I have a whole school of them surrounding me and eating out of my hand.
Back on land our hosts want to give us the closest thing they can to a locals' experience and we hop onto one of Boracay's tuk-tuk-like open-air share taxis. Ours is electric, kind of a souped-up golf cart, but many of them we're stuck in traffic with are not. So our "authentic" ride back to the hotel means inhaling noxious exhaust fumes while stuck in slow-moving traffic on the island's main road. This brief break from our coddled tourist status has probably lopped a couple days off the life of our lungs.
The next day we go eat some dust anyway, taking an ATV tour over dirt paths in the interior. We take a break at a hidden beach with waves crashing against the rocks at each end. The sky is starting to look ominous in the distance from a typhoon headed this direction.
A few of us ignore all that and board a boat out to another platform, to more smiling men with clipboards stuffed with waiver forms. We're going to go parasailing.
I usually don't think much about those waiver forms, but today they make me anxious as I look up. By the time I get up into the air the wind is whistling past our ears and the two of us together strapped onto a bar are whipping around in the sky like a small kite. After five minutes of feeling like we're on a roller coaster with sudden drops, we give the sign to reel us in. The two crew members are chatting though and don't see us. The dark clouds draw closer and the wind gets stronger. Nobody can hear us when we shout. Finally someone looks up to see us signaling more frantically and we descend. I feel the first drop of rain on my cheek.
Our brush with bad weather is soon forgotten though as we check into Shangri-La for our last night. Literally. We're spending our last night at Shangri-La Boracay. It's a vast resort suitably isolated from the riff-raff on the main strip, with a hotel building and villas overlooking two private beaches. Golf carts whisk us off to the spa for a massage and ginger tea in the recovery lounge. We dine on expertly prepared dishes for dinner in a room that makes us feel like royalty.
As we walk the grounds and pool in the morning after a grand breakfast buffet, the whole place is indeed feeling like Shangri-La. Here the Instagram shots that say #dreamy really do feel like they are from a dream. Can this really be the same country I visited before? Was our experience so much worse just because we didn't blow our budget for a while and come to Boracay, an island that's whole reason for being is tourism?
In the tedious "travelers" versus "tourists" debate, it's only the travelers who really talk about the distinction, so the tourists get all the negatives attached to them. They're coddled and sheltered, they're not immersed in the culture. They're only seeing the best parts on the surface and can ignore any unsavory aspects underneath. On my return to the Philippines though, I'm thinking all that might be a big plus in some cases. Do I feel a lot more positive here because I'm comfortable and having fun? Does the destination seem to have its act together more because I'm eating good hotel food and riding in an air-conditioned van?
It's not a hard case to make. My rooms at The Lind and Shangri-La were both going for more than $425 per night. Hand three nights worth of that to a backpacker couple and it could carry them through weeks of travel in this same country. One of us will have fewer experiences, but also fewer frustrations. Is it really so wrong to just forget your problems and have fun for a week away from the grind?"
I've got one last night in Manila before flying home and check into a mid-range hotel across the road from the airport. I take one last stroll and wander into a real neighborhood. I'm thinking I might get some street food before I leave, but looking at it brings back bad memories. The few restaurants I pass are too brightly lit, devoid of any aesthetics, and aren't serving anything that seems Filipino anyway. I can't even find the local fast-food chain Jollibee, which is generally located every two or three blocks.
Back at the hotel, my companions tell me the food there is awful and I'd be better off at McDonald's across the street. I hit a 7-11 instead and bring some things back to the room. Since I have eaten ten times better on this visit compared to my first one, I don't want to spoil the turnaround.
After the long flight home and some jet lag recovery, friends and family ask about the trip. My wife asks, "Was it better this time?"
I rave about the journey and have a hundred gorgeous photos to share instead of just a few. Money can't buy happiness, right? Maybe not, but we must admit that sometimes tourists with money are having a better time than everyone else. On this trip, I've shed the smug superiority complex of the long-term traveler. I've embraced the silly fun of helmet diving, raced around like a kid on an ATV, and wallowed in a luxurious hotel room with a view.
Experienced long-turn travelers turn up their nose at Boracay. More than a few bloggers have posted long rants calling it a tourist trap. Well, they can keep their off-the-beaten-path spots in the Philippines that take two bone-jarring days of overland travel to reach. I've been to them and have the awful journal entries to prove it. I wouldn't do it over again.
"I had a great time!" I tell everyone after this trip. "It was gorgeous."
This time there's no "But..."
Philippine Airlines flies the approximately 200 miles to Caticlan Airport from Manila and boats depart from there to Boracay. (Kalibo airport is further away but can accept larger planes.) If you go on a big vacation budget, the top hotels on the island are the Shangri-La, Lind Hotel, Asya, and Discovery Shores. You can easily book any island activities on the main strip of White Beach.
Editor Tim Leffel splits his time between Guanajuato, Mexico and Tampa, Florida. He is the author of five travel books, including The World's Cheapest Destinations, and has run the Cheapest Destinations Blog since 2003.
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