When the Spanish arrived on Boracay in the 1500s, there were but a hundred people living on the island – people who would have known little of the outside world. So perhaps they believed the rest of the planet was just like Boracay. That from Luton to Baltimore to Harare, it was all just sandy beaches, cloudless skies and balmy weather. But wherever they went from there, the first islanders of Boracay could only face a certain measure of underwhelm, because by sheer luck, they knew what it was like to feel the world was always smiling at them, as though their birth right was perfection.
Today, the island’s white sands and calm blue waters attracts a joyous swell of humans, particularly during the high season from November to May. But although the secret’s out of the bag, there’s still a place to experience a tranquil side of Boracay. The farthest North-West corner of the island – where the Shangri-La resort sits, is remote, beautiful and tranquil in totality.
The Shangri-La group always aims for paradise with its resorts, and it often gets close, but the Boracay Resort & Spa pretty much nails it. The cheerfulness of the hotel’s staff seems utterly unforced. The way the outdoor lobby has been designed to frame the setting sun’s pinkish trails seems almost farcically perfect. Watching the sun descend from the hills above, at what feels like the end of the Philippine archipelago, it’s as though you’re at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, watching a planet you’re no longer a part of, having shucked off all earthly responsibilities.
The Shangri-La has seven different bar and restaurant options, all headed up by executive chef Patrick Buttgereit. My companion and I sampled the treetop dining experience at Rima, where creative Italian cuisine from chef Omar Ugoletti is served with an honesty that UK audiences would recognise as similar to the super-gastropub likes of the Chiltern Firehouse. I had the lamb, which was earthy and tender. My companion had the duck, which was the blushing-pink colour of apples. The negronis were super-strong, like punching a wall of vermouth, and it was all capped by a panna cotta that dared you not to wolf it down.
After the stress of choosing a dessert, my companion and I decided to double-down on relaxation, opting for a traditional Filipino ‘hilot’ massage at the exotic Chi, The Spa. Hilot – which involves banana leaves and a hot coconut oil that takes a bit of nerve to get used to – is an ancient shamanic Filipino system of healing. Medicine men would press the flesh, looking for blockages in the energy and attending to them with pressure. The modern version is more focused on Swedish and Shiatsu techniques, but felt magical nonetheless.
The facilities at the Shangri-La are vast, with a large gym that has its own exercise classes, sprawling swimming pools, and more than 1,100ft of private beachfront. Villas come with private pools and butlers as standard, and each is enclosed and garlanded with dense tropical foliage. The design is simple, almost minimalist in the economy of its lines, and the sense of being in your own private world is total. The rooms are all unassuming elegance, with capacious balconies with outdoor recliners that tempt you to forgo the luxury inside and bed down in the 25-degree heat.
The first Filipinos may never have known the kind of luxury found at the Shangri-La Boracay, but the feeling of being in exactly the right place, at exactly the right time – that has never strayed from the island.