Thursday, October 30, 2014

Boracay Island: It's The Whole Package That Matters

Boracay Island is located in the central west of Philipines. This small island is only a boat ride from the main island of Panay. There are 2 airports serving tourists wishing to visit Boracay. The closest airport next to the jetty is Caticlan but it can only accommodate small turbo-props. If you are transiting from Manila or Cebu, you can consider this airport albeit the transit time may be long. The larger airport Kalibo is 1.5 hours away by bus but it can accommodate larger international jets. If you are taking direct flights from Singapore, this will be your option. From here, you can board a bus for 1500 peso per person to the jetty at Caticlan, which includes ferry fee and transport to your hotel.

Geographically, Boracay is shaped like a dog bone and very small in size. It is only about 7km long from one end to the other end, and only about 1km in width from western beach to eastern beach. There is only one main road in the middle of the island linking North to South. White Beach is the more popular stretch of beach in the western side. This is where the majority of hotels are located and center for activities. White beach is divided into 3 sections called stations. Station 1 is at northern side which has the most beautiful and white sandy beach. It also has more up class hotels where celebrities and artistes like singer Fish Leong who had her beach wedding there. Station 2 is the center for all activities, buzz and tourists. The central D-mall is located here alongside many big hotels. This is where you can come for food and all other activities. While there are many big hotels here, the truth is there is only one big player who had monopolized the whole area. Almost every hotels next to each other here are under the same foreign owned group Henann even though they have different hotel names. The last station at the southern side is Station 3. This side is very quiet with more boutique hotels and some western pubs and restaurants. The truth about this side is that many hotels and pubs here are also owned by foreigners who marry local wives who then bought up all the precious lands to build their hotels and pubs. Some even made so much cash that they ventured into other luxury holiday homes around the island. You can almost certainly see these foreign bosses sitting in their pubs everyday drinking beer and their local wives sending their kids to international school in the morning. Because of all these monopoly, do not expect prices of hotels to vary that much. I'd suggest you to choose Station 1 hotels since it has got the nicest beach and away from all the crowd. If you'd like, you can do hotel hopping from Station 1 to Station 3. Okay, so much about White Beach. The Bulabog Beach on the eastern side is a wind surfer's paradise. There is no white sandy beach here, a bit more rocky but the winds here are good for wind surfing.

Descriptions about the island above may give you an impression this island is very big. I must warn you that you may need to lower your expectations as beautiful pictures and words may not represent real experience. To walk along the beach from Station 1 to Station 3, you can cover the whole White Beach in just 30 minutes. To add in the fact that so many foreign players tried to land grab every precious piece of land facing the beach, it ends up with hotels and villas that are so small and cramped next to each other. I don't know about how others feel, but in my own experience, I felt very claustrophobic.

There are various activities that you can do here but another warning before hand. Prices are not regulated and official prices are often ridiculously high, maybe 3-5 times more than best price. Do not book from hotels. You can find very cheap prices out there and I'll explain why. The moment you step foot outside your hotel, the touts will swarm you like annoying flies offering cheap prices for activities. There was never one time where I had peace walking along the beach without all these flies bothering me. These touts work on commissions for activity operators and boat owners. The higher the price they fleece from you, the higher commission they will get. Again most of these operators/owners are foreigners so don't expect you can get cheap prices if you approach them directly at their counters or activity centres. No matter how annoying the touts are, they are still the best option for lowest price. Let me share with you the rule of thumb after I myself got fleeced a couple of times. Fair price or perhaps lowest price for activities like parasailing, helmet diving, zipline, zorb, ATVs, buggy etc is 500 peso per person. For sailing whether it's a day or sunset, it is 600 peso per couple. Don't buy into the offer of 1200 peso per couple for private sail because when you reach your boat, there may be other people and it's not so private after all and you've got fleeced. Just stick to the 600 peso price. Now for island hopping plus snorkelling, this is more tricky and the price range varies. Ball park figure is 1000 peso per person which you must insist includes the entrance fee to the private islands. If you are a good negotiator, you can negotiate to include lunch or some light bites for the same price. As a conclusion, do not be so hurry when the first tout offers you. With all these ball park figures in your head, you can right away ask for his price. If it's too high, you offer your final price. He will most likely counter offer with a slightly higher price. Then it's your time to gently decline and walk away. Very likely he will match the price you have offered. If not, you just walk away and I guarantee you the flies that had been watching you from the side will be able to match your asking price after you have walked away from the first one.

Activities that I recommend are sunset sailing, island hopping to Magic Island plus snorkelling, island hopping to Monkey Island plus cliff diving plus snorkelling, and helmet diving plus photos and movies included in CD. For adrenaline junkies, you can try parasailing, Zorb, zipline (make sure you ask for the longest zipline at the golf course, not at Mt. Luho and decline the cable car ride since they have free transfer anyway),and ATV or buggy ride to have a scenic view at Mt. Luho.

Now for food. Pretty standard type of international cuisine available from a typical tourist place. Most commonly are the western breakfast, western steak, fish and chips available from almost every hotel lobby and western bars and pubs. Due to the fact that 50% of the tourists here are Koreans, you can expect to find Korean restaurants everywhere too with few Japanese, Taiwanese and Chinese restaurants. Station 2 is popular with night buffet with prices ranging from 300-600 peso per person. D-mall at Station 2 has many eateries too which you can explore and even McDonalds for those on a budget trip. Local food that you can try is the roast pork which you can taste from the dinner buffet. High end dining is available at some hotels where you can choose fresh seafood on display to be cooked to your likings. Prices range from 600-1000++ peso per person. Do not expect Michelin star kind of food and also if you work out the price in your dollars, it may seem expensive even for the lowest priced food at the lousiest restaurant set up.

If you like to travel around the island, motorised tricycle is your best choice. Just walk out to the main road and hail down a tricycle. These people will also try to fleece you and asking ridiculous price of 60 peso or more. Just remember that travelling from anywhere around Stations 1 to 3 only costs 10 peso per person. You just need to share the remaining seats with others along the way. If the price is not right, walk away and hail down another one. It's that simple. For hire to Mt. Luho or further, the price may be higher.

Well, it seems like this post has more negativities. Do not be put off if you have planned or booked your trip there. Different people have different expectations and opinions. Maybe you'll be able to work out something to your fun and advantage with all these info in your head before you head off to the island. I have to agree that the section of the beach at Station 1 and sunset sailing here is beautiful, but that's just it. The whole package is just not there. This highly monopolized island by foreign owners, annoying touts and unregulated prices just kill the fun and charm of this otherwise beautiful island. If you ask me a choice between Maldives, Koh Samui, Phuket, Bali and Boracay, I would rate them as in this order.

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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Bath, UK

Bath is a city in the south-west of England which traces back to the Roman empire. There are only very few hot springs in England and Bath is probably the most famous of them all when the Romans built the famous Roman Baths dedicated to the goddess Sulis. Bath is listed as a World Heritage Site and it attracts millions of visitors each year.

If you are travelling from London, you can reach this city in one and a half hour time by train. A same day off-peak return ticket only costs slightly less than 60 pounds. The train stops directly in the city centre. Since this city is not big, you can explore the whole city by walking. Half day tour is ideal choice if you are travelling from London and don't have much time.

Famous landmarks that you must visit in this city are the Pulteney Bridge, The Circus, The Crescent, The Abbey and the ever famous Roman Baths. Although you cannot enjoy the hot springs anymore in the Roman Baths since it has been turned into a museum, you can visit the grand and luxurious modern hot springs spa next door called the Thermae Bath Spa.

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