Trouble in party paradise: Boracay Island in Philippines

BORACAY, Philippines — Can a million and a half people be wrong? That's how many vacationers are expected to visit Boracay Island this year.

Can Travel & Leisure be wrong? That's the magazine that crowned Boracay the best island in the world.

Can TripAdvisor be wrong? That's the website that dubbed Boracay a Travelers' Choice 2013 Winner.

After my visit last year to this island 250 miles southeast of Manila, I decided that, yes, they could be wrong. Or misguided. Or I could be.

I'm guessing that the visitors/voters aren't Californians on the far edge of middle age who fancy themselves beach connoisseurs. Maybe they don't suffer guilt about the poverty or the damage to the environment. Maybe they were smart enough not to come at the height of habagat, typhoon season.

If that's the case, maybe they would enjoy this respite from the smog and traffic and heat and humidity of Manila.

Actually, I enjoyed the respite from the smog and traffic of Manila. (The heat and humidity came with us.) I liked the sands (once they were cleaned each morning) along the renowned White Beach and the bathtub-warm waters. I found the people quite wonderful.

But what I didn't find was the hoped-for piece of paradise that would shoot to the top of my favorite sun and sand destinations.

If Boracay had been a first date, there wouldn't have been a second. We just weren't right for each other. I should have known that almost from the minute I arrived at the hotel.

First a few caveats

The prop plane that deposited my friend Jan and me at the Caticlan airport was filled with eager visitors, all of us ready to strip off the workaday suit after the hour's flight and put on the bathing suit.

But it wasn't quite that seamless. First, there was a boat ride, which reminded me a little of those cigarette boats that go flashing across the waves in "Miami Vice." (This wasn't, I should add, a cigarette boat, but the captain drove it like one.) Then there was the ride to the resort in the back of a van, where we had a view of the water standing in the streets after recent rains and the rows of ramshackle snack shops and houses that lined the roads, which were like pot-holed obstacle courses.

Obstacles overcome, we were soon in our room at Boracay Regency, which had a king bed, another smaller bed and a welcome plate of fruit. And one more thing: a placard on the nightstand that said, "Linens stained with HENNA TATTOO, COCONUT OIL OR HAIR DYE will be charged accordingly."

I was sure it wasn't the linens that would be charged accordingly, but I didn't understand why I would be. Or, more to the point, what would I be doing that would cause me to damage the sheets like this? It was such a problem that the hotel had to laminate the warning. But why?

We got an inkling as we ate dinner at Christina's, the hotel restaurant. From our outdoor perch, glasses of wine in hand, sun casting purplish shadows over all, we realized we were sitting along a sort of promenade. Boracay is divided into three "stations" along this strand of beach. We were in Station 2 (3 being more budget oriented and 1 being more exclusive).

Station 2 that night was home to a company team-building event, where a tent full of people was being entertained by a bad comedian with a high-pitched giggle — so high pitched that I briefly considered a fourth glass of wine, even though I was still on my first.

And then began the parade of people. There was no boardwalk, per se, but there was a constant stream of people along the sand. By the time I finished my very average lapu lapu (grouper), I was ready to find out where they were going and why.

They were going shopping at the stands selling jewelry and gewgaws of all stripes. They were going to party in the numerous bars that promised tropical refreshments. They were going to pick out a lovely seafood dinner from booths where the entrees were on ice.

And they were going for henna tattoos and coconut oil massages, offered by eager young entrepreneurs. It was all a bit overwhelming.

And sad. Children were begging, the occasional mom with a baby and another child with hand outstretched.