Ellie Hutchinson learns the joys of kitesurfing on one of the world's most beautiful islands.
Since getting married, I have come to the terms with the fact that my days of lazy beach holidays are officially over. My husband, Sam, is addicted to kite surfing, which means I either have to learn to love it too, or learn to love my own company on our future holidays.
And so it is that we fly to kite-surfing mecca, Boracay, one of the 7000 islands that make up the Philippines. The island became one of the nation's most popular tourist spots, its beaches consistently ranked in world's best lists. After massive growth, its beaches were closed to tourists for six months last year following concerns about environmental health. After a huge clean-up operation, the island reopened last October and the tourists quickly returned.
It's easy to see why it's so popular. We're staying at Bulabog Beach, on the eastern and windy side of the island, along with countless other watersports enthusiasts. It takes only 10 minutes to walk to the famous 4km long, picture-perfect White Beach. With its crystal-clear water, vibrant nightlife, busy restaurants and bars, we can see why this tiny place attracts 2 million tourists a year. If we weren't here for kiting, we would busy our days with island-hopping tours, parasailing, meandering through the many walkways, shopping at D Mall, cliff-diving from Aerials point, scuba-diving and kicking back on Puka beach.
We spend some time dabbling in the island's touristy pursuits, making the most of the two-for-one happy hours and incredible beach massages. I sip on my frozen margarita and daydream of floating around on a giant blow-up unicorn but Sam quickly brings me back to reality. "We're here to kite," he helpfully reminds me.
Our accommodation is perfectly situated, absolute beachfront, so Sam can roll out of bed and into the water to satisfy his desperate need for kiting. All the schools sit side-by-side and they will happily pump up your kite for you for a small daily fee and will climb the tall palm trees to free tangled lines.
For my beginner lessons we prefer to head away from the crowds and, after a bit of research, seek out Vortex Kiteboarding. Local Filipino Bee (I'm still not entirely sure of his real name) and assistants, Jus and Yasin, meet us promptly on our first day. I hesitate to hop on the scooter they have so kindly hired for us but soon realise it's hassle-free. We embark on our very own private tiki-tour of the island, following them through Diniwid, past locals going about their day, watching as dogs nip between tuk-tuks, cockerels roam and small children play happily by the roadside stalls.
We arrive 20 minutes later to possibly the most beautiful of all the island's beaches.
We have the whole place to ourselves, including the neighbouring secluded bays, not a fellow-kiter in sight. I sign up for 10 days of lessons because I am determined to be standing on the board and controlling the huge kite by the time we leave.
Every day we start with a coconut, freshly shucked, and fill up on a big breakfast as recommended by our new friends. It's always an early start so as to get the most out of the day but we are lucky, the conditions are pretty consistent all day, the breeze a steady 15 knots.
I'm nervous, to say the least. Standing on the board is alien to me, having never surfed. I have only ever had one attempt at wake-boarding and water-skiing, and have zero snowboarding skills. Being rather small, I feel I'm somewhat susceptible to being sucked into the Filipino sky.
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The huge kite is incredibly powerful and intimidating, but I am surprised to feel more exhilarated than scared. Bee starts me off on the practice kite while I get used to establishing control.
On the second day I am amazed to be in the water "body-dragging"— little me attached to this huge kite, Bee shouting at me to "sheet out", the term used to release the bar when you become too overpowered. By the fifth hour I am actually doing it, I am standing on the board, leaning back into the harness and going along slightly too fast for my liking — and I haven't yet figured out how to stop.
The Vortex team are amazing: they launch, relaunch, help me land and they swim into the sea to turn the kite around for me. I find myself depending on them to be alert and, of course, always focusing on safety first.
A hard day's activity is washed down with beer and barbecued fresh tuna that Bee thoughtfully buys at the local market. We are so lucky to have met these special locals and experience what this beautiful island has to offer on a more personal level.
My abs are so sore I can barely smile without them hurting but it's a nice feeling. I'll definitely keep up my new skills when I am back home and, of course, keep my new friend Bee updated on my progress.
Here's a need-to-know for visiting - and kite surfing - on Boracay Island...
1. Book your accommodation before you travel
New regulations around tourism, which came into effect after Boracay reopened to tourists last year, say that all overseas visitors flying to the island must have prior bookings with accredited hotels or resorts who have met environmental requirements set by the government. If you arrive without a booking deemed appropriate (the hotel needs to have upgraded its sewerage systems to approved standards), you may be denied entry to the island and you won't get any money back on your flights. For a list of accredited accommodation, go to tourism.gov.ph
2. Pay attention to other environmental regulations
These include designated areas for watersports, no single-use plastics, no barbecues or drinking alcohol on the beach, no littering and — believe it or not — no unregulated sandcastles. Don't let this put you off, though — the efforts to bring tourism to sustainable, responsible levels, means there's never been a better time to visit.
3. Protect yourself from mosquito bites
There have been recent dengue fever outbreaks in parts of the Philippines. Consult a travel doctor before you travel, and protect yourself from mosquito bites at all times while travelling.
4. You'll need two kites (minimum)
The wind blows a solid 15-25 knots, so you might use a 9m, a 12m or a 14m depending on the breeze.
5. You can hire gear at Bulabog Beach
But if you plan on kiting every day, take your own.
6. Watch out for the palm trees
Many kiters will get caught in the trees, and you'll pay 400 peso ($12) to have your kite retrieved.
7. Be prepared for crowds if you kite at Bulabog
If you don't want crowds, stick with our friend Bee at Vortex Kiteboard. You can find him on Facebook and Instagram.
8. Make sure you pay for the extra luggage for kitesurfing gear
You can do this on all internal flights, and it's about NZ$10 per flight (it's worth it). Philippine Airlines and the internal carrier AirSwift and AirAsia were all fantastic and handled our oversized bag with care.
9. Take booties
There is coral underneath the water at Bulabog. At low tide, don't jump unless you are 100 per cent confident you'll land. The coral will hurt you.
Philippine Airlines flies direct from Auckland to Manila, with connections to Boracay Island. philippineairlines.com