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LUXURY RESORTS: Shangri-La Boracay Resort & Spa
Style: Private island sanctuary
Scene: Forest meets reef
Seen in the lobby: Japanese honeymooners, affluent Filipino families, cashed-up Koreans and nouveau riche Russians.

A waning tropical storm forces our pilot to delay landing and circle. For his passengers, on the 45-minute connection to Boracay from Manila, the brief hold-up provides a memorable bird's-eye view of the most famous of Philippines' 7,107 reef-fringed islands.

A sapphire ocean fades to a translucent teal in the shallows that lap the four kilometre stretch of platinum sands - consistently rated among the world's top 10. It looks every bit as inviting as the travel brochures promise.

infinity pool by banyugan beach
infinity pool by banyugan beach
villa balani pool
punta bunga beach set up
treehouse villa deck
swimming pool
treehouse villa

We touch down on adjacent Caticlan island where we're led to waiting vehicles which transport our small group - in all of five minutes -to an air conditioned waterside lounge. A cool glass of the local Dalandan citrus juice is enjoyed before we board a luxury speedboat bound for Boracay. We're granted another glimpse (albeit eye watering) of the famous strip of glistening powder fine sand as our skipper outclasses a flotilla of sail boats known as 'bancas', their outriggers reminding me of spindly- legged spiders. Partly hidden by towering coconut palms, we pick out a smattering of buildings lining the shores of the aptly-named White Beach - souvenir shops, bars, restaurants, waterfront hotels and resorts which hum with tourists 24/7.

By now the horizon has caught fire - the promise of a fine day ahead. Excitement mounts as we round a rocky buttress and the cogon-thatched villas of Shangri-La's Boracay Resort & Spa come into view, lit in the flattering glow of dusk and etched into a serene forest canopy where monkeys and flying foxes roost.

Drivers in golf buggies await on a purpose-built jetty to carry us and our luggage the final leg of our 30-minute land and sea journey, up to the top of the hillside to our private accommodation where we can continue to enjoy endless water views above the treetops.

Situated on the island's secluded northern-most tip, the five-star Shangri-La provides 219 guestrooms including 36 villas and suites sprawled across 12ha of sloping land adjacent to a nature reserve. My home for three nights is one of 11 exclusive tree-house villas.

Security gated, each individual villa comes with a butler who magically appears to tidy up, prepare your bath or make a dinner reservation the moment you hit the speed dial on the mobile phone he/she hands you on arrival. Raised above ground, each 175sqm villa is split over two levels. Below is the (keycard-locked) master bedroom featuring a king bed, tech toys like flat screen TV, DVD player and ipod dock and bathroom with twin vanities, bath-with-a-view and rain shower. Upstairs is the main lounge area with butler kitchen, second TV and toilet and timber deck with hot tub and day bed. While its feels a tad extravagant for one, the villas are ideally designed for honeymooners seeking serenity and couples who like to entertain. Below me, a row of private pool villas offer another exquisite level of luxury.

Genuine hand-woven textiles, tools and artworks from drums, rice jars and jewellery to capiz shell lamps and wooden sculptures - infuse some tribal Filipino/Spanish heritage to Singapore-based LTW Design Works' simple, yet elegant interiors.

The decor complements the resort's traditional design by Hawaiian architect firm WATG who've built a stellar portfolio of hotel and resort clients across 160 countries including Dubai's spectacular Atlantis resort and the new Kempinski Chernomoritz Park Spa Hotel in Sochi, Russia - host city of the 2014 winter Olympics.

Inspired by the Shangri-La Boracay's tropical location, natural dark timber hard wood structures, open air pavilions, reflecting pools, coral stone walls throughout enable the resort to discreetly (as it can) and stylishly blend into its wooded setting.

I've just one small gripe. The condensation on my villa's picture windows, caused by the humid conditions outside and the cool air conditioned environment inside gives my view a permanent Vaseline-lens affect. I discover this after drawing back the curtains (with a touch of a button) the next morning.

Lacking the significant other to encourage a lazy lie in, I'm up and out to experience the resort from another point of view.
It's definitely the spot to watch the sun go down and prime position should any more Russian guests order a New Years Eve-style fireworks extravaganza on a whim!

My options vary from lounging under a beach umbrella or coconut tree on a hammock at sea level, propped up on the side of the infinity-edge pool, or lounging cliff top with a cocktail. Overlooking one of two of the resort's private sandy coves, a cushioned booth at the Solana Bar quickly becomes one of my favourite hidey holes on this visit. It's definitely the spot to watch the sun go down and prime position should any more Russian guests order a New Years Eve-style fireworks extravaganza on a whim!

( The Luxury Travel Bible goes to impressive lengths to inform its readers, no?)

To stay and not visit Shangri-La's signature Chi Spa would also be remiss. While the resort is a secluded 15-minute chauffeured drive from the bustle of backpackers flip-flopping the length of White Beach and its souvenir shopping Mecca, D Mall, the on-site Spa can only be described as a sanctuary within a sanctuary. As well as a communal pool there are 10 individual treatment villas (five couple, five single) with their own steam room and private garden with tranquil fish pond and outdoor tub.

Based around Chinese and Philippine healing philosophies -designed to restore balance to mind and body - every CHI Spa treatment begins with a relaxing foot bath. Essential oils used are customized to each guest according to their element sign - earth, fire, water, metal and wood.

My two-and-a-half hour bliss out continued with a steam, salt sea scrub, followed by a flower scented citrus and coconut milk bath, and ended with a deep tissue massage - designed to help reduce jetlag. The three-hour time difference from the eastern shores of Australia hadn't bothered me - but I wasn't going to waste an opportunity to be buffed and beautified before slipping on my swimmers!

Make sure you bring more than one set. The clear, 30 degree C waters will tempt even the most occasional swimmer. Snorkelling around the submerged rock walls is a popular pastime. And while this part of the Philippines is not generally noted for its scuba diving, my 45-minute drift dive along Balinghai Wall (one of 15 local dive sites and barely two minutes off shore), exceeded my expectations for its diversity of corals and fish life.

From the water to the plate - for those who prefer to simply fine dine on the fruits of the sea- ask your butler to reserve you a table at Sirena which is perched on the same magical cliff top as Solana. For something extra special, set up a table on the sand.

Some of the finest Italian outside of the 'boot' can be savoured at Rima where you can also enjoy zephyr kisses by candlelight on the same intimate level as the tree-house villas. Executive sous chef Gianluca Visciglia has brought his favourite North Italian and Tuscan recipes from his homeland, including a most unforgettable ravioli, stuffed with porcini mushrooms in gorgonzola and walnut sauce.

The buffet breakfasts at Vintana cater for all tastes. The all-day dining venue also serves Filipino, Asian and Western favourites for lunch and dinner. But during the day the most relaxing spot to nibble on a light salad or wood-fired pizza is poolside under an open air pavilion at Cielo. The word translates as 'clouds' or 'heaven' in Spanish which is definitely where my head was for the rest of my visit.

Check in:  Shangri-La Boracay Resort & Spa, Barangay Yapak, Boracay Island, Malay, Aklan 5608, Philippines. Tel: + 6336 288 5088.
Ultimate Luxury:  The two-bedroom Specialty Villa (13) comes with a butler, private lap pool, landscaped garden, pergola for private dining and outdoor shower. It also is the only villa with direct private access to the beach. The master bedroom features a king sized bed and walk in robe, the second bedroom has twin beds.The rooms are separated by the main lounge and each as its own bathroom and direct access to the garden and pool.
Most Indulgent Moment:  A visit to the Chi Spa; a beachside barbecue.

Insider Secrets: Luxe Day Out. Even if you're not an official guest you can use the hotel's facilities with this pass which costs 2,500 pesos. This includes a buffet lunch at Vintana. Children under six years are half price. Book through the resort. Thankfully the resort has several 'buggy stations' where you can hail a ride down or up the steep hill - wherever you need to go.

Junior Luxies:  At the Eco Centre the little ones can learn more about the endangered animals on the island and how the resort is helping. The free Adventure Zone has giant slides and a ball pit for ages 4 and up. During the holiday season children can enjoy specially organised activities in the afternoons including face painting. For teenagers and adults the Entertainment Centre provides four karaoke function rooms, snooker table and foosball, poker room, as well as lounge/reading area with computer terminals and family board games. Perfect for wet weather days.
Dress code:  Elegantly casual and cool
Dent in the platinum:
Luxury Resorts Link: www.shangri-la.com
Debbie Neilson-Hunter 17/1/11
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