Snarky travelers may dampen your summer spirit by telling you that Boracay “ain’t what it used to be.” When I saw the likes of Starbucks and Shakey’s Pizza at White Beach last month, I couldn’t help but nod in agreement. Boracay has changed since my first visit in 2003, and back then people were already complaining that the island is far from its state in the ’90s.
But if you book a trip off-season, you won’t see the nauseating logos of telecom companies plastered on sailboats, green moss piling up the shores, corporate events littering the beach, and the Metro Manila neighborhood doing the exact same things they do in Greenbelt—only in bikinis.
There are also spots in the island that will remind of you of its heyday and how it has survived the onslaught of global visitors and mainstream tourism. One particular spot I love is Real Coffee and Tea Café. Whenever I visit Boracay, I refuse to leave the island without paying the coffee shop a visit.
Mother and Daughter Story
Whether you’ve heard it through the grapevine or via a few clicks online, the story of Real Coffee’s founders is a legend in Boracay. California-raised Lee Rosaia, better known as Mama Lee, and her daughter Nadine put up the café in the mid-’90s, back when Boracay had no electricity and only a few small businesses.
Back then, they were the only Boracay establishment that served coffee, tea, and homemade pastries like brownies and cookies. Through trial and error, they came up with the now famous calamansi muffin.
It’s been over 20 years since Mama Lee and Nadine called Boracay home. Real Coffee moved from its original ’90s location in Station 2 to a more intimate location in Station 1, and then back to Station 2 beginning September 2013.
New Place, Same Feel
It’s on the second floor of Sea World, which although isn’t as eye catching on the outside as its former location, still has the same homey ambiance when you enter.
During my recent visit to Boracay, I saw that Real Coffee has not succumbed to modern café musts such as free WiFi and plated deli dishes. The plastic cookie jars, hand-painted signs, and shelves displaying mugs from decades past were a result of years of love and passion, and not the pretentious decorative feel that most new “vintage” shops have.
With no WiFi to distract me from my peanut butter chocolate chip brownie (one of their newest recipes) and iced coffee, I ate away with delight as I looked at photos upon photos of Real Coffee customers and friends decorating the tables.
I remember my first Real Coffee experience back in the summer of 2006 during an MTV press junket. One of the veejays was chatting with Mama Lee, and I listened to her stories of her homemade goodies while her kitchen staff melted chocolate on a pan to prep for my iced mocha.
The beach was filled with corporate events and banners of advertisements that weekend, so I would seek solace at Real Coffee, which back then was tucked away in a nipa hut in Station 1. The same frames of photographs that hung on the nipa hut walls are now proudly displayed in their new location, along with other memorabilia and artworks given by friends and happy customers who have loved Mama Lee’s place.
Beyond the Calamansi Muffin
No, I didn’t take home a box of calamansi muffins like a good Boracay tourist. Frankly, there are better-tasting pastries on the menu. Perhaps back in the day when fusion dishes weren’t yet globally recognized, the idea of a Boracay-based American lady baking muffins using the local calamansi was a novelty, and this word-of-mouth hyped it to an extreme.
You see, I enjoy visiting Real Coffee not to compare their home-baked goodies and caffeinated drinks with the likes of Starbucks (the discerning caffeinaholic will not find golden egg of javas in Boracay).
I was there to re-experience the story of Mama Lee and Nadine. I was there to watch the owners come and go to check on their staff and chitchat with customers the way did when they opened shop in 1996. I was there to visit the home of two women who found refuge in a place that was once unbeknownst to its neighboring islands. I was there to vicariously relive the memories of my own grandmother, Belen Dela Fuente, whose chiffon cake and bottomless mugs of coffee kept her cozy house a place of refuge for loved ones.