Boracay, Philippines: Life on a Picture-Perfect Beach

“We’re just two girls from California…and we pulled it off,” says Lee Rosaia.

Her little island café doesn’t look Californian at all. Its “bahay kubo” style—tied bamboo sticks form the tables and chairs—is all Filipino. Lee seems happy to blend in and as one of the first expats to start a business here, she’s regarded as a local fixture.

It all started when she and her daughter, Nadine, were sitting in a café in San Francisco. They were talking about the tiny island of Boracay, which they had loved during multiple visits to the Philippines. Known for its bright white sands that never get hot even in 100 degree weather, Boracay is the very picture of perfection.

Ringed by soft, warm turquoise waters, it’s the island that every photographer wants to shoot. It’s the one featured on every postcard…and the one you see in your mind’s eye when you think you need a vacation.

Lee was so enamored she wanted to set up a business that would allow her to stay in Boracay permanently. “Why not a coffee shop like this?” she said.

The island was starting to get more European tourists, but islanders continued to serve instant coffee. There was a growing market for real coffee.

So that’s what Lee and Nadine decided they would offer. They rented a little shack for a few dollars a day, and were on their way. Tongue-in-cheek, they named their shop Real Coffee.

Those early days didn’t bring big profits but it didn’t matter, as the extremely low cost of living had been a major draw for her.

“In 1997 when we started,” she says, “100 Philippine Pesos (about $2.30) was like having $100 in your pocket. It stretched so far. With that money I could go to the nearby city of Cebu and have lunch and a manicure.”

The Rosaias perfected a few simple recipes to offer foreigners and locals the chance to have a “taste of the U.S.” The perfect tuna melt became a local legend—a sought after item in a country known for its heavy food.

Experimenting with local fruit, they also created their very own fusion-recipe: a muffin flavored with tart, miniature calamansi limes. Taking a beloved local item and making something new out of it was another great idea. It was something locals felt proud of, and it offered foreigners another way to “taste Boracay.”

“Now life here is so much easier,” says Lee. “The first time I visited, in 1987, there was no power. There were just a few little bungalows. Now, just about anything you want is available…there’s Internet and HBO.”

Lee likes to keep prices low, but she lives well. She enjoys taking flamenco classes and says there are excellent instructors offering everything from rumba to tai chi. She enjoys going out for dinner and drinks—it’s still easy to do so on $10 or less.

She and Nadine also get to travel. “Nadine is in Australia with her boyfriend now,” she says, “and in August she’ll be here while I go to the States for a long visit.”

With her simple tastes, and simple approach to business, Lee took a pipe dream on a postcard and made it home.

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