Romblon Town: Island Escape

IT’S A GLOOMY DAY in Romblon. Cheryl and I quicken our pace as large clouds begin to gather in the sky. Up to now, the sky has been gray but calm, though it’s quickly changing. The rain first lightly taps on the roofs of the houses and then becomes a steady pitter-patter as the clouds spit out their beads of water.

That my friend Cheryl and I find ourselves here in Romblon Town in the middle of the rainy season looking for a hotel – any hotel – sounds like a strange, if not an outright bad, idea. It was I who conceived of this plan. I just quit my job and am about to start a new one, while Cheryl is dealing with a broken heart. We felt we needed time away from the world to figure it all out before life intercedes and the sense of adventure is dashed by routine.

So when I was looking at a map of the Philippines and thinking of a place to go, I chose Romblon, because it was the sort of place that begs the question, “why there?” For a few days, we want to feel a sort of isolation in the open road, just the two of us with minimal distraction to explore the possibilities of ourselves and be inspired to hatch more travel plans in the future. A little-known island province in the off-season seems like a good place to start.

Surrounded by lush hills and a beautiful coastline, the town of Romblon is a picturesque destination for those with the resolve to visit.
Built to provide early warnings for Moro and Dutch invasions, the ruins of Fort San Andres stand majestically on a hilltop near the port.
Fresh catch are hauled regularly at the port to be sold to other places.
From left, a worker does his wonders on a marble carving; the St. Joseph’s Cathedral, built by local workers using corals and bricks between 1640 and 1726, is the oldest church in Romblon Town.

ROMBLON IS A PLACE of peculiarities. At least that’s what it seems to me, especially with the heavy clouds giving a mysterious look to the town. Located just north of Panay and a ferry away from Boracay, Romblon holds a population that speaks a myriad of languages mostly related to Bisaya, but the province is administered as part of the MIMAROPA region, a group of provinces dominated by Tagalog speakers. Romblon Province itself is composed of three main islands – Tablas, Romblon and Sibuyan – and a smattering of smaller ones, and its archipelagic state means it’s cut off from larger islands. This is a place where time has a tendency to slow down, if not altogether stop.

Romblon Island – which is essentially also Romblon Town, the provincial capital –  is where we start our trip following a 13-hour ferry ride from Batangas. The town is girded by verdant hills and a beautiful coastline filled with rich marine life; the locals are never far from the incredible variety of its natural attractions. The municipality is about as busy as a small town can get. It’s just past six in the morning and a few stores are opening up, though most others are still decidedly shuttered down. The central plaza has a handful of people loitering about the place, but the increasingly strong rains are sending them running for cover. At the nearby port, I hear the laughters of the children climbing the docked bangkas and jumping into the murky waters. This sleepy, middle-of-nowhere feel has been its defining characteristic.

Romblon being Romblon, though, things often don’t work out as planned. Our first task was to check in a resort listed in a recent edition of a guidebook and do a bit of snorkeling in a nearby marine reserve. Cheryl and I rode a bangka through menacing waters to reach the place cut off from the main road by a thick forest and reached the resort in about 15 minutes. But the resort turned out to be long closed, and with this kind of weather, to say that snorkeling is a bad idea is quite an understatement. So we waited out the rain in a house with the young caretaker for more than an hour before the bangka returned and brought us back to town. Without a proper itinerary in mind, we’re left wandering, looking for an alternative place to base ourselves. Eventually we find a hotel just in front of the port. It’s nondescript and our room has no views, but it’s enough to get ourselves dry and clean. We then plot our agenda for the afternoon.

From left, it’s all about cozying up on a hammock in San Pedro Beach Resort, a quiet and idyllic beach south of the town proper; Cheryl takes a snapshot of Tiamban Beach.
Already deserted in the off-season, Tiamban Beach feels more enigmatic with the hovering mist.
Toto takes advantage of the low tide to scour the waters for sea creatures, such as a few species of starfish.
The heavy clouds add drama to the sunset in Bon Bon Beach.

TWO HOURS LATER and we’re on a tricycle headed east of the town center. The hotel caretaker had just called a friend who then took Cheryl and I on a half-day tour of the island – or at least a little of it, since our late start means we can only course through half of the island before the dark sets in. Our first destination is a village dotted with marble quarries and workshops. The island partly built its renown on gray marbles, which is transformed into all sorts of carvings, from Jesus Christ to Buddha to a peeing boy with a funny face. Toto, our driver, explains a bit of the process of drawing the marbles from the mountains but I quickly lose track.

We leave the quarries and double back to the town center, where we explore a bit of the St. Joseph’s Cathedral, the oldest church in Romblon. Then we continue westward to San Pedro Beach Resort, 10 kilometers south of town. It’s a private and secluded white-sand beach backdropped by the lush forest. This afternoon, Cheryl and I have the place to ourselves to enjoy the stillness of the air and the sounds of the ocean. I spend a great deal of time lying on a hammock while Cheryl tries to perfect an Instagram shot of a beer on the sand.

Toto next takes us to Tiamban Beach and then to the adjacent Bon Bon Beach just before sunset. Both are just a few minutes drive from the town center and we make these our final stops before heading back to the hotel. The rains have long stopped, and now the stillness of the surroundings give the feeling that the sea is pulling me, inviting me to its embrace. In good weather, the ocean has always inspired stillness. But the same picture-perfect scene hides underneath a lively world that inspires awe and fear to those who witness it. The rains didn’t allow us to snorkel, but the tide this evening has pulled back far from the shore, revealing a large bed of seaweeds and allowing us to see a myriad of sea creatures, including a couple of starfish species and a young flatfish. It’s as though nature is giving us a consolation after a spate of bad breaks.

A few minutes later and the day slowly gives way to the evening. Hidden behind the thick clouds, the setting sun paints the sky with shades of fiery orange and amethyst. The evening is but an overture to a new day, yet its elegance fills the soul with the most beautiful of hopes. “Even the sun bleeds, and it’s beautiful,” Cheryl says with a comfort in her voice.

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