Romblon is one of those undiscovered islands, actually a whole group of islands, which sparkles in quiet beauty as a hidden-away jewel of the Philippines. On your way to Romblon Island – the capital of the province with 36,612 people, situated in the Sibuyan Sea south of Luzon and north of Panay – you will probably catch a glimpse of its two majestic neighbors; Tablas Island to the west and Sibuyan Island to the southeast.
As we stood on the long, curving, clean stretch of powder-white sand in front of our beach resort, the owners – a German/Filipina couple – told me they had relocated to Romblon from Boracay five years earlier. "Boracay has become too commercialized," he said, shaking his head. "Yes, but Romblon is still untouched," she said, gesturing towards the lovely beach and clear ocean water in front of us. "This is the real paradise."
A blessing and a curse
Its out-of-the way place is not easily accessible by public transport – a reality brought home to me when planning my trip. The 45-minute flight from Manila to Tablas (an island that is part of the Romblon group) no longer existed; it had closed, it was said, due to lack of business.
The best (and only) way to reach Romblon is by ship: the hopefully named Blessed Mother of MBRS Lines departs from Manila's Pier 8 – according to the posted schedule – two to three times a week for the overnight voyage. Or, you can try the indirect route – as I did – bouncing in a bus from Manila south to the Batangas pier, then boarding an inter-island ship for Odiongan, Tablas. At that port, if you're a fool like me, you can jump into a cramped, sweltering, overloaded water-taxi, resembling an unstable, canopied dugout canoe. It so exacerbated my not-so-latent claustrophobia that by the time we reached the small (but reassuring) harbor of Romblon, my hyperventilating gasps had joined the chorus of whimpers and moans from the rest of the 15 or so passengers, who erupted like a volcano out of the boat as soon as we docked.
After an experience like that, the first thing on your mind is finding a lovely, pristine, sandy beach where you can relax in the warm sun – listening to the sounds of the sea. If you love beaches, this island, with its many seaside resorts, may be the place for you.
I came to Romblon not for its spectacular beaches – that was a surprise bonus – but for its well-known, high quality marble. Shopkeepers in Manila, seeing my interest in small, hand-carved, marble figurines, had told me these fragile handicrafts came from the province of Romblon, world-famous for its marble deposits. A hobby sculptor myself, I could not help but be interested in the creation of these unique works of art.
I sought out various merchants, carvers and shippers. Down at the waterfront shops, dazzling green turtles, leaping black dolphins, and fiery gold dragons greeted me on the display tables – all carved by hand from local marble. Their listed prices were about half of what was being asked in Manila; everything here was negotiable.
The next day, a red rental scooter took me up into the hills above the city to talk with a whole family of stone carvers. They seemed tickled to meet a foreigner who also carved stone, even as a hobby, and who had made the effort to see them. Theirs was a wholesale business. A few small pieces tempted me until we finally closed a deal. My pack would be a bit heavier with three black marble dolphins, but the cost was right.
It was fascinating to see the entire process of carving sculptures from blocks of local marble: up and down the road, artisans with their hand tools whittled away at small pieces of stone until the sculpted figures – fish, birds, and dolphins – slowly emerged.
The noon sun told me it was time to go. My red scooter carried me and my precious dolphins, back down the winding road to my accommodation, located not on one of the beaches, but in the center of town. The front desk clerk, one of my new Romblon friends, had told me how to find the family of carvers. Thanking her, I mentioned that another hobby of mine was fishing. Immediately, she insisted I go out with her father, who fished for a living. I could not turn down an offer like that. Sleep embraced me early that night; Romblon has no nightlife.
Jose, a wiry and outgoing man, could speak little English, but he had a good sense of humor. After introducing me to his young wife, he somehow made clear that we two fishermen would bring back enough fish for a family feast. His wife would begin the preparations. On his boat, we gradually let out a fishing line which glimmered with 50+ multi-colored hooks. That was his style. Across the blue water straits, limestone cliffs – jagged and sheer in their wild beauty – towered above the rocky eastern shore of Tablas Island. We trolled for six hours. For whatever reason, we caught not one fish. Jose just shrugged. "Usually plenty fish," he said. "But sometimes nothing fish."
After we came ashore, the prospect of his waiting wife and the planned fiesta worried me. Jose laughed. "No problem, follow me," he said, leading me into the lower section of the public market, which smelled of raw meat and grain. Then we went over to a fish stall. "Give me plenty," he said to the fishmonger. The price seemed cheap. When we arrived back at his humble bungalow, he handed the fish to his wife without batting an eye. Smiling at me, he sat down in an easy chair and opened a San Miguel beer. "Time for fiesta," he said.
A.T. Allan is a freelance writer whose passions include travel, fishing and gardening. He has published a variety of non-fiction articles, as well as a satirical novel, Tropical Fugue (1995: Dan River Press).