Romblon, queen of unspoilt

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It’s not one of the first places that come to mind when you think of summer destinations. Considered the marble capital, Romblon is the RO in MIMAROPA, which I’m now convinced is the better looking sister of CALABARZON. I mean, who beats Palawan here, right? Our friend Rob invited us to take this trip. Cebu Pacific just opened flights this year to this archipelago. See, that it was an archipelago in itself was a pleasant surprise!

Anyway, so it’s an archipelago: there are 3 big islands that make up Romblon and several smaller ones like the beautiful Cresta de Gallo (more about it later). Your plane lands on an island called Tablas. Romblon, Romblon (the capital) is on an island called Romblon (imaginative nomenclature, Romblonanons!). The last big island, perhaps the least reached by government funding, is called Sibuyan where infrastructure development is just starting.

Sibuyan for me offers the most true-to-form island living. Let’s start with the unpaved dirt roads that felt like storm waves our little tricycle maneuvers over. The views transition from endless coconut tree farms carpeted by lush wild grass to huts with wide, mango-tree dotted backyards. Then suddenly opens into rock-sprinkled, road-level rivers snaking the edges of the countryside and emptying out into the sea in the horizon. Locals walk aimlessly carrying woods or fuel on their shoulders, but no one’s in a rush to arrive.

To the souls drained by the concrete, the urban and the corporate, we are so drawn to these scenes. On Instagram, we call this “island vibes.” But come and wonder if the locals are savoring this life as much as their city dwelling counterparts make it seem to be. Are they perhaps bewildered that we covet their way of life when for all we know, as is the case of our economic profile as a country, they are trying to make ends meet. To some, a laid back life is laid out by lack of access and lack of choice.  But we can’t deny that longing inside of us: the one that seeks daily explorations and a return to simple joys. I’m certain everybody, travelers and locals alike, seek a kind of simplicity, with a lot intention, slowness and quiet.

Tablas Island

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On Tablas island, we headed straight to Aglicay Beach Resort in the town of Alcantara, 30-minutes by trike from the airport on paved road and 15 minutes on dirt. Never mind the dirt when the cove and its turquoise waters started appearing behind the bushes. The resort features a hill that commands a great view of the cove. The beach has white sand and the water has a sandy bottom all the way. At dusk, a throng of starfishes came by to visit the shore. At night, they were all up there sparkling in the skies.

Early start the next day to go to Calatrava, a coastal town 2 hours by trike from Alcantara. You can hire a boat to go island hopping in Tinagong Dagat, Lapus Lapus Cove and Paksi Cove. Tinagong Dagat has some amazing karst formations that you can safely explore. Lapus Lapus Cove has a lot of El Nido feel going on. A goat welcomed our arrival. Nice white sand beach.  I was stung by some water creature that felt like it wrapped around my forearm and an electric current ran through my arm. Like the creature and I had a spark! We felt a connection! Minutes later I had a rash. It went away after an hour or so. As for Paksi Cove, skip it. We heard it was purchased by a foreigner to turn into a resort (a tacky one, tbh) and no wonder the second you step on the island, you will be welcomed by a staff asking for an entrance fee.

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Romblon Island

From San Agustin port, it was a one hour easy pumpboat ride to Romblon, the capital, not surprisingly the most developed town we’ve seen during the entire trip. Inns and hotels line the port area. The plan was to go to Sibuyan first so that we can make it to the return flight on Tablas on time. But we missed the single trip to Sibuyan so we had no choice but to stay the night in Romblon.

Romblon has all indications of a sea port town even in the old days. Three big ships were docked at the port. Shipmen roam around and ready to spend a night or two before sailing off again. Food stalls dot the outside of the port and mixes in with the local market. There were marble trinkets shops on the other side of the restaurants for souvenir hunters.

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Bonbon Beach is a short 10 minute ride by trike from the town center. The driver just dropped us off by the side of the road with barbed wire gate swung open.  We ventured into a grass land, with no sight of a beach. A construction site on the left where men were busy building what we would later realize can be a future resort or hotel.

Then a few minutes later… a secluded, undeveloped, unspoilt, deserted (these words came to mind in bursts in a period of 60 seconds) shoreline with powdery white sand, blue-green waters appeared from the horizon! And then look, there’s a fucking sandbar. The sandbar connects to a fucking smaller island. And looking at the direction of the 3pm sun, it’s about to fucking set behind the sandbar. What is this amazing place! And why is no one selling me a fucking room for two or a mango shake. I felt like a fucking Columbus.

We settled in by laying my sarong on the sand under the shade of a bush and a few coconut trees, and savored Bonbon Beach before it turns into a Boracay in a few years.

Sibuyan Island

Another early morning the next day to catch the RORO ship to Sibuyan Island. The agenda for Sibuyan is but one thing: Cresta de Gallo Island. With a little bit of worry (fine, quite worried!) about missing our flight back to Manila because scheduled boat transfers only happen once a day, we ventured with some hope that we can find a way to go back to Tablas in time (spoiler alert: we did!).

The big ship docks at the Magdiwang port in Sibuyan. You will need to ride a jeepney (scheduled one to two trips only per day) that will take you to San Fernando town. OK, so the jeep will cramp a total of 40 people inside and about 10 or so topload style. We were lucky to secure seats inside. Two hours of alternating cemented and unpaved roads.

We reached Seabreeze Inn past noon, the first and oldest lodging place in town. It’s very homey, made even homier by the family of the owner, a retired teacher who told us stories about her family, her business and Sibuyan. The place used to be a beer garden when her husband was still alive. They changed it to a lodging house when she realized they’re too old to keep up a drinking place that closes at 2am.

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You can also take a dip at one of the cleanest rivers in the country called Cantingas River. It used to enjoy the first place honor, said the locals, until some random river in Palawan took the spot. You can also trek Mt. Guiting-guiting, said to boast one of the most dangerous trails in the country. There are also several beautiful waterfalls in Cajidiocan.

So  it’s another early morning start for our island tour the next day. We left Seabreeze at past 6am and got to Cresta de Gallo an hour and half later. It first appeared like we have the island all to ourselves. But there’s actually several boats already docked on the other side.

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Cresta de Gallo is two islands connected by its famed sand bar. What made the sand bar unusual was the way its shape connects the two islands: it zigzags. Its relative seclusion from the touristy circuit of our islands adds to its character. The people who were there with us were mostly Romblomanons themselves who were just on vacation. There is one family inhabiting the island and they collect a minimal fee for “maintenance.” Unfortunately, we saw a lot of trash in some parts of the island. We stayed for less than 3 hours only, a shame. But we have to find our boat to Romblon. If you go, I think it’s best to stay up to 4 or 5pm so you can have a nice sunset ride back to Sibuyan.

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After two hours of a punishing tricycle ride at high noon coasting along dirt roads, we reached the coastal village of Agutay, the town where we’re hoping to book an uber-fisherman. Our incredibly helpful host and driver, Kuya Jun, found a pumpboat docked on the shore in front of a beach shack. The fisherman immediately jumped to the proposal to take us to Sablayan, the village just across the sea on the island of Romblon.

An hour and a half of cruising on glassy, super calm waters, the boatman deposited us in some random shore backdropped by towering coconut trees. A river on the right empties out into the sea.

How to get to Romblon
Cebu Pacific flies every other day to Tablas Island. If you have more time, you can also take a RORO ship from Batangas and you have an option to start in any of the 3 Romblon islands.

Where to stay
We didn’t book any room the whole trip other than the first night in Aglicay Beach Resort. We didn’t have any problem finding rooms either. But maybe a different story on peak times. We stayed at DRA Hotel in Romblon and Seabreeze Inn in Sibuyan.

Continue your trip
At the southern tip of Tablas, you can take a pumpboat to Carabao island, which is just a another boat ride to Boracay. Then the rest of the central Visayas is open for your taking.

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