In 2003, veteran environmentalist Romy Trono had just left his job as vice president for conservation programs and field operations of WWF Philippines, and had taken over as country executive director for another environmental group, Conservation International (CI). He dreamt of building a small vacation house on the beach, in a place close to his heart.
As it turns out, his longtime boatman had a piece of land for sale in Bagalangit, Mabini, Batangas, a small, sloping lot with a great view. “I paid for it in teardrops, over two years,” he says with a laugh. “I started building in August 2005, after having paid in full.”
The original plan was to build a family weekend place, but the Tronos ended up with more space than they needed. “Friends and relatives started visiting, and it became too expensive to maintain, so we turned it into a guest house.”
Today, Trono, retired from full-time environmental work, lords it over the Bontoc Seaview Guesthouse, a cozy showcase of northern culture south of Luzon. It’s also a shrine to marine life and a charming poster place for horror vacui.
There are Igorot Cottages, large family units with comfortable beds, or air-conditioned ridge-to-reef rooms with stuffed sea creatures on your bed. Thatched roofs, northern fabrics, accents like Igorot baskets and sculpture, wooden furniture, and detailed bas relief creations (by a Bontoc-based artist Trono had to ply with drink before he got to work) are among the touches that guests love.
Then there are turtles of all kinds, from metal to wood to glass, a tribute to Trono’s early years in conservation as project leader of the Pawikan and Dugong Conservation Projects of the Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB, formerly the Parks and Wildlife Bureau or PAWB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) for 11 years.
In fact, Trono remains one of the country’s leading authorities on turtle conservation; when we visited, he had just flown in with wife Anne after some DENR consultancy work in Tawi-Tawi, and we left as a video crew arrived to interview him on turtles in the Philippines.
The affinity with Batangas developed over years of working on projects there. “We picked Anilao as a retirement place to escape Manila’s craziness,” Trono recounts. “I learned diving and got certified in Anilao in 1979, became a Padi (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) divemaster in 1984, then a Padi dive instructor in 1988. Anilao was my base for teaching. The entire family would join me for weekends when I was working, and we all fell in love with the place.”
Anilao is a world-class diving destination only two-and-a-half hours from Manila. From 1998 until his retirement, Trono worked tirelessly on coastal resource management and community-based fishery law enforcement projects there. “We organized and trained Bantay Dagat groups in Mabini and Tingloy, and expanded to all coastal municipalities of Batangas then Mindoro,” he recalls.
“The reefs improved significantly. More resorts opened. More divers started coming. I wanted my children and grandchildren to enjoy and appreciate what a healthy marine ecosystem can provide for people.”
Anne and all of their three children—Duane, 37; Abby, 31; and Daniel, 25—scuba-dive. Daniel is a Padi instructor. Trono also has four grandchildren, and his two granddaughters “can’t get enough of snorkeling!” Resident dive master Jorge Ida, an award-winning photographer, helps run the guest house’s dive facility.
Here is where the mountain connection comes in. Anne, the former Mary Anne Cawed Oteyza, is originally from Bontoc, where Duane was born. Trono spent a lot of time in Bontoc in the ’80s, and is as much at home wearing a bahag as his in-laws. “I have long been in love with Bontoc culture, traditions, native houses, food, scenery— and one of their local ladies,” he says with a smile.
When the Tronos were building, a huge volume of white rocks (hard consolidated limestone) had to be dug out. “Instead of disposing of them, my wife’s Igorot uncle suggested we use them for stone walls, very much like the technology they use for building in the Mountain Province. So we brought in Igorot workers from Bontoc, Benguet and Ifugao.”
Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Anne is boss, along with daughter Abby, a culinary arts graduate. The delicious food served is a cross between gourmet and home cooking. Rice is served in cute individual kaldero, soup poured into cups from teapots, and specialties like laing rice, turmeric adobo or garlic pasta can keep one eating for hours.
For breakfast, there’s unlimited cups of brewed barako coffee. For happy hour each day, unlimited rum Cokes are on the house, as are conversations and laughter, much of them provided by the ebullient host at the long tables, or on the open-air deck with a billiard table, soft chairs and a view of the stars.
“I have to say, it’s the gastronomic experience, and the personal touch of the owners, that keep people coming back,” Trono says with a laugh.
Conservation is hard work, and Trono has made his mark protecting the waters and creatures of the archipelago. When the battles get frustrating, as they inevitably do in these times of environmental degradation, this veteran fighter has a place to call home that’s close to everything he has fought to protect—and where everybody can certainly feel the love.
Bontoc Seaview Guesthouse is at Sitio Punta, Barangay Bagalangit, Mabini, Batangas; visit bontocseaviewguesthouse.weebly.com; email bontocseaviewguesthouse @gmail.com; tel. 0917-8144703 and 0936-9275759; Facebook: bontocinbatangas