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Manila Beauty Trail
– By Shoba Narayan

Want a top end massage for a budget price? Head to the Philippines, says Shoba Narayan

(This article originally appeared in November 2004)
Manila is an unlikely spa destination but recently several high-end spas have made inroads into this gray congested capital of the Philippine archipelago, fueled in part by a wealthy minority that demands world-class services. The general public too does not lag behind in terms of consumerism. Filipinos are a people with a Malay body, Spanish heart and a Catholic soul that abhors birth control. This has resulted in a burgeoning young population that lives for the moment and believes that tomorrow will take care of itself. The multitudes of young women who take the jeepney to metropolitan Makati every morning may not have enough to cover their mortgage but they certainly have enough for a manicure.

I traveled to the Philippines at the insistence of several spa-junkie friends, who claimed that spas in and around Manila offered some of the best value for money. Given the strength of most Western currencies against the Philippine peso, I have to agree. Body massages that would cost a couple of hundred bucks elsewhere in the world can be had for half or even quarter that amount in the Philippines.

The Farm at San Benito is not strictly a spa. Rather, it bills itself as a Hippocrates Health Resort. Owned by a German man married to a Filipino woman, the Farm is set on hundreds of acres of lush farmland just outside Lipa City– two hours by car from Manila. I was interested in visiting the Farm for one specific reason– it only served raw food. Now, raw food is the latest food trend to sweep America, thanks to Roxanne’s restaurant in California. Raw foodies claim that heating and cooking destroy the beneficial enzymes that help digest food. So they fashion raw ingredients to resemble cooked food using dehydrators and human ingenuity. Raw food in sunny California was all very well. But raw food in pork-loving meat-eating Philippines! It boggled the mind.

It was well past lunchtime when we drove up to the Farm. We dropped our bags in the charming tree-house-like cottage allocated to us and immediately made tracks for the restaurant. The set lunch and dinner menu usually offers an appetizer, a salad, soup, a raw main course or a cooked one, and dessert. We began with dehydrated coconut and flaxseed crackers served with tabouli and mango salsa. To my surprise, the mango salsa was outstanding and the crackers were addictive. The red bell pepper soup with a chiffonade of basil wasn’t bad either. It was served warm rather than hot in keeping with raw food principles. The raw main course was a nut taco filled with a spicy sauce. As we kept eating, my husband and I stared at each other in wonder. The food wasn’t bad– it really wasn’t. I am not sure if I can eat such food for more than a couple of days, but in terms of the taste test– it passed. Desserts was a refreshing tropical icecream, a gelato really since dairy is not used in this vegan restaurant (did I mention that it was vegan in addition to being raw food?). The ‘icecream’ was served with some wonderfully chewy lemon balls.

After lunch, I was whisked away to the resident doctor who performed a live blood-cell analysis on me. She said that my blood showed that I had difficulty digesting proteins and so I should consider a raw food diet, at least on some days. No surprise there.

The next morning, I went for my massage. The spa is located at the end of the stunning property. There are manmade lakes, flowing waterfalls, pebbled sidewalks, humming birds, landscaped grounds and a profusion of flowers– Eastern aesthetic married with German discipline.

The spa itself was just as good if not better than any I have experienced in North America, Europe and other parts of Asia. White uniformed masseuses guided me to the large well-appointed treatment rooms and performed a deep-tissue ‘relaxation massage’ with care and competence. The outdoor shower with ylang-ylang scented water was a wonderful treat after my massage. I ended with a homemade foot rub containing peppermint and coconut oil which left my gnarled ankles as soft as a baby’s.

The Oriental Spa at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Manila contrasted to the Farm in the same way that an urban city contrasts to the rambling countryside. When I got off the lift, I discovered that the whole floor was scented. So I followed my nose to the spa and was greeted by a smiling attendant who offered me a refreshing cup of iced tea, took off my shoes and handed me some slippers. With dark wood and carved Thai figurines on the wall, the spa reflects an ambience which I call haute-Bali. I was scheduled to have an East-West aromatherapy treatment, which combined elements from Thai massage with Swedish. Fifteen minutes later, I felt all the knots caused by sitting in clogged traffic reduce. By the end of my treatment, I had forgotten I was in Manila. I had fallen fast asleep.

Emphasis is where wealthy, trendy Filipinas go to get their haircuts, beauty and spa treatments. Named by Philippine Tatler magazine as the best beauty salon in the city, it is owned by Mr. Teng Roma, a Filipino man who has been in the beauty business for over 25 years. At Emphasis, I wanted to try the Indonesian Lulur body scrub and massage. An Indonesian massage is not a pleasant experience; indeed, it was rather painful as my gentle masseuse with iron fingers squeezed and stroked my tight shoulder muscles into soft submission. Eastern folk prefer strength to subtlety when it comes to massage– they feel they are getting more value for the money if the masseuse squeezes harder. Chinese tui na is painful and so was my Indonesian massage. But the positive effects of such a massage last longer than, say, a Swedish one. By the time my masseuse got done with pinching and stroking my cellulite away, I felt like I had dropped to dress sizes. And walked taller too.

1. The Oriental Spa, 18th Floor, Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Makati Avenue, Makati City 1226. Telephone: (632) 867-4461. Fax: (632) 810-6582. Email: [email protected]. Website: Contact: Doris Prema Sinnathurai, Spa Consultant. I was a guest at the hotel for one night.

2. The Farm at San Benito, P.O. Box 39676, 119 Barangay Tipakan, Lipa City, Batangas, Philippines. Telephone: (02) 696-3175. Fax: (02) 696-3795. Email: [email protected]. Website: Contact: Rudolf Studer, Operations Consultant. I was a guest at The Farm for one night.

3. Emphasis Salon, Rockwell Information Center, Estrella Corner, Amanpola Street, Makati City 1200. Telephone: (632) 898-0818/898-0819. Fax: (632) 7296742. Email: [email protected]
This article originally appeared in November 2004.
Copyright © 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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