Spa Destinations - Philippines
There are some amazing spas and spa resorts - and unique spa treatments - in the Philippines, as John Borthwick reports.
Traditional albularyo healers were laying-on hands in the Philippines for centuries before the term “spa” was invented. These days, licensed Philippine spas offer traditional local treatments like ventosa and dagdagay, along with Thai, Swedish and Ayurvedic-style options. The regulated spa industry, under the aegis of the Department of Tourism and the Spa Association of the Philippines, currently sees some 50 licensed spas operating in various areas, and more emerging.
I start my “spa safari” in the capital, Manila, opting for a hilot treatment. Igorot healers of the central Cordillera devised this massage centuries ago; back then it included resetting dislocated limbs, but today’s spa practitioners usually avoid “back-cracking,” concentrating on massage. I head to Makati, to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel’s beautiful little boutique spa — simply called The Spa — where there’s a menu of tempting treatments and just four massage rooms, two of which are for couples.
My hilot masseuse, Aida, has strong, confident hands and works diligently for ninety minutes using elements reminiscent of both Swedish long-muscle technique and Thai oil massage. She’s very accurate on tendons and tensions, plus neck and cranial zones. Being of the “no pain, no gain” school, I always request a strong massage — and usually find that after five minutes the masseuse has defaulted to medium (at most) pressure. No such lazy “pampering” from Aida. She concludes my session with 30 minutes of ventosa, a vacuum or moxibustion technique, in which small, heated cups placed on one’s back are said to suck out toxins and stimulate the nervous system. (Ventosa, although painless, when done properly leaves round, red marks on your skin; these disappear within days.)
Having tried modern hilot, several days later I seek out its traditional form, as maintained by Roberto Nacario, resident albularyo at the popular Sanctuario day spa in Manila. Roberto, 59, is an old school healer (no, not one of those infamous “faith healers”), highly intuitive and mostly self-taught, who sees his capacity as something “inborn in my hands.” Now to test it. This is no charm school back-rub with New Age intimations. His hands go for the deep tissue — yes, there is pain, and gain. He advises me on diet correction. He works vigorously, exerting himself using elbows and forearms. My torso, legs, neck, shoulders all get their just desserts, then he finishes it all off with an expert back manipulation. Cracking stuff. The real deal.
Just outside Cebu, in the spacious waterfront grounds of the Shangri-La Mactan Island Resort, I find perhaps the largest (10,000 sq metres) and most elaborate spa in the country. Befitting the Shangri-La group’s name, their Chi spa complexes and rituals are themed Tibetan-Himalayan (as opposed to the quasi-Thai trappings often found elsewhere). Some 34 treatments are available, including Water Shiatsu in a purpose-built pool. A consultant suggests I try their signature hilot — every spa does it differently — plus a Tropical Facial Rejuvenation.
The masseuse, Rady, orchestrates a sequence of pleasures that includes foot bath, coconut milk bath, steam room, an extended and precise hilot treatment and finally the facial — whose specifics I can’t recall at all because after two and a half hours under her expert hands, I am beyond both care and note-taking. The only drawback is one common to many Philippines’ spas, a sense of unnecessary prudishness. An industry-wide obsession (rarely found in other countries) with diaper-like knickers, shielding towels that are hoisted curtain-high every time the client turns over and the patronising, if not paranoid avoidance of the male abdomen and pectorals, leaves one asking, “What’s the problem?”
There’s no such prissiness at the extraordinary Farm at San Benito, located at Batangas about two and a half hours’ drive south of Manila. The Farm, established by German-born Eckhard Rampe, is a medical spa, the place you come to when you’re serious about what’s wrong with your body, your diet, your dependencies, your life. “Any quest for health that doesn’t include a change in lifestyle — including diet — is futile,” Rampe asserts as we sit by the resort pool, eating the most delicious vegan dishes I’ve ever tasted. Here is a hard-core healing centre with beautifully soft edges. Surrounded by palms, ponds, breadfruit trees and landscaped, enchanted gardens, The Farm’s Balinese-style suites are built to the highest standards. Its “therapists” (in the true sense of the term) include medical doctors, specialists in dermatology, rehabilitation and natural medicine.
Come spa time, my practitioner, Geralyn is all thumbs, in the very best sense of the term. A Purification Ritual starter segues into ninety minutes of The Farm’s own interpretation of hilot: limbs, extremities, entire torso, ribcage, scalp and face, all done deep. Mild stretching. Then concluding with extraordinary moments — how many, I can’t say — of Reiki “protection” with Geralyn’s hands gently cupped over my ears. All this and not a single CD track of swooning synthesizers, bird chirps and sea sighs to be heard.
My final spa “ordeal” is at the terrific Nuture Spa at Tagaytay, an hour south of Manila. Here, Cathy Turvill and her English husband, Dr Mike have established a homely resort (complete with traditional Igorot huts, if you choose) and an excellent destination spa. I sample the vernacular Filipino foot massage known as dagdagay in which two bamboo sticks are used to gently stimulate the soles of the feet. In this case, no pain but subtle gain. Then a suob steaming ritual that‘s followed by an hour’s thorough, gentle Ni-Laib massage, during which heated pads (sambong) of lemon grass are placed strategically along my back. I float out of there and straight into Nurture’s natural food restaurant. De-toxed, I find myself no longer looking forward to the city’s inevitable re-tox.
Prices for a 90-minute massage can range from 6380 pesos (around A$152) at the Shangri-La Mactan to a very good value 1000 pesos (A$24) at Panglao Island Nature Resort. Spa resorts usually offer accommodation and treatment packages. A huge range of options is available, from massage to surgical (beware of these) and beauty treatments, in resorts, destination spas and day spas. Most massage is done by women. Few can or will do back adjustments. Direct your practitioner to the areas you most want worked on, and insist on your preferred pressure. A 100 peso (about A$2.40) tip will be appreciated by your masseuse.
Shangri-la Mactan Island Resort & Spa: www.shangri-la.com
The Farm at San Benito: www.thefarm.com.ph
Panglao Island Nature Resort: www.panglaoisland.com
Sanctuario Spa: www.sanctuario.com.ph
Nurture Tropical Spa: www.nurture.com.ph
The Spa at Mandarin Oriental: www.mandarinoriental.com