72 hours in a medical wellness resort

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The Mahogany Pool Villa at The Farm. Photo by MARGA BUENAVENTURA

There was a deadline looming over me, and I could feel its heavy weight on my shoulders. There was one item on my to-do list, a story for this very publication, that kept getting pushed down the priority lane. To be honest I was secretly relieved, because I still had no idea how I’d write it. For weeks, the Google Doc only had a few notes and scattered thoughts; I had nothing, absolutely nothing else to say. I’d been calling my writing muse, but I think she blocked my number.

This deadline remained in the back of my mind in early December, as I prepared to take a three-day trip to The Farm at San Benito. The Farm is a medical wellness resort located in Lipa City, Batangas. It’s the first of its kind in the Philippines, a 90-minute drive away from Manila that offers a tandem of spa therapies and medical treatments in a luxury resort setting. With a sprawling 48 hectares of land, The Farm features luxuries I don’t usually see on vacation: an uninhibited view of Mount Malarayat, wildlife (mostly ducks and peacocks) scattered about the property, a vegetable farm that provides food for their restaurants, and a full staff of healthcare providers housed in a multi-story medical facility. As I stepped into The Farm’s van, which picked me up from home, (they offer shuttle services to and from anywhere in Metro Manila), I didn’t know yet that my writer’s block and I were about to have a reckoning.

Dr. Marian Alonzo explains the research behind their programs at The Farm. Photo by MARGA BUENAVENTURA

Seafood risotto at Pesce Restaurant. Photo by MARGA BUENAVENTURA

Ask people about their experience at The Farm, and you get an interesting slew of answers. Local artistas love posting about the place, raving about its transformative, healing abilities. The staff likes to tell the story of how actress Iza Calzado made a wish on The Farm’s beloved Mango Tree, and soon met her now-husband, Ben Wintle. On the other hand, I’ve heard from guests who have had strong aversions to the entire experience. Some who visited The Farm many, many years ago found the vegan cuisine unpalatable. “It’s so… healthy,” one friend told me when I asked him. He says “healthy” almost like a slur, as if the idea of a meat-free holiday personally offended him.

The Farm at San Benito has been around for decades, originally meant to offer a strict detoxification program for those suffering through long-term, chronic illnesses. Dr. Peter Kaliski, Medical Director for The Farm, explains that guests weren’t initially allowed to use gadgets, not even cellphones, during their stay. It was an experience that Dr. Marian Alonzo, The Farm’s Medical Chief, experienced herself when she went through the detoxification experience. They weren’t even allowed to read books, she recalls, because the cleansing process meant no unnecessary downloading of any kind — whether physically through food or mentally through information. Coupled with the strict raw vegan diet and the resort’s insular setting, many guests realized that The Farm did not offer the kind of vacation one expected from a luxury resort.

“It was very restricted, and it was probably what drove a number of people, who wanted to have a little bit of leeway and not this level of cleansing and nature, and raw food, and all this kind of stuff,” Dr. Kaliski said during our tour of The Farm’s holistic center. “But now it’s changing, there’s more variety.”

The version of The Farm that I got to experience is far from its original iteration. There are now three restaurants on the estate: Alive, which offers vegan food (breakfast is served here); Prana, which has Ayurvedic vegetarian food; and Pesce, which has a pescetarian menu. Cigarettes and vaping are not allowed on the estate, but alcohol is available in the restaurants. Though chicken farmers rent out parts of the Helifarm — part vegetable farm, part helipad for guests flying in from NAIA — poultry and meat are not available at all. Not even at the staff cafeteria, they tell me. Regardless of dietary restrictions, the food was pricey but excellent across all restaurants. The seafood risotto at Pesce was flavorful and comforting. The vegan breakfast buffet at Alive was actually delectable; the vegan pancakes, the bread selection, and the chickpea curries were some of my favorite things from breakfast. The curry fried rice and samosas at Prana were the highlights of my welcome meal at The Farm. Forget what the haters say about vegetarian food. When it’s made well, it’s truly so good.

A view of the mahogany pool villa. Photo by MARGA BUENAVENTURA

Intuitive coach Neetu Nilishi. Photo by MARGA BUENAVENTURA

There are multiple residential rooms and villas throughout the property, each one offering various experiences. The Garden Glass Villas are wrapped in lush greenery, with an outdoor bathtub facing tall glass doors. The Banaba suites are found on a two-storey building that also has an event space on the first floor. The Farm also offers timeshare options for those who’d like to stay frequently, and even full ownership for those who’d like to settle long-term. I was given the chance to try out the stunning Mahogany Pool Villa. With floor to ceiling windows everywhere, a kitchenette, and a bathroom with a bathtub and an indoor/outdoor shower, the villa’s greatest feature is its private lap pool. I didn’t want to leave the room.

Despite its solitary nature, The Farm can provide you with a stacked itinerary. The resort has a slew of spa treatments, from traditional massages to signature body scrubs. There’s a fully equipped gym and fitness center. There are free group classes available throughout the day, and changing each week. I was able to join a yoga class at the amphitheater, with the big lagoon right in front of us. There are mandala flower workshops, vegan cooking workshops that make use of the farm’s fresh produce, and wellness workshops with guest teachers. In the week I was there, intuitive coach and MahaVastu expert Neetu Nilishi held a manifestation workshop. I usually process any form of pseudoscience with an open mind and with a grain of salt, but the workshop turned out to be an emotionally evocative experience. So much so that I sought out an individual tarot card-reading session with Nilishi before I left, curious to see how she reads someone’s energy.

She looked at my cards and saw the truth right through me: “There’s something blocking you,” she said. “Something you have to do, but you’re not doing.”

The Angel of Water procedure room, one of the cleanses offered at The Farm. Photo by MARGA BUENAVENTURA

The Helifarm, which produces most of the food for the resort. Photo by MARGA BUENAVENTURA

I explain that I’m evading a deadline. Nilishi is a writer too; she nods in understanding. She’s generous with her time, and it makes me aware that my worries must be all over my face, and the mental image of this unwritten story clogging up my head was giving me anxiety. Perhaps it was timely to be at The Farm for some relief. Not just mentally, but physically too.

And this is where I realize that The Farm has something to offer many other resorts are incapable of doing: the ability to give yourself a reset. In our conversation during my visit, Dr. Kaliski talked about how to experience the spa therapies at The Farm was one thing, but their medical programs are another. The Farm does detox cleansing, sleep recovery, long-COVID recovery, and fertility programs, to name a few. To have a medical program customized for you, they invite you to answer a questionnaire, then later on have a cellular diagnosis chat with one of the doctors to analyze your current health state through a live blood sample.

One of The Farm’s signature procedures is the colema, a colon cleanse that infuses a few liters of water with coffee or chamomile additives to help reset the digestive system. The day I had my colema, I didn’t expect the treatment room to look like the set of “Ex Machina” — tall windows in a room so cool, condensation formed on the glass, overlooking a wild jungle. Nurse Maridee made me feel comfortable throughout the entire process, totally not making it weird that I was about to sit on a bench and essentially move my bowels in front of her. Did the experience change my life? Oh, boy. I felt lighter. I felt a spring in my step. Things were clearing up.

The vital dome is an infrared sauna that helps with detoxification. Photo by MARGA BUENAVENTURA

Everything else at that point just felt like gravy. A little extra to add to the whole experience at The Farm. In the afternoon, I did a flotation procedure, where you float in salinated water for 30 minutes, inside a small pod. Though I’m usually claustrophobic, the calming music and changing color of lights help put me in a meditative state. Though I did grow impatient in the last few minutes, I spent it moving my limbs around and enjoying the company of my own thoughts. Before the day ended, I went to the vital dome procedure. It’s essentially an infrared sauna in the shape of a hyperbaric chamber. Your entire body is subjected to gradual heat, aimed to make you sweat and burn calories even at rest. Though I didn’t sweat as much as expected, I did feel a bit of muscle relief after a day of walking all over the estate.

Three days at The Farm flew by; next thing I knew, I was taking the bumpy roads back home, with a two-hour gridlock on the Skyway as a way to greet me back. The deadline sat there with me, looming but unmoving. I was just grateful for the time away in what felt like a healing retreat. But at the end of my stay, I realized that every reaction to a visit at The Farm is true in its own ways. You love it and hate it for the very same reasons. In this place, restriction is the ultimate luxury. Three days there is enough to enjoy it for everything it has to offer. And it’s definitely not for everyone: pack your best swimsuit and come open-minded.