Sarah Gilbert checks into the new Residence Maldives, the newest from the hotel group with properties in Tunisia, Mauritius and Zanzibar.
Hotel Insider: A small island with endless possibilities
I am whisked into an air-conditioned lounge at Malé airport to await the plane to Kooddoo Airport. A 55-minute flight and a 15-minute speedboat ride later, I arrive at Falhumaafushi Island, where I am picked up in a buggy at the jetty and taken to check-in at the alfresco reception overlooking the ocean.
The opening of Kooddoo Airport in September has made the Maldives' remote and unspoilt southern atolls more accessible and the latest hotel from the Residence brand - the others are in Tunisia, Mauritius and Zanzibar - is set on a castaway's spit of sand, just 56 kilometres north of the equator. Gaafu Alifu Atoll, said to be one of the largest and deepest atolls in the world, has 10 inhabited and 83 uninhabited islands and its coral reefs teem with life. Much of it is still uncharted but there are about 25 dive sites within easy reach of the Residence and most are suitable for beginners.
There are 94 spacious thatched villas - 19 on the beach and 75 overwater villas that snake out from both sides of the island. The rooms are cool, calm and contemporary, decorated in muted tones with lots of teak. Light streams through the floor-to-ceiling windows and even the free-standing bathtub in the Italian marble bathroom looks out to the sea. Sliding doors open on to a wooden deck and mine is one of 36 overwater villas with a plunge pool, perfect for cooling off. Or, if the tide is high enough, I could climb down straight into the water.
While it obviously attracts honeymooners, it's also popular with families and couples travelling together, who can opt for a two-bedroom villa. It also draws divers and snorkellers, keen to be among the first to discover the pristine reefs.
The service is good and genuinely friendly from the young, mostly Maldivian staff, who address you by name and quickly learn your likes and dislikes. And a 24/7 butler service is just a phone call away.
The poolside beach bar serves light snacks and tapas in the evenings but the dining room is the mainstay - a beachfront bistro that offers an à la carte breakfast and lunch, with a focus on Asian dishes in the evening. The Falhumaa is at the end of a 230-metre jetty with nothing but the ocean and a star-studded sky between it and Indonesia. The Mediterranean-influenced menu focuses on seafood and grilled meat - locally sourced where possible - in dishes such as tuna tartar for US$26 (Dh95) and Cape Grim grass-fed sirloin for $56 (Dh206). Those seeking romance without the crowds can dine on their villa terrace or with feet-in-the-sand on a private island, surrounded by candles.
The marine life - I didn't even need to leave my villa to see baby blacktip reef sharks and eagle rays gliding through the shallows and I was joined on a sunset dhoni (traditional wooden boat) cruise by a pod of curious dolphin. And the Spa by Clarins - the archipelago's first - where the Heaven treatment, including a gentle massage with hot basalt stones, was very relaxing.
I prefer my islands a bit larger. At one kilometre by 120 metres, you can circumnavigate Falhumaafushi in about 15 minutes. But you can kayak, paddle board and windsurf, and there are three island villages nearby if you need a change of scene and want a glimpse of local Maldivian life.
It is well worth the effort to try this remote outpost for its understated luxury, excellent service and stunning setting.
The bottom line
A beach villa costs from $1,109 (Dh4,073) per night, including taxes. The Residence Maldives, Falhumaafushi, Gaafu Alifu Atoll, Malé, 2088 Maldives (www.theresidence.com/maldives; 00 960 682 0088).
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