With Etihad Airways launching a new route from Abu Dhabi to Male this week, Max Davidson looks at how the destination seduces its guests.
The Maldives: a lazy life in fast times
Do you like life in the fast lane, on the go 24/7, running with the fast crowd? Or do you prefer the subtler pleasures of life in the slow lane? At Six Senses Laamu, the latest luxury resort to open in the Maldives, you get a little bit of both.
Outwardly, the pace of life is super-slow. Most of the thatched wooden villas are perched on stilts over the sea, like private islands, remote from civilisation. It's like living in a traditional Asian fishing village, predating the arrival of the motor car. When we were there, the sea beneath our bedroom was so millpond still we were hardly conscious of it.
Honeymooners strolled arm in arm under the palm trees. Birds glided over the blue waters, their wings barely flapping. Even the few clouds seemed stationary, like stage props suspended over a cardboard sea. There was an air of primordial calm - as befits one of the most pristine holiday destinations in the world.
Nobody ran, nobody shouted, nobody broke a sweat. Why would you? The island is tiny, less than a kilometre long. It is a pocket-sized paradise, outside time, with barely a hundred guests, all playing at being Robinson Crusoe.
The snorkellers glided so lazily through the water that they look as if they have fallen asleep. At the beautifully appointed spa, with peerless views out to sea, some of the guests did fall asleep, soothed by soft fingers and salt breezes. The well-drilled resort staff were like so many oriental Jeeveses, appearing noiselessly at your elbow, just when you needed them.
The dawn-to-dusk leisureliness of life at the resort is no accident. SLOW LIFE - the acronym stands for Sustainable Local Organic Wholesome Learning Inspiring Fun Experiences - is embedded in the DNA of the Six Senses brand, reflecting the environmental values of founder Sonu Shivdasani and his wife Eva.
As you fade indolently into the background - lolling on your sundeck in the twilight or cycling through the bamboo groves en route to a romantic candlelit dinner under the stars - you start to feel the healing power of tranquility.
What is decidedly not slow, and gives the resort its buzz, is the sheer pace of change in the Maldives. The first planeload of tourists arrived in the islands in 1972, but with so many islands - more than a thousand, spread over such a large expanse of the Indian Ocean - it was 20 years before tourism took off in earnest.
In 2011, thanks to greatly improved transport infrastructure, Laamu and the other resorts are within a half-hour plane journey of the capital, Malé. The international airport is getting busier by the day (Etihad is launching a new route from Abu Dhabi to Malé next month) and restrictions on foreigners buying property in the Maldives have been eased. At Six Senses Laamu alone, there are over 20 villas for purchase, at prices starting from US$3 million (Dh11m).
The environmental doom-mongers continue to caution that global warming threatens the low-lying islands' existence. But even if the doom-mongers are right, shouldn't one try to experience the islands before it's too late? Beauty is never more piercing than when it's accompanied by fragility.
Doomed or not doomed, the Maldives are open for business as never before and, as with every new enterprise, going early is a great time to visit. You feel like a trendsetter, not someone who just follows the herd.
At Laamu, which opened in April, many of my fellow guests were visiting the region for the first time and had the wide-eyed enthusiasm of newcomers. They stared enchanted at the blue waters, as if hardly able to believe the sea could be quite so clear, like a newly run bath. Their eyes sparkled with an excitement that belied the lazy pace of life.
Barefooted, casually dressed and glowing with health, they ranged from honeymooners from Hong Kong and Australia to middle-aged couples from the UK and Europe. Their median age is mid-thirties and their choice of activities reflects that. The resort gym was busy and it was the same with the spa and the water sports centre.
Some guests were content to swim in the shallows. Others ventured out beyond the reef, where the crashing, foaming waves provided a thrilling contrast with the calmer waters close to shore.
From yoga to Pilates, snorkelling to kite surfing, backgammon to chess, there is something for everyone, young and old, with the promise of fine dining at the end of the day. But not too fine dining. Pretentious haute cuisine would not really chime with the Six Senses brand, where simplicity is the keynote. The fresh fish, however, was a delight, and the Asian buffets would be hard to better. Plus the choice of venues - you can eat on a deck above the sea or in a wooden treehouse, to the sound of rustling leaves - is as mouth-watering as the food.
For serious foodies, there is even a table in the middle of the vegetable garden, ringed by 13 different species of chilli - from Bishop's Crown to the evil-sounding Satan's Kiss. Pick the wrong chilli and it will take the roof off your mouth. But what a beguiling culinary adventure, in perfect harmony with nature.
It is interesting to compare Six Senses Laamu with Soneva Fushi, the group's flagship Maldives resort and which opened in the 1990s. Soneva Fushi occupies a slightly larger island but, with fewer villas, is more spaced out and has an even more exclusive ambience.
The resort has no overwater villas, but what you get instead is just as enticing: super-luxurious beachfront villas, with private swimming pools, in jungle settings. You can snooze in your hammock, or take an outside bath or shower, in perfect privacy. The island is overrun with rabbits, which lends the place a nice air of whimsy.
Bicycling through the jungle on sandy cycle tracks was an enchanting experience. Who needs a Mercedes? In places, the foliage was so dense that you can hardly tell if it is night or day. Birds tweeted overhead. There was a brief flash of a butterfly in the undergrowth. Then you'd suddenly get to a gap in the trees and - hey presto - you're on the beach, with the sun beating down on powdery white sand and not another human being in sight.
Dining options range from buffets and barbecues to seven-course tasting menus at Fresh in the Garden, where you eat on plumped-up cushions on a deck in the heart of the jungle, with the stars glittering above you.
Traditional Maldivian cuisine is quite limited. The islands are well known for their line-caught tuna and you can see the tiny fishing boats silhouetted against the skyline. But native-grown produce has generally been limited to chillies, limes, coconuts and mangos.
At Foneva Sushi, they're making a determined effort to expand the repertoire, with a new mushroom tunnel, pumpkins and exotic subspecies like the Bangladeshi red banana. Halal meat is also available, but only by prior arrangement.
The clientele are rather older than at Six Senses Laamu: they're more likely to be found reading a book in a hammock than working out in the gym. But there always seems to be plenty going on. One afternoon, I was disturbed by the sound of drums in the distance, went to investigate and found a volleyball match in full swing in a clearing in the trees.
Soneva Fushi staff were playing a neighbouring resort in the final of a regional championship and, from the passion with which the players throw themselves about in the sand, cheered on by an enthusiastic crowd, there was a lot at stake. When they lost, there were long faces all over the island, as if they'd been knocked out of the World Cup.
Less energetic pleasures included a barbecue supper on the beach, a surreal cocktail party on a wafer-thin sandbank, a picnic lunch on an uninhabited island with nothing but the birds for company, and a dusk dolphin-watching cruise.
It took the captain of the ship a while to find the dolphins, but once found, they stayed with us, following playfully behind the boat and emerging from the water in unison, like synchronised swimmers, until the sun set on their frolicking.
Perhaps the biggest highlight, simply because it is so unusual, was watching a screening of Casablanca at the open-air cinema, stretched out on the most luxurious of divans. "Here's looking at you, kid... As time goes by... Round up the usual suspects... We'll always have Paris..."
As Humphrey Bogart took his leave of Ingrid Bergman, and the deathless lines floated through the palm trees, and the stars twinkled overhead, a great peace descended. In true Maldives style, the cares of the city seemed an eternity away.
If you go
The flight Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) flies from Abu Dhabi to Malé daily from Dh3,750.
The hotel One-bedroom villas at Six Senses Laamu cost from US$590 (Dh2,167) per night
(www.sixsenses.com; 00 960 680 0800). One-bedroom villas at Soneva Fushi cost from US$820 (Dh3,012) per night (00 960 660 0304).