x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Time-stopping luxury in the Maldives

There are now more than 100 resorts in the Maldives, with new ones opening every month. We visit three of the best.

Male market. Rosemary Behan / The National
Male market. Rosemary Behan / The National
"Guests' departure times for their seaplane transfers are only confirmed the night before, so I will SMS the details to you as soon as I get them."

Just a few days before I'm due to leave, it's possibly the most relaxed attitude to a flight booking I've ever seen. Has the holiday started already?

As the Trans Maldivian Airways seaplane banks over the tiny specked islands of Goidhoo atoll, and we drop off five passengers on our way to Baa, it soon becomes clear that this is just the way things are here. Although the Maldives is made up of 1,200 islands, the country is still 99 per cent water and only 200 of the islands are inhabited.

Just a four-hour Emirates flight from Dubai to Malé, in terms of both geography and flying time, the Maldives is the UAE's closest ultra-luxury beach destination. I'm making the short hop with passengers who have flown an additional seven hours from Europe just to get some Indian Ocean winter sun. I've had plenty of sun this winter but can't resist the Indian Ocean pre-monsoon - and the chance to visit this traditional, Islamic island nation in "smooth transition" to democracy, loved by Ibn Battutah, open to high-spending tourists, yet which, if global warming continues, some say might vanish by the end of the century.

Arriving at the surprisingly no-frills Malé airport, occupying its own separate island, Hulhule, near the capital of 100,000 people, we wait for our baggage and note the other arrivals: Q2403 from Hanimaadhoo; Q231 from Kadhdhoo in Laamu, not far from Fonadhoo ...You get the picture. There are an awful lot of doos and hoos, complicated, when you look at a map, by the splitting of the country into regions that are named differently to the atolls and by island names, which, due to their numbers, sometimes morph and replicate. Things make more sense, I later learn, when you look at the Thaana script and realise there is one region for each of the alphabet's 24 characters and the regions are arranged - in apparent alphabetic order - from top to bottom.

The top of the Maldives - Asia's smallest country - is just a stone's throw from India, the continent's second-largest. "This is more or less a local flight for us," says one arriving passenger from Bangalore as he converges with others from Colombo, London, Muscat and Doha. Outside, a genial Keralite driver takes me to the seaplane departures area, pleasantly devoid of all the security and stress you see at normal airports. As we skirt the edge of the island, yachts dock in turquoise water and dolphins and fish leap out of the sea between the airport and Malé's built-up skyline. I ask the driver where the country gets its oil from. "That is from Dubai also," he says, smiling. "Nothing here, only fish."

So the seaplane station feels a bit like a shared taxi rank - holidaymakers heading off to the country's 100-odd resorts are grouped together by destination; if there's a big enough group (or you charter your own) they go directly to the resort island; if not, there are stops on the way. I relax in Anantara's departure lounge with a cold towel and mango juice before take-off. Next, it's a scenic 20-minute flight over atolls - ring-shaped reefs, islands or chains of islands made of coral - to the Coco Palm resort on Dhuni Kolhu. The islands are most extraordinary from the air: the blue rings where the coral reefs almost touch the surface are actually the tips of huge mountains, but the drop-offs seem so sudden that the circles appear to be hovering like alien spacecraft.

Anantara's Kihavah Villas, which opened in March, does not disappoint. After so many photographs, TV programmes and decades of hype, I was half expecting my first proper Maldivian island to be a let-down. Much, actually, depends on the weather - you need clear sunlight and calm seas to get the vision of perfection sold by most resorts and tour operators - and, today, the sun is shining, the sea is calm and it's a scene of pure fantasy. From the plane our motorboat cruises across an electric blue sea, so clear and shallow that the white sand is visible from the surface. Above is an indigo sky and ahead a tiny, jungly island surrounded by white-sand beaches.

I'm in one of the new resort's 40 over-water villas and, again, there's no room for disappointment. Accompanied by my villa host, Solah, I'm led into the 260-square-metre bungalow-type structure, where check-in takes place in the comfort of your own verandah. Through the bedroom and out on to the private terrace we go - it's complete with an over-water hammock, swinging daybed, private pool and views over uninhabited islands. It's to die for. After mixing a delicious welcome drink of fresh lemon, lime, grenadine syrup and sugar cane, I take a sigh of relief as my feet are bathed and scrubbed with lemon and ginger and sprayed with peppermint. I'm almost comatose by the time Solah delves into his rattan satchel to complete the check-in process. He comes from one of the nearby islands and has a blissfully relaxing manner - unrushed but purposeful, considered, intuitive. I sense he's ever-so-slightly amazed at the resort that has sprung up here, with its glass-bottomed baths, indoor-outdoor showers, high-spec Moroccan-Indian interiors and on-site desalination plant. "We drink rainwater," he says with a wry smile.

Kihavah island is just 500m by 270m, so it's a slow 15-minute walk around it. It's small but beautiful, filled with dense foliage. "Not one tree was felled to build the resort," says Etienne de Villiers, the sales and marketing manager, pointing out that in the case of one of the restaurants, the structure has been built around a tree. The over-water villas, which are attached to the island via their own wooden causeway, have been built on sand, not coral; the best reefs for snorkelling are a few hundred metres' walk away on the other side. Some 38 "beach villas" are extremely well-hidden behind jungle. Despite its small size ("we don't really see it as an island," one staff member said, "it's more like living on a sandbank"), the resort houses a surprising 220 staff of 24 nationalities.

After a brief rest, a buggy arrives to take me to the spa - over-water and Thai-inspired, of course - and I'm greeted by my Indonesian therapist, Ryan. During my hour-long Balinese massage, she crunches and glides through my knots and I'm sent straight to sleep.

Then it's a barbecue dinner on tables set out on the beach - smoke rising from the grills, waves lapping at the sand, a soft darkness descending - and with around 25 other guests, it's neither too crowded nor too intimate. There's a musical performance by staff to accompany the impressive selection of local fish and spicy curries and salads. After sleeping like the dead, my breakfast the next morning is equally exquisite. The open-air dining hall is hung with ornate wooden carvings and has views of both sea and jungle, and most guests are sitting with their toes in the sand, sipping fresh orange, carrot and watermelon juices. "Would you like an iPad, so you can check your e-mails?" says a staff member.

"I'll take the iPad," I say, but I take a rain check on the e-mails, and instead pile my plate with guava, papaya, rambutan and lychees, and yoghurt with passion fruit, cardamom and star anise.

I notice that few of the staff are wearing watches and smile whenever I ask for the time, fumbling for their phones. It's a nice vibe all round and, even though the weather changes on a snorkelling trip, I'm so relaxed that I'm not only late for my return flight the next day, but fail to panic when we fly through a storm. At least I'll die happy, I think to myself.

I have a few hours to kill before my transfer to the next resort, so I hop on the 10 rufiyah (Dh3) ferry, which takes passengers to the capital from the airport. It only takes 10 minutes, and Malé is surprisingly pleasant. I walk along the harbour wall to the main square, Jumhoree Maidan, which is flanked by the central police and home affairs buildings, a giant flagpole, the harbour entrance and the national security building. I wander past the impressive Friday Mosque, which doubles as an Islamic centre, and through the pleasant gardens of Sultan's Park. At opposite ends of the small park are the National Museum, housed in the only building that remain's of the sultan's palace, and, at the other, a beautiful 17th-century coral-stone mosque almost hidden under a corrugated iron roof. I carry on through city to the Tomb of Mohammed Thakurufaanu, a shrine to commemorate the man who liberated the country from the Portuguese in the 16th century. The streets are busy and filled with mopeds, cyclists and walkers, but there's a south Indian languidness about the place that only bolsters the relaxing vibe I've seen elsewhere. It also feels safe - I'm carrying all my valuables but never feel like I'm being closed in on. After wandering through the fruit and vegetable and fish markets, where huge tuna fish are hauled off boats, chopped up and sold in minutes, I head back past the brightly coloured boats on the quayside to head back to the airport.

There my transfer boat to the One&Only Reethi Rah is waiting. True to the company's form, the One&Only II is bold, sleek and luxurious: a 56-foot Gulf Craft motor yacht that gets us to our island in 75 minutes. As much as I loved the experience of flying by seaplane, there's nothing that quite matches a speedboat in terms of romance. I sit on the top deck, with a cold towel and the spray of the sea in my hair: once we clear Malé, it's out into the deep ocean, where small green islands slip by and new ones loom in the distance.

On the north-western side of the North Malé atoll, One&Only Reethi Rah feels more than 35km from Malé airport. It's the grand doyenne of the Maldives: opened in 2005, the hotel has maintained its prestige among a furious crop of new openings. A natural island that has been joined seamlessly to an artificial one, the Reethi Rah is one of the Maldives' biggest islands and, as a resort, it probably has the most to offer in terms of facilities: 16 beaches, a tennis academy, miles of cycling trails, several kids' clubs, water sports and diving centres, a wealth of bars and restaurants (some with extremely elaborate menus) and a vast, world-of-its-own spa. Its 130 luxurious villas are tended to by an army of 700 staff, 24 buggy drivers and 35 villa hosts, of whom 52 per cent are Maldivian and the rest made up of a staggering 35 different nationalities, from Chinese to Moroccan.

Yet it still feels exclusive: as with other One&Only properties around the world, a large percentage of Reethi Rah's clients are repeat guests, who treat the place like a second home, returning faithfully year after year. I fall in love with my villa on Grand Beach - while the weather is turbulent elsewhere on the island, my beach is perfectly calm. After an expertly administered shiatsu massage in the Espa spa, dinner at the Japanese restaurant Tapasake is accompanied by a typically adult and well-turned out One&Only crowd and by basking reef sharks that gather in the shallow water under the restaurant, glowing eerily in the artificial light.

A snorkelling excursion by upmarket dhow the following day is mesmerising: our small group is taken along a thila, or reef, and we see several green turtles, eagle rays and thousands of batfish, butterflyfish and angelfish, among others. Again, a Balinese massage at the spa leaves me so comatose I sleep through a thunderstorm. Yet again, after a breakfast the next day, it's time to head off again - this time to the new Shangri-La Villingili in the far south of the country. I board an internal flight to Gan, a former British Royal Air Force base, and after an hour, everyone on board is given a personalised certificate congratulating them on crossing the Equator. From on high, the long, stringy islands and atolls of the south, formed by the coral ridgeline along a chain of volcanoes, look like small countries. Landing at Gan's modern airport, it's a five-minute bus ride and seven minutes by speedboat - accompanied by several Malaysian and Hong Kong Chinese honeymooners - to the resort on Vilingili island. Another large island, Vilingili is all natural, and comes complete with freshwater lagoons reminiscent of Kerala's backwaters. My pool villa is tucked behind a wild shoreline some distance from the hotel's main restaurants and other facilities but, fortunately, bikes are provided. I cycle straight to the Chi spa, modelled on a Buddhist temple, and I have a "cowrie shell massage". It starts with shells being placed over the ears and some singing, followed by a massage in warm coconut oil. It's divine, and enough to make me almost fall off my bike on the way back.

Yet too much of a good thing is dangerous, so the next day I join the resort's recreation manager, 24-year-old Mohamed Inaan, for a bicycle tour of some of the nearby islands.

Gan is now connected to its neighbour islands of Feydhoo, Maradhoo and Hithadoo by a long causeway, something of a novelty in the Maldives, so Inaan and I spend the day cycling the 17km stretch from end to end and back. Inaan takes me to his family home where I meet his parents and most of his five brothers and sisters - Inaaz, Inasha, Ifasha, Aisha and Imsha - aged from 22 to two-and-a-half. We stop at a local cafe for an apple juice and chew on the surprisingly refreshing combination of erika nuts and cinnamon wrapped in betel leaves that are offered to us.

The entire population of the Addu atoll is more than 30,000 people, but with the houses so spread out and the facilities (the odd school, an overgrown, deserted sports ground and a power generator) all very quiet, it seems hard to believe such a population lives here. It's fantastic, nevertheless, to cycle along the main streets of each settlement, unsealed roads bound by stone walls, and thrilling to ride along the coconut palm-lined two-lane highway between islands that is bordered on one side by the crashing open sea and on the other by a perfectly still azure lagoon. Things are liveliest at the quayside on Feydhoo, where tuna boats loaded with fish sell some of their catch to local consumers - I watch as a bloody fish is unceremoniously ripped apart, its head, gills and innards swept straight back into the sea. At the 24-hour Eye cafe opposite the quayside, Inaan and I enjoy a feast of tuna curry, kotorushi (a delicious, Sri Lankan-style mixture of roti and spicy chicken) and chapati, all at around 10 per cent of the prices charged by resorts.

I push Inaan to take me to the Equator Village on Gan, which was the centre of the British air force base during the Second World War and is now a budget hotel. We meet a staff member who screens a fascinating documentary called The Lonely Men of Coral Command, all about the base, which served the royal air force refuelling station for planes plying the Gulf and south-east Asia. At that time - in a complete reversal of its image now as the centre of the south's luxury tourism industry - a posting on Gan was viewed as the shortest of short straws. "Few would volunteer to be posted here," says the voice-over. "Where the equatorial heat can be violent and where men are in an anxious state without their families ... to spend a year of their life on this dot, this postage stamp, on an area not much larger than Wembley Stadium ... This 2.5 square miles among an infinity of sea can produce claustrophobia in the most normal of men; it is not unknown for them to break down and weep with sheer geographical frustration."

It's a state of being that I, as a single traveller among a sea of honeymooners, can begin to understand. Yet also, if I'm honest, it's a trip outside of my manicured resort that makes me appreciate it more. While the "mainland" section has been interesting, it's also blighted in places by litter and pollution. Returning to the Shangri-La by speedboat, across the lagoon that is actually the dolphin-filled flooded crater of a volcano, its pristine shores seem unreal. Is it possible, I wonder, that resort islands take better care of the environment than "public" ones? Yes, there's the carbon footprint of all the building work, food imports and all the rubbish sent to neighbouring islands to be burnt, yet the staff here are all housed locally and the surrounding reefs are kept permanently clear of ugly plastics and damaging fishing practices.

It's a point I ponder while snorkelling off the nearby reefs the following day. The reefs here escaped the bleaching of the late 1990s that blighted many other parts of the country, and I'm pleased to see sharks, several types of parrotfish, a giant goldfinger dart, huge shoals of sweetlips, mullets, batfish, wrasses, snappers, butterfly and angel fish, Napoleonfish and a handful of blue surgeonfish and white spotted pufferfish, feasting on massive boulder corals, exquisite pastel-coloured soft corals and staghorn coral so healthy the tips glow like Christmas lights. I'm impressed by the presence at the resort of people such as Peter Watt-Pringle, its refreshingly un-preachy sustainability manager, who seems to genuinely revel in this incredible natural environment, just a metre-and-a-half between life and oblivion.



If you go

The flight

Return flights from Dubai to Malé in April cost from Dh5,105, including taxes, with Emirates (www.emirates.com)

The hotels A beach pool villa at Anantara Kihavah Villas (http://kihavah-maldives.anantara.com; 00 960 660 1020) this month costs from US$1,963 (Dh7,210) per night, including taxes. A beach villa at One&Only Reethi Rah (www.oneandonlyresorts.com; 00 960 664 8800) this month costs from $1,510 (Dh5,545) per night, including taxes. Pool villas at the The Shangri-La Villingili (www.shangri-la.com; 00 960 689 7888) cost from $1,435 (Dh5,271) per night, including taxes.

The package

Emirates Holidays (www.emirates-holidays.com; 800 5252) offers four-night packages including accommodation, flights, transfers and taxes at the One&Only Reethi Rah or the Shangri-La Villingili from Dh16,608 and Dh11,592 per person, respectively.