In a recent independent survey (conducted by yours truly), a staggering 100% ofparticipants (i.e colleagues, friends and family members) listed the Maldives as their absolute all-time top dream holiday destination. Crystal clear turquoise lagoons, soft white sandy beaches and every delight under the equatorial sun are synonymous with many a holiday fantasy, but the Maldives always seem to inspire a longing that’s a little more wistful than that for your average tropical paradise.
Therefore, I am also able to report that 100% of survey participants were pretty damned envious when they found out that I was soon to fulfil this shared dream and spend nearly two weeks visiting five quintessential Maldivian resorts, all in the name of work. But it was only when discussing the country on my return (without rubbing anything in, of course), that I realised that while everyone wants to go to the Republic of Maldives, few know much about it. For this is a true island experience – not an optional day trip to a token palm-fringed isle in close proximity to a mainland area, but a string of coral islands numbering no less than 1,190 (please take a moment to let that figure sink in), roughly 200 of which are populated, 85 or so of these dedicated solely to resorts.
Straddling the Equator and lying south-west of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean, the islands are scattered over some 90,000 square kilometres, less than 0.5 percent of which is actual land, so it’s easy to calculate that most of the islands are simply tiny – even the capital city, Malé, with its 80,000 inhabitants, occupies an island that’s only 2.85 square kilometres, making it probably the most densely populated area in the world. Like Malé, absolutely everything is located on its own individual island, from resorts and villages to the rubbish dump(!) and even the airport ... and it was here that I arrived late one night, following a four hour flight from Singapore, itself a seven-ish hour trip from Sydney.
Soneva Gili Six Senses Spa
Greeted by a representative from my first port of call in a five-resort odyssey, I was soon whisked aboard a waiting speedboat for the 15 minute journey to the private tropical island of Lankanfushi, home to Soneva Gili Six Senses Spa.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of racing across those serene moonlit waters on that magical clear evening, the air still warm and balmy despite the late hour, the fatigue of flight banished thanks to a scented cold towel and a chilled bottle of Evian, not to mention the anticipation of what lay ahead and the knowledge that I was fulfilling a dream. It was the perfect start to what was sure to be the trip of a lifetime, and I’m not ashamed to say that the speed and wind-induced tears in my eyes were augmented along the way by one or two of sheer joy. It was on the speedboat that I was also introduced to the resort’s philosophy: “No News, No Shoes”. Accordingly, my shoes were placed in a canvas bag bearing this fine motto, and borne away to my villa where they stayed, as unmissed as the newspapers which are also obsolete in the Maldives.
Soneva Gili Six Senses Spa is the first completely over-water villa resort in the Maldives and as introductions to this part of the world go, it’s pretty hard to top. While “Gili” is a local Dhivehi word meaning small coral island, “Soneva” comes from a blend of the names of the resort founders, Sonu Shivdasani and his wife Eva Malmstrom Shivdasani, the eponymous brand name revered in the world of luxury boutique resorts. I’d seen photos of the resort before leaving Australia, and had assumed that the exquisite thatched-roof structure I’d drooled over was a restaurant, bar or similar communal area. But I soon realised that the stunning, huge building – one of just 29 “Villa Suites” and eight “Residences” stretching out over-water from three jetties (for the ultimate privacy, seven “Crusoe Residences”, accessible only by dhoni or speedboat, sit alone out in deeper water, like giant sentries guarding the lagoon) – was in fact all for me!
Stepping inside, it literally took my breath away. The villas are magnificent – spacious, luxurious and supremely private, with a long list of features, such as a fabulous shower accessed via a long open-air walkway over its own private water garden. It’s impossible to capture their true beauty in either words or photos: exquisitely designed and featuring incredible attention to detail, they scream style and yet retain a natural, slightly rustic feel that’s both welcoming and relaxing. No worries about getting sand on the floor here!
Soneva Gili Six Senses Spa
It’s pretty hard to drag yourself away from such stunning accommodation, but thankfully I was able to rouse myself from a pressing schedule of alternately lazing on my private over-water sun deck and then plunging into the warm blue waters for a refreshing dip, in order to sample some of Soneva Gili Six Senses Spa exquisite cuisine.
Lunch is enjoyed in an enormous “bar” (a name which doesn’t do justice to the vast thatched edifice which sprawls over-water), while breakfast and dinner are taken in a discreetly elegant, spacious restaurant. Whatever the location, dining at Soneva Gili Six Senses Spa is deliciously gourmet, blending the most exquisite food, impeccable service (there are some 200 people working at the 44 villa resort), and of course the most memorable settings and views. For a fun way to explore the resort and really evoke that feeling of complete holiday freedom (and hopefully burn off some calories!), bicycles are provided to all guests. It doesn’t take long to circumnavigate the island – like so many in the Maldives, it is small, but packed nonetheless with all the facilities befitting a resort of this quality: a stunning swimming pool, tennis, table tennis, volleyball, badminton and windsurfing, as well as hobiecat sailing, deep sea fishing, snorkelling and a dive school (“musts” at a Maldivian resort), and an extensive garden which provides the resort with most of its vegetables and herbs. And then, of course, there’s the Six Senses Spa that sits out over the lagoon, offering unsurpassed views of an endless blue horizon, and soothing treatments by healing hands, including those of an Aruyvedic expert from India.
A visit here was the dream ending to a dream holiday come true.
The next resort on my agenda was Soneva Gili’s sister property, Soneva Fushi Six Senses Spa, a 30 minute trip by sea plane from Malé. Opened in 1995, Soneva Fushi Six Senses Spa was the first Six Senses Resort and remains the flagship of the Soneva brand (it’s “beyond stars”). And as I’d now come to expect with anything bearing the Soneva name, it was style all the way.
Transferred to the airport, freshly squeezed fruit cocktails were offered in a beautifully decorated private room, echoing the style, fabrics and colours of both Soneva resorts, ensuring that a brief period “in transit” was, for once, a pleasurable experience. The view from the sea plane is superb – it’s quite simply the best way to get a real understanding of the Maldives and is an absolute must for any visitor. Seen from the air, the islands stretch out before you like breathtakingly beautiful stepping stones on which a giant could conceivably skip the full length of the archipelago without once getting his feet wet.
Soneva Fushi Six Senses Spa
Arriving at the pontoon – having thrilled at the sight of a majestic manta ray as we came in to land – a sign announcing this modestly sized floating platform as the “Soneva Fushi International Airport” brought a smile to everyone’s face. As we boarded a boat to be transferred to the island of Kunfunadhoo, one of the largest islands in the Maldives, I was offered a drink by a smiling local whom I soon discovered was to be my butler(!) during my time on this never-to-be-forgotten island. In a fitting homage to the famous story which inspired this Robinson Crusoe-style hideaway, butlers at Soneva Fushi Six Senses Spa are given the name “Mr. Friday”, the ideal moniker to instantly convey their warm, friendly, casual manner that’s in perfect keeping with the setting – there’s no “Jeeves”-type formality here.
Soneva Fushi Six Senses Spa
Scattered along the beach and tucked into the lush greenery, Soneva Fushi Six Senses Spa's 65 villas offer some nine different accommodation options, which all share the same superior architectural and decorating styles. Spacious living areas feature natural tones and fabrics, beautiful finishing touches, and an abundance of environmentally friendly materials such as palm wood, bamboo, plantation teak and mulberry bark paper, creating a look that’s so stunning, it no doubt contributed to the resort being awarded “World’s Best Resort”, and “Best of the Best” in the year 2000 by Conde Nast Traveller, UK, and winner in the “Beach and Ocean Hideaways” category awarded by Harpers & Queen in 2002.
Private patios and gardens just steps away from white sandy beaches; enormous, divine outdoor bathrooms; inviting day beds ... everything is oversized and lush, plush and deluxe. After a delicious lunch, I was whisked away for my second Spa treatment of the trip (such is life!), in Soneva Fushi’s beautiful Six Senses Spa – a complimentary massage is offered to every guest, so there’s no reason to miss this unmissable experience – before Mr. Friday escorted me to the cellar for a wine tasting.
To say this was an unexpected experience is something of an understatement, and to say I was impressed by it, even more so. Seated at a round table in a magnificently lit cellar, a cosy hot water bottle placed on my lap and a blanket draped over my shoulders to ward off the chill necessary to house a vast collection of chardonnay, shiraz et al, my fellow guests and I were treated to a selection of intriguing wines from around the world. Hugely informative and enjoyable, the resulting discourse meant we didn’t surface from the cellar for about three hours! As such, I found myself a little late for a dinner under the stars. Perched on the soft white sand of the beach in front of one of Soneva Fushi’s restaurants, the water lapping at the shore provided the background music, while lights from an island in the distance and the stars above supplied the mood lighting. The idyllic setting was complemented by a positively ambrosial meal, the freshest seafood cooked to perfection on a makeshift grill right in front of us.
A truly unique ending to the day came in the form of a staff soccer match which, thanks to high temperatures, could only kick off late at night. An annual event, I was fortunate to be there on the night of the final between F and management ... and what an event it was! Mr. Friday took me to the sandy, floodlit area in front of the staff quarters: a large two or three storeyed building on which supporters of both teams sat on, hung from, or clung to every spare inch. I’m no authority on soccer, and when the only commentary I can hear is in the local Dhivehi language I’m at even more of a loss, but I do know that a ball into a net means a goal, and I also know that F managed five of these to management’s two! It was a fabulous spectacle, huge fun, and something I’ll never forget.
While it’s true that a Maldives holiday can be all about doing nothing, Soneva Fushi Six Senses Spa proved that it can also be action-packed. Accordingly, I was up at daybreak the next morning, ready for a spot of deep sea fishing. An immaculate white boat, complete with three smiling crew and a hearty breakfast, took us on a three hour expedition over crystal clear waters, past scores of islands and countless dolphins to a number of different fishing spots where we (sorry, they!) caught a monster red snapper and an equally huge jackfish.
Coco Palm Resort & Spa
Afterwards, there was just time for a spot of snorkelling before saying farewell to this incredibly special island, and then boarding a speedboat for my next destination, Coco Palm Resort.
This is a larger resort, featuring 58 Beach Villas and 26 Deluxe Villas dotted amongst the coconut palms on the privately owned Dunikolu Island, but it’s the 12 Lagoon Villas and two Lagoon Palace Suites which sit over the water in an exact replication of most Maldivian fantasies that immediately capture the attention when approaching the island. Perched along a jetty which extends into the aquamarine waters, the unique, all-wood villas feature thatched, conical roofs, luxurious furnishings, and a sunken freshwater plunge pool on each deck that proved to be an idyllic spot from which to enjoy a spectacular sunset later that evening.
Once darkness had descended, I left the Lagoon Villa that was to be my home for the next couple of nights and made my way to the Conch Bar, located at the other end of the island. This was, without a doubt, the most incredible walk of my entire life. A sweeping arc of the softest white sand stretched before me as I walked along the water’s edge, the gentle waves lapping at my ankles. The crystal blue colour was still somehow discernible even in the dark, and the white, white sand had an almost iridescent glow, matching the moon above ... it was truly breathtaking and completely unforgettable.
Coco Palm Resort & Spa
After a drink at the casually elegant Conch Bar, it was time for an impressive buffet meal in the enormous Cowrie Restaurant, one of three restaurants on the island, before heading back to my ever-so-tempting villa with views over the beautiful moonlit lagoon.
The next morning, as I sat on my private deck and enjoyed the early morning sun, I was enchanted to witness a graceful dhoni – a traditional Maldivian boat – gliding silently across the waters in front of me, transporting a spot of breakfast the old-fashioned way. Then it was time for a visit to the Dive School, where I was again exhorted to get some of the qualifications necessary in order to experience one of the major drawcards of this country: “Visiting the Maldives and not scuba diving is like going to Rome and not visiting the Pope”! Sacrilege came easily, however, with a Balinese massage and facial at Coco Palm’s fabulous Nautilus Spa beckoning – a treatment that was almost worth the trip to the Maldives on its own. Relaxing on the beach after this little side trip to heaven, I was enthralled to see darkly menacing thunderclouds rolling in over the distant lagoon villas like a charcoal-coloured avalanche. Racing for cover just in time, a huge rainstorm suddenly reminded me, after days of uninterrupted sunshine, that this was, after all, the wet season. But it was such an incredible sight and exhilarating experience, no one begrudged the sun its afternoon’s absence.
The next morning, departing from what must be one of the most picturesque jetties in the world, a sea plane took me from this magical, memorable hideaway back to the airport, where I boarded a speedboat for the quick journey to my fourth destination, Banyan Tree Maldives Vabbinfaru.
Anyone who’s ever stayed at one of the Banyan Tree properties throughout the world will know exactly the type of experience I was about to enjoy – it was pure style and five star quality all the way, and from the moment I stepped off the boat, I was greeted with one of the warmest welcomes I’ve ever received anywhere – one that extended to every staff member for every minute of my stay.
Absolutely perfect is the only way I can describe my home at Banyan Tree, one of 48 luxurious villas featuring an outdoor jacuzzi, exquisite indoor/outdoor bathroom, and a deluxe king-size four poster bed on which gifts, such as a gorgeous sarong embroidered with my name, awaited me every evening. A conical thatched roof tops the superbly decorated, almost perfectly round interior of the Deluxe Jacuzzi Oceanview Villa, with an expanse of floor-to-ceiling louvred French doors leading out to an open terrace, a garden with an inviting daybed pavilion, and easy access to the secluded coral lagoon, embraced by the ubiquitous white sands on which Beachfront Villas look across the waters. I spent hours in these crystal clear waters surrounding Banyan Tree Maldives Vabbinfaru, which seem to boast visibility of about three kilometres. The joy of swimming out through water that picture-postcard colour and over sands that white to the house reef surrounding the island, was one of those rare pleasures that everyone should experience at least once in their life.
All over the Maldives, islands are surrounded by protective coral reefs and shallow waters of the most enticing pale turquoise, which only change to the deepest sapphire blue when you reach the edge of the lagoon and it suddenly drops away into nothingness. It’s at this dramatic point – where a feeling of vertigo is not uncommon – that the marine life is at its most impressive for snorkellers. And off the shores of the Banyan Tree, this was no exception – the waters were simply teeming with tropical fish of the most dazzling design and colours, the abundance of varieties only matched by sheer numbers ... I was surrounded by literally hundreds and hundreds of the fascinating and colourful tropical lovelies. Awaiting a speedboat to take us on an afternoon trip to the capital, Malé, later that day, a slightly different style of fish greeted us on the jetty – a swordfish caught by a happy honeymooner on a deep sea fishing expedition earlier that day. As we boarded the boat, he laid down next to his prize catch for some photographic evidence of one that definitely didn’t get away – and it was longer than him!
Kuramathi Cottages & Spa
Back at the resort island, after a blissful treatment at the Banyan Tree Spa (these “Sanctuaries for the Senses” are famous the world over, and rightly so), it was time for one of the absolute highlights of my entire trip. Whether I was sampling delicacies from the beachside lunch menu or savouring a five course, five star evening meal at Ilaafathi restaurant – my own waiter always on hand, ready to seat me at my table or profer my favourite drink (without any prompting!) – dining at the Banyan Tree was a wonderful experience.
But it was a special dinner on the sunset jetty that will stay with me forever. There we sat, as if all alone in the world (other that our own private waiter and chef), perched on the edge of the jetty with nothing in front of us other than an infinite view of stars and ocean, the serene waters unruffled by anything save a light refreshing breeze and moonlight. The hours slipped by as we sipped and supped on three mouthwatering courses of the freshest seafood (barbecued lobster, anyone?) and a refreshing light dessert of tropical fruits ... this is definitely the life!
There are romantic settings like this aplenty in the Maldives, with options such as moonlit dinners on private sun decks, seaside barbecues and picnics, and intimate meals for two on desert islands, with the opportunity to spend the night in complete isolation on offer at each of the resorts at which I stayed. There’s simply not enough space or time to give each of these the attention they deserve – suffice it to say, if you’re after a truly unique, private and supremely romantic special moment (as if the rest of your time in the Maldives won’t be special enough!), you simply must investigate the intimate dining options at Soneva Gili, Soneva Fushi, Coco Palm and Banyan Tree Maldives Vabbinfaru.
And then of course there are the incredible wedding packages on offer (what better place to tie the knot or renew your vows than at one of the most romantic places on earth?), not to mention the Spas ... the treatments I was lucky enough to receive on this trip, not to mention their exotic, unique settings, deserve their own book. But in an attempt to relay just some of the unforgettable experiences that await in the Maldives, I fear that its natural beauty has gone unsung. It’s just that it’s beautiful everywhere.
While hundreds of stunning images leap out from the pages of brochures, books and websites, I’ve yet to see a photo that truly does the Maldives justice – and for any cynics out there who assume that these shots have been doctored, I’m here to tell you that the water really is that blue ... and it’s even better in real life!
And on top of all these natural wonders, there are the Maldivian people themselves, some of the warmest, friendliest and most interesting people it’s ever been my pleasure to meet, and just as essential to a dream holiday here as any coral cove or five star resort. And, most importantly, they’re willing to share their little patch of paradise with millions of visitors each year ... we should be forever grateful.