On a blue la­goon

Club Med’s new re­sort in The Mal­dives is se­ri­ously chic

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - KEN­DALL HILL

AB­DULLA Yameen, Pres­i­dent of the con­ser­va­tive Sunni Mus­lim na­tion of The Mal­dives, looks on po­litely as writhing dancers sheathed in span­dex per­form an in­ti­mate pas de deux in the shal­lows of the Fi­nolhu Vil­las pool.

Yameen is guest of hon­our at the grand open­ing party of this shiny eco-re­sort in the North Male Atoll, 45 min­utes by speed­boat from Male, the com­pact cap­i­tal. Ad­dress­ing at­ten­dees, the Pres­i­dent re­marks how tourism, which only ar­rived in the ar­chi­pel­ago in 1972, “has never failed to give The Mal­dives more and more sur­prises”.

This re­sort is sur­pris­ing on a num­ber of lev­els. For starters it is en­tirely so­lar-pow­ered, which is a first for The Mal­dives. About 4000 pan­els, many of which shade the ex­trav­a­gantly long en­trance jetty, har­ness the po­tent equa­to­rial sun to power the re­sort’s 52 vil­las, to run its gym, restau­rant and spa, and to il­lu­mi­nate said jetty in a rain­bow of disco lights ev­ery evening.

The sec­ond big sur­prise at Fi­nolhu Vil­las is that it is run by French pack­age-hol­i­day spe­cial­ists Club Med, a com­pany not known for its for­ays into five-star ter­ri­tory. Fi­nolhu is a dra­matic at­tempt to ban­ish the Club Med stereo­types of old — those neck­lace bars where guests ex­changed beads for booze, the sin­gles scene, the on­site sports schools and re­lent­less around-the-clock fun.

The French group’s new aes­thetic is all about ar­chi­tect-de­signed and for­ward-think­ing hol­i­day prop­er­ties in highly de­sir­able des­ti­na­tions. Since 2004, Club Med has spent 1 bil­lion ($1.4bn) open­ing and ren­o­vat­ing re­sorts world­wide in a con­certed shift up­mar­ket. As chief ex­ec­u­tive Henri Gis­card d’Es­taing (son of for­mer French pres­i­dent Valery) de­clares at the gala open­ing, “We have the am­bi­tion to be­come the world leader in high-end, pre­mium and all-in­clu­sive ac­com­mo­da­tion.”

Club Med al­ready has a re­sort in The Mal­dives — the party is­land of Kani is just five min­utes away by speed­boat — but Fi­nolhu is some­thing else en­tirely. De­signed by New York-based Ja­panese ar­chi­tect Yuji Ya­mazaki, its bold flour­ishes in­clude the LED-lit jetty and pod­shaped over­wa­ter vil­las, their com­puter-gen­er­ated curves rem­i­nis­cent of a tur­tle shell or the prow of a tra­di­tional dhoni fish­ing boat. Each is ap­pointed thought­fully with plunge pool and sun deck and stairs lead­ing down to the la­goon.

All vil­las have at­ten­dants (“but­lers”, if you must), drinks are on the house (in­clud­ing proper Cham­pagne by the glass each evening), and at dawn each day a band of tanned Mal­di­vians in khaki shirts and black slacks rakes the shore to white-sand per­fec­tion in prepa­ra­tion for guests to cre­ate vir­gin foot­prints and last­ing mem­o­ries.

Af­ter the Pres­i­dent and his en­tourage de­part, the chris­ten­ing party (dress code: white with a blue flower) con­tin­ues with live mu­sic, tequila slam­mers, an im­pres­sive fire­works show and a pool party where al­most ev­ery­one ends up in the wa­ter. But such wild be­hav­iour will not be the norm at Fi­nolhu Vil­las. The vibe is strictly cou­ples only, re­flect­ing the fact that hon­ey­moon­ers com­prise 90 per cent of tourists to The Mal­dives, which is no sur­prise given the ro­man­tic al­lure of this is­land na­tion.

As des­ti­na­tions go, it de­liv­ers what it prom­ises in the brochure: day­dream-like havens shaded by palms and fringed with caster-sugar sands and translu­cent la­goons. To­po­graph­i­cally The Mal­dives is a strand of atolls com­pris­ing more than 1000 is­lands, each a jewel in its own right, draped around one of the world’s most gor­geous seascapes. Only a tenth of the sand­bars are in­hab­ited; Fi­nolhu Vil­las is lead­ing a new wave of Mal­di­vian re­sort devel­op­ment be­ing cham­pi­oned by Pres­i­dent Yameen as part of a “mas­sive in­fra­struc­ture project” that will in­clude a new in­ter­na­tional air­port ca­pa­ble of han­dling six to seven mil­lion pas­sen­gers a year.

Fi­nolhu sits in the same elite sec­tor as the Four Sea­sons and the One & Only and hopes to com­pete for sim­i­lar high-end hol­i­day­mak­ers. Rates will av­er­age 600 a per­son, a night, which is steep but cov­ers many ac­tiv­i­ties and all drinks and meals, in­clud­ing in­ter­na­tional cre­ations served on white table­cloths in Motu, the float­ing restau­rant. (Club Med pi­o­neered this all-in­clu­sive re­sort model, and also in­vented the kids’ club con­cept, now a stan­dard at most fam­ily re­sorts.)

The 52 vil­las — 22 on the beach and 30 fac­ing sun­rise or sun­set on stilts sur mer — fea­ture sleek in­te­ri­ors with neon flashes of or­ange and lime. There’s an ap­peal­ingly crisp new­ness (we are the first guests, af­ter all) but the de­sign is not bold or ground-break­ing, per­haps be­cause Club Med is keen to ap­peal to as many na­tion­al­i­ties as pos­si­ble. As well as shift­ing up­mar­ket, the 65-year-old French chain is broad­en­ing its fan base. Asia is a big fo­cus, es­pe­cially now that Club Med’s ma­jor­ity share­holder is Fo­sun, China’s largest con­glom­er­ate.

Cre­at­ing the re­sort was a ma­jor un­der­tak­ing, not least of which was the dou­bling of the is­land’s size from three to six hectares by re­claim­ing sand from the ocean. While it’s fin­ished and fab­u­lous, there’s a while to go be­fore the land­scap­ing pro­vides the level of in­ter-villa pri­vacy hon­ey­moon cou­ples might ex­pect. And villa ser­vice needs to be much sharper at th­ese prices.

Days can be as empty or full as you wish. All meals are taken at Motu, where the cock­tail bar’s glass floors of­fer

Thirty of Fi­nolhu’s vil­las sit on stilts over the la­goon; each has a plunge pool; in­te­ri­ors are sleek with neon touches, right; cock­tail bar at Motu, be­low left

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