On a blue lagoon
Club Med’s new resort in The Maldives is seriously chic
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