EN­COUN­TERS OF THE MAL­DI­VIAN KIND

IN ONE OF THE MOST ISO­LATED COR­NERS OF THE MAL­DIVES, AD­VEN­TURE AND ART COM­BINE, BOTH ABOVE AND BE­LOW THE WA­TER­LINE.

Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY MARIE BARBIERI

In one of the most iso­lated cor­ners of the Mal­dives, ad­ven­ture and art com­bine, both above and be­low the wa­ter­line.

As the salt grates the air and the wind rakes my hair, I stretch up to spot any hint of land. Our speed­boat shaves the tops off the crests as the In­dian Ocean switches on its chop. Speed takes on a new mean­ing. The swell of the deep blue grad­u­ally light­ens to the limpid shal­lows of a lu­mi­nous la­goon, lulling our boat back to bal­ance. We’re bound for the brand new Fair­mont Mal­dives Sirru Fen Fushi,

230 km north of Malé. And from this sliver of sand at Shaviyani Atoll, se­crets are about to be spilled.

Se­cret Wa­ter Is­land, as it is known lo­cally, ap­pears firstly by way of a rather in­con­gru­ous crane, clank­ing from a barge. How­ever, be­neath the anoma­lous struc­ture is where the vi­sion of world-renowned artist, Ja­son deCaires Tay­lor, is com­ing to life.

As we moor, I itch to dis­cover what the crane is low­er­ing. But I cul­ti­vate pa­tience and clock into is­land time as I shake hands with Elena, the pri­vate but­ler who’s been as­signed to me. Mounted onto a golf buggy, Elena steers us be­tween the man­groves where beach vil­las hide and re­side. When the for­est draws back its fo­li­ated cur­tains, we wheel over a nar­row bridge to where over­wa­ter vil­las wade.

Be­hind the door, the space oozes chic lux­ury. Over­sized down-filled pil­lows splay on the Cal­i­for­nia king-sized bed, skirted with an up­hol­stered bor­der be­tween the teak trunks that are bed­side ta­bles. Man­gos­teen dom­i­nates the plat­ter be­tween its fresh fruit friends. And, in the bath­room, spher­i­cal lights en­snared by mar­itime ropes hang from the ceil­ing. A su­per­sized cop­per bath­tub brazenly eyes me up.

Glass doors swing open to a spa­cious out­door deck sport­ing a pri­vate plunge pool and a re­lax­ation sala with daybed. If that wasn’t en­tic­ing enough, tim­ber steps lead di­rectly into more than 600 ha of la­goon. My bikini twitches in­side my suit­case.

I bed down with im­pa­tience and await the stars. But long be­fore the call of my alarm, I be­come strobe-lit by light­ning, herald­ing a deaf­en­ing thun­der­storm that sends bul­lets of rain, only to be silenced by my thatched roof. I de­sire to be nowhere else.

SNORKEL SA­FARIS

Early morn­ing squalls clear, eject­ing me from my slum­ber. After fu­elling up on freshly blended pa­paya, lime and honey smooth­ies and kulha-filla omelettes, I skip on down to meet the snorkel guides at Sub Oceanic.

From the jetty, fin­gers point, eyes asquint, at two tiny black smudges in the sand with flip­pers a-flap. A cou­ple of green sea tur­tle hatch­lings scurry down the sand. Clearly, it’s been a long night to be the strag­glers of the clutch, scal­ing their cen­time­tre-high moun­tains. Mak­ing it to the wa­ter­line, they hitch-hike on the out­go­ing cur­rent and then sink like mini sub­marines. Al­ready, my day is made.

Bot­tlenose dol­phins race us out to the reef. Here, we top­ple over­board with marine bi­ol­o­gist, Sam Dixon, and drift like a tan­gled swamp of multi-coloured man­groves. There’s lit­tle ac­tiv­ity un­til Sam does a one-eighty, point­ing up to the wa­ter­line, his muf­fled words trom­bon­ing through his snorkel. Bob­bing into view from my steamed-up mask is an­other hatch­ling, tan­go­ing with the rip­ples.

The thrill of the sight­ing is worth the gag-in­duc­ing gulp of salt­wa­ter as my up­ended snorkel syphons the sea while I try to back-pedal (pic­ture that in fins), to give the pad­dling new­born space to map out its brand new world. It’s a pre­cious mo­ment.

After bark­ing the sa­line from my lungs, I look down in search of the finned and scaled. A Napoleon wrasse fol­lows his fore­head above two par­rot­fish quar­ry­ing coral. A striped trig­ger­fish noo­dles by be­fore a school of yel­low but­ter­fly­fish steal the dap­pled lime­light from the glow­ing-blue trum­pet fish. And, just past the drop-off, a white tip reef shark blanks us com­pletely. The Sub Oceanic team here are cur­rently chart­ing the re­sort’s sur­round­ing reef sys­tems. A marine bi­ol­o­gist’s work is never done.

Back on dry sand, our rav­en­ous ap­petites quell at Raha Mar­ket. But it’s only a mar­ket in con­cept. This boun­ti­ful bazaar is a hub for gourmet treats. It’s more a din­ing desti­na­tion, by way of tiered stalls in a fu­sion of aro­mas, colours and flavours. There’s a char­cu­terie board, a cheese stall, a sliced-and-

cooked-to-order fresh pasta sta­tion, a stone-fired pizza oven, and a gi­ant line-caught baked yel­low-fin tuna. And Iranga, the pas­try chef thinks of ev­ery­one – there’s even a cake stand full of gluten-free de­lights.

Din­ner­times are op­u­lent af­fairs here. Con­tem­po­rary Ja­panese flavours with a Mal­di­vian twist are found at sun­set­soaked Kata, the re­sort’s sig­na­ture restau­rant. And those with a pen­chant for shell­fish and sushi head to Azure, planted on the south­ern­most tip of the is­land. It’s where healthy and clean dishes with cre­ative ac­cou­trements part­ner stel­lar wines.

UN­DER­WA­TER GAL­LERIES On a new morn­ing, imag­i­na­tive minds con­gre­gate at the airy Arts & Crafts Stu­dio. Here is where cre­ative fin­gers fash­ion pots and bowls, paint co­conut shells, and re­cy­cle jew­ellery from beached coral frag­ments. But most cap­ti­vat­ing are the mould casts of hu­mans be­hind us – the main rea­son why I have come to this re­sort in the first place.

Be­ing a long-time fan of fig­u­ra­tive sculp­ture, I’m lucky enough to wit­ness the world’s first semi-sub­merged mu­seum be­ing in­stalled in the wa­ters off Fair­mont Mal­dives Sirru Fen Fushi. And I get to chat to the brain­child of the in­stal­la­tion, Ja­son deCaires Tay­lor, who is also on lo­ca­tion this week.

“One of the rea­sons why I cre­ate un­der­wa­ter gal­leries is to pro­mote and cel­e­brate con­ser­va­tion,” he says. On plant­ing these un­der­wa­ter sculp­ture gar­dens on reef­less ocean floors, he adds: “The in­stal­la­tions will be­come the build­ing blocks for ar­ti­fi­cial reefs.” There is a strong en­vi­ron­men­tal mes­sage here.

From the beach, an un­der­wa­ter coral path­way leads to sub­merged po­plar trees, where a stair­case climbs up to an in­ter­tidal Co­ralar­ium. En­cased within this six-me­tre-high marine-grade stain­less-steel cube are hy­brid sculp­tures of coral-dressed hu­mans, which snorkellers reach di­rectly from the beach.

The walls of the cube fea­ture sten­cil-like cutouts of corals to en­able tidal move­ment and fish mi­gra­tion. The gaps al­low the ocean’s crit­ters to be­come squat­ters, mov­ing in to their first-come first-served homes.

“On the roof stand sil­hou­et­ted fig­ures of jes­monite sculp­tures, con­nect­ing the sea to the sky,” says Ja­son.

In time, ocean-dwelling dec­o­ra­tors will cro­chet lay­ers of al­gae and coral onto the sculp­tures – graf­fi­ti­ing onto them their own artis­tic ex­pres­sion.

As the crane low­ers in the first sculp­ture, it’s a mo­ment for the his­tory books – fu­ture chap­ters to be writ­ten cour­tesy of ocean cur­rents.

Hours… could be days… then pass in a blur of eu­de­mo­nia. One mo­ment I’m swim­ming the lengthy lap pool that dis­sects the re­sort in two, and the next, I’m on a tim­ber over­wa­ter pavil­ion stretch­ing my mus­cles and men­tal hori­zons with yo­galates in­struc­tor, Azlifa Hus­sain.

A Ja­panese cook­ing class tan­ta­lises my taste­buds one morn­ing, and by late af­ter­noon, I’m hold­ing a Cham­pagne flute on a cruise track­ing ac­ro­batic spin­naker dol­phins. And, after par­tak­ing in a mixol­o­gist-led cock­tail-mak­ing class, I detox at Wil­low Stream Spa un­der the ther­a­peu­tic spell of a Neroli Blos­som Sig­na­ture Mas­sage jour­ney. Here, I al­most for­get my own name – es­capism at its Mal­di­vian best. •

Open­ing im­age: Snorkelling en­coun­ters within the in­ter­tidal Co­ralar­ium.Clock­wise from be­low: A beau­ti­ful sculp­ture of a young girl stands sub­merged; Stat­ues stand look­out over the in­ter­tidal Co­ralar­ium; Aerial view of Fair­mont Mal­dives Sirru Fen Fushi; Snorkelling on the house reef; The wa­ter villa’s en­tic­ing cop­per bath.

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