Wel­come to the jun­gle

Dense with trop­i­cal for­est and amid teem­ing wa­ters, Shangri-La’s Villingili Re­sort & Spa, Mal­dives is a wild ex­pe­ri­ence

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The 1,200-some is­lands mak­ing up t he Mal­dives are of­ten re­ferred to as a string of pearls in the In­dian Ocean. If that’s the anal­ogy we’re go­ing with, then the is­land of Villingili – at just about the south­ern­most end of the so- called string, and one of the largest and most jun­gle­dense of the repub­lic – is placed like the droplet emer­ald in the ocean’s state­ment neck­lace. Away from the crowd in the re­mote Addu Atoll, it’s a 70-minute do­mes­tic flight to Gan Is­land from Malé – although with di­rect Colombo- Gan flights launched late last year on SriLankan Air­lines, it’s now easy to by­pass Malé en­tirely for a more stream­lined jour­ney. It’s a pip for pri­vate- jet own­ers as well, with the ex­clu­sive air­craft able to land at Gan Ex­ec­u­tive In­ter­na­tional Air­port where pas­sen­gers can kick up their feet in Shangri-La’s pri­vate-jet lounge while im­mi­gra­tion, cus­toms and bag­gage screen­ing are all com­pleted on-site. The only ho­tel with its own ex­ec­u­tive air­port in the Mal­dives, it’s a draw for the global elite, and so pri­vate-jet guests and groups check in at the is­land re­sort with some reg­u­lar­ity – 7- Eleven Aus­tralia’s bil­lion­aire founder, Rus­sell Withers, flew in with his fam­ily shortly af­ter my far more or­di­nary ar­rival. Whether fly­ing com­mer­cial or pri­vate, from Gan it’s a swift five- to seven-minute speed­boat ride to Shangri- La’s Villingili Re­sort & Spa, Mal­dives which I see spread out be­fore me grow­ing ever-larger. And it doesn’t just ap­pear to be large – as the big­gest is­land re­sort in the Mal­dives, it truly is. Boast­ing six kilo­me­tres of coast­line – two of which are pris­tine, white-sand beaches – with placid wa­ters on the la­goon side and dra­matic crash­ing surf on the ocean side, a dense nat­u­ral jun­gle hid­ing three fresh­wa­ter lakes ( kulhi), the only golf course in the Mal­dives, the high­est nat­u­ral point in the Mal­dives, and no­table as the only five-star re­sort be­neath the equa­tor in the Mal­dives, it feels like a proper desti­na­tion rather than a bit of mid- ocean, just-above-sealevel sand host­ing a smat­ter­ing of palm trees and is­land-chic ac­com­mo­da­tion. I ar­rive to a wel­come from the Shangri-La team lightly plac­ing their hands on their hearts – a tra­di­tional Mal­di­vian greet­ing – a small bou­quet of flow­ers and a lo­cal co­conut full of fresh juice. I by­pass the trop­i­cal, open- air re­cep­tion ( it’s pri­mar­ily used for check- outs) to hop in a buggy and make my way di­rectly to my is­land home. Head­ing to­wards the north­ern end of the is­land (which, by the way, is shaped rather like a lamb chop with thick jun­gle com­pris­ing the “meaty” north­ern half and the golf course thread­ing through the “bone” to the south), I pass un­der sun-shield­ing fo­liage and over a turquoise la­goon to be dropped off at my Wa­ter Villa, where the

check-in pro­ceeds in pri­vacy. Perched on stilts, I’m sur­rounded by the In­dian Ocean, and the wa­ter be­neath is rich in sea­grass which, I’m told, may at­tract hun­gry sea tur­tles in the morn­ings and evenings – and much more, I dis­cover af­ter wak­ing up late one night and mak­ing my way out­side. The sur­round­ings are the very def­i­ni­tion of a wa­tery won­der­land, and the in­te­rior of my ca­pa­cious villa no less won­der­ful, par­tic­u­larly with its out­door rain shower, win­dows with sea views at ev­ery turn and plush bed that deftly snug­gles me to sleep each evening. But right now, it’s the jun­gle that calls for my at­ten­tion – at night­time, this is quite lit­eral, with its in­hab­i­tants awake and at their most ram­bunc­tious – and with a bi­cy­cle parked out­side my villa’s en­trance so I may chauf­feur my­self around the ex­pan­sive is­land, I set off to ex­plore Villingili. Ac­com­mo­da­tion – com­pris­ing eight cat­e­gories and 132 vil­las – on the is­land re­sort is es­sen­tially split into three sec­tions: Whis­per­ing Palms, la­goon- side and palm- fringed, and where the jetty to my over­wa­ter villa is found; Palm Breeze, where tree­house and beach vil­las are hid­den within thick fo­liage, mak­ing for ultra- pri­vate res­i­dences that are pop­u­lar with hon­ey­moon­ers and hol­i­day­mak­ers from the Mid­dle East; and Seren­ity Bay in the south and at the most placid area of the la­goon, with a mix of beach and over­wa­ter ac­com­mo­da­tion. Cy­cling from the jetty to­wards the is­land, I’m plunged into deep for­est shade the in­stant I’m back on land and head into the jun­gle, where the tem­per­a­ture dips as the sun only just trick­les through tall palms and banyan leaves. In ad­di­tion to grand-look­ing banyans – some of which are said to be around 200 years old – and a min­i­mum of 17,000 co­conut palms (that was the count when the re­sort opened in 2009; since then Shangri- La has al­lowed the palms to grow as they will, with new trees reg­u­larly burst­ing forth from fallen co­conuts), there are also the omi­nously named devil’s claw trees; noni trees, pop­u­lar for their medic­i­nal prop­er­ties and less pop­u­lar for its fruit that once ripe, looks some­what alien and smells like pun­gent cheese; and the pretty, flow­er­ing sea trum­pet. It’s while ex­am­in­ing the for­est veg­e­ta­tion I no­tice one of its more sur­pris­ing, but also seem­ingly ever-present res­i­dents: enor­mous fly­ing fox bats. Usu­ally noc­tur­nal crea­tures, with no nat­u­ral preda­tors on Villingili they can be seen mak­ing their way through the trees all day, feast­ing on lantern fruit and glid­ing through the blue skies on their 1.5-me­tre-long wing­span – there’s a wealth of in­for­ma­tion to be learned about my sur­round­ings and sign­ing up for one of the re­sort’s eco-tours is worth ev­ery minute. Fur­ther ex­plo­ration un­cov­ers some of the his­tory of the Addu Atoll, which served as a mil­i­tary base for the Bri­tish dur­ing World War II (Gan was re­ferred to as “Port T”, and was a strate­gic naval base and air­base un­til the Royal Air Force left Addu in 1976). Walk­ing or cy­cling around Villingili, re­mains of bunkers, ar­tillery sites and pill­boxes re­mind guests of its his­tory, although na­ture re­lent­lessly en­croaches with roots and sprout­ing palms grab­bing hold of the struc­tures’ stone blocks, per­sis­tently work­ing at re­claim­ing their land. To­day, a small army of Shangri-La em­ploy­ees let the for­est run wild in the heart of the is­land while metic­u­lously main­tain­ing a string of na­ture paths, desti­na­tion- din­ing hide­aways, deluxe

ac­com­mo­da­tion and en­ter­tain­ment fa­cil­i­ties – the lat­ter of which are pri­mar­ily found cen­trally lo­cated, near the wel­come jetty and re­cep­tion, mak­ing up a five-star “vil­lage” of state- of-the-art fit­ness fa­cil­i­ties, bou­tiques and jew­ellers, eco and div­ing cen­tres, a kids’ club, a bar, lounge and all­day din­ing restau­rant, and in­fin­ity pool. Mov­ing fur­ther down the is­land, the for­est dis­perses a bit, and the is­land turns into a thin sliver so that even while look­ing at the calm la­goon, the crash­ing waves on the other side are clearly heard. Sea tur­tles are known to nest here, the ar­eas care­fully marked so as not to be dis­turbed by in­trepid ex­plor­ers like my­self. Tak­ing up the is­land’s fi­nal south­ern stretch is the 7.5-hectare Villingili Golf Course, nine par-three and par-four holes with dis­tract­ing par­a­disi­a­cal views of the Seren­ity Bay area. It’s also here that the most fit of guests can climb Mount Villingili. The sum­mit of this mount – of­fi­cially the high­est in the Mal­dives – reaches a gasp­ing-for- oxy­gen altitude of 5.1 me­tres above sea level, ut­terly soar­ing over the repub­lic’s av­er­age of 0.2 me­tres. The quiet wa­ter seen from this spot is more than just a pretty sight, as I dis­cover when I head out one morn­ing with the eco team to Seren­ity Bay’s la­goon. Be­neath the placid sur­face, we work to af­fix bro­ken seg­ments of co­ral to weighted pots, which will be nur­tured in un­der­wa­ter trays for three years be­fore be­ing trans­planted to en­cour­age the growth of a healthy co­ral gar­den amid the bleach­ing cur­rently dev­as­tat­ing Earth’s aquatic world. The suc­cess rate, I’m told, has so far been pretty high and I have lofty hopes that my lit­tle co­ral branch will grow to some­thing grand in the com­ing years, con­tin­u­ing to at­tract the stingrays, tur­tles and par­rot­fish that I see on this morn­ing’s brief out­ing. While it re­ally can be that easy to see the fas­ci­nat­ing ma­rine life of Addu, I can’t re­sist step­ping on- board a boat to head out fur­ther, where reef cliffs plunge into deep depths, reef sharks glide amid bul­bous, vi­brant par­rot­fish, and sea tur­tles seem­ingly fly through the wa­ter sur­rounded by a car­ni­val of fish. Af­ter the ex­cur­sion, my de­sire for ex­plo­ration is not quite sated, so I swim out to Villingili’s house reef, just beyond Whis­per­ing Palms’ over­wa­ter vil­las at the north end of the is­land. Fol­low­ing bright or­ange buoys that mark a safe path to the reef, in no time I’m sur­rounded by a school of lit­er­ally thou­sands of yel­low fish that cre­ate a ver­i­ta­ble flu­o­res­cent cloud, mov­ing in per­fect har­mony be­tween quick breaks to dine on ma­rine veg­e­ta­tion. Shortly, an oc­to­pus sprints past be­fore go­ing into hid­ing – and I re­alise all this dis­cov­ery has worked up quite an ap­petite. Don­ning my i sland f avourites – flow­ing fab­rics and boho ac­ces­sories – I quickly learn there’s no bet­ter place to start my evenings than from M-Lounge, a hip beach­front bar that is the ideal set­ting for catch­ing the sun­set with a re­fresh­ing cock­tail and chilled shisha – the wa­ter in the ves­sel cooled with ice. From there I fol­low my ap­petite: Javvu for in­ter­na­tional fare and tan­ta­lis­ing themed bar­be­ques through­out the week; Dr Ali’s which hints at the ex­otic spiced fare in­side with fra­grant curry trees and herbs scent­ing the air at the en­trance; or con­tem­po­rary Fashala, lo­cated at the north­ern tip of the is­land. This surf­side restau­rant is chef Daniel Boller’s show­case for fresh in­gre­di­ents from his is­land gar­den and – even bet­ter – the lo­cal tuna plucked from the sea just that day turned into melt-inthe- mouth tartare served on a heavy plate of Hi­malayan salt. Chef Boller lauds the fish, not­ing that it will be dif­fi­cult find­ing fresh tuna its equal any­where else in the world, and I’m in­clined to agree – whether to­tally raw or grilled to seared per­fec­tion, it’s phe­nom­e­nal. It may also be tricky to find sanc­tu­ary to match the laid-back-but-luxe is­land at­mos­phere of Chi, The Spa at Shangri-La. Opt­ing to fol­low the “when in Rome” ethos, I submit to over­sized Mal­di­vian sea shells ( kandu boli) in the Kandu Boli Rit­ual. Per­formed within one of 11 spa­cious treat­ment rooms – each with their own chang­ing and bath area, as well as pic­ture-per­fect sea views through the veg­e­ta­tion – it’s a bliss­ful hour of be­ing mas­saged by the shells I had seen tucked into co­ral while snorkelling just ear­lier that day, but now warmed and made slick, drenched in heated co­conut oil. While many re­sorts in the Mal­dives vaunt the “do as lit­tle or as much as you like” phi­los­o­phy, I find my­self drawn to the lat­ter each day, even­tu­ally sink­ing into bed tired, but full of fan­tas­tic new dis­cov­er­ies. One night, I’m wo­ken up at 4am to the rum­bles of a thun­der­storm. I make my way out to my ter­race and sink into the over­wa­ter ham­mock to watch the storm roll in. In­stead it slowly skirts the is­land, and I am treated to one of my favourite evenings in mem­ory. The tem­per­a­ture and breeze are per­fect while in the dis­tance light­ning flashes to re­veal epic cu­mu­lonim­bus clouds; de­spite the un­set­tled weather beyond, the sky right above me is clear and sprin­kled with in­nu­mer­able stars. The la­goon too re­mains calm, and in the villa’s spot­lights aimed at the wa­ter be­neath the ham­mock, all man­ner of sea life is at­tracted. I see space­ship-like cut­tle­fish grab­bing at po­ten­tial meals on sur­face; ban­ner­fish swan­ning about with their long, trail­ing dor­sals; and smaller fish flit­ting be­tween the sway­ing sea­grass. Be­hind me, a rack­e­tous ca­coph­ony em­anates from the jun­gle, and I judge it a night well spent not sleep­ing.

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SHANGRI-LA’S VILLINGILI RE­SORT & SPA, MAL­DIVES +960 689 7888 www.shangri-la.com/male/ villingilire­sort

The Shangri-La re­sort com­prises six kilo­me­tres of coast­line, three fresh­wa­ter lakes, a golf course and 132 vil­las on land and sea (top); one por­tion of Villingili’s white-sand beach is home to a restau­rant, in­fin­ity pool and wa­ter-sports cen­tre (above left); guests ar­rive at the re­sort via boat at the wel­come cen­tre jut­ting into the la­goon (above right). Pre­vi­ous spread: Lush veg­e­ta­tion cov­ers the is­land, giv­ing the re­sort a se­ri­ous jun­gle vibe

A vast swathe of jun­gle on Villingili means there are plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties to ex­plore on foot or bi­cy­cle, with the chance to catch a glimpse of one of the for­est’s most prom­i­nent res­i­dents, the fly­ing fox bat (above left). The dense jun­gle is also an ideal set­ting to stage se­cluded and ro­man­tic desti­na­tion-din­ing ex­pe­ri­ences, in lo­ca­tions such as a jetty on a fresh­wa­ter lake (op­po­site page, top) or in torch-lit clear­ings un­der grand old trees (op­po­site page, bot­tom)

Above: Fashala, mean­ing “the edge” in the lo­cal Dhiveli lan­guage, is the re­sort’s fine-din­ing desti­na­tion perched at the end of the is­land. Op­po­site page: Dr. Ali’s is named for the Mal­di­vian doc­tor who trav­elled the Mid­dle East and Asia col­lect­ing ex­otic spices and recipes, which can be tasted at this restau­rant (top); char­ter a yacht for din­ing and sight-see­ing ex­cur­sions (bot­tom left); an Ayurvedic treat­ment at Chi, The Spa at Shangri-La (bot­tom right)

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