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.
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.
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.