Isolation and relaxation make this spot the ultimate Maldivian escape
After we splash down in our sea plane, there’s a raucous welcome courtesy of hotel staff singing and playing the drums. Even the general manager, Vlad Reyes, is on hand to welcome incoming guests. After a refreshing drink and cold towel, we’re whisked off by buggy with our personal butler, who drives us to our gorgeous overwater villa, making sure to leave no light switch unexplained in his rundown of our lodgings.
Manafaru is the Maldives’ northernmost resort island, which means it’s a fair trek from Male – it takes an hour and 15 minutes by plane.
Its relative isolation also provides a reprieve from the busier southern atolls. It’s relaxed and is not packed with island-hopping day-trippers. That also leads to lower prices for a room here than many of the resorts closer to Male.
By any standards, for the price and location, this is an incredible place to stay. A typical Maldivian-style wooden villa on stilts with a thatched roof, it seems traditional from the outside, but has decidedly modern indoors. The bathroom is sleek and furnished with dark tiles and marble, with a large tub overlooking the water acting as an impressive centrepiece. We especially enjoyed the glass-bottomed shower, which allows you to see the water below.
We were impressed by the private splash pool, which some resorts don’t offer. The bed is huge and comfortable and the black-out blinds are great for when you want to sleep in a little late.
No matter the time of day, no matter where, each and every staff member will offer you an impassioned greeting and a wide smile as they pass. Restaurant staff are affable and knowledgeable. We’re immediately made to feel like family on Manafaru, so much so that after our second breakfast and an animated chat with one of the wait staff over eggs Benedict, we are genuinely pained at the thought of leaving.
Manafaru has a relaxed vibe, but that doesn’t mean it’s not atmospheric. There are plenty of people wandering around during the day, and enough gather at the island’s popular sunset spots, such as the infinity pool, to give it a humming ambience.
The hotel has changed hands several times over the years, having been a Waldorf Astoria until it was bought by JA, which means its management has changed tack, too. These days, JA is all about cultivating a sense of family and inclusiveness, and that seems to infiltrate the entire resort.
The age-old complaint of having nothing to do in the Maldives is both a blessing and a curse. The island of Manafaru is 14 hectares, and feels just big enough, with sand bikes to use to get around if you’d prefer to eschew the buggy service. There’s also tennis courts, a large infinity pool, seven restaurants and a spa to explore.
Breakfast at Kakuni restaurant is nice, but otherwise forgettable as far as hotel breakfasts go. The Cellar is by far our favourite restaurant, set deep underground in a volcanic stone cave, in a small circular space surrounded by a floor-to-ceiling display of classic vintages. It’s an intimate experience, seating a maximum of 12 people, and specialises in fantastic steak and seafood. White Orchid is a close second as far as culinary experiences go, featuring a menu designed by chef Da Dong, whose cooking has earned his Shanghai restaurant a Michelin-star, and a huge line-up of fusion Asian cuisine. However, our favourite culinary experience was undoubtedly a Maldivian cooking class with the island’s head chef – learning how to make fresh fish, coconut pancakes and a sweet curry with the affable Nazeeh was a true highlight of our stay.
Another thing to note is the island’s focus on sustainability. Impressively, it has its own water bottling plant.
The atmosphere, the staff and the architecture – the blend of traditional values and luxury is second to none.
It’s almost impossible to criticise, but some of the villa’s furniture felt a little well-worn.
If you’re looking for isolation and relative affordability for your Maldives jaunt, there’s no better place than Manafaru.
The bottom line
A water villa at JA Manafaru starts from $680 (Dh3,030) a night, including breakfast daily, but excluding taxes. Halfboard is from $1,065, which includes breakfast and dinner.
Centre, guests can take part in a Maldivian cooking class; above, the hotel’s spa
White Orchid offers Michelin-quality meals from chef Da Dong