Iso­la­tion and re­lax­ation make this spot the ul­ti­mate Mal­di­vian es­cape

The National - News - - ARTS & LIFESTYLE - Ash­leigh Ste­wart

The wel­come

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.

The neigh­bour­hood

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.

The room

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.

The ser­vice

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.

The scene

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.

The food

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.

Loved

The at­mos­phere, the staff and the ar­chi­tec­ture – the blend of tra­di­tional values and lux­ury is sec­ond to none.

Hated

It’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to crit­i­cise, but some of the villa’s fur­ni­ture felt a lit­tle well-worn.

The verdict

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.

Pho­tos JA Mana­faru

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

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