Town & Country (UK)
READY, STEADY… STOP
As soon as circumstances allow, we should seek out the unparalleled pleasure of blissful lethargy in the Maldives, says John O’ceallaigh
When international escapes are once again on the agenda, there’s no better place on Earth to recover from lockdown than in the idyllic shores of the Maldives
Some 40-odd years ago, Eva Malmstrom’s career as a model took her around the world, but an assignment in 1980 to the Maldives wasn’t quite the jolly one might assume today. The country’s first resort, Kurumba, had launched only eight years earlier and the scant scattering of island hotels then operational were ramshackle outfits with neon lights, plastic chairs and dinner that came from tin cans. Creature comforts were few as Malmstrom and her team laboriously made their way from one location to another on slowmoving traditional dhoni boats, subsisting all the while on little more than bananas and fish, but the beauty of the Maldives still staggered her. She vowed she would return one day to show the island nation to a man she loved.
Malmstrom made good on that promise when she took Sonu Shivdasani there a year after they first met. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that the visit monumentally impacted the trajectory of a country where tourism now accounts for two thirds of its GDP. In 1995, the couple launched Soneva Fushi in the sea-life-rich Baa Atoll, which was the first true luxury resort in the archipelago. A quarter of a century later, countless newer properties have shown that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery by integrating the sort of amenities and experiences introduced by Soneva Fushi, from pool villas to outdoor cinemas and water slides.
My own immersion in Soneva Fushi came last November, while the UK languished under a second lockdown and the resort celebrated its 25th anniversary. Open throughout the pandemic, the property quickly established its own Covid-19 protocol: a test would be administered to every new arrival, who would quarantine in their vast villa overnight while awaiting results. Once confirmed negative, guests would be free to roam an Edenic, ‘old-normal’ resort, a self-contained private island where every occupant had been vetted.
The resort’s long-standing ‘no news, no shoes’ motto took on a poignant meaning for me after I, too, was released and could fully embrace now-endangered freedoms I had previously taken for granted. There were no masks to be seen; the abundant breakfast buffet was as busy as ever; people hugged without anxiety.
I could have whiled away a month on the island very happily – the oft-repeated claim that there is nothing to do in the Maldives simply doesn’t hold water here. For most guests, submitting to multiple spa treatments is considered compulsory; the wonders of the cosmos can be admired through the ultra-advanced telescope housed in the resort observatory; children can play in the Den, the largest kids’ club in the country, offering a programme of all-weather activities. On the water, diving, and surfing can be arranged easily, as can snorkelling with manta rays, and dolphins are frequently spotted.
The resort has several dining spots that offered me some of the best meals I have had in the Maldives. Superlative sushi awaits at Out of the Blue; plant-based dishes predominate in the treetop restaurant Fresh in the Garden; at the Asian street food-themed buffet, I plundered stands stocked vertiginously with fiery Thai delicacies, delicately balanced ayurvedic specialities and feather-light tempura. My occasional efforts at healthy eating were compromised by multiple visits to So Guilty, where guests can help themselves to complimentary homemade chocolates, ice-creams and sorbets.
Now incorporating additional resorts in the Maldives and Thailand, Soneva prides itself on a philosophy that deliberately challenges industry preconceptions of what is deemed a luxury. As Shivdasani told me: ‘Most of our guests are self-made and live in an urban environment. Being barefoot for a week or seeing the stars through our telescope on a clear night are things you can’t do in London or Paris or New York.’ That appreciation for simple pleasures and natural wonders also underpins the brand’s sincere commitment to sustainability. You won’t find incongruities such as snow-rooms and golf courses here; instead, structures are made of sustainable materials and 90 per cent of waste is recycled. Following the introduction of an environmental levy, Soneva today operates at complete carbon neutrality.
I saw a similar focus on sustainability when I moved on to Gili Lankanfushi, another lauded Maldivian resort, which was once part of the Soneva portfolio and still maintains that same butler concept and barefoot luxury. Especially popular with British travellers and with its inventory solely comprising overwater villas, it is set on a private island so beautiful that it’s hard to believe such serenity can be reached by speedboat within 20 minutes of departing the international airport in Malé.
Though I would occasionally explore the island on my bamboo bike, perhaps roaming from the blissful Meera Spa to its marine-biology ‘shack’, or ambling to the custard-coloured beach before retreating to the pool for sundowners, I spent an inordinate amount of time lazing without guilt in my villa suite, an ostensibly simple timber cabin that was one of the loveliest abodes I have encountered in the Maldives.
I also developed a crush on the seven standalone Crusoe Residences that are accessible only by boat and seemed to me the perfect settings in which to live out an idealised castaway fantasy. The resort’s tip-top retreat, however, is its Private Reserve. The largest overwater villa in the world at 1,700 square metres, it is a warren of long wooden walkways and shaded hideaways, with four bedrooms, a spa room, infinity pool and slide. Though it took me two hours to tour, it is still a setting that revels in simplicity. ‘We’re not into bling-bling or glittery luxury,’ my guide told me as we entered yet another timbered reception-room.
The Reserve did attract international attention in early 2019 when an electrical fault caused a fire that destroyed much of the resort, with the flames visible from Malé. Tearfully recalling the trauma of that terrifying night, team members nonetheless asserted that the incident brought with it significant silver linings: an almost year-long closure allowed for an extensive refurbishment that should enable Gili to keep pace for years to come with the many luxury resorts that have opened in its wake.
But as with Soneva Fushi, I found Gili’s most compelling qualities to be all natural. My most cherished moments came when I was encircled by harmless blacktip sharks while snorkelling or during those honeyed evenings when I could observe yet another molten sunset turn the ocean golden.
It became so obvious to me, then, that for anyone who wishes to wash away the trauma of a year so many of us would rather forget, there is no better place to holiday than the Maldives. Always within sight of the sea, I was temporarily released from the worries of the world and instead allowed to set my spirit and imagination adrift on the wonders of the water. Soneva Fushi (www.soneva.com), from £1,580 a room a night; Gili Lankanfushi (www.gili-lankanfushi.com), from £1,070 a room a night.