I’m trying to remember when I first went to the Maldives. I think it was 1994 or thereabouts. My trip came about almost by accident. I had gone to Trivandrum for an assignment and somebody asked if I had ever been to the Maldives. I said I had never been and was not sure I wanted to go.
You are crazy, I was told. It has the most beautiful, clearest sea in the world. You can look into the water and see right to the bottom of the ocean. Intrigued, I did some checking and discovered that a) the Maldives were a short hop away from Trivandrum by Indian Airlines, b) Indians did not need visas and c) that the Taj Group ran two resorts which offered reasonable all-inclusive (i.e. room plus all meals) rates.
So, I took the flight to Malé from Trivandrum. And I was blown away. As you probably know, the Maldives comprise thousands of tiny coral islands, only some of which are inhabited. The capital Malé is on a largish island. The airport is on another island. And each resort is on an island of its own.
The Taj resort where I was staying was kind of basic, but it was comfortable and well-run. And I soon discovered that the resort did not matter as long as it had water bungalows.
These are rooms, constructed on stilts directly above the water. They have stairs leading to what I thought was the Indian Ocean and because the water is not deep (around four feet or so usually) you can walk around. And yes, I had not been misinformed; the sea was so clear that you could look right to the bottom.
The consulting chef is Adeline Grattard of Paris’s highly-regarded Yam ‘Tcha but the real star in the kitchen is the young Sri Lankan chef Gaushan de Silva. Smejc hired Gaushan from Huvafen by telling him, “You can spend a year travelling the world and training where you like at my expense.”
So Gaushan spent three months at Noma and other great restaurants to supplement his previous experiences as personal chef to Queen Rania of Jordan (“a very discerning but demanding boss”).
As tends to happen at resorts which are partly vanity projects for billionaires, Gaushan can order whatever ingredients he wants: one evening, he did an eight course menu alternating white and black
with each dish.
But what I liked most about his food was the attention to detail: a Peking duck consomme was better than Matt Moran’s famous version; he cooked the best OHMI and Kobe beef till the outside was crisp and the fat had melted inside; his clams were a triumph of taste and presentation; and he slow-cooked a freshly caught Maldivian lobster so that it paired perfectly with white truffles. He is potentially one of Asia’s great chefs.
So far, at least, Velaa has been lucky. There are lots of Russians and other millionaires prepared to pay these prices. The average spend on food and beverage per villa is in excess of $1,000 a day.
But the management is looking further. It knows that Indians have money and there’s no shortage of millionaires looking for something more than the standard Four Seasons-One&Only experience. And Velaa’s air of exclusivity makes it attractive to the very rich.
For the rest of us, of course, there’s still the rest of the Maldives. It’s not cheap any longer. But it is still one of the most beautiful destinations in the world.
From HT Brunch, December 21
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