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.
Deep blue sea: Water bungalows are typical of all resorts in the Maldives. Later, somebody explained to me that this wasn’t really the Indian Ocean or the sea. Each island was surrounded by a shallow lagoon of relatively still water. And it was this water that was so clear that you could see every shell at the very bottom.
I was told not to feed the fish. But I did anyway. Each morning, I would throw pieces of my breakfast toast into the lagoon and hundreds of brilliantly coloured fish would swim up to my water bungalow to grab the bread.
Later in that trip, they took me out in a glass-bottomed boat from which you could look at the floor of the lagoon and then, the clearer parts of the Indian Ocean. It was mind-blowing: the greatest aquarium on Earth.
For years, I treated the Maldives as my own little paradise. I went back three or four times, stuck to the two Taj resorts and had the holidays of my life. It was not luxurious. Many of the guests appeared to be package tourists from Eastern Europe.
The food consisted of rubbish buffets and I usually asked if I could eat the staff canteen dal-chawal. But it didn’t matter. As long as I had a water bungalow and the lagoon, I was happy.
Then, early in this century, the world discovered the Maldives. One&Only, the Four Seasons, and other luxury chains arrived. The Taj upgraded one property (it is now a Vivanta) and opened the spectacular Taj Exotica (where I shot an episode of Custom Made two years ago).
I tried many of the other resorts. One&Only Reethi Rah, Sonu Shivadasani’s trendsetting Soneva Fushi and others. And very soon the Maldives became such an expensive destination that I could no longer afford to go there as often as I used to.
Pretty soon, all the islands near the capital Malé and the airport became resorts. But because demand would not let up, the government started leasing out islands that there were too far to get to by boat and were best accessed by helicopter or sea-plane.
I tried some of the faraway islands and soon came to the conclusion that they were no prettier than the islands near Malé. They all had the same lagoons, the same clear water and the same natural beauty. Only the resorts seemed to get more and more upmarket.
Around a year ago, I heard of two new resorts, both aiming for the very top echelon of travellers. One of them, Cheval Blanc, was on an island leased to a Bulgarian (I think) who had cleverly got LVMH involved in the management, knowing that the moment wealthy Chinese hear the words ‘Louis Vuitton’ they reach for their wallets.
Cast away: Velaa Private Island – the most expensively constructed hotel in the world – is a small, 45 keys, all-villa hotel where each of the villas is designed for long stays. But it was the other one – Velaa Private Island – which is room-for-room the most expensively constructed hotel in the world (between $4 to $5 million a room to build, depending on which figure you believe about the project cost) that intrigued me. Why would anyone spend nearly $250 million dollars to build a 45-room hotel in the Maldives?
My friend Sanjay Menon, the wine expert, supplies wine to Velaa and a few months ago he called with a proposal. Would I accept an invitation to a food and wine pairing weekend at Velaa? Would I? Of course, I would!
Which is how I ended up again in the Maldives in what must be the most unusual resort in the country. The resort manager, Mohamed Nihaj, told me the story of how Velaa came to be built. Nihaj was a butler at Huvafen Fushi, one of the top resorts in the Maldives, when a Czech billionaire called Jiri Smejc came to stay. Of the 14 days he was in the Maldives, it rained for 11.
"You’ve come at the wrong time of year," Nihaj told him. "Come back again". So Smejc did and he fell in love with the Maldives, just as nearly everyone who goes there does. He told Nihaj, "Find me an island. I want to buy one here". Butlers are used to big talk so Nihaj thought nothing of the conversation. But within months, Smejc was back. "So have you found me an island?" he demanded.
Of course, Nihaj had not.
"Ok, find me one by the next time I come!" he commanded.
So Nihaj went looking and when a suitable island was put on the market by the Maldivian government, he called Smejc. The billionaire flew in, looked at the island, liked it and began the process of leasing it from the government. Once he had the island, he resolved to build a villa for himself. But what would he do with the rest?
That’s when the idea of a small all-villa hotel was born. Smejc knew that he could not compete with the standard resort hotels in the Maldives. So he gave his resort an exclusive, residential ambience with only 45 villas (something like One&Only that has around 130 rooms), each of them huge in size and designed for long-stay guests (with large cupboards, pantries etc.)
But because that would not be enough, he also turned it into a food and wine destination. Unusual for a resort with 45 keys, it has three restaurants and a room service menu that stretches on and on. The cellar has over 10,000 wines and apart from Romanée-Conti and Château Margaux, it also has real gems from boutique wineries that only collectors know about.
Master of spices: Sri Lankan chef Gaushan de Silva is the real star in the kitchens of the Velaa and is potentially one of Asia’s great chefs.
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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