What makes the Maldives the most special island destination in the world?
As regular readers of this column will know, I try to go to the Maldives once a year. The reasons for going are simple enough. It is the world’s greatest island destination, way ahead of previous favourites such as French Polynesia and the Caribbean. It has some of the finest resort hotels on earth, and such is the trendiness of the destination that every luxury chain in the world wants to be in the Maldives, so newer and better resorts open each season.
The point of the Maldives is that it is not a single large island but is, instead, a collection of thousands of tiny coral islands. A few are large enough to support an international airport (on one island) or a small town called Male (on another island) that serves as the capital of the Maldives. But most are tiny. A small clump of trees on a coral reef could constitute a single island. Most resorts are on islands that are a little larger, but all are self-contained: one island is one resort.
Each island is surrounded by a lagoon of shallow water (though the Indian Ocean, with its deep blue water, lies beyond). It is the clearest water you will ever see. You can look down and see every pebble at the bottom of the sea.
Many people go only for the water; the Maldives is a paradise for snorkelling, diving and the like. Others go for the sense of isolation. There are few places in the world where your hotel takes over an entire island. And some, of course, go for the luxury, because resorts in the Maldives are at the cutting edge of modern luxury.
I started going to the Maldives long before it become luxurious. In those days, it was a package tour destination and the hotels were cheap. Hardly anybody from India went because there was only one flight to the Maldives. It was Indian Airlines from Trivandrum and was packed out with cooks, houseboys and other resort staff.
But I loved the Maldives and fortunately enough, I discovered two resorts run by the Taj Group. Both were fairly downmarket (we would call them three-star now) but even by the standards of the early 1990s, they offered astonishingly good value: $50 for two, including all meals! (It was another matter that the food – served buffet-style – was so disgusting that I always ate dal chawal at the staff canteen.)
But the quality of the hotel didn’t matter. As long as you had air-conditioning indoors and access to the lagoon, that was more than enough. The Taj resorts had water villas, built on stilts in the lagoon, so you could spend all day splashing about or swimming in the clear, warm water.
Then, Sonu Shivdasani (full disclosure: I have been friends with the Shivdasani family for over three decades now and am a trustee of their Inlaks Scholarship Foundation) discovered the Maldives. Along with his Swedish wife Eva, he believed that it had the potential to become a luxury destination because of the beauty of the islands.
Sonu and Eva decided to follow a Robinson Crusoe theme. They would emphasise the single-island identity of the resort, build it on eco-friendly principles and encourage guests to switch off from their busy, city-centric lives. Their island was further away from Male airport than the existing hotels and you needed to take a seaplane to get there. Once you landed, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, a boat would appear and a staff member (called Mr. Friday after Crusoe’s man Friday) would encourage you to take your shoes off for the rest of your trip.
At a stroke, Sonu invented two concepts. The first was the idea of the Maldives as a luxury destination and the second was the creation of Barefoot Luxury, an idea that has been widely copied all over the world.
Sonu’s first resort was called Soneva Fushi (I did a long piece on Sonu and Eva a few years ago; you’ll find it in the archives) and it quickly became a celebrity haunt. Then, the big hotel chains came to the Maldives to open luxury resorts and even the Taj upgraded, opening the Crystal (now a Vivanta) and the wonderful Taj Exotica. (I shot an episode of Custom Made at the Exotica in 2012 for NDTV Good Times.)
The problem, from an Indian perspective, is that the Maldives are not easy to get to. The Trivandrum flight still exists, but I prefer the newer Air India flight from Bengaluru. Until recently, there was no other connectivity.
When the Air India flight is late, you can be in trouble. Male is one of Air India’s best-managed small stations, but there is not much they can do if you arrive after the last seaplane has left. I was due to go to Sonu’s new Soneva Jani (the ‘coolest resort in the Maldives’ according to London’s Sunday Times and the subject of much breathless coverage in the international media) and missed my seaplane.
But all those years of going to the Maldives helped. I knew that the Taj Exotica was only a 20-minute boat ride from the airport (no seaplanes needed) so I phoned my friend, chef Sheroy, who has been there for the last six years. Could he book me in for the night?
Luckily, the Taj had room and so I spent my first night eating Sheroy’s amazing food and enjoying the luxury and warmth that characterises the Taj Group when it is at its best.
The next day I took the seaplane to Soneva Jani and was startled by how different it was. Because all water villas in the Maldives are built with the same intention – to make the most of the lagoon – they end up looking vaguely similar, no matter which resort you stay at.
One of Sonu and Eva’s most staggering achievements is to design huge villas (the smallest is 411 square metres) which are like houses (pantries, sit-outs, studies etc.) and resemble nothing I have ever seen in the Maldives. There are just 24 water villas so far (eventually there will be 60) and they are stunning.
But as wonderful as all of Sonu’s properties are, what he really excels at are the experiences. Some of these have now become a standard feature of the Maldives resorts (the dolphin cruise, for instance), but each time you stay at one of the three Sonevas (two in the Maldives, one in Thailand), you always leave with memories of something special.
One night, we had dinner (with some truly extraordinary wines) under the stars in the observatory. Just as the first course was served, Mike, the resort’s resident astronomer, appeared. He pressed a button and a powerful telescope rose magically out of the floor. All through dinner, we used the telescope to see the stars. The sight of Venus (so huge in the telescope’s lens that it looked like the moon) in the night sky will stay with me for a long time.
On another night, we wandered off to a beach at the end of the island (Soneva Jani is an unusually large island going by Maldives’ standards), while waiters served cocktails and champagne as dancers performed. Then, we shifted to a Cinema Paradiso. All of Sonu’s hotels have cinemas, but this one was easily the most glamorous cinema theatre I have ever seen. The seating was restaurant-style so, while chefs made popcorn, sushi rolls, prawn skewers and heavier main courses, the movie played on a giant screen in the water. We were all given state-of-the-art wireless headphones and watched an Alfred Hitchcock classic as the sea breeze wafted gently around the room.
At lunch one day, we went to another of the resort’s beaches where the chefs dug up fish they had first marinated and then buried under the sand along with hot coals. The fish was delicious, but the experience was the real magic.
And then, when it was time to go, I disappointed my friends at the Air India station at Male by discovering that an airline called Mega Maldives had just launched a direct flight to Delhi. No Bengaluru/Trivandrum connections were needed. I took a seaplane from Soneva Jani, landed at the airport and climbed into a very comfortable Mega Maldives seat.
And four hours later, I was back in the cold Delhi evening!
From HT Brunch, February 5, 2017
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