Villas, private pools, huge bathrooms and more: Maldives is home to some of the best luxury resorts
In this week’s column, Vir tells us about the evolution of luxury resorts and about some of the best ones which are in the Maldives.Updated: Nov 22, 2019 12:18 IST
I have always been intrigued by the idea of a luxury resort. The earliest resort hotels I can think of – in Switzerland and in the rest of Europe - were located in scenic spots. But at the luxury end of the market, they were usually grand hotels of the sort you would find in big cities. Take any of the holiday hotels in Switzerland – the Victoria Jungfrau for instance, which is in Interlaken – and you will find that the location is splendid and the view is amazing. But the hotel itself is not so different from a luxury hotel in say, Geneva.
In the old days, grand hotels were grand hotels no matter where they were located. It was the town or the village that was the resort not the hotel.
I am guessing that this only began to change in the 1960s when Americans discovered Hawaii as a vacation spot and the resort hotels began to diverge slightly from their city counterparts. But even in that era, most resort hotels were tower blocks.
The great advance in resort properties came in the Far East. The early hotels in such resort destinations as Pattaya in Thailand (say, the Royal Cliff) were grand rather than super luxurious. But all that changed by the end of the 1980s when resort-properties became spread out and villa-based. The Four Seasons in Jimbaran Bay in Bali may have been the first hotel where every room was a villa and every villa had a private pool.
By the 1990s, with such Asian chains as Banyan Tree upping the ante, resort hotels had become super luxurious destinations in themselves. They were nothing like city hotels and the idea was that you never had to leave the property to feel that you were on vacation. Eventually it got to the stage where even city hotels tried to look like resorts. The best thing about the Park Hyatt in Dubai, for instance, is that you forget you are in Dubai.
But only a few destinations retained a resort culture that was completely different. The luxury hotels of Bora Bora, Polynesia and the islands of the Pacific were sometimes built around beautiful lagoons, were spread out and commanded huge rates.
Nothing could top them till the Maldives went upmarket. In the 1990s, the Maldives was a budget holiday destination that catered to tour groups. I always thought that this was silly because the Maldives has the most beautiful islands in the world. There are thousands of them, all made of coral and not much bigger than a couple of square miles. Each resort occupies an entire island and you can only reach it by boat, helicopter or seaplane.
The water is the cleanest you will ever see, the oceans team with marine life, the lagoons are spectacular and when you are in a Maldivian island, you have the sense of being in your own little paradise.
The luxury hotel companies discovered the Maldives in this century and now virtually every hotel chain in the world has an upmarket resort in the Maldives: the Four Seasons, Hyatt, One and Only, Hilton (Waldorf Astoria), St Regis, Shangri La, the Taj and almost everyone else you can think of. Despite the competition from the ever increasing number of resorts, room rates remain spectacularly high (beating Bora Bora and the Pacific islands) and these may be the most expensive resorts in the world.
The two big boys in the Maldives are the LVMH –managed Cheval Blanc and Velaa Private Island, owned by an Eastern European billionaire and favoured by the world’s millionaires . The year-round average room rates are probably around US $ 2800 a night or so and in season, the entry-level room in each property can cost upwards of $ 5000.
That both resorts are packed out in season tells us how much wealth there now is in the world. Velaa, for instance, has under 50 villas spread over a large island and many of the guests are willing to spend around $ 30,000 a night for large villas (like houses) with three or four bedrooms. If that sounds like a lot of money, then consider this. They spend several thousand dollars more per day on food and drink. These are places where billionaire order magnums of Chateau Petrus, and fly in on their own planes or sail in on their yachts.
Staying at Velaa last week, I wondered what billionaires did in the days before the super-luxury resorts opened. The answer, I think is that they were less adventurous. They had their own holiday homes, their own residential yachts and if they were like Aristotle Onassis, their own private islands. (Onassis’s island was called Skorpios).
Most billionaires stayed within a narrow geographical spectrum. If they were Americans, they remained within their own country. Brits went to the Caribbean. And Europeans stuck to the South of France or Switzerland and other destinations within their own continent.
But the world has changed so much that millionaires (or billionaires, even) no longer come only from the West. They come from Asia or from Eastern Europe. And even those from traditional Western markets now want to go further and explore new destinations. That’s how the new super-luxury hotels in such places as the Maldives find their guests.
In a sense, a Maldivian luxury vacation combines two different styles of holidaying. Earlier people went for the location not the hotel - the Maldives meets that requirement because it is one of the world’s most beautiful locations. Later, they went for the resorts: and the Maldives has the world’s best resorts.
But, I wondered, what do guests get for their money. At Velaa, they get privacy. Because the island is so large and there are relatively few villas, you don’t have to bump into anyone if you don’t want to. They get space. The villas are huge: the sort of size you only find in Presidential suites at city hotels. Many villas have private stretches of beach and their own gardens where you can sit out for barbecues or throw drinks parties. The larger villas have kitchens and picky guests (say, Indian vegetarians) can bring their own cooks. There are wine cellars stocked with some of the world’s rarest wines in some villas and all of them have huge bathrooms with massive circular bathtubs offering unmatched views of the ocean.
You also get the kinds of sporting activities you don’t usually have on Maldivian coral islands. Velaa has tennis courts, a squash court, a nine-hole golf course, yoga pavilions, snorkeling areas etc.
But most important of all, for many of the guests, I reckon is the food and wine. The Velaa resort has three restaurants and a bar (for just 48 villas!) serving nearly every kind of cuisine. (Breakfast can be caviar or - in my case - a masala dosa). The chef Gaushan De Silva (who I will write about in Brunch in a couple of weeks) may well be the greatest Asian chef you have never heard of. When I first ate his food, four years ago, I wrote that it was of Michelin-star quality. This time I thought he would easily get two stars if Michelin ever published a guide to the Maldives.
In a sense, Gaushan’s status as a chef that only millionaires know about, helps preserve the exclusively of the resort. These days, nearly every hotel has a restaurant allegedly run by a Michelin star chef who only visits for a few days a year. But rarely will you get a chef of Gaushan’s ability cooking with his own hands for guests.
Is Velaa the future for luxury resorts? Honestly I don’t know. I can’t conceive of many hotels in the world offering such levels of luxury. But what is clear is that there are people willing to pay these prices. And you don’t need the big chains to run them: Velaa is a standalone property.
My own feeling is that people are willing to pay much for luxury resorts than we realise. When Biki Oberoi built his Vilas properties, every single hotelier I know said that he was mad: nobody would pay those prices.
In fact, Biki managed to fill the Vilas hotels and get them rated among the world’s best hotels.
So perhaps, that is the future. People earn much more than they used to. Even in India, there are more millionaires than ever before.
And they need somewhere to go on vacation!
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