If your idea of bliss is an exotic getaway amid calm aquamarine oceans, stunning white sandy beaches – and weather that makes sunbathing de rigueur, the Maldives is the perfect place to visit.
But, if the climate scientists are to be believed, it will be the first nation to disappear when the seas begin to rise. The 1,192 islands are located south-west of Sri Lanka in the Laccadive Sea of the Indian Ocean and have an elevation of just 1.5 metres above sea level.
This makes it the country with the world’s lowest highpoint, at just 2.3 metres.
Yet its location makes for balmy temperatures – it rarely falls below 25C, although it can go much, much higher, while rainfall tends to be confined to the summer monsoon, between June and August. But don’t bother packing your umbrella – even now in the rainy season the sun shines most of the time.
Before the Seventies, The Maldives was largely terra incognita for tourists. However, with increasing availability of flights from around the world, coupled with rapid boat connections, that has changed.
Today, tourism accounts for almost a third of Maldivian GDP and more than two-thirds of its foreign-exchange receipts. Holidaymaking is big business for Maldivians and standards are exceptionally high.
Our party of six visited one example of the island’s luxury tourism at The Waldorf Astoria at Manafaru, just before the onset of the summer monsoon. The resort sits at the northernmost tip of the Maldives, in a pristine, atoll-ringed lagoon. While once it sustained the traditional lifestyles of a hardy band of locals, in more recent times it has been transformed. Speedboats have linked it to other parts of The Maldives and it is now a favoured resort of the international jet set.
The Waldorf Astoria has a formidable pedigree. During its first year of operation, the resort, then named The Beach House, wowed the world’s most discerning travellers and travel guides, receiving accolades including winner of the International Restaurant and Hotel Award for Best New Luxury Hotel 2008; and The Daily Telegraph’s World’s Best New Hotels the same year. It also became a member of Relais and Chateaux, the über-elite group of the world’s most beautiful restaurants and hotels. Today, visitors from around the world recognise it as one of the most luxurious and enjoyable island getaways on the planet.
Exquisite food, spectacular views, warm and friendly service, a heavenly spa and luxurious levels of comfort made for a week to remember.
Arriving at Manafaru was worth the admission price itself. Flights from the UAE go to the capital, Male, from where speedboats whisk expectant visitors across the calm seas on a 45-minute transfer. The sun glints on the water, making silvery shapes and patterns, while waves form over coral reefs and palm-tree-topped islands rise into view.
The Beach House Collection had allocated each member of our group a well-appointed Maldivian-style villa. It was perched over the lagoon, having been built on sturdy stilts, and featured an ample deck with infinity plunge pool, awe-inspiring views across the Indian Ocean, and a lounge with a glass-panelled floor allowing quiet observation of marine life throughout the day or evening.
While the Maldives represents life stripped down to simplicity – cobalt skies, all-year sunshine and fantastic snorkelling in lagoons – this doesn’t mean you go without your mod cons.
The sumptuous bedroom was equipped with widescreen LCD television, full air conditioning, a deluxe king-size bed, wi-fi, iPod docking station and much more. The bathroom overlooked the soft sandy lagoon with its crystal clear waters. Its twin Jacuzzi baths, his’n’hers basins and black stone floors completed the exotic ambience.
Blending into island life
During our week, there was much of the laidback island life to enjoy. A trip to one of the many neighbouring islands gave us a true taste of life in this part of the world. Young girls skipped through the streets as elderly ladies sought repose in hammocks; slender men played football on the untarmaced streets while fishermen returned with their colourful catch.
A snorkelling trip enabled us to enjoy the underwater delights of the reef, which comprises coral debris and living coral in vibrant, phosphorescent colours. Shoals of fish swam through the curiously shaped structures, taking shelter from predators and displaying their extraordinary patterns of stripes and dots. Shier creatures swam rapidly beneath rocks, or into tiny crevices, where they hid until we had gone.
Later that same day, we enjoyed a fishing trip further out to sea to literally fish for our supper. We cast on sturdy lines, using pieces of tuna as bait, then hauled in an impressive catch of emperor fish, red snapper and other tropical delights. Large shoals of fish followed our boat, tempted by the tuna bait, and it became easy to reel them in.
Once our adventures were over, we took to the top deck of our cruising yacht and the cabin crew brought us a feast of fruit, pastries and delightful macaroons that sated our hunger.
Later than evening, our fish was served in one of the many Beach Collection restaurants. The dinner was part of a succession of gourmet experiences during the week.
The Beach House’s international chef oversaw three impeccable eateries – Saffron, Medium Rare and Four Corners. We dined on black wagyu steaks, sumptuous abalone, Indian Ocean king scallops, exquisite fresh local lobster and dishes deliciously seasoned with eastern spice. Desserts were an explosion of taste, texture and immaculate presentation. The chefs made inventive use of the tropical fruits that were readily available and each dish looked as pretty as a picture.
There was time for rest and relaxation on other days. The island’s water sports centre provided a base for sea kayaking and wind surfing, there were opportunities to swim in the warm, clear seas, and a gentleman’s club was equipped with table-tennis tables, pool and a golf blaster, to enable virtual games. The state-of-the-art boys’ toy even allowed a computerised round on the famed St Andrew’s course.
On one afternoon, four of our group took sea kayaks out on the water. We teamed up in the two-person vessels and navigated our way around the island, paddling beneath our beach houses and enjoying the warm sun rays as we rowed.
Taking it even easier
The themes of indulgence and relaxation continued in the Shui Spa, which housed extensive facilities to help guests unwind. Small waterfalls, orchids and burning incense led to spa villas, ayurveda villas, Thai and shiatsu gazebos, a yoga terrace, boutique room, saunas, steam rooms and chilled pools. The staff who ran the facilities were charming and polite, offering expert advice and finding out about our daily lives, so that treatments could be tailored to our needs.
During one visit, I enjoyed the most relaxing massage of my life. My 90-minute treatment comprised a full-body massage followed by a bliss-inducing head massage with hot oil. The oil was suspended in a vessel above my forehead and as I lay on the hardwood bed, it slowly trickled, inducing a state of almost transcendental bliss.
The masseuse gently stroked the oil through my hair and then massaged the tension from my body. For several hours afterwards, I felt like the most chilled-out person alive.
All too soon it was time to return from our idyllic and tranquil week. We had enjoyed the impeccable views, the sensational food, the wonders of the natural world and the high-tech facilities that made Manafaru a home-from-home. The normal worries of our everyday lives had melted away.
Having enjoyed an amazing week on the island, it’s to be hoped the scientists are wrong; or that islands like Manafaru will somehow survive.
One thing is for sure; discerning holidaymakers should not take any chances. Now is the time to visit one of the most tranquil destinations on the planet. As we touched down following our return flight home, all of our group wished we’d been able to stay for another week. Manafaru really is an island of dreams.
Prices for the Waldorf Astoria Maldives start from around Dh3,000 per night, depending on time of year and duration of stay, and more details are available from
Flights to Male are available, departing from Abu Dhabi with Etihad Airways, from around Dh2,500 and for more details visit www.etihadairways.com
Make your Maldives holiday greener with our eco tips
Avoid touching any living corals as it damages them. The coral reefs are very important as they provide a habitat for several species. In addition they protect the islands from erosion and storms because they act as barriers against rising tides and violent waters resulting from the storms sweeping across the Indian Ocean.
Carefully select your souvenirs
Avoid buying products made from any part of an endangered species, for instance shell or coral jewellery or jewellery made out of non-fossilised shark’s teeth.
Eat sustainable seafood
Be aware of protected and endangered species. Help prevent over-fishing by choosing sustainable fish and avoiding eating shark-fin soup or shark meat. Diving with sharks is a major tourist attraction in the Maldives that racks in millions of dollars, according to FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations). It is estimated a Grey Reef Shark may be worth at least one hundred times more alive at a dive site than dead on a fishing boat.
Do not discard empty cans, bottles and plastic bags on the beach because they do not bio-degrade and may end up in the sea where they’ll last indefinitely and pose a potential hazard to marine life.
Try to volunteer and help with projects that conserve and improve habitats like coral reefs or protect wildlife. (Airworldtours runs a coral reef project in the Maldives: http://airworldtours.wordpress.com/) Visit the Maldives Environmental Protection Agency website: http://epa.gov.mv/