The Maldive island of Reethi Rah may not seem like the most obvious place to take a baby. But for Laura Bailey it was the perfect post-natal pick-up...
Saturday 23 July 2005
There's only a certain amount of planning for paradise that even close friends will tolerate. I would sneak furtive glimpses of tropical waters on the internet while pretending to work, and steal my co-conspirators - baby Luc, nanny Mel and Godfather Nick - away from the crowd to talk bikini-shopping, weather forecasts (sun and more sun...), and the pros and cons of prams on sand. As the father of my child got grumpier and grumpier at the sight of my sarong-strewn suitcase, my eccentric little gang of four were counting the days.
The Maldives - and the island resort of Reethi Rah, the latest addition to the One&Only group of hotels - was our destination. Arriving grubby and exhausted we were immediately whisked on golf buggies to our villas. We gawped at the too-perfect coastline as we started to attune to the silence, only interrupted by Luc's excited squealing.
Although Luc and I were next door to nanny Mel and the Godfather, we each felt we were in our own private plot of paradise, our villas totally secluded with a football pitch size area of outdoor space just for lounging and playing. I never got used to opening my doors and windows at dawn to a totally unspoilt view of my pool and the crescent bay beyond. Once or twice I spotted a lone swimmer in the distance or a couple taking a sunset stroll but most of the time I could pretend it was all mine.
Staying at Reethi Rah - which means "beautiful island" in the native language Dhiveli - is like being enfolded in a perfect cocoon, where your every whim is indulged. I surrendered to being totally spoilt - it's amazing how fast one adjusts to a princess's life. I thought about what I'd most like to taste rather than eating what was quick and convenient. Every meal became a treat, an occasion, even the couple of evenings we decided to stay at the villa and eat under the stars, but my favourite place to eat was Fanditha on the tip of the island. This starlit beachside bar was strewn with cushions and hammocks and Balinese-style beds from where we'd drift down to the tables at the edge of the ocean to eat by candlelight. Luc snuggled in a nest of sarongs and towels and tambourines and teddies on the sand snoozing happily beside us. He'd wake for the buggy ride home, the breeze in his hair, giggling all the way back to bed with me, nanny Mel and the Godfather fighting over the last cuddle.
I realise the Maldives is not an obvious destination for families with babies, water everywhere and a marathon flight, but, for Luc, this was an absolutely magical trip - his first swim in the sea, first underwater kicking, first papaya, first sandcastle. He bewitched every single member of staff into non-stop cuddling. Haris, our wonderful personal "villa host", spoilt him rotten as well as keeping our home from home immaculate (despite it being the designated hangout zone decorated with all our beach and baby paraphernalia). The almost psychic service throughout the resort was beyond anything I've ever experienced. Antibiotics I needed that I'd left at home appeared in my room within 15 minutes of a call to the resident doctor. The Godfather's beloved battered old Panama hat was delicately repaired as if by magic elves after a pessimistic plea to the boutique girls to rescue it. Highchairs appeared out of nowhere when we arrived for lunch. My villa was even equipped with a cot (happily inhabited by a glow-in-the-dark yellow cat robotically repeating, "Hello...Welcome...Hello...Welcome...."), a sterilizer, bottle warmer - basically, everything we needed and more. Those with babies will know how much this means, and how much easier it makes life on the road. Older kids are similarly indulged with their own pool, computers, pool table, watersports and endless other distractions.
The spa too, is in a league of its own. The grounds themselves are magnificent but the Thai yoga massage I had at sunset in a pavilion built on stilts over water was one of the most restorative experiences I've ever had. As I eyed the fish darting about below I had every ounce of angst stretched and pummelled out of me. I felt almost drunk afterwards - a head start on a big night out with the Godfather later at Tapasake, Reethi Rah's exquisite modern Japanese restaurant. We were taken by an old friend who I run into rarely on Portobello Road, but there we were in a buggy on a desert island reunited by a fluke in paradise. Nick too had earlier experienced Reethi Rah's zen calm, treating himself to a one-to-one yoga class and declaring himself transformed. We caught up with the long-lost friend on the years we'd missed happily under the spell of the spa and the sea - and the sake.
The Maldives are, of course, famous for romance but Reethi Rah is far from being a couples-only resort full of love-struck honeymooners whispering sweet nothings. Its atmosphere of relaxed chic means anything goes and you can be as social or reclusive as you like. It's not somewhere one emerges transformed in heels and big hair for 7pm cocktails, though of course you could - or somewhere the paparazzi will be snapping pictures of you. If I had a spare million dollars - or a million dollars at all come to that (that's how much it costs to rent the entire island for a five-day weekend!) - I'd take all my favourite people in the world. It's that kind of place. Back in the (semi-) real world, my little party of four soon turned into happy little ragamuffins. Luc's clothes remained in neat unworn piles as he splashed from naked swim to kaftan cuddles and back again. The joy of being in a bikini all day every day after winter studio-bound shoots at home. At Reethi Rah, dressing up meant slipping a little Allegra Hicks kaftan over swimwear or an old Topshop sundress. We shot our story without even a glance in the mirror trusting that "happy on the inside" would translate. Usually when I'm thinking "real and natural" I don't really mean that at all, but thanks to the Godfather and the magic light, vanity didn't come into it. Back in London discussing make-up and retouching on another job, I already miss being briefly allowed to just be.
Once I would have indulged in dawn sprints across the sands but any exercise at all other than gentle paddling in the shallows with Luc fell by the wayside on this trip. My trainers never actually emerged from my suitcase, unheard of until now. Instead, early mornings at Reethi Rah meant cuddles and tickles and giggles followed by a long leisurely breakfast of soya berry smoothies, homemade granola, omelettes and croissants. I'm a coffee addict, not helped by the espresso machine provocatively winking at me from the corner of my bedroom, but even I was tempted by the choice of 21 different types of tea from lapsong souchong to ginger spice. For those who are keen to unpack, and even use their sporty gear, the opportunities to sweat are endless with multiple state-of-the-art tennis courts, a gym so hyper-modern I'd never even heard of the latest equipment, hiking and jogging paths, plus every watersport you care to think of.
Pre-Luc I'd have tried it all, and some day soon I will again, but for me Reethi Rah was a barefoot island, lulling me into a gentler pace, allowing me to simply play.
Except for one big adventure. For years I'd dreamt of diving with sharks, never quite believing it would happen despite being a certified PADI diver. Out of practice thanks to my pregnancy, I confessed to some anxiety while signing up for a quick refresher course followed by a dive the next day. Belly racing with butterflies, I felt my mind go blank as I was quizzed on the basic sign language and safety codes I'd once known so well. I blamed Luc and my island paradise for a brain mushing into jelly, but luckily I couldn't have been in better hands. Eugene, a gentle giant, patiently encouraged me and once underwater everything clicked back into place and my nerves turned into adrenalin. I've dived all over the world from the Bahamas to Tanzania but have never seen a dive centre like the one at Reethi Rah. Most are grungy at best - you kind of want to scrub your wetsuit before climbing into it and there's never anywhere to shower or relax. Here, you are spoilt from start to finish - your kit neatly packed in a box with your name on it, locker room immaculate, a lounge area as chic as any cool bar and a sleek boat packed with refreshments to take us to our dive site.
There were three couples and me with four dive masters between us, so I had Eugene's undivided attention. As Nick pointed out just before I descended into the deep, given a choice, a shark would go for the big juicy steak of Eugene rather than the skinny chip of me for lunch anyway. I've dived in big groups and had fun but this was something special; the feeling of being almost alone underwater, spying on another world which, in the clear waters of the Maldives, appeared almost as a Disney cartoon. The fish we saw were so hyper-real with their Technicolor zebra/polka-dot/Pucciesque rainbow costumes. They were more flamboyant than any couture catwalk. And then there were the sharks - not Jaws-style, just gentle white-tips, but still it went against all basic instincts to swim towards those teeth and fins. If I'd been able to breathe and gasp and giggle at the same time without drowning I would have. Instead, I just gawped and gulped down my air double-fast, betraying my over-excitement and lack of cool as my heavy breathing shrank my air supplies. Later, back on the boat, exhausted and exhilarated and half-asleep, fiction and reality blurred in a salty dreamy haze. I'll never forget those big liquid underwater eyes and the feeling of my heart beating high in my throat. My baby felt especially tiny when I returned to him, or maybe it was the rest of the world that suddenly felt bigger.
After the tragedy of last December's tsunami the Maldives couldn't have a better voice to herald their health and positivity in recovery than that of Reethi Rah. The region relies on tourism and local communities are back in business, big-time. Reethi Rah was untouched and is pioneering the return to paradise across the islands, seducing unsuspecting tourists like me with a holiday of a lifetime. I left with precious memories - like shells and stones I'll hide and polish over time, rediscovering whenever I seek calmer seas. When I die I don't want to go to heaven. I want to go to Reethi Rah. I better be good.
You can fly non-stop from Heathrow to Male, the capital of the Maldives, on Sri Lankan Airlines (020-8538 2000; www.srilankan.aero), and from other UK airports on charter flights. In addition, a range of other airlines such as Qatar Airways (020-7896 3636; www.qatarairways.com) and Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com) fly from several UK airports to Male. The hotel is accessible from Male airport by a 50 minute One&Only yacht transfer.
One&Only Reethi Rah, North Male Atoll, Maldives (00 960 448 800; www.oneandonlyresorts.com).
A number of tour operators include the property such as Elegant Resorts (01244 897000; www.elegantresorts.co.uk). Prices start at £1,850 per person for seven nights in a beach villa, including breakfast, return yacht transfers and flights with Emirates from Heathrow.
One&Only Reethi Rah Dive Centre. Diving excursions start at $41 (£23) and beginner courses start at $399 (£222).
Maldives Tourist Board (00 960 323 228; www.visitmaldives.com).
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