Spas, stars and the two Rs: what's new in the Maldives?
Only about 200 of its 1,196 islands are inhabited – which leaves room for more upmarket resorts, says Simmy Richman
Sunday 20 April 2008
The Maldives is not the place to go if you want to worry about facts and figures. Are there 1,196 islands? It depends on what's considered an island and who's doing the counting. Are these tiny slabs of natural perfection south-west of Sri Lanka really, as Darwin suggested, the result of little spurts from underwater volcanoes? Less beautiful theories suggest not, but you don't come to the Maldives to ponder the evolution of this ever-shifting, sparkling and temporal mass of coral atolls liberally specked with Robinson Crusoe islands.
Let's get facts and figures out of the way then. Of the however many islands, only about 200 are inhabited, and just less than half of these are the kind of places you think about when you think about the Maldives – exclusive and luxurious resort destinations. So popular has the Maldives become with honeymooners and holidaymakers that, last year, the government gave the go-ahead for another 35 resort islands to open for business over the next 25 years. As Japanese investment is pumped in to protect the environment, the Maldives tourist industry (motto: "the sunny side of life") finds itself reaching out beyond newlyweds in an effort to touch the magical 1,000,000 visitors a year mark. (It's currently about 700,000.)
But enough with the facts and figures. Because what most people do come to the Maldives for is to realise those secret dreams of the high-maintenance castaway; they come seeking that rustic, back-to-nature experience, complete with every luxury the 21st-century can offer. Here, with nothing but our rainforest showers, opulent open-air bathrooms and flatscreen TVs, we come to play out our barefoot-executive fantasies of spas, stars and the two Rs.
No problem. Except, that is, in how you might go about making all of this appeal to those crucial non-honeymooners. Well, for one, there are now two small but highly efficient fleets of air-taxi seaplanes to make hopping between islands reasonably straightforward. And with multi-location potential comes an array of skydivers, surfers and thrill-seekers from across the world. Naturally, as the reasons behind people coming here expand and vary, so do the resorts springing up to accommodate them.
Our first stop is a 35-minute speedboat hop from Malé International Airport (about £65 per person return) to Anantara, a relatively new resort consisting of two islands. The Anantara ethos is very much the "no news, no shoes" idea pioneered by Soneva Fushi in 1995. From £250 per night, you can have an understatedly luxurious beach cabin with fabulous outdoor/ indoor bathroom and secluded terrace with private beachfront. The resort offers picnics on private islands, dolphin safaris, a Padi 5 star diving centre, yoga classes and cooking lessons as well as being a base from which to arrange more adventurous activities.
A few days at Anantara and it's a short flight by seaplane to another of the Maldives' more recent additions: the Four Seasons at Landaa Giraavaru. If Anantara was all boutique-hotel good taste, Landaa Giraavaru is, as you would expect from the Four Seasons, a masterclass in exorbitantly tasteful excellence (from about £350 per cabin per night). Here, Mother Nature is discreetly picked up when she is untidy on land while a marine conservation centre invests in and protects the delicate eco-system all around. Food and cabins – there are some 50 "beach pavilions" and 38 "water bungalows" – are, needless to say, so faultless you'll want to cry when it's time to leave.
But leave we must, because the designerly decadent W brand has also opened in the Maldives recently, throwing clubbing, singles and civil partnerships into the Maldives mix. Once our guide has delicately stressed that this is not really a place for children, I take leave to sit in my private plunge pool and dry off on my round, white day bed as the ocean laps gently underneath. Yeah baby. I am the Austin Powers of the Indian Ocean. I am in pink-pound paradise (from £350 to £5,000 per night). In W world, the gym is called "Sweat"; a bar is named "Wet"; the bathmat says "Step" and rooms are "Retreats". If you're lucky, you might just escape within an inch of your lifestyle.
Meanwhile, the planners plan and the builders build the next wave of island-hotels. (Shangri-La's Villingili, the first luxury resort on the Addu Atoll in the southern Maldives, is next up later this year.) Villingili will be served by Gan airport, now cleared to land international flights, and will boast a "retail and entertainment village", a "water activity focal point" called "The Village" and tree-house villas. Unusually, the Shangri-La group is also using the fact that Villingili is surrounded by inhabited islands which visitors are can explore by bicycle as a selling point: as resorts become evermore Prisoner-like, lack of interaction with Maldivians becomes a common complaint.
Where all this leaves the Maldives, as complex and fragile a paradise as exists, is anyone's guess. It's a good thing, then, that the Maldives is not the place to go if you want to worry about facts and figures.
How to get there
Simmy Richman flew to Malé with Sri Lankan Airlines (020-8538 2000; srilankan.aero), which offers flights from £625. Voyana Holidays (020-8515 4600; voyana.com) has flights and seven nights' b&b for £1,165 per person at Anantara (00 960 664 4100; anantara.com). Trans Maldivian Airlines (tma.com.mv) can arrange inter-island flights from £60 per person. Four Seasons Resort Landaa Giraavaru (00 960 660 0888; fourseasons. com/maldives). W Retreat and Spa, Fesdu Island (00 960 666 2222; starwoodhotels.com).
Maldives Tourist Board (visitmaldives.com).
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