Splash out: Make waves in the world's most stylish dive resorts
Whether you plan to dive, snorkel or just relax, these extracts from the new edition of 'Dive in Style' by Tim Simond reveal some of the best places on the planet to enjoy life above and below the ocean waves
Saturday 27 March 2010
Fiji: Wakaya Club
The private island of Wakaya, 40 minutes' flight from Fiji's main airport at Nadi, is some 2,200 acres – but less than one-10th has been terraformed into one man's dream, the balance left to nature, stuffed with wild deer, horses, goats and pigs, some of which you will meet again at the restaurant. Ten minutes in a 4x4 and the resort reveals itself, small and intimate, no soaring reception, just 10 discreet rooms set in beautiful tropical gardens all fronting onto the multi-hued Koro Sea.
Plenty of Hollywood's A-list have stayed here, plus Keith Richards – who notoriously fell out of a tree and probably gave this off-the-radar resort more publicity than it has ever sought. Crafted out of a coconut plantation and built within the towering palms is a smattering of buildings, while behind are an immaculate nine-hole golf course, tennis courts, croquet lawn and gym.
This is the only resort in the world I know of where your room is genuinely guaranteed to be ready whenever you arrive, and late check-out is a given: they simply do not book your room the day before or the day after your reservation. The rooms are spacious with separate bedroom and sitting room, all in traditional Fijian style with high eaves, woven walls and timber floors.
Yes, the price may shock, but included is some of the best food you can imagine, limitless, utter solitude and two dives a day for each of you. To call this a dive resort is ridiculous, but since the price does include diving, it could be considered as such. It is therefore easy to pronounce this as easily the best dive resort in the world – and, as for the diving, also some of the very best.
The small centre hogs an enviable position at the end of the beach, and is equipped with a good range of largely Scubapro gear.
If you aren't good on boats then Wakaya has to offer the easiest, most comfortable, convenient diving in Fiji, and very probably the world. Come to think of it, I cannot think of anywhere where such incredible diving is so immediately accessible. Nearly all the sites are less than five minutes from the dock, which in turn is just 30 seconds from the dive shop. Meet after a leisurely breakfast at 9.30am, and you can have done two dives and return well in time for lunch, leaving the rest of the day to explore the island, play golf or just chill. The only thing that might delay you is the sight of a mirror smooth sea, prickly with pilot whales basking on the surface, which I witnessed: a wonderful sight.
What makes the diving here so special and probably accounts for the reef's incredible health is that, aside from the occasional visiting live-aboard, only Wakaya's guests get to dive its pristine reefs.
Regardless of the weather, you should always be able to dive Homestead and Lion's Den, two of the must-dives. But if the weather is good, demand Saxophone. It starts as a wide, non-claustrophobic sink hole that drops down in the reef until opening up to the face at about 70ft.
Passing through this cavern you then drift down to the fields of coral, the deepest part being an unusual point sticking out into the current where it is worth just hanging, watching the passing life: turtle, schools of jack and manta ray. Then pick your way back over the incredible fields of sloping pristine coral crammed with life.
The Wakaya Club & Spa, Wakaya Island, Fiji (00 679 3448 128; wakaya.com ). Doubles start at US$2,233 (£1,488), all-inclusive with two daily dives.
Indonesia : Wakatobi Dive Resort
The location could not be more exotic: hanging like an earring off the southern tip of Sulawesi in the Banda Sea, Wakatobi Resort was established on Onemobaa island in 1995. It began as the result of a determined search by one man to find the ultimate location for a dive resort – and if you want the greatest biodiversity on the planet you head straight for Indonesia. With diving moving upmarket, so has the Wakatobi and now it almost qualifies as a boutique hotel in its own right.
The principal buildings and virtually all the rooms are perched right on the perfect white-sand beach. The original longhouse, formerly the entire resort, now houses only the spa, boutique and dive centre. There are 26 rooms in four budget-dependent categories ranging from garden bungalows all up to the four new villas, which really set themselves apart, situated as they are on a rocky cliff a few feet above the sea, a short stroll from the longhouse. With private plunge pool, large bathrooms, and private sun decks hovering above the ocean, they are simply the best rooms I believe you will find at any "pure dive" resort. Wakatobi is an exception in my book in really being a pure dive or snorkelling resort, there being little else to do. It is also something of an enigma, straddling the divide between luxury dive resorts and boutique hotels, but none the worse for being so.
You gather at the spacious, open-sided longhouse before nearly every dive for your briefing. On arrival you are allocated one of the dive boats, Wakatobi One to Eight, and it is yours for the duration. You can even have your own instructor, if you want. Regardless, everyone gets to share the post-dive drinks, coconut and freshly baked biscuits. If the resort is not enough, book a berth on its luxury live-aboard, the 100ft Pelagian which will take you to more distant reefs. Either way you will not be disappointed.
Where to start? How about 400 species of coral and 700 species of fish officially recorded, not in Indonesia generally, but here in Wakatobi. A further statistic, a yardstick used by marine biologists to establish the health and diversity of the reef, is the number of species of butterfly fish encountered. The highest count I can find is 40, and that is here in Wakatobi.
The majority of dives take place on either the fringing reef of neighbouring Lintea Island or even closer to home. With crystalline water, visibility can be up to 150ft and I can still recall the reef shallows and clear depths just begging me in for my first dive.
Nudibranchs of every variety abound, clownfish of every type and size including some huge cartoon-like specimens. All the traditional residents are also in abundance: scorpionfish, crocodilefish, schools of marauding bumphead parrotfish, blue ribbon eels, mandarinfish, it just goes on. The end of virtually every dive is spent at the 5m mark just drinking in the incredible corals, transparent water and endless life, all lit to perfection.
Wakatobi Dive Resort, Onemobaa Island, Southeastern Sulawesi, Indonesia (00 62 868 1212 2355; wakatobi.com ). Doubles start at US$754 (£503) per night, full board including three daily boat dives. Private connecting flight from Bali and unlimited shore diving. Minimum stay seven nights.
Mozambique: Vamizi island
Let's get the bad news out front: led by the website and the brochure I was expecting a sophisticated five-star resort. The reality is different, but none the worse for being so. This is an incredibly comfortable but otherwise incredibly simple Robinson Crusoe lifestyle: palm-covered huts on a remote and beautiful beach. There is no swimming pool, no room service, no telephones, no spa, no television, no sop to the modern world.
The beach is a stunning strip of the softest white powder with lapping turquoise seas, broken by islets of volcanic rock. Set along this strand are the two principal open-sided palm-thatched structures: the dining room and the bar, the latter cleverly decorated to give the feel of a colonial home with local antiques, wicker sofas and generous banquettes begging you to sprawl on them for evening drinks. Spread either side of this are just 10 rooms, all slightly set back from the beach but giving directly on to it.
The generous rooms follow the theme and are effectively an open-sided structure with intricately detailed soaring roofs; walls of screening peel back to afford views of the ocean, or close to provide privacy, while still allowing the dappled sunlight and cooling, bug-free breeze to enter.
The major activities are limited to lunch and dinner served overlooking the sea either at the restaurant or the new south beach bar on the opposite side of the island. The local chef takes great pride in his work; the food is simple, fresh and delicious.
The dive school follows the theme of the resort, simple but perfectly organised, and, hidden away in the shade of the bush, it is here that all dive briefings take place. Boats are simple open RIBs offering no shade, which is fine for the local sites a few minutes away, but not for the more distant ones. A new nine-metre boat with shade and better seating has recently arrived and this should radically change the dynamics, comfort and reach and may indeed open up other more distant sites yet to be discovered. The dive school is just 10 metres from lunch and by the time you get there for the briefing you will find all your gear already on board. In short, the operation, not unlike the resort itself, is simple but works well.
Vamizi is not a one-trick pony, but nonetheless, I have to focus on one dive: "Neptune's Arm". A 40-minute boat ride away (accompanied by humpback whales and a glimpse of mating turtles) lies a sunken island the surface of which is about eight metres down. Swept by currents, this is not a dive site for the easily intimidated or indeed novice diver (you do need an advanced ticket to partake). Once in the protection of the wall, which is actually the end of Fraggle Rock, a world class wall dive, you round the corner to – visibility permitting – an awe-inspiring sight. Rising vertically out of the depths is a series of somewhat foreboding and intimidating towering pinnacles groaning with fish. I may have been lucky as I had perfect visibility, but this was probably the dive of my life
Vamizi Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique (01285 762218; vamizi.com ). Doubles from $1,080 (£720) all-inclusive. A full day's diving with two tank dives and lunch costs $160 (£107) per person.
Turks and Caicos: Amanyara
This is one of the prime spots on the islands, as – aside from Parrot Cay with its own island – the rest of the high-end resorts are all crowded around the once unspoilt Grace Bay beach, a perfect strand of pure white fine powder now regretfully beginning to resemble other more crowded Caribbean islands. Amanyara however, is set in a National Park, so right now there is no one else for miles.
This Amanresort is focused around the large tranquil reflecting pool that mirrors the principal buildings dominated by the soaring bar, an out-of-scale structure that somehow works, mainly because of its amazing timber ceiling. Beyond, another vast signature Aman infinity pool, this time in black quartz, is bordered by oversize daybeds looking out over the rocky coast and endless multi-hued turquoise sea.
There are 17 ocean-front rooms, hidden back in the scrub, some opening onto small intimate white-sand coves, while the Pond Villas appear to float on inland man-made seawater lakes. Internally you cannot fault these cool rooms: terrazzo floors, three walls of glass, lofty honey-coloured timber ceilings, sumptuous down pillows and a typically vast semi-open-plan bathroom. They are both impressive and yet cosy. In short, pretty unbeatable (but then given the price so they should be).
The dinner menu changes nightly, and seemingly whatever you choose is exquisite. So in simple terms, if you want better food on the islands, save the taxi fare – you won't be able to improve on what is served at Amanyara.
The immaculate dive centre with expansive facilities, oversized showers and endless fluffy towels sits between the beach bar and the beach. A full selection of new BCs and wetsuits look lost in the capacious facility now run and manned by Big Blue, the islands' top dive operator, who specialise in small groups and thus provide almost private diving. The beach, with its incredible sand and truly translucent waters, some of the clearest in the world, is the perfect invitation for you to take that first step in your dive training – it is just a large private pool, albeit without a protective reef and thus on occasion storm affected. Pick-up is directly off the beach on one of Big Blue's catamarans, and with the nearest site just a few minutes away, it could not be easier.
Diving in these islands is all about walls, plunging from 60ft down to 6,000ft and beyond, a vertical abyss over which you hover, never sure of what might be out there in the blue: anything from sharks or eagle rays to dolphins or humpback whales in season. Amanyara is situated on what was once one of the great wall dives of the islands, however time has moved on and now only really Amphitheatre and Black Coral Forest merit a dive; the real fun lies further afield.
French Cay and Sandbore Channel are the two must-dives, the former being a day trip, the latter easily accessible from the resort but weather and tide dependent. French Cay is a wonderful 45-minute run across the virgin shallows to the drop-off on the southern side of the islands and on a good day is worth the trip in itself. Out of sight of land, your boat cleaves the water above dolphin, rays and shark, all silhouetted against the sand shallows. On arrival you will find a very healthy reef with beautiful vertical walls clad in gorgonians with all manner of life, specifically grazing turtles and guaranteed shark sightings: inquisitive sightings which can include a solitary Great Hammerhead.
Amanyara, Providenciales, Turks and Caicos Islands, West Indies (001 649 941 8133; amanresorts.com ). Doubles start at US$1,452 (£968), including soft drinks. A one-tank dive costs US$193 (£128).
Palms, pools and stunning views : More resorts to dive for
LIZARD ISLAND RESORT
Lizard Island hosts the northernmost island resort on the Great Barrier Reef. This exclusive retreat combines the very best in accommodation with access to some truly spectacular diving. The rooms, mostly arranged in pairs, radiate out like wings on either side of the lodge and feature bright, modern Australian-style décor, all opening directly on to shady private terraces. The extensive Beach Club features a classroom, drying rooms, a full range of top-class gear and even a small dive shop. Every other day, there are full-day excursions to outer reef dive sites, including the world-famous Cod Hole.
Lizard Island Resort, Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia (00 61 3 9413 6288; lizardisland.com.au ). Doubles start at A$1,700 (£1,045), all-inclusive. A single two-dive trip costs A$385 (£236) per person.
FOUR SEASONS PAPAGAYO
The 2,400-acre Papagayo Peninsula is part of a giant, government-backed development project on Costa Rica's Pacific coast. One day it will be peppered with resorts, but for now, the Four Seasons has this shore all to itself, occupying the prime location. The 123 rooms are arranged in three large wings, while the more upscale lodgings and suites are scattered in clusters on the hillside. This is the finest diving on Central America's Pacific coast and the sites near Papagayo host some fantastic sea life, in effect making it a junior Galápagos.
Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo, Guanacaste, Costa Rica (00 506 2696 0000; fourseasons.com/costarica ). Doubles start at US$769 (£517), including breakfast. A single two-dive trip costs US$135 (£91) per person.
LITTLE PALM ISLAND
Once you are immersed in the stylish and luxurious world that is Little Palm Island, it is seriously difficult to believe you are still in Florida, let alone the US. A perfect white-sand path runs around the perimeter of the island, and off this are the 28 raised and detached, thatched-roof bungalow suites, all with ocean views, while at the heart of the resort lies an intimate palm-fringed pool. The dive centre is just behind the spa and, like everything else, a short walk from any of the rooms. There are two types of diving here: the first is gentle, shallow and very easy. The second is exciting, deep-wreck diving.
Little Palm Island Resort & Spa, Little Torch Key, Florida, US (001 305 515 4004; littlepalmisland.com ). Doubles start at US$968 (£651), room only. Single-dive trips cost from $185 (£124) per person, including equipment and guides.
SIX SENSES HIDEAWAY ZIGHI BAY
The design of the resort is based on a stone Berber village set around an oasis (palms, pool and gurgling spring). Every room has its own charm and, more importantly, its own pool – this place gets hot. You are greeted by cool bare stone floors, local rugs and the Six Senses routine of a bare backdrop brought to life with splashes of colour. A private marina and new dive centre complete with training pool are nearing completion – and beneath the water is a riot of life set to the soundtrack of the incessant crackle of feeding fish, not unlike diving in a bowl of Rice Krispies.
Six Senses Hideaway Zighi Bay, Musandam Peninsula, Oman (00 968 2673 5555; sixsenses.com ). Doubles start at US$1,056 (£711), room only. Single dives start at 73 rials (£128), including equipment hire.
The new edition of 'Dive In Style' by Tim Simond is published on 5 April by Thames & Hudson ( thamesandhudson.com), priced £19.95. To order your copy at the special price of £16.95 including UK mainland delivery (overseas costs available on request) please call Littlehampton Book Services on 01903 828503, quoting "TH062". Offer is subject to availability. Tim Simond travelled with Original Travel (020 7978 7333; originaltravel.co.uk) which is launching a new division called "Dive in Style with Original Travel" and a dedicated website ( diveinstyle.com) in April.
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