Trade wind travels: discover a new side to the Maldives

Words by
Jemima Sissons

27th March 2017

In the heart of the Indian Ocean, this tropical vacation destination has something for every modern voyager, from wellness and wine tastings to all-night discos

Best for: spa

Cheval Blanc Randeli, Noonu Atoll

It is hard to know what impresses most at Cheval Blanc Randeli: the seamless transfer to the resort by private seaplane (commercial seaplanes in the Maldives are run by one company and island hopping can mean long , tiring waits); the three types of in-room shoes — flip flops, espadrilles and bamboo slippers; or the choice of robes — fluffy bathrobe or chic kimono (rumoured to be made by Dior) with tropical piping.

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The arrival is spectacular: entering the cathedral-like atrium, the lobby is bedecked with a copper and lychee tree root artwork and petrified wood sculptures.

The rooms are vast — the one-bedroom island villa boasts a magnificent 3,175sq ft of design, with Balinese doors that weigh two tonnes each dividing the bedroom and sitting room. Louis Vuitton’s Legendary Trunks book sits on the custom-designed living room table; the mini bar is well stocked with Macallan 12-year-old, Monkey 47 gin and smoked hickory almonds; the pool outside is large enough to do laps in and there is a secluded private dining area in the garden.

But I have come here to try the wellness offerings. A boat ride away, on a small island, is the spa with a relaxing area open to the warm breeze. Healthy dishes are served prior to the treatment, highlights of which include a raspberry, tomato and cucumber soup, and a delicious tuna tartare with pea shoots. The modern white treatment rooms look out on to the pale blue sea and all the aches resulting from a vigorous gym session disappear during a signature Guerlain massage.

The modern white treatment rooms look out on to the pale blue sea and all the aches resulting from a vigorous gym session disappear during a signature Guerlain massage

The following morning, after an in-room yoga session with Puneet the yoga master, we try the healthy breakfast consisting of eggs with caviar, fruit salad and yogurt, and tuna and avocado on rye. With the pastries here some of the best I have eaten anywhere in the world, it is wise to stick to the abstemious option sometimes.

We try out the jungle gym — a fun outdoor circuit on its adjoining tennis island, pulling ropes and shoving tyres. More waterborne activities take their form in paddle boarding and deep sea fishing, where I catch a shimmery snapper.

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Cheval Blanc Randheli’s spa dhoni or traditional Maldivian fishing boat

Cheval Blanc Randheli’s spa dhoni or traditional Maldivian fishing boat

It may be where to come for an exceptional spa, but as the resort is LVMH managed, and named after its famous winery, it would be a shame not to try the tasting menu, too, at Le 1947 restaurant. Although each of the nine courses is sublime, the standout dish is the smoked eel, vanilla and cauliflower. The wine room here is packed with rare bottles, such as a Chateau Latour 1995, an extensive cigar collection and cashmere throws to keep guests warm if the need arises.

There is not a single grain of sand out of place here, yet Cheval Blanc Randeli is extremely warm, friendly and welcoming. If you desire a dream escape from home, this place would surely come top of your wish list.

Rooms from £1,850, randheli.chevalblanc.com

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A Garden Villa at Cheval Blanc Rhandeli

A Garden Villa at Cheval Blanc Rhandeli

Best for: well-priced luxury

Ja Manafaru, Upper North Province

The rooms are so close to the sea that during a storm, waves lash against the glass walls, as we wrap up in our robes and watch nature’s tantrum. We are safe, of course, and thrill at being in our own cosy world. Our overwater villa is a joy — the blonde wood floors and indigo cushions lend some interior warmth and there are all the mod cons, including a wine fridge and even buckwheat pillows if one so desires. The loo has a see-through floor to the ocean below and the bathroom opens up on to a private terrace with its own swing and granite-lined plunge pool. We pick up our Big Boy bikes, which are included with each villa and have huge wheels designed to cope with the sand. The signposting isn’t the clearest, but we manage to orientate our way around the beautiful island.

Aerial view  of the resort
Aerial view of the resort

Aerial view of the resort

This is one of the furthest islands to reach — it is another two hours by seaplane from Malé. After travelling so far, you might not feel like venturing any further than the resort and, really, there is no need. But one day we go to a deserted island for a Robinson Crusoe-style picnic and bask under the sun with not a soul in sight. The food is good throughout the resort’s seven bars and restaurants, but the standout dinner is at the Ocean Grill, where a first-rate steak from South Africa is served alongside a Central Otago Pinot Noir.

We enjoy a tasting in the incredible underground wine cellar one night. Feasting our eyes on a 1996 Pétrus, we sit down with hot stones to warm our feet and enjoy a Sacchetto Pinot Grigio from Veneto and an El Mago Grenache. Afterwards, we refrain from using the wedding dressing-up box — some honeymooners here have a second “wedding” and there are outfits available for this purpose.

After travelling so far, you might not feel like venturing any further than the resort and, really, there is no need. But one day we go to a deserted island and bask under the sun with not a soul in sight

But primarily this is a place where you are left to live life at your own pace, enjoying the sugar-soft beaches and calming villas in peace.

Rooms from £475, jaresortshotels.com/properties/JAManafaru

Best for: eco lovers

Gili Lankanfushi, North Malé Atoll

The bear of a chef, John Bakker, is taking us on a tour around his impressive kitchen garden. Up pops a text on his phone: his contact in the Paris vegetable market is showing him pictures of some robust-looking brassicas. He will take them. They will be on a plane that afternoon to arrive the next day. The amount of organisation that goes into creating a luxury resort in the Maldvies is mind-boggling and it is hard to stay eco, but Gili Lankanfushi is at the forefront of making that balance work. It has a hefty composting machine, for example, and a glass recycling machine to re-purpose wine bottles.

Breakfast by the beach at Gili Lankanfushi
Breakfast by the beach at main restaurant at Gili Lankanfushi

Breakfast by the beach at main restaurant at Gili Lankanfushi

The rooms might not suit those who want to be surrounded by all the latest gizmos, but fellow guests seem to be genuinely happy about the resort’s nature-loving philosophy: paper is recycled and guests are asked to take home used bottles and cans. But luxury is still in mind. There is a make-up fridge, which I use for my mascara — the irony being that this is one resort where I don’t wear a scrap of make-up — and scented lavender pouches to place under the pillow at night.

The souk-style dinner is wonderful and it’s hard to resist fresh pasta, a grill station overflowing with tender lamb and fish, various vinegars and olive oils, and 20 different desserts. There is a cheese room and truffles on tap — it is easy to sink into the arms of gluttony here.

GLM Sunset at OverWater bar
GLM Sunset at OverWater bar

GLM Sunset at OverWater bar

We try a surf lesson at the on-site Tropicsurf school. I vow not to give up my day job as I fly head first into the shallows for the umpteenth time. Our morning group yoga lesson taken by an ethereal lady called Ocean Bloom is testament to the place. The other guests are a long-limbed Dutch woman and her daughters. They run tea plantations throughout the world and clearly money is no object, but they like the conviviality and down-to-earth approach to making this their Maldivian home.

The rooms might not suit those who want all the latest gizmos, but fellow guests seem to be happy about the resort’s nature-loving philosophy: paper is recycled and guests are asked to take home used bottles and cans

I found the villas could have been a little bit brighter; however the exceptional food — including the Japanese feast on the last night — and the genuine approach to hospitality make this an easy place to want to return to.

Rooms from £1,114, gili-lankanfushi.com

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Stare into infinity from the deck of a Lagoon Villa at Finolhu

Stare into infinity from the deck of a Lagoon Villa at Finolhu

Best for: fun with friends

Finolhu, Baa Atoll

You know you have to unpack your party boots before your bikini when your greeter announces himself as your “Mojo Guru”. Finolhu is all about having a good time, from the 1960s funk playing around the pool, to the DJs and stilt-walkers flown in for party nights. There are life-affirming signs aplenty, such as phrases painted on to driftwood that read “Every love story is beautiful, but ours is my favourite”.

Whereas some Maldives resorts might be a place to banish the heels and glad rags, this is the kind of place to bring friends and family and have a good time

Here it is about selling a lifestyle: there is a milk bar by the beach with green smoothies, old-fashioned radios in the rooms, a record player with a selection of vinyl and a “champagne phone” in the bigger villas that connects you straight to your bubbles guru. Rooms come with their own stairs to the lapping waves and have a deck with an outdoor shower. There is a resident artist for those who want to take classes and underwater photography courses: with so much on offer, it is hard to stay still.

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Bar area and pool

Bar area and pool

Cocktail hour is buzzy and there is table tennis in the activity room to while away the early evening. Guests can also bond over a pilates or spinning class. The spa is set up for groovers about town, with nail colouring, blow dries and extensive male grooming treatments on offer. Whereas some Maldives resorts might be a place to banish the heels and glad rags, this is the kind of place to bring friends and family and have fun. The constant sense of celebration and omnipresent slogans may not be everyone’s cup of lemongrass tea, but for those who don’t take life too seriously this is just the place.

Rooms from £697, finolhu.com

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Informal dining on the sandbar

Informal dining on the sandbar