From underwater panoramas to wellness retreats and stargazing views, this marine wonderland has it all
A fragrant aroma billows in front of me from a bowl of crystal clear broth dotted with chunks of fresh tuna cooked to perfection, and the subtle aroma of pandan leaves enhances the savory effect. This traditional Maldivian dish known as garudhiya has whetted my appetite since the beginning of my seaside cooking class, and it’s really delicious – somehow healthy, authentic and comfortingly luxurious.
This description can really be applied to my visit to the Maldives – which has retained its crown as the world’s leading destination for the third year in a row. It pretty much offers the breathtaking, picture-postcard scenery and honeymoon-friendly accommodations I would have expected, but it reveals many other layers of appeal that make it suitable for everyone from families and wellness seekers to surf enthusiasts, allowing visitors to see the depths from the ocean to distant stars and planets. Several light years.
My visit extends to two luxury hotels each with its own distinct character, both part of the global luxury group Anantara Hotels & Resorts, and both featuring a mix of beachfront and overwater villas, the latter synonymous with the ‘thirst trap’ images of the stunning Maldives resorts.
Beginning with the flight to the Maldivian capital, Male, my eyes widen as we begin our descent, the clouds gradually dissipating to reveal a landscape unlike anything I’ve seen before. Deep blue waters turn to countless shades of turquoise in the shallows around the many islands and sandy beaches, of which the Maldives has some 2,000 across some 35,000 square miles, and are grouped into various atolls.
From Male, we take a seaplane to the private Niyama Islands, which consist of two interconnected islands called Chill and Play.
I gasp as I discover every area of my seaside lodgings; The bed faces a balcony complete with a swinging seat, just beyond which is my little turquoise-tiled pool, where I’ll later be treated to an eye-catching ‘floating breakfast’, seeing an array of dishes including pancakes served in a large, pink heart-shaped basket.
The beach is in front of the pool where after unpacking I walk along the pristine sand, the only other passengers kite surfing in the distance.
All villas have access to Thakuru (butler) service, which sees friendly staff ferry guests on golf carts to various locations on the resort, such as the water sports center where we experience our introduction to surfing; In fact, Niyama says, it’s the only luxury surfing resort in the Maldives, with its own wave lapping the shore. It soon becomes apparent that my enthusiasm is beyond my ability, despite our coach Sam’s encouragement, but it was fun trying.
I proved more adept at snorkeling, and after heading out into the deeper waters by boat, we were treated to a multicolored underwater procession of seals including rainbow-colored parrotfish, and I even briefly noticed a small lone manta ray making a slow and graceful path through the depths.
We are accompanied by Nyama’s resident marine biologist Philippa, who later guides us through a coral adoption programme. This sees participants attach a piece of live coral to a frame which is then placed on the sea floor to help enhance the ocean ecosystem; Coral reefs in the Maldives – five percent of the global total – have been damaged by bleaching from rising sea temperatures.
We see larger, thriving versions of these man-made coral frames in their aquatic homes from the luxurious surroundings of Subsix, the resort’s underwater restaurant. This isn’t the only underwater breakfast on the trip, but to my delight, the experience is repeated at our next and final Anantara Kihavah resort, to which we seaplane via Male.
Located in a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, Kihavah’s underwater dining spot is known as SEA, where I try their signature lobster, a light and elegant version of the dish using brioche instead of an English muffin. As I enter, more seals pass by, including a turtle swimming in the morning.
I will take to the water myself several times at Kihavah, including snorkeling to see the resort’s own coral reef just a few feet offshore. It was amazing, I was told, and it proves, allowing you to gaze at the reef ‘slope’ that stretches as far as the eye can see. Creatures spotted include a band of Moorish idols, distinguished by their black, white, and yellow stripes, and the most famous member of this species is Jill in Finding Nemo.
Back on land, I see more selfies in the shallows below the overwater villas; I stay in one of the largest properties of this type and its many amenities include a glass bottomed bathroom as well as a huge balcony with its own pool and stairs to the sea.
I make a beeline for the latter, where I go for a dip in crystal-clear, gorgeous turquoise waters. The rest of the world feels very, very far away – in the best possible way – and the only time we tend to see other guests is when we’re having dinner.
In terms of food during the stay, highlights include Kihavah’s wellness lunch including ceviche of local reef fish with lemongrass, coconut water, curry leaves and Maldivian pepper. Who knew being healthy could be so delicious?
However, I was given insight into my usual, less healthy lifestyle with the Cell Wellbeing Epigenetic Test, which enables you to learn about key environmental stressors – part of an effort to help guests achieve their long-term health goals. Mine tells me to avoid beer, salmon, and poppy seeds, for example.
Also on the agenda is a “Healing Well” session by Ayurvedic healer Vinod Narayanan, who will schedule his stay to coincide with his visits to the resort, and I find myself falling into a deep state of relaxation.
We also benefit from the expertise of Sky Guru/astronomer Ali Shamim – whose mentors include Buzz Aldrin, apparently a regular Maldivian – on a visit to the resort’s overwater indoor observatory. “Welcome to my kingdom,” he says, explaining that every star “has a story to tell.” Then the telescope lines up to give us a peek at, say, Saturn, its distinct outline small but distinct and so clear of the crater-capped surface of the Moon that is as white and unspoiled as the sands of the Maldives, an Earthly destination. Which I now fully understand is itself really out of this world.
Stays at Niyama Private Islands Maldives start at around £880 per night for two adults sharing a beach villa, and £950 for an over-water villa. www.niyama.com/en/, Dhaalu Atoll PO Box 2002 Republic of Maldives, tel: +960 664 4111, [email protected]
Stays at Anantara Kihavah Villas Maldives start at around £995 per night for two adults sharing a beach villa, and £1,080 for an over-water villa. www.anantara.com/en/kihavah-maldives, PO Box 2098, Kihavah Huravalhi Island, Baa Atoll, +960 664 4111, [email protected]
The numbers for the two resorts are for low season stays on a half board basis with private pool and taxes are included.