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From Sea to Shore
Beth Weitzman | Photo: Courtesy of Four Seasons Resorts Maldives | April 18, 2014
With two private islands and a floating resort, the Four Seasons Resorts Maldives take exotic to extremes.
With an alarming possibility of disappearing within the next 50 years due to global warming and a rising sea level, now is the time to experience the Maldives, the world’s lowest-lying nation, with its more than 1,100 white-sanded coral islands situated off the western coast of India along the Indian Ocean. This tropical paradise offers five-star accommodations on individual islands, plus surreal turquoise water, pristine beaches and abundant coral reefs teeming with marine life that awes even the savviest divers.
Arriving in “paradise” does, however, take time. Facing a lengthy layover after an already long haul to Dubai, I opt to stay overnight before continuing on to Malé International Airport (a four-hour flight). This is my first visit to the impressive city; its supersize buildings dotting the city skyline waken my tired eyes. It’s not long before I arrive at Dar Al Masyaf, an ultraluxe offering from multifaceted megaresort Madinat Jumeirah, and my butler shows me straight to my room. On the way, I can’t help but notice how pretty the property is—with guest accommodations situated in traditional Arabian courtyard-style homes alongside the meandering canals. Impeccably designed, my room is gorgeous, with a huge marble bathroom and decadently plush bed. Here for just around eight hours, I have time only to sleep, then to indulge in a savory room-service breakfast (the tastiest Belgian waffles I’ve ever had). The resort also offers restaurant dining, of course, as well as access to restos at sister properties Al Qasr and Mina A’Salam. As tantalizing as these prospects are, so, too, is boarding the flight to Malé en route to the Maldives.
Straight off the plane, I’m whisked into the Four Seasons lounge by a Four Seasons representative, where a cold towel refreshes my warm skin and I happily accept a glass of chilled water. Since the airport is right on the water, boat transport to the Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Kuda Huraa is quick and easy; a mere 25 minutes, and we arrive to a celebratory gathering on the dock, complete with lomilomi drinks for a quixotic transition into an island state of mind. The warm hospitality extends for my group’s entire stay, as friendly hotel staff go to great lengths to provide the utmost in personal service—by day two, most know me by name. The small private island is modeled after an authentic Maldivian village, set amid 12 acres of exotic gardens bursting with fragrant bougainvillea, frangipani and hibiscus flowers. It takes a mere 10 minutes to walk its length (although, a golf cart is a call away). Culinary variety is a priority here, with four restaurants—which, many nights, offer themed fare—and two bars.
Meanwhile, 96 traditional beach and overwater accommodations pair modern amenities with traditional Maldivian charm. Along with two types of beach villas—the Beach Pavilion with Pool and spacious garden, and the Beach Bungalow with Pool, which is set in lush tropical gardens and features a gazebo—there are five different categories of overwater bungalows (with plunge pool and without, from studio-style to one- and two-bedrooms) and the Royal Beach Villa, a grand two-bedroom beauty. While beachside accommodations are closer to the action, including restos, a lounge, a gym, a spa and a kids center, their overwater counterparts offer sweeping views of—and direct access to—the sea, with sensational snorkeling literally at your toes.
There’s just enough time to settle in my Beach Bungalow before being lured out for drinks at dusk at Sunset Lounge, followed by dinner at the waterside Reef Club, where Italian cuisine is served alfresco on an oceanside deck or inside in a thatched-roof pavilion. Appetizers such as pan-seared calamari and prawn salad, and seafood cioppino tease the palate for pastas like homemade scallop ravioli, and four-cheese pappardelle; and main courses consisting of pan-seared reef fish, snapper, and yellow fin tuna, with wine pairings at each course, naturally.
No detail, it seems, has been left unattended, as turndown back in my bungalow proves. A well-dressed bed complements the scene in this spacious sanctuary, and with drapes left intentionally open, I’ll wake to sunrise above sparkling blue water.
The coddling continues the next morning for the breakfast buffet at Café Huraa, where two alfresco pavilions serve up priceless views of the pool and ocean. A white-stone floor and high thatched roofs set a breezy setting for the almost endless breakfast options, including made-to-order eggs, waffles, Asian specialties, breads, sweet treats and a juice bar. But these indulgences are just the beginning. The only freestanding island spa in the Maldives awaits, and getting there for my zone-out Kuda Huraa massage—one on a long list of available services—entails a zippy dhoni boat ride. Entering through the intimate, open-air reception area, which doubles as a spa boutique, I’m given a cup of tea, then escorted to the treatment room; partially exposed to the elements, it sets the perfect scene for the relaxed Asian therapy that combines Thai pressure point, Filipino hilot and Malaysian urut with the healing benefits of virgin coconut oil. (Quite uniquely, lunar-inspired treatments are offered from 10pm to 1am.)
Lunch back at Café Huraa consists of delicious grilled fish tacos, before we’re due at the Marine Discovery Centre, a research and education facility that regales us with an introduction to the resort’s impressive conservation programs focused on turtles, coral reefs, sharks and dolphins. Particularly important is the Maldivian Sea Turtle Conservation Programme, a series of projects across Four Seasons Resorts Maldives that serve to protect, monitor, relocate, release, rear and rehabilitate the animals. We also learn about the Reefscapers program, a regeneration initiative running concurrently at Kuda Huraa and sister property Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru. One of the most successful of its kind, the program involves attaching coral fragments onto specially designed coral frames, which helps existing reef habitats grow and facilitates new ones.
Later, we’re introduced to the far more familiar, surfing, via a class with on-site Tropicsurf, followed by some sunset fishing. There’s no shortage of available activities on offer: nature walks, windsurfing, waterskiing, fishing, paddleboarding, guided reef snorkeling, kayaking, cooking classes, and half- and full-day guided excursions for island-hopping, dolphin-watching and island picnics. With an on-site dive team and more than 30 dive sites within a 10- to 45-minute boat ride from the resort, diving is among the most popular pursuits, with vibrant reef and aquatic life ranking among the world’s best. Although I don’t dive, I live vicariously through the tales of others who do, and they’re raving about the experience.
Dinner on this beautiful night is at Baraabaru, beneath grand Keralan columns amid flaming tiki torches. We’re here for the special Ghar Ka Khana, or “homestyle cooking” in Hindi, buffet, featuring classic dishes from across the Indian subcontinent—from curries and kebabs, breads and biryanis, chutneys and salads to more than 10 desserts. Situated right on the water, the resto offers views of both the ocean and chefs cooking in the open kitchen and tandoori bar.
On the last morning at Kuda Huraa, I seriously consider sunrise yoga, but am instead swayed by a leisurely breakfast at Café Huraa, then some sun on one of the chaise lounges lining the beach. Here, in true Four Seasons style, staff occasionally waltz by with chilled water, fruit sticks, mini ice creams and smoothies. There’s even someone to clean your sunglasses!
While we are sad to leave this oasis, the fact that we’re due for an afternoon and evening on the Four Seasons Explorer—our stylish transport to the Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru—eases the blow, particularly because the legendary Four Seasons service doesn’t stop at the shoreline. Our journey is quick, only a day, but standard itineraries span three, four or seven nights. The luxurious, three-deck liveaboard catamaran is home to 10 spacious, well-appointed staterooms and one splurgeworthy Explorer Suite, with a maximum of 22 guests per marine adventure. Combined with an air-conditioned indoor and outdoor restaurant, two bars, a PADI five-star dive center and a marine biologist aboard, the Explorer is a water aficionado’s dream. All-inclusive itineraries feature a minimum of three dives daily via an accompanying dhoni in some of the Maldives’ most coveted locales: untouched reefs, vibrant thilas, channels and wrecks, prime sunrise and night sites, and seasonal hot spots for manta ray and whale sharks. Many other activities such as snorkeling, waterskiing, fishing, kayaking, visits to cloistered islands and relaxing with onboard massages will delight all, even nondivers. And when darkness falls, dining on superfresh seafood under the stars is simply unforgettable.
Of course, just when I’ve convinced myself the absolute best is behind me, we land at the Four Seasons Resort at Landaa Giraavaru—a 40-minute journey by seaplane if flying direct from the Malé International Airport. Not surprisingly, on the dock there’s yet another celebratory greeting and lomilomi drinks before we embark only too happily on another tour. “Wow” leaps immediately to the forefront of my mind, and remains there for the entirety of my four-day stay at a property that easily beckons for two weeks.
Much larger than Kuda Huraa, this island possesses 44 acres of natural wilderness bordering unsullied white-sand shores and one of the Maldives’ largest natural lagoons, so getting lost in discovery is all too easy. Designed by Sri Lankan architect Murad Ismail, the resort showcases an unpretentious, contemporary blend of traditional Maldivian and Sri Lankan design, exhibiting clean lines and no unnecessary embellishment. Airy guest-room structures reflect traditional regional style, including thatched roofs and coral walls deliberately designed to mirror the island’s raw beauty while complementing its exotically verdant surrounds.
A total of 103 guest accommodations include both beach and overwater bungalows, as well as discreetly tucked-away jungle bungalows. While nine possible accommodation options complicate the decision-making process, the good news is you can’t really go wrong. Both water and beach bungalows are mainly offered with pools or without, and in one- and two-bedroom configurations. For those looking for an uberluxe, over-the-top experience, it doesn’t get grander than the star booking: the three-bedroom, two-story Landaa Estate, boasting 262 feet of private beachfront, two pools, a bona fide stargazing lounge, loads of plush outdoor living space, a kitchen, dining room and a 24-hour dedicated staff—or, quite simply, the ultimate when money is no object.
While not the Landaa Estate, my luxurious beach villa is extraordinary. Outfitted with an epic outdoor living space, including a plunge pool (and connected elevated daybed), large private garden, sand-floor living room with lounge chairs and a sizable dining table—what’s not to love? And lest we not forget that loft, complete with a daybed for sea- and stargazing, accessible via a spiral staircase. Back inside, the whitewashed blue-and-white decor plays up isle style, while the ubiquitous modern spoils (wireless high-speed internet, 42-inch plasma TV, audiovisual system and espresso machine) come standard. Designed in gray slate, the enormous bathroom sports indoor and outdoor rain showers, a large bathtub and top-quality amenities. Beach access is straight out the back door, with another large daybed and, just steps away, more chaise lounges. Far from your typical beach accommodation, the space is so nice, it argues persuasively for never leaving the room. But with so much on offer, I do.
Bikes are the main mode of island transportation, and each villa has its own set. The air is so fresh, so fragrant, and leisurely cruising is lovely, but it’s lunchtime, so we head to Café Landaa, one of four restos on island, which specializes in Indian, Asian and international cuisine. Its position in the center of the property, within three thatched-roof pavilions separated by reflecting ponds overlooking the pool and beach, makes this a popular dining spot.
Then, after dropping anchor at this island’s Marine Discovery Centre to learn even more about the reef-building program, we anticipate with great excitement experiencing the water firsthand—that we do, courtesy of stunning snorkeling right offshore. Swimming along the coral garden and snorkel trail, we not only glimpse abounding marine life, such as tropical fish, turtles, dolphins and lemon sharks, but actual Reefscapers and the propagation projects at work. Landaa Giraavaru’s isolated location in the remote Baa Atoll UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve places divers in close proximity to many virgin dive sites, including more than 30 unspoiled coral gardens. It is also just a short boat ride from renowned manta ray and whale shark hot spots from June to December, like Hanifaru Bay, Bathala Island and Veyofushi Reef.
As difficult as it is to leave behind this water wonderland, another awaits beachside, where, as if on cue, a server saunters by with mini frozen delights, then quickly returns with the Champagne we ordered. In no time, we’re toasting to the surreal surrounds, as the natural beauty is simply beyond words. More clanking of glasses aboard the resort’s yacht later that evening returns me to a speechless state. En route to a sandbar in the middle of the ocean, we’re expected for a private dinner and cocktails. At an impressively dressed table carved out of the sand (literally), we savor a five-course meal and wine pairings. The once-in-a-lifetime experience may be exclusive to us this night, but for guests who so desire, it can be arranged for groups or lovers dining à deux.
Back onshore, once more I find my room the beneficiary of a fabulous turndown presentation. All the standard niceties—bottled water, fresh flowers—are here, as well as my now clean sunglasses nesting neatly alongside Four Seasons-imprinted cleaning cloths. It’s a lovely touch to end the evening. In anticipation of the morning glory to come, I throw open the shades and am lulled to sleep.
Soon after the sun rises, I hop on my bike, stop at Café Landaa for breakfast and then head to the resort’s sprawling 2.5-acre Spa and Ayurvedic Retreat, located in the middle of the island. Kicking off my shoes, I enter the roomy reception area, which leads to a well-stocked boutique. Like all guests on their first visit here, I sit for a complimentary ayurvedic consultation, which reveals my dosha (one of three classifications comprising one’s constitution according to ayurveda, a traditional Indian method of medical treatment practiced for more than 3,000 years). Also discussed are my current lifestyle and foods, both good and bad, for my particular dosha type. So serious is it about this business, the resort even has a unique ayurvedic food-labeling system on all its restaurant menus—especially important for guests who come for its all-inclusive seven-, 14- and 21-day Ayurvedic Immersion programs.
Following this enriching experience is another in the form of deep relaxation delivered in one of 10 sizable open-air treatment pavilions, three for ayurveda treatments, that sit amid lush tropical gardens or, my favorite, open-air, on stilts over a turquoise lagoon with glass-paneled floors and a huge bathtub. Although I could easily spend the day luxuriating in the wide array of services available—including ayurveda, acupuncture, chakra blessings, body treatments, facials, and various forms of yoga and breathing—the 90-minute signature Landaa massage, a blending of Asian traditional techniques with pure plant oils and essences, beckons my attention. So restoring, the indulgence necessitates the need for my therapist to ease me back into consciousness before escorting me back to the mainland, where, fully mesmerized by the magic of the Maldives, relaxation continues on a large daybed surveying a blue lagoon.
When hunger eventually calls, I’m back on my bike, cruising to the western tip of the island for lunch at Blu, where walking through the sand-floor bar leading to what seems like a forever stretch of white-sand beach causes my jaw to drop. Crystal-blue sea meeting endless sky amounts to one of the best views I have ever seen—a striking, stare-inducing complement to the stark-white restaurant featuring blue decor. By this time, the staff knows us by name and greets us with a warm welcome. Here, a spot for contemporary Italian fare, appetizers of snapper carpaccio; and buffalo mozzarella, rocket salad and fresh tomatoes begin a meal that also includes a variety of pizzas straight from the wood-burning oven and delicious entrees of roasted king prawns and grilled job fish fillet.
After lunch is a spell of sunning and snorkeling, before dusk introduces beautiful Seabar, a unique floating bar with steps that lead down into the lagoon and lounge-style seating along the water’s edge. The group congregates here to enjoy frozen margaritas and bites from the tapas-style menu, while listening to the DJ spinning tunes. We reminisce about this truly incredible journey, which will soon include a dinner of authentic Arabian cuisine at Al Barakat. Built over the water, and off the main jetty, we dine rooftop, and in traditional style, in comfortable low seating, for a meal beginning with mezzah (hot and cold appetizers), along with scrumptious bread and salad leaves served with various dips. Shareable main courses include all the skewers, lamb shank and Moroccan meatballs our stomachs can hold.
Awaking to my final 24 hours in the Maldives produces gratitude—and something of an encore. One more walk on the beach, one more tasty breakfast and a Thai massage. Although typically open just for dinner, Fuego Grill prepares a special lunch of delectable fresh fish that my group enjoys at sand-set, sea-facing teak tables and chairs before saying our farewells. Later, alone, I soak up the sun and swing by the teppanyaki counter at Café Landaa for dinner, amazed that the time for yet another goodbye—this one my own—to another fabulous Four Seasons property, and to the Maldives, has come.
Fortunately, island bliss will follow me home.