Floating in luxury
The low-lying Indian Ocean islands are resisting dire warnings about rising sea levels to offer tourists a taste of paradise that even includes underwater spas and restaurants
Mention the Maldives and inevitably the response is: "Isn't it sinking?" With sea levels rising from melting glaciers and the fact that the Maldives form the lowest-lying land on earth - the highest point is only 2.5 metres above sea level - the world can be forgiven for buying into alarmist warnings from the recently ousted Maldivian government about the future of the archipelago.
But that hasn't stopped hotel chains from snapping up new leases issued by the Maldivian government for new islands. When I visited the Maldives 18 years ago, only about 70 islands were open for tourism. This year, about 110 resorts are peppered across the 26 atolls in the Indian Ocean, despite the 2004 tsunami and the threat of sinking.
Back in the '90s, most islands catered mainly to divers and offered basic amenities. The most popular islands were located near the main airport in Male and were accessible by speedboat or dhonis (fishing boats). As islands begin to open up in atolls further north and south, it usually requires either a seaplane ride or a combination of domestic flights and speedboats to get to newer resorts.
Today, the other extreme is the norm, with rooms at mega-luxurious resorts costing between US$800 and US$2,000 a night. Even older islands, such as Baros and Bandos, have refurbished themselves to offer more competitive attractions.
When your landscape is largely homogenous, no matter how picturesque, it pays to apply a little creativity to offer guests a unique experience, be it a decadent outdoor jacuzzi over the waters, luxurious bungalows or even personalised butler or babysitting services.
The Per Aquum group, which operates Huvafen Fushi and the newly opened Niyama, has made full use of the ocean by introducing the islands' first underwater spa at Huvafen Fushi in 2004 and opening the first underwater music club, Subsix, at Niyama.
"We wanted to bring a completely new concept to the Maldives and the underwater spa offered a strong link with the water element of Per Aquum that also flows through each property. The underwater rooms create a rejuvenating encounter with water, making it an ideal location for treatment and a great place to watch the marine life of the Indian Ocean," says Neil Palmer, Per Aquum's chief executive.
Per Aquum spent a year constructing the spa using solid cast iron resin, keeping in mind the Maldives' marine preservation concerns. Huvafen Fushi has also converted three 65-foot dhonis to floating suites. "These are perfect for day trips to explore deserted sandbanks, coral reefs and uninhabited islands," Palmer says.
Conrad Maldives Rangali also boasts an undersea attraction: its flagship Ithaa restaurant opened in 2005 and sits five metres below sea level. "The idea came when we were discussing how great the underwater world is and how it's a shame that guests may not see all there is to see during their stay, especially if they aren't confident swimmers," says public relations manager Katherine Anthony.
The Conrad stretches over three islands, housing 11 restaurants and bars, two pools and three spas, including one specifically for children. Guests can also take the resort's two-seater submarine for a 30-minute cruise of a reef or even snorkel with whale sharks.
One & Only Reethi Rah is one of the bigger resorts, with 130 rooms. Its sheer size makes it possible for it to cater to a wider demographic, from wedding parties to honeymooners and large families, with a wide range of activities for children and teenagers.
At the other end of the spectrum is the Banyan Tree Madivaru, which brings new meaning to the word "exclusive". The island houses only six villas, each comprising three interconnected tents: one for living and study, one for the bedroom and one for the bathroom/spa. Madivaru is the group's first tented property.
"Madivaru is a small island with a very sensitive environment and the main intent was to protect the natural surroundings with minimal disturbance to the environment. The island's main vegetation is matured Pandanus and coastal bushes, such as scaevolia, with small birds living between the bushes. We needed to elevate the building and have a light structure, with a fast construction process to mitigate the disturbance," says Dharmali Kusumadi, Banyan Tree Group's senior vice-president of design services.
The tents have given Madivaru a unique appeal to visitors. With private stretches of beachfront and flexibility over dinner locations, which include the beach, the resort is perfect for honeymooners looking to splurge for exclusivity and privacy.
While it was once more common to meet Europeans or Australians on the islands, Asians are heading to the Maldives in increasing numbers.
"I think the Maldives has changed quite dramatically over the last three years. It is now common to see guests from all nationalities, not just the original feeder markets out of Europe. In fact, the growth from Asia, in particular China, is amazing. Many family holidays are now taken in the Maldives, creating a whole new dynamic for resorts as originally very few islands could cater to this market," says Andrew Langston, vice-president of Asia-Pacific hotel operations at the Banyan Tree Group, which operates Madivaru, Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru, Angsana Velavaru and Angsana Ihuru.
The Maldives may not be the cheapest of holiday destinations, but with more than 100 islands to choose from, you can still be spoilt for choice. It will require a little research to pick the resort that best fits you or your budget, but when you catch a glimpse of the crystal-clear waters as you land in Male, it will all be worth it.