Why visit the Conrad Maldives resort? Whale sharks, novel restaurants (one underwater), international chefs and a huge wine cellar
- The newly renovated Conrad Maldives resort is spread over two islands, with luxury glass-bottomed villas and high-end restaurants
- Guests can laze on white-sand beaches, swim in crystal clear waters, and take a trip to spot whale sharks
The Conrad Maldives Rangali Island is a resort straddling two islands (three, if you include the one housing staff) joined by a 500-metre bridge in the South Ari Atoll, a 35-minute seaplane ride from the Maldives’ Velana International Airport.
Currently celebrating its 25th anniversary and the completion of a rolling renovation, this is a resort of firsts.
One island – Rangali, and its oversea villas (the first in the Maldives) – is for adults only. The other, Rangali-Finolhu, has overwater and beach villas for families. Both are natural, rather than man-made, islands, so the vegetation is lush and the birds and lizards plentiful.
Having begun life as the Hilton Maldives Resort and Spa in 1997 – the first resort opened in the island nation by an international chain – the exteriors of the oversea villas have taken on a weather-beaten charm, but the interiors are luxe and well-tended.
If we’re going to be spending a couple of weeks on a remote island, the food had better be good …
Oh, it is. And, with 12 “dining experiences”, there’s plenty of choice.
Forty per cent of resort guests are repeat visitors, according to director of marketing and communications Rachelle Hill – one American couple has visited a mind-boggling 44 times – and it seems unlikely that would be the case if the food were a disappointment.
Danish executive chef Christian Pedersen’s mix of Nordic sensibilities and Maldivian practicalities makes for interesting fare at the Vilu Restaurant and Bar, Ithaa Undersea Restaurant, Sunset Grill (the Maldives’ first overwater restaurant) and Atoll Market buffet stations.
Other highlights include the Maldives’ first “authentic” Chinese restaurant, Ufaa, where Jereme Leung – a “celebrity master chef” who is well known in Singapore for his Raffles restaurant – works his magic.
The Wine Cellar, which has a table for diners, stores most of the resort’s 15,000 bottles (bearing 800-plus labels) and was the first underground wine cellar to be built at a Maldivian resort.
Whoa, there. Did you say “undersea restaurant”?
I did. Ithaa (“mother of pearl” in Dhivehi) has the distinction of being – you guessed it – the world’s first undersea restaurant. Although sitting five metres below the surface, the interior is bathed in sunlight during the day – so much so, sunglasses are advisable – and the visible coral garden and its attendant fish are a major distraction from Pedersen’s set menus, which could include miso and truffle marinated black cod.
Shark never features on the menu, says the chef, but you’ll see plenty sailing over your head.
It’s possible to rest, as well as eat, underwater at the Conrad Maldives, in the main bedroom of the always-in-demand-by-some-celebrity-or-other Muraka Suite (US$9,999 a night). The Muraka claims two world firsts: for undersea residence and underwater lift.
Other than eat and laze on the beach, what is there to do?
These islands have some fine beaches to laze about on, but there is plenty to do on or in the water, too. The range of equipment that can be borrowed or hired runs the gamut from snorkel and fins to paddle board, jet ski and Jetblade.
South Ari is one of only two atolls in the Maldives where you’re almost guaranteed to spot a whale shark – at any time of the year – and, in 2013, the resort became the first to run trips to spot these gentle giants. There is a 95 per cent chance of seeing one on a resort-run trip, claims resident marine biologist Nathalia Samper.
Even in unfavourable, squally conditions, we found a six-plus-metre whale shark making its way majestically along a reef drop-off within minutes of our boat arriving in the designated area. A squadron of mobula rays soon followed.
Photograph a whale shark and send the picture to the Wildbook for Whale Sharks project, which can identify an individual by analysing its spots, and you’ll have helped in the study of a very enigmatic creature.
Also helpful is the resort’s reef-planting programme, which begins with the threading of coral fragments onto ropes. Samper or another diver then attaches the ropes to the seabed as guests watch from above, through masks. Participants will receive six-monthly updates on how their coral shard is (hopefully) growing.
As with most others around the world, Rangali’s house reef suffered terribly from bleaching in 2016. Observations from repeat guests suggest the reef is slowly recovering – a bit more colour returning to the corals – says Samper, but it’s a slow process. Although coral gardening helps a little, the major benefit of this activity is educational.
The Conrad has two spas, one on each island, and that on Rangali was the first spa in the Maldives to have glass flooring. Watching the water lap beneath you as a masseuse works the knots out of your shoulder is a special experience.
Each of the eight suites at the Spa Retreat on Rangali-Finolhu features an outdoor toilet perched above the ocean. We can only imagine that doing an alfresco poo is special, too.
Given climate change, should we really be travelling all that way to such a sensitive part of the world?
The Maldives is a long-haul flight away for most visitors, that’s true, but once you’re at the resort, you are unlikely to be doing much other travel besides the odd boat trip.
According to general manager Carla Puverel, since Covid-19 disrupted holiday habits, the length of the average guest stay has risen from 10 nights to 14, and some visitors choose to extend or even work and homeschool from the resort for weeks at a time (the Wi-fi is excellent).
Although the age of the property goes against it in terms of built-in sustainability features, the management is continually coming up with ideas to make the place greener and leaner, according to Puverel – for example, you’ll find no single-use plastic amenity bottles in the bathrooms, the resort is being weaned off its diesel generators, and cooked buffet items are prepared in small batches and monitored very closely to minimise waste.
A hydroponic garden supplies the resort’s restaurants and staff cafeteria with lettuce, green capsicum and various herbs.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that 475 people – 65 per cent of them Maldivian – rely on the resort for their livelihood.
How did the resort fare during Covid?
Not too badly. When the Maldives went into lockdown, just one family was trapped at the resort, and then only for a few days, according to Hill. During the lockdown, the 100 or so staff that remained kept themselves busy and entertained by trying out each others’ jobs, maintaining the place and keeping it clean. The Maldives reopened to tourists in July 2020 – long before most other countries.
As well as temperature checks for guests as they enter any of the resort’s restaurants, a vestige of Covid-19 is the “heart gesture”. To avoid physical contact, members of staff greet guests by placing their right palm on their own chest, above the heart. They all do this, all of the time, and the effect, at first, makes you feel as though you’ve stepped into an episode of a sci-fi television show, albeit one set on some far-flung luxury resort.
How much would all this cost?
A beach villa for a family of four costs from US$1,000 a night, including breakfast.