Many island retreats promise seclusion, luxury and breathtaking settings; the Maldives being one of a select number of destinations that truly lives up to the dream. Rowena Marella-Daw visited three resorts to find out what really makes these islands tick.
The 1,190 islands that make up the Maldives are barely visible on the world map, yet are definitely on the radar of couples seeking the ultimate honeymoon getaway. It is indeed an extraordinary place for sun worshippers, but even restless souls who say they prefer a culture-orientated or activity-led honeymoon will find these idyllic islands along the Indian Ocean hard to resist.
The thrill and anticipation begins when the plane skims over the seascape as it prepares to land at Malé International Airport. Viewed from above, the islets are like little gems strung into necklaces of 26 atolls. Surrounded by coral reefs, they are protected marine areas, and of the 200 that are inhabited, about half are occupied by some of the finest luxury resorts in the world.
Flying in tiny propeller planes is not my idea of fun, but I have to make an exception for the seaplane – the best way to arrive at your dream destination. As I sat and secured my safety belt, I couldn't help but notice the uniformed pilot's bare feet – toes spread wide for a good grip on the pedals. He is one of a group of shoe-less aviators who shuttle visitors to and from Malé and its islands, bringing a new dimension to the term 'barefoot luxury'.
Twenty minutes into the flight, our pilot manoeuvred the seaplane's descent, gliding it gently over the turquoise waters. But instead of stepping onto a jetty, my co-passengers and I had to alight onto a wooden platform in the middle of the sea. A boat arrived not long after to ferry us to the island.
Kurumathi – Life in the slow lane
My first foray into Maldivian bliss was Kuramathi Island Resort in Rasdhoo atoll. Probably the closest to my idea of paradise, this island spans 1.8 km of dense tropical forests rimmed by sand as fine as flour, and tails off into a sandbank snaking its way through the lagoon before gradually disappearing into the horizon.
People are often told to 'live in the moment', and this is exactly the effect Kuramathi has on its guests, even those who claim to be perpetually stressed. Perhaps it's because everything is spread out across the entire island, it's hard to imagine there are nine restaurants, six bars and several luxury villas, each one secluded by lush gardens and dense vegetation. What also makes it special is the labyrinth of sandy pathways lined with coconut trees, tropical plants, foliage, vibrant bougainvillae and fragrant frangipani and hibiscus. A nature trail can be explored to visit the island's unspoilt tropical forest and the mystical 300-year-old Banyan tree.
Strangers to paradise
After a late dinner on my first evening, instead of taking a golf buggy ride from the restaurant to our water villa, I decided to take a stroll. It was a good 20-minute walk, so I had to rely on my sense of direction (or lack of it), and despite a few signs here and there, I still managed to get lost. The island took on a different persona at night – dimly lit pathways cast with mysterious shadows added to the evocative atmosphere. In the stillness of the night, the cries of wildlife were amplified; even the faintest shuffling from within the foliage was hard to ignore. Vivid imagination aside, I felt perfectly safe, knowing that even paradise has its share of natural thrills.
View too far
On one side of the island, a row of over-water villas are blessed with panoramic views of the lagoon, where harmless grey sharks trailing shoals of fish and other marine wonders are frequent visitors. Floor-to-ceiling glass doors open onto a wooden deck with loungers and a Jacuzzi in which to unwind on balmy evenings. From here, spectacular ruby red sunsets are a familiar sight, and if I fancied some snorkelling, I only had to take a few steps down the deck's ladder and swim around the lagoon.
A taste of bliss
My favourite place for chilling out has to be The Palm in the heart of the island. Cool and trendy without being pretentious, the white tables, chairs and loungers work beautifully with its native thatched roof and bamboo-lined walls. Excellent Italian dishes with a twist are served here, along with a contemporary Mediterranean dinner menu and homemade ice cream using classic and tropical flavours.
Dining under the heavens is a must in Kuramathi, especially when the food involves the freshest seafood, succulent meat and island-grown organic ingredients. Island Barbecue has all these and a romantic setting right next to the infinity pool lit with tiny underwater fairy lights.
A feeding frenzy
Without fail, every day at sunset, stringrays come to the water's edge to feed. One by one, they glided and hovered with impatience, awaiting their meal from the resort staff. Not all the stringrays got their fair share, but then there's always tomorrow. Kuramathi's laid-back atmosphere and unspoilt natural beauty are no doubt its main assets, but equally, the warmth and friendliness of the staff representing native Maldivians and nationals from the Indian Sub-continent, Far East and Europe made this place feel like a home from home, it was hard to say goodbye.
Kurumba is the grande dame of private island resorts in the Maldives, having been the first to open the country's doors to tourism. The five-star resort has been around for 40 years – an amazing achievement given the competition from new five-star island resorts launching every year. Its close proximity to Malé makes it the most accessible resort, with a mere 20-minute journey by speedboat from the airport. Compared to the brand new boutique-style resorts, Kurumba has a more traditional character and there is a certain buzz about the place that makes it conducive to mingling with other guests.
The spacious Pool Villa is the best accommodation in the resort. It has a good size lounge leading to the beach, a four-poster bed, large bathroom, private pool, daybed and Jacuzzi and an orchid garden with waterfalls.
The island may be small, but there are nine restaurants to choose from, including Chinese, Indian, Italian, Lebanese and Japanese. The à la carte breakfast is recommended for couples who prefer a more private setting, while a romantic private dinner in a gazebo along the beachfront, complete with the service of a private butler, sets the mood for romance.
The Aquum Spa is conveniently located close to the pool villas, making it easy to dash between your villa and the spa in your plush bathrobe. Oriental accents such as pathways over ponds and exotic flowers floating in water induce a feeling of calm. Treatments are inspired by Thai, Balinese and Maldivian massage techniques that incorporate fragrant local herbs and spices. Just a few paces from the spa is an orchid nursery where stunning varieties are grown and then used throughout the resort.
Velassaru belongs to a new wave of resorts designed to engage the senses while also providing a sanctuary for the weary mind and body. Stepping into the spacious open lobby, I felt instantly at ease with the surroundings: the ground is covered in sand; black and white furnishings mix with earthy tones; and contemporary accents are pleasing to the eye.
The island is small, making it easy to find your way around. The beachfront villas are said to be popular with couples as they are discreetly tucked behind lush vegetation, providing seclusion and private access to the beach. After a hard day's work snorkelling and sunbathing, heading back to five-star comfort in an air-conditioned beach villa is a welcome treat. Sliding doors open onto a sea-facing terrace, where a shaded daybed is just right for catching a nap induced by warm sea breezes. My favourite part is the spacious en suite bathroom with a garden feature, indoor and outdoor showers and L'Occitane toiletries.
However, for couples who prefer cosmopolitan-style luxury, the 270 square metre Water Suite, the swankiest accommodation in the resort, would be right up their street. An interesting feature is the lounge floor made of thick glass so guests can see the lagoon right underneath their feet. The stunning infinity pool facing the lagoon is another highlight.
Luxury aside, what really stood out was the island's wide rim of immaculate white sand and expansive lagoon. And if you don't feel comfortable scuba diving or venturing too far into the lagoon to snorkel, not to worry – shoals of fish and other colourful species will come to you along the water's edge.
Dining under the stars
Nothing quite prepared me for a surprise Sand Castle dinner. The staff had spent around two hours digging and shaping a sunken table and two chairs out of packed white sand along the beach. The impressive result was a perfectly shaped table set with linen and tealights, seats lined with cushions and lanterns scattered all around. From a makeshift kitchen with a grill a few steps away, our chef cooked the most delicious Indonesian Satay barbecue dinner served by a private butler. It was by far the most extraordinary and romantic dining experience in memory.
This mini chalk board place setting by Gisela Graham is adorable, not to mention handy for last-minute seating plan changes! You could use these cute signs to label the offerings on your cake table or sweetie bar too. Priced £2.25 from The Contemporary Home, www.tch.net
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