In 1970, an article headlined The Prisoners of Paradise was published in The Illustrated London News. The story described Gan, a 3km-long coral dot, part of the heart-shaped Addu Atoll in the south Maldives. The most far-flung in the Indian Ocean archipelago, the atoll sits below the equator, an 80-minute flight or 537km from the capital Malé.
From 1941, Gan functioned as a British military base, initially a secret location known as Port T for 150 Royal Marines patrolling nearby ocean lanes during the war, and later as a staging post for RAF VC-10s transporting servicemen to Singapore. There was one woman on Gan at the time of the story – a spinster Wren called Joan Parsons. “I belong to the paradise school of thought,” she remarked. “There are people who would pay a fortune to come to a place like this for a holiday.”
It is new year 2012. The old RAF runway, which the British abandoned in 1976, has three private jets on the tarmac. Octopus, the world’s 12th largest yacht, which belongs to Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, is reportedly in the neighbourhood. The Russians are present in full force, as are a clutch of Arabs, including a Middle Eastern family occupying the $9,000-a-night one-bedroom Villa 101 at the only five-star resort this far south, Shangri-La Villingili.
Villingili is far larger than most resort islands in the Maldives – at 473,000 sq m, it has room for 132 villas spread out on the beach and over water, and even enough space for a nine-hole golf course, opening in March, marking a first for the islands. Most resorts are much tighter on space. The Taj Exotica, for instance, occupies an island 950m long and 60m at its widest point. This supports 64 guest villas, most built over water. Soneva Gili maximised space by pioneering stand-alone, overwater bungalows with a boat to connect guests to the main resort island.
Next up is a joint initiative between Dutch Docklands and the Maldives government. It will comprise 43 floating private islands in an archipelago configuration (the first phase is due to open next year), a floating 18-hole golf course and even a floating conference centre.
Until such futuristic visions come to be, the big brands end up competing on a very thin edge: service, food and spa. In my opinion, these little sand spits combined with a lack of any local culture (where’s the space for such a thing?) can make a Maldives five-star feel like a rich man’s prison. It works well for those who are so tired that they just want to lie on a lounger. It works for those who dive (and, increasingly, for those who surf). In fact, it works so well that nearly all the big five-star brands are present in the Maldives – and running at occupancies the Caribbean could only dream of. There are about 100 resort islands in the country. More are opening all the time – Jumeirah Dhevanafushi was the latest in December – with three-quarters clustered in the Ari, North and South Malé atolls, most of which are within speedboat reach of the capital. pepsi
But Shangri-La Villingili seems to have a different vision to the Malé-centric status quo. In this instance, size matters, especially when a resort is trying to stand apart from the repetitious model of rivals. It certainly helps justify that extra domestic flight from Malé airport to Gan – a big factor when other resorts, such as Taj Exotica, are just 10 minutes by boat from where the long-haul carriers come in.
Villingili is 10 minutes by speedboat from Gan. About a third of the size of the republic’s capital, the developers have left parts of the island unmanicured. The density of vegetation – banyans, mangroves, bananas – is such that six full-time coconut tree climbers are employed to denude the palms of fruit to avoid the risk of a nut falling and injuring a guest.
The atoll has a strong identity. Addu Atoll has six inhabited islands; five, from Gan to Hithadhoo, are linked by three causeways, creating the longest single road in the Maldives at just over 18km. That means guests at Villingili can head out on bicycles to explore the atoll, and with a resident population of about 28,000, there’s much to see: schools, mosques, a lively port area and local restaurants mixed in with yam farms and traditional coral stone houses where the women offer visitors hard balls of dry tuna (an acquired taste) by way of hospitality. An impeccably curated cultural centre, opened in November, shows a much older way of life.
So here is an interesting community and a resort in which I could spread out with noisy children, and even go for a run. During my stay, the hotel was operating at 95 per cent occupancy. It felt closer to 50 per cent. Tables in the resort’s three restaurants were easy to come by without having to make advance reservations. With a staff of 620, nor did I ever feel unattended (“If I have a criticism, there’s too much service,” remarked one Dutch guest). Children didn’t annoy honeymooners, and honeymooners didn’t annoy families – even around the large pool. Because most guests used their complimentary bicycles, I didn’t feel like I was constantly dodging golf buggies on the island’s thoroughfares (as I did at the Taj Exotica). The design was not quite to my taste (too much cobalt silk), nor the concept of a “resort village” or “gala dinner”. But as one guest remarked, you can take it or leave it. That morning, he’d ditched the resort’s glossy boat and instead gone out for five hours with a tuna trawler. I pulled up alongside, and saw guts swilling about the deck. “Wild fishing,” he called it, holding up a vast wahoo. “Tonight we grill it.”
I’d come across this Ukrainian on my way back from the local islands, where I visited the hospital and met a doctor from Samarkand. “Uzbekistan only has two big rivers,” she said: “This is the first time I’ve seen the sea.” She chose her posting well, because the ocean here is pristine, without any of the sea traffic that plies the Malé region. We swam with turtles, and dolphins danced in front of our boat’s prow. The divers I spoke to said it was very good, a highlight being the largest wreck in the Maldives, the British Loyalty, scuttled in 1946.
But is this still worth the hassle with those domestic flights? James Jayasundera, whose UK-based Ampersand Travel specialises in the Maldives, argues that the much more accessible Taj Exotica is one of the country’s best resorts. “My clients need a break. Simple as that. And the Taj makes it easy for them.” He’s right in that the Taj’s lagoon is exquisite (among the largest in the islands), the food memorable, and all those other luxury signifiers are in place: private plunge pools, a great spa, and so on. But this is the second time I’ve stayed at the Taj and I still can’t help noticing the planes that fly over (in fact, the frequency has increased in the past 10 years). I also still think that in peak season the island is too small to sustain the number of guests. If I’m going to stay near Malé, I’d rather be north of the flight path, at Four Seasons Kuda Huraa.
I suppose it’s a question of how far is too far to travel when for many of us, the quicker we can roll off the plane and onto a sun lounger, the better – we can keep culture for another trip. But the Maldives are a bizarre place: to one man a prison, to another paradise. These dynamics deserve to be better understood, by meeting islanders beyond the resort staff, beyond pat tours of Malé and its disappointing historic sites. Villingili is the first resort I have come across that has not only real space but this fresh potential, and thus taps into the more complex reasons many of us travel in the first place. It is something I’d wager the really privileged will seek more and more as repetitious luxury comes to mean less and less.
Sophy Roberts was a guest of Shangri-La Villingili (www.shangrila.com/maldives), Ampersand Travel (www.ampersand travel.com), Taj Exotica (www.tajhotels.com/maldives) and Four Seasons Kuda Huraa (www.fourseasons.com/maldives). Ampersand offers a week’s stay at Villingili from £5,389, including transfers and flights from London to Malé with British Airways (www.ba.com) and from Malé to Gan with Air Maldivian (www.maldivian.aero). With Ampersand, a week’s stay costs from £1,912 per person at Villingili, from £1,686 at Taj Exotica, and £1,652 at Four Seasons Kuda Huraa
Community centred: Luxury with local culture on the doorstep
Amanbagh, India The lovely Amanbagh resort is deep in rural Rajasthan, where the way of life has scarcely changed in centuries and camel carts are still the principal mode of transport, writes Claire Wrathall. Guests are encouraged to walk into the neighbouring villages (with or without a guide), where their reception is enthusiastic. Staff members, most of them local, also take guests to aarti, the daily ceremony of clashing symbols and deafening brass at the local Hindu temple, or to visit a local school, a revelation for indulged western children. All they ask is that guests don’t “demean our neighbours by offering them anything other than warm smiles and genuine respect”. Doubles from $600. www.amanresorts.com
Six Senses Zighy Bay, Oman On the remote Musandam Peninsula, this 82-villa hotel shares Zighy Bay with an ancient fishing community. Halfway along the mile-long beach, there’s a sign encouraging guests to proceed to the village but asking them to dress modestly, for relations between the hotel and its neighbours are mutually supportive. Not only does the hotel provide employment, it runs weekly English classes for local children, and once a week invites craftsmen into the resort to sell pottery, basketwork and textiles. Doubles from $611. www.sixsenses.com
The Augustine, Prague Many hotels are housed in former monasteries but Rocco Forte’s chic Czech outpost still has an order of Augustinian friars with black habits co-existing cordially on site. Enquire at the hotel’s reception, and one of them will show you round the fine baroque church, cloister and immense library of ancient books. Doubles from €275. www.theaugustine.com