Rising sea levels have not prevented Waldorf Astoria from becoming the latest hotel brand to set up shop in the Maldives. Rory Ross flew out to explore it
On final approach into Malé Airport, I looked out of the cabin window and saw an ocean that had been tie-dyed into a pattern of turquoise, blue and cobalt streaks. ‘Hello,’ I thought. ‘Has someone spiked my drink?’ Actually, that is what the Maldives look like from the air. For every one of these 1,190 tiny islands that breach the waves, dozens of others stop short, creating mysterious shapes in the water.
Speeding through the airport, I boarded a yacht and cruised 30km, with dolphin escort, to the island of Ithaa on South Malé Atoll. Here, the Waldorf Astoria group, ‘halo’ brand of the Hilton empire, has opened a new $400 million resort. As my yacht docked, the entire front-of-house had turned out.
Masseuses, manicurists, gardeners, chefs, waiters, beach attendants, well-wishers and smiley iced-towel holders stood waving in drill formation. Time from airport to resort: 45 minutes.
‘That’s a quicker transfer than in most Asian cities,’ said Daniel Welk, a chatty Australian with the enviable title of vice-president, luxury and lifestyle, Asia Pacific, Hilton Group.
I was entrusted to the care of Mr Shiyam, my eheetheriyaa (butler), a man of infinite patience and fathomless local knowledge. My ‘room’ was a beachfront villa ample enough to house a nuclear family. The soothing (plastic-free) interior was a judicious balance of functionality, comfort and luxe. Wall-length windows opened on to a palisaded garden, pool, loungers, shaded tables and chairs and ‘swing sofa’. All I could hear was the breeze whispering through palms, the repeated collapse of wavelets on the beach, and the declining drone of distant seaplanes. Dissolved in luxury, I could happily have spent several days here playing out my castaway fantasies.
‘Asian guests think differently,’ says Welk. ‘Asian honeymooners love the idea of sleeping on stilts over the ocean, not next to it.’ Yes, I’d imagine that if you’d never seen an ocean before, and perhaps can’t swim, then sleeping alongside your newlywed while schools of sharks, stingrays, turtles and charismatic megafauna appraise you from below, must rate as a surreal adventure.
‘A once-in-a-lifetime hero experience,’ nods Welk. Some of the overwater villas are larger than two tennis courts, offering new dimensions of spacious freedom, privacy and fish-interaction.
The Maldives are a chain of 27 extinct volcanoes that have retreated to form atolls. Within these atolls, myriad islands pepper an area the size of Portugal. On either side, the Indian Ocean plunges to 5,000m. We’re talking about the precipitous peaks of a range of giant underwater volcanoes peeping above the water.
One curious factoid is the sand. Eighty per cent of it is made from the excrement of parrot fish. ‘When snorkelling, you can hear the parrot fish eating the coral. “Chunk! Chunk!”’ a marine biologist told me. ‘They expel white sand made of calcium carbonate. This is why the sand doesn’t burn your feet.’There you have it: the Maldives are volcanic summits garnished with parrot-fish by-product.
A latter-day Robinson Crusoe will find a land- and seascape so pure, minimalist and alluring as to seem surreal: a world reduced to basic elements, pellucid ocean, demerara sand (parrot-fish guano), saturated colours, and palms swaying voluptuously beneath an equatorial sky. The Waldorf Astoria improves this idyll.
Management have literally moved hills, dug streams, planted forests and sieved tonnes of sand to sculpt this 25-acre island into the shape of a question mark. All 122 rooms give directly on to the ocean.
A highlight of Ithaa is its private island, the dot of the question mark. The size of five football pitches, this island sleeps 18 and can be sealed off from the rest of the resort. It comes with everything: overwater spa, overwater gym, three-bed villa with two pools, overwater villa, guest house, entertainment centre, beach, water sports, jetty, yacht, restaurant, room service, and so on. If you ask the price, you can’t afford it.
The Maldives are recovering from El Niño, a warm current that washed through in 2016, ‘bleaching’ the coral. ‘If the coral polyps die, the small fish have no shelter, so the large fish eat them and then move on,’ explained Nihad, the excursions and recreation manager, as he took me out to the reef. ‘Result: no fish. But the coral is recovering.’ Nihad waxed misty-eyed about reef sharks, his love. ‘They open their mouths and let the little fish clean their teeth,’ he said. ‘If you see these moments, you will fall in love with them.’
Jumping in, I felt like I’d landed in the set of Finding Nemo. Snappers, fusiliers, bay fish, jackfish, angel fish, sweet lips and butterfly fish mouthed silent reports as they darted about the coral. Further out, predators put in cameo appearances, moving about with quiet authority. The underwater life here bears out the general rule that in order to survive on this planet, you have to be either extremely ugly (manta rays) or extremely beautiful (butterfly fish).
Anything in between gets eaten. I’m looking at you, tuna. Speaking of which, another highlight is the food and drink. Fifteen years ago, food in the Maldives had nowhere to go but up. Bounced? It has defied gravity!
Vijay, the head chef (ex-Raffles Singapore), told me he was the fifth member of staff to set foot on Ithaa after ground was broken in 2016. I took this as a positive sign. Whether you eat Middle Eastern, Asian, Western, Maldivian or just neat yellow-fin served raw, the food at the ten restaurants and the superb cheese cave is world-class, with a cellar to match.
The traditional A-to-B device in the Maldives is the high-prowed dhoni, a boat improvised from planks of palm timber. A quicker way of getting about is by seaplane. Trans Maldivian Airways operates the largest fleet of Twin Otter float planes. These giant pregnant moths will transform the shortest hop into an adventure; instead of clouds, you see dolphins and manta rays on manoeuvres.
Flying 100km south-west of Ithaa, I splashed down at Rangali Island on Ari Atoll, operated by the Conrad hotel group. Built in 1997, Rangali has notched up several ‘firsts’: first overwater villas in the Maldives; first resort underwater restaurant where you can watch fish watching you eating their cousins. Last year, it opened Muraka, the world’s first underwater suite, a waterproof greenhouse fixed to the seabed. You never know what you might wake up to.
The reef at Rangali is perforated by kendoos, deep channels that admit large pelagic fish from the ocean. ‘This provides us with more diverse marine life than on other atolls,’ says Andy, the dive manager. ‘It’s the “flesh effect”.’‘There is no construction work here. The fish are happy,’ says Stefano Ruzza, the general manager. ‘But you need luck to see whale sharks. This isn’t a zoo.’
Until the 1970s, the Maldives featured mainly in mariners’ logs and insurance underwriters’ black books. Since then they have soared from shipping hazard to God’s gift to resort hotels. Approaching their midlife crisis, the islands are having an existential meltdown.
They don’t know whether to have cosmetic surgery and Botox and become just another rich, oversexed, venal honeypot for the suddenly rich. Or should they preserve the traditional island life that made them attractive in the first place?
They’re well placed to have it both ways. In 2018, 132 islands were leased for development; 200 others were reserved for locals. The remaining islands are set aside. This segregation couldn’t happen elsewhere.
A bigger issue is the despoliation of the planet. A few years ago, the government put up a ‘Best Consume Before…’ sign over the entire country by announcing that the Maldives were about to vanish beneath rising sea levels. I wonder where they got that idea from.
Purely coincidentally, William Waldorf Astor, who built the original Waldorf Hotel in New York, faked his own demise by having his office inform reporters of his death by pneumonia. You can see why someone thought it might be amusing to open up a Waldorf Astoria here.
The Maldivian government is arguably part of the problem, leaping boldly into the future by expanding Malé Airport. Thanks to a new runway, arrivals will increase from 1.48 million in 2018 to 2.5 million by 2022, producing a different kind of ‘flesh effect’.
Braced for precipitation of downmarket chinoiserie et al, some hoteliers are rejoicing; others are fretting. Then again, perhaps it pays not to worry too much while perched on volcanoes at risk of inundation.
For more information, click here