The Maldives has few untouched islands left. Can one of its first luxury resorts still be one of its very best, asks Matthew Hardeman
Boasting the biggest lagoon of any island resort in the Maldives, the Taj (now the Taj Exotica Resort & Spa) is something of a Maldivian original: in 1993 it became the first resort in the country with overwater villas. Today, after several refurbs and grand enhancements, it still prides itself most on the hotel giant’s trademark Indian hospitality, not least the myriad dining options brought to guests by its multi-Michelin-starred chefs.
Just 30 minutes’ speedboat ride from the capital Malé (a 24-hour service) in South Malé Atoll, Emboodhu Finolhu used to be called ‘Three Coconut Island’ (apparently three lonely coconuts were all that were to be found before the Taj arrived), planting the seeds that gave the island its lush green foliage that now stretches along its length and breadth, between pristine white sand beaches. It’s easy to see why the island was chosen, even back in the days were most of the Maldives’ atolls were unpopulated and ripe for the picking.
The experience begins as guests are warmly greeted by the hotel’s turquoise-clad staff before being ferried from the airport. Passengers who have flown from far away will be relieved not to have to make another connection or jump on a seaplane to get here. (The latter is especially true for those of a nervous disposition.)
At the island itself, a lone drummer plays on the jetty as a familiar Maldivian welcome of cool drinks and cold towels sets the tone for sunny refreshment in the sticky heat (not to mention a shower of rose petals). Guests receive a brief orientation with a quick drive down the island’s long green spine, formed of a dirt track canopied by arching jade and sea hibiscus trees that offer shade from the blazing sun.
At 700m long and just 30m wide, its snaking form makes for a nice short walk from end to end. Guests amble lazily or are ferried along by buggy to wherever they choose: the beach, the watersports centre, or any of the restaurants and bars.
The resort’s 112sq ft superior overwater villas each come with a private pool, hammock, lounge chairs, day beds, bathrooms with his-and-hers sinks, indoor and outdoor showers, Molton Brown toiletries and other bathroom amenities (not to mention the extremely comfortable bedding from Ploh).
To experience the island at its very best, however, readers will want to check into the presidential suite. The large villa comes with everything the island’s wealthiest visitors (and their entourages) could need or expect, not least the large deck with its own pool overlooking the ocean in total privacy.
While the $10,000-plus nightly rate for the presidential suite may be too much for some, they’ll be pleased to know the resort has 54 overwater bungalows with a plunge pool on each balcony. Those who would rather not see the bright lights of Malé in the distance can request an oddnumbered suite offering unobstructed views of the Indian Ocean, and more of the privacy an HNW would expect (in total, the island has 64 rooms across eight separate categories).
Like any self-respecting Maldivian hideaway, guests can opt for all kinds of water sport. Scuba-diving, jet-skiing, windsurfing, stand-up paddleboarding, parasailing, waterskiing and banana boat rides (if that’s your thing) are all on offer. The water swing off the beach – accessible at low tide – also makes for a nice touch. For those who would go to the Maldives and not get wet, there are plenty of day excursions and other activities, including free beachfront yoga sessions.
But the simplest and perhaps the most rewarding of all is snorkelling, right off the beach or the end of each water villa (the shallow turquoise water maintains a positively bath-like 31°C). Though there are certainly more vibrant and substantial house reefs in the Maldives, the island’s underwater environs play host to an impressive array of coral and fish.
Harmless blacktip reef sharks and stingrays (just don’t step on them) aren’t uncommon – while even larger nurse sharks can be seen from your dinner table at the Deep End restaurant, with its water hole in the middle of the dining area. All but ten of the island’s 200-plus staff live on the island, many of whom have worked there since the beginning – affording a collective memory and experience that is unusual for the Maldives.
All in all, those looking for the sleekest new resort in the Maldives might look further afield and shell out handsomely for that extra flight. But for those looking for a dependable and easily reachable tropical paradise that has stood the test of time – especially those with the budgets to really splash out – the Taj remains an excellent choice, and a Maldivian classic.
Matthew Hardeman is a former senior researcher at Spear’s
This article first appeared in issue 68 of Spear’s magazine, available on newsstands now. Click here to buy and subscribe.