Boutiques abound – but can the Maldives’ largest private island and five-star hotel be its best? Matthew Hardeman sails over the azure atolls to see for himself
For all its placid beauty, tranquil energy and dizzying array of luxury hotels, the Maldives isn’t exactly renowned for its variety. However the Shangri-La’s flagship resort, Villingili, tries to offer rather more than the usual ‘fly and flop’ experience the islands are known for.
Located in the southernmost Addu Atoll, 478 kilometers south of the Maldivian capital, Malé, Villingili rises out of Indian Ocean to become twelve hectares of verdant tropical hideaway, covered with mammoth banyan trees and coconut palms, pristine white sand beaches and three natural lagoons (it’s also home, rather amusingly, to the Maldives’ highest ‘mountain’ – a 5.1 meter mound on the golf course). It’s here that the heavyweight hotel group began poured its resources into its own private island eight years ago – the largest in the country, at three kilometers long.
Arriving on the island by water taxi from Gan, the nearest airport some five minutes away, the island’s design sensibility becomes clear: sleek, minimalist (not the overly-clever kind) thatched wood structures dot the waterfront, blending into the lush green jungle.
Accommodation choices vary from luxe to uber-luxe: 60 stylish over-water villas – the entry-level offering – and 47 discreet private villas, including the two presidential villas – the 570 square metre Villa Muthee, and the even grander Villa Laalu. Whichever style you opt for, the private villas come with their own pool and ocean view (there are private tree-house and beach options), and enough space to relax and sleep a large family or group of friends.
Here you’ll find some of the choicer amenities, from outdoor designer showers with body jets to a personal sauna and gym, private courtyard, garden and bright ocean-facing study. A personal villa host is also on hand 24/7, with their own living quarters.
It’s hardly all about the sprawling land plots, though: connected by suspended timber walkways, the elongated over-water villas are spacious and smartly conceived with their wrap-around glass partitions allowing for an unobstructed, turquoise Indian Ocean vistas bleeding into sandy, palm-tree lined beaches and sapphire skies. Each leads out onto a private sundeck complete with daybeds and a hammock net for reclining just above the water (and steps down into it), so there’s nothing to stop you from diving right in.
Silky soft, white linens and comfy beds are a given here, as are the spacious oval bathtubs, indoor and outdoor showers, and plenty provided for pampering and sheer comfort: crucially as much after-sun and mosquito repellent as you like, doled out in stylish stone bottles (although, there seems to be little need for the latter with a constant ocean breeze).
All of the accommodation is fully air-conditioned – without the indecipherable remotes and controls (thank you). There’s also fast, free WiFi, 40-inch flat-screen TVs, universal plug adaptors, Bose DVD players, iPods and docking stations, mini-bars re-stocked daily, and of course, 24-hour in-villa dining. There are no shortages of staff or amenities to contend with either. It’s a welcome break from the boutique hotel, that, while all rather nice, doesn’t have that European plug adapter you forgot to bring, or someone to replace a bulb or bring you some obscure cocktail at 4 am.
On land, guests are invited to walk through the resort's native jungle, play a round at the golf course (the only 9-hole golf course in the Maldives – there’s also tennis courts and a fitness centre) and dive into its electric green lagoons to cool off. You’ll want to hop on a bike or call for a buggy to get around the island (all guests are given their own bicycle for the duration of their stay free of charge). Bike tours of nearby Addu City and its abandons of Empire can be arranged, too – just a short boat ride away (the British Army were based there until the Maldives gained its independence in 1965).
No Maldivian resort would be respectable without a wide range of aquatic activities: Villingili offers scuba diving, big game and hand line fishing, wave-surfing, kayaking, sailing and snorkelling on its azure reefs (there’s also coral-planting for the eco-minded), just for starters. For divers, there are more than 25 dive sites teeming with marine life, including the year-round manta ray (and, if you’re lucky, giant whale sharks). More experienced and intrepid divers will want to explore the 140-metre shipwreck, British Loyalty.
There are also luxury yacht excursions and parasailing: make sure to hop on the Horizon Yacht for a dolphin cruise at sunset – of course incomplete without canapés and champagne; there seems to beplenty of both to go around.
A check-in to the resort spa, CHI, is also mandatory if you ask us: try the Kandu Boli treatment for what they call ‘sense of place’ here (the spa specialises in Ayurveda and has an extensive range treatments designed to realign chakras and cleanse the body of toxins) and its ‘Yogasphere’ yoga and meditation sessions.
Worried about what to do with the kids? Drop them off in the children’s play zone, sign them up to a number of supervised children’s activities, or arrange for one of the hotel’s resident babysitters. The island never felt crowded during our stay, so get out and enjoy the peace and quiet – you won’t find it quite like this in many other places.
There’s no denying perhaps the greatest strength of any Shangri-La we've visited: its people. Friendly, knowledgeable and impeccably courteous down to the porters, they make an impression with thoughtful gestures, from cold towels to timely refreshments (you can expect the concierge to not just to remember your fancies, but come up with additional ideas and touches).
Quite brilliantly, the clocks are set an hour ahead on Vilingilli – so guests can specially enjoy an extra hour of daylight and squeeze the most out of each day, and frankly, if bending the hands of time isn’t service, it doesn’t exist.
There are more bar and restaurant choices on the island waterfront than you can shake a bamboo stick at – the particular highlight being a mix of local Indian Ocean curries from restaurant Dr Ali's (the name paying tribute to a much-loved Maldivian doctor of such name) also offering cuisine from the South China Sea and the Gulf.
Don’t forget to sip some mean and mysterious blue cocktails at M-Lounge, while Fashala impresses with its Maldivian seafood and Mediterranean specials. There’s also the eye-watering array of world cuisine on offer at Javvu, with its buffet and à la carte options, and international breakfast offerings to suit travellers of quite literally, all tastes (noodles for breakfast, anyone?). With Western Europeans, Americans and Australians arriving in number, not to mention a sizeable contingent from Russia, China and the Gulf, it’s not an easy array of tastes to cater to, but stick to your choices, and you’re not likely to go hungry. The local and Western fare, which we mostly stuck to, is quite delicious – and rather surprising, for such a remote location.
And finally, don’t miss the hotel’s 'Dine by Design' offering, for rather more romantic private feast on the beach, with your custom menu prepared by a private chef – a memorable experience under a kaleidoscopic Maldivian sunset.
Robinson Crusoe, eat your heart out.
Matthew Hardeman is Senior Researcher at Spear's
Shangri-La’s Villingili Resort and Spa is a 70-minute flight from Malé International Airport and a 5-minute boat ride to the resort from Gan Airport on Addu Atoll.
Gan offers private jet and first-class facilities, including a VIP guest lounge exclusive to Shangri-La guests, with on-site immigration, customs support and baggage screening.
Rates for Villa Muthee start at USD $3775 per night (subject to 10 per cent service charge, 12 per cent GST and USD $6 per person, per night green tax) and includes breakfast, private transfers from Gan airport to the resort by speedboat, one daily yoga lesson in the villa for two, one daily 90 minute spa treatment for two and a personal butler service (these benefits are not applicable for discounted rates).
Water villa rates at Shangri-La’s Villingili Resort & Spa start at US $645.41 (approx. £527) per night, based on double occupancy, including all taxes and fees.
Web: Shangri-La Villingili Resort & Spa - www.shangri-la.com/male/villingiliresort
Phone: 0800 028 3337