Velaa Private Island offers the ultimate in luxury seclusion – and VIP access to its marine neighbours. Rasika Sittamparam goes swimming with the triggerfish…
The heavens are unleashing a tropical downpour as I step from the Male seaplane on to Velaa Private Island’s jetty. Instead of viewing the rain with contempt, I embrace it, for Maldivian symbolism suggests the warm deluge is a sign of welcome, a momentary connection between the sky and the sea. I’m given an industrial-sized umbrella and a cool lemongrass-scented towel to brave the five-second walk to a hut where champagne awaits. Thirst quenched, I’m ushered into a buggy driven by my private butler, Shuaib.
The journey from the jetty to the main island takes seconds. Meanwhile, I am transfixed by Velaa’s beauty, the porcelain-sanded main island sandwiched by turquoise waters and an azure sky that not even the passing storm can dim.
My abode, Kuredhi, is a gated four-bedroom residence, covering almost 1,350 square metres inside and out, fitted with dark Bornean wood. The master bedroom is spacious, with mirrors fitted just underneath its high ceilings, giving one the sense of an ever-expanding space. Around me is the seemingly infinite horizon. It’s hard to believe that anyone else is enjoying the view of the purple sunset, despite the fact that the resort’s full capacity nears 100. Hunger beckons, and I press a button to make Shuaib appear. He arrives on his buggy and takes me to Tavaru, the cocoon-shaped cylindrical tower restaurant just metres away.
I reach my private chef ’s table at the top via a steampunk elevator, and am hosted by the chef Joe, who juggles ingredients and utensils, and delivers well-timed jokes, barbecue delicacies and morsel after morsel of flavourful Japanese dishes. I walk to Avi Bar, just minutes away, to watch the island’s local band performing pop favourites. As I order the refreshing household punch, I notice one guest family enjoying the performance next to me. One by one, the members disappear into the late darkness in a swift yet surreptitious way. It’s a natural phenomenon at Velaa, where many of the HNW guests prefer to stay away from each other. Itineraries rarely clash, thanks to the mastery of the butlers. I hear that group yoga sessions are almost never desirable. Seclusion is the real privilege of Velaa, and the ever-present yet unintrusive staff are part of that. I realise that Shuaib has been waiting behind the bar to take me back only when I stand up to leave, long past midnight.
The morning arrives, and I head straight into the sea, its turquoise waters a perfect 29°C. Snorkelling around a patch of coral reef, I stumble upon a trio of foot-long black fish repeatedly dashing underneath their coral sanctuary and then out, as though to clear out the populations of smaller fish to make space for themselves. This tiny exodus includes dozens of silvery, pink-blue parrotfish, as well as a blue triggerfish with a long yellow streak down the corners of its mouth. Although it looks clownish, I sense aggression as it bares its blueish teeth. I decide it’s best to leave the coral inhabitants in peace.
The thought of understated luxury comes to mind as I explore the rest of Velaa, barefoot as recommended. I come across the original home of the family of watermelon and chilli farmers from whom Czech financier Jiri Smejc bought the island in 2013. The thatched roofs of this ancient Maldivian hut inspired those atop today’s overwater villas; Smejc insisted that the rest of the 45-property resort incorporate contemporary fittings within Maldivian features. Glass floor panels giving views of the ocean are installed everywhere, even underneath the face rest of my massage bed. I tune back into the parrotfish during an invigorating full-body massage, drift into a reverie, and waken when a knot on my back is skilfully levelled.
There is a surreal air here, orchestrated by nature in tandem with man-made luxury. A case in point is an excursion aboard Velaa’s luxurious new yacht Rania, which offers views of the archipelago and the sight of groups of playful baby dolphins. Four wild stingrays drift on the shores for the kitchen’s leftovers, one even floating on to my feet before slithering away. Resident marine biologist Evelyne Chavent tells me they are gourmands, lovers of lobster and scallop.
‘Have you seen the coral nursery?’ she asks, when I tell her of my interest in marine science. She urges me to explore the sustainability project Velaa treasures most: the largest coral restoration effort in the Maldives. A mesh-like ‘nursery’ holds bleached corals in the waters while their polyps (the organisms which make their surfaces liveable) regrow, before returning them to the ocean floor. It’s a process akin to reforestation on land. It’s partly motivated by the colony of turtles that the resort encountered during early days of its construction, and which gave it its name – ‘velaa’ is the local word for turtle.
I’m told a group of turtles recently laid eggs here, which Chavent and her colleagues helped to protect. It’s heartening to think that, 30 years from now, those very hatchlings will return to this small patch of luxury where they were born, to create their next generation. It’s a solid succession plan, and I hope that I will return to Velaa then, just in time to witness it.
Rasika Sittamparam is senior researcher at Spear’s