Dazzling white sand beaches, coral reefs teeming with colourful marine life and accommodation offering true barefoot luxury – the Maldives are the obvious choice for the holiday of a lifetime.
It would be fair to suggest that the Maldives, when discussed, holds a particular resonance for people; in a noisy, always on, technological world, there’s something about the remoteness, the famous pace (or lack of it) of life, the symbiosis with nature that really speaks to busy, burnt-out Londoners. In short, it offers complete and utter relaxation.
Mind you, you are owed some relaxation credit after a not inconsiderable journey to get there. Arriving, blinking, into Malé airport is where the experience starts. Greeted at the Banyan Tree resorts’ dedicated desk (both of our two hotel destinations are part of the acclaimed group), our bags are whisked away and are duly waiting for us onboard the Trans Maldivian Airways seaplane that, with its barefoot pilot, will finally deliver us to our island idyll. (A note for the more nervous passenger; TMA perform over 100,000 flights per year, so you couldn’t be in more expert hands.).
First destination on our itinerary is Angsana Velavaru. As first impressions go, nowhere I’ve been has ever left me as close to speechless. Nothing can prepare you – no number of photos or videos, no description, however vivid – for the almost psychedelic, preternaturally beautiful first glimpse of these islands. It’s like Dorothy stepping into Oz. Truly, this is a place that dreams are made of.
Speaking of dreams, top of my agenda was a tactical, refreshing nap – an evening of local Bodu Beru music and dancing awaited, and I was determined to enjoy it. The villas here are small but perfectly formed, and the beach front location makes this snooze an instant entry into my Top Three Naps of All Times chart. Waking myself up was no chore, either – an invigorating splash in the outdoor shower, housed in the private courtyard garden to the back of the villa, and I was ready to explore.
The “no news, no shoes” national catchphrase is resolutely true here… strolling around the grounds is an entirely barefoot experience, and even the reception and buffet restaurant are sandy underfoot. Angsana Velavaru is an all-inclusive resort, with five different levels of inclusivity package available, that offers three restaurants – the smartest of these, Azzurro, is on the unique twin island, a short shuttle boat across the water away, which is also home to their in-ocean villas. There’s a kids’ club, a marine centre – guests are invited to take part in ‘coral planting’ conservation work to help repair the reef after the damage caused by the rising sea temperatures precipitated by El Niño – and a spa, where I treated myself to an utterly blissful massage in an open-air therapy room, with the soft breeze and the calling of seabirds as the perfect backdrop.
Time passes in a blissed-out haze punctuated by highlights: exquisite meals and delectable cocktails, a midnight dip in the vast inifinity pool and – one for the bucket list – a sunset cruise where we were accompanied by a huge pod of dolphins, up to a hundred of them, putting on the greatest show on earth. A more pinch-me moment it would be hard to imagine.
Before I know it, it’s time to move on to our next stop, Dhawa Ihuru. Famed for having one of the best house reefs – the term for reefs situated directly in front of resorts – in the whole archipelago, the hotel has been recently relaunched under Banyan Tree’s Dhawa brand, and is the relaxed, more casual sister island to Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru, just next door. Whilst our previous accommodation was hardly a built-up metropolis, the thing that is most striking about Dhawa Ihuru is its pared-back, at-one relationship with nature.
The island is teeming with life – waterhens, storks, a resident flock of love birds, lizards and crabs scuttling away as you walk along the sand. But the showstopper is the marine life. The house reef starts just a few steps from the shoreline, and snorkelling here is one of the best experiences of my life. It’s astonishing. A technicolour world with an immeasurable populace, I swim alongside flamboyant parrot fish, darting needle fish, shoals of mackerel flashing blue, who jump into the air intermittently, and even black tip reef sharks who amble lazily up and down the shoreline, far less interested in my presence than I am in theirs. A little further out to the other side of the reef wall and I spy octopuses creeping across the coral, and as the icing on the cake, am soon swimming alongside a majestic turtle. That bucket list is seeing some serious tick-offs.
The more casual vibe of the island extends to the Riveli restaurant, which serves international cuisine (I’m thrilled to try the mas huni, a traditional Maldivian breakfast dish of finely chopped tuna, onion, coconut and chilli), and become particularly fond of the island’s signature version of a Tequila Sunrise, the Maldivian Sunrise. For a more formal dining experience, we head across to Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru, and Ilaafathi restaurant, which offers a unique blend of Indian, Chinese and Western cuisine. It’s exquisite.
Inspired by, and certainly in spite of, the number of Maldivian Sunrises consumed, I commit to a life first: I set my alarm for 5am to rise early and witness the actual sunrise. When I tell you this is out of character, I would previously have scoffed at the merest hint of rising early on holiday; but spending even a few days here, immersed in such bounteous nature, I’m more conscious than ever of its preciousness, and the experience doesn’t disappoint. Indeed, visiting the Maldives has had the most profound effect on me, and when it’s time to go home, I shed actual tears at the prospect of leaving such a paradise. It’s about so much more than the sum of its picture-perfect parts; it is alchemy, it is magic, and it is now my happy place.
A beachfront villa at Dhawa Ihuru starts from £675 per night, exclusive of taxes and fees, based on the all-inclusive dine package. Guests can take advantage of the ‘All-inclusive Island Getaway’ offer with savings of 25 per cent on best available rate when booking a minimum of four nights, with complimentary speedboat transfers (dhawa.com/hotels/dhawa-ihuru-maldives) A beachfront villa at Angsana Velavaru starts from £409 per night, exclusive of taxes and fees, based on the all-inclusive dine package (angsana.com/ maldives/velavaru)