" enjoy the very best that civilization can provide - but enjoy it in comfort "
Walking out to Lime Spa - Photo by Burt Fine
The noonday sun is baking the sand and flashing prisms on the turquoise sea. But we're cooled by breezes and the sheltering of a leafy canopy of
banyan trees. Just another day in paradise. And another of our languid lunches on the beach. The table is formally dressed in crisp white linen, and the waiters are elegant in their earth-toned uniforms, but we're barefoot, our "formal" attire consisting of t-shirts that cover our swimsuits. An attentive waiter lifts the chilled bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from the wine bucket and refills our crystal glasses. And, as the chef flips our just-caught tuna on the outdoor grill, we catch ourselves grinning like schoolkids at recess as we raise a toast to the good life.
Sounds like a great day on Macaroni Beach in Mustique, right? No? Then, maybe one of those posh al fresco lunches at Le Club 55 in St Tropez? Perhaps Liku Liku Resort in Fiji?
Of course it could be any one of those. Or any of dozens of other fabled beach resorts anywhere in the world.
But it's not.
This idyllic beach scene is taking place half a world away from home, on a private island in the Maldives.
MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE SPA
The setting shifts to a series of thatch-roofed structures perched on stilts out over a placid lagoon. At the end of the long wooden walkway over the water, we enter the cool darkness of one of the buildings and immediately descend a staircase, down, down thirteen feet below the lagoon's surface. We've entered a rare and exotic world -
Lime Spa - the world's first under-the-sea spa. Our couples' treatment room is walled with glass observation windows, giving us a fish's-eye-view of an authentic live coral reef. As we stare in fascination, a school of blue striped snapper swirls past. Day-glo orange and violet "fairies of the reef" dart among the corals, daintily nibbling their lunch. And, bustling importantly through this busy scene, a juvenile Moorish idol swishes by, his showy plume trailing along behind him.
Can a day at any spa get any better - or any sexier - than this? With a coral reef as backdrop, our couples massage, which is intriguingly titled "Unite Me - Crystal Ritual" leaves us lulled and relaxed, our skin renewed and glowing from massages with locally-sourced coconut oils.
Not only is Lime the world's first underwater spa, it also happens to be just one more dazzling amenity of that same resort, that intensely private, intensely pampering haven in the Maldives.
EXACTY WHERE IS PARADISE ?
That resort is Huvafen Fushi, and it reigns supreme on its own private atoll in the Maldives. And even though it's only a 30-minute speedboat ride from
Male international airport, it is light-years removed from anyone's idea of everyday life.
For us, the magic began at the Maldives airport where we were met by a young "thakuru," (which is Maldivian for butler) from the resort. After ushering us onto the waiting yacht, he then quickly sorted out the luggage and, in minutes, we were skimming over the night-black sea. Several drinks and cold towels later, we arrived at the resort's dock and were welcomed by an attentive staff that settled us into golf carts for the ride to our "bungalow."
(It should be noted here that to call Huvafen Fushi's lavish villas "bungalows" is roughly the same as referring to a Jaguar XKR as a "beach buggy.")
Huvafen Fushi has a total of 43 of these "bungalows," ranging in size and WOW-factor from the merely fabulous to the frankly-out-of-this-world. The majority stand on stilts out over the water, some facing outward to the Indian Ocean, others facing the atoll's peaceful inner lagoon. And those few accommodations that are not perched directly over the water are tucked away into the island's tropical forest, connected by a short and very private path to the beach.
OK, there's plenty of sun and sand and sea and lots of pampering. But you're probably wondering why anyone would travel halfway around the world for this when there are so many fabulous options much closer to the States.
Good question. And one to which there are also plenty of good answers.
For openers: "Because it's there," ( Mallory's famous reply when asked why anyone would climb Mt. Everest) springs to mind. People who are hooked on great beaches just naturally tend to want to sample as many as possible. To collect them like so many exotic shells. To experience the best the world has to offer.
Years ago we started our own personal world-class "collection" by visiting the incomparable beaches of the Caribbean. And later we gradually moved on to those beaches more far-afield. This time, however, we've moved to a beach that's very very far from home.
So far, in fact, that we find ourselves beaching in the middle of the Indian Ocean, southwest of Sri Lanka, somewhere in the Republic of Maldives which, we have learned, consists of 19 atolls made up of 1,192 islets (only 250 of which are inhabited).
I read an article in which some travel guru whimsically described a visit to the Maldives as "long-haul luxury." I have no quarrel with the luxury part, and certainly not with the length of the trip, either. It truly was a long haul from home (New York City) to these glorious sands. But to be fair, if you consider today's convoluted aviation routes and lengthy layovers, it can take almost a full day of travel to get from JFK to, say, the beaches of Negril, or Cancun or Punta Cana or - well, you get the picture.
So here we are, after having logged many hours in transit, relaxing in the glow of unabashed luxury at one of the world's premier resorts.
So just what's that about? What does it take to catapult a resort so high into the ratings stratosphere?
NATURE MEETS EXTREME NURTURE
Basically, everything. Start with a setting that's straight out of a beach-lover's fantasy. You're on a pancake-flat, sandy atoll, which means there's sea and silky white sand beaches everywhere you look - the inner lagoon, shimmering and shifting in shades of turquoise, and the vast Indian Ocean stretching out in endless blues from every place on the island. In fact, the connection to the sea that you experience here is so profound as to inspire awe.
And, of course,
the weather out here is as dependable as the mangoes served every morning at breakfast in the resort's Celcuis restaurant: always the same, always just right.
Given the sheer drama of Mother Nature out here, it makes perfect sense that the resort has been designed to soothe with some superior man-made comforts as well.
One major element of this design would be the privilege of privacy. The over-water bungalows are constructed to maximize privacy by distancing each hideaway from the neighboring others. As for those bungalows hidden in the jungle, well - they're hidden in the jungle.
The interior of our home-away-from-home represents another comfort factor. Inside here it's all about balancing luxury and technology. While the decor is deceptively simple - minimal yet elegant - the focus is on luxurious fabrics and natural materials. Interestingly, each bungalow is also tricked out with the very latest in high-tech electronics and gadgets. In other words, while you're snuggled in those silky Frette sheets in your outrageously oversized bed, you can reach out and grab that remote from the bedside table. Click, and your own personalized choice of music plays through Bose surround-sound speakers throughout the bungalow. Click again, and the picture-windows' blackout shades rise soundlessly to reveal the real world of brilliant sunlight splashing down on your private deck with its canopied daybed, cushy chaises around the plunge pool. And beyond all that - endless miles of aquamarine sea. And that's just the view from your bed.
And as a cherry-on-top to all this extravagance, our "bungalow's" living room features a swimming pool that flows from the comfy sofa all the way out onto the deck. It can be divided by a wall of glass that rises or lowers remotely to seal off indoors from outdoors. And, of course, this pool has twinkly LED lights that cycle through a rainbow of colors at night.
A personal aside on the concept of "comfort" here. Many many high-end beach resorts interpret comfort to mean an abundance of such citified elements as marble bathrooms, oversized shower heads, oversized flat screen TVs, crystal chandeliers, and so on.
At Huvafen Fushi , comfort assumes its rightful place within the context of island living For example, comfort, as in bare feet. Let's face it. An island is all about sand. And who wants to teeter around getting sand in your 5-inch Manolos? So, dress up for dinner, by all means; this is the perfect place for showing off your most gorgeous designer resort wear. But, at the same time, be comfortable. After all, sand was meant to be accessorized with bare feet, not stilettos.
Shoelessness aside, there are dozens of impressively high-end elements and venues that make up this resort. For one, there's Vinum, a $750,000 wine-inventory cellar, cool and dark and inviting, built down below ground level. The centerpiece of the wall-to-wall-to-ceiling racks filled with bottles is the equally impressive Round Table. Dinners held here at Vinum are legend. For us was the setting for one of the most amazingly instructional and uproariously entertaining wine tasting dinners imaginable. (Chateau Petrus, anyone?)
Each of Huvafen Fushi's restaurants is designed to showcase not just its stellar cuisine, but also the naturally sensual setting. It's hard to overstate the appeal of dining at Salt, where you enjoy expertly prepared fresh-caught seafood while seated on the outdoor deck that's cantilevered out over the water, waves splashing lightly beneath, the moon and about ten zillion stars overhead, candles flickering on tables, wine chilling in nearby buckets, and soft breezes cooling bare shoulders.
True beach lovers will relate to the all-important fact that there's nothing pretentious here. The underlying premise of Huvafen Fushi seems to be: enjoy the very best that civilization can provide - but enjoy it in comfort. If this means no shoes, terrific. If this means checking into your bungalow and never leaving it for the entire stay, that's all good, too. If it means scuba diving every day, several times a day, that's more than OK.
THE URGE TO SUBMERGE
Which brings me to a personal story about diving at Huvafen Fushi. For many many years now, I've scuba dived the reefs and walls and wrecks off as many islands around the world as I could possibly visit. For me, there's no such thing as a just-average dive; one of my life's greatest thrills is just to be underwater, hovering motionlessly above a tangle of colorful corals, watching to see tiny critters reveal themselves. Or to watch masses of rainbow-colored fish flick past in tight formation. Or witness a solitary shark patrolling a space far out where the water darkens into that marine blue of the deep. It's all part of the thrill.
So naturally I couldn't wait to
dive in the Maldives, which is renowned for its wealth of underwater wonders.
As one would expect, Huvafen Fushi's dive boat is state-of-the-art equipped and, of course, comfortable. It also has Laurent, the extraordinary Swiss-born Dive Manager, plus a boat captain, and crew of three. For my first dive, we took a relatively short ride, and then geared up and made the plunge. It seemed a bit unusual to me; Laurent hadn't given me very much in the way of a pre-dive plan - other than to smile mysteriously and tell me he knew I'd love this site.
It was a shallow dive, only about 40 feet down to a sandy bottom strewn with large boulders, but otherwise quite unremarkable. That is, until the cast of characters blew in. There were six or seven of them - large , no - gigantic -
manta rays, zooming in at very close range. Now, I've seen manta rays before - but usually from a distance as they soar past like prehistoric birds. But these guys kept coming in close and closer. And they kept coming back. Flying in and dipping like stealth bombers, sometimes barely skimming the top of my head as they zoomed past.
The secret was that this spot is a cleaning station; a place where the giant rays know they can always find little worker-fish who hang out here, eager to "clean" those big guys by nibbling away the annoying parasites that cling to their wings and bodies. And so the rays come by regularly to avail themselves of this symbiotic service.
Back on the boat, after I was able to stop raving about what we had just experienced, Laurent told me that he estimated the wingspan of the largest of the rays to be more than 14 feet!
Yep, gigantic's the word.
MASSALA EH NEIY!
The staff of Huvafen Fushi are the heartbeat of this resort's incredible appeal. Service is their pleasure. With a guest-to-staff ratio of five-to-one, you have almost half a dozen people focusing all their efforts towards making sure you're enjoying every minute to it is fullest. From Laurent, to the attentive wait-staff in every restaurant, to Aishath, our incomparable thakuru who literally awaited our call, any hour of the day or night, to the legion of "unseens" who keep the resort running smoothly.
My husband Burt celebrated his birthday while we were there. Following his festive birthday dinner we returned home to find our entire suite shimmering with candlelight. Someone had placed dozens - no, hundreds - of votive candles everywhere. And there, on our huge king-size bed, was a Maldivian work of art: two hearts inside a large heart, created by a deftly folded and pleated top sheet, which was then liberally illustrated with flower petals and palm fronds. The next day I made sure to seek out the artist to thank him for his beautiful creation. Turns out it was Faisal, our regular "housekeeper," one of the background staff, someone we had never even seen before. He modestly accepted our praise and thanks, and then shyly agreed to let us watch as he demonstrated his craft by re-creating his design.
All just part of a day in paradise.
The kind of paradise where one single phrase can speak for the spirit of true hospitality. Whatever your whim might be, the answer is from any of the staff always reflects: "Massala eh neiy!" Or, "No problem!" in Dhivehi, the language of the magical Maldives. It also reflects the key Maldivian desire to make your vacation in their country the perfect one.
~ Dressed in t-shirt, swimsuit and our bare feet, we sip our Sauvignon Blanc as we look out over the Indian Ocean and toast the good life. ~
For more than 30 years, Brenda Fine has written travel articles on romance, honeymooning, adventure and pure love of travel for national and international magazines including Travel + Leisure, Islands, Caribbean Travel and Life, The Peak, Travel Holiday, Bridal Guide, Brides, Modern Bride, Endless Vacation , Diversion and others. Same for newspapers, which include The New York Times, The New York Law Journal, the Daily News and The Post.
The Republic of the Maldives and also referred to as the Maldive Islands, is an island nation in the Indian Ocean consisting of a double chain of twenty-six atolls, oriented north-south, that lie between Minicoy Island (the southernmost part of Lakshadweep, India) and the Chagos Archipelago. The chains stand in the Laccadive Sea, about 700 kilometres (430 mi) south-west of Sri Lanka and 400 kilometres (250 mi) south-west of India.
The Maldives archipelago is located on top of the Chagos-Maldives-Laccadive Ridge, a vast submarine mountain range in the Indian Ocean. Maldives also form a terrestrial ecoregion together with the Chagos and the Lakshadweep. The Maldives atolls encompass a territory spread over roughly 90,000 square kilometres (35,000 sq mi), making the country one of the world's most geographically dispersed. Its population of 328,536 (2012) inhabits 192 of its 1,192 islands. In 2006, Maldives' capital and largest city Malé, located at the southern edge of North Malé Atoll, had a population of 103,693. Malé is one of the Maldives' administrative divisions and, traditionally, it was the "King's Island" where the ancient Maldive royal dynasties were enthroned.
The Maldives is the smallest Asian country in both population and land area. With an average ground level of 1.5 metres (4 ft 11 in) above sea level, it is the planet's lowest country. It is also the country with the lowest natural highest point in the world, at 2.4 metres (7 ft 10 in).