Indulgence in the Maldives
Sapphire, indigo, cobalt, aquamarine, turquoise, powder blue. On Naladhu Island, one of the tropical atolls that make up the Maldives, I awoke to more hues of blue than I thought possible. They, like the many relaxing distractions on the island, stretched for as far as the eye could see.
My first morning on Naladhu, which means beautiful island, presented me with a kaleidoscopic array of pleasures to pursue. I could call Andre, the resident yoga instructor, and arrange to salute the sun in fine style on the expansive deck overlooking the Indian Ocean, upon which shells washed up overnight. I could dive into the glistening green plunge pool, then, while waiting for breakfast, I could stretch out on the sun-lounge and watch moray eels and electric-blue gropers dart about below. Or I could kick back in the huge, swinging daybed and sip my freshly brewed gourmet coffee while sea-birds pranced in the shallows and flying fish formed sparks of silver. There were as many options as there were shades of blue.
The Maldives is a name that has long suspended itself in my imagination, much like the seductively salty air that enveloped our bungalow. It is a place whose beauty and promise of supreme luxury and heady escapism are spoken of in almost reverential tones; and, from first sight, the Maldives presented themselves as a jewel-like arrangement of lapis, emerald and glittering, diamond-coloured sand.
As is apt for a watery wonderland, Male airport occupies an island all its own and, rather than the usual scrum of taxis, speedboats and seaplanes stand by to whisk visitors to their island fantasy. Poised for serious sybaritic exploration, I sipped a cocktail and gazed longingly at the ocean, broken occasionally by pods of dolphins and shimmering flying fish. Any lingering detritus of urban angst blew away with the breeze that ruffled my hair.
Our butler on Naladhu Island, Mastooq, welcomed us with a warm smile and a cool, lemongrass-scented towel. We realised we hadn’t merely travelled to another country; we had, in fact, journeyed into an altogether different realm. Our very private and super-spacious “house” combined old-world colonial charms, such as antiques, whirring fans, lemongrass incense, a vanity area complete with handcrafted jewellery boxes, a double bed-sized love swing and art palette, with every mod con imaginable. The sense of this being an all-encompassing pleasure zone was confirmed by the choice of four outdoor lounging spots, an outdoor bathroom with luxurious herbal potions, steam room and huge bathtub festooned with rose petals, ín–house dining, spas and meditation lessons.
But beyond the stylish, lowkey glamour of our house lay temptations well worth stirring for. Some days, we’d kayak out to the reef’s edge and swim amid a whirl of incandescent fish and intricate corals, or —hop aboard a dhoni, a traditional Maldivian sailboat, and seek out dolphins, empty islets and seascapes rendered all the more surreal by the deep, violet-hued water.
Snorkelling in these parts practically guarantees you will see something so mesmerising you will lose yourself in the mélange of colour. Each time we sought out a new section of reef, time dissolved and a planned short snorkel somehow segued into an underwater epic. Many a time, I’d emerge feeling so blissed out from the aquatic magic I would have to reschedule an afternoon activity or session in the superb over-water spa on sister island, Anantara. That’s the beauty of Naladhu: you get the best of both worlds — the private rarified beauty of nature and the exotic luxury provided by world-class destinations such as Anantara.
At day’s end, there were few dilemmas. The only place to be was in our private beach cabana, sipping champagne as we enjoyed the slow–motion sorbet sunset and watched as the moon rose over the water and the sounds of small, lapping waves sent us drifting into sleep.
Indulgence as enrichment
Absolved of any semblance of stress and angst, one intoxicatingly languorous day blurred blissfully into another and the Maldives soon started to symbolise a state of mind, a terrain that lent itself to learning about the virtues of living lavishly and perfecting the art of guilt–free self-indulgence.
The idea that rewarding yourself and feeling fabulous is somehow seen to be contrary to mindfulness, personal improvement and spiritual practice seemed startlingly dissonant. I cast my mind to people I knew who struck me as content, peaceful and exuding happiness. What they had in common was a conscious sating of inner and outer desires. “There’s no nourishment or growth in self–denial,” one of the most visibly joyful people I know once told me.
On the other hand, where I’ve noticed deep discontent, jealousy and malice, there appeared to be a notable lack of healthy self-satisfaction. Wilful self–denial, to my mind, is a form of spiritual anorexia, a self-destructive atrophying that by its very nature impedes the journey towards fulfilment. We’re told, in so many areas of life, to hold back, to stunt and stun our desires, but when worldly experiences also feed inner yearnings, surely the result is enhancing.
Some time ago, a friend sent me an excerpt of a speech made by a senior Buddhist monk in Malaysia. What really stood out was the directive that it is spiritually enhancing to actually enjoy things that move you, particularly an object or activity that sincerely uplifts you and has harmed no one. The monk spoke of several types of happiness (the others were joyfulness linked with possession, blamelessness and debtlessness), including “happiness of enjoyment: using and enjoying what you have earned without abusing, bluffing or cheating others”. This contrasted sharply with the commonly portrayed notion of austerity, sacrifice and suffering usually associated with spiritual pursuits and personal growth.
Buddhism, for instance, which defines quality of life in terms of mental wellbeing and liberation from negative tendencies, describes two types of desire: chanda and tanha. Consumption guided by chanda enhances wellbeing and furthers personal and spiritual development, in contrast to tanha, which caters to people’s vanity, quest for ego, self gratification and tendency to seek pleasure as defined by others.
So chasing the image of pleasure, as opposed to genuinely being uplifted by the pleasure something gives you, can create a hollow form of happiness, while learning to recognise what will genuinely move you and delighting in it can help make you a better person and has the potential to enrich your life. That seems much more enlivening than stifling joy and connection with what one finds wonderful.
Buoyed by the notion that indulgence might be a salve for my soul, I was eager to experience more of the Maldives magic. A futuristic fantasy awaited us at Huvafen Fushi. Like characters in a James Bond movie, we were picked up by handsome men wearing pirate outfits in a speedboat that must surely have been propelled by jet engines. Sinking into groovy shag–pile cushions, I sipped green–mint detox tea and felt as if we were about to defy gravity, along with every other constraint.
Surround sound, massaging showers, a huge plasma screen, a pool flickering with fairy lights, a limitless range of movies and music, underwater spa and the slickness of an impeccably designed and outfitted residence set the tone for several days of fulsome indulgence. Huvafen’s house reef is exceptional for the profusion and variety of fish and corals. Many times, we’d spontaneously leap in for a quick fix en route to a meal, spa or the over-water gym. Making my way to the underwater spa, where I succumbed to a sublime facial, I couldn’t help but leap in and play with the curious batfish.
At breakfast, we’d almost drift back to sleep while watching the passing parade of dolphins and shimmering fish. Every day at 6pm, huge, virtually tame stingrays slid to shore to be hand–fed by Huvafen Fushi’s resident, passionate marine biologist, Varena, who also takes guests on very informative snorkelling tours and presents fascinating talks about marine species.
“No news, no shoes” is the credo at Soneva Gili and Soneva Fushi Islands. Defined by their emphasis of all things organic and earthy, yet soothingly stylish. Indeed, the act of divesting yourself of footwear goes way beyond the symbolic. No sooner had the sand started sifting between my toes than a heady abandon kicked in.
Perched above glittering water, each residence at Soneva Gili is absolutely huge and is fashioned from environmentally friendly, engagingly tactile materials. Furniture crafted from recycled timbers, hand-beaten metal basins and organic toiletries enhance the luxe–rustic experience. What’s really exceptional here is the extent to which you interact with the environment. The two living areas and bathroom open to the ocean and our every move overlooked the alluring, warm waters below, into which we could slip from the private pontoon. Healthy, hearty and sublimely tasty food proved a highlight of both Soneva Fushi and Soneva Gili, along with the vast menu of vitamin-packed juices, some of which came from the island’s organic gardens.
An almost primal sensuality pervades the jungle-clad Soneva Fushi, one of the largest islands in the Maldives. Reaching this secluded, endearingly escapist island involved more blue bliss: a thrilling sea-plane ride. As I gazed down at the clear turquoise depths so clear that I could make out individual turtles and clumps of coral, I soon became oblivious of my uncool and very visible excitement.
My breath deepened and my smile widened as our butler, Abas, led us along a fragrant sandy path flanked by aural curtains of birdsong. Within moments of tickling our feet on the hedgehog (ostensibly to remove sand, with the thrill factor a fun bonus), we were feeling as if we were marooned on our own private paradise, enveloped within lush, loud jungle with a private stretch of pristine beach only a few paces away.
Three-quarters of the world’s reef fish species can be found in the Maldives and many of these, I’d wager, accompanied us in Soneva Fushi’s waters, with Turtle Beach or nearby Mabbo Island offering a romantically remote vibe. Each morning, we’d step outside to find the footprints of birds and crabs in the sand and a sprinkling of deep saffron-coloured hibiscuses. Seeking out some of Soneva’s many pleasures, such as the complimentary yoga classes or beaches and jetties that stretch to reef’s edge, involved strolling or cycling along banyan-shaded paths — also a thoroughfare for the black chooks, rabbits, bright green lizards and colourful birds.
Our watches soon became irrelevant and we spent blissfully blurred hours in totally unaccountable ways. Luckily the buffets — a delight of almost endless choice, including delectable organic fare and the opportunity to design your own meal and have a chef create it — lasted for hours. And running a little late was no problem at the open-air Cinema Paradiso where, after riding along a lamp-lit track, we reclined on daybeds and watched mid–century classics, animated by geckos darting across the screen.
Cycling under the moist canopy one afternoon, I passed a man emerging from the direction of the jungle-cloaked spa. He was resplendent in his white gown, beaming a high-wattage grin as he rode by. It was heartening to witness such glee that had so wholly overtaken convention.
Each night after dinner, we’d make our way to the dinner buffet where an amazing number of chocolate desserts awaited us. They were shamelessly ultra-rich, full–bodied and fabulous. There was not a hint of compromise or restraint in sight — and that, for me, epitomised what the Maldives has to offer to both body and soul.
In a nutshell
In an ever more crowded, ever noisier world, the Maldives presents a rare treat. By government decree, no building can be higher than a coconut palm and each resort occupies an island all its own, with the number of guests strictly limited, making seclusion and an untrammelled environment indelible elements of the experience.
Resorts in the Maldives have perfected the combination of style, unbridled luxury, fine food, sensational spas and myriad ways to appreciate the archipelago’s natural wonders. In essence, there’s not much to see or do, but there’s a perfect backdrop for rediscovering the joys of time, space and the ability to lose yourself in the infinity of blue.
Depending on the tide and whether you count the seductive slivers of sand on which you can be dropped off for the day, there’s about 1190 islands in the Maldives, about 90 of which house resorts. For many people, the Maldives represents a special splurge; the trick is to define your dream and head for an island where it will be realised.