A fragrant aroma is rising up in front of me from a bowl of crystal clear broth dotted with chunks of perfectly cooked fresh tuna, the subtle scent of pandan leaves enhancing the mouthwatering effect. My appetite has been whetted by this traditional Maldivian dish known as garudhiya since the beginning of a beachside cookery class, and it indeed proves delicious - somehow both pristinely healthily and comfortingly luxurious.
Such a description can indeed be applied to my visit to the Maldives - which has retained its crown as the world’s leading destination for the third year in a row. It very much offers the breathtaking, picture-postcard scenery and honeymooner-friendly accommodation I had expected, but reveals many other layers of appeal making it suitable for everyone from families and wellness-seekers to surfing enthusiasts, and letting visitors see down to the depths of the ocean and up to stars and distant planets many lightyears away.
My visit spans two high-end properties that each have their own distinct character, and are both part of global luxury hotel and resort group Anantara, also both boasting a mix of beachside and overwater villas, the latter synonymous with “thirst trap” images of stunning Maldives resorts.
The trip starts with the flight into Maldivian capital Malé, and my eyes widen as our descent starts, the clouds gradually dissipating to reveal a vista unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Deep blue water turns to infinite shades of turquoise in the shallows around the many islands and sandbanks, of which the Maldives has about 2,000 across about 35,000 square miles, and grouped into various atolls.
From Malé we take a seaplane to Niyama Private Islands, which comprises two interconnected islands named Chill and Play.
I gasp as I discover each area of my beachside lodgings; the bed faces a terrace complete with swing seat, just beyond which is my own private small, turquoise-tiled pool, in which I will later be treated to an eye-popping “floating breakfast”, seeing a host of dishes including pancakes served in a large pink heart-shaped basket.
Lying ahead of the pool is the beach where after unpacking I walk along the immaculate sands, the only other occupants two kitesurfers in the distance.
All villas have access to the Thakuru (butler) service, which sees friendly staff ferrying guests around on golf carts to various locations in the resort, such as a watersports hub where we experience an introduction to surfing; Niyama in fact says it is the only luxury surf resort in the Maldives, with its own wave breaking onto the shore. It soon becomes clear that my enthusiasm outweighs my ability, despite the encouragement of our instructor Sam, but it was fun trying.
I prove more adept at snorkelling, and after heading into deeper waters by boat we’re treated to a multicolour underwater parade of sealife including rainbow-coloured parrotfish, and I even briefly spot a smallish lone Manta ray making a slow, graceful path through the depths.
We’re accompanied by Niyama’s resident marine biologist Philippa, who later guides us through a coral-adoption programme. This sees participants attach a piece of living coral to a frame that is then placed on the seabed to help bolster the ocean ecosystem; the Maldives’ reefs - five per cent of the world’s total - have suffered damage by bleaching due to rising sea temperatures.
We see larger, thriving versions of such manmade coral frames in their watery homes from the luxurious surroundings of the resort’s underwater restaurant Subsix. This, to my delight, is not the only underwater breakfast of the trip - the experience is replicated at our next and final resort Anantara Kihavah, which we head to by seaplane via Malé.
Kihavah is located in a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and its underwater dining venue is known as SEA, where I try the signature lobster benedict, a light and elegant version of the dish using brioche rather than an English muffin. As I tuck in, more sealife passes by, including a turtle out on a morning swim.
I will take to the water myself several times at Kihavah, including snorkelling to see the resort’s own house reef just yards from the shore. I had been advised that it was spectacular, and so it proves, enabling you to gaze down the reef’s “cliffside” that stretches as far as the eye can see. Creatures I spot include a gang of Moorish idols, distinctive by their black, white and yellow stripes, the species’ most famous member being Gill in Finding Nemo.
Back on dry land, I see more sealife in the shallows under the overwater villas; I am staying in one of the larger properties of this type, and its many amenities include a glass-bottomed bath plus huge terrace with its own pool, and stairs down to the sea.
I make a beeline for the latter, going for a dip in the ultra-clear, pleasingly tepid turquoise waters. The rest of the world feels like a very, very long way away - in the best possible way - and the only time we tend to see other guests is when we dine.
Regarding food during the stay, highlights include a wellness lunch at Kihavah including a ceviche of local reef fish with lime, coconut water, curry leaf, and Maldivian chilli. Who knew being healthy could be so tasty?
However I’m given an insight into my less healthy usual lifestyle via a Cell Wellbeing Epigenetic Test, which enables you to find out your main environmental stressors - part of a bid to help guests achieve their wellness goals in the longer term. Mine tells me to avoid beer, salmon, and poppy seeds, for example.
Also on the agenda is a “sound healing” session courtesy of Ayurvedic healer Vinod Narayanan, who is so renowned guests will time their stays to coincide with his visits to the resort, and I find myself falling into a deep state of relaxation.
We also get to benefit from the expert know-how of in-house “SKY guru”/astronomer Ali Shameem - whose teachers include Buzz Aldrin, a Maldives regular apparently - at a visit to the resort’s in-house overwater observatory. “Welcome to my kingdom,” he says, explaining that every single star “has a story to tell”. He then lines up the telescope to give us a peek of, say, Saturn, its distinctive outline tiny but distinctive, and extremely clear view of the moon’s crater-covered surface that’s as white and unspoilt as the sands of the Maldives, a terrestrial destination that I now fully understand is itself truly out of this world.
Stays at Niyama Private Islands Maldives start at about £880 per night for two adults sharing a beach villa, and £950 for an overwater villa. https://www.niyama.com/en/, Dhaalu Atoll PO Box 2002 Republic of Maldives, tel: +960 664 4111, [email protected]
Stays at Anantara Kihavah Villas Maldives start at about £995 per night for two adults sharing a beach villa, and £1,080 for an overwater villa. www.anantara.com/en/kihavah-maldives, P.O. Box 2098, Kihavah Huravalhi Island, Baa Atoll, tel: +960 664 4111, [email protected]
Figures for both resorts are for low-season stays on a half-board basis with a private pool and include taxes.