THE GREAT INDIAN OCEAN ESCAPE

Nick Walton Visits Three of The Most Romantic Resorts in the Maldives to Discover the Future of the World’s Favourite Indian Ocean Playground.

There’s only one real way to do breakfast when you’re in the Indian Ocean, and that’s seven metre below the surface of a stunning turquoise lagoon at SubSix, the underwater restaurant and event space at Per Aquum Niyama, one of the Maldives’ most contemporary hideaways. As clown and parrot fish swim by, my wife Maggie and I are treated to a champagne-laced mid-morning soiree, one of several enchanting encounters the resort plans for visiting lovers.

Once upon a time, a visit to the Maldives was all about enjoying the destination’s captivating beauty and doing as little as possible in the process. While there are still plenty of guests who arrive at Per Aquum Niyama, a 45-minute seaplane ride from the international airport at Male, with that intention, an increasing number want to balance out all that relaxation with activities that excite, inspire and even educate.

Per Aquum Niyama is an island that’s always reinventing itself; in fact it’s technically two islands, Chill, home to the resort’s original villas and restaurant, the Lime Spa, and SubSix, located below its own pontoon 500ft off the white sandy beach, and recently opened Play, an island that adds new restaurants, activities and accommodation options ideally suited for families and the active. For couples looking for romance but who don’t want to just while their days away by the pool, it’s ideal.

Our Beach Pavilion with Pool is spacious and modern without being flashy; there’s a separate master bedroom, an elegant garden with outdoor shower, a bathroom with deep soak tub, and a cavernous lounge that looks out to the sea. On our first night the pink sky is captured in a reflection that runs the length of our private plunge pool, the mirror-like waters of the lagoon only metre away across a pristine, deserted beach.

There’s time for a dip and a chilled glass of champagne before we make our way, guided by our Thakuru butler Milo, to the Tribal restaurant and a chance to learn African Latino cooking techniques from award-winning chef Ken Gundu, who uses his time spent in Botswana and Belize to blend the influences of Africa with Southern America. We learn the different spices and herbs used in Tribal’s dishes, many plucked straight from the resort’s organic gardens, and then attempt to recreate the likes of shrimp salbute tortillas and fluffy escabeche fish, under Ken’s watchful eye.

At dinner we’re served by a towering Maasai warrior, a final touch complemented by African music and phenomenal food that whisks guests far from the usual resort buffet.

The next morning, after our romantic breakfast at Subsix, which not only features the underworld venue below but also a chic restaurant and cocktail lounge above called Edge, we cruise back to the main resort pier to don flippers and masks before heading out, this time to Niyama’s own private picnic island, for a spot of guided snorkelling and a picnic lunch on a deserted shaded beach. We race across the mirror-still lagoon as couples start their day under the sun, taking a dip in the lagoon or breakfast at BLU, the resort’s new Mediterranean-themed all day dining restaurant. Under the Indian Ocean sun the colours of the island – red and yellow umbrellas, brilliant white sand, lush green canopies, impossibly blue water, and the yellow of an arriving seaplane – are intensified. It makes every return to the Maldives like a first encounter.

The perfect counter balance to a day spent on the beach is a treatment at the resort’s Lime Spa, which is hosting a photo shoot for famed South African model Jessica Buchanan when we visit. The key here is wellness heritage and innovation in equal measure; you can try a host of signature treatments using island coconut oil or Maldivian sand, align your chakras in SubLime, a serene garden with sauna and steam rooms and pools; or fight off the jetlag with one of the After Dark rituals that promise to send you directly to a tropically inspired Cloud Nine.

That evening we head to the trees and Per Aquum Niyama’s newest creation, Nest. This unique restaurant features a menu packed with Asian flavors; there’s a teppanyaki hot plate downstairs but for a true experience, ascend the stairs to the canopy walkways which link the separate dining areas of the multi-level treehouse. Each private pod is suspended six meters above the lush island jungle and offers an enchanting and utterly romantic escape amongst the treetops.

It’s a quick seaplane flight and speed boat transfer to one of the Maldives’ most revered hideaways, the tiny, unassuming and utterly indulgent Naladhu, a tropical oasis by Anantara. The beauty of Naladhu is that not only does its spacious and beautifully-appointed beach and ocean ‘houses’ offer unparalleled privacy (enough even for the late Saudi King as well as a raft of millionaires and celebrities who regularly visit), but you also have all the facilities and restaurants of Anantara Dhigu and Anantara Veli just across the lagoon.

We’re welcomed with the ringing of a traditional gong as Zahid, our shy but charming butler, leads us down manicured paths and through lush gardens to our beachfront abode. This isn’t my first visit to Naladhu and it’s reassuring to see little as changed; our Beach House with Pool, one of just 20 retreats, is perfect for sun lovers and beach bunnies. With the décor of a sophisticated summer home, complete with elegant hardwood touches, exotic art, a full wet bar, and cutting-edge technology, the bungalow-style suite is ideal for couples looking to temporarily retire from the world. French doors open onto a shaded sala with swing seat, a private plunge pool and a path that leads to a 30-metre stretch of idyllic sand. The bathroom is semi-open air, with a deep soak tub, and outdoor wall shower. That night we dine under the stars at The Living Room, Naladhu’s sole restaurant, which has the ambiance of a tropical private members retreat, complete with its own glass-lined wine cellar.

But it’s not all somnolent living. The next morning, we meet with the team at TropicSurf at their centre at Anantara Veli. After a quick briefing we’re hitting the sunkissed beach, practising our ‘chicken wings’, our ‘lizard legs’ and finally our ‘pop’; within ten minutes we’re riding surfboards on the tranquil waters of the lagoon. Maggie proves a natural, and with a push from our South African instructor Brent, rides all the way to shore. Even if I’m no Kelly Slater the experience is exhilarating and TropicSurf offer everything from beginner classes right through to seaplane surf safaris.

After all that exertion we spend the afternoon in the cool of the Ocean Retreat, certainly the most exclusive spa in the Maldives. With just one treatment room – a sumptuous Ocean House with Pool converted into a sole-use spa – the Ocean Retreat offers a range of soaks, scrubs, massages and wraps. Take a dip in the private pool, serenaded by the thundering surf that hammers against the sea walls (making the ocean facing villas the most private of all) and then surrender to the likes of the Ocean Signature Massage, which uses a blend of oils to stimulate circulation and promote deep relaxation.

That evening, positively floating through the coconut palms that wreath the tiny resort, we’re led to the end of a pontoon where Zahid has prepared a candlelit dinner. Surrounded by the tranquility of the lagoon, we watch stars emerge from the indigo skies and dine on locally caught lobster as if we were the last people left in the world. If you’re looking for a destination dining concept that’s bound to set hearts a flame, this is it.

Our final stop on our romantic Maldivian escape needs little introduction. Award-winning Per Aquum Huvafen Fushi, also in the North Malé atoll, is legendary among the luxury resorts of the Maldives. If Niyama is the modern face of the Indian Ocean and Naladhu is the best of tropical escapism, then Huvafen Fushi is the Grande Dame, a resort with just 43 private bungalows and pavilions and the world’s first underwater spa, that’s welcomed everyone from George Clooney and Kate Moss to Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, who had their honeymoon here.

Chinay, our shy but ever-smiling Thakuru, explains the resort’s amenities as he serves champagne during a sunset cruise on one of Huvafen Fushi’s traditional Dhoni yachts. It’s a magically romantic experience as we circumnavigate the island, the sky above turning a fiery peach hue. Later, under a canopy of stars that reaches to the horizon, we sip cocktails at Raw, a super-sexy lounge with al fresco seating, before dining at Salt, an innovative seafood restaurant with open kitchens, tables perched above the lagoon, and an enviable caviar selection.

The next day it’s hard to draw ourselves from the luxury of our Ocean Bungalow with Pool, one of 12. Thoughtfully appointed, spacious and supremely private, the overwater villa faces the infinity of the Indian Ocean rather than the lagoon, ensuring no unwanted visitors. The main bedroom is cathedral-like, with soaring ceilings and polished wood floors, while the bathroom features a Jacuzzi bath that could fit a cricket team. Outside, on a three-tiered private deck, is an infinity plunge pool and a duo of sun loungers.

We emerge if only to replace solitude with solitude, first with a spot of luxurious pampering at the Lime Spa’s breathtaking underwater treatment room, which is wreathed by a vibrant house reef packed with inquisitive tropical fish, followed by a private champagne picnic on a secluded sandbank. Chinay and his team ferry us to our private white sand retreat by Dhoni and leave us in the shade of an umbrella with a sumptuous lunch in the most indulgent and romantic of Maldivian escapades.

That night, our last in the Maldives, we celebrate in subterranean style, first with a private wine paired dinner at Vinum, the resort’s unique underground wine cellar, home to 6,000 bottles and a dedicated sommelier, and then with a return visit to the underwater spa suite for a private exploration of the reef system with the knowledgeable resident marine biologist. Capturing the fluorescent brilliance of the coral under UV lights is a mesmerising experience and just one of a beautifully curated collection that lovers can look forward to at three of the Maldives’ most iconic and innovative retreats.

Travel Essentials
Per Aquum Niyama: From US$732 per night, twin share;
Naladhu: From US$1,408 per night, twin share;
Per Aquum Huvafen Fushi: From US$2,099 per night, twin share; http://huvafenfushi.peraquum.com

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