The adventure starts with the whirr of our seaplane. Beyond the flashing propeller lies a group of tiny coral islands, ringed in turquoise, set into the deep, true blue of the Indian Ocean. Some are speck-like Robinson Crusoe idylls, others are flanked by dolls' houses on stilts – the over-water villas that have become a trademark of Maldivian resorts. This is already paradise, but it’s getting even better.
We’re nearly 200 kilometres north of Malé, capital of the Maldives, soaring over the Noonu Atoll. This is home to Velaa Private Island, one of the newer – it opened at the end of 2013 – and most exclusive resorts in the region. The Maldives has certainly come a long way since the first documented tourists arrived, as recently as 1972, by traditional dhoni sailing boats to the most basic of amenities. Resorts such as Velaa, in contrast, have brought money-no-object extravagance to these secret islands.
Our golf buggy glides through the neat tropical shrubbery on the island’s ring road, flanked by the unfeasibly lush greens of the nine-hole Golf Academy, designed by Ryder Cup-winning captain José María Olazábal. Then there’s the 23 metre Tavaru tower, housing a restaurant and wine cellar, the Maldives’ largest, with its million-pound inventory, which soars into the deep blue sky like a parachute-covered rocket. In other words, they’re upping their game with sophisticated treats to lure the ultra-wealthy.
The passion project of Czech billionaire Jirí Smejc, who invested $200 million into his dream island paradise resort, it’s hotels such as Velaa that have encouraged people to go exploring the Maldives on a luxury yacht. “Ten years ago, the Maldives was popular just as a honeymoon destination. Now it is so much more than that,” says Hassan Nasir, Asia Pacific Superyachts’ marketing manager, who is based in the Maldives. “The resorts have world-class restaurants, some with Michelin-star chefs. Before there were just one-bedroom beach villas or water villas. Now there are humongous residences, charging up to $35,000 a night on room- only basis. Imagine the service standards when the room rates go up to that level.”
The most popular superyacht cruising grounds are the atolls that offer the best dive sites and picnic islands. The top luxury resorts are right up there too, says Nasir, Velaa’s Noonu Atoll being one of them (Noonu is also home to Cheval Blanc Randheli, Velaa’s super-chic LVMH-owned neighbour), along with Baa Atoll, Ari Atoll and Malé Atoll. “Most yacht owners will stay on the yacht, occasionally visiting a resort for a meal or a spa treatment. They cruise to different regions for diving and picnics, but sometimes there are the owners who keep their fully crewed yacht anchored near the resort they are staying at – just in case they feel like using it,” says Nasir.
Even if diving isn’t your passion, the resorts here have incredibly well-equipped watersports centres. Aside from superlative service and gourmet restaurants, this is Velaa’s major draw. So your yacht’s toy garage is nothing to write home about? No problem. This place is an adrenaline junkie’s dream. They have every bit of watersports kit you’ve heard of, and some you’ve never seen before, running to a mini-submarine, which can take two guests for an adventure along the ocean bed. My son stares goggle-eyed at the overwhelming range of boys’ toys and boards on offer, before settling on a SeaBob.
In the mood for something more sedate, I head to the overwater spa, another asset sun-parched superyacht guests will be tempted to explore (so long as you book at least one villa, Velaa will welcome you and all your guests with open arms). It is exquisite, with dextrous therapists and a vast array of treatments including Ayurveda, meditation and beauty by Clarins My Blend – as well as something a bit different: a pair of skis is propped against the “snow room” (lest guests mistake it for a sauna, presumably) and no doubt Velaa’s hardy Russian clientele feel at home in the circulation-boosting chill of the snow and ice. Personally, I found the old-fashioned hot tub, suspended over the ocean, far more appealing.
Its “beyond luxury” ethos will also chime with superyacht guests. Nothing, it seems, is too much trouble. In fact, you get the feeling they quite relish a demanding customer. When one client, who’d hired the whole island for a party, decided that he wanted a new carpet for his villa, one that had never been walked on, the “virgin” rug was duly purchased and flown in overnight by military plane. No mean feat considering the isolation of these islands. (He was more than happy to pick up the $90,000 transport tab.)
Our next stop is Amilla Fushi in the Baa Atoll, another popular superyacht cruising ground. These days the Maldives resorts are spread far and wide along the 860 kilometre double chain of atolls, among the 1,190 islands, so unless you have a yacht to play with, switching hotels usually requires a seaplane connection in Malé, unless you stick to hotels in the same atoll. Fortunately, like Velaa, Amilla has its own airport lounge, which takes the sting out of the wait.
For anyone looking for a mind, body and spirit overhaul, albeit one with access to a decent wine cellar, Amilla Fushi might just fit the bill.
The mood here is bright and youthful. Its blindingly white, ultra- modern villas are a radical departure from the typical Maldivian style and, compared to the newly planted gardens on Velaa’s neat round island, it feels positively wild as we cycle through the mature coconut palms to the Javvu Spa.
The big news here is the new Bodyism personal training gym, from the team famous for honing the Victoria’s Secret models. It is also popular with those who have been ravenously enjoying the work of their yacht’s chef for a week or two. Outside the gym’s Clean and Lean café, a blackboard reads: “I am beautiful, I am powerful, I am strong.” Inside they offer metabolism-boosting coconut oil and butter coffees. If this makes Amilla sound like a hardcore health resort, it’s not. With its sunset cocktail bar, live band and Maldivian dance shows, the mood here is more beach club than boot camp.
During a pilates session on a platform suspended over the ocean, fish flip in and out of the water – a welcome distraction from the tough, core-strengthening moves. If you’d rather sweat in private, you can book into one of the Wellness Tree Houses, with their in-villa exercise platforms, or indeed one of Amilla’s vast Beach Residences, with staff quarters. The Bodyism trainer will happily work with visiting superyachts.
Of all the hotels we visited, Amilla was the most enthusiastically superyacht-friendly; five visited last year after it opened in March. “Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté was here for six weeks, going back and forth on his enormous sailing yacht, Tiara,” says Amilla’s CEO Mark Hehir. “During that time he used our spa.” Hehir was talking at a cheese and wine tasting in Amilla’s well-stocked wine shop (it has more than 5,000 bottles), a treat it is happy to replicate for visiting superyachts and their crew. “We want to be open to that world,” says Hehir. “It has to be organised by the captains, but at least they know there’s a green light here.”
With the Maldives’ abundant marine life one of its biggest draws, all of its resorts are hyper-aware of the fragility of their natural world. Many employ marine biologists (when I visited they were concerned about coral bleaching from the rising water temperatures caused by El Niño), cultivate coral gardens and implement environmental programmes, but few go so far as the original barefoot luxury resort in its commitment to the planet. When it opened in 1995, on the island of Kunfunadhoo in the Baa Atoll, Soneva Fushi’s eco-principles were ground-breaking. More than 20 years later the resort is still leading the charge, with its recycling initiatives, which involve local communities, and solar power.
Soneva Fushi promises its guests the “slow life”. You come here if you want to experience castaway chic at its most authentic. Its “no shoes, no news” policy starts on the speedboat crossing, when Yanet, our efficient Ms Friday, takes our sandals and drops them into a cotton drawstring bag. On first impressions it’s as if we really have landed on a deserted island. There are no over-water villas, no jet skis, only palm-fringed powder-white sand. The squawk of tropical birds fills the coconut palms as our luggage trundles off on a tricycle. Yanet slows our buggy as a baby miniature rabbit bobs across the sandy path. There are hundreds of these little oddly domestic black and white creatures bouncing around, all descendants of a pair of escapees, brought here by the owners as pets, when the resort first opened. It’s just one of the wonderful quirks that makes Soneva Fushi such a joy.
For all its hippy sensibilities – staff play music to their drinking water and infuse the breakfast carafes of water with crystal wands – Soneva Fushi is a slick operation, as Soneva In Aqua, its sleek new 19.25 metre sailing yacht, so assertively demonstrates. This is the new standout experience on offer at Soneva Fushi and it’s certainly one that’s worth exploring if you want to include a spot of cruising without the expense of chartering your own yacht. “It’s a game-changer,” says Sonu Shivdasani, Soneva Fushi’s founder, over lunch. “It’s about creating a different experience. Guests can come for a week then take three or four days cruising. Baa Atoll is one of the best dive sites in the Maldives, but it’s also a great place to cruise.”
Modelled on a traditional Chinese junk, it’s unexpectedly roomy inside, with two cabins suited to four adults and two children, kitted out in leathers and polished wood. There is also a fantastically flashy glass bath tub that is revealed as the main cabin floor slides open, giving you a spectacular underwater view as you have a soak. “The experience is equivalent to a much bigger yacht, but without spending upwards of $100,000 to $500,000 for a week,” Shivdasani tells me. The idea is that guests will use the boat to connect to the new deluxe five-star-plus resort, Soneva Jani, on the island of Medhufaru, in the Noonu Atoll. He doesn’t rule out visits from other yachts, however. Only the day before we arrived, the 72.6 metre Lürssen Queen K had stopped by.
Yachts would certainly be advised to visit here. The buffet lunch is out of this world and the Mediterranean-inspired Fresh in the Garden restaurant feels like a tropical adventure. We cycle the atmospherically lit pathways, getting hopelessly lost, before eventually finding our way on to the jungle suspension bridge that leads us to the restaurant, where we end our night with a spot of star- gazing in the observatory, the Maldives’ first.
If you ask nicely the kitchen will even replenish your yacht’s supplies from their organic vegetable garden and do try to talk them into parting with a tub or two of their delicious homemade ice cream (the salted caramel is great). While you’re here, take a peek at the Glass Studio, which cleverly combines art with recycling. If you decide to stay, the vast Villa 11 will likely fit the bill. Best described as a “mini resort within the resort”, it is the largest villa in the Indian Ocean area with its nine bedrooms and lake-like pool.
If you’re cruising the South Malé Atoll – and it’s quite likely you will be as the diving here is among the best in the Maldives – you might like to drop by the small but perfectly formed COMO Cocoa Island. It is quite happy for visiting superyachts to book in to use its professional dive team, COMO Shambhala Retreat spa or restaurant. Just anchor beyond the reef and the resort will send its boat to fetch you. Superbly pretty and effortlessly chic, as you might expect from the COMO group of hotels owned by Christina Ong, this tiny dot of a palm island has just one row of over-water villas, designed to look like traditional dhoni boats. Cocoa Island oozes tranquillity. The activities here are low-key, but you won’t find a hydrotherapy pool like it anywhere else in the Maldives. It’s absolutely huge, with multiple jets, and is surrounded by chirping birds, who kept us company as we pummelled our knots into submission.
COMO’s latest triumph, however, is the new 21 metre Hatteras yacht, Cameron, which launched in July 2015. Styled with the same elegance as the resort, with three cabins and a walnut-lined saloon, it is available to charter for a few hours, or a few nights, for a spin around the powder-white picnic islands between Cocoa Island and its sister resort, COMO Maalifushi, in the Thaa Atoll.
Cocoa Island’s snorkelling is good, too. The resort is teeming with baby blacktip reef sharks and there’s the odd turtle, but the highlight is the fishing safari. This is old-fashioned, island-style fishing, with a simple hook tied on the end of a line. “This is humble, you have to be patient,” says Abbas, my guide, as our boat speeds across the millpond-calm ocean, to the channel where the fish hang out and a couple of playful whale sharks come to see what we are up to. Dropping the hook over the side and unfurling the line seems to take forever but pretty soon a jack takes the bait, the line twitches and we have tomorrow’s lunch.
We spend the next day snorkelling by the drop-off, just next to our water villa, hanging out with a Hawksbill turtle as he swims like an old lady, neck craning out of his shell. The perfect calm of Cocoa Island’s lagoon means we can stand on the paddleboards and, as the sun dips in the sky, we are treated to a mind-blowing sunset, the deep reds streaked across the sky. It could be a Turner painting were it not for the heron standing on one leg enjoying the view with us.
It goes to show that for all the fine dining, spa treats and boys’ toys, nature will always be the star of the show here in the Maldives. But it certainly doesn’t hurt that you can now enjoy it in superyacht style.