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Underwater Wonderland: Visiting the world’s first Coralarium at the Fairmont Maldives

The Maldives are famed as a honeymoon hideaway with luxurious hotels and blindingly white beaches, but could sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor’s new underwater installation add an extra string to its bow? Elizabeth Finney dives in to find out more

Beneath the crystalline waves, a small stone face appears from the blue. Standing just below the surface of the water, sunlight flickers over her closed eyes, while tiny fish dart about her shoulders. At her base, colourful plants and sea life are already starting to settle in. She is just one of many statues now standing in the brand-new Coralarium, created by renowned artist Jason deCaires Taylor, situated a short swim off the shore of the Fairmont Maldives Sirru Fen Fushi Island.

After returning to shore, I try to discover more about Taylor’s inspiration behind the project, as he sips coffee watching the waves scramble up the sand. “We’re all connected to the sea in some way, so for me it feels like a very sacred experience going into the underwater world,” he says. “As an artistic space, it’s incredible. Everything I learnt at art school, the colour, light, perspective, atmosphere, is suddenly different. It’s just a Pandora’s box of things to experiment with.” Taylor has created and placed his aquatic sculptures all over the world from Canterbury in the UK to Grenada. However, this project, which was officially launched in May this year, is his most ambitious to date.

The semi-submerged art gallery and artificial reef has three defined elements; the underwater statues arranged at different heights to highlight the changing tide, the vast metallic cube that stands at six metres tall from the sea bed and the figures placed atop the cube, above the water. Eerie man-coral/plant hybrids stand in tormented positions within the cube, while submerged figures of children (surrounded by concrete ‘trees’) look up them from beneath the surface of the water. The overall impact is powerful and as I swim between these solemn structures, representing human interaction with the atmosphere, land and sea, I begin to understand Taylor’s message. “It’s the idea that all these three levels are connected and reliant on each other,” he says. “It’s not just ocean versus land, it’s all one entity and we need to constantly be thinking about how dependent and how fragile it is.”

He has selected a variety of non-toxic materials – some coarse, pock-marked or mixed with shells and stones – for his figures to encourage wildlife to make their home in and around them, with the hope that before long the submerged figures will blend in with the rest of the reef. “Conservation is certainly at the heart of it. It was when I realised that I could make art that had a secondary purpose, that was functional and could also tell stories when I felt much happier in my work,” Taylor adds. “Whether you like the art or not, it actually serves a practical purpose and I felt that it was much more of a valid contribution.”

Taylor’s ethos ties in perfectly with that of the Fairmont. With sustainable tourism at its core, the island sits at the heart of a six km2 lagoon that is teaming with wildlife and closely studied by resident team of marine biologists. As the sole resort located in the Shaviyani Atoll, the marine life surrounding Fairmont Maldives seems to flourish. Five of the seven species of sea turtle can be found in the Maldives, and in response to concern over their dwindling numbers, a specially curated Turtle Release Programme (which guests are encouraged to get involved with) at Fairmont Maldives ensures the protection of their nests and safe journey into the ocean. Staying true to its eco-tourism name, the resort has also banned plastic straws, will soon have its own water bottling plant and offers gorgeous shower and bath products in refillable glass containers.

One evening while I soak in my overwater villa’s infinity pool, I spot two manta rays gliding lazily beneath the waves, no doubt heading to one of the ‘cleaning stations’ that lie in the surrounding coral house reef, and dolphins gambling around on the pink horizon. It’s extraordinarily peaceful and, despite the ‘butler phone’ I’ve been given should I need anything at all, I feel secluded in this tranquil setting. There are 112 luxury villas, some on the powdery white sand beach, some nestled in the central jungle and others perched atop stilts over the ocean. The suites are contemporarily decorated, boasting the relaxing minimalism of Scandinavian style with plenty of design accents nodding to the local culture. After my dip, I can choose between the luxurious open-plan shower, complete with stone floor and an arty turquoise room divider, or the gargantuan copper bath with views out over the ocean.

Now with four beautiful restaurant offerings, guests can opt for sumptuous pan-Asian tapas at Kata, meticulously crafted seafood plates at the over-water Azure or a whole array of cuisines at Raha Market, situated on the beach. They all boast seasonal and ever-changing menus, but if you spot the pan seared salon with crispy capocollo ham amid Raha’s selection, don’t miss it – light yet juicy, it’s the perfect follow-up to a starter of the lobster nigiri, topped with a spicy cream sauce and dotted with salmon roe.

After an action-packed kickboxing session with the resident instructor the following morning, I pad over to the Willow Steam Spa, which is situated at one end of the 200 metre island-spanning infinity pool. The beautiful spa has a seamless flow between indoor and outdoor space with a pretty garden, massive carved wooden doors out onto the beach and an open air bath area. I’m treated to the signature Blissful Marma Massage that, true to its name, sees my mind and body soothed. The intoxicating blend of warm cedar wood and aromatic oils cloud my senses and I listen to the sound of the waves as my therapist works the tension out of my muscles.

Feeling feather-light after my massage, I head to the welcome dock for a Sunset Dolphin cruise. Sitting on the sundeck staring eagerly over the edge, I nearly drop my glass of Champagne when one leaps suddenly out of the water just feet away. More appear, all jumping and twirling like dancers. “There are three arguments about why the spinner dolphins spin,” says Harley Baldwin, a marine biologist at Sub Oceanic who is my guide for the evening. “Some believe that with the force of the spin they wash off any parasites, while others think that it’s a communication technique. Some think they’re just having fun and expressing their playful nature. Of course, there are those that say it’s a combination of all of those.” Slowly, the tangerine sun melts into the horizon and I marvel at these mysterious creatures as they rush off into the distance.

The hotel’s location, more than 130 nautical miles from Malé, means that it has a serene sense of being cut off from the rest of the world. Leave your superyacht anchored just outside the house reef and dive into island life. With every whim catered for, it’s the perfect opportunity to get in touch with your creative side, and what could offer more inspiration than an underwater art gallery, a kaleidoscopic horizon and seemingly endless blue waves?

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