Dreaming of a tropical escape with sea, sand, sun and surf, not to mention fine dining and diving? Richard Holmes has found the ideal island getaway in the Maldives – and it’s in the lap of luxury.
The first thing I noticed was his bare feet, suntanned with a sprinkling of salt and sand, planted firmly on the wooden jetty.
“Welcome aboard,” grinned the young pilot, offering a steadying hand as we climbed the steps from the pontoon into the cabin of our red-and-white De Havilland Twin Otter. In the Maldives, even the pilots live the laid-back island lifestyle, I thought, clipping into a window seat.
Minutes later the twin engines roared to life and we gathered speed, skimming across the water and leaving Malé’s Velana International Airport behind as we soared off into the blue. Some 70km away, across cerulean seas, lay our home for a few days of island escapism.
When it comes to a tropical paradise, few places on Earth come close to the Maldives. With more than 1 100 islands and sandbanks forming 26 natural atolls, this necklace of islands cast upon the Indian Ocean is heaven on Earth for anyone partial to sun, sea and sand.
Although there are dozens of luxurious resorts strung out across this island nation, there’s one in particular that has captured the imagination of South Africans in search of a little luxury escapism. After half an hour of flying, our Twin Otter dipped a wing and began its approach to land on the blue waters off the tiny island of Halaveli.
One of the islands making up the North Ari Atoll, Halaveli is where Constance Hotels chose to locate its flagship Maldivian resort. And it’s not hard to see why. White coral sands, waving palms, crystal waters – tick, tick, tick for a tropical paradise. And while the island itself is just 400m long and only 200m wide, it’s in the calm waters of the large encircling reef that you’ll find the real magic.
From the white coral sands a long wooden boardwalk stretches out to sea. The jetty, shaped to resemble a traditional Maldivian dhoni boat, runs for nearly a kilometre, making it the longest in the Maldives. Sprouting like palm fronds from either side of it are dozens of luxurious water villas, each dipping its toes into the Indian Ocean. Decorated in a subtle tropical style – plenty of wood, splashes of aquamarine and oodles of space – each villa whispers discreet island luxury, from the complimentary Wi-Fi to the private pre-stocked wine fridge. When I visited, a bottle of Warwick was chilled and waiting for me.
Each spacious suite opens onto a private deck, from which wooden stairs lead straight down into the ocean. From your swim in the sea to an invigorating shower, you never have to leave the seclusion of your villa. And did I mention the private plunge pool? It’d been a long flight, via Dubai, and I was quick to drop my bags and jump in.
It would be tempting, and entirely understandable, to spend the entire time ensconced in your water villa, but even on such a tiny island, there’s plenty to discover. I started by walking off the jetlag with a stroll around the island. In addition to the water villas, Constance Halaveli offers a range of beach villas, including 11 that are family-friendly, with two bedrooms, a spacious garden and a private plunge pool. Next time, I’ll return with my seven-year-old in tow.
And although Halaveli is heaven for honeymooners, there’s plenty to keep kids occupied on the island. For starters, there’s the Constance Kids Club, with friendly staff and a packed schedule of activities and entertainment. For many young ones the spacious resort pool will be entertainment enough, but if more is needed the on-site tennis court, beach soccer pitch and games room are ideal for older children. That should give you just enough downtime to make full use of the U Spa by Constance, where the treatment rooms are perched above the water.
But it was in and on the ocean that I spent most of my waking hours at Halaveli. At sunset I tried my luck on a traditional Maldives-style fishing excursion, while dolphin-spotting trips and sunset cruises are also available. Snorkelling trips are a popular diversion, with all gear complimentary and wonderful house reefs teeming with life.
It’s enough to make you want to delve deeper, and the warm calm waters of the Maldives are surely one of the most blissful places to learn to dive. If you already have your dive certification, you’re in luck. Halaveli is surrounded by dozens of spectacular dive sites, and the friendly crew at the dive centre helped me to make the most of them on my few days on the island.
A short distance offshore, the Kandolhu doo house reef is a shallow coral wall with no shortage of passing pelagics, while the Bathala Thila reef offered up shy reef sharks and shoals of trevally cruising over spectacular coral. But easily the most memorable dive was at a site dubbed Bathala Maaga Khan Thila: Shark Point. There was no shortage of the eponymous residents. Nearly all the atolls occupied by hotels offer superb diving on nearby coral reefs, and while the coral has been hit hard by global warming and, in places, too much insensitive tourism, there are admirable conservation and rehabilitation efforts under way.
Away from the reefs, the Maldives offers one of the most magnificent settings on Earth to marvel at marine mega-fauna. Manta rays are the stars of the show and in peak season – June to October – they flock here in their thousands. It’s all thanks to a subtle shift in water temperature and sea currents that lead to plankton blooms and a microscopic feast for the mantas. They’re not the only attraction, though: whale sharks arrive then, too, finning gracefully between the atolls. Happily, both snorkellers and scuba divers are given opportunities to be amazed by these magnificent ocean wanderers.
While my days on the island passed in a happy reverie of swimming, snorkelling and scuba diving, the evenings were spent indulging in Halaveli’s fine food and wine. When it comes to sunset drinks, I’d venture few watering holes can top the Asian-inspired Jing Bar. Set halfway down the over-water jetty, it offers a sultry soundtrack wafting on the breeze and reef sharks hunting in the shallows below, all while expert wait-staff talk you through the extensive cocktail menu.
Not up for cocktails? Wine lovers are in luck at Halaveli, which boasts one of the largest wine collections in the Maldives. The wine list is a 60-page tome that ranges from an impressive array of wines by the glass and a Coravin-tapped selection of unique bottles to an almost daunting assemblage from the world’s most famous cellars. Unsurprisingly, the list leans heavily towards French producers, but South African estates certainly make their presence felt; a quick flip through the list reveals a number of familiar names, including Delaire Graff and De Toren. There’s a remarkable vinous adventure on offer here, depending on no more than the size of your pockets. If they’re deep, don’t miss out on the chance to try a ’97 Pétrus – yours for just $7 000.
There’s a team of charming sommeliers on hand to guide you through the list and, more importantly, to pair the wines to the wonderful island cuisine. There’s Asian-inspired cuisine at Jing, sushi at Kaika or contemporary international cooking at Jahaz. My favourite? The beachfront Meeru, where the chefs behind the flaming grill quickly prepare your choice of fresh seafood from the à la carte menu.
With my toes wriggled deep into the sand and the gentle rustle of waves upon the beach, I could easily understand why the Maldives has become the idyllic destination of choice for travellers in search of a tropical hideaway. Throw in a dollop of Halaveli-style five-star luxury and you have a holiday made in heaven. I’ll be back again, perhaps with the family, and I’m willing to bet that pilot with the broad smile still won’t be wearing shoes. Such is island life.
It’s not only beneath the surface that the Maldives dishes up aquatic adventure. The North and South Malé atolls also deliver world-class surfing, with both point and reef breaks on offer. The best months are between April and October, when the south-west monsoon produces both deep-ocean swell and offshore winds. Keep an eye on the line-up and you might just spot one of the Cape’s enthusiastic surfing winemakers.
Getting there Although direct flights from South Africa have long been planned, currently the fastest and cheapest route is via the Middle East on Emirates or Qatar Airways.
Visas South African passport holders do not require a visa to visit the Maldives. A 30-day entry permit is issued free on arrival.
Currency The Maldivian rufiyaa is the official currency, but you won’t need it unless you visit Malé. Resorts accept payment by credit card or cash (dollars, pounds or euros preferred).
Health The Maldives is a malaria-free destination. Travellers arriving from a yellow fever area (such as East Africa) must show a vaccination card on arrival.
For more local luxury lifestyle features, events and happenings in and around Stellenbosch, subscribe to our newsletter.