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Sheer Barefoot Luxury: Why We’re Mad About the Maldives…

Barefoot luxury is the buzzword of the moment for upmarket resorts promising total relaxation in refined surrounds and as I’m about to find out, the Maldives is the real deal.

Words by Joanna Tovia

There are no less than 1,192 islands stretching from north to south for almost 300km in the Indian Ocean, and when we arrive the airport is crammed with staff holding signs for guests bound for countless resorts built on slivers of sand sitting just above sea level. But once you board your seaplane, or yacht, and arrive at your secluded island paradise, an unforgettable adventure all of your own unfolds.

The first island on our itinerary, Dhidhoofinolhu, is one of the largest in the archipelago, and what a way to kick off our stay. Once we set foot (barefoot, of course) on the island, any doubt we have about boredom setting in during our eight-day stay dissipates into the blue, blue sky. I’ve already lined up spa treatments and watersports at our resort LUX* South Ari Atoll, but I’m most looking forward to swimming with whale sharks.

For now, though, the aqua ocean beckons, its warm waters (29 degrees) inviting a languid swim followed by a long session with a good book in the shade. A sandy road stretches from one end to the other of an island that’s only 100 metres wide and 3km long.

Our villa opens onto the beach on one side, and on the other is one of the island’s two infinity pools, a restaurant and bar with beachside cabanas, and a fabulous cocktail menu. South African interior designer Kelly Hoppen has created surprises at every turn – fun beach bars, crazy bathrooms (one looks like an underwater disco complete with instant photo booth), and a buffet restaurant set up like an authentic Asian street market, to name a few. There are lounging nooks abound – some dug into the sand, others suspended in the air or jutting out to sea on shapely jetties – and the resort has a refreshingly friendly vibe that encourages guests from around the world to chat.

There are 193 villas on the island, but aside from two stretches of overwater villas at either end of the island, the rest are tucked away in their own Robinson Crusoe patch of jungle on the beach.

The island’s surrounding waters are home to pods of dolphins as well as whale sharks, slow-moving giants that can grow up to 10 metres long. Fortunately, humans are not to their liking. We’re about an hour into the boat trip when a shout goes out that we’re to leap overboard. The staff have spotted a whale shark! Fumbling with my flippers and snorkel, I throw myself off the boat and look around frantically. But in my haste I’ve jumped off the wrong side, and by the time I snorkel over to the other side, a giant tail is all I can see disappearing into the depths.

Fortunately, the waters are also home to an abundance of other sea life. It’s a colourful underwater wonderland of turtles, fish, giant clams and manta rays, so captivating that two hours feels like 10 minutes, and it comes as a surprise when the biologist signals it’s time to re-board the boat.

Magic Marine Life

While most of the resorts on these islands are unforgettable, exploring the underwater world is what you’ll be talking about for years to come. And at COMO Maalifushi, I find an underwater adventure of a different kind – ultra-violet night snorkelling. After being fitted with a mask filter and wetsuit and handed a special torch, you’re treated to a 60-minute truly touching spectacle. Corals and reef animals glow fluorescent pink, green, yellow and purple at night, and our guide knows exactly where to find the showiest specimens.

April, between the monsoons, is a prime time for snorkellers and divers seeking ultra-clear water, and although it’s a little rainy in the low season (May to November), underwater visibility during this time is incredible. The low season is also the best time for surfers.

COMO Maalifushi is the only resort in the Thaa Atoll, a 60-minute seaplane flight south of the airport and with just 65 garden and overwater villas on the island, it isn’t hard to find a secluded spot on the sand. Although architect Koichiro Ikebuchi designed the thatched villas to be culturally authentic, they are also unabashedly luxurious, the palette of timber and white sitting easily against a backdrop of tropical greenery and aqua sea. Here, you can experience COMO Shambhala, which is all about wellness, with eight overwater spa villas designed to quiet the mind, as much as relax the body. Spacious and serene, each features a sunken bath, twin massage beds and a private deck with uninterrupted ocean views.

If being above water is your preference, then at Amilla Fushi you can explore the UNESCO protected biosphere surrounding the Baa Atoll with an adventure aboard the Sloop John B, a 65-foot traditional hand-crafted Dhoni (fishing boat) which inside is all luxury. There’s a king-sized bed in the single cabin on board, and on a 36-hour cruise you’ll have your own butler. My favourite feature is the oversized daybed on deck – just the thing for indulgent lounging.

Once you’re back on dry land, a truly magical wellness experience awaits. Amilla Fushi’s Javvu Spa is known as one of the best in the Maldives for both its setting and its treatments. Ten wooden treehouse-style pods in the forest canopy create an escape of total serenity, and it’s not hard to see why it’s won World Luxury Spa Awards for the past three years running. My treatment of choice is the 120-minute Chakra Wellbeing. Along with a massage and facial, aromatic oil is poured over the third eye (centre of your forehead) for a profoundly relaxing and almost spiritual experience.

Yoga, personal training and exercise classes sculpt, tone and get those endorphins pumping, while nourishing dishes at the Bodyism Cafe are kind to your insides.

Healthy eating is easy island wide at Amilla (Koi, the Japanese restaurant is especially fabulous) but no one needs to be good all the time – for those moments of weakness, there’s a fish and chip shop and pizza hub, which you can wash down with an icy cold beer.

Element of Exclusivity

At Coco Privé a half-hour private yacht jaunt from the airport, there are just six villas on the 3.4 acre island, with butlers, chefs and instructors standing by to meet your every whim.

That means spa treatments any time you want them, a personal chef to prepare whatever you’re in the mood to devour, and unlimited diving, snorkelling and sailing – no bookings required.

We’re normally so bound by time and deadlines in our everyday lives, that to go with your natural flow of sleeping, eating and adventuring is beyond refreshing.

Each of the beachside villas is secluded but within an easy stroll of one another if you’re travelling with a group (I’m already dreaming up ways to convince my nearest and dearest to gather with me here for a getaway to remember). The grand Palm Residence is beyond decadent, but I like the more intimate Manta Villa for its open-plan ease, outdoor showers and L-shaped pool hugging the edges of the indoor/outdoor lounge area. Jumping in is as easy as getting off the sofa, walking two steps, and plunging into the sun-warmed water.

Dining happens anywhere from your own villa to a private table set up on the beach. If you’re in the mood for a cooking lesson, the head chef will happily share his tips on how to prepare the perfect Maldivian curry.

A beachside feast of freshly caught seafood is a final-night treat, with the rhythms of a local band and the glow of a bonfire adding to the magic. Flowing bubbles and grooving on the beach gives way to beanbag lounging by the fire as the all-male Bodu Beru troupe sets up to drum, dance and sing the night away.

After a getaway this incredible, a grand finale like this seems only fitting.

Getting There

Flying from Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane to Malé is roughly a 15-hour flight. From Perth it’s roughly 11 hours. If you wish to break up the journey, stay a night or two in Singapore, Sri Lanka or Qatar.

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