Three exceptional luxury island resorts – and a spectacular new glamping concept – combine to create magic in the Maldives
It’s just before dawn and the sky is as black as squid ink. I’m lying in a four-poster bed, cocooned inside a giant plastic bubble on a tiny Maldivian island, and staring up at a canopy of luminous stars.
With the moon below the horizon, the sun yet to rise, and complete silence but for the occasional wave lapping on the shoreline, the scene is ethereal, almost otherworldly.
I’m about to drift back to sleep as another shooting star flashes across the sky, when something else – something magical – slowly drifts into view: a large object with wings
and flashing red lights.
It’s too big, bright and slow to be a jumbo jet; and even in my drowsy, dream-like state, I dismiss fanciful thoughts of a UFO. No, this is surely NASA’s International Space Station in low orbit as it makes its silent but ever-watchful rounds of the planet.
Nestled in a secluded spot on a 1.5-kilometre sandbank, far from the island’s luxury resort, the transparent bubble appears like a moon-craft as our traditional sailing dhoni approaches about an hour before sunset.
We’re accompanied by Shabeen, our resort ‘mojo agent’ (butler) and a chef, who will prepare cocktails and dinner before leaving us to spend the night entirely alone.
Camping? Think again. Our air-conditioned ‘tent’ comes with a king bed swathed in white sheer netting, an oversize wingback chair and footstool in vibrant turquoise, a turntable with vintage records, solid timber floors and a soft rug underfoot.
An adjoining bathroom, accessed via a zipper door, features a shower and toilet, fluffy white towels and robes, and everything you’d expect in a luxury guest room. And just in case you can’t leave civilisation behind – even for a night – there’s high-speed WiFi.
The only thing we have to remember is to close the entry door firmly before accessing the bubble, so as not to let out any of the air inflating the high-tech polyester dome.
After settling in, it’s time for sundowner cocktails, a gourmet three-course dinner served by candlelight at a chaise and table cut into the sandbank, and a nightcap as a crescent moon rises slowly overhead.
The night passes in a surreal sequence of sleep, satellites and shooting stars, until dawn breaks and we rise early to walk to the furthest point of the island, before Shabeen and his team return to serve breakfast at the water’s edge.
By 9am, with the morning sun beating down, the bubble is cleaned and serviced for the next guests, covered with a protective sheath, and we’re back on board the dhoni to return to the resort after a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Launched just six days before our stay, the bubble is the brainchild of The Small Maldives Island Co (TSMIC), a relatively new and innovative resort company with strong Australian connections that manages luxe resorts – Finolhu and Amilla Fushi in Baa Atoll – and Huvafen Fushi just north of the capital, Malé.
Like many siblings, the three resorts have very different personalities: Huvafen Fushi is small, ultra-exclusive and adults-only, offering only 44 luxury overwater and island villas, a unique underwater spa, and a brand new super-luxe villa called The PlayPen.
Amilla Fushi has a chilled, contemporary ‘island home’ ambience with 67 sleek, white overwater villas, beach villas, tropical tree houses and luxury private residences, a signature spa, and a bazaar-style collection of beachfront dining venues.
The youngest and grooviest of the three resorts is Finolhu, a 30-minute boat ride from Amilla Fushi, designed as a fun and eclectic retro-chic resort with 125 overwater and beach villas and an Instagram-ready, toes-in-the-sand island setting.
The glam factor starts as soon as our late-evening flight arrives at Malé International Airport, where a Huvafen Fushi butler is waiting to escort us to a snazzy motorboat berthed at a neighbouring marina.
Within minutes, we’re skimming James Bond-style across the Indian Ocean under a cloudless night sky, a 30-minute journey culminating in what looks like a comet rocketing overhead and exploding in a flash of light. We take it as a good omen.
On arrival, we’re met by Nazeeh, our young thakuru (butler), who bypasses check-in formalities and whisks us directly to our overwater pool villa looking out to a mirror-still reef lagoon.
It’s past midnight by now (the island is an hour ahead of Malé) and we’re a tad hungry, but Nazeeh is one step ahead with a basket of wraps and fruit, and a chilled bottle of Champagne which he lays on a table by the pool. We’ll sleep well tonight.
The next three days are spent in a paradisiacal cocoon, drifting from our villa to Celsius, the resort’s main waterfront restaurant, poolside UMBar, al fresco pizza bar and subterranean wine cellar Vinum, our bare feet covered with powdery white sand throughout.
Opened more than a decade ago, the resort has emerged rejuvenated from a recent year-long renovation of villa interiors and amenities, and its iconic spa, as well as the addition of a new restaurant and Grand Beach Pavilion.
The unique overwater/underwater spa’s additions include new treatment rooms, with picture windows looking out to
a coral reef teeming with fish, a Vitalisation relaxation space and RAW cafe specialising in wellness foods.
The new dining venue, Feeling Koi, is sensational – serving modern izakaya-style Japanese dishes with a Latin twist – and complemented by two certified sake sommeliers.
The resort’s new Grand Beach Pavilion, The PlayPen, redefines luxury island living. The vast two-level romantic couple’s retreat combines New York loft-style and neo-Parisian design and décor with a full kitchen, pool deck and private sand garden overlooking the lagoon. At $17,000 per night, it’s for a very privileged few, but it’s a playful addition to the resort.
This is an adults-only (16 and over) resort island and feels very grown-up and sophisticated with its upscale dive and watersports centre, traditional hand-crafted Maldivian dhoni for romantic sunset cruises and sublime tropical setting.
Next stop: Amilla Fushi, requiring another speedboat trip back to Malé and a Trans Maldivian Airways seaplane ride to the more distant Baa Atoll – a breathtaking flight over the Indian Ocean splashed with tiny coral cays, reef shallows and impossibly blue water.
As our seaplane circles Amilla Fushi’s teardrop-shaped island, a long boardwalk of chic, white, flat-roofed overwater villas comes into view, a striking contrast to the beautiful but more traditional thatched villas at Huvafen Fushi.
In fact, this resort is an altogether different world, billing itself as an ‘island home’ with a more contemporary residential look and feel extending from its necklace of ocean reef and lagoon houses to exquisite beach houses, elevated tree houses and expansive private residences.
The resort’s public spaces are arranged in three clusters: the central Baazaar with its myriad restaurants and bars; the Emperor Beach Club featuring the kids’ club, various stores, a wine cellar, artists’ studio and watersports centre, and excellent Javvu Spa on the island’s northeast shoreline – all within easy walking distance of each other.
With the stylish 1 OAK Lounge, Feeling Koi and Hub dive and snorkelling centre set on two jetties, a soccer pitch, and LUX tennis courts near the residences, the resort island has something to offer everyone from honeymoon couples to multi-generational families.
The vibe here is laid back, centred around the main pool and Baazaar complex, including various restaurants serving bistro, pizza, grill, Asian, Italian and wellness dishes, along with a fun fish-and-chip shop.
1 OAK Lounge is the perfect spot for a sundowner cocktail and Amilla Fushi’s Feeling Koi is even better than the one at Huvafen Fushi, if that’s possible.
The resort’s various luxe accommodations have a contemporary vibe, with open-plan living spaces, Moroccan-tiled bathrooms and outdoor showers, and overwater decks with steps down into the azure lagoon. Butlers here are known as katheebs and operate around the clock.
The eight private beachfront residences available for rent offer a chic villa aesthetic ideal for families or friends holidaying together, with large pools fronting a pristine beach.
The resort features numerous active and less strenuous water activities – our sundowner cruise delivered a classic Maldivian sunset – and the island’s clocks are set two hours ahead of Malé encouraging lazy mornings and extended evenings.
And so, to Finolhu – the youngest of TSMIC’s three island resorts, with a decidedly spirited, almost cheeky, personality that befits her ‘baby sister’ and Instagram-star status.
A 30-minute speedboat ride from Amilla Fushi, Finolhu turns up the fun factor with retro-chic styling throughout the resort – think 1960s California Dreaming meets Cirque du Soleil with pool parties, a classic American milk bar, resident ‘mermaids’, stilt-walkers and fire-eaters –
and the extraordinary new Beach Bubble that makes the island so unique.
The reality is nowhere near as kitsch as it sounds, and while my pool party days have long passed, I loved the resort’s light, quirky, carefree approach to life that’s focused on maximising the guest experience.
The overwater accommodations are a hybrid of its sibling islands with thatched roofs atop modern white villas, all offering sweeping lagoon or ocean views. The interiors are on trend with eye-catching wallpapers, sleek tiled and spa-like bathrooms, and indoor-outdoor living spaces.
Food is a major part of the Finolhu experience: casual dining in Baa Baa Beach Diner; Cantonese at Kanusan’s waterfront pavilion; North African in beachside Baahaa Grill; and chilled cocktails at 1 OAK Beach Club next to the pool.
The standout is the idyllic Fish & Crab Shack, perched on the island’s sliver of sandbank, accessible only by dhoni or on foot, and featuring a breezy bar and tables in the sand.
Arrive at noon, settle in for a five-hour seafood extravaganza washed down with a frothy cocktail and a bottle (or two) of chilled wine, and wait for the last dhoni to take you back to the resort.
The spa treatments at the Cove Club are as good as I’ve had anywhere (ask for Juliana, an expert Indonesian therapist) and our butler Shabeen is a model of efficiency.
Finolhu definitely has a youthful vibe, with an in-house DJ, live acts and pool parties, but if it all gets too much, you can retreat to your overwater villa in splendid isolation.
And if that still doesn’t cut it, book a memorable night in the Beach Bubble – just you, the moon and the International Space Station.