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Stairway to heaven

It’s normal, I’m sure, to contemplate a fresh start when you have an infinite ocean in front of you, aglow with the setting sun. With a glass of wine in hand and my toes skimming the water, I am in the perfect spot for pondering. So, I’m wondering if I should become a yoga teacher, or a volunteer in the luscious vegetable garden I saw this afternoon? No, I haven’t been seduced by a cult but by Maalifushi by COMO, a new luxury resort in the Maldives. A 60-minute seaplane journey from the capital of Malé, it is COMO’s second, largest and most family-oriented resort in the Maldives. 

Opening in January 2014, Maalifushi is the only resort on the string of 66 uninhabited islands in the southerly Thaa Atoll. Far from the hundreds of hotels that sit within a boat ride from the capital, the five-star resort is perfectly private and completely relaxing. A mix of beach and overwater villas and garden suites are tucked within the lush eight-hectare island, connected by wide, sandy pathways lined with palms and wooden boardwalks (which my bare feet now know all too well). 

Days here are uncomplicated: swimming, showering, snorkelling sunbathing, swimming, showering, sleeping…with meal times slotted in between. Between the ocean, outdoor shower and private plunge pool – all within (or circumnavigating) my villa – I have spent the last two days in a permanent state of wet-haired, refreshed bliss. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been this clean.

 

 

My overwater villa epitomises what’s most important at Maalifushi – the view. Luxurious yet understated, the rooms have been designed by Koichiro Ikebuchi, a Japanese designer and architect best known for his sparse, elegant designs.

(He was also behind the fit-out of COMO Shambhala Estate in Bali’s Ubud.) I could easily hide away in my demurely styled villa forever. Oak floors, daybeds, billowing curtains and bi-fold doors invite the outdoors in, while an expansive deck stretches out from the bedroom with a private pool and double daybed under a thatched sala, tailor-made for whiling away the afternoon.

 

 

Island holidays are all about falling off the grid and letting go of routine, but I understand for some this kind of idle existence can’t be sustained. When the urge to do something finally arises there’s a COMO Shambhala Retreat Spa with a gym, yoga pavilion and eight overwater treatment rooms (which were still under construction when I was there), swimming pool, three restaurants and a natural waterpark at your fingertips. I decide to venture into the ocean. 

“I’m most impressed by the sight of hammerhead sharks,” resident marine biologist, Francesco says as he fits me out with snorkelling gear (I don’t share his enthusiasm). “It’s rare to see them in the Maldives,” he reassures me. “Encounters with solitary hammerheads rely mostly upon chance, but it’s always a surprise, and an unforgettable appearance.”

When I explain I’m more of a fish, coral and the odd turtle kind of girl he points (or banishes?) me in the direction of the jetty where a technicolour of underwater marine delights awaits. Blue-lined snapper swim in iridescent schools with the superb Moorish idols, while parrot fish and butterfly fish dart in between the coral. I keep a goggled-eye out for the resort’s resident green turtle but it’s shy today. Perhaps tomorrow…

Francesco shares his marine enthusiasm with guests once a week at the bar. I learn that the Maldives is made up of live coral reefs and sandbars, making the natural ecosystem among the most diverse on the planet. There are close to 3,000 species of fish, coral, molluscs and crustaceans in the archipelago, yet the most elusive and sought after is the whale shark. The largest of all the fish species, they grow to a massive 12 metres in length and are known to frolic in the effervescent waters around the resort. (Well, who can blame them?)

Whale shark sightings and surf breaks are among the main attractions at Maalifushi. I’m not a surfer, but if anyone is going to get me on a wave it is the island’s resident Tropicsurf instructor, Gavin. Tanned, wiry and barefoot, with a broad smile, this fellow Australian has his priorities sorted: “Gone Surfing” hangs on the door of his modest surf shack, alongside a pair of discarded thongs. Gavin spends his days taking small groups of surfers, of all levels, to some of the world’s best breaks. He’s reticent, however, about saying exactly where these breaks are. “It’s important to give guests uncrowded waves,” he explains.

I do discover that the most popular break in the area is called Farms, on the resort’s south-west side. Until recently, only locals knew about this spot, which promises long rides in a warm, tropical environment. Non-COMO guests can only reach these waters via liveaboard vessels and private seaplane charters.

Just the thought of potential exercise is enough to whet the appetite, and there are three options for dining on the island, plenty to keep meals interesting even if you’re staying for a week or more. Executive chef Timothy D’Souza is an Australian who hails from sister property Cocoa Island by COMO. His plate is full, running all-day dining restaurant Madi, casual poolside offering Thila (which is soon to have a pizza oven), and Tai, an overwater Japanese restaurant where you can grab the best seats for sunset before heading inside for some sashimi at the sunken bar.

Clad in my swimming costume and stretched out under the shade of a white umbrella, I enjoy lunch by the pool. I tried the lagoon lobster yesterday but today I opt for a salad of soba noodles with edamame and mixed mushrooms, and a green juice ordered from the health-focused COMO Shambhala menu. Bliss. The majority of seafood used on the island, including the red snapper, reef fish, lagoon lobster and tuna, is supplied by local fishermen. Later that afternoon, during a an excursion to the island of Guraidhoo (15 minutes by boat from Maalifushi), I sample a different kind of local flavour in the form of dried fish. It’s a double hit of smoke and salt (I prefer the fresh stuff).

Walking the sandy, tree-lined streets of Guraidhoo, I pass brightly coloured schools, ageing mosques, football fields and a lone police station. I dodge kids playing soccer and cautiously snap photos of uber cool surfers lounging in the sun. The tour ends with iced coffee and Maldivian snacks at the newly opened and surprisingly stylish café, which reflects one man’s big dreams for this little island.

Dreaming big in the Maldives comes with the territory. As the last of the daylight fades, the turquoise waters, powder-white sands and kinked palm trees finally disappear. This place really is the stuff that dreams are made of. Only this time, I can’t wait to wake up and do it all again tomorrow.

 

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