IN WATER CLEAR as liquid glass, I'm snorkelling with sharks. At least trying. As I get close, their streamlined, boneless bodies shift instantly from cruising to warp speed. Meanwhile, surrounding me are multicoloured angelfish as if designed by a jeweller, a swarming school of surgeonfish moving in synchronised choreography, and, swimming below me, a hawksbill turtle, blasé even when I gently touch its smooth shell. There are also parrotfish, triggerfish, pipefish, batfish, damselfish, barracudas, rays – and this pristine coral reef teeming with marine life is just metres from my over-the-top-luxurious villa.
The fish-filled lagoon surrounds Maalifushi by Como on the Maldives' southerly Thaa Atoll. The resort opened last April after Malaysian billionaire Ong Beng Seng and his wife Christina Ong rescued an ill-fated property from previous owners and relaunched it in glamorous, ecofriendly style.
Its stunning beauty – and its breathtaking, cinematic setting – is first seen from a 45-minute flight aboard a private seaplane from the crowded Maldivian capital of Malé. From 6,500 feet above the sea, the spectacular lagoons and atolls are scattered below like a broken necklace of turquoise gems.
Atolls, only found in warm waters of tropical and subtropical regions, are rings of coral that originally grew around the shorelines of islands that subsided or eroded away. The Maldives, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, is made up of about 1,200 tiny low-lying tiny islands grouped into 26 atolls, with the highest point above sea level being just two to three metres. An average ground elevation of 1.5 metres above sea level means that the Maldives has the unique distinction of being the lowest-lying country on the planet. And with just over 360,000 inhabitants, it's Asia's least populous country.
As the plane swoops over Maalifushi, with its ring of villas on stilts above the sea, the lush, 800-metre-long island appears as postcard-perfect as a place can be. The resort is seamlessly integrated into its environment. Paths of white sand wind between coconut palms and through hibiscus, sea cabbage, crinum lily, screw-pine pandanus and other lush greenery alive with birdsong and butterflies, providing further seclusion for the rooms hidden behind the high walls. Indeed, during my stay I feel like a castaway in a luxury setting. Although the resort is almost fully occupied, I hardly see anybody else. Not surprisingly, most guests stay in and around their sprawling villas, swimming or snorkelling. And the island itself is nicely isolated: the nearest resort is an hour away, so it's mercifully free of the noisy traffic of boats and planes.
There are 65 land and over-water suites and villas with pristine private pools, thatched salas and large sundecks. Japanese interior designer Koichiro Ikebuchi, who also created Como Shambhala Estate in Bali, reflected what you would expect from Como: contemporary, understated elegance: airy, uncluttered rooms, oak floors, wood-panelled walls, earthy fabrics, dreamy soft canopy beds, massive marble bathtubs and sliding glass walls for indoor-outdoor living, including a private garden with a rain shower.
They also all have incredible sunrise views.
I'm enjoying that right now. On an empty beach, unfurling ribbons of crimson, orange, pink, marigold and yellow slowly dissolve into a glorious blue sky with dazzling equatorial sunlight over an almost motionless, crystal-clear sea. Even though there's the guiltfree pleasure of sleeping late on a holiday, wake up at least once for this experience – it's like the Earth's first dawn.
There are also two main open-air dining facilities – Madi, serving international and Maldivian cuisine, and Tai, an over-water, Japanese–inspired restaurant offering mouthwatering sushi and sashimi alongside mains like grilled Wagyu with crisp garlic and miso butter; the snazzy bar, with its panoramic sea-view sunsets, is the perfect spot for pre-dinner drinks.
Sunrise to sunset: the time seems to drift serenely by like some of the fish I see around my villa. It's easy to do absolutely nothing: enjoying the spacious villa, snorkelling around the coral, sitting on the balcony with a good book, watching the ebb and flow of the tide with the sunlight sparkling on the turquoise, azure, lapis seawater, one shade of blue changing into another and another. Each morning I get all the news I need from an events page: weather forecast, temperature, timings for high and low tides, sunrise and sunset.
Today, it seems, I'll be quite busy. There's a 75-minute Taksu massage treatment promising “a fantastic antidote to deeply-held patterns of stress”; a local island excursion to Guraidhoo; and a Maldivian dinner with a traditional Boduberu (a style of drumming that first appeared in Maldives in the 11th century) act on the beach.
And while I'm here, I must bliss out with a rejuvenating Shambhala massage in one of the treatment rooms with views of the Indian Ocean. And tomorrow do I take the sunset dolphin cruise or go night snorkelling? There are also Pilates classes, water skiing, surfing lessons and scuba diving for whale sharks, hammerheads and giant groupers. Think I'll order one of the delicious wellness drinks – say, the Waterfall (cucumber, parsley, celery, fennel, pear and mint) – and mull it over in the comfy library, where I don't find airport novels, thrillers or guide books in obscure languages, but works by Henry James, William Faulkner, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, Leo Tolstoy, Margret Atwood and Philip Roth.
While Como's smaller Maldives resort, Cocoa Island, caters primarily to couples, Maalifushi, while divinely romantic, is familyfriendly too, with castaway beach picnics, snorkelling with dolphins, or child minding at the kids' club and play area. “It's a great experience for adults and kids,” says Lynn Ban, a New York-based jewellery designer. “My six-year-old can enjoy the shallow lagoons, meet a marine biologist and learn about the natural environment. It's a lifestyle experience.”
Indeed, one way to enjoy Como's Maldivian experience is to resort-hop. The “twin-centre” package breaks up your holiday, staying at Maalifushi and Cocoa Island on South Malé Atoll. The latter's 33 over-water suites and villas are inspired by local dhoni fishing boats and connected by a snaking boardwalk over a beautiful snorkelling lagoon. Sea, sand and sky are brought into each room with decor themed in milk white and bird's-egg blue. Floor-to-ceiling windows open to private sun decks. You drift off to sleep to a soundtrack of lapping water underneath.
Cocoa Island's one restaurant, Ufaa, is superb, with its menu of fresh seafood, Thai cuisine, big salads and a tempting selection of pizzas. Also worth leaving your villa for is the spectacular diving – including the Cocoa Thila site, just behind the resort. There's also the top-class Shambhala Retreat, yoga classes, a hydrotherapy pool, windsurfing, kayaking, luxury sailing, fishing and many other watersports activities and excursions. But don't feel guilty if just being there is more than enough.
Like the pulling and returning of the Maldivian tides, I would like to visit again. How many natural paradises on Earth are left?
For bookings contact Lightfoot Travel at lightfoottravel.com