visits Taj Exotica Resort & Spa, and finds that the Maldives has a lot more to offer than picture-postcard-perfect views
SQUINTING INTO THE sun, I step off the plane into a cocoon of heat tinged with the fragrance of salt water and lilies. Before me, a postcard-perfect image of turquoise waters and bobbing white boats materialises silently, stopping my party in its tracks. “Welcome to paradise!” says the porter with a grin, chuckling to himself at our obvious state of awe. It seems that dumbfounded tourists are the norm here in the Maldives.
Within minutes, I’m perched upon the white leather seats of the Taj Exotica speedboat, skimming over the waves as I leave civilisation behind in a spray of seawater. Speedboats and seaplanes, it seems, are the only means of travel from the airport to the resorts. With a total of 26 natural atolls, the Maldives encompasses 1,919 islands, most of which are surrounded by turquoise lagoons, and all set within the expansive blue waters of the Indian Ocean.
As the motor whirrs to a standstill, I tear my gaze away from the water to look up at the row of smiling resort staff lined up to welcome us. You know you’re in paradise when rose petals are tossed aloft to celebrate your arrival – well, that and the pristine white beaches and never-ending expanse of blue, of course.
With a firm handshake and a warm smile, Ranjit Phillipose, the general manager of Taj Exotica Resort & Spa, welcomes me with effortless charm, then, with a promise to rendezvous at the bar later in the evening, leaves me in the hands of Greg Kocsis, the assistant food and beverage manager, who begins to introduce the luxurious, five-star resort and its facilities.
Comfortably settled on a hotel buggy – a compact, cream-coloured golf cart – I’m whisked away by my personal butler, Raj, to my Lagoon Suite, where he caters to my every whim, from organising my itinerary to removing the rose petals from the bathtub.
The suite is 2,000 square feet of indulgence complete with kitchenette, living room, wooden terrace, private pool and floor-to-ceiling views of the lagoon and ocean. The furnishings feature wicker, wood and a fabulously large soft bed that fills most of the bedroom. Eager to dip my toes into the lagoon, I suit up and scan the room for my itinerary. The island “to-do” list has an extensive schedule of water sports, spa treatments and fancy meals set for the next four days. Prepped with a large bottle of sunscreen and an underwater camera, I set out for a week of water sports.
Snorkelling is first on the agenda. “Everybody, follow me!” grins marine biologist Gary Robinson, as he leaps off the ship. Heart thumping, I plunge into the surprisingly warm depths of the Indian Ocean. To my delight, the Maldivian reefs are filled with a stunning array of colourful fish and corals: rainbow-toned parrotfish, tangerine and white-striped clownfish – yes, I’ve found Nemo – and some yellow and black-striped oriental sweetlips. I even spot a baby black-tipped reef shark cutting through the water below us. As I float lazily above the coral reefs, the hectic pace of the city all but disappears from my mind.
Marine animal encounters are common here at the Taj, especially during feeding times. Every sunset signals dinner for sharks and stingrays, with a bevy of baby sharks and rays gathering for a resort-sponsored taste of fish and meat. I, however, have the luck to encounter a stingray in an unforgettable way. As I bob around the waves in my kayak above the shallow reefs, a dark shadow suddenly appears under my craft. A moment of silence seems to last forever as I sit completely still – partly in awe, mostly in terror – and watch as the grey wings of the majestic stingray gracefully propel it toward the horizon and out from under the kayak.
As night falls, the Maldivian sky is lit up by a great glowing moon and a scattering of stars. The smell of burning cedar fills the air as flaming torches cast flickering shadows on the darkened sand. In the Equator bar, soft melodic jazz from the band suffuses the dimmed atmosphere with serenity. Sipping on a flute of sparkling cocktail, I muse over the tranquillity of island life as I chat with Phillipose and Kocsis over a sumptuous spread of canapés.
In the dark, the restaurants are masked in a dreamy glow as ghostlike shadows flicker in the candlelight. A congregation of smells and sounds filled the air. Wafts of garlic from the teppanyaki tables of the resort’s 24 Degrees restaurant and muted chatter from private dining contribute to the soft, faraway mood.
In addition to the usual dining experiences, a full moon prompts a sandy celebration. The beachside barbeques are an exquisite experience complete with flaming torches, moon-gazing telescope, a live band atop the ocean and the smell of honey-tinted smoke filling the air as couples gather on the shore to sway to the melodies.
I’ve had three days of non-stop water sports, and now each morning is greeted with a symphony of groans as I struggle to get up and overcome my muscle aches. And so I seek out the only antidote to this satisfying yet painful predicament: a visit to Jiva Grande Spa. The interior of dark wood contrasts with the bright blue reflection of the ocean though a tall glass window. The soothing scents of lavender and bergamot fill the air with a tranquil peace as the waves spray against the posts in a soft hypnotic rhythm. Slowly, I feel my eyes drooping as my aches fade away with each passing minute. Ah; complete and utter indulgence.
I’m beginning to understand that here at the Taj, magical moments are – for lack of a better term – a dime a dozen. Whether in the form of spotting sea turtles while paragliding 15 metres above the ocean, roaring on a jet ski through the turquoise waves or dancing under the moon among fairy lights and glowing torches, every single moment spent in the Maldives is more than a simple travel experience. Blasting through the waves at moonlight by speedboat, a strange melancholy falls over me as I gaze at the reflection of the moon shimmering upon the dark waves. The sheer beauty of the Maldives never ceases to amaze. I tilt my face to the sky and vow to return.
+ The Siam
+ Abu Ahabi
+ The Sarojin
+ 137 Pillars
+ Conrad Koh Samui
+ The Kensington Hotel
+ The Pavilions
+ Renaissance Bangkok
+ Mandarin Oriental Paris
+ Waiheke Island
+ Hotel Icon
+ Phnom Penh
+ Buenos Aires
+ Shangri-La Paris
+ Passage to Hong Kong
+ Diving the Sweet Spot
+ The Far Pavilions
+ Hansar Thailand
+ Samui Wind
+ HOTEL DAS CATARATAS
+ The Ritz-Carlton
+ WALDORF ASTORIA SHANGHAI
+ Wolgan Valley
+ LA ISLA BONITA
+ SAIGON FOR MEN
+ ART OF THE CITY
+ Soneva Kiri
+ Langham Hotel
+ The Best of Boston
+ SULTANATE SUBLIME
+ SKYLIGHT VISTA – SEVEN STARS GALLERIA
+ MONGOLIA LUXE
+ The Plaza
+ INSTANT KARMA
+ HEAVEN SCENT, Phuket Pavilions
+ VINO, VIDI, VICI
+ ARABESQUE: A TASTE OF MOROCCO