By Geoffrey Eu
YOU know you're in the Maldives when the flight crew on your inter-island seaplane - comprising two pilots and a flight attendant - are barefoot and in Bermuda shorts.
It's a uniform that's wholly appropriate for the general mood among passengers and also in keeping with the way of life in this Indian Ocean archipelago, better known as 'tropical island paradise'.
Since it was first introduced in 1972, tourism in the Maldives has developed to an extent where there are now over 80 resorts in operation in the country, with another 35 or so opening over the next few years, to have brand names like Raffles, Shangri-La, Regent and St Regis attached to them - not bad for a bunch of small islands (1,190 to be exact) strewn across the ocean like a string of pearls.
Only 200 of these low-lying islands are inhabited, with half the total population of 300,000 packed into the capital of Male - the only island with buildings taller than a coconut tree.
The Maldives is made up of 25 atolls - a single one is defined as 'a group of islands surrounded by a common reef formation' - spread over 868km in a north-south direction. Trivia lovers may be interested to know that the word atoll is derived from the indigenous word atolu - the only Maldivian word to make it to the English dictionary.
This is also the only place in the world with a one-resort-per-island concept, so that while hotel architecture and facilities may differ among individual resorts, there is a universal sense of privacy and exclusivity - a sense that is likely to be confirmed when guests are presented with the bill at the end of their weeklong stays.
A visitor shares the beach with a nesting
colony of sea birds on a sand bank near
Exclusivity doesn't come cheap in the Maldives - especially in the five-star category - and while a significant number of resorts still cater to a more budget-conscious crowd, it's the five-stars (and higher) that are making waves among travelers in search of the ultimate beach holiday.
An 'entry level' beach bungalow with pool at the Four Seasons' Landaa Giraavaru resort this peak season weekend, for example, is priced at US$960 per night, while a Water Villa with pool at the same property will put a dent in your wallet to the tune of US$1,450. Rack rates are slightly lower at the company's Kuda Huraa resort. Both resorts are owned by Singapore-based HPL, which has two other resorts in the Maldives and together with the Banyan Tree Group, has a strong presence in the country.
Meanwhile, at the One & Only's Reethi Rah resort, expect to pay US$1,050 for a Beach Villa and US$1,600 for a Water Villa. Even at a friendlier rate, it means a sizeable chunk of change for a few days in paradise, in a room with a view - given that the average length of stay in the Maldives is close to nine days. Still, it doesn't seem to matter 'atoll' to customers in this price category, because regular guests have been known to stay for up to two months at a time.
Traditionally, the majority of visitors to the Maldives come from Europe, especially the UK, Italy, Germany, France and Russia. Asia, primarily Japan and Korea - with China as a fast-emerging market - comes in a distant second.
Perhaps because of the relative inaccessibility from Singapore - the once-daily Singapore Airlines flight arrives at night, which is a big problem if you need to make a seaplane connection, as seaplanes only operate in daylight - only a very small percentage of visitors from here make it over.
Those that do, however, are instant converts.
The turquoise lagoons and deep blue waters of the Maldives are justly praised as being among the most beautiful in the world, and a seaplane flight over the islands is one of the best ways to put the things in perspective.
And although divers will testify that underwater visibility, at 30 metres or more, is not as clear as in some other places, the marine life and coral formations throughout the archipelago are truly spectacular.
Natural erosion, El Nino (the warm ocean currents that influence global storm patterns) and the long-term impact of the tsunami in December 2004 have all combined to affect the delicate ecosystem of the islands, but the government, private landowners and responsible developers are all mindful of keeping the environment healthy, visitor arrivals rising and tourism as the country's number one industry.
Angsana Resort & Spa, Velavaru
South Nilandhe Atoll
The resort is accessible via a 40-minute seaplane flight, where footwear is optional
WITH a remote address in the less-populated southern atoll region of the archipelago some 146km from Male, Angsana Velavaru gives guests the perfect opportunity to get in touch with their inner Robinson Crusoe - assuming, of course, that Crusoe had the good fortune to be marooned on a resort island featuring pool villas, dive boats, an award-winning spa and an in-house marine research facility.
The Banyan Tree Group was a pioneer in the Maldives with its eco-friendly outlook and focus on preserving the environment, currently has four properties in the country, with a newly acquired fifth resort island in the works.
Its popular Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru Resort near Male has been around since 1995, while Angsana Ihuru, its sister property on a neighboring island, opened in 2001.
Velavaru, also under the Angsana brand, opened at the end of 2006 and is a study in casual luxury.
The villa accommodation is a study in casual luxury
'It's a very thin line between Banyan Tree and Angsana,' says Kai Hoffmeister, hotel manager at Velavaru. 'Angsana focuses more on younger people and families, and has a more casual environment while Banyan Tree is more for couples who want to get away, and has a more exclusive feel.'
There is plenty of differentiation within five-star properties in the Maldives, says Mr Hoffmeister. 'Everybody wants to come to the Maldives - it's become a necessity to have a property here, to be on the map, and almost every brand is here or coming - variety is the key.'
Angsana and Banyan Tree regulars will know there is no TV in the villas, or a main pool, for example, so people need to do their research to see which resort suits them, he adds. 'The key is to be ahead of the others and have that edge.
'The spa thing is already here, next is definitely dining, with celebrity chefs and so on, and of course the quality of the accommodation.' In several months' time, an additional 30 water villas will be built on a sand bank off Velavaru, accessible only by shuttle boat.
'There are already underwater spas and underwater restaurants in the Maldives,' he says.
'The next step will be a focus on the environment, looking at alternative energy sources advances in technology and how to solve logistical challenges like waste management.'
He adds: 'Here in the Maldives, it's the marine life, the reefs that make a difference. There are beautiful beaches in other places, but the variety of marine life here is unbeatable.'
Angsana Velavaru is offering anniversary rates from August to November. Rates from US$160++ per person per night for a Beachfront Villa. A minimum five nights' booking, inclusive of two complimentary room nights, will receive return seaplane transfers for two.
One & Only Resort, Reethi Rah
North Male Atoll
The resort is 40 km or a 75-minute boat ride from Male International Airport
FROM the air, Reethi Rah looks like a stylized 'K', or perhaps a piece of a giant jigsaw puzzle. This is the current resort of choice for sophisticated world travellers.
Its developers (the same group that made a losing bid for the Sentosa Integrated Resort) spent US$180 million on reclaiming land, extending the shoreline, importing sand, building artificial coves and installing 130 luxury villas - the single largest investment in the Maldives to date.
Here, guests are just steps away from a perfectly manicured beach - and I do mean manicured, because several of the 600 staff spend their time continuously raking every square inch of sand on the island, including a beautifully landscaped 9,500-square metre spa facility (which boast more space than many resorts).
A sense of quiet isolation pervades Reethi Rah, where the accommodation is cleverly laid out and each villa (personal bicycles and butler included) is kitted out with all the conveniences of the luxe island lifestyle.
The orchids on the island were specially cultivated, some 16,000 coconut trees were planted and the resort store is stocked with bespoke designer items by the likes of Christian Louboutin, Missoni and Anya Hindmarch.
The upscale Japanese and Arabic restaurants feature high-quality cuisine (with prices to match) and the 22,000-bottle wine cellar includes magnums of Crystal and Mouton Rothschild. At Reethi Rah, even the waves washing gently ashore somehow have a more exclusive feel to them.
Four Season Resorts
Landaa Giraavaru, Baa Atoll
The resort is 112km from Male Kuda Huraa, North Male Atoll
The resort is 12km from Male
THIS is manta ray and whale shark season in the Baa Atoll in the Maldives' northern region where Landaa Giraavaru is located, and that is reason enough for a visit to this 102-villa resort.
If that isn't sufficient, then the Ayurvedic treatments, the Olympic-size infinity pool, the abundance of dolphins and the on-site marine research facility - which specialises in studying mantas - should convince you.
The 44-acre resort's rustic chic look is a departure from those familiar with the Four Seasons brand in other island destinations perhaps, but it does reflect that get-away-from-it-all approach - right down to the sand floor in your villa's outdoor living room.
Guests to Landaa arrive by seaplane after a 40-minute flight from the airport, while those who stay at the smaller (16-acre) Kuda Huraa resort are only a 25-minute boat ride away from the airport.
A special feature here is the spa, which is located on a small island just off the main resort.
There is also a third option: the Explorer, a luxury 10-cabin catamaran fitted out for divers and ideal for cruising the islands in five-star comfort.
'Since the tsunami, we've almost doubled the number of luxury accommodations in the Maldives,' says Royal Rowe, general manager of both resorts.
'The Maldives is not an expensive destination - to get here, you have to really want to come, so there's not really a great reason to build two- and three-star hotels. There are also no discount airlines that come here.'
Mr Rowe says that while the Maldives is a special destination, it is also unique is other ways. Because it is so remote, it has to import most of its goods from the outside world.
Rising oil prices have meant a large increase in fuel costs, for example. 'This is a high risk location, with natural disasters, logistical problems - there's nothing like a proper supermarket in the Maldives.'
Photos by Banyan Tree & ST, Geoffrey Eu
This article was first published in The Business Times on September 20, 2008.