Travel: Underwater opulence in the Maldives
Chris Wiltshire and his wife head to paradise to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary.
Of all the dreamy locations used in James Bond films, it’s remarkable that the Maldives hasn’t been among them, as the views are to die for.
But all that could change if the movie’s producers drop into Per Aquum’s latest luxury five-star island resort Niyama (pronounced Neeama), a 40-minute seaplane ride from the capital, Male.
By day, swaying palm trees, shimmering turquoise waters and white powder sands offer a perfect backdrop, as bikini-clad Bond girl-esque ladies saunter beside the infinity pool, and their Russian partners slumber under bright amber parasols.
At night, the world’s first underwater nightclub glistens tantalisingly 500 yards offshore, hinting at clandestine meetings and shady goings-on.
It’s like living on a lavish film set; Bond author Ian Fleming would have been in his element. The only thing missing is a scowling villain or two in the mould of Casino Royale’s Le Chiffre.
Instead, the island is a sea of smiling faces as immaculately-dressed thakurus (personal butlers) ferry young honeymooners and loved-up oldies from their luxury hideaways to beachside bars and restaurants via golf buggies.
It was a pleasure to be among them, as my wife and I chalked up 25 years together.
We’d heard there may be a treat or two in store for us to mark our anniversary, but our thakuru, Yoosuf, must have some friends in very high places judging by what happened later that night.
After a delightful sunset champagne cruise on a traditional Dhoni sailing boat, we followed a torch-lit route to a beach barbecue. No sooner had we started tucking into our lobster and giant prawns when the band broke into my all-time favourite record, Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb.
And if that wasn’t enough, a shooting star suddenly burst through the warm night air. Honestly, you couldn’t have made it up.
It was all a far cry from our honeymoon in Tenerife back in 1988, which was largely spent in hospital after my wife collapsed with acute appendicitis. We’d hoped Niyama would bring us better luck, as the Maldivian translation is ‘safe journey’, and so it proved.
Unforgettable moments certainly came thick and fast.
The first time we opened the curtains and sliding doors of our spacious water villa and were met by a wall of warm, scented ocean air. And the ‘rain’ shower under the stars while watching baby black-tipped sharks prowling in the waters below was pretty special, too. Then there was the time we went snorkelling in the shallow, warm waters in front of our villa, while the rest of the resort slept in oblivion.
It’s easy to understand why honeymooners settle down in their villas and fail to emerge for the entire week or two. The huge designer beds, quality linen and array of electronic gizmos - from iPads and inbuilt Bose cinema systems to popcorn makers - is the perfect antidote to the 20-hour door-to-door journey.
But it would be a shame to miss out on some of Niyama’s other treats, which promise to make the resort a firm favourite with the glitterati.
The headline act is undoubtedly the small but spectacular Subsix underwater nightclub, which features floor-to-ceiling windows looking out to colourful coral. Twice-hourly speedboats whisk guests out to the Edge restaurant and bar, where they can chill out with one of Bond’s trademark Vodka Martini cocktails - shaken not stirred, of course - before heading downstairs to marvel at the kaleidoscope of tropical fish while being entertained by guest DJs.
Back on the island, an evening at Tribal restaurant is a must - especially for self-confessed carnivores like me. Sumptuous African meat and fish dishes were served at tables set amid open fires.
Much of the inspiration for the island comes from its sister resort Huvafen Fushi, a 30-minute speedboat ride from Male. While life at Niyama isn’t exactly fast, the pace slows even further on this tropical spec of an island. The atmosphere also changes from cool and chic to wealthy and bohemian.
Huvafen Fushi led the way when it built infinity pools at all of its 44 lavish beach bungalows and water villas, and after undergoing a recent revamp it continues to attract a cosmopolitan clientele from around the world.
You’re as likely to sit beside a supermodel - Kate Moss lists this as her favourite holiday destination - as a Russian oligarch or Saudi prince. One of the top 10 richest men in the world booked himself into the resort’s 10,000 dollar-a-night deluxe villa for Christmas and New Year. And having had a glimpse of where he stayed, it’s easy to see why.
But with the relaxed dress code of cotton shorts, T-shirts and bare feet, at no time did we feel out of place. In fact the staff, who outnumber guests by almost four to one - the biggest ratio in the Maldives - go out of their way to make sure everyone is having the time of their lives.
Our breakfasts were spent in the sandy-floored Celsius restaurant lapping up the delicious sea views and, on a memorable morning, watching a school of dolphins amble by. Lazy lunches were taken under the sheltering leaves of a large banyan tree and, following sundowner cocktails, dinner was spent at the Salt fish restaurant.
Occasionally, dinners are arranged for international businessmen at the ultra-cool Vinum wine cellar. It’s where some of the biggest deals in the world are said to have been hatched and, again, would make a perfect venue for a Bond film.
Those looking to get up close and personal with the sea and wildlife will relish the fact that the reef is just a few yards from the shore - much closer than at Niyama. Two channels have been sympathetically cut through to the reef, with the coral moved elsewhere, so that guests can walk out with a mask and snorkel and marvel at the huge array of tropical fish, sharks and sometimes turtles.
Every night at 6.30pm, holidaymakers can feed the 20-or-so large stingrays that virtually beach themselves in an attempt to get a free meal, while nurse sharks prowl for leftovers.
Those with a more nervous disposition can head for the underwater Lime spa, which offers an idyllic way to savour the spectacular colours of fish and coral while being pampered by Balinese masseurs.
One of my abiding memories will be rising at the crack of dawn, grabbing my snorkel and wading out into the azure blue waters in search of a family of Finding Nemo clownfish.
Friends of ours also fell in love with the place. They saved hard for years to go on the “trip of a lifetime” and yet, just six months later, somehow found the means to return.
And why not? After all, as Bond would say, you only live twice...
Travel facts - Maldives
Chris Wiltshire was a guest of ITC Classics. Price, from £4,069 per person, based on two adults sharing a Beach Studio with Plunge Pool for five nights at Huvafen Fushi and five nights in a Beach Studio at Niyama, including daily breakfast, return economy class flights with Qatar Airlines from London Heathrow, speedboat and seaplane transfers. For more information and to book, visit www.itcclassics.co.uk or call 01244 355 527.