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SPLENDID ISOLATION

Published: Sunday, April 30, 2017    

The Maldives is a paradise on the UAE’s doorstep. But not all luxury resorts are the same in a destination famed for clear oceans and over-water villas

A fin slowly breaks the surface and cruises closer as the sleek grey outline of its owner becomes unmistakable.

The black tipped reef shark saunters by – beneath the wooden boardwalk on which we are silently transfixed – and heads deeper into the lagoon, blissfully unaware of the stir it has caused.

Although harmless, the shape resembles that of larger, more infamous relations and is matched on our Maldives adventure only by an eagle ray sighted calmly wading past the following day.

You’re never far from such wonders at Gili Lankanfushi, a resort that cunningly finds synergy with its surroundings and the aquatic inhabitants we get to temporarily share breathtaking space with.

One of Lankanfushi Island’s other regulars, a Hawksbill turtle previously aided by resident marine biologists, appears during a visually invigorating snorkel from One Palm Island, an occasional resting spot for migrating birds. They obviously have admirable navigation skills – and taste – as this North Male Atoll resort yields a special brand of relaxation.

PERSONAL ATTENTION

The superlatives accumulate the moment we disembark the motor cruiser bringing us from the capital’s airport, in Male, to a jetty where the general manager and selected colleagues – including our Friday ‘personal concierge’ – greets us.

Relieved of footwear as we board the boat, the ‘Gili-fication’ process really begins the moment we’re taken by electric buggy through lush scenery to one of the over-water villas extending out from the shoreline.

Fashioned from a shabby chic mix of wood, old and newer, the open, eclectic design is curated by our surroundings; not least the floorboards in each room that – other than the air-conditioned bedroom – are spaced to reveal the turquoise tide beneath. It’s like a cross between a well preserved ship and an elaborate tree house, leaving you to feel equally part of the sea and the jungle.

Gili Lankanfushi is luxurious, but this is a sustainable luxury informed by the island’s natural beauty.

LUXURY CARVED FROM NATURE

There’s a rustic edge to the accommodation, without skimping on comforts, and fixtures reference location; shell-like furniture handles, fish-shaped coat hooks, a terracotta starfish you place on the bed to request a linen change. And there’s a copy of Daniel Defoe’s 1719 stranded classic Robinson Crusoe on the bedside to complete the scene. Counting a sundeck replete with loungers, day bed, net seats and steps into the sea, our ‘entry level’ villa is effectively on three floors, complete with a roof-top sanctuary that invites slumber under the stars, and a bathroom linked by a narrow wooden bridge to a rain shower cubicle fashioned from glass bricks.

The villa, like the entire resort, is as much about calm, and wellness, as design; a place you simply ‘get’ – and which then in turn gets under your skin.

It offers a vacationing mode that promotes a ‘no shoes, no news’ missive, yet makes no demands, rather lures you in with its many charms and attention to detail. For example, how many places would have housekeeping place a bookmark in a tome you’ve causally left face down on a sofa? Even novels enjoy stress relief here.

BLISSFUL SOLITUDE

Occasionally, as the waves gently break against the outer edge of the lagoon you feel as though you’re the only people present on the island, even with the handful of families present beside honeymooning and anniversary couples.

Exercise can involve tennis on the island’s court, a shoreline jog, or something as simplisitic as a stroll along sandy paths shaded by latticed branches.

That might take you to the resort’s flourishing herb garden – along with Gili’s water purification and bottling plant, part of the resort’s greener self-sufficiency drive (they also give you a bag to take home used plastics). Or to the tranquil Meera Spa for one of the many massages that allow you to gaze into the sea through a glass floor panel as your worries are skillfully manipulated away.

Another path takes you to sunrise yoga, to a clearing in the jungle where they host a weekly cinema session under the stars – Kung Fu Panda will never be the same after viewing it here - or to the pool with accompanying watchful heron.

Fringing all this, soft, powdery beaches slope into pristine water close by where exotic fish scatter, a fidgeting rainbow Gili rightly celebrates as among its greatest natural assets.

“HOW MANY PLACES WOULD HAVE HOUSEKEEPING PLACE A BOOKMARK IN A TOME YOU’VE CAUSALLY LEFT FACE DOWN ON A SOFA? EVEN NOVELS ENJOY STRESS RELIEF HERE”.

LEARN ABOUT SUSTAINABILITY

In-house marine biologists educate guests wishing to know more about the aquatic population and resort sustainability initiatives that extend to a new marine biology centre, funded by guest donations. Like many reef sites, Lankanfushi suffered from rising sea temperatures, so the resort is cultivating fresh growth with its Coral Lines Project.

There are several points from which to witness the living art gallery, be it immersed behind your villa or enjoying sundowner drinks at the main bar.

As well as more traditional seating, here you lay on a net ‘seat’ directly above the surface or on cushions surrounding an open pool in the centre.

The Gili water sports centre offers diving – and surfing lessons – but a casual yet careful snorkel also provides an up-close window onto this glorious world.

Josie Chandler can host this. Based at Gili for two years, among other things she oversees the reef restoration initiative, seeking to counter the effects of El Niño in 2010, and 2016.

“Last year it had a pretty big impact, changed the water temperature from 28 degrees, which is normal, to about 34,” said the marine biologist from the UK.

“Coral can adapt to the temperatures but that was a really fast change. And it stayed warm for a long time which bleached corals as they were not able to recover.”

Estimates suggest up to 70 per cent of Maldives coral was lost last year. The lines project is bearing fruit, however, including coral types that are now extinct elsewhere.

“We start with coral that has broken off the reef - a fragment of opportunity - and put 50 on a five-metre length of rope, into our coral nursery.

“They grow very well along this for one year. We then take that and put it on the damaged house reef and it will become completely incorporated.”

FLAVOURS OF THE WORLD

Gili chefs do their best to create plates yielding similar wow factor, both at By The Sea, a Japanese restaurant with food – and saki collection – as gripping as the scenery, and the main restaurant, which excels with colourful weekly Asian street market and Mediterranean themed set-ups.

The Gili Tasting Journey offers a fun and informative guided tour of the resort’s offerings with paired food and beverages at locations including a raised private table beside the pool (for foie gras macaroons, no less), a 360 degrees raised dining sanctuary between beach and herb garden and Gili’s stunning underground grape cellar with showpiece table fashioned from wood washed up during the tsunami.

Soundtracked by waves almost everywhere you go, the Gili effect is hard to resist. And with scurrying lizards and birdcalls serenading the stroll back to the villa, the resort defies you not to enjoy a perfect night sleep – after a few minutes shark spotting from the villa’s open-air lounge, of course.
 
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