Mention you’re going to the Maldives and most responses will likely be along the lines of, “Oh, how romantic!” or, “Going on a second honeymoon?”
As it happens, late last year I was indeed travelling to the archetypal couples’ destination with my wife – the first proper sojourn that we’d taken sans enfant for about 15 years.
As the tropical nation in the Indian Ocean is a scattered collection of more than 1,000 tiny white-sand-fringed coral islands, which stretch about 765 kilometres from north to south, and close to 130 kilometres in breadth across pristine waters, most visitors at top resorts stay put on their island. The all-villa JA Manafaru, like many other exclusive accommodations, has an isle all to itself: Dhidhdhoo, part of the nation’s northernmost atoll, Haa Alif. JA Manafaru also owns a neighbouring islet, nicknamed Castaway Island, a secluded spot to which boat trips – with or without a picnic meal – and even an overnight stay, can be arranged.
When you wake up here – especially if you’re in an over-water villa, it’s time to realise that the postcard-perfect pictures on the resort’s website probably received very little Photoshop attention. A glass floor insert was the first indication of the gently rippling turquoise transparency that would be a significant part of our 360-degree backdrop for a week. Whether sitting indoors with the blinds hoisted or out on the wooden deck, or while soaking in the private plunge pool (active whirlpool jets optional), little else could be seen. And that was just fine. What was also more than fine was the thoughtful design of the villas, which radiate from a central wooden boardwalk, ensuring that one can’t glimpse, or be glimpsed by, neighbours.
You may, however, see fellow guests bobbing with snorkel masks and flippers when the urge strikes to descend your terrace steps into the sea. Floating at will in the ocean above a gleaming sand bed peppered with rock, occasional coral and abundant marine life is an over-water-villa highlight. Alongside oval-shaped triggerfish, bright blue and green parrotfish, seahorses and goby that blend almost invisibly against their habitat, the occasional stingray and baby shark swim by, unperturbed by the not-always-graceful splashing of the visitor.
The marine life is, of course, one of the leading draws for visitors to the Maldives and the resort offers guided snorkelling trips – either straight off the island’s shore by day, or in the early evening when several species get more active. A 30-minute boat ride away, the aquatic life becomes even more abundant.
A high point of our visit was the Sunset Bubbly and Lucky Dolphin Cruise, athough as it was overcast when our party of around 10 guests set out, we didn’t hold out much hope for the sunset part. An hour into the pleasant boat ride, one of the five crew started whistling, the driver cut our engine and we drifted silently: some way off was a handful of bottlenose dolphins – one of three varieties common in this locale – including two junior members, who stopped by to investigate us. A few minutes passed as they half-played and half-checked us out before they got bored and swam off. We toasted this sighting with prosecco, then set off again, yet further from our starting point. Drizzle set in and the horizon was still. When it seemed inevitable we would have to turn back, we suddenly got lucky: a pod of spinner dolphins emerged, very pleased to see our wooden hull, and showed us why they are called spinners – with plenty of snazzy freestyle twists, turns and jumps – none of which was either prompted by the offer of food or rewarded with it. It was pure sociability; the energetic spinners stayed with us for 20 minutes or so and it was us that had to bid them farewell to head back to base. Other waterborne activities at JA Manafaru include visits to nearby islands, fishing trips by day or night, and scuba diving.
For those who would rather keep dry and on firm ground, just before twilight each day a feeding happens off one of the jetties. Staff dispense bottled water, chilled face towels and fish food, and will even take on the feeding duties if guests tire of the task. When I joined in, the water was thick with shoals of darting black and grey jack fish, while rays and turtles also tucked in.
The 14.2-hectare island itself has plenty of appeal. Dotted around its white powdery fringes are charming beach bungalow and suite villas, each with a plunge pool and walled gardens; the watersports centre (with paddle boards, boats, windsurfing, sailing, jet skis, wakeboards and waterjet packs, the latter propelling their wearers up to 10 metres in the air).
A pair of wide-wheeled mountain bikes graces the porch of each of the 81 two-person villas, while two- or three-bedroom accommodations get a whole fleet of them. These are a pleasure to ride across the resort, which encompasses restaurants, a pair of swimming pools, a tennis court, a mini football pitch, a kids’ club, a gift and provisions shop, a marine research centre, a gym, games room and a spa.
The wellness facilities here are also impressive. The spacious gym has all the latest high-tech equipment and, weather permitting, outdoor yoga classes are taught every evening by Khemraj Chandel. A supple instructor who has spent years of study across India, he motivates attendees to get into correct positions and push themselves to their bearable limits. The Calm Spa is a cosy 10-pavilion compound, serenely landscaped around mature banyan trees and ponds strewn with waterlilies. From the list of couples’ or single treatments, which includes several Asian and Western therapies, the Manafaru Signature Massage combines Swedish, Balinese and acupressure techniques, while the Maldivian Massage employs fluid, gliding strokes for a more relaxing effect. Both use coconut oil blended with a choice of essential oils to either relax or reinvigorate. Some treatments use Elemis products – the brand is also used for villa bathroom amenities.
Restaurants present an international mix of dining. On Friday evenings there’s an unmissable Maldivian buffet – a chance to taste a changing repertoire of local dishes that’s big on finely chopped salads with coconut flesh (some fresh, some semi-dried), coconut milk curries, tuna and chapatis. For a deeper insight, you can don an apron and join a hotel chef in a cooking class – but do so attentively: you eat the results of your endeavours – followed by a professionally cooked dessert. The world-class Ocean Grill, where the tables spill out on to the sand, is a refined stand-out among the seven restaurants; also recommended are some of the inventive modern Asian combinations at White Orchid, which are best enjoyed on its stilted wooden deck while gazing down at the aquamarine waters below. Wine-lovers, meanwhile, head to a clutch of underground tables at The Cellar (only open three evenings a week) for French cuisine and an outstanding wine list.
After a seven-hour direct flight from Hong Kong to the Maldivian capital, Male, JA Manafaru is a further four hours away by either seaplane or domestic flight, plus a speedboat ride. Some visit for a few nights, but if you have the time to unwind more fully – and perhaps get into unhurried romance mode – a stay of a week or more is merited.