Pure island escapism

Pure island escapism

I could get used to this.

And by this, I mean the seaplane transfers that swoop low over palm-fringed atolls before landing in a cloud of spray on seas the colour of Bombay Sapphire. The cool lemongrass-scented towels to wipe away the long journey from South Africa, and the cold colourful cocktail that awaits as I kick off my shoes and sink my toes into powder-fine beach sand.

My luggage? It's already been whisked away, beating me to the front door of my water villa at Constance Halaveli. From the shoreline, where dive instructors wander about bare-footed and black-tip reef sharks hunt snapper in the shallows, the longest water jetty in the Maldives stretches out into the endless ocean. I follow suit and stretch out the aches and pains of the long flight. For now, reality is a long way away.

Because if there's one thing this far-flung nation of over 1000 coral-fringed and palm-topped islands is good at, it's transporting you away from the tedium of the day to day. No deadlines admitted. To-do lists forbidden. Humdrum is not allowed.

In fact, nowhere screams jet set quite like the Maldives, from the spa treatments with a sea view, to the fine wines that emerge from private cellars to be paired with tuna freshly reeled in that morning.

Is it the cheapest island holiday on offer? No, not at all, but then true island escapism doesn't come for free. And if you're going to splash out on some serious R&R in the sun, why bother with half-measures. Do it properly, or stay home.

And doing it properly is what Constance Halaveli is all about.

The Constance hotel group has a stellar reputation in the Indian Ocean, with resorts from Madagascar to Mauritius, and the four-year-old Halaveli is one of the best on offer; a six-star island hideaway situated in the North Ari atoll, just 25 minutes by seaplane from the capital Malé.

The island itself is little more than a dollop of sand surrounded by crystal clear seas, but that's no matter. The iconic water jetty – shaped like a dhoni, the traditional Maldivian boats that have plied these waters for centuries – reaches out for nearly a kilometre. From the jetty, 86 water villas dip their toes in the Indian Ocean, offering the ultimate in over-water luxury.

Each water villa clocks in at 100-square-metres, offering sea views from the spacious bathroom and airy island-chic master bedroom. Did I mention the plunge pool?

Ah yes, the plunge pool. Seemingly ignoring the fact that there's an entire ocean at the bottom of the stairs, the clever folks at Halaveli ensure you'll never have to go far for a cooling dip. Which is just as well, as the Maldives seems to have the thermostat set permanently to a suitably sultry 30° and sunny.

With a private pool, a sea view and a room service menu within reach of the sun loungers you'll be sorely tempted to spend your entire stay in your villa.

But that would be foolish.

For as much as the Maldives encourages sloth, islands such as Halaveli offer just as much entertainment beyond your beach towel.

For starters, you'll find three restaurants dotted across the island. The main Jahaz restaurant and bar offers buffet breakfasts and light a la carte lunches, while a few steps away the Meeru beach grill is the spot for open-air seafood barbecues catering to just 20 guests at a time.

My favourite, however, is back out along the wooden jetty you'll get to know so well.
Blue lights bathe the sea in an eerie glow as laid-back electronica offers the perfect soundtrack to the modern Asian-fusion bar and restaurant called, simply; Jing.

It's here I meet Sampath Kalpage for the first time. One of the team of sommeliers at the resort, Sampath is that most wonderful thing to discover on a tropical island: a man who knows his chardonnay, and isn't afraid to tempt you off the beaten track.

Halaveli is justifiably famous for its island cellar, where upwards of 15 000 bottles are carefully matured in a made-to-order air-conditioned vault beneath the rustle of palms.

So it was that a bottle from a boutique South African estate arrived for me to toast my first Maldivian sunset. Snacks followed suit, then a chat with charming general manager Renato Chizzola, and finally dinner. Jing fuses Asian flavours with local produce and continental styling, offering sublime seafood feasts: expect plenty of local tuna, either seared on the grill or crafted into sushi.

It's seafood of a different sort I'm after the next morning though. While my travelling partners set off for the resort's Spa de Constance, where world-class Valmont products are a signature of the body and facial treatments, I head straight out to sea.

The reefs, walls and passes of the Maldives draw scuba divers from across the globe, and I wasn't about to pass up a chance to dive the Halaveli site known – a touch ominously – as Shark Point.

The dive centre at Halaveli is run by an outfit called TGI Diving, and is one of the most slick, professional operations I've dived with. New gear, friendly dive masters and a thorough approach to pre-dive safety meant I was more than happy dropping down for a drift along the rocky banks that draw grey reef, white-tip and black-tip sharks. In the gloaming, eagle rays and dogtooth tuna swam silently past.

While deep sharky dives are always exhilarating, Halaveli boasts plenty of more approachable reefs: The Kandholhudoo house reef is a gentle shallow wall of coral with plenty of passing sea life, and even Halaveli's Bathala Thila house reef offered up good-sized shoals of trevally alongside spectacular coral and shy reef sharks. Sadly, the Maldives' famous manta rays were in short supply. I'll have to go back.

It was, too, time to leave Halaveli... although, to be fair, we were simply swopping six-star opulence for five-star luxury.

Constance Moofushi is the more laid-back of the group's two Maldivian resorts, offering a family-friendly island escape with plenty of frills to keep frazzled parents happy.

Perhaps most importantly for island-hoppers watching their wallets, the resort's 'Cristal package' is an all-inclusive deal that allows you to leave your wallet in your suite and order to your heart's content. Meals, drinks, ice cream, cocktails... even that glass of sunset bubbly will be on the house. Even the mini-bar in your suite is included, whether you're perched in the water villas or squiggling your toes into the sand under the palms.

And while water villas are ideal for privacy-loving honeymooners or hopeless romantics, the range of rustic-chic beach villas at Moofushi will certainly appeal to family travellers.

Tucked away in pockets of coastal forest, the wooden terrace and patch of private beach are wonderfully secluded, and you could easily forget there is anyone else on the island. Relax in the hammock, wander down to the lapping waters or settle in for a busy afternoon of doing not much at all.

Not that you'll be bored. There's a well-equipped water sports centre offering kayaking and catamarans, along with a dive centre that offers daily dives on the nearby reefs. If you're not a bubble-blower you can either sign up for a course with the professional instructors, or join the regular snorkelling trips to nearby reefs.

Or, like Halaveli, wander up to the serene Spa de Constance for a treatment where therapists from across Asia will massage away any last aches and pains.

Me? I found my perfect spot on the first afternoon. Wander beyond the bustling Manta restaurant, don't be tempted by the day beds at the adjoining bar, and keep going past the lovely Alizée beach grill. There, just before the pool, on a couch with a sea view is where you'll find me.

As beach bars go – and I've enjoyed a few, from Mozambique to Indo – the Totem is one of the best. Indigenous trees throw a carpet of dappled shade on the white sands, and driftwood tables support a cold glass of, well, pretty much whatever you fancy. I could spend days on that beach, staring at the sea and nursing G&T after G&T.

I wouldn't soak up the local culture, or meet the people, or discover the heritage of this island nation. But then, that's not what the Maldives is all about. It's about escapism, pure and simple. With a dollop of indulgence. Oh yes, and don't forget the luxury. In short, it's island paradise on steroids. If you think you've seen it all, think again.

Maldives 101

  • Getting there: Although direct flights from South Africa to Malé might take off in mid-2013, currently the best way to get there is via the Middle East on Emirates, Etihad or Qatar Airways.
  • Getting around: From Malé, resorts will arrange transfers via seaplane or speedboat. Likewise, your resort can arrange any further transfers and excursions.
  • Visas: South African passport holders do not require a visa to visit the Maldives, with a 30-day entry permit issued free on arrival.
  • Money & costs: The official currency of the Maldives is the rufiyaa, but unless you spend time in Malé you won't need it. Resorts all accept payment by credit card or in dollars, pounds or euros.
  • Health: Unlike many tropical destinations, there is no malaria in the Maldives. If you are arriving from a yellow fever area (such as East Africa) a vaccination card must be produced on arrival.
First Published: 2012-12-11 Travelideas

Who is OnAnotherPlane...

RIchard Holmes headshot web smallRichard Holmes is a freelance travel, food and lifestyle writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. His work on African and international destinations has appeared in a wide range of consumer publications both in South Africa and abroad.