Island Hopping in the Maldives
Across a trilogy of Maldivian Islands, JENINNE LEE ST. JOHN resists the urge to channel her inner Jonah. Hops from boat to boat, and comes back with far more postcards than you could stuff in a shoebox.
Published on Apr 18, 2016
Photographer: PORNSAK NA NAKORN
Stylist: TUNVARDEE JUTAVARAKUL
Makeup & hair: WITTHAYA KAEOAIM
Model: NATHALIE DUCHEINE
I REALIZE THIS SOUNDS RIDICULOUS, BUT I DIDN'T PARTICULARLY WANT TO GO TO THE MALDIVES.
Mermaids rise at dawn to revel in the richest part of the W's coral reef, near the spa, in swimsuit by Tan Tan.
In my defense, it had been a rough couple of months, capped off by the passing away of my brilliant, beloved, cranky-pants grandmother. She lived in New York City's Chinatown, and every time I'd return home from Asia, she'd scold me for not visiting more often, ply me with food… and then try to hustle me away again. "Go back to work," she'd say. "Go see the world. Send me a postcard." I always did, from every trip. This was an old-school woman with an immigrant's work ethic, but she also loved getting mail. I'm pretty sure the power of the postcard was just as persuasive to her as pride in my job.
So, I headed back to Bangkok from a bittersweet American springtime to repack for the Maldives, an endeavor into which I had to put more thought than you'd imagine. Because the plan was to do the Indian Ocean nation three ways: glammed out, under the sea and a cultural deep-dive. The refit W Retreat & Spa, the Anantara Kihavah oasis and the brand-new Loama Resort respectively specialize in each of these angles, though, as I would soon discover, there are few picture-perfect vacation postcards any of these hotels, spread, though they are, smack out in the cerulean sea, can't bring to life for you.
We landed at Malé in a mid-morning haze. Even an overcast sky couldn't conceal the pure beauty of the place. The seaplanes in every color in the gumball machine lined up along docks like so many Matchbox cars with wings. Click—mental postcard for Poa Poa. We were only in the airport, and I was already scrapbooking this country.
Seaplane views are the best.
A quick layover in the W lounge (a romper room festooned with oversized lollipops and Bliss bodycare products in the full bathroom) and then we were boarding our adorable airborne taxi. Flying over the Maldives is itself part of the pleasure of the visit. My mind reeled: How many shades of blue can there be? How is it possible that these farflung atolls, round specks topped with green and ringed with golden sands and ridges of reefs, could be in a single country? We were all first-timers to this unreal place, and just as we re-hinged our dropped jaws, we were landing at the W, the glass of champagne handed to me as I disembarked just the first of countless bubble bottles we happily popped on this trip.
That's how, four days after leaving Manhattan, I found myself on a different kind of island entirely. This one had a pumping club, but it was below sea level. It had Alex Monopoly-painted street art… on a speedboat. It had bright lights, if you reserved an over-water rotunda for a private dinner within a sexy ring of fire. It had diverse and raucous nightlife—best found on the plentiful house reef during an evening, UV-lamp-lit snorkel (though the two whale sharks we spotted snuggling into a crater turned in a bit early for my tastes). And for VIP sections? Charter a sail on the two-masted yacht Escape, or book out the private island and sleep under the open sky with only seabirds for neighbors.
Getting her paddle on at W, in swimsuit by Wear to Kill.
This is a place where you'd be tempted not to stray far from your daily cupcake- and fruit-infused-vodka-shot-replenished pool villa. But then you go to the spa, and off your sprawling treatment room is a deck big enough for a barbecue. You stand under its outdoor shower looking out over the Tiffany blue turn to turquoise turn to Iris before it melds with the powder-blue sky and you wonder why you ever thought this place wouldn't bring you the peace you so sorely required. On my first night there, a skyline of palm trees and stilted bungalows had replaced my bridge and tower views, and the only big apple in sight was the setting sun, leaving T+L art director, Nay, and me no choice but to dance on the wooden dock in its burnt-sienna wake.
Manta rays aren't exactly cute, but they are graceful, otherworldly and aware. They have the largest brain-to-body ratio of all rays and sharks, after all. My first encounter came while swimming out towards the trench in the protected marine park where they feed: looking straight ahead, I didn't notice the giant ray approaching from behind until its snowflake-speckled head was right under my chin. Reflexively, calculating it to be no more than a meter below me, I spread my limbs wide, kicked my feet as gently as possible and flapped my arms in mirror motion of its pterodactyl fins. I'd like to say we engaged in an underwater pas de deux, but really the ray loop-the-looped me, doing backflips and darting away and back, that tease, while I struggled to keep up, laughing through my snorkel. Laughing, that is, until it led me head-on into a pack of its compatriots, their disproportionately elongated mouths gaping open presumably to inhale as much plankton as possible but looking like I was supposed to swim in and dock like the alien spaceship à la Independence Day.
Swimming with manta rays, one of Kihavah's signature adventures.
And wouldn't that have been quite the aquatic adventure? Well, that was why we were here—life on the water. In addition to the seaplane transfer, I boarded four different boats at Anantara Kihavah: the one that chugged us out to meet the rays; the aptly named Freebird parasail party-boat that flung us 150 meters up in the sky; the luxe 25-meter Ocean Whisperer yacht that seems purpose-built for a seafaring sunset wedding (we skipped the vows and went straight to the champagne toasts); and the dinghy that picked us up from our morning dive along and into the creature-rich caves of the gorgeous house reef they call the Golden Wall. Super-smiley lifeguard-of-all-trades Coco, whom we dubbed our ocean concierge, was present on every vessel—including that dinghy, into which he had to physically haul me mock-kicking and screaming, so much did I want to stay 12 meters down on the reef.
But I shouldn't have been so upset, as we were heading right back to it, on the other side of the island, for lunch at Sea, a submerged aquarium in-the-round where it's unclear whether the fish swimming by are on display for you or the other way around. I'm told sea turtles come out at night, and that dolphins are frequently spotted. We saw neither but it hardly mattered. The place is magic, plus I made a friend: the orange-striped triggerfish playfully bumping his nose up against my window throughout the meal. The little, lippy, turquoise guy was as postcard-worthy as any five-meter manta, and it sounded like he was used to posing for Instagram, to boot. "He comes every day," our waiter Almas confided. "The fish have a schedule for work. 'I'm off, guys,' they say. 'Now, it's your turn.'"
Schools of lunch guests at Kihavah's Sea.
Not that you're ever hard-pressed to find photogenic fish at this place. The entire resort interacts impressively with its seaside setting. The mansions that pass for over-water "bungalows" (I'd say each pool villa could sleep 12, assuming some of your friends are happy to snooze in hammocks above the waves) are so well designed, airy and glass-bottomed that you feel like you're in and of the ocean. The bathtub is glass-bottomed. Sure, it's difficult to spot fish through a bubble bath, but it would've been rude not to try. My butler, Osama, had drawn it for me to show off his petal-scattering skills, which were impressive.
Of course they were. I'm pretty sure I've never encountered an entire hotel staff that seemed so enamored of their jobs as that at Anantara Kihavah. It was as though the chairman of the International Institute of Modern Butlers, Steven Ferry, had flown in to train not only the villa hosts like Osama but everyone from the housekeepers to the resident marine biologist, French dreamboat Joseph. These guys live in paradise, and they act like it, literally whistling while they work, remembering names and morning-coffee and Bloody Mary requests, and calling out, "Haalu kihineh?" (how are you?) to me as I rode around the resort on my bicycle, bottle of Moët in the wicker basket and white sundress fluttering behind me.
Kihavah for "commuting".
People who knock the Maldives point to a lack of cultural-experience options. Loama Resort, not far from Kihavah, nearly single-handedly shuts that grumble down. For starters, it's built on an island, Maamigili, that's a legit archaeological site, and from the moment you arrive you feel the sense of place. The welcome dock has an over-water gallery showcasing a rotating roster of contemporary Maldivian art, and the lobby doubles as a museum for the collection of primitive Maldivian tools, as well as old imports that point to the atoll's former role as trading way-station: a terra-cotta oil lamp likely from pre-11th century Sri Lanka or India, for example, and 500-year-old Chinese porcelain found fully preserved in urns unearthed on the island.
And then there's the triple-barreled pièce de résistance. A 125-year-old traditional wooden house complete with carved teak panels, recovered from Kan'dholhudhoo Island and lovingly reassembled here, is tucked in the woods near two symmetrical ancient bathing pools, known as vevu, whose excavation is being led by the hotel's heritage and culture manager Umair Badheeu and in which, when sun rays slice through the draping greenery, you can picture the pre-Islamic-era bathers performing their ablutions.
A sprawling king pavilion at Loama.
Inspired, I spent an unplanned big chunk of my time at Loama in the water. Dive master Rasheed is a careful but fun instructor, and like at the W and Kihavah, the house reef here is a stunner that this resort probably doesn't up-sell enough. An SSI scuba certification under my belt, the accompanying adrenaline had me bouncing. Good thing we had an afternoon journey ahead—a visit to nearby Maakurathu Island, where an old goat herder shimmied up a coconut tree to tap the trunk's nectar, which we then bought in old soda bottles from his wife. Young men with thick hair, oversized aviators and tight jeans played pool in covered halls, looking like a 1970s movie. A bunch of boisterous biddies in a kaleidoscope of hijabs gabbed in the laneway, clearly lorded over by one boss lady in red reclining in her chair, ribbing her pals and generally commanding the deference my grandmother always did from her friends and family.
We continued the cultural immersion by catching our own dinner, the old-fashioned way. A dozen of us guests tooled out to a tidal confluence, where the captain assured us of good fishing. Donning Mickey Mouse gloves to protect our skin, we let fly over the side of the boat baited and weighted hooks, carefully leading the simple lines through our hands until we sensed they hit the seabed. Then, we reeled our lines back in a bit, and waited for the tug of a hungry fish. It reminded me of how my grandmother had taken us crabbing when I was a kid—summer evenings after long days on the beach, tying chicken bones to lines and dropping them into the bay.
Picking the best spot to let out the lines, on a Loama fishing trip.
There was a whoop! as someone's line was jerked, and with the quickhands help of one of the congenial crew, a young Chinese honeymooner reeled in the first catch of the night, a humpback snapper she giddily posed for photos with. Soon, the boat was bursting with fish, people pulling them in on their own as we learned to gauge the pressure of a bite on the line. I'm proud to say I won the day with a six-fish haul: an emperor, a red snapper, a bluestriped snapper, two humpback snappers and, unexpectedly, a skinny, creepy barracuda.
Having set sail at sunset, we returned to Loama in deep night, the stars shining like bright bulbs 180-degrees in all directions with the Milky Way directly above blanketing me and Nay, lying on the boat's roof, with complete calm. This would seem like the likeliest point for me to commune with my grandmother. But we bonded not over nature, but food. So it was when we got back to the hotel that I really channeled her, ordering three of our massive fresh fish for dinner—one deep fried, one grilled and the last steamed, with ginger, garlic, scallions, soy and just a touch of hot oil, the way Poa Poa made it best. We took a ton of photos, less for postcards than posterity, and then dove in. "Hurry up," I could hear her saying. "It's getting cold."