Saturday, 20 September 2014

Welcome to paradise … it's called Moofushi

Americans of a certain age will acknowledge the formative influence of a show called Fantasy Island.  Every week, a sea plane dropped a new bunch of guests into a tropical paradise, where a benign, god-like host arranged scenarios to make the guests' deepest desires come true.

I hadn't thought of that show for years, but it was ... inevitably … repeating through my brain as our own sea plane touched down on the indigo waves and nudged the Constance Moofushi's floating dock.  Sure enough, a group of staff members waited to greet us by name, one person per couple, whisking us into their island paradise.  "No News, No Shoes beyond this point" read the entry sign; a fitting summary of the complete relaxation to come.

This luxury resort in the Maldives is, quite simply, the culmination of every dream of a beach holiday I've ever had.  White, sandy beaches.  Water at that perfect temperature: warm enough to stroll right in, cool enough to refresh in the heat of the day.  Reefs a short swim from shore busy with tropical fish.  Each room a luxuriously appointed thatched "hut".  Ours on stilts over the water.  Friendly, unobtrusive staff.  Tiki bar by the infinity pool with exotic cocktails.  Excellent food, fine wine list.

I banked cash for two years to get here, and it delivered on every expectation.  If I ever win the lottery, I'm coming here for at least a month each year.  The problem now is … how will any future beach holiday compare?

Browsing a brochure back in England a year ago, all of the resorts looked pretty much the same.  How to choose?  In true marketing boss fashion, I decided to go with brand loyalty.  We'd had a magnificent honeymoon at the Constance Prince Maurice on Mauritius.  Why not give the chain another try?  I was delighted to be proven right.

The mood here is different from its Mauritian sister, however.  That hotel had grand architecture and a sophisticated evening vibe.  Here, deep into the Indian Ocean close to the equator, they're going for luxury Robinson Crusoe.  The thatched hut look is repeated on all of the island's buildings, sand forms most floors and everyone, including the staff, is welcome to go barefoot at all times.  It took Crusoe a while to explore his island.  You could walk around this one in 30 extremely leisurely minutes.

Moofushi is really no more than a palm-crowded sand spit atop a coral reef.  At its heart there's a restaurant, sides open to the air with views over the lagoon where the resort's dhoni boats are moored.  Their colourful, curved prows whisper of exotic voyages.  The thatched bar next door features one of the few solid floors in the place, should you fancy a dance.  We were more inclined to settle into comfy armchairs to play backgammon; one of multiple board games available for guests.  Across from the bar, reception occupies another round, open-aired pavilion.  The sandy square between them is as close to a hotel lobby as you get, one side leading to the pier that welcomes boats and sea planes, the other fronting the dive shop and a small boutique.  (The latter is mostly filled with high-bling beach wear in very small sizes, one suspects targeted at the profusion of new brides from Russia and China.)

Heading away from the restaurant in the other direction, you find a library-cum-billards room before a path plunges into a thicket of tropical vegetation.  It's an illusion of density, however, as it's only 20 or 30 yards before you come to the spa on your left, its welcome pavilion forming a gate to a lagoon-topping pier off which individual treatment huts branch.  Tucked to one side on the beach is a yoga pavilion, positioned to catch the rising sun.  Not something we ever caught, as our slug-a-bed mornings meant we only made it to breakfast two days out of 10.  Beyond this is the second restaurant, really no more than a couple of tented decks and tables on the sand.

Across from the spa and restaurant is a small but fully kitted-out gym, which I did manage to get to on my first morning.  After that, I'd picked up my snorkel gear and thought: why exercise indoors when I can swim?    Behind this, cleverly camouflaged from the guests, the islands tiny "inland" houses the staff, the kitchens and the power and desalination plants that make life possible here.

Continue on 30 or 40 more steps and you've reached the Totem Bar.  It's decorated with those figures that look unspeakably tacky when moulded into plastic coconuts for Tiki Bar parties, but here somehow manage to look cool and elegant.  Outdoor sofas and thickly-padded armchairs are scattered in the sand beneath the palms.  Beside that, there's a crescent-shaped infinity pool, its tiles a deep charcoal so as not to compete with the shocking blues, whites and greens of the seascape beyond.  A few more steps, and you've reached the other end of the island, a beach to your right stretching backwards around that cleverly-hidden staff area, to meet back up with that reception hut that marks the other pole of your watery existence.

About 20 villas are nestled in greenery along that beach, so well camouflaged that you could easily walk by the area without realising there was accommodation there.  These are the least expensive options, and while I suppose it's better than not getting here at all, I don't see the point of coming this far unless you buy into what The Maldives is famous for: over-water villas.

The wooden piers extending from each side of Moofushi essentially triple the length of the island, and these are where you find most of the accommodation.  This being the big birthday trip, I splurged on a senior water villa.  These are strung along the tip of the Western pier, presumably for the finest views of the sunset.

I'm unsure that the upgrade was worth the money.  From what I saw the interiors were pretty much the
same.  Cathedral ceilings, pale wood, abstract decor in vaguely sea-creature forms, generous shower and dressing area, glass walls and sliding screens giving you the ability to close yourself off, or feel at sea.  Careful placement and bamboo partitions shielded you from your neighbours.  Beyond your sleeping area, sliding glass doors gave on to a deck with both chairs and loungers, with steps descending to the sea.  The senior water villa addition was a bit more square footage, and an outdoor shower and bath.

Now, I have to admit that I loved the bath.  I quickly developed a late afternoon routine.  Swing by the Totem, pick up a cocktail, bring it back to the room, run a bath and soak off the salt water while sipping away and reading my Kindle.  Though the bath is on the boardwalk side of the villa, it's enclosed by bamboo screening and on a plinth standing in the sea, so you look over the edge and you're peering into shallow water through which the occasional fish glides.  Peer over one shoulder, along the edge of the villa, and you could take in the whole seascape.  Magnificent.  But as the only differentiator, I could probably slide down to the regular water villa and save some cash.  Especially since we realised that it was the senior water villas, with extra room for extra beds, that were most likely to house that scourge of any elegant holiday:  children.  After careful consideration, we've staked out water villas 45 or 46 as our ideal for a return visit.

The Maldives has a "one island, one resort" policy, and each one is reached only by motorboat or sea plane.  (In Moofushi's case, it's a journey of about 45 minutes in the air.)  This means that once you've arrived, you're a captive audience.  Surprisingly, most of the resorts are not all inclusive.  Meaning you're stuck with whatever price their bars and restaurants charge for the duration of your stay.  Terrified by tales of £10 bottles of water and people tripling their total holiday cost with food and drink, we also chose Moofushi because it was one of just a few all inclusive resorts.  It worked out even better than I expected, as I'll relate in a future entry.

All the spectacular views and creature comforts are enhanced by a top-quality staff.  Again, there's a slight difference from the Prince Maurice.  There, it was all quiet and respectful; even though the staff-to-guest ratio was spectacular, the ethos was to make your life perfect and then disappear.  And it was always "Mrs. Bencard".  The formality fit the architecture.

At Moofushi there's a casual bonhomie that matches the barefoot chic.  Every staff member grins and gives you a merry greeting when you pass, and you're quickly on first-name basis with many.  Or is it just us who get to know the head chefs and the sommelier staff within 48 hours of arrival?  More of them to come, as well.

The Constance Moofushi has left me with a terrible problem.  In every aspect, it was so close to my idea of paradise, that I don't want to go anywhere else for a special occasion holiday for the rest of my life.  And yet … after superlative experiences at two of the Constance hotels, I'm dying to try some of the others.  If only that lottery win would come through.

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