Hong Kong’s Chris Dwyer embarks on a journey to the Maldives during the pandemic, and finds that could, actually, strangely, be the best time to go. Read on for his full report.
It started with an epic checklist but ended in a profound reminder why we travel in the first place.
This was no usual trip abroad, no direct hop for a week away. After extensive researching and checking government, tourism authority, news, airline and resort websites, we decided to take the plunge and proactively leave Hong Kong to travel.
As a travel writer, a first trip abroad in more than seven months was a godsend — and it wasn’t especially difficult to convince my wife when I said we would be going to The Maldives.
The preliminary checks
We took our Covid test privately at the Hong Kong Sanatorium & Hospital as every traveller arriving in The Maldives needs to show a negative result within the past 72 hours. It was painless and quick, though not a bargain at US$180 (approx. THB 5,475) at the time (Editor’s note: now priced approx. THB 4,156–4,744 at the HKSH), but the government has now also set up cheaper tests. It was a breeze getting through the painfully empty Hong Kong airport, where social distancing couldn’t have been easier given the lack of people.
We had to connect in Doha as there are no directs from Hong Kong to Male, after a totally uneventful pair of flights — masks on throughout, visors on during boarding and deplaning — we woke to a stunning new horizon of the most perfect blue, the Indian Ocean in all its glory.
Arriving in paradise
Once in Male, it was the classic Trans Maldivian Airways seaplane that would take us to our first property — they gave out individual sanitary kits with masks and everybody had to wear one, but otherwise it was just as normal. Only about seven out of 12 seats were filled on ours.
Soneva Fushi was our first stop, a destination which has redefined sustainable luxury for a quarter of a century and also proven a pioneer in welcoming travellers during COVID. That’s thanks to the brilliant and revolutionary move to purchase their own state-of-the-art equipment, to allow them to test all guests (and staff) on arrival at the property.
The test took all of 10 seconds — again completely painless — and allowed us and all other guests and staff to be entirely mask-free for the duration of our stay, a sense of freedom which was so welcome.
Our quarantine period, for all of 14 hours until we got the negative results back, was in arguably the best venue imaginable on the planet: a brand new two-bedroom overwater villa that they call a ‘Water Retreat’ (from US$5,232/night).
The main event
It’s impossible to relate the experience without a small dose of hyperbole, partly because they are the largest overwater villas in the world at an extraordinary 6,286 square feet. But more than that, they are utterly private, brilliantly and sustainably designed, beautiful — yet most of all, mind-bendingly fun.
Want to sleep under the stars? Just push a button at the side of your bed to make the retractable roof slide back above you. Fancy a dip? Will it be in your vast pool? Or would you prefer to walk up the beautiful wooden staircase (seemingly everything is wooden, with not even a metal screw in sight anywhere) that takes you to the second floor from where your 19-metre slide deposits you in the warm fish-filled ocean below?
Perhaps you’ll just chill on your deck, loll in the sunken seating areas with their uber-cool catamaran nets or ease into snorkelling from the special access area, handily located by your outside whirlpool.
Utterly delicious, healthful cuisine — and a bottle of bubbles, naturally — were served in the al fresco dining sala as we watched the sun slowly descend into the horizon, pinching ourselves with a sense of gratefulness, all under a galaxy of stars.
And for the first time after more than seven months with no travel at all, we raised a toast and realised that all the forms, the tests, the questions and the two-week quarantine on return — were indisputably worth it.
After a week at two Soneva properties — the other being Soneva Jani (one-bedroom overwater ‘Water Retreat’ from US$1,380/night) — we had swum with turtles, snorkelled in schools of tropical fish, watched dolphins frolicking during sunset cruises, eaten like kings and breathed a million extra gulps of the cleanest air imaginable.
Two more stellar properties awaited, both from the Four Seasons. The first, Four Seasons Kuda Huraa (one-bedroom overwater bungalow from US$1,950/night), picked us up from the Male seaplane terminal in a pristine white yacht for the 35-minute cruise to the property.
A more traditional resort in design than Soneva, the spacious property also exudes calm and tropical well-being, while its newly redesigned one-bedroom overwater villa was another beauty. Elegant, spacious and surrounded by fifty shades of blue — as is everything in The Maldives — it was a shame we didn’t spend more time there, but that was only due to the other distractions on site.
A morning snorkel on the house reef with the resident dive master blew us away. Why? Within five seconds, two black-tipped sharks curiously swum past just a few feet away. There were technicolour angel fish, countless unicorn fish, Hawksbill turtles and otherworldly schools of zebra fish floating by in a trippy haze.
Back on terra firma, a cooking class with chef Tamil at Indian restaurant Baraabaru was insanely fun as we crafted a biriyani and fabulous creamy lobster curry from scratch. Learning how to make naan bread reminded how good it is when hot and slathered in ghee — and why one day I need a tandoor oven in my life.
An Italian candlelit dinner at Reef Bar on the beach was the perfect way to finish our stay thanks to impeccably crafted dishes from Tuscan chef Daniele Milliani, while the transfer the next day to Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru (one-bedroom villa with pool from US$2,000/night) reminded how seamless and effortless travel can be. Checking out of one villa to checking in to another across two different resorts took less than an hour thanks to hopping aboard the Four Seasons’ own ‘flying triggerfish’ seaplane.
Landaa Giraavaru is a different proposition again, a reminder of the surprising diversity of resorts within The Maldives. The de rigueur pristine white sand beaches are joined by jungle walkways with huge fruit bats swooping by, making for a truly breath-taking island, fittingly part of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, Baa Atoll.
Again the ocean delivers to mind-blowing effect, here thanks to the world’s largest known population of manta rays which congregate, up to 200 at a time, in vast peaceful schools as they feed on plankton.
Guests have the option to be given a ‘manta phone’ to be called when they’re out and feeding, meaning you drop everything and race to catch one of the world’s most spectacular wildlife encounters. As you snorkel above them, the huge black and white beauties (which can grow almost 30 feet wide) fly beneath you in an underwater ballet that will stay with you forever.
Throw in treatments at the Spa & Ayurvedic Retreat — named “Most Meaningful Experience” in the Condé Nast Traveller Spa Awards 2020 — dining in treetops and beach lounges that would feel right at home in Ibiza or Mykonos, the trip reminded in glorious detail why we choose to travel in the first place: To dream, to discover — and to escape.
‘Split Stays,’ allowing visitors to stay in more than one resort, are allowed in the Maldives, but guests must apply for approval at the tourism ministry two days before the travelling date.
Connections to the Maldives are currently available from Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and across India through Emirates via Dubai or Qatar Airways via Doha. Check with your home authority, those at your destination and your airline regarding all the necessary precautions, visas, tests, quarantines, certificates and more.
This article first appeared on Lifestyle Asia Hong Kong.