Escape to the Maldives
From dining in an undersea restaurant to swimming with whale sharks, Conrad Maldives Rangali Island is as close to a natural paradise as you’ll find anywhere
Marine life is so abundant at Conrad Maldives Rangali Island that it’s like entering an aquatic wonderland: exuberant manta rays do somersaults in the translucent turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean; blacktip reef sharks circle the acrylic dome of the resort’s undersea restaurant while you eat, and green turtles glide past as you snorkel in the coral reefs.
But there’s nothing like a close encounter with a whale shark to get the adrenalin really pumping. The experience is both exhilarating and other-worldly as I swim alongside a teenage male, close enough to be able to marvel at the detailed markings on his hulking frame. The luminous white dots that speckle his back represent the equivalent of finger prints, distinguishing him from his peers.
You can’t help but feel extremely privileged and humbled to witness this docile leviathan, the largest fish in the sea, in his natural habitat. The Maldives, which is having a travel moment, is among the best places in the world for swimming with whale sharks.
The activity is just one of many expert-led excursions on offer at Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, nestled in the South Ari Atoll, which prides itself on being at the forefront of eco-sustainability and conservation in this marine-protected area.
Jetting in by sea plane from the capital Mali, you step straight into paradise – or as close to it as is possible. Enveloped in the warm sea breeze, you can literally feel the tension drain from your body as you kick off your city shoes – it’s barefoot luxury all the way here - with a seamless transition to full holiday mode.
The Conrad hotel, the first internationally branded resort to open in this low-lying archipelagic country 25 years ago, maintains an air of unspoilt, natural charm, with an uncanny ability to absorb guests as soon as they arrive – it’s so cleverly designed, with jungle paths criss-crossing the two islands, that it feels like your own private haven.
The resort features a total of 151 deluxe villas, a mix of beach and overwater, each with their own pool and direct access to the sea, where you can swim in seclusion surrounded by exotic reef fish. Now, 50 of the picturesque water villas on tiny adult-only Rangali Island (connected to the main island by a 500m bridge) have been transformed following a multi-million-dollar refurbishment.
It’s no wonder some visitors – particularly honeymoon couples - choose not to venture far from their rooms: designed for indoor-outdoor living, the thatched-roof villas set on stilts feature a spacious lounge area, sun deck and bathroom with a strategically positioned tub, from which to enjoy the famous blood-red Maldivian sunsets.
The beach villas are located on either side of the larger, livelier Rangali-Finolhu Island – for soaking up either the sunrise or sunset - and offer direct access to the powder soft white-sand beaches. You’ll enjoy your own slice of tropical paradise complete with swaying palm trees and rain showers.
One of the accommodation gems is the spectacular split-level The Muraka, described as the world’s first undersea residence (did we mention it’s a hotel of ‘firsts’?) and all yours from $9000 per night, complete with 24-hour butler. It’s where Paris Hilton honeymooned and where guests can sleep five metres below sea level in the master bedroom or, if they don’t fancy waking up to reef sharks cruising past, in one of two large bedrooms above.
The signature villa also features an infinity pool, yoga deck and kitchen for private dinner parties.
The resort is home to two award-winning spas. Rangali Island’s newly renovated Over Water Spa comprises four thatched-roof treatment rooms set on stilts, of which three feature glass floors – it’s a unique experience getting a back massage while being entertained by a marine life ‘floor show’ below!
Off the tip of the main island is the vast Spa Retreat, which includes no fewer than nine couple’s treatment rooms – opt for the signature Maldivian Indigenous treatment, consisting of invigorating coconut scrub, Indian-inspired head massage and full body massage using heated coconut sticks.
Where to start when there are 12 world-class restaurants and bars at your disposal? Highlights include the surreal Ithaa Undersea restaurant, five metres below the surface of the ocean (another first!) and offering panoramic coral garden views as you dine fusion-style; Japanese restaurant Koko Grill, romantically situated on the beach with Wagyu beef and local lobster prepared à table; Mandhoo spa restaurant with an organic menu designed to “energise, nourish, detoxify and fortify the body”, and Ufaa by Jereme Leung, famed for its handmade noodles, dim sum and chef Leung’s signature hot pots.
For more casual dining, enjoy a buffet breakfast or dinner among the scented frangipani trees at Atoll Market, featuring Indian, Asian and European cuisine, or sip cocktails poolside at Rangali Bar.
There is a host of recreational activities too - from catamaran sailing and dolphin-cruising to windsurfing and diving. You can also explore the house reef with the resident Ocean Group marine biologist and take part in a coral regeneration programme by planting homes for new polyps. Other sustainable initiatives include community outreach projects within the local Maldivian community; a programme to eliminate all single-use plastic, and an ongoing collaboration with environmental organisation, Parley for The Oceans.
For exercise bunnies, there’s a fully equipped new gym, plus tennis courts and daily fitness and wellness classes, including boot camp and yoga. Those who just want to flop with a good book can set up camp at one of two infinity pools or find the perfect beach spot – and relax!