Cocoa Island, The Maldives: A classic luxury hotel in paradise

There's nothing like waking up to a new destination after arriving in darkness the night before. I'd landed at Male airport just before midnight, stepped onto a waiting speedboat for the 45-minute trip south to Cocoa Island, then sleep-walked over gin-clear water to my over-water villa before succumbing to a lullaby of lapping waves under my bed.

The next morning, I have to pinch myself I'm not still dreaming. Lying in bed watching the shimmering sea, which really is that light turquoise colour synonymous with the Maldives, I decide to immerse myself in my new surroundings at once. 

From that moment, I have a new morning routine: slip out of bed, slip into a bikini and walk down a few steps into the sea. 

This is what I see as I swim that first day: a few islands, the resort's 33 over-water villas (most of them dhoni suites built to resemble Maldivian fishing boats and unique to Cocoa Island) and the distant edge of nature's infinity pool, where tropical sky meets Indian Ocean. 

Then I make a rookie mistake. Climbing the stairs back to my villa, I notice my towel isn't where I'd left it. Maybe housekeeping has dropped by while I've been swimming, I think. Look, they've brought a fruit platter and put it on the coffee table inside, how lovely. I drip across the deck, dry my feet on the towelling mat and am about to slide open the glass doors and go in when I realise: this is not my villa. 

Quickly, quietly, I follow my still-wet footprints back across the deck and down into the water where I breaststroke back to where my towel is exactly where I'd left it – on the deck of my villa, next door. (It's a good idea to leave something colourful as a beacon to guide you home while swimming; the villas look awfully identical from the water.) 

Thankfully no one has noticed my faux pas, which is a blessed relief at a resort that prides itself on privacy and seclusion.

Built 12 years ago, Cocoa Island is one of the grand dames of the Maldives, a true romantic with a simple, barefoot-chic character all her own. 

I fall a little bit more in love with my villa every time I return to it during my stay and notice, say, the sheer hand-embroidered curtains fluttering in the sea breeze, the twin rocking chairs on the timber deck, the earthy smell of tatami – my king bed is on a raised tatami platform, for a touch of Japanese serenity. 

I love the green beads of sea glass on my keyring, the jar of home-baked cookies, the white thongs that imprint "Cocoa" and "Island" on the sand as you walk and, on the rustic bedside table beside an analog clock, a pencil and notepad, a bookmark bearing this quote by Kahlil Gibran: "Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair." 

This being a COMO Shambhala property, there are health-and-wellbeing touches all over Cocoa Island: an outdoor waterfall shower and exclusive aromatherapy amenities in my bathroom; complimentary yoga, pranayama and meditation classes led by an Indian instructor; and healthy menu options such as cleansing juices and egg-white frittatas for breakfast – in addition to the superb buffet, including pastries so fresh you'd swear the Maldives had been a French colony. 

Then there's the spa, where therapists from all over the world (mine is Balinese) soothe body, mind and spirit in cabin-like treatment rooms facing the beach. There's also a hydrotherapy pool and steam room, a charming open-air waiting room with 19th-century furniture, a guest library and a gift shop that sells COMO Shambhala's signature essential oils and beauty products.

Beautiful as the resort is, it would be criminal to come all this way and not venture offshore, into the Indian Ocean. This island nation is, after all, 99 per cent water. 

There are more than 25 dive sites nearby (the visibility can be an astounding 50 metres) and all-day whale shark trips (May-November), but even wading in off the resort's dazzling white beach and snorkelling the "house reef" we see turtles, a colourful parade of tropical fish and an enormous purple jellyfish even Cocoa Island's resident marine biologist hasn't seen before.  

One afternoon, I join a sunset cruise to see spinner dolphins, the acrobats of the sea. One of the 21 species of marine mammal found in the Maldives, including orcas, they can get around in pods of up to 200 and sunset is the best time to see them, when they're heading to the open ocean to feed. Right on cue, as we reach the outer edge of the atoll, we see dozens of them corkscrewing through the air, landing with boisterous splashes and riding our bow wave just below our dangling feet.

Later, back at the island, a few of us get into our swimsuits again for a pre-dinner night snorkel. It's a revelation, not just for the nocturnal marine animals we see with our waterproof torches, including a needlefish that changes colour like a chameleon, but for the surreal sensation of being surrounded by blackness, above and below the surface, the only sound my own breathing.

Like most resorts in the Maldives, a country whose highest elevation is a mere 2.4 metres, Cocoa Island is acutely aware of the threat of climate change and is nature-friendly in various ways: from using organic and fair-trade produce in the restaurant and phasing out plastic (water is desalinated on the island and served in glass bottles) to its coral propagation project and allowing its timber walkways and villas to weather naturally. 

This sums up Cocoa Island, in a way: a romantic "grand dame" who accepts that she's bound by earthly rules while offering guests a sense of splendid isolation far from cares of all kinds – for a few precious days at least.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

visitmaldives.com/en

GETTING THERE

Singapore Airlines flies from Sydney to Male via Singapore with same-day connections daily; see singaporeair.com 

STAYING THERE

Dhoni suites start at $US900 a night, over-water villas start at $US1300 a night, including breakfast, WiFi and activities such as morning yoga and guided snorkelling. See comohotels.com/cocoaisland/

Louise Southerden travelled as a guest of Maldives Marketing & Public Relations Corporation, Singapore Airlines and Cocoa Island by COMO Maldives.

See also: Ten hotels in incredible locations
See also: The Maldives' forgotten paradise

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