This new, luxury resort in the Maldives delivers a world of pleasure, writes Belinda Jackson.
It took me three days to realise I'd lost my shoes. I'd kicked them off the day I hit the Maldives and never put them back on again until I crash-landed into the howling winds of a Melbourne winter, tragic in glittery, strappy sandals. I think the shoes are still on Maalifushi, a remote island resort in the south-west of the remote island nation.
Let me share some fashion advice about packing for the Maldives. The first point is: don't bother bringing heels. They get stuck in the sand, and every resort worth its sea salt has a sand floor restaurant, lobby or walkway. The second fashion tip is: unless you're going to sweat it out on a treadmill, leave your runners behind, too. Preferred sports on these balmy isles are barefoot - swimming, yoga and messing about in boats.
The new Maalifushi by COMO is the Singaporean hotel group's second Maldivian resort. The first, Cocoa Island by COMO, is 40 minutes by speedboat from Male airport, past a plethora of single-resort islands. In comparison, Maalifushi is the only hotel in the isolated Thaa Atoll, deep in the vast Indian Ocean.
Getting to Maalifushi is half the adventure. At Male airport, we learn that the closest airport, Thimarafushi, is closed because ocean swells have engulfed the runway. "It's a very, very low atoll," a local tells me. "Very good for surfing, very bad for flying."
Instead, we fly to tiny Kadhdhoo airport then board a very white, very luxurious pleasure cruiser. Flying fish skip alongside the boat, and the water changes abruptly from deep ocean blue to pinch-me-I'm-dreaming turquoise as, after two hours, we pull up at the island. It is a study in green coconut palms and raked yellow sand, tiny crabs scattering at our footfalls.
Maalifushi is tiny: even by Sydney standards, 800 by 200 metres ain't a lot of real estate. To compensate, the spa's eight treatment rooms, Japanese restaurant Tai and 33 suites and villas are off land and over water, connected by timber boardwalks. Absolute beachfront is claimed by 22 suites and the two-bedroom, 296-metre-square COMO residence, at almost $7000 a night in peak season.
My room is, quite simply, breathtaking. Forget shiny surfaces, this is a decorating exercise in island chic. White curtains billow from the four-poster bed, the high-pitched ceiling is thatched, the deep bath is unpolished marble, and the timber deck leads out to a thatched bale beside my plunge pool. There are indoor and outdoor rain showers, daybeds and sofas. In fact, there are so many places to sit, I don't know where to start. Ripping off clothes and leaping into the pool seems a good start. Shy? Think twice about skinny-dipping - the deck's not as private as you'd first think.
Banish any notion that all this gorgeousness is reserved only for lovestruck couples. The kids' club is a jaunty affair with swings and climbing apparatus, and there are six very private garden suites targeted at families who don't want to mix young children and plunge pools. The well-equipped dive centre has quality Japanese masks for all shapes and sizes, and the kitchen promises to cater for all tastes and dietary persuasions.
The COMO brand is all about luxury pampering: the signature scent is a cool blend of peppermint and eucalyptus best served on cold towels. The spa is a palatial affair and COMO's signature Shambala spa cuisine offers an array of organic deliciousness featuring seed breads, healthful juices and sublime local raw fish, which is unsurprising given the country's national fish is the yellowfin tuna, its national tree the coconut palm. The weekly seafood barbecue is an extravaganza of local lobster, a carpaccio of kingfish, trout and tuna, and sweet rock shrimp.
Unfortunately, I realise the food is actually too good, when breakfast comprises saffron-poached pears with papaya and lime, watermelon juice, eggwhite omelette, French toast with fresh mango and a lavish porridge made from crushed almonds. It's all healthy, I tell myself (OK, maybe not the French toast).
I try burning off the excess with a healing, Shambala signature massage and join marine biologist Francesco on a tiny speedboat to play with happy little spinner dolphins who gambol alongside us, occasionally thrusting into the air to spin once, twice, thrice, just for sheer joy. There's talk of year-round whale shark spotting.
One evening, three of us take a pre-dinner night snorkelling safari. It's a first for all of us, and we lower ourselves gingerly into the dark water. Call me unAustralian, but the marine life in the Maldives makes our reef look like a jaded nightclub at the end of the night, just a few old groupers hanging out, trying their tired old lines. A young green turtle glides beneath us, which I find slightly disconcerting but completely exhilarating. Nocturnal surgeonfish are everywhere and the most beautiful purple spotted starfish are surely the mirrorballs of the Maldivian seas.
Marine life aside, the big drawcard for Maalifushi is its surf breaks. The luxury surf safari group TropicSurf has a shack on the island and the staff are constantly discovering new reef breaks. Farms is the best-known, which TropicSurf calls "the perfect right-hander" in peak season, from April to October.
Back on my villa's deck, I discover a set of stairs that lead down into the island's lagoon. Moments later, I'm swimming with some rather nonchalant little black-and-white striped reef fish called Moorish idols. Professor Google tells me Africa's Moors considered them "bringers of happiness". The sky overhead is clear and blue, the water I'm swimming in is clear and blue. Their mission is accomplished.
The writer travelled as a guest of COMO Hotels.
There are no direct flights from Australia to the Maldives. Fly via Kuala Lumpur or Singapore with Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines or Virgin Australia. Australians are issued a free visa on their arrival in the Maldives. See malaysiaairlines.com, singaporeair.com, virginaustralia.com.
Maalifushi is a 50-minute flight from Male Airport to Thimarafushi, followed by a 25-minute boat ride. COMO Resorts plans to operate a seaplane between its two resorts.
Maalifushi's "soft-opening" special allows for low-season rates until December 26. Garden suites from $820 a night, water suites from $1400 a night. COMO Villas are open for bookings. See website (left).