Backpacking in thongs with a beer in one hand and surfboard in the other may have been a fine way to travel in my days as a university student, but my belated honeymoon, albeit five years after hubby and I exhanged vows, called for Business Class travel and a five-star resort; a place where wooden bungalows stood over Mayan blue water and a personal butler would be at our beck and call.
We were seeking our very own Shangri-La.
After a few months of organizing babysitters (nana and poppa), aligning schedules and researching some amazing islands in the Maldives, Kuni and I were gawking out the window at the string of dazzling island gems below us as our noisy Maldivian Airlines' Dash 8 – 300 descended into Gan Airport on Addu Atoll.
The last pendant on the jeweled necklace that is the Maldives, heart-shaped Addu Atoll is home to 23 islands and one of the most extensive coral reefs in the Maldives. According to Lonely Planet, it is the only place that rivals Male – the Maldivian capital – in size and importance, with 28,000 people scattered over 7 inhabited islands.
We were bound for Villingili, an uninhabited island about five minutes by speedboat from Gan Airport, where the Shangri-La Villingili Resort and Spa awaited us for five days of belated honeymoon bliss.
The epitome of perfection, Shangri-La Villingilli’s substantial Water Villas - dreamy over-water bungalows - jutted out from the white sandy shore fringed by tropical greenery as the boat chugged closer to the reception dock.
The staff, dressed in crisp white shirts and beige slacks, were impeccable with their service, greeting us with refreshing Morroccan mint and clove tea before porting us to our new home above the sea. I had to hang on tight to the sides of the white golf buggy as the driver maneuvered it over the narrow wooden piers that act as roads to each villa. Turns out my nerves were met with good reason, as a buggy did once tip over the edge of the pier, with resort guests and their luggage toppling into the water – luckily at high tide!
No amount of online image searching can compare to the ‘wow’ factor that hits the moment you walk into these massive wooden and thatch villas– you really need to experience them in person, and even then you’ll still be pinching yourself as you live out the fairytale. Perched three metres above the tranquil lagoon dotted with thick sea grass, our villa was airy and infused with natural light while adorned in fine luxuries.
I was itching to explore the outside deck but our personal villa host – aka private butler – toured us through the villa starting with the grand bathroom, a small palace with his and her vanity counters placed at opposite sides of the decadent room centered with an exquisite oval stone bathtub the size of a small ship.
Elegant wood-framed sliding glass doors opened to reveal an open-air, secluded outdoor shower deck, which I chose over the understated yet vast indoor shower room, each evening rinsing while watching fish dart this way and that through the cutouts in the deck below.
Our host continued with the tour, then quickly listed off everything we might need to know about the resort: we could move around on foot, buggy or the white bicycles provided for each guest; there were three dining outlets scattered over the three kilometer-long island; in-villa dining was available 24-hours; clean drinking water was provided in reusable glass bottles in-line with the resort’s environmental ethics; and that there were a plethora of land and water activities on offer, from lazing around the central infinity pool and bar, to snorkelling and dolphin watching boat tours, wind surfing, surfing, tennis, scuba diving, and of course relaxing at the famous Chi, The Spa.
Left to explore the rest of our villa alone, I was dazzled by the elegant yet simplistic styling of the main bedroom, with its high thatched roof, king bed dressed in cream linens with a strip of oceanic blue along the end of the bed, woven rug, and a day-bed running the full length of the room’s windowed-wall. The view from the bed was just as I had dreamed, looking out beyond the sliding glass doors to the lagoon.
The villa’s pearl, however, was the two-tiered private deck complete with oversized day bed, wooden table and chairs, cushioned sun beds and a netted, over-water hammock. Stairs lead straight into the tepid waters, which are filled with sea turtles visible from the deck especially in the late afternoon.
What to do
While most guests revel in relaxing in their villas or snorkelling in the surrounding lagoon and bordering coral reef - which luckily has avoided the ongoing coral bleaching catastrophe suffered by much of the Maldives’ corals - our adventurous nature had me signing us up for a number of activities.
Guided Snorkel Exploration
Departing daily at 10am, this 2-hour snorkel tour takes guests out to either of 2 of the best snorkelling sites in Addu Atoll. Australians who have explored the Great Barrier Reef can rest assure that you’ll be just as blown away by the corals, variety of marine life and clarity of the warm water – the snorkel tour was without a doubt the highlight of our stay among the daily activities.
The resort provides all equipment, but I recommend investing in a decent mask, snorkel and fins if you enjoy snorkelling as the hot sun and pristine water will no doubt have you spending a lot of your time under the sea.
Only a surfer knows the feeling, so the saying goes. And yes, Maldives is famed for its mellow, un-crowded surf breaks. So true to form, Kuni and I found it hard to leave our surfboards at home and indeed snuck a couple of boards into our luggage allowance. While Shangri-La Villingili is home to one of the best left-hand surf breaks in the Maldives, unfortunately the resort does not heavily promote this fact and only allows surfing as a guided, boat-tour activity booked by the hour at a hefty fee (and only during the hours of 8am and 4pm when the water sports centre is in operation). Unfortunately the surf peaked the day before our arrival, so our two-hour venture out to the break was spent mostly admiring the colourful, shallow coral reef below.
Each evening the two-hour sunset Dolphin Cruise sets out in search of the many spinner dolphins that inhabit the region and is a truly amazing experience. Your eyes might start to play tricks on your as you constantly scour the horizon for any glimpse of these beautiful creatures, but when they finally decide to come say hello they come in pods and put on a fantastic display as they play in and around the boat’s wake.
The resort prides itself on owning the country’s only golf resort, a verdant expanse nestled on seven and a half acres at the southern end of the island boasting some of the best views of the lagoon to the west and the open ocean to the east.
Having never played a full round of golf in my life, I was hesitant to try my hand but hey, when in Rome…By the third hole Kuni and I were drenched in sweat – if you plan a round get there well before the sun starts to stand tall for the day (pre-dawn perhaps?) – and we giggled like school kids as we skipped half the course, more interested in taking photographs of the stunning ocean views.
If golf is your thing, you will truly revel in the course’s varied complexity and youthfulness, but above all it’s all about the location.
The resort’s central restaurant offering all-day-dining, Javvu is split between a large, indoor dining area with floor to ceiling windows, extravagant light decorations (true to the Shangri-La brand) hanging from the authentic thatch roof, and casual the choice of outdoor table settings perched above either a covered wood deck or the smooth white sandy beach among the coconut trees.
We opted for breakfast on the beach each morning, with the expansive buffet area tucked away adjacent to the main restaurant. You could spend hours nibbling through the international buffet - we particularly fell in love with the Chinese noodle chef who, each morning, remarkably strung together hand-made noodles to compliment the oriental soup.
The lunch menu was very casual, with highlights being the crispy calamari salad locally caught tiger prawns topped with a hommus salad, while the evening menu featured prime steaks and freshly caught seafood all with a Mediterranean twist.
Travellers from all over the world once came to visit Dr. Ali, a nature-loving doctor on Villingili adored by everyone graced by his presence. The visiting travellers brought him exotic ingredients from their homes, and these herbs and spices were then fused to created his fragrant recipes.
His proud legacy, Dr. Ali’s is a unique dining experience, with three distinctive dining rooms themed to represent different cultures and cuisines of the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea and the Arabian Gulf, giving you variety under one roof with the option to also dine in the outdoor sand garden facing the east coast of the resort.
Each dining room was decorated with beautiful artwork and artifacts that tell historical anecdotes from the Maldives. Majority of the dishes are treated with spice infusions, and remnants of the spice trade era told a cultural story in the main hallway.
The Arabian Gulf Room’s menu ticked all the boxes for me, favourite dishes being the labneh (drained yoghurt, garlic, mint and lemon juice), al raheb (eggplant with vegetables tossed with pomegranate syrup), shorbet ads (red lentil soup with vegetable crispy bread), sheesh kebab (lamb leg marinated with seven spices) and the couscous royal (steamed semolina with lamb).
For a special dining experience, you can’t go past Fashala, aptly named after the local Dhivehi word for ‘the edge’, because this fine dining restaurant literally sits on the ocean’s shores at the northern peak of the island.
The wine menu is as exquisite as the seafood-inspired dishes served up in this open, lounge-style space boasting contemporary, understated décor of whitewashed and sun-bleached wood. Dimly lit, Fashala’s romantic atmosphere is complemented by the ocean breeze that filters through from the sea and made for a fantastic final night of wining and dining on the island.
Chef Brian and his team source fresh ingredients from neighbouring farmers on Meedhoo island and local fishermen who source only the best seafood, plucked straight out of the atoll’s crystal clear waters.
The extravagant menu saw us go through numerous glasses of sparkling wine before we could decide what to order. I could not get past the seafood options, devouring the pan seared sea scallop for entrée, the butter poached Maldivian rock lobster for main followed by sable Breton for dessert – maple caramel coated with dark chocolate and paired with caramel-honeycomb ice-cream.
Chi, the Spa
Tucked among banyan and coconut trees and spread over 16,700 square metres, Chi, the Spa at Shangri-La Villingili is a secluded sanctuary you will regret not visiting during your stay.
During the spice trade era the Maldivian people relied on cowrie shells as their form of currency, and drawing inspiration from these natural treasures our therapists performed the Kandui Boli Ritual in the privacy of our couples’ spa villa, a body and face massage where large tiger cowrie shells are covered in oils and used to apply pressure during the massage. While it is tempting to opt for massage treatments you've had before, the Kandui Boli Ritual will send you off to another realm of deep relaxation. I loved the scalp massage at the end, however Kuni would've preferred not to have his deep sleep interrupted with the sudden dripping of hot oil onto his forehead.
If you go
Whether you're planning a honeymoon, a trip to rekindle the romance with your loved one, or just get off the grid with your best friend, Shangri-La's Villingili Resort and Spa in the Maldives is a slither of paradise you will cherish forever.
For full accommodation details, activity schedules, dining and resort information, visit the official resort website: http://www.shangri-la.com/male/villingiliresort/
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- The writer and photographer stayed as guests of Shangri-La Villingili Resort and Spa Maldives.