NORTH MALEÈ ATOLL, REPUBLIC OF MALDIVES – It’s love at first sight for the honeymooners aboard the Trans Maldivian Airlines seaplane as they crane their necks to get a better look at beautiful KudaHuraa.
The coral island is home to one of two world famous Four Seasons Resorts located in this breathtakingly beautiful Indian Ocean nation, which has become a paradise retreat for newlyweds.
But even the middle-aged Australian passengers and their young children can’t take their eyes off this natural beauty as the plane banks and begins its approach.
The giggling honeymooners snap photographs of the treasured island and its beach halo moments before the plane dips its pontoons into the calm lagoon.
A small speed boat hurries to pick us up and soon we are being welcomed at the dock by an army of congenial resort staff.
Cold towels are passed out and a refreshing island drink infused with cinnamon and ginger is delivered.
Within minutes, golf carts arrive at the open-air lobby to transport the guests to one of the resort’s 96 plush beach or water bungalows. (The hotel staff later tells us Asian honeymooners like the stilted, over water bungalows; Europeans and North Americans prefer the beach villas and their close proximity to the ocean.)
It’s the last time we see most of the honeymooners.
Above: From the air, the love;y necklace of islands that form the Maldives is truly a spectacular site.
The Four Seasons Resort at KudaHuraa has been welcoming honeymooners since it opened in 1997 - the Canadian chain was one of the first luxury resort companies to discover the Maldives’ magic. In 2006, the Four Seasons opened its second Maldives property, the much larger LandaaGiraaveau, which lies 30 minutes north of KudaHuraa by seaplane.
Visiting both properties is all part of what’s known as “The Four Seasons Maldives Experience” - an experience of a lifetime, as we discovered.
Our bags unpacked, our bodies slathered with the appropriate amount of suntan lotion, and our arrival clothes discarded in a heap in favour of tank tops, sandals and bathing suits, we head off to explore KudaHuraa, the compact 12-acre private island Four Seasons has patterned after a traditional Maldivian village, complete with timber and thatch cottages. However, that’s where the “traditional” comparison ends - the bungalows and villas at both resorts are stuffed with every modern convenience known to travellers, including large-screen plasma TVs, MP3 cable connection and broadband Internet; bathrooms boast indoor and outdoor showers and a luxury line of grooming items; bedrooms feature Four Seasons beds - the chain’s mattresses are the best in the business - and all are bright and roomy. Beach villas also come with a plunge pool and outdoor living areas and some feature a day-bed loft where many guests elect to sleep on balmy nights.
Left: The Four Seasons have two resorts in the Maldives. Right: The chic ike to come here to relax and chill out.
Both beach and over the water accommodation come with stunning ocean vistas and romantic sunset or sunrise views - at no extra cost.
The grounds at KudaHuraa are a botanical delight - Bougainvilleas, Bird of Paradise and Frangipani all flourish here. LandaaGiraaveau’s landscape, on the other hand, is dominated by thick, lush tropical forest fauna. Both are stunningly beautiful.
We slip into KudaHuraa’s infinity pool, which drifts off into the surrounding turquoise ocean brilliance, and swim up to the pool bar to order the first of many tropical drinks.
The Aussie couple and their kids are frolicking in the massive pool while another family of four are getting ready to take their first scuba diving lesson. The water sports centres at both resorts offer a variety of activities and all non-motorized events, like kayaking, windsurfing, single sail and catamaran sailing, as well as snorkelling, are free.
We’re told by a bar attendant the Aussies spent their honeymoon here and have returned with their offspring to share the magic.
Both of Four Seasons Maldives’ properties love kids as much as they do honeymooners and have instituted a kids’ program, complete with clubhouse, where young guests - between 4 and 12 years of age - get to opportunity to learn about the Maldivian lifestyle through a range of indoor and outdoor activities. Youngsters are also encouraged to take part in yoga and cooking classes; learn how to make kites; and accompany the resorts’ marine biologists on snorkelling safaris where they learn about Maldives’ delicate eco system and its spectacular variety of sea life - manta rays, spinner dolphins and lemon sharks rule the waters here.
The resorts haven’t forgotten older kids - 13 to 18 – who can hang out at teen centres where long-lasting friendships are often struck up over video games and loud music.
All this swimming and sun-tanning has worked up our appetite, so we run through the many dining options offered at KudaHuraa - Café Huraa (international cuisine), Kandu Grill (light fare), Baraabaru restaurant (Indian food) and the Reef Club (classical Italian) - before deciding on the Reef Club because it offers the promise of a romantic sunset.
That’s where we meet Alastair McAlpine, the Belfast-born general manager of the KudaHuraa.
The congenial McAlpine, a 12-year veteran of the Four Seasons family, oversaw the reconstruction of KudaHuraa after it suffered extensive damage in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which left hundreds of thousands dead throughout southern Asia.
“Thankfully, no one was killed here,” says McAlpine, whose only bosses on the island are his lovely wife Mitsuko and their beautiful baby daughter Kei. “However, the events of 2004 did allow us to shut down the resort and make the necessary improvements to bring KudaHuraa up to today’s Four Seasons’ standards. Everyone worked very hard and you can see the results for yourself.”
What you see at KudaHuraa is near perfection.
The accommodation, dining and service here all exceed even Four Seasons’ tough industry-leading standards.
This is truly one of the most unique destinations in the world and Four Seasons makes a visit even more memorable by educating guests about the delicate eco-system one finds in this nation made up of 1,190 coral islands.
At both properties, the resorts’ marine biologists take guests on manta ray and spinner dolphin sightings and show us how they are helping repair the damage left behind by an El Nino (1997 to 1998) which resulted in a majority of the nation’s coral reefs being destroyed. Both resorts are also blessed with two of the world’s best spa facilities.
The Island Spa is KudaHurra’s monument to healthy living while the Spa and Ayurvedic Retreat, which specializes in ancient treatments that were first practiced in India 10,000 years ago, is LandaaGiraaveau’s sanctuary for the senses.
Both spas offer stilted lagoon massage rooms (the Ayurvedic treatments are conducted in lush open-air gardens) featuring glass floors so you can be entertained and awed by the surreal sea life found swimming around both resorts.
A few days after arriving at KudaHurra, it’s time to board the seaplane and head north to LandaaGiraaveau, the 44-acre island reserved for the Four Seasons resort and its guests.
Like KudaHurra, LandaaGiraaveau is fringed by a spectacular turquoise lagoon. Flying above the hundreds of islands one sees along the way from KudaHurra ranks among the most fascinating sights this seasoned traveller has ever witnessed.
LandaaGiraaveau is everything KudaHurra is, just bigger, offering 102 thatched beach and water bungalows and villas. Some of the stilted water villas also come with their own swimming pool.
Dining on LandaaGiraaveau is an adventure for the taste buds, with Blu and its Italian inspired menu topping our list of favourites. Al Barakat, named after noted North African scholar Abu Al Barakat Yusuf Al Barbari, who made the Baa Atoll his home, is an education in fine Arabian dining. The traditionally decorated restaurant, which sits on stilts off the main jetty, is authentic right down to the Shisha water pipes and the Labanese and Moroccan cuisine it serves. Cafe Landaa is where breakfast and dinner are served and both resorts offer in-villa dinning, perfect for honeymooners.
The dive and snorkelling activity off LandaaGiraaveau is especially breathtaking and watching florescent fish slip between breaks in the coral reef is something you’ll be telling your kids for years to come.
Long walks along sand spits that jut out into the Indian Ocean and swims in shallow lagoons that measure two kilometres, are all part of the memories one accumulates on a visit here.
Of the 1,190 islands that make up this unique nation, only 300 are inhabited, and of those, 100 are the exclusive domain of resorts.
McAlpine and Armando Kraenzlin, the regional vice-president and general manager at LandaaGiraaveau, are especially proud of the apprenticeship programs started at the resorts where young Maldavians are recruited and trained in the hotel industry.
For those not content to stay on land during their Maldives experience, Four Seasons makes it possible for you to shove out to sea aboard its luxurious yacht, the Explorer, which takes guests on three, four or seven night voyages around some of the more remote islands.
It’s all part of the Four Seasons Maldives Experience.