The Maldives measure up for relaxation
We find the Indian Ocean islands live up to the holiday-brochure expectations
Uninterrupted views: the beach and infinity pool at the Maldives resort of Coco Palm
Looking out from the privacy of our villa terrace at Coco Palm Bodu Hithi, the view is almost exclusively sun, near cloudless sky and sea, punctuated on rare occasion by a fellow guest snorkelling in the lagoon. Other than the waves of the Indian Ocean lapping against the stilts on which our secluded villa stands, barely a sound intrudes.
Admittedly, things had not been as quiet on arrival, following a 10-hour direct flight from London to the Maldivian capital of Malé. High winds made the 40-minute speedboat transfer a challenging experience; too challenging for my other half, leaving her in no condition to take advantage of the proferred glass of champagne and foot massage. However, spirits lifted immediately on being shown inside our Escape Water Residence, the highest of four grades of accommodation among the 100 villas.
Coco Palm's longer established sister resort on the islands is described as a "no shoes, no news" retreat, with no TVs in guest rooms. At Bodu Hithi, you can get away from it all yet still enjoy the entertainment technology you would expect from a five-star operation.
Coco Palm is Maldivian owned and the thatched roofed villas blend local concept with worldly luxury, the latter particularly true of a bathroom - complete with cavernous tub - seemingly transplanted from an Italian design showroom. Our spacious villa (184 square metres) also featured a generous lounge area, bedroom with four-poster and sufficient wardrobe and cupboard space for a month's worth of luggage. Partition doors enable a guest to sleep, blissfully unaware that their partner is chilling out with some late night TV. And when you wake, there is no need to leave your bed to resume your uninterrupted sea view as a remote control operates the curtains.
British Airways Holidays (0844 493 0758) offers seven nights in an Escape Water Residence at the Coco Palm Bodu Hithi with direct flights from Gatwick. Prices for departures in January and February from £3,389 per person, based on two sharing, including boat transfers and breakfast. Seven nights in an Island Villa from £2,519 per person
Home comforts also include speciality teas and a Nespresso machine. With the Maldives on UK voltage, I could plug in my iPod charger, although the villa had its own, fielding a suitably chilled out selection of CDs from the likes of Coldplay, Sinatra, Sting and the Beach Boys, as well as a frightening amount of Michael Bublé.
The iPod is one of many benefits for those staying in one of the 24 Escape Water Residences at the far end of the property, from preferential dining options through Club Coco Palm and butler service. Our man, Asim, patiently explained the various benefits when we checked in, leaving his card (yes, they have business cards) by the phone and stressing his availability 24/7. During our week at Bodu Hithi, we had no reason to put this to the test - as is the case, Asim says, with 80 per cent of guests, who adjust quickly to the laid-back ambience.
But he does unfailingly seek us out after breakfast every morning to check all is well and to ask about evening dining choices and other requirements. He also delivered afternoon tea and early evening cocktails to our villa (another Club Coco Palm privilege), as well as a daily fruit selection. I became partial to the bell-shaped water apples, which pretty much taste as they sound.
Staying Club class, we initially opted for the exclusive breakfast with waiter service at the Stars restaurant, close to our villa. Yet we came to appreciate - as will anyone who wants to stick to vegetarian and "acceptable fish" - the benefits of the buffet at Air, on the beach side of the island. A leisurely stroll from the Club area, or a buggy ride along the twisting walkway for the terminally lazy, Air serves up a mouth-watering array of both familiar and exotic goodies for indoor or ocean-side dining. And staff mix a mean fruit juice.
Given the exhaustive selection, it is hard to imagine tastebuds becoming sated. Though just to be on the safe side, daily differences are evident. Where one day we find scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, the next it was poached eggs with pesto, or pancakes replacing waffles. And you will never go short of tuna: along with tourism, fishing is the Maldives' main source of income and tuna is a staple. Bodu Hithi uses a ton of it each week.
Air also offers an evening buffet, with á la carte dining at Stars and at Japanese restaurant, Tsuki, where we salivate over exemplary sashimi. There's also Aqua, specialising in seafood; a French restaurant is a forthcoming attraction. Wine and spirit prices are on the steep side, reflecting the cost of bringing alcohol into hotels in a Muslim country where it is otherwise prohibited.
With a stint at London's Park Lane Hotel on his CV, general manager Mario Stanic appreciates the culinary demands of a Jewish clientele.
"If there are particular requests, the chef will try to help," he tells us.
Centrally located in the property is the Coco Spa where, in keeping with the mood of the holiday, we took an outdoor yoga session. I found myself unable to hold the tree position, not least because of the distraction of the scenery. I also tried the gym and found that pounding the treadmill is infinitely more enjoyable with such a spectacular vista to contemplate. Foliage is largely as nature intended, unless it blocks walkways. The one artificial addition are the plaques left by guests celebrating honeymoons or other special occasions, a key element of the Coco Palm market. The UK accounts for a fifth of guests, with most of the remainder from France, Germany and Italy.
The soft white beaches are often almost deserted as guests opt to sunbathe in their private villa area, all with plunge pool and affording shade from temperatures in the mid-80s. For those not liking it too hot, avoid March, when temperatures can climb to around 100 degrees. In a helpful conceit, Bodu Hithi is an hour ahead of Malé time in order to maximise the sunlight hours.
Taking up the offer to view the other distinctive accommodation, we appreciated why a British couple who have stayed 10 times have declined the offer of a free upgrade from their Island Villa. The least expensive room category, it boasts a circular bathtub as the eye-catching centrepiece.
A romantic destination is not really ideal for children and a three-person limit applies to each residence. But the few kids we saw were having a good time, taking full advantage of all the water sports as well as the volleyball and tennis courts. And if short of a tennis partner or volleyball opponents, Bodu Hithi staff members will step up.
The resort also offers "extras", like a fishing expedition, a beach barbecue, a sunset cruise or a private screening.
There is also a weekly excursion to Malé, which is hardly a teeming metropolis, but Manhattan in rush hour compared to the resort. Sights include an historic mosque built from white coral, the rulers' residences and a collection of cannon recalling the days of a British military presence. The liveliest spots are the bustling fruit and fish markets, although it is disconcerting to see the freshest catch still squirming.
But the incentive to venture beyond the resort is minimal. The raison d'etre for the Maldives is, after all unwinding amid the most idyllic scenery and in the most luxurious accommodation. With both on tap at Coco Palm, why would you want to go anywhere else.