A One&Only resort in the dreamy Maldives sets new standards in design, service, and spa
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Rah, Rah, ReethiRah
By Gary Walther
Photography by Shannon Greer
March / April 2006
Right now, this remote Indian Ocean archipelago, 265 miles southwest of India, is where the game of spa resort one-upmanship is being played in extreme form. In the Maldives, vast amounts of money and imagination are being spent, and in the process, the bar of high-end luxury is being nudged--in some cases, bench-pressed--higher. All the important contemporary resort lifestyle trends--the passion for privacy, including having a spa in your room; the thirst for customization; and the lust for living space--are being supersized here.
Moreover, the game is being played in double time. Six Senses Resorts set a new standard at Soneva Gili when it offered guests 2,260- and 2,690-square-foot over-water suites in a style best described as Crusoe chic. That was in 2002. In September 2005 it surpassed itself by unveiling the Private Reserve (see page 98), a 15,000-square-foot four-bedroom villa with its own spa suite. At the 102-room Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru, which opens in a few months, the two Land & Sea Suites (each 4,306 square feet) will "present a Maldivian first," according to the resort: living area on land, sleeping area over water, with a 388-square-foot pool in between. Smaller resorts, like Huvafen Fushi (see page 98), compete with bold strokes rather than big ones: swimming pools in the living rooms of the top over-water villas and the world's first (and so far only) underwater spa treatment rooms, both of which have enormous picture windows.
But when the One&Only Maldives at Reethi Rah muscled itself onto the scene in May 2005, it tried not only to see-and-raise but to change the terms of the game. The resorts I mentioned above traffic in barefoot luxury--indeed, Soneva Gili's motto is "No news, no shoes." At Reethi Rah, luxury wears a silk slipper (and even an ascot wouldn't be out of place). At the other properties, the idea is to cut the electronic umbilical cord; here, the tycoon-at-play has a dashboard's worth of communication and entertainment options at his fingertips. One jet-lagged afternoon I'm amazed to find myself watching the original movie version of Pride and Prejudice (1940), with Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennett and Laurence Olivier as Mr. Darcy, on the (of course) flat-panel 30-inch TV. There, you're supposed to luxuriate in the pared down; here, revel in the souped up: 12 still and sparkling mineral waters (hmm, Ioli or Hildon, Royal Deeside or Vittel?) and 20 sparkling wines and Champagnes, including one from India and 1996 Dom Perignon by the glass and Krug by the magnum. There, connoisseurship is come-as-you-are; Reethi Rah, it seems, would like the guest to bring a James Bond sort of micro-appreciation to the table, but it also stands ready to help him acquire it. Castarède, the drinks menu informs, is the oldest of the Armagnac trading houses (1944, '53, and '65 vintages on offer), and the 1929 Bally Martinique rum is a collector's item--fewer than 200 bottles left in the world, one of which now resides here. "Oh, and I see you have the Trinidad Fundadores. Is it the 38 ring gauge, the cigar the Cuban government used for diplomatic presents? No? Pity, but I'll have one anyway."
In short, Reethi Rah does not, like the Maldives' other resorts, try to make you feel like a castaway with room service. It's all about a Hotel du Cap Continental worldliness transplanted to a place that up until now has been treasured by those in the know for its out-of-this-worldliness. Laud or lament as you will (different strokes, I say); what's amazing is that One&Only could try something so ambitious so far away and pull it off with so much aplomb. And spend so much money without allowing even a dash of flash to creep in. One&Only will say only that no expense was spared. However, on its website, the law firm of Shah, Hussain & Co. touts its activity on behalf of Kerzner International, One&Only's parent company, in connection with a $169 million loan for the redevelopment of Reethi Rah Resort.
Primacy of Privacy
Bicycling across the island one afternoon, I'm struck by this: There's no one on the beaches, no one in the water, and almost no one at the pools (lap and free-form). And the resort, I've been told, is 90 percent full.
The reason is Jean Michel Gathy, principal of Denniston International Architects and Planners, based in Malaysia, who led the architecture-and-interior-design team. "I wanted to keep the rooms simple--the shape of a simple rectangle, with an extravagant, almost flamboyant feeling of space, height, and luxury," he says. It's a tribute to his talent that he can keep guests in when the out is so alluring. But that's because the 54 Beach Villas (66 feet apart) and 30 Water Villas (arranged in clusters of four but still not close together) are so spacious: The smallest is 807 square feet inside--double that if you count the decking and veranda. And so private.
I've been to only three other Asian resorts--Begawan Giri (now COMO Shambhala Estate), Amandari, and the Four Seasons Langkawi--in which entering my room was a case of love at first sight. At Reethi Rah, both the Beach and the Water Villas are long double-height rectangles, with semi-partitions and sliding doors that shape rather than segment the space between the sleeping and bathing areas. The latter takes up almost half the room--bathrooms on steroids are another luxury resort trend--and each terrazzo tub took seven days to form and polish.
The woods--teak, mahogany, and kapur--are hard and tropical classics, and the color palette is soft and calming: browns, cocoas, and creams, with a watermelon red deployed sparingly (on chair cushions and bed pillows) as an accent. Bamboo stalks run from the base of the roof to the opposite eave, like swords crossed in the air for the bride and groom at a military wedding. They give the room the feel of a nave. At each end, floor-to-ceiling strip windows covered with slat blinds add a vertical counterpoint, and a double-height mirror at the far end reflects the space back, making it appear larger. The room becomes more private as you go back. There are the mandatory sliding glass walls in the living/sleeping area, a picture window above the bath, but no fenestration at the far end, where there's a shower, toilet, and makeup table. It's at once elegant and logical.
So, too, are the resort's public spaces. In fact, there's an almost exhausting concentration of design in the public areas, as though the resort motto were "No space, however functional or pass-through, left behind." Case in point: the 72-foot-long corridor from the buggy-parking area to the Reethi Restaurant. The sides are slatted with Malaysian kapur wood, and the walkway is made of rectangles of Flamed Finish black granite from Zimbabwe.
The same obsession with fine finishes lies behind the resort's bolder architectural statements. The ornamental pool near the Rah Bar, decorated with frangipani trees on stone plinths, is as long as some resorts' lap pools. The lap pool is an aircraft carrier deck of batu chandi, a black stone from Bali. The ornamental landscaping at the spa, a terraced lawn ringing a man-made pond, probably takes up more space than the reception, changing, and treatment areas--and they're not small. But it's those slender slats in the restaurant corridor that stay in my mind as emblematic: effort expended beautifying something that most guests will hardly note.
The Dredge Report
In all the press materials I receive and in all the interviews I have while on Reethi Rah, one subject never comes up: environmental stewardship. That's odd because most resorts in the Maldives take pains to detail the lengths to which they go to protect the archipelago's extraordinary and fragile ecosystem.
The Maldives consist of 26 atolls that are home to some of the world's greatest populations of coral and fish, not to mention water that is intoxicatingly clear, sometimes to a depth of 30 feet or more. The islands are so remote that any environmental degradation, such as the 1998 coral-reef bleaching associated with a worldwide rise in tropical ocean temperature, is considered a red flag for the rest of us. It's the desire to experience a near pristine place--an Eden fantasy--that is at the heart of the Maldives' allure.
So it comes as a shock to find out that Reethi Rah is man-made, the product of a vast dredging and filling project that turned a nine-acre sandbank with a small resort into a 109-acre behemoth, now the largest resort island in the Maldives. (The size, I'm told by then resort manager Sjefke Jansen, resulted from a simple formula: number of villas times moat-of-privacy desired for each.) Creating Reethi required 176,580,000 cubic feet (1.5 million tons) of sand, dredged from the adjoining lagoon; scores of tons (there are no precise figures, according to the resort) of rock, barged over from India and used to create a four-foot-high rampart against erosion; and 15,000 coconut palms, "sourced from other islands," according to the resort, which also asserted that the trees had been "designated by the Maldivian government to be cleared for agriculture or other infrastructure development." (Two sources in the Maldives, who asked not to be named, said this is a fig leaf to cover what was a very destructive operation.) Just building the island took one year.
This explains why every beach on Reethi is so smoothly scalloped and as precisely banked as an indoor bicycle track. It may also explain the silence.
Take the island's baroque shape, for instance, a coastline of curves and cusps (above). It's a case of One&Only over nature. "We wanted a shape no one else has," said Jansen. Most Maldivian islands, however, are elongate ovals with smooth rather than scalloped shorelines. According to experts I consulted, it's the most durable shape given the waves and strong currents that run through the Maldivian lagoons. The longer the island, the more it pushes water flow to the ends, whereas the more convoluted the shoreline, the more opportunities there are for embayments (semi-enclosed areas of water) with poor circulation. That's exactly what seems to have happened with Reethi Rah's liposuctioned crescent bays. Asked why a narrow channel was cut through the middle of the island, the resort said, "to allow for better circulation of the crescent-shaped bays to improve water quality." One expert said Reethi's shape was "in effect sticking out your chin and saying to the ocean, 'hit me.'"
I asked William Allison, a biologist who has worked in the Maldives for many years, about the typical effects of dredging and filling, without referring specifically to Reethi Rah. He knew of no in-depth studies on the topic from the Maldives but reeled off a long list of studies done in other locations. These studies show that dredging results in the total physical and biological destruction of the source and fill areas, as well as follow-on damage largely caused by waterborne sediment from those sites. Sediment may damage organisms such as coral by reducing the light they receive for photosynthesis and, more directly, by smothering them. The degree of damage depends in part upon the scale of the project and the vigor of the water circulation, and I was told that the currents around Reethi are vigorous. There are many other adverse consequences too complicated to explain here.
That's not to say One&Only did anything illegal. The Maldives' basic environmental law, the "Environmental Protection and Preservation Act of Maldives," does not mention dredging and landfill. And as per One&Only development policy, the company did an environmental impact statement and received the government's blessing for the project. But among hoteliers in the Maldives there's a persistent undertow of speculation as to how a project of this scale could have been approved, as the February 2004 draft of the "Environmental Guidelines for Tourist Resorts Development and Operation in the Maldives" states that the Ministry of Tourism "has decided not to grant approvals for land reclamation in an island leased for tourist development." And it specifically cites dredging and filling to increase land area as an activity that is not to be permitted.
One explanation is that Reethi was begun well before this draft was completed and so was not subject to the stricter controls being contemplated. It may also be a matter of influence, as Reethi's owner, Mohamed Adil, is a Maldivian shipping magnate. On the way to my room upon arrival, I ask one of the butlers whether it's legal in the Maldives to enlarge an island as was done here. He hesitates a moment, then says, "If you have the money" and lets his voice trail off.
Acres of Spa
In a resort where luxury statistics pile up like cashmere sweaters at a sample sale, one stands out: The spa occupies 102,257 square feet--about 2.3 acres--of the island. That's not one building, of course, but a formal landscape of arcades, pebbled paths, terraced lawn, ornamental pool, and disciplined jungle. Within it are eight single and two double over-water treatment suites, along with tai chi pavilions, spacious outdoor relaxation areas, consultation pavilions, and, in an adjoining building, a gym built around high-tech workout machines called the Kinesis System. "We're the second site on the planet to have it," says then fitness center manager Sean Udal. (There are now two more.)
Spa reception is a showstopping space. The lines have the elegant severity of a Shinto shrine; and the decorative carving, the controlled luxuriance of Balinese furniture--in fact, the resort imported a corps of woodcarvers from that island to do the work. Orchids, from the resort orchid farm, levitate languidly above the reception desk--they're suspended on transparent filament--and the theatrical pin lighting makes the dusky ambience more palpable.
In integrating pampering and therapeutic treatments, fitness, and consultations on topics such as nutrition, the spa, run by Espa, is in the vanguard. The fitness center will build a workout routine for you--and encode all the information on a key, right down to the weight-stack settings. Monitors on the machines tell you if you're doing the routine too quickly (a rabbit appears), too slowly (a snail), or just right (a smiley face). And the spa will do the same with a diet; more important, the restaurants will cook for you based on the plan. There's even a "Vitamin Boosters & Cleansers" drinks menu in the Rah Bar that lists not only the ingredients of each concoction but how it rates (one star through five) in five health categories: energy, detox, immunity, digestion, skin. Those ratings may or may not be true, but they show a sharp eye for appealing to this end of the market.
My treatments are excellent. Purva Karma consists of a light body exfoliation, a facial, and one of the most decadent massages I've ever had. Two therapists, sometimes working in harmony, other times in counterpoint, smooth heated oil almost all over my body. And they can because I'm covered with only a Band-Aid of a towel, very strategically placed. But who cares? I feel like a sun-warmed cat being stroked.
It's the therapist's skill that keeps Deep Tissue with Hot Stone from being just another hot stone massage. Gaby is a grave-looking Romanian, and his massage is the same. The strokes are deliberate and thought out--cello notes, not violin.
What's most intriguing are the treatment rooms. Given everything else, I expected expanses of space, chaises, garden showers. But these rooms are almost Shaker in their spareness--unadorned and modest in size, although very adequate for the task.
I spend a lot of time post-treatment in the relaxation garden. It has a raised veranda full of chaises and a pool backed by a slab of batu chandi that makes me think of a pagan altar. Each day I wait for another guest to turn up, but I end up with the garden to myself the whole time. I repeat, where is everybody?
Bestest of the Best
One&Only Resorts burst onto the luxury travel scene in 2002. The company is owned by Kerzner International, whose head, Sol Kerzner, made a fortune in South African casinos and resorts and, later, in other countries, too. One&Only now has a clutch of resorts that includes Palmilla in Los Cabos, Le Touessrok in Mauritius, and the Ocean Club in the Bahamas. In all of them, the operating philosophy seems to be "only the best and damn the expense." (Palmilla reopened in 2004 after a $90 million redo.) It's worked in the others, and Reethi Rah will take the prime position, for now, in the new jet-set (make that private-jet-set) archipelago that the company seems intent on creating. And I bet sometime in the next year someone will take One&Only up on the "for sale" offer that's part of the official Reethi Rah press kit: Take over the resort--just the two of you or bring as many as 198 friends--for five days. The price: $1 million. That includes "free-flowing Champagne and wine." But only one spa treatment per person.
Spa Highs and Lows
High The layout, a tropical garden with secluded treatment rooms for individuals and over-water ones for couples.
High Purva Karma, a light exfoliation and facial, followed by a dreamy four-hand massage using liberal amounts of oil.
Medium Individual treatment rooms, if only because the rest of the resort has such a sophisticated finish. These are intentionally plain-Jane but perfectly comfortable.
High The architecture and interior design of spa reception--dramatic pillars, elaborate carving, floating orchids.
High A private yoga session on the deck of a Water Villa.
4 More Maldivian Hot Spots
SONEVA GILI: The Nth Degree, Now Plus One
When this resort in the North Male Atoll opened in 2002, it set a new standard for guest rooms everywhere, not only in the Maldives. The style was singular because it was playful--think Robinson Crusoe with an architecture degree. It was in touch with the times in making privacy paramount. The resort, on a relatively small island, is modest--handsome spa, sand-floored restaurant, bar, and pool. It's the over-water villas, reached by boardwalk or, in the case of the Crusoe Residences, by boat, that makes the property so different. All the villas give you the greatest luxury next to solitude, space: The smallest is 2,260 square feet. And the amenities--wine cave, cappuccino/espresso maker, roof-deck daybed for two--lived up to the Six Senses motto, "Intelligent Luxury."
Now Gili has gone itself one better with the Private Reserve (below), a 15,000-square-foot, six-building oasis of thatch, decking, and timber that just may be the world's ultimate retreat. It's built in the same rustic-chic style as the rest of the property and retains that playful element in the slide that drops you from the living room into the lagoon. It comes with a Man and Girl Friday, who live on premises; each of the four bedrooms has a jetted tub on an outdoor deck; and there's a gym and a couple's massage suite. You'll still want to try the spa's Waterside Sand Massage ($100), Sodashi skin-care treatments ($90-$125), and Vortex Alignment ($40). No man is an island, after all--but at the Private Reserve, you come pretty close.
Private Reserve: $10,000 ($6,500 in May and June)
HUVAFEN FUSHI: The Spaquarium
A good gimmick--the world's only underwater spa treatment rooms (above)--backed up by a very good staff; excellent food, especially at Raw, the spa cuisine restaurant; and 43 contemporary-style rooms: That's the gist of this resort, which opened in 2004.
Sunk in 26 feet of water, the two treatment rooms have five-inch-thick windows made of cast resin, not glass. If you remain still, you can stand right against the panes without disturbing the piscatory promenade. (You can't see the fish when your head is in the face cradle.) Among the very good treatments offered above the surface are Thai Herbal ($175), a Thai massage interspersed with the application of a hot poultice containing turmeric, Kaffir, and other fragrant ingredients, and the Maldivian Monsoon Ritual, which uses a sand poultice and a short-stroke massage to stimulate circulation.
Guest room design often goes for the good gimmick, too, like the pools in the living rooms of the two Ocean Pavilions (the top rooms) that run out onto the decks. Caveat: The island is small--you can throw a stone from one side to the other--and consequently feels a bit like a platform for buildings and boardwalks to the rooms, restaurants, and spa.
Rates: $700-$4,000, includes breakfast
SONEVA FUSHI: The Other Side of Paradise
The spa is small, most of the rooms are more spacious and comfortable than stylish and chic, and the food is excellent, particularly at the Asian-fusion Me Dhuniye restaurant.
But it's the setting, one of the larger islands (138 acres) in the Maldives and in one of the more remote atolls, that makes this resort more than the sum of its parts. You don't wear shoes; you get around on balloon-tire bicycles; you spend mornings and afternoons on a beach that you'll probably have to yourself, as well as the infields of coral that lie just offshore; you'll forget you ever had a watch and a wallet. If you really want barefoot luxury, book a day on an uninhabited neighboring island, where the resort has set up a palapa and chaises for two. It supplies a cooler of food and drink, towels, and cell phone; you bring the imagination.
This spa is the place to take an immersion course in Ayurveda, from diagnosis--there's an Ayurvedic doctor on staff--to treatments such as Dinacharya (cleansing of eyes, ears, and nasal passages, $110) and Urovasti/Kativasti (warm oil application to relax muscles, $90) and ancillary aspects such as sunrise yoga, offered in a jungle-shrouded pavilion.
Best room for couples: Villa Suites ($980), with king canopy beds and marvelous open-air walled bathrooms. Top room: the pair of 7,535-square-foot Jungle Reserve suites (below; $5,000). Don't book: the Rehendi Rooms (too small). One caveat: Restaurant and bar service can be poky.
ONE&ONLY KANUHURA: Simplicity Squared
This needle of sand (0.6 miles long, 656 feet wide) is Reethi Rah's uncomplicated sibling. It lies in the northeast corner of the Lhaviyani Atoll, only 40 minutes by seaplane but worlds away from Male, the capital. And that's the allure here--an end-of-the-world feeling, gorgeous lagoon with thickets of coral, enormous full moons, and a very good spa. Herna gave me an excellent Polynesian Manawa Massage ($80/$105), which involves long flowing strokes and makes extensive use of the forearms. And Jane left me semi-liquid at the end of the Top-to-Toe Ritual ($180), a three-part symphony of Swedish/pressure-point massage, facial, and foot massage.
Simplicity involves trade-offs, of course. The on-island guest units are close together, but they're well screened with vegetation. The rooms (above; 624 square feet) are straightforward but handsome and have outdoor showers that spill from terra cotta fish. (The 18 slightly larger Water Villas were closed from tsunami damage when I visited.)
The island's sunset side has the best beach and swimming; the best rooms here are 127-145. Avoid rooms 150-156, which are adjacent to the supply dock.
Rates: $620-$1,230, includes breakfast