Tourism

Christina Ong’s COMO Maldives is an enchanted ocean cure-all – The Australian Financial Review

In the mother-of-pearl light before dawn, the sky is a fresco of delicate pink, blue and cream. A fiery tropical sun drips gold onto silver waves as the day asserts itself.

Eventually the pink clouds will evanesce, the sand assume its sugary brightness and the sea will turn that extraordinary turquoise blue that doesn’t seem real when you see it in a photograph.

Yet here it is, ladies and gentlemen, right before your eyes. The Maldives.

Cocoa Island is the smaller of two resort islands in the Maldives owned by the estimable Singaporean billionaire Christina Ong and her daughter Melissa: the C and M, respectively, of the COMO brand of luxury hotels that now includes one of Australia’s finest, COMO Treasury in Perth.

Christina Ong is said to have a highly personal connection to her properties. She strives to make all of them – and there are 12, from the Bahamas to Bhutan – places she herself would want to stay.

Her style is barefoot chic with holistic soul and her attention to detail is legendary. She has a favourite table here between the resort’s Ufaa restaurant and its small infinity pool, from where she has a view of thatched over-water villas stretched out over the jade lagoon.

“Too perfect,” she declared recently. She directed Benjamin Kreuz, Cocoa’s general manager, to plant three trees on the beach but “growing trees in salty sand isn’t easy,” says Kreuz ruefully, “we’re trying.”

The sandbank where I’m headed this pastel morning is at the opposite end of the island from where Ufaa is located – all of 400 footsteps away. Crabs scatter back to the shallows, where baby blacktip sharks chase each other, flicking their tails just above the surface.

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I meet my companions here to observe the sun as its rises over a long sandbar curving off into the lagoon. Waves coming from both sides of the island meet here, criss-crossing the sandbank.

 

Stay in a lagoon villa at COMO Cocoa Island resort, slipping easily from sea to deck.

Stay in a lagoon villa at COMO Cocoa Island resort, slipping easily from sea to deck. Supplied

Common ingredients

The common ingredients in COMO resorts are spectacular locations; service that is intuitive, discreet and plentiful; food that is healthy but exquisite; and nurturing (rather than merely cosmetic) therapies and treatments.

Each morning and afternoon, Dr Aashly leads guests in gentle hatha yoga. Aashly, a graduate in yogic sciences from Bangalore, radiates calm acceptance, telling us to stretch to “wherever we can”: eminently sensible advice that my companions, a honeymooning Japanese couple, and I take to heart.

The COMO brand of Shambhala, a Sanskrit word for sacred place, encompasses nutritious food, complimentary yoga, massage, body treatments and facials – all available in each COMO resort’s dedicated facilities.

 

Dr Aashly, naturopath and yoga instructor at COMO resorts in the Maldives.

Dr Aashly, naturopath and yoga instructor at COMO resorts in the Maldives. Supplied

Here on the beach with the smiling Dr Aashly, I can smell the Shambhala products on my skin – an invigorating combination of lavender, geranium, peppermint and eucalyptus. Along with sea salt on warm bodies, it is one of the healthiest sensations imaginable.

Both Cocoa Island and her sister island, Maalifushi, score highly with all the COMO requisites: the setting is divine, the pristine waters teeming with reef fish, turtles and rays and right at my door. I slip from deck to pool to shower a dozen times a day.

An octopus scoots from under the piers of the wooden walkway leading to my over-water bungalow, changing its skin colour from rock to sand before my eyes. Returning from a snorkel – where I see blue groper, jackfish and multiple brightly coloured Nemos – I meet a pretty mess of frilly black spines and fins floating on my steps. It’s a lionfish, totally sweet and totally venomous. Funny how this stinging creature resembles a raceday fascinator off its moorings.

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Fresh and tasty

 

When you're tired of snorkelling in the lagoon, you can take to the hydrotherapy pool at COMO Cocoa Island.

When you’re tired of snorkelling in the lagoon, you can take to the hydrotherapy pool at COMO Cocoa Island.

Locally caught fresh fish is the star of the daily menu, as it should be here in the Indian Ocean. And always, alongside the main menu with its nod to Maldivian and Indian traditions, is the Shambhala cuisine menu: fresh ingredients, lots of juices, broths, salads, not too much meat. There’s a lot of preparation to preserve the goodness of raw foods.

It’s energising, cleansing and tastes like pure bliss, as I tell Taylor Shearman later at drinks. Shearman is the Australian executive chef at Maalifushi’s Madi restaurant and responsible for the lunch I had earlier: skewers of grilled cumin-crusted ocean trout on a bed of cauliflower tabbouleh and smoked aubergine purée, dotted with pomegranate jewels. Followed by a raw cacao, raisin and almond tart topped by sliced grapes and grape syrup. As well as Madi, there’s a Japanese restaurant called Tai that floats over water, providing vantage points to feed placid nurse sharks after dinner.

Maalifushi is about twice the size of Cocoa, but it is hardly big. General manager Pietro Addis, like Kreuz at Cocoa, manages to greet each guest like a long-lost friend. A seaplane delivers guests between the two resorts every day so you can sample both.

The garden villas in Maalifushi are stylishly minimalist in a grand plump-white-cushions Hamptons way, as are the overwater villas at both resorts. You can draw the curtains or leave them open to the glorious views. There is a range of sizes up to a vast two-family mansion with plunge pool, a glass-bottomed conversation pit and a walk-in wardrobe that would attract a sizeable weekly rent back home. Each villa comes with a bicycle for tooling along the white sand roads – there are no engines on these islands except for the one in the desalination room (all the resort water, including what you drink, comes from the sea).

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Lagoon villas at COMO Maalifushi resort are the ultimate in waterfront luxury.

Lagoon villas at COMO Maalifushi resort are the ultimate in waterfront luxury. Stephen Clark

After an extended El Niño season last year killed parts of the local reefs, the resident marine biologists are propagating fresh coral on metal frames. They take care to educate visitors on the fragile ecology of the atolls, taking groups on kayaking, snorkelling or dive tours at remote reefs where massive whale sharks feed.

There is an extraordinary staff to guest ratio of six to one on the COMO islands, all working to achieve Ong’s vision of complete nourishment of the soul. You can fall into easy conversation with the girl at the gift shop, whose home island is just across the way, or the young scientists who come from around the world to work in the resorts’ dive centre. When I see him on the path, Dr Aashly reminds me I have hydrotherapy with him this afternoon.

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