Tourism

Set your clock to island time in the Maldives

With their blazing tangerine shades and Matisse-style showmanship, sunsets seem to steal all the attention in the Maldives. They are the unmissable main event on the day’s itinerary, drawing honeymooners like moths to a proverbial flame to snap photos of themselves chinking glasses filled with tropical cocktails. By contrast, sunrises – stolen moments just before dawn, where hints of pastel mauve and pink vanish as rapidly as they appear – are much more modest. And despite the fact I’ve always been more of a sunrise lover, these quiet times before daybreak turn out to be my favourite time of day at Coco Bodu Hithi. No matter how late I go to bed, I become a creature of the dawn, rising early to do yoga on the deck of my Coco Residence, the silence broken only by the water slapping beneath the villa or the occasional trajectory of fish skating across the surface. Later, I sit in stillness, cradling a cup of chamomile tea in quiet reflection.

Whether you prefer sunrise or sunset, both times of day are stupendously beautiful in the Maldives, though guests who want to stay in these overwater villas at Coco Bodu Hithi will have to choose a side, for half of these 24 villas, with their high ceilings and large windows, a pillow menu and a private wine cellar, face east and half face west. Dotted around two timber walkways that stretch out to form an oval shape over the lagoon before meeting again, they are not only the top-tier villa category, they are the biggest accommodations on the island, with each living space – be it the generous lounge room with an L-shaped sofa; the amply-sized bedroom and dressing room, or a bathroom complete with an enormous stone tub and both indoor and outdoor shower lined with Acqua di Parma products – opening out to the expansive terrace, with sunloungers, a four-poster day bed and an infinity pool that juts out over the Indian Ocean.

It’s outside, on this incredible terrace, where I end up spending most of my time at Coco Bodu Hithi – descending the ladder to dip in and out of the mint-blue ocean for a lazy snorkel, loafing about in the pool, soaking in the tub – and when hunger strikes, heading out for leisurely meals taken at the island’s restaurants. There are no villa bicycles at Coco Bodu Hithi, which in truth, disappoints me initially – though after just one day, it dawns on me that pedalling around at other island resorts meant I probably missed out on a more slower-paced appreciation of the Maldives. At Coco, I’m forced to go slow – and it pays dividends. Ambling back from breakfast one morning, I see a turtle nibbling at the sea grass in the water right underneath my villa. Later that afternoon on my way to the spa, I happen to glance downward to see a stingray flit past in placid ankle-deep shallows – something that even on the most unhurried pedal, I probably would have missed. Of course it goes without saying that should walking become too tiresome, there’s a fleet of buggies on hand to whisk you where you want to go, but walking turns out to be one of the simplest pleasures at Coco Bodu Hithi.

As if to remind me once again to slow down and observe nature at play, the Indian Ocean woos me with a fantastic snorkelling session with the island’s resident marine biologist, Sonia Valladares. No matter where you dunk your head on the island, the marine life is impressive, but Sonia wants to show me a particularly splendid spot. We board a large, converted dhoni, a traditional Maldivian fishing vessel captained by barefoot young Maldivian men, and come to a stop at Turtle Point, situated just a hundred metres or so in front of the spa. The island is renowned for its sea turtles, including a famous resident called Chloe, and as if to welcome us, there’s even a hawksbill lazily floating on the surface.

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After plunging into the clear water, I set myself a challenge to spot marine life before my guide, though it proves impossible with Sonia’s 20-20 vision. No more than minutes go by before her arm is once again stretched out, her finger pointing at something in the distance. In under an hour, we see five hawksbill turtles, with Sonia diving down as close as she can to photograph each creature in order to add its details to a monitor programme. Coco Collection has partnered with the Olive Ridley Project, which is tackling the issue of “ghost nets” – discarded fishing nets that float around in the Indian Ocean, endangering wildlife. Along with actively removing these discarded fishing nets, the project rescues and nurses entangled turtles back to health. The resorts’ act of monitoring the turtles through photo identification, noting the unique scale pattern in a sea turtle’s face, plays another vital role.

Along with turtles, we spy several black tip reef sharks flitting through the bommies, and a stingray the size of a smart car laying in stillness on the ocean floor. Then, to my delight, a tawny nurse shark darts directly below us, burrowing its nose into coral with its squarish snout, fossicking earnestly to find a lunchtime meal of crabs, lobsters or reef fish. I feel privileged to see the creature hunting, for mostly, these sharks are nocturnal feeders. It’s clear Sonia feels the same way, breaking the surface to meet my gaze with a grin and a thumbs up.

With these daily rituals of yoga, snorkelling and walking comes a natural hunger, and there’s ample variety on the island. I stuff myself over breakfast at Air, the all-day dining restaurant that overlooks the resort’s infinity pool. In the evening I sample Aqua – a romantic restaurant where diners are seated on platforms suspended above the water, the jack fish – a local, Maldivian fish – is cooked Indonesian style, and the tuna tartare, served with crisp crackers, is as fresh as you could hope. The island also has Tsuki, a cosy Japanese restaurant, and Stars, another over-the-water restaurant perched at the end of the jetty near the Residences. My favourite meal, however, turns out to be a simple beach barbecue, where the morning’s catch is on display alongside platters of lobster claws and prawns, with a cheerful chef on standby ready to grill and drizzle my selection in a lemon butter sauce. With my toes in the sand, seated at a table set up along the shoreline, fire lanterns ablaze and the stars twinkling above, it’s as authentic an island dining experience as I could dream up, though at Coco, there are innumerable ways to fall in love with the Indian Ocean.

There are spoiling (and possibly not-so-deserved) spa treatments at Coco Spa, which I willingly submit to – snoozing beneath the expert strokes of the therapist’s hands delivering a restorative massage that takes place in a private room with a terrace featuring a sunken bath. There are champagne breakfasts, bodu beru drumming performances and cinema nights set up on the beach, or excursions to scuba dive or swim with manta rays; guests can even book in a joy flight aboard a privately chartered seaplane – skimming low over the atoll’s islands, simply to admire the view. And though most of the guests – like me – seem perfectly happy camped out in their villas for hours on end, some like to go a little further in their quest for total escapism.

One afternoon, I’m gazing out to sea from my villa when I see what looks to be an object on a sandbank in the middle of nowhere. It’s so far away, I’m unable to make out exactly what it is even when squinting, so I ask Gowthram – my charming and attentive Maldivian butler who appears and disappears quite as rapidly as sunrise itself – to which he smiles and replies: “It’s a sandbank picnic.” Just one couple, enjoying their own private sandbank island in blissful isolation.

I don’t need to go that far to experience my own blissful solitude. I simply slide open my terrace doors once again the following morning – my last one in the Maldives – rising before dawn to unroll a yoga mat on the terrace outside. After a gentle practice, I lay on my back in savasana, listening to the water and the distant putter of a seaplane, and eventually feeling those first rays of sunshine caress my face. Blissful solitude at sunrise never felt so good.

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