Review — When James Hilton described his fictive paradise of exotic earthly bliss by that name in 1933 in his seminal novel Lost Horizon, few people would have known how to identify Maldives on a map, let alone Villingili island in heart shaped Addu atoll. Today several scheduled daily flights take you to Gan International Airport at the southernmost tip of Maldives, just below the equator. Taking a 70 minute domestic flight after your international flight might seem a stretch, but if it weren’t out of this world, it wouldn’t be Shangri-La, right?
The British Royal Air Force, who built the original airfield in 1941, already knew they had found their Shangri-La in this isolated part of the world. From the former Royal Air Force Station, which was operational from the late 1950s to 1976, it is a 5 minute speed boat ride to Villingili island, one of the last unspoiled islands in the Laccadive Sea to be developed for tourism.
But isn’t all of Maldives meant to be Shangri-La, a holiday-makers paradise on earth? Yes, if all you want is a speck of beach and crystal clear ocean. But most of Maldives resorts are just that. Tiny drops in the ocean, one-island-one resort, with nothing much else to explore, apart from the underwater world. What sets Shangri-La’s Villingili Resort and Spa truly apart is its size – it’s one of the largest resort islands in Maldives – and its proximity to the local islands, five of which are linked by a 18 km causeway and can be visited in a leisurely bike ride.
At Shangri-La’s Villingili Resort and Spa paradise comes in the shape of 6km of coastline, shaded by lush native jungle and 17,000 coconut trees, surrounded by 2km of white sandy beach and turquoise ocean as far as the eye can see. You get your very own bicycle to explore it. Pedaling through the shade of giant banyan trees, past natural lakes, hearing the call of native birds and soaking up the aroma of the jungle is bliss for the senses. There are guided nature walks and interpretative sign boards if you care to know more about the local flora and fauna.
At night this harmless jungle takes on a magical quality. But if you don’t feel like wobbling home because you’ve allowed yourself one too many cinnamon martinis, your villa manager will escort you by soundless electric buggy and have your bike back to your villa in time for your ride to breakfast.
With 650 staff looking after 132 villas that come in 9 distinct categories, including over-water villas and treehouses, Shangri-La’s Villingili Resort and Spa is paradise on steroids. Everybody will find their slice of heaven on earth here. For starters, the villas themselves are little oases of luxury, stylish decor and complete privacy.
Foodies will find themselves in culinary haven, with 3 fine dining restaurants and 3 bars.
Dr Ali’s, a restaurant named after a local doctor who brought spices and herbs to this part of the world, has three distinctive living rooms representing the cultures and cuisines of the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea and the Arabian Gulf. You are literally able to taste the cultural history of Maldives, which for centuries was a crossroads of seafaring nations, visited by Arab traders stopping en route to the Far East and Chinese navigators engaged in trade with India.
Fashala restaurant is perched right on the edge of the open ocean. It serves superb local seafood and fresh produce from the local farms on nearby Meedhoo island. Javvu is a more laid-back but no less stylish restaurant, offering all-day quality cafe style dining and Western cuisine.
You can also ‘dine by design’ in the blissful meditation pavilion overlooking the ocean, treat yourself to a romantic torchlit dinner under a towering banyan tree or savour the fresh produce from the Chef’s garden. The options for bespoke dining experiences are many and memorable.
There are also three very sleek and chic bars and lounges where you can smoke a sheesha, sip on a signature cocktail or chill to the cool vibes mixed by Canadian DJ Crystal. If you ask, she’ll happily download her lounge mix onto your USB so that you can continue to dance to your memories of Shangri-La back home.
Those in search of serious relaxation of body, mind and soul, will want to put the lavish Chi Spa on the top of their list. It’s paradise within paradise, a secluded oasis of calm and indulgence, with a separate meditation pavilion built on the ruins of the British gun tower, overlooking the ocean. The treatment rooms are spacious villas with ‘his and her’ massage tables, an outdoor bath and daybed for relaxation. You’ll never want to leave!
Divers and snorkelers will find their paradise underwater in the only atoll that was largely spared the effects of coral bleaching caused by El Nino in 1998. Yes, it’s a long way to come says James, a young American philosophy professor and avid diver on his wedding anniversary, but it was worth adding a domestic flight to the long haul flight from Texas, because there are some very fine dive sites here.
It’s a blue sky morning when we press the button on our regulators and descend on the wreck of the British Loyalty. At 140 meters long, it’s the largest wreck in Maldives. Diving through the bomb hole where the oil tanker was torpedoed by submarine at the end of WWII is one of those experiences that will stay with you for the rest of your life says my dive instructor. Alas, I am not allowed to do it. The wreck lies 33 deep and you’ll need to be an advanced open water diver to see all of it. Instead I get to explore the coral encrusted deck of port side, which lies at 16 meters. Blue-fin trevally and turtles have made their home here and plenty of soft coral.
We don’t make it to Manta Point that day – a manta cleaning station where you are almost guaranteed to see these mesmerizing creatures when they come for their very own spa treatment to get their teeth, fins and gills cleaned by a variety of small fish. The dive centre has very strict rules and on our second dive we are not allowed to go below 19 meters. “Don’t be disappointed,” says my dive instructor. “At Manta Point all you do is sit and wait and if the mantas don’t come, there isn’t much else to see. It’s a much better experience if you see them unexpectedly.”
It’s pretty choppy on our second dive right near the surf break and I worry about getting seasick underwater as the swell rolls me from side to side. But then suddenly, when I least expect it, there they are, the gentle giants of the ocean, two mantas, gliding through the water, right underneath me, back and forth, gracefully flapping their giant wings, oblivious to my presence. The sense of peace is akin to a religious experience and completes my brush with paradise.
But there is still more that sets this resort apart. It has the only golf course in the Maldives. I am no golfer and I don’t know what a golfer’s paradise might look like, but surely the sheer extravagance of a 9 hole golf course on a coral island inclusive of the country’s highest elevation, all 510 cm of it, is something to get excited about. And it’s no mean feat to get the grass looking so green, explains Hima, the Event Manager. But you can swing your golf club without guilt, because like all of the landscaping at Shangri-La’s Villingili Spa and Resort, the lawns are watered with grey water from the resort’s water treatment plant.
Shangri-La’s Villingili Resort and Spa is also an insider tip amongst those travelling by private jet. Hima tells me about one very excited guest from Australia who recently discovered this very quiet international airport to be a great alternative to Malé or Colombo, and a convenient refueling stop from down-under. I can not really imagine what it might be like to arrive by private jet, but I can see why this international airport, complete with private executive terminal and VIP guest lounge, which since the departure of the British hasn’t seen all that much international traffic, would feel very special.
This resort certainly offers different shades of earthly paradise!