Greater at Anantara

In a nation famed for its reclusive reefs, the Maldives’ single-island resort concept has produced more than 100 little pieces of paradise for the ultimate tropical getaway.

In this sense, Anantara’s slice of South Male’ atoll is no different, offering the romance, the tranquility and the adventure of a Maldivian holiday in equal measure. However, at Anantara’s resorts just south of the capital, these qualities are spread across three different resorts, creating a unique neighbourhood of luxury; Greater Anantara.

Upon arrival at the airport, would-be Anantareans are taken to the resort’s airport lounge, before migrating south, past Male’ on the 35 minute trip to the cluster of islands they will make their home.

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Six islands, spread over 2.7km of coral on the eastern side of the atoll, provide options for families, couples and everyone inbetween. Dhigu – the largest of the three – features 110 family-sized beach villas and overwater suites; Veli, a few moments away caters to couples, with a range of rooms made for two; and Naladhu – the smallest of the three – offers around 20 ‘houses’ for those who really want to get comfortable.

Two ‘picnic islands’ – one with it’s own cafe for hungry snorkellers – as well as a staff island, complete the complex.

Dhigu is without doubt the heart of this coral community, housing four restaurants, the Aquafanatics water sports centre and the largest of the complex’s three spas.  It’s recently renovated water villas are particularly spacious, assisted by cavernous ceilings designed to resemble an upturned dhoni.

Dhigu - Sunset Overwater Suite

Sprouting northwards from the tip of the island, the water villas’ wall to wall windows frame spectacular sunsets and sunrises. Similarly, the island’s dining options serve up early morning sun at the Fushi Cafe, or residents can drink in the sunset at the poolside Aqua Bar on the opposite side of the island.

The Sea, Fire, Salt restaurant goes a little further west, bringing spectacular surf and turf over the reef, with ‘Salt Gurus’ on hand to change the way you feel about seasoning. Upstairs, those wishing to journey still further west can take in Italian cuisine at Terrazzo.

Dhigu dwellers looking for a new place to eat can use Greater Anantara’s transport service to Veli, taking a bicycle to the south of the island before hopping onto the cushioned ferry between the islands. Lazy hammocks and love hearts emerge from behind the tiny Moyo Island sandwiched in between, as do more of the island’s intimate water villas. Veli is Greater Anantara’s adults-only area, bringing ocean calm up the beach and into the island.

Photography: Naj
Photography: Naj
Photography: Naj
Photography: Naj

Breakfast and dinner buffets at the pavilion-style 73 degrees restaurant can be interspersed with poolside snacks at the Dhoni Bar, while Origami brings Japanese cuisine into the fold. As with Dhigu, the Veli suburb offers a range of activities, including cooking classes, watersports, and morning meditation and Yoga to kick-start a hard day’s relaxation.

Invitation only cocktails at the Orchid garden add further to the refined air of Veli, with countless Mr and Mrs’ having left their mark via wooden hearts decorating the area. Lying on a long jetty between Veli and Naladhu is the Baan Huraa restaurant – claimed to be arguably the finest Thai restaurant in the Maldives.

Naladhu itself is the smallest and the most-exclusive district in the Greater Anantara constellation. A large wooden door at the end of the long bridge from Veli is more Dungeons and Dragons than Sun and Surf, bringing an air of mystery to what is essentially a private, gated community.

Photography: Naj
Photography: Naj

This island is accessible only to residents, and no amount of riddles solved or duels won will gain you entry to this tranquil realm (residents have a key, while other Anantareans can book ahead for dinner on the island).

Twenty ‘houses’ – all named after local flora – are nestled along a weaving maze of sandy paths. Inside, a mixture of world styles furnish the apartments, making even the farthest flung traveller feel at home. Bookshelves are customised to the guests before their arrival and room service is available – 24/7 – at the touch of a button, leaving no impediment to the suburb’s glorious privacy. Enormous outdoor decking areas provide cinematic views from the outdoor bathroom, which leads into the generous pool.

Photography: Naj
Photography: Naj

The theme continues in the aptly named Living Room, where guests can live another Indian Ocean sunset as they enjoy a bottle from the restaurant’s impressive cellar – one of three in the community’s $500,000 wine treasury.

Whichever resort you choose to stay in, this tropical trio – Dhigu, Veli, and Naladhu – together provide a wide range of options to make your trip to Greater Anantara greater.

HPL appoints IHG to manage InterContinental Maldives Maamunagau Resort

Singapore-based Hotel Properties Limited (HPL) has inked a management agreement with InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) to manage an 83-room resort that will be open in Maldives in three to five years’ time.

This will be the third resort that IHG will be managing for HPL. It will mark the first time that IHG will bring its global luxury brand, InterContinental Hotels & Resorts, to the Maldives, said Jan Smits, IHG’s chief executive for Asia, Middle East and Africa (AMEA).

The management contract for the upcoming InterContinental Maldives Maamunagau Resort with HPL was inked on Monday. Construction has yet to begin, and neither HPL nor IHG would provide a number on the project’s development value.

The other two existing HPL resorts managed by IHG are: Holiday Inn Resort Kandooma Maldives, comprising 160 villas, which opened in December 2009; and the 148-room Holiday Inn Resort Vanuatu which opened in March 2010.

Holiday Inn Resort® Kandooma Maldives
Holiday Inn Resort® Kandooma Maldives

The latest Maldives signing brings IHG’s resort development pipeline to 13 across the AMEA region, reflecting a significant expansion programme, said Mr Smits.

Currently, the hotel and resort management chain operates 37 existing resorts across three brands (InterContinental, Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza) in the AMEA region.

HPL’s new resort will be located on Maamunagau island, at the southern point of Raa Atoll (also known as the North Maalhosmadulu Atoll). International travellers can take a seaplane directly to the resort from Malé’s Ibrahim Nasir International Airport.

Besides enjoying the clear lagoon and pristine white beach, guests will have a range of food and beverage offerings to choose from at the resort’s bar and restaurants.

“Young travellers may indulge in specially tailored meals from the InterContinental Planet Trekkers Menu before going off for an afternoon of fun at the Planet Trekkers Kids Club,” IHG said.

InterContinental Maldives Maamunagau Resort will also feature a Club Lounge, pool and spa where guests can lounge and relax. The range of water sports include snorkeling, canoeing and jet skiing at the nearby sea sports centre.

Stephen Lau, chairman, HPL Hotels & Resorts, said: “We see huge potential to grow our resorts business in the Maldives, and Maamunagau island is the perfect setting to develop a luxury InterContinental resort.”

As part of HPL’s growth strategy, “we continuously seek the right opportunity to expand our portfolio across the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region”, he added.

Mr Smits of IHG noted that tourism contributed more than 40 per cent of Maldives’ gross domestic product last year, and that “sentiments are positive as the country continues to be one of the world’s most highly sought after travel destinations”.

Another hotelier who has a presence in Maldives told The Business Times that room rates for Maldives resorts have generally fallen over the past year on the back of weaker demand.

Patronage by Chinese visitors, the number one market, has softened this year amid a weakening economy back home and slight fall in the yuan, among other factors. “Demand from Russia continues to be depressed due to the weak economy and rouble.

On a more positive note, demand from some other European countries has improved but resorts are coming up with more competitive packages to adjust for the weakness in the euro.” Room rates in the Maldives are denominated in US dollars.

“That said, this is still a market that a lot of operators want to go to. The ‘one resort, one island’ policy in Maldives makes resorts here very exclusive compared to say Bali and Mauritius, where you have one big island and many resorts scattered over acres and acres of coastline.”

Summer Island Appoints Mariya Shareef as Resort Manager

Mariya Shareef has become one of the few Maldivian women ever to hold position of Resort Manager at a Maldivian resort.

On 1 September, Mariya was appointed Resort Manager of Summer Island Maldives, located in Kaafu atoll.

In her new role, Mariya takes on the responsibility for the day-to-
day management of the resort, advising the Board of Directors on strategy, and helping develop and grow the Summer Island Maldives brand.

Mariya is a veteran of the Maldivian tourism industry with a career spanning fourteen years. She was previously Business Development and Marketing Manager for the Kaimoo THS group of companies, a post she held since 2013.

In this role, Mariya helped with the re-development of Summer Island Maldives and was responsible for branding and marketing the resort in the months leading up to its re-opening last year.

Commenting on the appointment, Mohamed Manih Ahmed, Managing Director of Kaimoo THS Group said:

“Mari is young, energetic and full of exciting ideas and has an excellent gauge of the innovations and developments in global tourism.

“Mari’s experience, her academic achievements, and her natural business acumen will enable Summer Island Maldives to grow and consolidate its reputation as one of the most exciting holiday hotspots in the Maldives.”

Commenting on her new appointment, Mariya Shareef said:

“Summer Island Maldives has always been close to my heart. It’s not only the beautiful island that makes it special, but also the amazing team and their hard work. I am proud to be a part of this team, and I thank the directors for trusting me in this role. It’s a pleasure, everyday, to see smiling faces and I’m confident that as a team we can continue to be one of the best resorts in the Maldives.”

Summer Island Maldives Resort prides itself on offering tourists an authentically Maldivian, barefoot slice of paradise at an affordable price.

One of the Maldives’ first resorts, and wholly Maldivian owned, Summer Island Maldives recently underwent a complete re-development. The resort now boasts fresh and zesty rooms, a spa, international restaurants, a rustic beach bar, a dive center and water sports center. Summer Island Maldives retains, though, the family-friendly, natural atmosphere that has made it such a popular destination.

Summer Island Maldives offers an all-inclusive holiday, with a variety of rooms including water villas, at 4 star prices.

Baros For Babymooners

Baros Maldives, acclaimed as the World’s Most Romantic Resort by World Travel Awards in 2015, is enhancing its appeal for an idyllic holiday on an island in the Indian Ocean. As well as being an intimate retreat for Honeymooners wanting privacy, it is also the perfect place for vacationing Babymooners.

If you missed having your honeymoon at Baros Maldives, when the baby’s on the way, why not get away to enjoy the island’s blissful tranquility before the baby’s birth? Relish precious moments together in the natural harmony of Baros Maldives as you plan the future for your child. Enjoy serenity for just the two of you before coping with those busy times ahead after baby’s born.

Experts believe that fanning the flames of love with a relaxing babymoon has real long-term relationship benefits, because transitioning to parenthood can be stressful. Dedicating a vacation to reconnecting can only help you be a better couple together.

At Baros Maldives every villa, whether beachside or overwater, is perfectly private allowing an expectant couple to share moments to treasure in dreamy solitude. Some villas have individual pools for relaxation under the sun or moon, while cares simply float away. Every villa is superbly equipped with fine furnishings, luxurious linen and elegant bathrooms.

Dine in the seclusion of your Villa or sample culinary delights at the island’s three epicurean restaurants. Whatever Mum-To-Be craves, from strawberries and cream to Lobster, our chefs will provide it, as well as meals especially prepared for the expectant mother.

Wander along sandy trails through lush vegetation with no harmful creatures and without being disturbed by traffic or pollution. Allow yourself to be pampered from top to toe in the garden Spa with a spa menu for pregnancy-specific treatments, and even a de-stressing massage for Dad-To-Be. Enjoy pre-natal Yoga in our air-conditioned Yoga Pavilion in the shade of a garden glade.

Baros Maldives, with only 74 beach and overwater villas each with private access to the tranquil lagoon, and one exclusive Baros Residence is ideal for those moments of trust when you need each other. Each Villa has a dedicated Host on call 24 hours a day. The island resort is only 25 minutes gentle cruise by speed boat from Male’ International Airport so you can be soaking up the sun and listening to the calming waves soon after touch down. What better way to enjoy some private time before the magical moments of parenthood begin?

Anantara Launches Once-in-a-Lifetime Manta Ray Experience

Anantara Kihavah Maldives Villas, located in Baa Atoll, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, offers guests the chance to get up-close-and-personal with manta rays at the world’s largest natural manta feeding destination, during their annual migration across the Indian Ocean. For the first time, guests have the rare opportunity to freedive with the gentle giants at the protected site of Hanifaru Bay, which can attract more than 100 rays around the time of the full moon. With the season well underway, guests still have time to witness the spectacle first hand before the end of November or to plan ahead for the next season which starts in May 2017.

With a wingspan of up to 7 metres, manta rays congregate at Hanifaru Bay during the south-west monsoon and, with optimum wind and tide conditions, enter a shallow cul-de-sac in the reef to feed on microscopic plankton, small fish and crustaceans. The Anantara team works closely with the rangers who protect Hanifaru Bay to get the insider scoop on the mantas’ movements so that guests can quickly reach the site, which is located only 45 minutes from the resort, maximising their chances of spotting the rays. Scuba diving is not permitted so guests now have the choice of snorkelling or freediving.

Manta Rays, Anantara Kihavah Maldives Villas
Manta Rays, Anantara Kihavah Maldives Villas

Hot on the heels of sister resort Anantara Dhigu Maldives’ announcement in May that it was opening the first PADI-accredited freediving centre in the Maldives, Anantara Kihavah is now also fully licensed. Whilst freediving has been popular in the Maldives for some time, the PADI certification offered by Elements, the water sports centre at Anantara Kihavah Villas, teaches divers proper breathing techniques and trains them on how they can enjoy the sport safely.

Coasting through the ocean with flowing, graceful movements that echo the natural motions of the Mantas that surround, freedivers experience a sense of oneness taking the Maldives’ manta experience to an entirely new level. Closer encounters, liberating mobility and the ability to glide with freedom from scuba or snorkelling equipment enhance an already unforgettable outing.

Manta Rays, Anantara Kihavah Maldives Villas
Manta Rays, Anantara Kihavah Maldives Villas

At the helm of Anantara Kihavah’s freediving centre is Talya Davidoff. A passionate, advanced freediving instructor, Talya is also a fully qualified marine biologist and a competitive freediver with a personal best of a depth of 42 metres. Adding even greater depth to her aquatic expertise, Talya will be undergoing training with freediving world champion, Alexey Molchanov, before the South African Championships in June next year.

Talya and the Elements team at Anantara Kihavah Villas are dedicated to safeguarding the wellbeing and habitat of the manta rays and enforce the strict regulations that have been set by the local rangers. Known for its commitment towards sustainability and protecting the local environment, Anantara Kihavah Maldives Villas also launched a coral adoption programme when the resort opened in 2001. Over the five years to date, Anantara’s team has continued to enhance its reef initiatives to accelerate the regeneration of coral growth.

Anantara Kihavah, which offers 79 spacious private pool villas poised overwater or nestled on a private beach, is located 30 minutes from Male by seaplane and boasts an abundant and colourful house reef of its own. For guests who wish to maximise their ‘bottom time’, SEA. FIRE. SALT. SKY. offers a one-of-a-kind over and underwater dining experience.

Anantara Kihavah Maldives Villas
Anantara Kihavah Maldives Villas

To reserve a stay at the resort and experience the thrill of freediving with mantas, or to learn more about freediving, contact +960 664 4111 or [email protected]. For more information on Anantara’s Maldives resorts, visit anantara.com.

Q&A: Finolhu General Manager Mark Hehir

Born and raised in Australia Mark Hehir has over 30 years’ experience in the hospitality industry, including close to 20 year’s experience in the Maldives. He joined The Small Maldives Island Co. after four successful years at the One & Only Reethi Rah, where he held the position of general manager.

Mark was also part of the opening team at Huvafen Fushi by Per Aquum as well as Maldives Hilton Rangali (now Conrad Maldives) after working for various Anantara properties in Asia.

Utilising this extensive experience, Mark has been the driving force behind the recently opened Finolhu resort in Baa atoll, where he currently holds the position of general manager. Maldives.com caught up with him to discuss his career in the Maldives and latest project.

Can you tell us a little about your career?

Prior to coming to the Maldives, it was the UK and Australia – the Dorchester in London and some amazing experiences in those days. I was a chef so we did a lot of great things in London with the Queen and state banquets and Prince Charles and a lot of high level stuff – the first time in my career that I’d really dealt with that premium luxury customer.

So, that’s where I got that bug, like ‘wow’ that’s the elite of our business, and then it also gave me an understanding that, at the end of the day, they’re only human, and how to handle it.

Then I went to the Maldives for the first time to open up Rangali island in 1998, which was a Hilton. Between that time and now I was in Bali – I opened up a resort for Anantara.

I spent three years in all in the Maldives at Rangali Hilton, went from executive chef to food and beverage director, and had a dual role there doing both. Thailand, Japan and Malaysia are countries I also worked in.

When you compare the different locations in which you’ve worked, what makes the Maldives special?

The one-island one-resort concept that we have here in the Maldives is the ultimate biggest difference, because you get a chance to work and live with the team 24/7, so you get a chance to influence the culture of the team; not in terms of their personal beliefs, more the way in which they act and feel within the environment.

You can really work with them and develop an amazing work culture which then creates these experiences for customers. I’ve never seen so many customers be so excited about an experience like the Maldives. Firstly, when they see it, they’re like ‘wow’ but then when they start connecting with local people, they feel the skill level and the hospitality level of Maldivians versus other countries. They compare them.

Photograph: Naj
Photograph: Naj

They just feel that there’s a much more crisp and snappy attention to detail. Now, that comes and goes with different resorts cos there are obviously different standards, but it just seems that the local population have adapted very fast and learned very fast and can respond really well.

On our resort here we’re around 60 percent local and 40 percent international [staff] – other hotels are down probably at 45 percent; at the legal limit, if you like.

Over the last twenty years, you must have seen some changes to the industry.

A lot, yeah. I think Maldives has grown up – it’s more aware. The introduction of mobile communication has changed everything. I came pre-mobiles, so when I arrived no-one had a mobile phone. I brought one back once, but I couldn’t even use it much because of the range and whatnot.

We all talk about those days, cos we loved those days. Everything on the island was on the island; stayed on the island; was all about us. We weren’t influenced by anything that was going on outside of the island, so therefore the culture on the island was so strong. It was really amazing.

Now it’s influenced differently, that’s the biggest change. And you’ve gotta say that’s for the good, because now our people are more aware of a lot of other things, so that’s helped educate everyone, and I think that it also trickles down to our operators being more transparent, being more open and working with people ethically in a more correct way.

What makes Finolhu unique in this picture?

For us, it’s about design and architecture to fit into this beach club style, which is very warm and welcoming and with a very strong influence on retro – 60s and 70s being the era of retro that we tried to bring alive in design interiors, uniforms, artwork.

Every form of visual communication, and also the music, we’ve tried to bring it alive like that as well. In a subtle way, in some places – like you’ll look in a room and see this retro telephone for champagne; it’s a 1965 model. I went specifically and found colours that remind us of that day.

This is the era that blue jeans became famous – that type of stuff – so we introduced denim into the uniforms. Then, if you look at our artwork and the styling that we worked on, in terms of the imagery, we also went back to the illustrations and the feel of the day – a bit of a European touch as well.

Retro Collage

Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is make people feel comfortable in a nostalgic way, like ‘oh, I remember that’, or ‘my parents had that’, so it may be new again for a younger generation but it’s cool. In the older generation, they’re like ‘I remember when I had that’ too. So it’s got both ends of the scale covered, and at the same time it’s respecting the environment, like the whole washed out looks and the feel.

The other big decision we made was not to build anything on that whole sand strip, leaving it natural and then just putting this shack up there which is naturally nestled into the bushes, and that being the hero – ultimately, we’ve got this amazing sand strip that we can walk along. Then putting most of the rooms over water, so we can get the volume up with people, so there’s enough people here to enjoy it, but not crowding that, and leaving it natural.

There’s a bohemian mood facing into the lagoon, and we tried to style it that way, and then on the other side with the pool, we’re very strong into this retro, using some colours that sort of pop out a little bit. Then there is the furniture which is even more retro, with our synonymous big-blue couch, so we tried to put some furniture that is iconic.

Every room has a Marshall speaker. Marshall speakers are that retro style, so your touch points there are quality and experience of that time.

What were the major challenges in developing this kind of resort?

In general, you’ll always come with challenges in the Maldives to develop resorts in terms of pulling together construction teams and procuring everything to bring it onto the island. That’s a normal situation.

Some companies do better than others and one of our challenges that we successfully overcame was, because we worked together with the owner to build the island, he organised the construction teams within his own office, and the interior design and all of the finishes were done by myself. We were very close on how we were building and what we were finishing and the timing, because we were in the same family.

 

Sheep Beach

The challenges then were smaller. They were firstly getting our team’s attention on the concept – because our concept was a little bit quirky and a little bit different – and that took the first few months as we were selecting all of the smaller things so that they all fitted into the picture, so everything would blend well and also tell the story.

The difficult part then was procuring all of the smaller things – the furniture, the table tops, finding someone who could do a sheep with cork, the little things we’ve done are the boxes in the room with the nice print that’s around them  – to come up with the idea, to think of a pattern that would work. They were the challenges, they were the great success as well.

You must have been taken notes on your perfect resort for the past twenty years, does this come close to that?

This is definitely a lot of my dream ideas, especially this bar [Beach Bar] and the way that it’s situated with two levels, giving elevation. It goes into the pool, there’s a swim-up style, there’s a possibility of having live music and DJ music undercover cos it’s weather-proof. We can then run the concepts fully without having to worry about having to move things around.

Photograph: Naj
Photograph: Naj

The styling of the restaurant, how it interacts also through our marine centre – all those connections. Over in the Cove Club, the spa, we don’t spa, we say Cove Club cos we wanted a place that could be a place, not only to have a massage, but to hang out and to get other things done to look after yourself. To not carry all of the expectations of what a quiet tranquil spa is. We wanted this fun place with music and happiness and a bit of a spark.

It’s part of a collective of ideas over many years, so when I started drawing it came out of me very fast and when I put myself into where this was, I knew exactly what floor I was looking for, how the furniture would fit and the colours. I had it like a movie in my head, it was crazy. I drove a lot of people crazy too cos I was very particular about what it is and what it has to be.

Were there any ideas that you had to leave on the shelf? If money was no option, would there be any additional ideas you would follow?

There’s a lot of other ideas that I’ve got going on in my head about resorts, I could build you another three more, with other different styles and concepts. For this concept of this retro 60s-70s beach-style funky place, it pretty much ticked 99 percent of my boxes of what I wanted to do with it.

But there’s a lot of other ideas which I’ve got that I want to put at play for other types of products because I’m very specific about not trying to do everything in one place. This is exactly enough to get that consistency throughout this concept and we don’t muddle it up by trying to do too many different things.

I would have loved to have had a bit more land on the island for my kids club. I would have loved to have been able to have an ocean view, but I didn’t have enough land left.

You must have a lot of interesting stories about your time here. What’s the one you like to tell the most?

A couple of ideas came to fruition in the early days. I was very nervous back in the day when I first started here about being stuck inside a box of ‘this is what we do and that’s all we do’ and too many rules. I’m the rule breaker and I love to smash through that.

I wanted to have different experiences with the customers cos you’ve got this most amazing environment and everyone was like ‘food must be served in the restaurant’, ‘tables must be in the restaurant’, so I was always saying, ‘why can’t we have something under a tree or out on the water; why can’t we sit in the ocean and eat?’.

So one of my favourite stories was, one day I went with my team and we dug a hole under a coconut tree – huge hole – that could seat ten people. Then i filled in half of it, put towels down and made seats, which is done in islands – that’s not new. Then I brought a grill and I pushed the grill in and got the carpenter to build me some wood around the sides and turned it into a Mongolian teppanyaki grill, and it was the first glimpse of a Maldivian teppanyaki.

Koko Grill - Conrad Rangali

Literally, I did it with my guys with no money, and that turned into a huge success and was booked out every night, and I created the first teppanyaki out there [at Rangali].

At that table, where we were talking with the owners about what else we could do. We were discussing some crazy ideas because that was so successful – financially, very successful. Then I said, ‘wouldn’t it be amazing if we could do a staircase down and go underwater and do an underwater restaurant?’, and as it was coming out of my mouth I thought they were just gonna kill me. But our owner was like ‘yeah, we should do an underwater restaurant’, and then suddenly the next day he’s researching in America where he can find this tube glass or plastic and came back and said ‘we can build this’.

I was being transferred to Tokyo at the time with Hilton so that whole idea came out of the confidence of that teppanyaki working and then, bang, we’ve created the first-in-the-world underwater restaurant.

Ithaa Restaurant - Conrad Rangali

Off of those things came the idea to build a proper underground wine cellar and bring in proper wines and expand to another level. We were being controlled a lot from Male’ with some importers that weren’t taking care of the wines very well. So what we did is we worked with the buyer – a world-class sommelier who has the accreditation of master of wine. There’s only 360 master of wines in the world and he was one of them.

He then selected the wines for our list, which then gave us the best wine list in the Maldives and we imported all of the wines directly in and cut through what was, in those days, smaller operators bringing in wines and really changed the game.

We created a wine programme in Maldives which others later on followed, but we brought the wine straight to the island on the container, unloaded it and [put it] straight into the wine cellar. Customs came, checked it all off – everything was done properly, but in those days you could do it like that.

That’s a couple of crazy stories.Born and raised in Australia Mark Hehir has over 30 years’ experience in the hospitality industry, including close to twenty year’s experience in the Maldives. He joined The Small Maldives Island Co. after four successful years at the One & Only Reethi Rah, where he held the position of general manager.

Mark was also part of the opening team at Huvafen Fushi by Per Aquum as well as Maldives Hilton Rangali (now Conrad Maldives) after working for various Anantara properties in Asia.

Utilising this extensive experience, Mark has been the driving force behind the recently opened Finolhu resort in Baa atoll, where he currently holds the position of general manager. Maldives.com caught up with him to discuss his career in the Maldives and latest project.

Can you tell us a little about your career?

Prior to coming to the Maldives, it was the UK and Australia – the Dorchester in London and some amazing experiences in those days. I was a chef so we did a lot of great things in London with the Queen and state banquets and Prince Charles and a lot of high level stuff – the first time in my career that I’d really dealt with that premium luxury customer.

So, that’s where I got that bug, like ‘wow’ that’s the elite of our business, and then it also gave me an understanding that, at the end of the day, they’re only human, and how to handle it.

Then I went to the Maldives for the first time to open up Rangali island in 1998, which was a Hilton. Between that time and now I was in Bali – I opened up a resort for Anantara.

I spent three years in all in the Maldives at Rangali Hilton, went from executive chef to food and beverage director, and had a dual role there doing both. Thailand, Japan and Malaysia are countries I also worked in.

When you compare the different locations in which you’ve worked, what makes the Maldives special?

The one-island one-resort concept that we have here in the Maldives is the ultimate biggest difference, because you get a chance to work and live with the team 24/7, so you get a chance to influence the culture of the team; not in terms of their personal beliefs, more the way in which they act and feel within the environment.

You can really work with them and develop an amazing work culture which then creates these experiences for customers. I’ve never seen so many customers be so excited about an experience like the Maldives. Firstly, when they see it, they’re like ‘wow’ but then when they start connecting with local people, they feel the skill level and the hospitality level of Maldivians versus other countries. They compare them.

Photograph: Naj
Photograph: Naj

They just feel that there’s a much more crisp and snappy attention to detail. Now, that comes and goes with different resorts cos there are obviously different standards, but it just seems that the local population have adapted very fast and learned very fast and can respond really well.

On our resort here we’re around 60 percent local and 40 percent international [staff] – other hotels are down probably at 45 percent; at the legal limit, if you like.

Over the last twenty years, you must have seen some changes to the industry.

A lot, yeah. I think Maldives has grown up – it’s more aware. The introduction of mobile communication has changed everything. I came pre-mobiles, so when I arrived no-one had a mobile phone. I brought one back once, but I couldn’t even use it much because of the range and whatnot.

We all talk about those days, cos we loved those days. Everything on the island was on the island; stayed on the island; was all about us. We weren’t influenced by anything that was going on outside of the island, so therefore the culture on the island was so strong. It was really amazing.

Now it’s influenced differently, that’s the biggest change. And you’ve gotta say that’s for the good, because now our people are more aware of a lot of other things, so that’s helped educate everyone, and I think that it also trickles down to our operators being more transparent, being more open and working with people ethically in a more correct way.

What makes Finolhu unique in this picture?

For us, it’s about design and architecture to fit into this beach club style, which is very warm and welcoming and with a very strong influence on retro – 60s and 70s being the era of retro that we tried to bring alive in design interiors, uniforms, artwork.

Every form of visual communication, and also the music, we’ve tried to bring it alive like that as well. In a subtle way, in some places – like you’ll look in a room and see this retro telephone for champagne; it’s a 1965 model. I went specifically and found colours that remind us of that day.

This is the era that blue jeans became famous – that type of stuff – so we introduced denim into the uniforms. Then, if you look at our artwork and the styling that we worked on, in terms of the imagery, we also went back to the illustrations and the feel of the day – a bit of a European touch as well.

Retro Collage

Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is make people feel comfortable in a nostalgic way, like ‘oh, I remember that’, or ‘my parents had that’, so it may be new again for a younger generation but it’s cool. In the older generation, they’re like ‘I remember when I had that’ too. So it’s got both ends of the scale covered, and at the same time it’s respecting the environment, like the whole washed out looks and the feel.

The other big decision we made was not to build anything on that whole sand strip, leaving it natural and then just putting this shack up there which is naturally nestled into the bushes, and that being the hero – ultimately, we’ve got this amazing sand strip that we can walk along. Then putting most of the rooms over water, so we can get the volume up with people, so there’s enough people here to enjoy it, but not crowding that, and leaving it natural.

There’s a bohemian mood facing into the lagoon, and we tried to style it that way, and then on the other side with the pool, we’re very strong into this retro, using some colours that sort of pop out a little bit. Then there is the furniture which is even more retro, with our synonymous big-blue couch, so we tried to put some furniture that is iconic.

Every room has a Marshall speaker. Marshall speakers are that retro style, so your touch points there are quality and experience of that time.

What were the major challenges in developing this kind of resort?

In general, you’ll always come with challenges in the Maldives to develop resorts in terms of pulling together construction teams and procuring everything to bring it onto the island. That’s a normal situation.

Some companies do better than others and one of our challenges that we successfully overcame was, because we worked together with the owner to build the island, he organised the construction teams within his own office, and the interior design and all of the finishes were done by myself. We were very close on how we were building and what we were finishing and the timing, because we were in the same family.

 

Sheep Beach

The challenges then were smaller. They were firstly getting our team’s attention on the concept – because our concept was a little bit quirky and a little bit different – and that took the first few months as we were selecting all of the smaller things so that they all fitted into the picture, so everything would blend well and also tell the story.

The difficult part then was procuring all of the smaller things – the furniture, the table tops, finding someone who could do a sheep with cork, the little things we’ve done are the boxes in the room with the nice print that’s around them  – to come up with the idea, to think of a pattern that would work. They were the challenges, they were the great success as well.

You must have been taken notes on your perfect resort for the past twenty years, does this come close to that?

This is definitely a lot of my dream ideas, especially this bar [Beach Bar] and the way that it’s situated with two levels, giving elevation. It goes into the pool, there’s a swim-up style, there’s a possibility of having live music and DJ music undercover cos it’s weather-proof. We can then run the concepts fully without having to worry about having to move things around.

Photograph: Naj
Photograph: Naj

The styling of the restaurant, how it interacts also through our marine centre – all those connections. Over in the Cove Club, the spa, we don’t spa, we say Cove Club cos we wanted a place that could be a place, not only to have a massage, but to hang out and to get other things done to look after yourself. To not carry all of the expectations of what a quiet tranquil spa is. We wanted this fun place with music and happiness and a bit of a spark.

It’s part of a collective of ideas over many years, so when I started drawing it came out of me very fast and when I put myself into where this was, I knew exactly what floor I was looking for, how the furniture would fit and the colours. I had it like a movie in my head, it was crazy. I drove a lot of people crazy too cos I was very particular about what it is and what it has to be.

Were there any ideas that you had to leave on the shelf? If money was no option, would there be any additional ideas you would follow?

There’s a lot of other ideas that I’ve got going on in my head about resorts, I could build you another three more, with other different styles and concepts. For this concept of this retro 60s-70s beach-style funky place, it pretty much ticked 99 percent of my boxes of what I wanted to do with it.

But there’s a lot of other ideas which I’ve got that I want to put at play for other types of products because I’m very specific about not trying to do everything in one place. This is exactly enough to get that consistency throughout this concept and we don’t muddle it up by trying to do too many different things.

I would have loved to have had a bit more land on the island for my kids club. I would have loved to have been able to have an ocean view, but I didn’t have enough land left.

You must have a lot of interesting stories about your time here. What’s the one you like to tell the most?

A couple of ideas came to fruition in the early days. I was very nervous back in the day when I first started here about being stuck inside a box of ‘this is what we do and that’s all we do’ and too many rules. I’m the rule breaker and I love to smash through that.

I wanted to have different experiences with the customers cos you’ve got this most amazing environment and everyone was like ‘food must be served in the restaurant’, ‘tables must be in the restaurant’, so I was always saying, ‘why can’t we have something under a tree or out on the water; why can’t we sit in the ocean and eat?’.

So one of my favourite stories was, one day I went with my team and we dug a hole under a coconut tree – huge hole – that could seat ten people. Then i filled in half of it, put towels down and made seats, which is done in islands – that’s not new. Then I brought a grill and I pushed the grill in and got the carpenter to build me some wood around the sides and turned it into a Mongolian teppanyaki grill, and it was the first glimpse of a Maldivian teppanyaki.

Koko Grill - Conrad Rangali

Literally, I did it with my guys with no money, and that turned into a huge success and was booked out every night, and I created the first teppanyaki out there [at Rangali].

At that table, where we were talking with the owners about what else we could do. We were discussing some crazy ideas because that was so successful – financially, very successful. Then I said, ‘wouldn’t it be amazing if we could do a staircase down and go underwater and do an underwater restaurant?’, and as it was coming out of my mouth I thought they were just gonna kill me. But our owner was like ‘yeah, we should do an underwater restaurant’, and then suddenly the next day he’s researching in America where he can find this tube glass or plastic and came back and said ‘we can build this’.

I was being transferred to Tokyo at the time with Hilton so that whole idea came out of the confidence of that teppanyaki working and then, bang, we’ve created the first-in-the-world underwater restaurant.

Ithaa Restaurant - Conrad Rangali

Off of those things came the idea to build a proper underground wine cellar and bring in proper wines and expand to another level. We were being controlled a lot from Male’ with some importers that weren’t taking care of the wines very well. So what we did is we worked with the buyer – a world-class sommelier who has the accreditation of master of wine. There’s only 360 master of wines in the world and he was one of them.

He then selected the wines for our list, which then gave us the best wine list in the Maldives and we imported all of the wines directly in and cut through what was, in those days, smaller operators bringing in wines and really changed the game.

We created a wine programme in Maldives which others later on followed, but we brought the wine straight to the island on the container, unloaded it and [put it] straight into the wine cellar. Customs came, checked it all off – everything was done properly, but in those days you could do it like that.

That’s a couple of crazy stories.

Olhuveli to Host World Travel Award 2016 Finals

Olhuveli Beach & Spa Resort has been chosen as the host of this year’s World Travel Award finals, to be held on December 2nd.

The resort, nestled amid lush tropical vegetation in the turquoise waters of South Male’ Atoll, will welcome the winners of this year’s regional heats to contest for the 2016 grand prizes.

“It is an honour to reveal the World Travel Awards will return to the Maldives in December for our Grand Final 2016,” said World Travel Awards President Graham Cooke.  

“This is truly one of the most sought after destinations anywhere on earth, and it will be our pleasure to welcome our nominees to what promises to be the highlight of the tourism calendar.”

The Maldives performed admirably at this year’s Indian Ocean regional event, winning prizes for the best beach, diving, and honeymoon destination.

“Our group, Sun Siyam Resorts, has already won a couple of accolades at the regional ceremonies and cannot wait for the global announcements in December,” said Evgenia Boyankova, Group Director of Business Development, Sun Siyam Resorts.

Sun Siyam’s Iru Fushi resort picked up prizes as the leading family resort at April’s ceremony in Zanzibar.

Maldivian resorts were awarded prizes as the best overall destination – with Baros Maldives (Maldives’ Leading Luxury Hotel Villa 2016, Maldives’ Leading Boutique Resort 2016 & Indian Ocean’s Most Romantic Resort 2016) in particular singled out for its romantic atmosphere – while Maldives Airports Company Limited (Ibrahim Nasir International Airport – Indian Ocean’s Leading Airport 2016) and Trans Maldivian Airlines (Indian Ocean’s Leading Seaplane Operator 2016) were recognised as leaders in aviation services.

The archipelago’s more established resorts swept the boards, with Kurumba Maldives (Maldives’ Leading Resort 2016 & Indian Ocean’s Leading MICE Hotel 2016), Constance Moofushi (Indian Ocean’s Leading Dive Resort 2016), and Hulhule Island Hotel (Indian Ocean’s Leading Leisure Hotel 2016) taking prizes.

These prize-holders will now compete with current winners from Africa, Europe, Central America, and South America. Gala events in Jamaica, Dubai, and Vietnam in the coming weeks will determine the final contestants from the Caribbean & North America, Middle East, and Asia & Australasia regions.

The World Travel Awards was established in 1993 to acknowledge excellence across all sectors of the tourism industry. It is recognised as the ultimate hallmark of quality, setting the standards to which others aspire.

Lollipops and Luxury at Finolhu

What does world-class hospitality, Aretha Franklin, a golden sheep (named Shaun), and a UNESCO biosphere reserve have in common? Nothing. That was, until Finolhu resort sprang into life two months ago.

Now, you can experience a Maldivian vacation like no other, bringing a refreshingly retro, beach-holiday vibe to the heart of the Indian Ocean. This is a place that has to be seen to be believed (and even then it’s not guaranteed).

The short flight to Dharavandhoo airport takes you over the pristine Hanifaru Bay, before a speedboat whisks you further into the surreal beauty of the atolls. Upon arrival at Finolhu, however, you disappear completely into a fantasy world entirely of your host’s creation.

Luxurious nostalgia. Cutting-edge retro. The beach holiday you never knew you always wanted.

Photograph: Naj
Photograph: Naj

Finolhu is the second offering from the Small Maldives Island Company, whose Amilla Fushi resort opened in 2014 – also in Baa Atoll. Priding itself on its carefully selected locations and attention to detail, the company has worked with Coastline Investments to create a fresh approach to hospitality in the Maldives.

The unique design and concept of Finolhu was spearheaded by General Manager Mark Hehir, utlilising two decades’ of experience in the Maldives to craft a resort that simultaneously takes luxury travel into the future and back to the past.

Amply supplied with the Maldives’ essentials – stunning water villas, incredible food, and a tropical ocean playground on your doorstep – Finolhu immerses guests in its ‘beach club haven’ theme with incredible attention to detail.

FinolhuOceanPoolVilla

‘Mojo’ men are on call day and night to cater to your needs, while some villas feature 60s style phones, reincarnated here solely for the ordering of champagne; vintage for vintage. The mini-bar is stocked on your arrival; wines and chocolate, lollipops and sherbert.

Lagoon Villas and Ocean Pool Villas, curving over the reef, are inspired by Bohemian and French Riviera styles. To get to the larger Moorish-inspired Beach Pool Villas, head down Route 66 and take a right on Penny Lane Walkway leading to Sunset Blvd (if you spot that golden fleece, you’ve gone too far).

Photograph: Naj
Photograph: Naj

Wandering around the island, signs show the way to the gym, the ‘Baa Baa Beach Club’, and ‘Thunderball’ water sports centre, as well as reiterating the resort’s raison d’être; ‘If you’re not barefoot, you’re overdressed’, ‘I need some vitamin sea’, ‘the beach is calling and I must go’.

After a few hours, the VW camper parked in the beach bar doesn’t seem so strange as you head out to the ‘Fish and Crab Shack’. Serving classic seafood, this rustic restaurant would not seem out of place in any seaside town were it not halfway down the sprawling 1.8km sandbank from which the resort takes its name (regular ferries are also available).

Photograph: Naj
Photograph: Naj

Staying true to its pop culture motif, the resort takes its music seriously. Marshall speakers (bluetooth enabled) grace every room, while larger suites come equipped with their own record players and a selection of classic vinyl.

Indeed, it is through its music that Finolhu’s fantasia is typified. As the in-house DJ introduces you to Nina Simone, Andy Williams, and Gary Puckett by the pool, a conversation with the in-house mermaid is not uncommon.

Photograph: Naj
Photograph: Naj

At the Cove Club – ‘spa’ is a word never uttered in the resort – mystical chants and whale music is replaced with the Ratpack and french yé-yé pop. Likewise, the treatment rooms are named after iconic performers. (You’ve never really heard Sinatra until you’ve heard him while having a full body massage beneath a picture of Barbara Streisand).

As the sun dips beyond the breathtaking blue horizon – after you’ve tried one of the resort’s three main dining venues – events at the beach club dive headlong back into fantasy.

Live music is accompanied by stunning nightly performances from acrobats at the Beach Club Bar.  Fire dancers and stilt-walkers dazzle by the pool, while a cinema and games room upstairs makes the two-story entertainment hub the best place to kick-start your dreams before you head to bed.

You’ll be rubbing your eyes in disbelief as you say goodnight to Shaun. Indian Ocean nostalgia isn’t what is used to be. 

Photograph: Naj
Photograph: Naj

Totally Turquoise at Taj Exotica

If you’ve been to the Maldives, or read about its many resorts, turquoise is a colour you’ll be familiar with. It’s a word you’ll have heard more than once.

It is this blend of blues that strike you as soon as you touch down in the island archipelago, if not before (did you have a window-seat on the flight?). But a short speedboat ride away from Male’ International Airport lies Taj Exotica resort, where turquoise has become a way of life.

Located on the thin island of Emboodhoo Finolhu – 55m at its widest point – the resort’s perch, on 200 acres of peacock blue shallows on the north-eastern tip of North Male’ atoll, means you will eat, sleep, and breath this uniquely Maldivian hue.

Photography: Naj
Photography: Naj

Turquoise time begins upon arrival, with shell necklaces, rose petals and bodu beru drum beats washing over you at the jetty as the cyan seas wash beneath. From here, buggies run the length of the 550 metre island, transporting guests to villas and suites arranged either side of the tree-lined thoroughfare.

After tempting you in with aquamarine excerpts through the foliage, the resort leaps out onto the reef with an almond shaped outcrop of overwater villas, culminating in the spectacular Rehendi Suite.

Photograph: Naj
Photograph: Naj

The plentiful supply of water villas offer seclusion and privacy – each with its own pool – and a view from every room of that persistent pigment, which is already beginning to take on hidden meaning.

Ocean and beach suites offer more space and even their own private overwater beach terraces . All rooms have 24 hour dining and butler services.

As part of the the Taj Hotels group, Exotica excels in its quality of cuisine, offering a staggering array of fine dining, and speedy service, in the resort’s two main restaurants. Indeed, some guests claim to have visited the resort for ten years without trying the same dish twice.

For the man who has tried everything, however, there’s always ‘The 200 Dollar Pizza’ featuring foie gras, black truffles, lobster, caviar and edible gold leaf. (Imagine the $300 pizza!!).

The main restaurant, ‘24 Degrees’, offers all-day dining from around the world, while ‘Deep End’ brings guests award-winning wines and specialty grill and seafood dishes, served above that now-familiar shade of blue.

For those seeking something a little more special, they can surround themselves with romance – and more turquoise – on the ‘Wedding Pavillion’. If this still isn’t enough, a quick boat trip to the ‘Ocean Pavillion’ – regarded as one of the most unusual dining spots in the Maldives – allows couples to immerse themselves completely in the amorous azure.

Photograph: Naj
Photograph: Naj

As well as the option to feed the local fish and rays every evening, guests can feed each other, with chefs happy to grant you a ‘license to grill’ at the outdoor cooking stations. (Classes are available every Friday for those hoping to make a good impression on their significant other).

With the taste of turquoise taken care of, Taj Exotica is also notable for its excellent spa facilities, with the services of the Jiva-Grande spa dominating southern end of the island.

Drawing from the company’s home, the spa offers a wide range of Indian treatments with Ayurvedic philosophy, from complementary yoga each day to the spa’s signature Alepa mud treatments. All materials used in the spa are organic – from the linen to the oils – and all treatments are performed in full view of that tranquil tint.

Photography: Naj
Photography: Naj

The large shallows in which the resort resides is perfect for water sports, snorkeling, or just being – with hammocks waiting just a short wade away from the beach. For those anxious to explore the bigger blues beyond, fishing trips, sunset cruises and visits to nearby island communities are all on the menu.

It is with good reason that Taj Exotica continues to win multiple awards each year for its romantic atmosphere and excellent service. By the time you’ve finished your stay, you’ll begin to know how turquoise truly feels!!

Photograph: Naj
Photograph: Naj

Hotel Jen Launches New Reward program in Jen’s Kitchen On-the-Go

Hotel Jen Malé Maldives, Jen’s Kitchen On-the-Go has introduced the Coffee Reward Card from 01st of September 2016. Assistant Marketing & Communications Manager Ms. Nina Mohamed at Hotel Jen Malé Maldives said “Today, more and more consumers want to be rewarded for their loyalty, At Hotel Jen, we pride ourselves on offering our regular customers the very best service and introducing the Coffee reward card free loyalty program is a start in one of the many great programs we have planned to commence during the year 2016-2017”.

Mr. Mohamed Mauroof F&B Manager at Hotel Jen Malé Maldives said “We’re now confident that the coffee reward card will also offer our customers to enjoy it here more at Jen’s Kitchen On-the-Go and it’s a great way for us to thank our Loyal customers”.

The Jen’s Kitchen On-the-Go coffee reward card will be available from Jen’s Kitchen On-the-Go counter and you can get stamped for every coffee that you purchase from the outlet and on the seventh coffee you get it free on the house. And is only valid at Jen’s Kitchen On- the -Go. So on your next visit to Jen’s Kitchen On-the-Go don’t forget to ask for your Coffee reward card.

About Jen’s Kitchen On-the-Go

Hotel Jen’s newest café, ‘Jen’s Kitchen-On-The-Go’ was opened during the year 2015 Ramadan with a soft opening and the grand opening was on 6th August 2015. The ‘grab and go’ themed cafe’ is located in the lobby of the hotel, facing the main road Ameer Ahmed Magu, and comes with a takeaway corner, making it easier for customers who are in a hurry. Located in the hub of the corporate part of town surrounded by government offices, banks, and schools, the café is situated in the perfect spot to take a breather, and collect yourself in the midst of a hectic day. The interior of the café is cozy and casual, decorated in soft neutral tones. The smoking area is conveniently located outside whilst the inside of Café’ and Hotel lobby area has a dedicated seating for its customers. Jen’s Kitchen On-the-Go is a Restaurant chain operated by Hotel Jen and currently has its outlets in Maldives and Singapore.