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Calling All Castaways to the Maldives

Water villas are of the same high caliber as those at Kuda Huraa (but a lot cheaper). Unfrivolous essays in wood, they combine New Zealand redwood oak floors with cedar walls and untreated teak decks. Since Hilton used only plantation trees, it follows that guests are implored-- rather cheekily-- to conserve energy ("Experience your fan!") and to help carry plastic and metal refuse off the island (nobody does).

Unfortunately, the food at Rangali is not yet up to its setting. One meal from the Asian and Mediterranean buffets in the Atoll Restaurant goes a long way. Holding out the greatest hope is the new Sunset Grill & Bar, an octagonal bungalow erected over the shimmering water with a handful of private step-down dining terraces. If the chef relaxes and learns to simply grill the succulent local lobster, he could wind up with the best restaurant in the Maldives.

People laugh about how some of the Maldives are little more than sandbars, but it's no joke. In what must be a record villa-to-land ratio in the islands, Banyan Tree checks in with 48 units on a comma-shaped speck 650 feet in diameter (not counting the tail).

Though the island of Vabbinfaru is squeezed for space, gripes are balanced out by a state-of-the-art spa and some of the country's most stylish accommodations. However, only those in the slightly more expensive "beach" category, nearest to the shore, should be considered. Villas are round, with conical thatch-and-bamboo roofs that, seen from indoors, spiral upward like the inside of a conch shell. Floors are crazy-paved in polished beige granite; four pairs of louvered French doors are set into each faÁade; and palm-wood four-posters carved with ornamental knots are romantically draped in mosquito netting. First-night guests are wowed by bougainvillea-strewn top sheets folded like fans that have welcome to banyan tree spelled out in green leaves picked by the houseboy on his way to making up the rooms. Charmingly, bathrooms follow the curve of the villas' outside walls, with yet more louvers opening onto private gardens.

Of the world's top-end international spas, few match the authority, seriousness-- and possibly even the beauty-- of Banyan Tree. For a 30-minute "tension relief" massage devoted exclusively to the neck, shoulders, and back, you enter a hushed bamboo hut with a palm tree pushing through the middle of it. New World music by Medwyn Goodall plays gently while peppermint oil burns in one corner, sandalwood incense in another. A teak massage table is draped in emerald Thai silk, with a cotton batik pillow at the head, and a footed celadon bowl of floating jasmine flowers on the floor (for a visual treat while you're on your stomach).

All Banyan Tree therapists, who are from Thailand, custom-blend the spa's massage oils by hand. For the tension massage, you're instructed to pick a crystal (say, garnet) from a velvet-lined horn-and-brass box, then to place it in a tumbler of water (okay, so this part's not so serious). A therapist applies a mixture of sweet basil, ylang-ylang, and lavender oil using only her knuckles, elbows, and forearms-- and the force of a sumo wrestler. It's the massage of a lifetime-- especially since by drinking the garnet water you ingest "passion, sensuality, confidence, and social success."

Banyan Tree has so many assets you almost forgive its uninspired food and its size. Much harder to swallow are the staff volleyball and soccer games that take place on the island's best piece of real estate in the hour leading up to sundown-- the most precious part of the day-- at least four times a week. The general manager said that if the games were called off, there would be an employee walkout. And he said mine was the only customer complaint in six months.

Like many of the Maldives, Vabbinfaru offers the peculiar thrill of being able to see straight through from one end of the island, shaggy with coconut palms, to the other. Repeat visitors point to this as one small but telling reason why the archipelago succeeds in delivering the ultimate island experience. After the Maldives, they warn, you may be spoiled for life.

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