North Island It was a whirlwind opening in May for North Island, which, due to its impressive pedigree, had been creating buzz long before construction was finished. South African husband-and-wife architectural team Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens had designed some of Africa's most prominent safari lodges, including Ngorongoro Crater Lodge in Tanzania. Chef Geoffrey Murray founded two of the early nineties' most fashionable restaurants: Boom, in New York, and Bang, in Miami Beach. And the resort's managing outfit, South Africa-based Wilderness Safaris, was already a big name in the world of ecotourism.
So, after much fanfare, the 11-villa island some 18 miles northwest of Mahé finally welcomed its first visitors—only to be hit the same day by the worst storm in six years. Violent winds blew in, and torrential rain morphed dusty paths into mud pits. Guests hid in their villa bedrooms, glass-enclosed spaces with flat-screen TV's and high-speed Internet access (the 5,000-square-foot compounds are otherwise exposed to the elements). An Italian count demanded that he be returned to civilization, but helicopters couldn't land. Moreover, the roiling seas meant that the resort's twocatamarans were grounded.
It had all the ingredients of a hospitality debacle. But the staff pulled through. The chef concocted dishes such as barracuda poached in tamarind curry with cinnamon-scented basmati rice, and the bartender did his part with papaya margaritas. When the skies cleared after a week, nobody asked to leave. The Italian count even said he planned to return someday soon.
By the time James and I arrived a week later, the island had dried out. We immediately took off our shoes and relaxed, which the design of the resort encourages. A stone bench in the reception area is positioned over a small reflecting pool that's perfect for foot-cooling. "We call the look of the resort 'couture Robinson Crusoe,'" says Rech, who with Carstens moved to the island last year, fleshed out the motifs on-site, and drew inspiration from the surroundings. A forest of takamaka trees became the central theme. They preserved the blond wood, which was diseased, then turned the trunks upside down, creating thick mottled columns that were used throughout the main area and the villas. Broken bits of washed-up coral were strung together to create screens.
In keeping with their celebration of nature, North Island's owners have hatched the Noah's Ark project, to rehabilitate the former coconut plantation. They are transforming the place into a wildlife sanctuary, removing foreign trees and animals and reintroducing rare native animal species. A research station will be set up later this year, and guests will be able to participate in scientific projects and environmental monitoring.
Murray's cooking has also evolved from the landscape, which he calls a tropical supermarket. "I wouldn't bring in raspberries, because they don't grow here," he says. After discovering a patch of wild berries, called roussay, on North Island, Murray created a citron, mace, and nutmeg ice cream with roussay granita. He made the ice cream by hand while standing in the walk-in freezer.
It's not all homespun: a high-tech wine cellar protects 2,418 bottles, served in Riedel glasses, no less. The spa, scheduled for completion by October, has been conceptualized by Rachelle Moulai and Adria W. Lake, of Bali's Begawan Giri. At $1,656 and up a night, this resort isn't for just anyone—not every guest paying those kinds of prices wants to go barefoot and take showers in the open air. But for those who appreciate the outdoors and don't mind napping in a linen-cloaked sala (an African gazebo) next to their own private pool, North Island is a winner.