Sunday, 25 September 2016

Wonect Review: MSH X Sanrio Love Liner - Gudetama Liquid Eyeliner in Noble Brown

As someone who is not a morning person at all, Sanrio's Gudetama (ぐでたま) - The Lazy Egg - is (I say this without a hint of irony) my spirit animal. This is me, in the morning, rolling over in my blankets, saying "Go away!" and hitting snooze for the umpteenth time: 

Sanrio's characters are adorable across the board, but there's something about Gudetama's distinct lack of chipperness that's struck a chord. It was only introduced in 2013, but it's already inspired a cartoon series with over 500 episodes, cafes in Japan and Hong Kong, and even make-up collaborations, like the 2016 Holika Holika Lazy & Easy Collection, which now includes skincare products as well.  Gudetama is also part of a limited edition lineup of eyeliners, created as part of a partnership between MSH Labo (They have a tagline that reads KILLER BEAUTY, which I love), and Sanrio

The five-shade collection that launched in late July 2016, features five (Well, technically six) of Sanrio's most popular characters: Hello Kitty fronts the eye-catching Burgundy Brown, My Melody a girly and sweet Pink Brown, Gudetama is the peachy-toned Noble Brown, Pompompurin a caramel-hued Dark Brown, and Little Twin Stars a pitch-perfect Rich Black. 

As part of September's Beauty Box, Wonect sent me MSH's Gudetama Love Liner to try, and I have to say that it's a fantastic liquid eyeliner and a definite favourite of mine now. I'm not the only one who thinks so. Love Liner has already won 19 different beauty industry awards from 2014 to 2016, and managed to hold on to the number 1 sales ranking in the entire Eyeliner category on Cosme Japan for a whole quarter this year, which is no mean feat. Apart from their more neutral colour selections (To which the Sanrio collection belongs), Love Liner also offers more brightly coloured liquid liners, which are released based on the season, and which I now covet. 

My eyeliner Holy Grail was once L'Oreal's Super Liner in Carbon Gloss, felt-tipped and unwieldy, but so lasting on my horrendously oily eyelids, which tends to cause even the hardiest of liners to bleed three hours into wear. They stopped carrying it in Boots and Superdrug my third year of uni, and I haven't been able to find it since. Currently, my eyeliner stash consists of Estee Lauder's Double-Wear Stay In Place Gel Eyeliner in Stay Coffee (It doesn't actually stay on my eyelids, so I've taken to using it as a brow gel. It's going to last forever at this rate), as well as the FlowFushi Mote Liner in Brown Black. 

I've been moving towards less harsh shades of eyeliner in recent years because I'm no longer 15 and emo, but it wasn't till Wonect shipped over the Noble Brown Love Liner that I've tried something quite so light. Used for tight-lining, it's absolutely extraordinary thanks to the exquisitely tapered brush: just 0.1 mm thick for better precision. The Gudetama Noble Brown is also very natural looking, and great for subtle days where you want that "no makeup" look, but the quick-dry formula also means that in no time at all, you can build and build for more drama if you need it.

Love Liner is trying to differentiate itself from the other players in the market by hyping the moisturizing elements that its eyeliners contain. To me it isn't the most compelling ingredients list: Hydrolyzed Silk (?), Pearl Extract (Hmm...), Hyaluronic Acid (Eh, that seems alright), and most bizarrely, Horse Placenta (Wait, what?!) Still, it's the only eyeliner I've used so far that hasn't caused any dryness, itchiness or irritation even after long days of wear, so that Horse Placenta might be working after all. 

And all that lack of eye rubbing? Totally helps it stay in place. 

After nearly a month of almost daily wear, I can honestly say that the Love Liner has far greater staying power on my oily eyelids than the Mote Liner. MSH also claims that their eyeliner is waterproof and sweat-proof, so if you're the sort of person who wears eyeliner to the gym, or if you cry a lot during movies (Like me!), then this is probably the eyeliner for you. 

I haven't cried once during a movie this month (Ok, I teared a bit during Bridget Jones' Baby, but that's because I miss London so much damn it. Also, there was no ugly crying, so it doesn't count), so I designed an alternative test for the Gudetama Love Liner's ability to withstand water and sweat: I went snorkeling with it on while in Hawaii. 

Fine tip aside, the Love Liner itself is heftier than other liquid eyeliners, providing greater control that feels far more like a pencil than a brush. Whether you're flicking on that perfect cat eye with great precision, or scribbling temporary tattoos onto your skin (I also drew fish, planets, and stars on my ankles), just give it a few shakes before using, and the formula glides on like a dream. 

With the liner on, I swam in the ocean for over an hour gazing at sea urchin (Ugh, so close yet so far from my stomach), yellow tang, and a few dozen other mesmerizing marine creatures. When I got out, my little eyeliner heart remained, and tenaciously clung onto my skin for the rest of the evening, even when I lost my footing and spilled a bit of Pina Colada on it during a booze cruise. It is truly the eyeliner that never fails. 

And yet, with a bit of makeup remover and warm water, the Love Liner washes off without a trace, no tugging or furious scrubbing necessary. I have no answer for how it manages to do this beyond witchcraft, but I already know for certain what my next eyeliner purchase is going to be. If I can't get my hands on more limited edition designs, I will miss having Gudetama look at me every morning, but who knows? There might be yet another lust-worthy collaboration in store...

Check out the rest of the featured products and other Starlet reviews on Wonect Life!

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Seoul, Through Four Red Bean Desserts


Simply wanting is, for us, reason enough for doing something. So given M & D's particular obsession with fondness for Korean red bean desserts, and danpatjuk in particular, it was mildly surprising that we ended up sampling only four different ones over a 48 hour period while in Seoul earlier this year. It most likely would have been a higher number if not for the fact that we were so often shuttled between destinations on the guided tour that we were on (The last successful trip organised by the ill-fated S Travel), but we did our level best with what opportunities we had. Tragically, we were unable to make good on our earlier vow to go back to The Second Best Red Bean Porridge in Seoul, which remains the standard that all red bean desserts we try are measured against. (I am about 85% certain that there is a Chinese idiom to the effect of "If I say I am number two, who dares claim to be number one?", and this is what I think about every time I consider their name) The places we visited this time served interesting variations of the danpatjuk theme. They may not have been able to steal the crown from The Second Best in Seoul, but most were still hearty and comforting, and they also gave us some very interesting glimpses of the city.

It feels very much like home when I'm in Seoul, although the change in scenery lends an extra hint of charm by making everyday things seem somewhat novel. On the trains, everyone you see is glued to their smartphones, just like we are. And amidst all the towering city blocks, you can find some beautifully preserved architecture. There's also a thriving culinary scene that's at once fiercely proud of its heritage, and unafraid to innovate. The less that's said of some experiments or fads the better, but some have been able to very thoughtfully meld the old and the new. Then there are things like patjuk, where it's really all about the ingredients you use, and your technique. 

Patjuk, or red bean porridge, is a kind of comfort food in Korea, taken not only for warmth in the colder months, but also in the belief that eating it prevents illnesses. On a slightly more mythical level, it is claimed that the regular consumption of patjuk helps to ward off evil spirits, and safeguards the health and happiness of the whole family. It seems like a lot to expect from what's essentially a bowl of boiled beans, but you can never discount the transformative effect good food can have on your person. Just look at us - we have sweet patjuk every opportunity we can, and we've never been bothered by evil spirits. Coincidence? I think not!

To me, it feels somehow disingenuous when writers describe cities as being "at the crossroads between heritage and modernity". As if there's really a choice between the two. We're always moving in the direction we think progress is supposed to lie, and it's just a question of how much of the past we take with us, and in what form. Our first bowl of patjuk on this trip was in Insadong (인사동), located in the heart of Seoul, north of the Han River. This is indeed where you'll find a large concentration of stores still dedicated to Korea's artistic heritage, but it's also a mish-mash of influences. Along the main street of Insadong-gil, you can find a whole array of modern art galleries and tea houses, as well as an astonishingly large number of snack shops, one of which is famous for selling piping hot red bean-filled cakes shaped like dollops of poo. Clothing wholesalers jostle for attention alongside new galleries displaying old embroidery techniques, and if you turn off the main street, you'll find a warren of alleyways that often lead somewhere surprising. 

You'll find a majority of the city's heritage building stock in Bukchon Hanok Village, but here and there are pockets that have also managed to withstand the vagaries of time. We had our first bowl of danpatjuk of the trip in this repurposed old house, sitting on mismatched low chairs that looked like they came out of a Pinterest fever dream. Their version was a simple one. Running a spoon through it didn't uncover any additional treasures aside from the smattering of pine nuts and chopped walnuts that had been sprinkled on top, but every bite held a hint of spice, which is what we've noticed sets the Korean version of red bean soup apart from the rest of the East Asian versions. It was a chilly day, so I also had a bowl of ginger tea, which turned out to be so strong it nearly put hairs on my chest.

Singapore has a particularly brutal food & beverage scene, with 75% of new restaurants winding up within a year. You're simultaneously thrilled by all these fresh offerings, and aggravated that you'll never be able to truly know the comfort of returning to something that's just as you left it. We've known love and loss on far too many counts (Oh, my beloved fried dumpling stall, I still cry sometimes when I think about you), but there's a particular appalled horror that we feel when places we like in other countries disappear off the map.

Bingo in Samcheong-dong was where M and D were first exposed to the delights of patjuk, and like ducklings who imprint on the first face they see, Bingo was what they thought of when patjuk came to mind. It was a charming hole in the wall sort of place, staffed by a gentleman they called "an artist", in the sort of reverential tones usually reserved for life-changing events (Though now that I think about it...) Each order of patjuk took forever to get to you, as the pot needed to be lovingly stirred to the right consistency, but they never minded the trek or the wait. The end result was, to them, entirely worth it. So, as always, we made the pilgrimage up, only to realize that Bingo was no more.

RIP Bingo, we hardly knew ye. 

Much like us, Seoul is a city in flux, chasing the latest innovations, and bound by the same inescapable laws of gentrification. Samcheong-dong is no longer the so-trendy-it-hurts locale it was a few years back. Like so many other ultra-cool neighbourhoods, it's experiencing the creep of of the mainstream. A chain coffee store here, another ubiquitous skincare store there. Progress, it seems, demands higher rents, and while some of the older inhabitants still stand, others are getting slowly pushed out by those with deeper pockets. 

Where Bingo once stood is now the flagship store of Cafe Bora (카페 보라), sleek and almost Nordic looking. It specializes in treats made with purple sweet potato from Boryeong, a city on the coast of the yellow sea that's best known for its summer mud festival. "Bora" means purple in Korean, but beyond the obvious connection, the cafe alludes to purple being a noble colour of the Joseon Dynasty. It was very interesting to see how else the cafe established its Koreanness in its promotional material as well, with two children wearing hanboks in shades of purple happily munching on their delicate looking bingsu. The emphasis on homegrown ingredients, harking back to cultural precedent and deliberately designing the desserts to connotate natural goodness - all the while looking as modern as can be. The deft balance of the concept is fantastic. 

Because we'd travelled all the way for danpatjuk, and it was there on the menu, that was what we ordered instead of Cafe Bora's purple sweet potato signatures. Alas, the only thing I have to say about it is this: Should you find yourself here, or at their sister outlet in Daechi around Gangnam, get the purple sweet potato desserts instead. That's what we're definitely doing the next time. If nothing else, the purple sweet potato soft serve and the purple sweet potato puree atop a bed of shaved ice are remarkably pretty, and would make for excellent #Foodstagram subjects. 

Our last bowl of danpatjuk was enjoyed just outside of Seoul, in the Heyri Art Valley (헤이리 예술마을). We first visited a few summers back, gamely taking a public bus based on instructions we found on a website. Driving past the DMZ and seeing the long expanse walled off with mean-looking coils of barbed wire fencing was an eye opening experience, to say the least, and for what is effectively an artist commune to be so close by is an interesting symbol of hopes for a future peace. Nestled amongst verdant mountains, the Art Village is a popular date spot on weekends, which means that during the week a lot of the museums and galleries either won't be open, or keep odd hours. Still, if you have a full day to walk around, you'll find quite a number of things to keep you occupied, like art workshops (I tried my hand at woodworking, but the resulting chicken was so ugly M threw it away once we got home), a massive bookstore (Most titles in Korean, but fun to see nevertheless), museums (If you want to see how South Koreans lived in the 50s and 60s, it's an excellent historical resource), public art (Sculptures everywhere!), and of course, cafes. 

Cafe culture in Seoul is a fascinating topic, which has led to not just some much-needed roundup lists of the best places to go, but also social commentary. It's really not just about the coffee, but the cafe as a social space, and the economic implications of paying through your nose for a daily cup of joe. Sometimes as a tourist though, you're just happy to find so many places to flee to, away from scorching heat or biting breezes. Café Blume, attached to the Blume Museum of Contemporary Art, was our refuge on our initial visit. I've never seen the museum, which was closed every time we went, but the cafe is all airy gorgeousness. 

The dishes here are a little dearer than what you might find elsewhere, but it's completely worth it. The menu of traditional Korean favourites can be summed up as healthful, classy and artistic, in the best possible way. And mostly importantly, everything is delicious. I still think fondly about their mushroom porridge, despite being the sort of person who avoid multigrain where possible. This time, we were with friends, and after prefacing with a warning on the prices, we managed by splitting two dishes between the five of us, so everyone could have a taste without hurting our wallets overmuch. Ordering their danpatjuk was an absolute necessity, but for a change of texture, my cries of "Let's have the mushroom porridge too!" went unheard, and we tried the lotus leaf wrapped rice instead, which turned out to be utterly marvellous. Taken with bites of seasoned seaweed, it's richly fragrant. 

The danpatjuk at Blume is my second favourite, for all that it's done in an wholly different style to The Second Best in Seoul. Unlike the latter where the beans have been cooked to a silky-smooth soup, Blume's is still studded through with largely solid beans, giving you something to chew on with every spoonful. There's a stronger hint of herbs and spices in this danpatjuk, like they've taken its role as a cure for ailments very seriously, but it's still holds just the right amount of sweetness to make for a very satisfying dessert. 

We're shamelessly self-indulgent people, but I think it's wonderful to be easily contented with good food and good cheer, so I've embraced it wholeheartedly. Like Nancy Mitford said, life is sometimes sad and often dull, but there are currants in the cake, and this is one of them. We tucked into our fourth red bean dessert in three days at the airport, scant moments before we were due to board the plane. It was a simple bowl of bingsu at the food court, but surprisingly well done, with the right ratio of milk to shaved ice to sweetened red beans to cinnamon, and a nice final note to end on, while we watched a group of actors enact a royal procession through the terminal. 

Maybe next time we'll try more cultural activities, or just visit the city for a girls-only spa and shopping weekend. So many different realities, so many facets to see. And that, I suppose, is the beauty of travel. 

Saturday, 13 August 2016

The Lazy Girl's Beauty Arsenal


Everyone knows that beauty requires effort, but unfortunately I take after D, and am therefore both terribly lazy and terribly vain. It is a curious affliction. On one hand, I've amassed a huge beauty arsenal because I'll see some new-fangled lotions and potions, and think "Oooh, my skin probably needs this!" On the other hand, when the time comes to actually apply most of these products, I'm half-asleep. I keep figuring I'll get round to it tomorrow, maybe. It doesn't help that the latest beauty rituals take so bloody long. All those 10 to 20 step regimens sound so good in theory, but who has the time? Having to lovingly pat each product onto your face a hundred times for maximum absorption and efficacy? Insanity!

Mornings of course, are the absolute worst. If I got up earlier, I'd have the time to wash my face and moisturize properly so my makeup won't become an oily slick and slide off halfway through the day. I'd also have long enough to massage in eye cream in the hope that people will stop telling me how tired I look. But if I got up earlier, I'd actually feel more tired. 

In the first beauty bundle I received from Wonect, I found a genius solution to my problems. Saborino Morning Face Mask is a product that made its debut in the Japanese market just last year, but it's already become massively popular. Everyone loves a two-fer, for instance classic hydrating primers like Illamasqua's Hydra Veil, but this sheet mask does one better. The Saborino Morning Mask bills itself as breakfast for your face, and it's a three-course extravaganza that combines a cleansing function with what they dub a 'skincare routine', and a makeup primer base. All you have to do is pop the mask on for 60 seconds in the morning, and let it work its magic.

Is it, you ask, too good to be true? I wondered the same myself, and to test it, I stuck the pack of five masks by my bedside table for a whole workweek. 

The first thing that stuck me was how remarkably easy it was to fish a sheet out of the resealable pack each day. After I hit snooze, I didn't even have to open my eyes much. Most other sheet masks I've tried are delicate, flimsy things that bunch up all too easily, but these were surprisingly sturdy. Once you unfold it and figure out which way is up, the only thing left to do is place it firmly over your face and smooth the edges down. 

The recommended time to leave it on is just a minute, but I wound up snoozing with the mask on a couple of times and was no worse for the wear. With a fragrance I'd describe as citrusy, minty, and herbaceous, it's something absolutely refreshing to wake up to when you finally emerge from that extra five minute nap. The Saborino Morning Mask is also non-sticky, so you can skip directly to the part where you slap on your make-up for the day. 

M told me that my skin looked unusually clear and dewy on the mornings I used the mask, and I thought my foundation glided on a tad smoother, but don't just take our word for it. It's even been raved about on Cosme (コスメ), the Japanese version of MakeupAlley, only even harsher (Because the Japanese beauty market just has so many new innovations to choose from, only products that really work for most people make it to the top)

The Saborino Mask isn't something that you can find in Singapore stores just yet, but if you're the pioneering sort, and want to be among the first in the rest of the world to try it, it's available on Wonect

An online retailer based in Kyoto, Wonect ships Japanese products internationally. It all started when a Japanese gentleman by the name of Kota Mizuguchi decided to realize his dream of connecting disparate communities around the world. You know the fact that there's enough food to feed everyone in the world, if not for pesky issues like politics, logistics, and a lack of knowledge? Mizuguchi was so moved by a documentary on this very issue, that he quit his job and tried to devise a means to help plug international gaps between demand and supply.

He started very simply in 2014 with what he knew, which was Japanese digital cameras, and began selling them to Singaporean customers under the company Dreambook. Business took off, and since Singaporeans like Japan and Japanese products so much, requests came in for him to sell even more things, especially in the beauty realm. Wonect, which stands for "World Connect", started recently as a newly formed business entity from which Mizuguchi moves ever closer to accomplishing his goals. The man's a visionary and a real global citizen who's seen a problem and is trying to solve it. You have to give him massive props for that.

I'm one of five Wonect Starlets across Asia, who'll be showcasing some of the best Japanese products on the market over the next six months, courtesy of Wonect. I found out about it on Reddit, which is also where I found my fiancé, so I have a pretty good feeling about the whole project.

3-in-1 Morning Mask aside, my August kit came with 3 other products that are pretty swell too. I've been using the Softymo Honey Whip Cleansing Foam in the evenings, to get rid of trace makeup. Formulated with five different types of honey (Lavender Honey, Damask Rose Honey, Wolfberry Honey, Orange Blossom Honey and Lychee Honey), it has a naturally sweet scent that reminds me of a fruit parfait. Made by the beauty giant Kose under their Cosmeport umbrella, it comes under the Softymo line of cleansers, which have a reputation of being effective, but not unnecessarily harsh. 

The bottle is designed to dispense a nice fluffy blob of foaming cleanser, and I have to say that the texture is absolutely amazing: surprisingly lush and luxurious for such an affordable product. Sometimes when you look at clouds, do you ever forget everything you know about science and think to yourself "That would feel so nice to touch"? I do, and the Honey Whip Foam feels exactly how I imagine clouds ought to: soft and yielding, spreading across your face with ease. There's also a pleasing denseness to it when you first pump it out, unlike some other brands that get a little bubbly and runny from the get-go.

Most Japanese beauty publications recommend that you do a double-cleanse at the end of the day, with actual makeup remover, and then a dedicated cleanser. Products like Shu Uemura's range of Cleansing Oils and the Softymo Foam Cleanser purportedly help you cut out a step by getting both things done at once. I've actually bought into the wisdom of a double cleanse, mainly due to the fact that I have ridiculously oily skin, and like to use makeup that's fairly stubborn. You can clean it off, yes, but it won't go gentle into that good night. 

Here's a little experiment to show you how the Honey Whip Cleanser stacks up against some of the products I use regularly. I layered some of Shiseido's Synchro Skin Lasting Liquid Foundation (Currently a shade I'm a little too tanned for), with a dab of Urban Decay's Naked Skin Weightless Complete Coverage Concealer. On top of that, I sketched on a few strokes of the Flow Fushi Mote Liner in Black-Brown, MAC's Marilyn Monroe Lipstick (Super pigmented and lasts forever), Illamasqua's Long Lasting Matte Powder Blusher in Hussy, Za's Gel Liner, and Estee Lauder's Double Wear Stay-in-Place Eye Pencil in Forest Green

As you can see, a few seconds after initial contact, the cleanser was already working away at some of the pigment. Wonect suggests 3 to 5 pumps for your whole face, so to the initial three pumps I added two more halfway through. After a thorough scrubbing, some traces of colour still remained. For heavy-duty makeup, the Honey Whip isn't going to cut it alone. Used as a complement to make-up remover however, it's a really nice cleanser. Free from colourants, parabens, mineral oils, silicones and ethyl alcohols, you won't get that overly tight feeling you might experience with harsher cleansers here. Instead, my skin always feels surprisingly soft and hydrated after using it. There's something to be said for honey cleansing - this is just a much less messy alternative.

Like Kit Kat, Nivea is a global brand, but all their best flavours can be found almost exclusively in Japan. The Nivea Flavor Lip Delicious Drop in Peach is lip smackingly good, with an alluring hint of vanilla. The moisturizing properties come from a blend of olive oil and plant-based squalane, and it's definitely stopped my lips from cracking so much. I use it in the day because the lip cream comes with SPF 11, providing some degree of UV protection. The droplet-shaped tube is extraordinarily handy as well for navigating the contours of my lips, from cupid's bow to the narrow inner corners, without overflowing onto the skin around my mouth. It's a neat little solution, and one that save me the worry of having to swipe away little smears of grease.

I've saved my favourite product for last. The HABA Medical Whitening Essence Squalane doesn't look like much at first, but this tiny bottle packs a punch. You just need to apply a drop or two to your skin each night, so the 30 ml bottle can last you easily half a year. Non-comedogenic and fragrance free, the squalane is like an oil, but when gently pressed into your skin, it absorbs almost immediately. No oily residue or feeling at all. HABA has a few different squalane-based products, and what differentiates this whitening essence is the addition of some Vitamin C, hence the coloured bottle to ensure less light gets through and oxidizes it. 

I like having a little golden glow from the sun, but I'm dreading the inevitable curse of pigmentation that comes with old age and UV exposure. Prevention is better (and cheaper than!) cure, and non-irritating whitening products like the HABA squalane help mitigate some of the worst excesses of my frolicking outdoors. I rub it between my palms at night and cup my hands firmly over my face for a few seconds, feeling safe in the knowledge that the squalane will work its way into my skin come morning.

Someday, I'll develop better beauty habits, and hopefully get round to using my hoard of serums and moisturizers. Till then, I'm glad Wonect has armed me with products that'll help in a pinch, perfect for lazy girls like me. I'll be back in September with a whole host of brand new things to share. In the meantime, click here to check out the rest of the products that the other Wonect Starlets are featuring this month. 

If you'd like to try any of the really effective products I've reviewed, Wonect is very generously offering a discount. From the 3rd to the 8th of September 2016, you can use the Wonect Coupon Code ABIGAIL<3 to get 15% off - no minimum purchase required.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

W Maldives Resort & Spa

Luxury Resort Maldives

Moving into Warrior Two is even more of a challenge than usual: my feet are sinking alarmingly quickly into the powdery-soft white sand under my towel, and I find myself constantly shifting my weight around to compensate, lest I fall over. Next to me, M is having similar problems, but is gamely keeping at it. It is our second day at the W Maldives, and we've spent it in a flurry of activity. Now, at sunset yoga, we're really embracing the W's #PoseWhenever philosophy out on the main beach. An insistent and surprisingly strong ocean breeze blows over us throughout the session, and overhead the clouds are turning cotton candy pink.

Sunset yoga, on the beach, at the W Resort & Spa Maldives on Fesdoo Island. Yes, it is as glamorous a holiday as it sounds, nearly falling over notwithstanding. And it's all thanks to Vita Coco.

At the end of a spectacularly crap day in May, I was checking emails while wallowing in my #QuarterLifeCrisis, when I came upon one that was entitled "Results of Vita Coco's Take A Sip, Win A Trip Contest!", with the little preview below just saying "CONGRATULATIONS!" I'd sent in my competition entry over a month before, and figured I was lucky enough to get one of the handy fruit infuser bottles, or better yet a fitness membership with GuavaPass. But when I clicked through, the email told me quite excitedly that I was the winner of a trip for two to the Maldives instead.

Somehow, you never hear about the people who win the grand prizes of fantastic holidays to exotic locales (Do they not want to shout it from the rooftops? Is it just me?) so my immediate reaction was to think that it was all a big hoax (It was not). Thankfully, the combined talent of David Mitchell and Robert Webb saved me from deleting the email outright, and a few weeks later M & I were once again walking down the tarmac of Ibrahim Nasir International AirportHere I am at the W's Seaplane Lounge, looking positively delighted with how things worked out:

Vita Coco was my go-to coconut water brand while I was studying in London, when I got it in my head that I'd probably feel a lot better during exam period if I did some exercise. They stocked it at Good Vibes, where I finally learned to enjoy yoga, and I developed something of a habit to say the least. To me, it still tastes of accomplishment (That I was able to roll out of bed for early morning yoga classes) and freedom (From all that running away from the library to go for Power Plate sessions). And of course, it now also has the honour of being the best damn sip of coconut water I've ever had. 

Singapore is 3 hours ahead of the Maldives, and the best flight you can take if you're heading off to a resort is the 10.10 am SQ 462 to Male, so you arrive in time to check-in straight away. It takes a little over 4 hours to fly to Male from Singapore, which is more than enough time to have a few rounds of Economy Sangria (To a half cup of red wine - Singapore Airlines' Syrah makes the perfect base - add a shot of Grand Marnier, then top up with orange juice and 7-Up), watch a couple of movies, and get super stoked for the holiday ahead. 

The W Maldives experience begins the moment you step out past immigration and customs. Our Airport Ambassador Nooh quickly helped us check-in for our Trans Maldivian Airways flight, then whisked us away to the W Lounge in our own private van, plying us with cold water and refreshing towelettes by Bliss, who also do all the lovely Lemon + Sage bathroom amenities across the W hotels. The lounge itself is a riot of colour, their mural wall depicting a particularly vibrant side to the Maldives. Most importantly, in the centre of the room is a table piled high with all manner of treats. Indulgence doesn't wait till you're on the island! As we scarfed amazingly moist walnut brownies and I put a dent in their stash of blue sour belts, Nooh helped us through all the necessary paperwork to become Starwood Preferred Guests, and checked us in so our arrival on Fesdoo Island would take us seamlessly from welcome drink to our Retreat. 

Transportation aside, the prize provided us with three nights at the W's Wonderful Beach Oasis. We stayed at Retreat 111, and everyone we met marvelled at what a lucky number that was. We certainly felt extremely lucky: the room was terrifically indulgent. The main sleeping area was decorated with gorgeous jellyfish, coral and starfish patterns in pops of pink and bright red, and the punk-nautical theme was complete with a massive woven hammock, and glowing rope lamps suspended on both sides of the bed.

The tropical influences could be felt most keenly in the bathroom. The open-air ceiling faces out to a number of coconut trees, and when you're standing under the rain shower looking up at blue skies and those trees... Well, you can imagine how special that's like. The only downside is you can only sing in the shower if you're particularly brave, because someone traversing the main path between retreats can probably hear you. There's a beautiful tub that takes up prime position in the centre of the very spacious bathroom, but what with the sea and all the pools, I never got round to soaking in it. 

If we were wowed by our first impression of the room, it still has nothing on the welcome snacks that were sitting pretty on our coffee table. No one quite knew what these were called, just that they were little niceties dreamed up by the resort's imaginative pastry chefs. They tasted like a cross between cream puff and Hong Kong style Pineapple Buns, and were fantastically colourful. Hue aside, each of them varied slightly in terms of flavour, but they were all marvellously delicious. We set upon them like a pack of wolves despite having eaten on the plane, and soon there were just specks of crumbs left.

Had we decided to remain in our Retreat, it would have been quite a self-sufficient little world. Main living area aside, the back doors opened out to a sun deck that came complete with ultra-luxe deck chairs, a very welcoming-looking daybed, as well as our own private plunge pool, which had a shallow section where you could lie down and enjoy the jacuzzi jets. The beachside Retreats come with an upstairs deck, where you can look out over the trees onto the ocean while perched on the swing bed. A whole day bed bigger than the one I have at home! That swings! It's such a fantastic concept.

The whole Retreat is rigged up with a brilliant sound system, and everywhere you go you'll be able to hear music, whether the resort's own playlist, or whatever you hook up. It's great if you're the kind of person (Like I am) who enjoys having a soundtrack to all your adventures, and at some point you really get it in your head that the entire stay feels like one big party, which is probably the W way. 

Having stayed at an overwater villa the year before at Amilla Fushi, I have to say that my personal preference is probably for beach-based rooms. Having the sea beneath your feet and right by your doorstep is grand, but there's something to be said for having your own private slice of sandy paradise just steps away from your room. 

Fesdoo Island isn't very big, so we found ourselves a just short jaunt from the AWAY Spa, and everything else really. There wasn't much point calling for a buggy to ferry us about when you could circle the whole island in under ten minutes, so we walked everywhere and had a very healthful vacation this time around. 

Like all excited travellers, we spent our first day getting oriented, which meant poking our way around all the major points of interest. Most importantly, we got ourselves acquainted with all our dining options. The W operates a fairly complex system where their three restaurants take turns operating for the night, except for some special occasions where all are available for you to choose from. If you're headed there, you need to consult your in-room guide to figure out what's going on, and take its words as gospel. And of course, you can always dial 0 for everything.

During our stay, we did see people who chose to dine al fresco at Kitchen, with their legs in the water. It looked like good fun, but knowing full well my greatest weakness (A very bad case of general clumsiness), M and I avoided dining in the water to prevent any embarrassing mishaps.

By the time I was able to confirm my booking, it was sadly too late for me to buy myself a giant inflatable unicorn, but we saw the next best thing while walking past the WET Bar and Infinity Pool on our first afternoon on the island: a giant inflatable flamingo!  We assumed that much like the giant inflatable donuts and pool noodles lying about, the flamingo was simply a part of the bar, but the next day the flamingo was gone, and no one seemed to remember having seen it at all. We were nearly convinced we'd entered an episode of The Twilight Zone.

Thankfully, there's free Wi-Fi all over the island, and M was able to perform some quick sleuthing (i.e. She stalked everyone else on Instagram - She would have made an excellent detective, I swear). The flamingo turned out to be the property of one of the other guests, who'd come to Maldives armed to the teeth with holiday paraphernalia. Flamingo aside, she'd brought water-proof GoPros and a droneIt's hard keeping up with the Joneses nowadays. 

In the end, I was very content with my pool donut, which was exactly maneuverable enough that I was just about able to battle against the wind. On a flamingo, or a unicorn for that matter, I'd probably have been stuck bobbing around some godforsaken corner of the pool, unable to properly paddle. The one thing I do regret though, is not swimming up to WET and ordering a cocktail. Apparently they come in little plastic shakers, floated out to you on mini flamingos. If only I'd known!

The W Maldives has three restaurants, and ordinarily, M and I would have spent one night at each. But after spending the last two weeks of June in South Africa, M was sick of grilled meats, so we wound up skipping FIRE entirely. Instead, we spent two evenings at FISH, enjoying a bounty fresh from the sea while overlooking the wide expanse of calm waters around us. 

The outdoor seating area is an utterly chic place to perch for pre-dinner drinks, but is definitely too gusty if you want to enjoy dinner without having half your hair fly into your mouth. Do as we did. Sit inside but face the water, which is the perfect combination of scenery and lower wind-speeds.

The fare served at all three restaurants are fairly international, though the specialty restaurants do tend to lean towards particular cuisines for inspiration. Quite a number of the dishes at FISH take on a hint of East Asian flair, but there are also perennial favourites like fish & chips to be found in the menu. Those who can't take seafood but still want to dine at the overwater restaurant are in luck too. They do a fantastic Riverine Sirloin, and when I was there, the chefs served it with a to-die-for roselle chutney instead of the usual herb salsa. The mild tartness of the home-made chutney brought out the juiciness of the steak, so I asked for more chutney and the recipe, both of which the chefs were so kind as to oblige me with. 

The most memorable dishes have to be the desserts. You could go for ice creams or sorbets, but why do that when there are things like 24 hour Lemon or Five Textures of Chocolate to be had?

The first starts with one lemon, hollowed out. The skin is boiled and reboiled for 24 hours, ridding it of its toughness and bitterness. It is then stuffed with a freshly-made lemon sorbet and lemon custard, and served on a bed of crème fraîche. Everything is meant to be devoured.

There are definitely more than five different textures of chocolate at play in the latter. A pot of warm chocolate sauce is slowly drizzled over what looks to be a bright red cake, topped with a sheet of gold foil. The warm sauce slowly melts the top, which caves in, and the dish is ready to be eaten. Sauce aside, I was able to discern a spongy cake layer, some velvety chocolate mousse, two layers of chocolate shells and some crunchy-nutty bits. Apparently there's some white chocolate in there as well. I stuffed my face with it, and felt deeply happy after.

Speaking of indulgences, breakfast at Kitchen was easily my favourite meal of the day, thanks to the well-stocked Bloody Mary and Bellini bars. On all three mornings, I asked for my Bloody Mary to come extra spicy, and every single time it was consistently hot, laced with lashings of tabasco and a generous crack of black pepper, just the way I like it. 

Breakfast is run in a semi-buffet style, where half the dishes are a la carte and made to order. But even if you disregard that menu entirely, what's on display is plenty, and there are a number of live cooking stations, including a pancake and waffle area that made the best whole wheat pancakes I've ever tasted. The gentleman who mans the juice bar most mornings is the jolliest soul, and he convinced M to try some mangoes that had arrived fresh one morning. They were utterly spectacular. We tried to ask for more the next morning, but it seems everyone else on the island got wind of the stash, and finished it all. 

I would have been perfectly happy just sticking with the buffet spread, but some items on the a la carte menu were just too intriguing to pass up. Case in point: Paul's Breakfast Sundae. I still don't know who Paul is, but apparently he's the genius that dreamed this combo up after a few beers: croissant ice cream (The croissant bits get nice and chewy from being suspended in ice cream), maple glazed bacon, candied egg yolk, peanut butter chocolate, beer infused honey and waffle cones. Sugar-rush guaranteed.

Our trip came with full board, which meant a huge breakfast, two courses at lunch, and three courses at dinner were all included. If you're not travelling gratis, there are strategies you can take to save a little here and there: some people choose the half option, because breakfasts are so heavy that one can very easily go without lunch. One well-kept secret of the W Maldives is the fact that they have coolers dotted across the island, stocked with all manner of complimentary drinks and three types of ice cream. Feeling peckish any time of the day or night? Go raid the fridge.

On hearing us discuss needing to balance out the sheer gluttony of our long weekend stay, Sebastian, the Venues Manager, introduced us to the concept of detoxing to retox. Rather than spending all afternoon floating around the infinity pool or having a post-breakfast hammock nap, we hit the gym for a mini workout. Most of the other guests had either put in a little legwork earlier in the morning, or were embracing full-on hedonism with both arms, so we had the entire SWEAT space to ourselves. Raj, who also teaches the Sunset Yoga class, was on hand to show us how to use the various machines available. 

The W Maldives is 10 this year, but doesn't look it. The facilities have been well-maintained, and we watched the roofs of some over-water escapes get expertly re-thatched, emerging good as new. There's talk of some extra work being done in the future, to provide even more privacy for Beach Oasis dwellers for instance. Right now, from the second floor you can look over to your neighbour's pool if you're the curious sort. 

W hotels all over the world have a Whatever/Whenever/Wherever service policy, and short of anything illegal, the staff are on call 24 hours a day to grant your every wish. Other guests have asked to be whisked away to a private island for candlelit dinners, but M and I had rather more prosaic requests, like a peek into some of the other room types.

We ended up going on a grand tour of the Ocean Haven, their two-bedroom Presidential Suite. Featuring the same glass floors as the rest of their over-water villas, all the better for watching the fishes, there was also a deck that stretched all around, an infinity pool, and actual stairs into the ocean. 

The W Talent are so wonderful, and even when you're too shy to ask, they'll still try their best to make your stay a great one. M joked over dinner that she wanted to bring our dinner table lamp back with us as the reading lights in the room were a little small, and Sebastian ensured that by the time we got back to our room, a brand new standing lamp had been placed on her side of the bed. 

Staff rosters in the Maldives always feel like a mini UN, and after talking to all these lovely people, you'll want to take them up on their recommendations to visit their home towns as well. We had the nicest chat with Luna, and she was so kind as to gift me a book on Kazakh traditions and ways, so now we're raring to visit Kazakhstan sometime in the near future. 

D checked the weather forecast before our trip and told us to expect four straight days of rain, but the closest we got to a downpour was one slightly grey morning, so I count us very lucky indeed. I never got up early enough to catch the sunrise, but I can say with some authority that Maldivian sunsets really are exquisite.

It's not really a trip to the Maldives unless you catch a glimpse of some of their amazing marine life, and the W boasts the best house reef in the Maldives. There's a drop-off to deeper water very close to the shore where the beach houses are, and no matter what time of year you go, there's something colourful to see. The best time is apparently when the coral spawn, turning the water a bright Tiffany blue. 

Earlier in the year, I got myself a budget-friendly underwater camera case in anticipation of a trip I'll be making to Hawaii this September, but when this came up I figured what better place to test drive it? Unfortunately I still haven't quite got the hang of mashing the right camera buttons through a thick layer of plastic sheeting, so apart from some stills, most of what I took turned out to be rather dizzying videos that will not see the light of day. These are what could be salvaged:

Truth be told, I'm afraid of the sea. It's too vast, too much of an unknown quality. Coupled with an overactive imagination and recurring dreams of giant squid, I'm not the sort of person that dares to venture far beyond the shallows. 

Turtles are a common sight if you swim around the AWAY spa, but even for those who prefer to play it a little safer, there's still a great deal to see. Bizarre little unicorn fish with their long noses! Sand-shitting parrot fish that keep coral reefs healthy and "beaches beachy" according to National Geographic! It's so educational playing "What's That Fish?" even if some of the names leave a lot of be desired. Like powder blue surgeonfish - who even came up with that anyway?

I do recommend that everyone goes to DOWN UNDER for a little talk on what is and isn't permissible when you go swimming in the ocean - they have a little chart that makes it extremely clear. For the love of all that is good, don't touch the wildlife (Especially the corals!) even if you think it'll get you a million likes on Instagram.

Some of my best wildlife sightings at the W were done from the safety of dry land. One hour into our arrival, I was watching the waves from our spot of beach when there was a ripple of movement against the current - movement with intent. I watched as one dark dorsal fin emerged from the water, followed by three more, and then another two. I ran back to the room hollering "DOLPHINS!" in the same tenor of voice usually reserved for shouting "Fire!", or "Velociraptors! Run!", but by the time M came charging back out to the beach with me, the pod was long gone.

The dolphins were sadly a one-off, but this heron was a repeat visitor to our side of the island, along with some very quick and vibrant little crabs. The W is also home to a colony of large and extremely sleek-looking fruit bats, who soar casually overhead from tree to tree.

A trip to the AWAY spa was not included in the prize, but we went over the weekend of M's birthday, so the rest of the family pooled money for her to get pampered in suitably extravagant fashion. M being M, insisted that I join her, so I got to enjoy a spa day too. 

We were welcomed with a cool scented towel, and our choice of hot or cold home-made ginger tea or tamarind juice. If you're ever at the AWAY Spa, go for the cold ginger tea! They boil the root with an array of other spices for at least two hours, adding a touch of brown sugar at the end to balance out the flavours. It's even better than the signature fresh fruit and mint welcome ice tea. We're going to try to make some at home soon. 

Each private treatment pod can fit two, and we were given some time to change into silky-soft bathrobes and spend a while in the steam room to stimulate circulation and boost the effectiveness of our massage. Mostly, we spent the time taking pictures and ooh-ing over the lovely scents. The massage oil used is a blend of Jasmine, Lavender and Rosemary, and there was a small display where you could try them all. After the massage we were encouraged not to shower for at least an hour so the oils could slowly work their way into our skin. We heeded this advice, and even my usually cracked heels and elbows felt wonderfully smooth.

Every treatment here engages all your senses, and I don't mean it as some trite marketing catchphrase. Other spas may play soundtracks inspired by nature, but here you're lulled by the actual sound of the sea, and a well-placed touch of Tibetan bells.

The treatment ritual began with a foot soak and gentle massage, as we sat on a daybed overlooking the sea. We were maybe a metre (3 feet) away from the water, and all that while we were wondering if anyone's fallen off the deck before. 

Our Swedish massages were excellent. Prior to the massage, we ran through a list of areas that needed the most attention, and our therapists actually heeded it, unlike so many other places where they just go through the motions. I had an amazing extended head rub, while M was very impressed with her therapist's strength and ability to work out all the knots in her back. 

I think one of the best feelings in the world is being able to treat your family to something spectacular, so I was overjoyed that I was given the opportunity to do something really special for M's birthday and bring her to this little slice of paradise (You go Vita Coco!) The dining team at the W helped out as well, arranging a specially decorated table with candles and cake on our last night so we could celebrate. 

On our last morning in the Maldives, I got up and wondered how our three days had passed so quickly, almost like a dream. I sank my toes in the sand one last time, marveling at their silky softness, and sighed at having to leave.

For people who never saw the point of beach holidays, the Maldives has made a convert out of us. We'll definitely be back, and I'm going to pick up some Dhivehi for good measure.  

Till the next time Maldives! Can't wait to see you again.