Sunday, 12 July 2015

Living It Up At Amilla Fushi, Our Island Home

It all started with a page in Travel + Leisure's March issue, which featured a breathtakingly gorgeous picture of one of Amilla Fushi's Ocean Reef houses. Only a partial view of the deck was shown, but that glimpse of the pristine white sunbed on it was inviting enough, beckoning the viewer to lounge atop the mass of cushions and survey the expanse of glittering ocean at their feet.The page was summarily dog-eared, sighed over longingly, and eventually carted back to Singapore from LA, so unwilling was I to part with it. One day, I said to myself. 

View from the bed of Ocean Lagoon Home

The suddenness of its development and the sheer ferocity of my obsession with travelling to the Maldives, and by extension staying at Amilla, caught me quite by surprise. As a family, we're city folk through and through, and while we do enjoy the occasional sojourn to quiet little towns, staying on an island resort has never appealed to us. I mean, what's there to do really?

Amilla Fushi Hammock

My capacity for lounging on a beach is four hours at best, before I start getting restless. M & D's tolerance is worse, and don't get me started on BB, who has an almost pathological aversion to sunlight. But there was something about that picture that called to me like siren song - perhaps the ocean in so many shades of blue, or the appealingly sleek architectural style of their over-water houses, or maybe the sheer newness of the resort, which only opened its doors last December. 

Amilla Fushi Private Infinity Pool

In the end, fate (and a bunch of videos G sent us of baby sharks and stingray swimming tantalizingly close to where he stood on a Maldivian beach) intervened, and the opportunity to travel to the Maldives as a family dropped on our laps. We took it. Amilla Fushi offered the best value, and answered our question "What can you do on an island resort?" quite succinctly:


Maldives faru ring shaped reef

Our pampering began a soon as we exited Ibrahim Nasir International Airport, when Sulthan, the Amilla Fushi representative, took charge of getting us checked in and chauffeured to the sea plane terminal. All we had to do was decide what we wanted to eat or drink at their temporary lounge. (Their dedicated one will be ready later this year, and be fancier than all the other lounges apparently) 

Sea Plane

Vacationing so far out of our travel comfort zone, even in the brief three nights we stayed in the Maldives, we were able to experience so many things we'd never tried before. We've never had the chance to travel by sea plane before, and our maiden voyage was with Trans Maldivian Airlines, which boasts the world's largest fleet of sea planes. 

Trans Maldivian Airways Sea Plane

What we hadn't expected, was how hot the sea plane was going to be as we taxied. While our barefoot pilots got all systems ready to go, the rest of us sweltered in the early morning heat, wondering why none of the fans seemed to work. But at takeoff, everything burst to life, and as we gained altitude, the air around us got cooler. 

Barefoot pilots

The stunning views of the islands below us also went a long way towards helping all the passengers forget their initial discomfort, as everyone scrambled to take pictures. We'd already got a glimpse of the Maldives from above on our flight from Singapore, but sea planes go at the perfect altitude so you can still make out all the details that make each island and atoll unique. 

View from a TMA sea plane

When D first decided we would travel to Amilla Fushi by sea plane, we hadn't realized this would involve us landing in a patch of sea next to a floating platform just off the island, and that a four man crew would be needed to take a boat out to greet us. BB's delicate system threatened a bout of motion sickness for a minute, but soon we were bundled into the most luxurious speedboat we'd ever encountered, for a remarkably smooth ride to Amilla Fushi proper. 

Amilla Fushi Speedboat Transfer

The pampering kicked up a notch once we stepped foot on the island. We were given a warm welcome by our Katheeba Echo, who took great care of us in her role as butler and personal concierge during our stay. Echo arranged for our bags to be whisked away while we recovered from our flight with cool, scented towels, and a refreshing blend of chilled coconut water and pineapple juice. 

Amilla Fushi Welcome Drink

Once we felt more human, Echo drove us to our home for the next three nights. Amilla Fushi translates to 'My Island Home', which is an amusing turn of phrase for us Singaporeans, so used to home on a vastly different island. Still, it's not just an empty catchphrase for the resort. Every aspect of it has been designed not just to make guests feel merely welcome, but so comfortable they feel right at home. So cocooned were we in luxury, that we ended up being spoiled completely rotten during our stay. 

Nautically themed overwater room design

You can traverse the whole island by foot in about 40 minutes, and all the important amenities were less than 15 minutes walk away from where we lived, but with a fleet of electric buggies at our disposal, we ended up getting driven everywhere. 

By the end of our trip, D was still happily unable to navigate his way around, but it didn't matter, with buggies being just a call away. 

Amilla Fushi Overwater Villa Buggy

There are a few ways to experience life on Amilla Fushi, including well-appointed beach villas that can house large families, a grown-up version of a tree house complete with bunk beds and an infinity pool overlooking the tree canopy:

The infinity pool in the air

or one of their over-water suites, which was what we opted for. After all, doesn't having the sea right by your doorstep sound absolutely divine? 

Amilla Fushi Two Bedroom Ocean Lagoon House View

Every home on Amilla comes with its own freshwater infinity pool, but when the alternative was the sparkling and clear waters of the actual ocean, our private pool ended up quite neglected. Here's BB and me merrily floating in the lagoon, clad in the life jackets that had thoughtfully been provided in our room. M laughed while taking this picture, and later told us we reminded her of bumblebees. 

Swimming at Amilla Fushi

The open water was a source of endless fascination, and we were all surprised by how long we could spend gazing out at the glittering expanse of blue, as it shifted from the glowing teal of shallow lagoon water, to the inky indigo of the deeper sea. And of course, there were all the fish. 

Blacktip Shark

A school of small fish appeared in the patch of sea by our pool during Friday evening's storm, but we hadn't expected them to stick around. So when I paddled over to M & D's part of the suite early on Saturday morning, I was completely astounded to see the whole group leap out of the water to escape my awkward splashing. Even with the sky overcast, their scales caught what bits of sun that had filtered past the clouds, and they flashed silver and emerald. It was a bit of magic in the quiet of the morning. After we kept seeing them around, we soon started referring to them as our fish, and we were quite glad that during the long stretches of time we watched them, not one was eaten by the bigger fish that kept circling. The monsoon drove quite a few fish toward the relatively calmer waters of the lagoon we were facing, and soon we had quite a large parade of different species to marvel at. 

"The ocean is so trippy," remarked BB as we watched yet another interesting creature zip by. 

I had to agree. 

Hotels where you can jump into the ocean

The summer months herald monsoon season in the Maldives, and heavy winds and rains on our second and third day at Amilla brought frothy, angry waves crashing over the side of our pool, which in its own way was magnificent to witness. Between the rain and our general dislike of too much sun, the loungers on our deck ironically got the most use on our first night, when all the clouds parted and we were able to marvel at the rippling carpet of stars dotting a pitch black sky. We love stars, and we rarely get the opportunity to see very many of them, so imagine our joy when we found every star shone so brightly that we couldn't pick out which three made up Orion's Belt. 

Maldives is beautiful

After going through all the pictures of Amilla on Pinterest and Instagram, M was certain that everything looked so spectacular thanks to Photoshop. No matter how lovely the place may be to the human eye, surely you couldn't capture it that well without a little help from technology. But improbable isn't impossible, and as it turns out, Amilla Fushi really is a photographer's dream. 

Amilla Fushi Maldives

Our home on the island struck a good balance between sleekly modern and cozy, and was full of inspired little design touches that tied strongly to a nautical theme without veering towards kitsch. The light fixtures were probably my favorite - the main bathroom and toilet both had orb-like lamps draped with woven fibers that looked like fishing nets, while the main chandelier was made up of numerous pendant lamps, each shaped like an abstract sea shell. Next time when I have my own home, I'm definitely stealing some ideas from here. 

Amilla Fushi Bathroom with rain shower and bath

Our half-board package entitled each of us to one 50-minute spa therapy a day at the Javvu Spa, and the most difficult thing we had to do each day was decide which one we wanted from the extensive spa menu. The daily inclusive sessions are called 'Mains', and run the gamut from traditional massages to fancy hair treatments. Before we even arrived, Echo reserved time slots for us so we wouldn't miss out on a single day of treatment. Having my limbs stretched out and my back pummeled after a whole morning of flying was pure bliss that first day. I subsequently tried their QMS facial, as well as a face massage, both of which relaxed me to the point of falling asleep midway through each session, but also left my face with a radiant glow that persisted all the way home. 

Javvu Spa Beauty Bar and Communal Lounge

Each treatment began in the large, air-conditioned communal lounge with a cool glass of tea that contained an invigorating hint of ginger, as well as a refreshing cold towel like the one we encountered when we first step foot on Amilla Fushi. We found that the towels are scented with lemongrass and citrus, a very uplifting blend. Other resorts have therapists or masseurs, but Javvu has specially trained spa specialists from all over the world, who take charge of enhancing your well-being. After each massage or facial was complete, we'd be escorted to the open-air tea lounge, where we could sink our feet into fine sand, enjoy a pot of tea and watch the sun set. 

Javvu Spa and Tea Lounge

Their open door policy means that anyone can stop by to enjoy the facilities, whether you have a treatment planned or not. I developed a habit of moisturizing myself each day with the tester bottle of organic, cold pressed Maldivian coconut oil that sat on their Beauty Bar, and I credit it for helping me develop a beautifully even tan. M and I attended the daily yoga and pilates classes taught by Dmitri and Laura, but like everyone else on the island with us, decided that going to the gym would be a step too far, no matter how beautifully appointed it was. 

Javvu Spa Amilla Fushi

We arrived on the island just in time to experience their weekly Manager's Cocktail Evening, held every Thursday at 6 pm. We were initially thrilled at the thought of free drinks, but soon realized that excellent though the drinks were, it was the food we really ought to get excited about. We were plied with what seemed like an endless stream of hor d'oeuvres while a DJ spun tracks and my glass never ran dry. We had signed up to experience a Maldivian dinner later that evening, complete with music and dancing, but none of us could resist having a quick nibble whenever something new was carried to us. We liked the seared Maldivian tuna and the prawns topped with mango salsa, but our absolute favorite was the fresh salmon cooked with shallots and ginger. Between the four of us I think we polished off a whole tray of it. I regretted nothing, until I was swept up in a wave of rather vigorous traditional dance halfway through dinner, which would have been better done on an emptier stomach. 

Dining table in the middle of an infinity pool

Australian celebrity chef Luke Mangan heads Amilla's restaurants, which showed in the quality and variety of food available every day. Each breakfast contained a truly remarkable spread, and was an event fueled with a never ending flow of champagne. Hot food was prepared fresh when you ordered it, and we ate our way through the considerable options. Dinner was likewise an indulgence. Apart from caviar, we could pick any starter, main and dessert to make up a three course meal, including whole lobsters, and Wagyu steak. 

Amilla Fushi Feast Breakfast Buffet Baazaar

You can choose to eat almost anywhere on the island. Their wine store is an oenophile's dream with thousands of bottles in their specially designed wine cellar. It's also a great place to have lunch, as we did one afternoon. Anything we wanted, the staff of Amilla Fushi would make happen, we only had to ask. 

Amilla Fushi Wine Store and Wine Cellar

We celebrated M's birthday at Amilla Fushi, and everyone went out of their way to make it a special day for her. Aisha from the children's play center helped me craft a handmade pop-up card the day before, which BB and I successfully hid away till the day itself. SK and his Baazaar team kicked off the day's celebrations with a birthday donut, while the Javvu and housekeeping teams both used freshly harvested plants to create signs wishing her a happy birthday. But the nicest surprise was spearheaded by Echo, who worked to set up a beautifully decorated table for our dinner, and organized a rich chocolate cake just for M. 

Amilla Fushi Birthday Cake and Celebration

It's not just the people on it that makes Amilla so special. The island itself is located within the Baa Atoll, which has been recognized as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve for its diversity of marine life. The plankton-rich waters here attract manta rays and whale sharks, and is also home to an abundance of coral reefs. The on-site marine biologist and her apprentice conduct classes for children staying on the island, and also venture out on the various excursions held to guide guests around the best places to view wildlife. 

Baa Atoll Map Mural Amilla Fushi

The four of us opted to join the Turtle Safari excursion, in hopes of catching a glimpse of some of the Hawksbill turtles that live in the atoll and feed on acres of brown seaweed. The other guests on the tour were all strong swimmers and used to snorkeling, and part of the fun was watching them free dive with their water-proof camera, to capture pictures of nurse sharks snoozing under hard corals. We are, unfortunately, absolutely rubbish snorkelers, but our guides were wonderfully patient, with a couple hanging back while the rest of the group splintered off, always making sure we were safe, and pointing out all the exciting things they thought we ought to check out. We saw only one young turtle in a spot where people usually spot at least half a dozen, but the rest of the reef was compelling enough to make the entire journey worth it. I saw a family of Maldivian clown fish nestled in a massive anemone (Two adults and some babies), and it was like watching an alternative universe version of Finding Nemo. 

Snorkelling in the Maldives

Soon enough, visitors probably won't even have to travel 20 minutes away from Amilla Fushi to see turtles any more. The island is playing host to a clutch of eggs that are due to hatch at the end of the month, and we were very sorry to miss that. Other kinds of animals are thriving on the island itself. The beach is home to a swarm of hermit crabs, and the glossiest fruit bats can be seen gliding from tree to tree. The bats feast not just on the Brazil Nuts hanging from trees all over the island, but have lately taken to devouring the bananas that gardening staff have attempted to cultivate on the island. 

Amilla Fushi Beach Hermit Crabs

Our other off-island excursion was for night fishing. After seeing the size of the tuna chunks we were going to use as bait, I got pretty excited about my prospects of catching some really big fish. We were brought to a spot where groupers and snapper were known to congregate, and got to work. At the end of our fishing expedition, other people got absolute whoppers to bring back with them. I on the other hand, caught the same tiny fish twice and had to throw it back into the ocean each time. 

Using Tuna as fishing bait

D, whose heart was set on doing some fishing this summer, managed to haul up a sizable catch, and we were all very pleased for him. It got quite entangled with someone else's line on the way up though, so the crew got to work helping him free it from the hook before presenting it to D to take triumphant pictures with. 

Daddy caught a fish

Swimming and excursions aside, some other ways we kept ourselves occupied was taking part in the many water sports available at Amilla Fushi. We had unlimited access to all unmotorized water sports, and one morning, M, D and I tried our hand at kayaking. It resulted in a trip to the Doctor's hut for iodine, but I had a blast anyway. For motorized water sports like jet-skiing and fun tubing, the fine print said 20 minutes a day, but during low season, if there's no one else around you can do a 20 minute ride in the morning and another in the afternoon. We didn't even have time to go down to the water sports center every day, but it was nice to have the option. As a family, we did the four-person fun tube ride, which is what I imagine riding on a magic carpet might feel like. 

Amilla Fushi Motorized Watersports

I was the only one in the family to get on a jet ski the next day, for my first ever jet ski ride. The picture below is just for show. I hopped on behind Aneel, who graciously acquiesced whenever I wanted us to zip across the water ever faster. Initially, with the wind in my hair and the clear water below, I felt I must be the image of a glamorous Bond Girl. But the realities of going really, really fast on a jet ski soon set in, and my hair ended up drenched in salt water and half of it was plastered to my face. Being a Bond Girl is tough work at high speeds. Still, it was completely exhilarating. 

Amilla Fushi Jet Ski Motorized Watersports

Before our trip, we worried that there wouldn't be enough things to fill our days with, but we soon realized that three nights at Amilla Fushi was far from enough to cover everything. We've yet to visit a Maldivian village, nor have we learned how to dive, or even pick up paddleboarding. "You'll just have to come back," we were told, words we've taken to heart. We look forward to returning to our (other) island home soon. 

Amilla Fushi Baa Atoll Maldives

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