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 puffs and Hong Kong style Pineapple Buns, and were fantastically colourful. Each of them varied slightly in terms of flavour and hue, 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. Apart from the main living area, 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 runs 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. Beyond the flamingo, 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. Other than the sauce, 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.

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