Monday 4 September 2017

How to have the Perfect Honeymoon: Finding Paradise on Finolhu

When you're a travel junkie and you marry someone who never left their corner of the world till they met you, how do you pick a honeymoon destination that's perfect for the both of you? In my case, I sussed out a number of elements that I knew we both enjoyed, and went for somewhere I was a little more familiar with while still leaving lots of room for new adventures. In my case, the Maldives was it. Pristine white sand and water in every imaginable shade of blue for my beach-loving husband? Check. Unabashed luxury we could both revel in? Check. Lots and lots of things to do, and endless flexibility in which to do it? Check. 

I even included a stopover in Male, where traffic lights are treated more like suggestions than rules by the hordes of scooters that throng the streets: A cheeky little throwback to our first holiday together? Check

Finolhu's been on my must-visit list since two summers ago, when we heard about it during our stay at its sister property Amilla Fushi. The resort was still under construction, but the people we spoke to were already extolling the very seductive philosophy behind Finolhu: Spontaneity and hip extravagance on a stylish island with definite party vibes. I'm a simple creature and get excited about a lot of things, so obviously I was completely taken with the idea of returning to the Baa Atoll and enjoying a different flavour of luxury. Let's be totally real here though: the best things in life are actually really expensive. Thankfully, I pay attention to the ads that Facebook serves up, and wound up saving over 65% by getting our stay package off Luxury Escapes a year before our honeymoon was scheduled. Sign up as a member and feel acute travel FOMO every time you open one of their newsletters, plus get clued in on some of the best value stays around. Psst, Finolhu has already done three different sold-out deals with them, so keep a lookout for a fourth. You're welcome.

I had aaaaaages to psyche myself up for our honeymoon adventures, and I made the most of it. Apart from following Cara Delevigne's #MaldivesBeachParty, I read every travel review that was published, checked up on the best times to go snorkelling in the Baa Atoll, and even decided that yes, we definitely needed to sign up for the all-inclusive beverage package that they debuted after their launch. But Finolhu still managed to spring a string of delightful surprises that astounded us both. 

Take your mind back to the Golden Age of travel in the 1950s, when taking a flight was still something to look forward to, a trip brimmed with the promise of endless new discoveries and adventure, and destinations could still seem like your personal slice of paradise. The architects behind Finolhu have captured the vivid colour, sumptuous design, and high glamour of the era, and shaken it up with the current zeitgeist. Everything old is new again, with the things we (un)ironically love about the latter decades of the 20th century present as retro-cool elements throughout the resort, like vintage Marshall speakers in every villa. With more fun and less formality on the menu, holiday satisfaction on this tropic isle isn't a one-sized-fits-all proposition, but whatever floats your boat. Oh, and all over the island, you can stay connected at high speed and upload all the #travelgoals 'grams you desire. 

Spaced out along a kilometre-long boardwalk, the incredibly roomy overwater villas at Finolhu are private enough to feel like havens you can return to after living it up by the main pool, or a place you can keep partying in till dawn. Done up in a modern and whimsical fashion, the groovy interiors marry light woods with Moroccan lanterns and splashes of jewel tones. In the Maldives though, nothing compares to the sight of the ocean, so de rigueur windows that go wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling can be found in both the suite and the bathroom - you can look out over an endless swathe of blue whether you're sipping champagne in bed, or brushing your teeth. And if you want a closer look? Well, you have direct access from your patio. J merrily forwent the ladder, dive-bombing straight in and scaring off an eagle ray. In our patch of water we spied parrotfish and needlefish galore, and schools of small silver fish that seemed most at home in the space between each overwater villa.

Apart from a King-sized bed long enough that even J felt dwarfed by it, I found myself spoilt for choice whenever I wanted to loll around with a good book. I could settle into the oversized rattan chair, or stretch out on the sun lounger, or take my pick between the indoor and outdoor day beds. Other markers of excess could be found in and around our airy bathroom, with its huge free-standing bathtub plus one indoor and two outdoor showers. I like thoughtful design, and found the placement of universal power outlets all over the room, including one each on either side of the bed, particularly inspired. Instead of crawling out from under perfectly warmed covers to get to my charging electronics, all I had to do was roll over. Not to mention the walk-in mini bar area that also boasts an adorable pastel blue Smeg kettle, a Nespresso machine and a personal wine fridge. It's a remarkably generous space, and all the more interesting for still managing to embrace the same barefoot ethos of the Maldives you first notice on the seaplane pilots flying you half an hour out from the capital. 

At Amilla Fushi, we were assigned a butler to cater to our every whim, but with Finolhu's vastly different vibe, the protocol is a little different, though the service standard is no less amazing. Here, it takes a village to craft the perfect experience, with everyone doing their part and seamlessly ensuring you get to live all your holiday dreams. 

There was Kenzi who made us feel so welcome and got us settled in. Nafa who sat with us for 15 minutes and helped us make all our excursion and meal reservations. Yozna greeting us at dinner every night with a cheerful word. Our volleyball buddies at Thunderball. Victor who always steered us towards the best dishes in the house. Muni, Kishor and Manoj, our best friends at the bar. Ramuna gently guiding us through our first breaths of tanked oxygen. Amir and Michaela swimming us towards manta rays. Mohamed at the Fish & Crab Shack who made sure we were well fed and so kindly shared his mother's cure-all when he realised J was under the weather. Younes who always helped make things happen. 

Every single person we met on the island was so welcoming and utterly lovely, genuinely doing their best to ensure we enjoyed as much of our time in the Maldives as we could. 

Finolhu is a destination where you can very comfortably break the golden rule of only visiting the Maldives as a couple. It's the sort of place you can go with a group of friends, with children, and even alone, given the breadth of activities on offer for absolutely everyone. Rather than being populated exclusively with obnoxious canoodlers, you run into all sorts on the island, like the kids who very sagely informed us which games were and weren't worth playing in the upstairs lounge, and the gang of Chinese friends who invited us to hang out with them whenever we spotted each other. 

But if you are lucky enough to be honeymooning there anyway, you're in for a world of additional pampering, because Finolhu loves love, and treats it like a celebration of the highest order. 

It's the sort of immoderate gleeful decadence that touches the heart. Instead of a complimentary glass of wine each with dinner, there was a fruit basket and bottle of champagne waiting for us in our villa. As we pored over the hotel's information (Colourfully laid out on vintage-inspired postcards), and familiarised ourselves with our home for five nights, we did so with crystal flutes in hand, letting the bubbles go to our heads. On another occasion, we were surprised with a room service delivery of chocolate cake so richly fudgy we were able to savour over a couple of nights. Then there was the bubble bath we found after returning from breakfast.

Finolhu also treated us to a number of wonderful experiences, all the better to make happy memories with. Thanks to a hands-on mixology session where we could learn to make literally any cocktail we desired, I can now shake up a mean Mojito, while J mastered a delicious apple cinnamon Old Fashioned that will go down very well at future Thanksgivings. 

But the best gift had to be the Sunset Dolphin Cruise they organised for us, with a boat taking us past the aquamarine sunburst of the lagoon, into the deeper waters surrounding the island. Pods of dolphins pass by some evenings, and though they can't guarantee sightings, you'll probably be in luck. We definitely were, our first glimpse of the pod yielding over half a dozen fins cutting in and out of the water. The Splash Dance is equipped with what I can only image are surround sound speakers, and we noticed the dolphins had a distinct preference for Enrique Iglesias. 

What followed was us howling Bailando at the top of our lungs to entice the dolphins ever closer, and we were rewarded with them trailing by the side of the boat where they did underwater spins and weaves. With the water crystal clear as it was, we were able to make out every inch of their gleaming grey and white bodies. After a time, the pod drifted off, and we contented ourselves with watching the colours of the sky change instead, white clouds giving way to bubblegum pinks and lurid violets. Our upward gazes yielded a rainbow which we happily exclaimed over, till one of the crew pointed us back towards the deep blue. The dolphins were back. 

This time, they upped the ante, making leaps into the air. One particularly agile dolphin did what I can only describe as an aquatic triple axel, slicing up through the water like a figure skater in their prime to spin 1080° before making a huge splash. Standing under a rainbow and watching dolphins frolic against a magnificent sunset, we couldn't help but feel that the Maldives' reputation as a honeymooner's paradise is thoroughly deserved indeed.   

Removed from the need to fit into my wedding dress, I took the anguish of my (one and a half) cake-less weeks out on the buffet line at the Baa Baa Beach Diner. Named partly for the Baa Atoll and partly for a clever pun (It's subtly decorated with sheep statuettes), the open air main dining area serves up a changing mix of dishes each meal, with dinners following a rotating theme each night. It was a good thing I attacked the vichyssoise our first lunch. No one else had any, and it disappeared from the menu for the rest of our stay. We both enjoyed the food. J deemed their breakfast the best he's had in a long long time, and I found the variety and taste really excellent. Apparently most of the produce used on Finolhu is sourced from the markets of Australia to ensure consistent food quality and safety. 

We decided on what would be our table early on (Ocean facing, closest to the buffet lines) and the dining team were so good about keeping it reserved exclusively for us every meal. Save for two instances where we thought we might like a change of scenery, that was where we could be found. It was the most convenient place from which to hit up the extensive spread, and check out the live cooking stations. And since it was also closest to the station where all the wine bottles were kept... Let's just say it was the optimum place to be. 

There are also three specialty restaurants if you're more inclined towards fine dining. The pan-Asian Kanusan recently picked up a World Luxury Restaurant Award for Best Luxury Theme Restaurant in the Indian Ocean thanks to its flavourful cooking. Perched overwater just past one tip of the island, it's got stunning ocean views. Pro-tip though: If you're the sort of person who likes being able to see your food, grab a seat inside once you've enjoyed the sunset, or you'll be eating in near darkness. 

If you thought Finolhu couldn't provide any more honeymoon surprises, think again. We chose the Baahaa Grill for our Honeymoon Dinner Spectacular, where we feasted on an inspired array of North African and Middle Eastern cuisine, paired with some outstanding wine. J is a big fan of their Algerian chicken soup, and we both polished off every last bite of the Riverine grain fed beef tenderloin, which came grilled to perfection over a charcoal brazier. I went mad over the little pot of toum (Lebanese garlic paste) that came with our bread basket, and single-handedly inhaled all of it, but the good thing is I married J, who was still willing to kiss me after. When he asked me later what my favourite dessert of the trip was, I was torn between Baahaa Grill's warm sticky Medjool pudding with rose petal ice cream and our honeymoon chocolate cake. As I eventually said to him, I think it's both. 

The most memorable of the restaurants though has to be the Fish and Crab Shack. Curving out of the main island is a 1.8 km sand strip, along which you'll be able to find ghost crabs and other adorable little crustaceans. At the very end is a wild looking jungle, and in the middle a curious oasis.

Picking your way across the grand sweep of the slender sand bank and dining at the Fish and Crab Shack absolutely epitomises the sort of playing-at-castaways luxury the Maldives is so famous for. You're in what feels like the middle of nowhere, on an island that sits seemingly alone in the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean. Ahead is pearl white sand, and ocean in swatches of blue. Yet here is extravagance on demand, what with feasting on ultra-fresh buckets of jumbo shrimp and soft-shell crab tacos, washing it down with fine wines as dance-worthy tracks fill the air. I was reminded of Marie Antoinette on her fantasy farm, but after yet another refreshing glass of Pinot Grigio decided to whole-heartedly embrace the romance of this ultra-private getaway. It really is destination dining at its most indulgent, and J and I felt like we were the only two people in the world at some points. 

 We ate so well each meal that we never needed to hit up the Milk Bar for snacks, using it mainly as a beverage pit stop every time I wanted some soft drinks (or wine, or beer) but didn't feel like hitching a ride on the bus (What we lovingly called the buggy service, which ran every ten minutes), or walking all the way to the main bar. 

If you ever feel bored on Finolhu, it's only because you're not taking advantage of all they have to offer, especially access to the UNESCO recognised Baa Atoll. This marine protected biosphere reserve is among the richest in the world, with year-round sightings of large marine animals and diverse sea life. From May to November each year, a large concentration of plankton gets swept funnel-like into Hanifaru Bay, right smack in the heart of the Baa Atoll, making it one of the world's largest manta feeding zones. The bay is shallow enough that manta sightings are possible even for mere snorkellers. J was initially hesitant to swim with the mantas, but was convinced when we saw the signs. 

Environmental protection is high on the priority list here, and there's a strong educational aspect to each excursion. All of us listened intently as the resident marine biologist ran us through need-to-know information on manta rays and local wildlife, and we absorbed all the dos and don'ts of responsible snorkellers. The gist of it being DON'T TOUCH THE MANTAS. Over-enthusiastic and ill-informed people reaching out with their grubby hands have caused an epidemic of mantas suffering from skin lesions elsewhere in the world it seems. 

Sitting in the HUB headquarters, it didn't seem likely that we'd get all that close to a manta, but that's assumptions for you. As we floated in a cloudy, krill rich broth, the mantas came steamrolling towards us, barrel rolling away mere inches from collision. It was the most exhilarating thing I'd ever experienced in the ocean, the mantas quickly transforming from formless patch of dark to a majestic hulk. 

Other HUB activities we took advantage of included their Introduction to Scuba course, a one hour crash course to demystify scuba diving that's held in the main swimming pool. It was so interesting to consciously try to sink or float with each breath in and out, the sound of your own inhalations the loudest thing in the world. 

I used to regard lying by the pool with a book during a holiday a complete extravagance, but in the interests of living a completely hedonistic getaway to the fullest, I tried it out. Armed with an anthology of ghost stories ("So scary you'll need to read them before dark!") I pulled from the island bookshelf, I began my experiment, only to find that yes, the cliche did have a good point. Books, though enjoyable anywhere, are especially intriguing under sunlight softly filtered through coconut fronds, lying where the ocean breeze hits just right, and when a new martini appears as if by magic every time you're running low. 

While Finolhu has spots particularly conducive to rest and relaxation, it hasn't gained a reputation as party island for nothing. 

Finolhu is home to 1OAK (One of a Kind) Maldives, an outpost of the legendary global club where the glitterati go to see and be seen. Throughout the year, the 1OAK team plan events here, the sort of mad getaway meets festival island luxstravaganza that Fyre and other imitators can only dream of pulling off, enticing party-goers like Paris Hilton and Leonardo DiCaprio and his posse. We were there during the monsoon-driven lull period with nothing special planned, but found ourselves swept up in the revelry they so effortlessly pull off on a day to day basis. Star sighting-wise, we didn't get to brush shoulders with any celebrities (The Chinese singer Sun Nan's stay only overlapped with ours for less than a day), but we definitely felt like rockstars - does that count? 

Delighting in excess is the play here, but seeing fire dancers and aerial silk acrobats perform was so charmingly unexpected that we had a "pinch me" moment on the sand the first night we saw it. 

Self-selection probably plays a large role here, but we did find the other visitors to be wonderful island neighbours and party companions. Those of us who brought our own Floaties were happy to share, people were happy to be challenged at foosball, and if you had a good tip on how best to enjoy everyone was all ears. Even the one day it poured, we found ourselves gathered by the bar together swapping stories and jokes. Good times were had by all. 

Even as the party rages on, Finolhu has areas of intimate seclusion. Hidden on the second floor of 1OAK is the retro cinema where you can curl up on plush beanbag mattresses and escape with all your favourite cult classics. Then there's also the Cove Club, a "Move. Massage. Chill." retreat tucked away behind a maze of foliage. There's an ultra-secret relaxation platform where you can be still and get away from it all, but I personally loved being in the retro-glammed heart of the main spa area with its kaleidoscopic rugs and cheeky artwork. Our Luxury Escapes package meant we were both able to enjoy a Pure Massage Jet Lag Treatment during our stay, something we both very much looked forward to. 

Sound is an integral part of the ritual, and we were given options like Disco, Divas, Glam Rock and Soft Jazz. J, who's very picky aurally (He didn't enjoy Ex Machina because the soundtrack hurt his ears), wanted to go for a more soothing route, so we had ambient sounds piped into our chandelier-lit spa cabana. There are ten Paddle Pop pastel treatment "Divans" in total, each celebrating a different star from the 60s and 70s. Ours was a lovely hue of powder blue, and inside, Aretha looked over us beatifically.

All the therapists on Finolhu are trained by the very best in the business, and we emerged feeling reborn. Heading back into the sunshine with all the knots in our body worked away was such a sublime moment we couldn't help but grin. 

Avid adrenaline junkies we met on the island had nothing but praise for the beautifully kitted out gym and Palm Beach fitness zone, but the closest we got to it was me telling J to hold my beer while I tried scaling their outdoor rock wall. Clad as I was in a silk dress, I didn't make it very far up, and that was that. Determined to be sybarites, we never did find time for tennis, or jogging, or checking out the boxing zone. The only remotely healthful thing we did was join the weekly Hatha Vinyasa session right after our Manta dive, after I'd had two glasses of wine at Milk Bar and spied the sign for FREE YOGA by Cove Club.

We, I decided, needed a good stretch after our hour of splashing about in the ocean, and this would do the trick nicely. J was game despite being a yoga virgin, and responded with the magic words ("Whatever you want babe"). The both of us eventually found our way to the Movement Pavilion, and Shinto the resident yogi. No other participants showed, so Shinto wound up creating a bespoke session that somehow managed to comfortably challenge the both of us. 

The only downside to Finolhu is this: despite having lots of fish, their reef isn't considered quite as stunning as Amilla's. The remedy for this of course, was taking the complimentary shuttle boat over to Amilla for a day trip. I was so happy to show J my one-time island home, and I'm happy to note it's still as gorgeous as ever. 

The best spot for a good snorkel is out by the yoga pavilion, which sits at the end of a wooden jetty by the Javvu Spa. Jump into the water here, and you're faced with a deep drop into endless cobalt blue water, teeming with fish of all kinds along the precipice. Under the jetty itself, we found metre-long garoupa just hanging out. We didn't spot any turtles this time, but it was definitely a very rewarding swim. 

My family has a time-honoured tradition of a post-swim hot tisane, which I shared with J, splitting a pot of ginger tea that warmed the both of us right up.  

Mission completed, we gravitated back towards our natural habitat. The food and beverage package that you purchase on Finolhu can be enjoyed on Amilla and vice versa, which means you can enjoy the best of both worlds without having to worry. So over a lunch of line caught Maldivian fish, Caesar salad, and steak, we set about trying as many of Amilla's signature cocktails as we could, to see how they differed from Finolhu's. Our verdict: it would be amazing to have all the options available on both islands. 

On the advice of so many, before we headed back to Finolhu we checked out Amilla's banyan tree, a sprawling behemoth that easily dwarfed the Javvu Spa. There's a certain beauty and transcendence in marvelling at a tree grown larger than life. Holding hands as we took it in, we both felt an overwhelming feeling of gratitude and wonder. 

In the middle of the plane ride back to Singapore, I asked James what his dream vacation would be, already thinking of our next big adventure. Incredulous, he looked at me and said with all honesty that this had been it. Living in a state of uninterrupted marvel and gladness in one of the most beautiful places on earth. 

Let me just say, it's very gratifying to know that I chose our destination so well. 

Our enchanted existence on Finolhu may have come to an end for now, but I have absolutely no doubt that we'll continue to unabashedly enjoy ourselves all over the world, and it will be equally magical. To more adventures on the horizon!

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