MALDIVES, SIX SENSES Laamu
Some of the best snorkeling I’ve ever done was from a toilet seat. My feet rest on a Plexiglas window and as I lean forward, it’s all right there. Tropical fish swim by, a starfish and a crab cling to the pylon that holds up my overwater bungalow. No gear required. No itchy salt water to rinse off… But I’m ahead of myself.
Arrival by speedboat to an island paradise is a good way to go. At Six Senses Laamu in the Maldives, it’s the only way.
Deep in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives is one of the most complex and vibrant atoll structures anywhere on the globe. With 26 coral atolls and some 1200 islands (of which only 200 are inhabited), the Maldives is one of 13 nations on the planet that straddle the equator. The official language is Divehi. (Who knew?) Their currency is the Maldivian Rufiyaa. (Of course.)
It’s a haul to get there. I stopped for a three-night layover on my way to Sri Lanka – because the Maldives are, in fact, on the way to Sri Lanka. Qatar Airways touches down, so it makes sense to get off. 13 hours and 20 minutes from Chicago to Doha then another 4 hours and 45 minutes to Male the capital. Are we there yet? No.
One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in the travel business is to ensure that someone is waiting for me on arrival. The wide-eyed, lost traveler is no longer a good look on me. I prefer to stroll through immigration, customs, and baggage claim knowing I’m expected. As planned, a friendly face is holding a sign with my name, scanning the crowd expectantly. As our eyes meet, he sees my smile and like a sprinter out of the blocks he clamors to relieve me of my luggage. We take a short two-minute walk outside to the domestic terminal where he deposits me in the lounge to wait for the flight to Laamu. And what a flight. 35 minutes of jaw-dropping beauty, like nothing I have ever seen in 30 years of travel. Maldives is the lowest-lying country in the world, with an average elevation of 4 feet 11 inches above sea level. The turquoise stain of the water on these islands that barely break the surface looks like I’m staring at a slide of amoebas through a microscope rather than out the window of a De Havilland Dash 8.
Touchdown Kadhdhoo Airport. I am met by my designated GEM – Guest Experience Maker – who whisks my luggage onto a trolley and leads me down the walkway to a speed boat. I climb aboard and find a spot on the bench. Surrounded by couples on their honeymoon, I try to blend in but it’s obvious I’m the best choice for designated photographer.
A few minutes from the dock and we’re out to sea. As if on cue, a pod of some 300 Spinner dolphin leap and spin as they accompany the boat to the resort. An auspicious beginning? Yes. But also a daily occurrence.
Barefoot Luxury is taken seriously here. And literally. The staff don’t wear shoes. Ever. Along the decking that connects the lodge to the bungalows, there are buckets of water to ladle on your feet if it gets too hot.
At check-in (in the comfort of my overwater villa) I am given a key and a bicycle. Lose the shoes, ride the bike.
At almost 1400 square feet, my ‘home’ is the perfect balance of indoor / outdoor living – a private pool, a private water garden, a viewing platform with day beds, and a sunken all-glass ocean view bath tub. My GEM thoughtfully outlines potential options for my stay which include the expected list of watersports – snorkeling, diving, windsurfing, and catamaran sailing. Or I could try my hand at surfing – something unique to Six Senses because of its proximity to Ying Yang, the most famous surfing wave in all of the Maldives. Good to know, but I’ll pass. The spa, however… sign me up. My GEM has taken the liberty of making dinner reservations for me each night I’m there – at Leaf, Zen and Longitude – to be accompanied by a member of their sales team so I won’t have to stare at a novel or read my emails. And why not order up room service tomorrow morning for my breakfast to be served on my aquarium dining deck? He leaves me to settle in, and as I hear the rattle of the golf cart disappear, I twirl around and laugh at my good fortune.
An invitation for cocktails is on the bed. “Come to the beach.” After a quick outdoor shower and fresh clothes, I pedal my bike from the end of the jetty to the edge of the sand. I prop my bike on its kickstand and pretend to be indifferent to the awkwardness I feel at being a single guest at what is surely one of the most romantic places on earth. The beach party is in full swing and just as I chicken out, I am handed a beautifully chilled flute of champagne (my favorite). Staff seamlessly float from guest to guest with appetizers and more drinks and lure me to stay. I breathe in and watch the waves.
A line has formed further down the beach and instead of slinking back to my villa, I force myself to walk toward the crowd. Newly hatched green turtles scramble, flap and inch toward the water. Struggle, struggle, tip, struggle. I am in awe. With champers in hand, I kneel down and watch. And encourage. And cheer. I help scoop a trench to the sea. As they get closer the tentacles of foam stretch out to meet them. The champagne flows with the tide – as likely poured by a marine biologist as a sommelier. Perfect.
When I was a dirt-bag trek leader in Nepal, I thought a hotel was merely a place to sleep – a jumping-off point before heading into the wilderness to pitch a tent. Price was the main factor in decision making, but if a private bathroom with hot water was included, bonus. Done and done. It never mattered.
I’ve since come to learn that a hotel can be the cornerstone of a great trip. In my decades-long career, I’ve slept around a bit – in some remarkable places. From the Terrace Suite at the Four Seasons London at Park Lane to Arctic Kingdom’s mobile safari camp set on the floe edge where ice meets open ocean in the Canadian Territory of Nunavut. From Hyde Park to the High Arctic. One place boasts high thread count, a pillow menu, butler service, complimentary Wi-Fi, silk-padded hangers, twice-daily maid service with evening ice delivery, a 24-hour fitness center, and a spa. Compare that with pristine glacier water melted fresh-to-order, no Wi-Fi or cell service at any cost, two chefs, a generator to charge batteries, unlimited access to hand warmers, even a hot shower on demand.
Could I categorize both as luxury? Definitely. Sometimes it’s about opulence, elegance, being pampered and spoiled. Other times the luxury is the opportunity to be off the grid in a pristine location. All the comforts that most of us require, with or without the distractions that we think we need and want.
View from the 10th Floor – Four Seasons Hotel Park Lane
Arctic Kingdom Base Camp
Hotels can celebrate a sense of place, not just from their location but from the design, history, a signature cocktail, staff uniforms and décor. They have a certain sensibility. You know where you are. Other hotels can offer familiarity; everything’s where it should be. They provide insulation from the culture, the oddities, the unknowns – they’re a safe haven. It’s not until you step outside that you are reminded of where you are. I find merit in both.
As I continue to sleep around the world, I will post updates. When I’m not ‘bed-hopping’, I’ll go through my notes and highlight some of the memorable hotels, lodges, and camps where I’ve stayed.
Let’s be honest, it’s FUN to stay in a great hotel – in the heart of Central London or 400 miles north of the Arctic Circle.