Admittedly, it’s aspirational (read: delusional) to make life decisions with a ‘if it’s good enough for Naomi Campbell‘ mindset, even for the editors at a luxury publication like Savoir Flair. However, sometimes, the stars align and we find ourselves checking into a resort where the supermodel once did: Shangri-La’s Villingili Resort & Spa. What followed had nothing to do with her and everything to do with the gorgeous property – we fell in love with the Maldives all over again.
Have you ever been handed a certificate testifying that you’ve crossed the equator mid-flight? Neither had we until we embarked on this trip. It certainly sets the tone for what’s to come – unexpected treats at every turn. Nestled in the sheltered waters of the southernmost atoll, Shangri-La’s Villingili Resort & Spa is the first luxury resort in Addu Atoll. At 54 hectares, it also happens to be the largest resort island in the Maldives.
Addu Atoll is known as the heart of the republic for not only its heart-shaped coral reefs, but also its vibrant history and culture. It was a major military base for the British Army until the Maldives gained its independence in 1965. Today, tourism has transformed it entirely, with sun, sea, and island-life stories taking the place of British armed forces. Mark our words, you’ll never forget those first few moments upon arrival at the property. It’s only the sweet, nutty taste of fresh coconut water that makes the indescribable beauty of the surrounds seem real.
Get a Room
There may be eight different villa types to choose from – some have a private garden and infinity pool, others are built on traditional Maldivian stilts and draw inspiration from tropical treehouses – but we’ll forever remain biased towards the ‘Sunset Overwater’ variety. Does anything top the feeling of lounging in an overwater hammock before stepping into the sea from the steps of your villa?
Regardless of where you stay, they start at a whopping 133 square meters, which means you’ll have more space than you know what to do with. Shangri-La is a savvy host, so you’ll find essentials like aftersun and a travel adaptor in your room. We loved the little touches that add a sense of place: freshly handpicked Addu bananas, orchids from the property’s garden, and a photo book depicting the smiling faces and stunning landscapes of the Maldives. But there’s more. Luxe amenities like a spacious bathtub, an espresso coffee machine, and his-and-hers sinks aside, there’s a full-fledged pillow menu with six options on offer – how do the words “lavender pillow” sound to all you restless sleepers?
Located in a secluded village of sorts, a trip to CHI, The Spa feels like an escape within an escape. Not only do the 11 treatment villas here come complete with private gardens and steam rooms, but there’s also a yoga pavilion overlooking the Indian Ocean – if only every tree pose came with such picturesque views. The menu is centered around traditional Asian healing philosophies, inspiring everything from the massages to facials, wraps, and body scrubs on offer. However, in a case of “when in Rome”, we must insist that you opt for the signature ‘Kandu Boli Ritual’.
The words kandu boli translate to ‘seashell’, so this treatment draws energy from the treasures of the ocean and promises both relaxation and hydration. A smooth, natural cowrie shell is used to massage tired muscles while warm coconut oil is drizzled across the body and through the hair, making way for a soothing massage that quite literally spans from top to toe. And just when you think you know how this treatment wraps up, the gentle sound of a local lullaby fills the room.
Chew on This
Somewhere between the six bars, lounges, and restaurants, there’s a spot on the property to suit every mood, every palate, every occasion. Dr. Ali’s pays tribute to the travels of a local legend, serving dishes that incorporate the herbs and spices he discovered during his trips through Asia and the Middle East. Fashala, in contrast, is where local ingredients reign supreme, elevated through the likes of white truffle foam and citrus sabayon – with sunken seating on the beach to boot. And then there’s Javvu, where attempting to make it through the seemingly countless live-cooking stations of the breakfast buffet is our kind of undertaking.
The Dine by Design program is where the hotel truly dazzles. Whether it’s aboard a luxury yacht, on a meditation pavilion at the spa, by the waters of the Green Lagoon, or amongst the banyan trees in the jungle, bespoke culinary experiences happen in the resort’s most secret locations. Our pick? The Chef’s Garden. Not much beats feasting under the atmospheric pagoda in this 2,600-square-meter garden amidst the wafting aromas of mint, lemongrass, and sweet basil if you’re a bona fide foodie.
Walk It Off
Bragging rights come courtesy of Mount Villingili Summit – the highest point in the Maldives – which stands at an, ahem, modest elevation of 5.1 meters. On holiday, this arduous ascent counts as cardio, we promise. For the more physically inclined, there’s a 6km running track that takes you through scenic locations ranging from lush jungles to pristine coastlines. We set out on the guided Villingili Nature Walk instead of working up a sweat, learning about the blindingly vibrant flora and fauna on the island – strange fruit and spooky legends included.
Lend a Hand
A moment to pause and praise Shangri-La’s efforts is in order. The Maldives property has reduced its consumption of plastic bottles by over 200,000 per year as a result of its water-purification system, and regularly involves employees, guests, and the greater community in green activities such as beach cleaning. As part of its commitment to environmental awareness, the Eco Centre also hosts talks centered around the ecology of Villingili Island – a must-attend for anyone interested in the enigmatic underwater world.
But, here, things take a more hands-on approach through the Sanctuary project as a dedicated team of marine biologists works on replanting fragmented corals in order to regenerate reefs. And you’re invited. Not only can guests donate to the project, but they can also participate in a coral-planting session themselves. You’ll even receive progress updates long after you’ve checked out.
When it comes to island life, think dolce far niente – in fact, the clocks here are set one hour ahead of local time so you can enjoy an additional hour of lounging around. But if you’re not the do-nothing type, the resort hosts activities that rival those offered by other luxury properties in the archipelago, but better. You’ve never heard of lawn bowls or bocce ball, but here’s your opportunity to play. There’s two tennis courts, both of which are equipped for nighttime play. The boutiques sell tchotchkes and souvenirs, but Melissa Odabash beachwear and coral statement jewelry, too. And yet another claim to fame comes courtesy of the golf course – the only one in the Maldives.
Usual suspects like beach volleyball, cooking classes, and gaming stations aside, we whiled away our days by sitting on a swing partially submerged in the sea, taking in those breathtaking sunsets, photographing the beautifully weathered dhoni wreck that dates back to the 1940s, and attempting to spot the upside jellyfish that reside in one of the three natural lagoons. As for an activity that you can’t possibly do in Dubai? An encounter with the climbers responsible for maintaining the island’s 17,000 coconut trees. Observe them at work, learn about the traditions associated with their role, savor a fresh coconut, and walk away with an experience that only a tropical paradise can boast.
Make a Wish
Some of the banyan trees on the property are over 150 years old, but there’s one that stands out: the towering Wishing Tree. Step closer when you spot it and you’ll see that, according to Hindu mythology, the banyan tree represents eternity, its multiple trunks symbolizing the longevity of life. That’s why this particular one is embellished with wish ribbons of various colors representing different meanings. Choose wisely!
It would seem that the Photography Lounge at Shangri-La has caught on to the dozens and dozens of selfies you take in a quest for the perfect one – a 30-minute photoshoot with a local photographer is complimentary for all the guests, and you can pick just about anywhere on the island as your backdrop. A 8×10 inch print comes free of charge, but you can opt for a package and select the ones you want printed at an additional cost.
Addu Atoll is an aquatic treasure trove waiting to be discovered, its proximity to the equator translating to one of the healthiest and most colorful coral reefs in the Maldives. You have your pick of watersports, with kayaking, parasailing, windsurfing, waterskiing, and turtle-quest snorkeling being just some of the many options. On the drier side of the spectrum reside activities like Maldivian night fishing, rides aboard a glass-bottom boat, and the beloved dolphin cruise.
Over hundreds of spinner dolphins call the property’s surrounding waters home, and these playful mammals never shy away from putting on a show when they enter the lagoon to feed. Other highlights worth knowing? The shipwreck of a now coral-covered oil tanker that was torpedoed in 1944 and Manta Point cleaning station, which is unique in the Maldives because you can see manta rays all year round – both part of the over 25 world-class dive locations to choose from.
Just when you think you’ve seen and done it all at the resort, the cultural tours around Addu Atoll offer the type of insights into local life that lazing on your hammock just can’t provide. Over the course of an afternoon ramble, the Historical Tour reveals the remnants of the British occupation of Addu – think: bunkers, pillboxes, and other WW2 ruins – while the Meedhoo Farms Tour introduces the faces and places behind the produce used at Shangri-La.
The Addu City Tour, meanwhile, comes highly recommended. You’ll hop on one of the speedboat runs to Gan and explore the five neighboring islands that are connected by a 17-kilometer road – incidentally the longest in the Maldives – by bicycle or car. The unspoiled villages and quaint cafés along this route provide an authentic setting in which to explore the fascinating lifestyle and culture of the real Maldives before returning to the dreaminess of your villa. This may be Shangri-La, but it’s no utopia.
Gulf Air operates direct flights daily from Saturday to Wednesday between Bahrain and Malé. For more details or to book a stay at Shangri-La’s Villingili Resort & Spa, click here.