The Maldivian adventure begins when you step off your flight. Whisked quickly to a stand – all the hotels operate the same policy – a Banyan Tree team member will relieve you of all your heavy bits and bobs and escort you to a waiting speedboat or seaplane, depending on your destination.
The newly-launched island sanctuary of Dhawa Ihuru, part of The Banyan Tree Group’s Dhawa brand, is located in the North Malé Atoll, a speedy 20-minute boat ride from the airport. The cooling sea breeze is a welcome relief here – it’s hot, really hot – 30C and it can get a bit sticky.
You’ll pass a few islands en route, resorts unto themselves, until the engine slows and a jetty hoves into view. A few crabs scrabbling around the boards and a couple of resident storks are there to greet you alongside the staff; a sign of the vivid depiction of life to come. Hop onto the boards over the turquoise, glittering waters; an arc of sand sweeps out in either direction, disappearing into the sea. Where they meet, the ocean is lightest blue, moving to a darker shade as it meets the house reef before a deeper blue where the reef drops away. Huge shoals of tiny fry swirl up to the beach, hiding in the shallows, safe from predators. And predators there are (fortunately not for you!) – black tip reef sharks, around three or four feet long, cruise up and down the length of the beach. The little fish, a murmuration, dash together to escape.
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There’s a welcome lack of sophistication here – it’s a very relaxed, organic, casual affair; you’ll take your shoes off on arrival and they won’t go back on till you leave. Sand is the only flooring (rooms excepted); low huts are roofed with palm and everything is open to the elements. Well, to the sun, the cool breeze and the very occasional tropical downpour.
The villas and rooms
This casual existence extends to the rooms which lean ever so gently into rusticity. Access them via a main path or walk along the beach; each of the 45 villas have a sea view. It’s hard to miss really – a few feet from the end of your secluded, sandy garden made comfortable with a couple of sun loungers, a wicker pod and palm fronds providing welcome shade. Come prepared with some SPF50.
Rooms are marble and stone, primary colours, simple, but comfortable, and include air-con and fans, outdoor bathrooms with waterfall showers made from bamboo. There’s a breaking down of boundaries between the interior and exterior spaces. You aren’t really meant to do much here in your room apart from enjoy a little break from the heat so it stands to reason they are pared back. Bird calls, the brushing of palm leaves together and the breaking waves are the only sounds you’ll hear.
Eating and drinking
The island resort is all inclusive and there’s a fun cocktail menu to kick back with featuring lots of tropical classics alongside some of their own twists like piña coladas and a take on a Tequila Sunrise, the Maldivian Sunrise. The Velaavani Bar is open air (of course), under a steep palm roof and decorated with murals of the local marine flora and fauna; paper and wood jellyfish appear as lights, tentacles fluttering in the cool evening breeze, projecting mesmerising illuminations on the sand below. The bar, which doubles as reception, has a varied menu of international cuisine and ticks all the boxes – a prawn and avocado salad sits alongside an excellent burger.
Riveli restaurant is the main eatery on the island and features a rotating buffet of treats from around the world. Often, this kind of eclectic menu can ping the warning lights off, but here it makes sense – the clientele are from all over the world. It’s simple salads, hot dishes, a grill station knocking out seared tuna, marinated chicken and veggies and always a brilliant, generously spiced curry. Maldivian food is heavily influenced by its Indian and Sri Lankan natives and brings in plenty of seafood. If you’re lucky, you might even see some dolphins pass you by as you have lunch on the beach-side deck.
Dhawa Ihuru has a sister hotel, Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru, on the nearest island and visitors can head over for a more upmarket dining experience at Ilaafathi Restaurant. Fancy Indian dishes feature alongside playful takes on Chinese recipes (money bags are crispy dumplings filled with lobster and prawns) and also has some Western choices. Take a boat across and a few stingrays may be lining the shallows awaiting your arrival.
What to do
It rather goes without saying but you’re here for the ocean. The island has a strong bent towards diving and snorkelling; indeed, it doesn’t have a pool, so all dips must be taken in the sea. It’s magical watching the small sharks sweep along the shoreline and the needle fish guarding their young in a corner of the jetty.
It’s no secret the Maldives features some of the world’s best diving. Dhawa has a ship wreck – the Rannamaari – just off the edge of the reef, around 26 metres deep, which is a great place for first-timers and the advanced alike. Plenty of other remarkable diving awaits a short boat ride away and you can learn to dive here very easily. That said, the island has a well-known house reef. As with many countries around the world, the Maldives suffered from heavy coral bleaching due to the rise in sea temperatures after El Niño. They are well on their way to restoration with ongoing conservation efforts across all the atolls and wonderfully, the fish are myriad. On one snorkel around the island, we saw black and white tip sharks, turtles, barracuda and the rare treat of a broad, speckled manta ray flying off into the deep blue.
For some fun above the waves, the hotel can organise a number of different experiences; a sunset cruise on a catamaran is hard to beat, netting slung between the bows to lie in and listen to the sea rushing underneath, the sound only punctuated by the welcome pop of a champagne cork. For those with simpler tastes, kayaks and stand-up paddle boards are complementary and readily available.
The bar has live music in the evenings put on by the wonderful team at the resort – local “Bodu Beru” Maldivian music, traditional coconut wood drums and voices only and frenetic dancing – this kind of thing can have a colonial feel at times but here, there’s genuine enjoyment and passion amongst the performers and a connection to something that predates us visitors.
There’s also a wellness centre across the water at Vabbinfaru and you can engage in activities both fast and slow – a deep breathing session meant slipping further into the island zen and might be an ideal thing to do on your first day. Closer to home on Dhawa Ihuru, the open-air “8lements” spa is excellent. It’s the perfect spot to while away an hour or two listening to nothing but the sounds of the island.
William Leigh was a guest at Dhawa Ihuru Maldives. Rates for a beachfront villa start from £675 per night, exclusive of taxes and fees, based on the all-inclusive dine package; dhawa.com. Across the water, an ocean view pool villa at Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru starts from £801 per night, exclusive of taxes and fees, on a bed and breakfast basis; banyantree.com
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