Sun, Sand and Sustainability Experiencing The Best Of Maldives At Oblu
As a highly hydrophobic person, you might call me crazy for picking the Maldives as my vacation destination. But its aquamarine waters that melt into shades of deep blue allow me to look past the honeymoon cliche trope and bear the 12-hour commute to its shores. While some destinations offer a bag of differentiated experiences, Maldives is relatively simple long walks on white sand beaches, soaking in the sun, water sports and relaxation, all nestled in a luxurious package on a one-hotel island. Yet, it offers something few destinations can promise - a chance to wake up in a beautiful dream and the nagging disbelief that it is all too real.
A 20-minute stomach-churning speed boat ride from Velana, which reminded me of Delhi autos partaking in what can only be a ride against death, brought me to my Maldivian escape - Oblu Select Lobigili. In the local dialect of Dhivehi, &lsquoLobi&rsquo means love, and &lsquoGili&rsquo means island. But I wasn&rsquot here just for the postcard-worthy beaches framed by palm trees swaying in the summer breeze at this adults-only island of love.
There are 1,192 islands that make up 26 coral atolls in the Maldives, and its dependency on tourism has exposed its frail ecosystem to grave ecological ramifications. From coral bleaching to plastic waste in the ocean, marine life stands to be impacted the most. And while getting on a plane adds to this worsening cycle, I hoped to experience Lobigili&rsquos heady cocktail of luxury and sustainability in the heart of the ocean.
Atmosphere Hotels & Resorts group operates seven resorts in the island nation, and Lobigili is the latest addition to the portfolio, having begun operations in late March this year. At the resort, the exhausting journey is, dare I say, forgiven as panoramic views fill the space beach and water villas branch out in each direction like leaves. Sarah Walker-Kerr, VP of Communications at Atmosphere, takes us to the vibrant Swing Bar for a quick round of cocktails, introducing us to the eco-conscious elements blended craftily into the space for the discerning traveller before our island hostess Aswathy takes us to the beach villa.
The villa is a spacious dreamy paradise, with its pool behind french windows that open up to the azure ocean flaunting its myriad shades. There is local shrubbery, and the natural alcoves provide much-needed privacy from the adjoining villas, each of which is built extensively with wood. I find it interesting how elements of nature find space even within the estate sea shells and plants cover all corners, reiterating a deep connection with the environment that Oblu aims to protect and restore while being unflinchingly committed to luxury.
I had a plan in mind - drop my luggage and take a quick tour of the property, but I planned too soon. I was stopped in my tracks by the bath area, easily the highlight of the beach and water villas. The open-air bathtub, with a rain shower for a quick cleanse under the starlit sky, combines double vanity and luxurious bath amenities. Before my inner ramblings get the best of me, I finally give in to the temptation, draw up a quick bubble bath, and head out for lunch.
At Ylang Ylang, the property&rsquos all-day dining restaurant, experiences are aplenty. Guests can choose from indoor and outdoor dining spaces or dine in the library room when the Maldivian summer heat comes crashing down. There is one thing in common, though - all the areas offer a spectacular view of the ocean while being mesmerised by a range of cuisines. I see the lavish spread on offer and worry about the wastage of food that is a norm at most luxurious properties. But I am assured by Jorge Amaro, General Manager of OBLU Select Lobigili, that there are measures in place to ensure that their carbon footprint is minimised, despite procuring most of the produce from Male. Sarah agrees, adding that the produce is arranged timely and all orders are curated in real-time to ensure minimal wastage. An in-house incinerator also ensures that food waste is not disposed of in the ocean.
Even as an intrepid traveller, I always find my palate reaching out for a familiar taste. Indian counter it is for a dozen other European travellers seeking a fresh spicy contour at this breezy retreat and me. A sea of happy faces swirl around, carrying orders from the live counters, helmed mostly by Indians (Maldives&rsquo sandy shores have become an outpost for a generation of Indian honeymooners, and Oblu seems to have taken note). A genial server recommends baby octopus and crab for starters it is a hard pass. I surprise most people with my general dislike for seafood and quickly return to my chicken and naan plate to avoid more quizzical looks.
The sun is bearing down in all glory when we head out for a day of snorkelling at the house reef. Coral reefs took a severe beating in the Maldives in 2015 and 2016, when high ocean temperatures bleached the corals, a vital part of the marine ecosystem. Ever since, coral reef conservation and restoration projects have been pivotal here, with many resorts, such as Oblu, taking up the cause with due diligence. Diving, snorkelling trails and coral plantations are all part of guest experiences meant to educate travellers. Our guide Hasan took us to the reef on a boat with a life jacket and snorkelling gear, I was ready to face my fear of water. Paddling away to glory like a bobblehead, whether the open ocean was the right place to take up this challenge is a question I decided to reserve for another day.
Lobigili&rsquos house reef, adjacent to the water villas that catch the best sunset views on the property, is teeming with marine life we see a school of fish, baby reef sharks and the sudden drop into a blue expanse that threatens to swallow me, forcing me to come up for air more often than I care for. But I am glad for one thing - the support of a guide (and an air tube to which I hang on for dear life). While the resort allows for snorkelling in the lagoon around the premises, walking or standing on coral damages it. This information sends a shiver of realisation. I must have injured quite a few corals during my time in Thailand a decade ago, where an unsuccessful diving attempt was the start of paranoia that Hasan seems to be hell-bent on undoing.
The reef&rsquos colours shimmer in the sunlight and Hasan goes to the very depths, standing vertically in the ocean like Poseidon the current that bobs me on the surface does not affect him. Back on the boat, I have a newfound appreciation for the ocean and a solid sunburn that refuses to go. The same evening, on our sunset cruise, Hasan tells us about Maldivian diving rules and fishing regulations reef fishing is strictly prohibited in marine reserves. This is why Oblu Lobigili takes its visitors further into the open sea for fishing expeditions.
The next day is reserved for relaxation and rejuvenation as we head out to Elena, Lobigili&rsquos open-air spa. The tranquil spa complex features four secluded double treatment rooms with a couples bath, each enclosed in a lush tropical garden. At the spa, local cold-pressed coconut oil is de-rigueur for almost all massages, many of which feature local practices, including coconut shells for deep tissue relaxation. Our spa session begins with the traditional Maldivian drum and ends with a soak in a private outdoor bathtub overlooking the soothing turquoise horizon. The area also mimics the use of wood prevalent around the property, incorporating local elements and know-how. Later in the day, we dip our toes in the lagoon across the spa but sadly cut our feet on shoals and stones in the shallow waters. No fish here, much to our disappointment.
Later, on a walkaround of the property, Aswathy, the cornucopia of information she is, takes us on a sustainability walk and tells us how a wastewater management system allows the used water to be converted into clean water used around the island. All the villas have solar panels, and the Maldivian sun ensures the resort has enough solar energy for its varied needs. On the island, battery-operated vehicles and bicycles are used to reduce the environmental impact while lending an element of whimsy to this love nest. The massage, followed by an afternoon siesta, has made me greedy, and I find my way to the beach just in time for our barbeque dinner under a canopy of stars.
I expected the days to be light, breezy but each day on this island passes in a blur at every meal, there are stories galore, most of them from Jorge and his experience with weather prediction (he can tell it with unbelievable certainty) Sarah and her love for trash tv resonate with my own, and we do believe it is the perfect mind-numbing activity on a stressful day. The staff keeps feeding us good food from the grill, and we polish off our lunch in haste as the sky darkens. &ldquoIt will rain,&rdquo Jorge quips, looking at the sunny sky while I shuffled to the wooden deck where a boat awaited my departure. &ldquoThe sun is unforgivably harsh, Jorge. I don&rsquot think it&rsquoll be kind to me today,&rdquo I told him as the boat picked up speed, reducing Sarah and the group into specks in the distance as we hurtled towards the airport.
I had spoken five minutes too soon.