Signature checks in to… Conrad Maldives, Rangali Island
An enduring getaway plays to its geographic and culinary strengths while making critical changes that should keep it on the map for years to come, writes C. James Dale.
Visitors have been descending on Conrad Maldives, located in the western part of the Maldives, for more than two decades. A former Hilton Resort & Spa, this luxury retreat has been welcoming and wowing guests as a Conrad outpost since 2007. And it’s not just the turquoise-blue water, the long stretches of sandy beaches and the posh rooms with brilliant views. Conrad Maldives is also a must visit for serious food-lovers. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that it boasts what’s billed as the world’s first undersea restaurant, Ithaa.
Traveller: C. James Dale
Room: Family Water Villa
Address: South Ari Atoll, 20077, Republic of Maldives
Date: March 2018
Best for: A classic Maldives getaway that can be as busy or relaxed as you want it, combined with some of the best dining options in the archipelago.
The Signature factor
The multi-award winning property continues to deliver on a number of fronts, even in the face of growing competition. It seduces guests with a secluded yet expansive location that provides the best in dining options and spa treatments, along with excursions that offer encounters with dolphins, manta rays and myriad other sea creatures.
It’s Robinson Crusoe meets Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, let-your-hair-down luxury where guests are encouraged to kick off their shoes upon arrival and keep them off as they decamp to grand villas and suites that either jut out over the azure waters of the Indian Ocean or are tucked away among lush vegetation just steps from the beach. For the more classic Maldivian holiday, consider staying on the smaller and secluded Rangali Island, a short walk, buggy ride or Dhoni boat journey from the main island, Rangalifinolhu Island. It has overwater villas, an adults-only Quiet Zone pool and the restaurant Vilu, which is open for breakfast (small buffet and à la carte options) and dinner (revamped menu with incredible Italian/Mediterranean options).
For some guests, their stay begins with a visit to The Conrad Lounge at the Malé International Airport Seaplane Terminal, just a short drive from the Maldivian capital’s main airport. It looks a little better online, but it’s still a nice space where you can stretch out on couches, get a massage (for incoming guests only), take a shower and have a nice meal. Conrad Maldives is a 30-minute seaplane ride away, an opportunity to get a bird’s-eye view of some of the so-called “garland of islands” that make up this sprawling archipelago, the colour palette of the roughly 1200 coral islands (grouped into a couple of dozen atolls) ranging from green to white to aquamarine to blue. After you arrive, take a minute to soak it all in: the thatch rooftops made of coconut leaves, the inviting main pool, the beach, the coral reefs and the calm. Guests who haven’t checked in at the seaplane lounge head to the main reception area, which features a sand floor and aims to foster a laidback vibe.
Guests have two options: beach villas or overwater villas, which offer sunrise or sunset views and small plunge pools. We stayed in a spacious Family Water Villa, just a short walk from the spa. The main room houses the master bedroom and has a retractable door that opens onto a terrace with sun loungers, a Jacuzzi and steps descending into the lagoon (the water level is about a metre high). The bathroom area seems boundless, with an enormous shower and bathtub section (another way to access the terrace), two closets, many mirrors and sinks that sit above glass panels that offer views of the ocean below. Off the bathroom and down a short breezeway lies the second bedroom, which has two single mattresses on a raised wooden platform. This part of the villa was designed with kids in mind and includes bean bag chairs, TV and video game console. We spent most of our time in the main part of the villa with the windows open and ceiling fans on, relishing the tropical indoor-outdoor experience. Afternoon naps and sunset drinks on the terrace became daily rituals. At night, we’d sit outside and gaze at the stars and moon, the soothing sound of small waves hitting the stairs and stilts of the villa the only thing we’d hear.
Highlights from the mini-bar
Pretty standard, with a range of beers, wines and spirits, along with sodas and juices. This kind of stuff doesn’t come cheap in the Maldives given taxes and transportation costs, so it’s probably not possible for the Conrad Maldives to use the mini-bar – as some resorts do – as a place to amp up the welcome experience and offer guests freebies. The resort does, however, provide Nespresso capsules for your coffee fix.
An unforgettable luxury sanctuary can be found off the tip of Rangali Island, where a pair of Sunset Water Villas is located. It’s all about the numbers: 452 square metres, 270-degree ocean view, room for four adults and two kids, 24-hour butler service. But it’s more than that, of course, from the big glass floor in the living room to the rotating master bed to the television that disappears into the ceiling of the second bedroom to the infinity pool. Throw in a giant master bathroom and enough closet space for the entire Kardashian clan, and you’ll be feeling like you’re home in a matter of minutes.
On my plate
Foodies will wish they had a few weeks to try all the options at Conrad Maldives. We started with a barbecue on the beach. The staff grilled up everything from beef tenderloin and chicken to tuna steaks and tandoori shrimp. With so much of the food imported, it’s incredible things such as oysters and vegetables taste as amazing as they do. The setting is stunning: under the stars, candles and torches for lighting, feet in the sand (which also muffles the sound of conversation), ocean steps from the tables.
The open-air Vilu Restaurant & Bar was our next stop, where the focus is on contemporary Mediterranean cuisine. We sampled from its new menu, which comes with wine-pairing options. Make sure you try the grilled scallops and the beetroot risotto. Both are incredible, as is the chocolate and salted caramel dessert.
The next night, we snagged one of the few tables available at Sunset Grill. The octagonal building sits over the water, with a sunken (and very busy) kitchen in the middle and small platforms for tables radiating out from most sides. Recommended options here include the chilled spicy avocado soup, the catch of the day (mine was a tasty local white fish) and the Manjari chocolate tube truffle for dessert.
We managed to fit in a quick pre-noon glass of champagne at undersea restaurant, Ithaa, which means “mother of pearl” in Dhivehi (Maldivian language). It opened in 2005 and remains a must-see destination unto itself. When we were there, light streamed in through the 12.5-millimetre-thick clear acrylic walls (which are cleaned a couple of times a day), with fish and small sharks swimming all around us. Back on land, we were repeat customers at chef Jereme Leung’s restaurant, Ufaa (“happiness” in Dhivehi). Leung is an award-winning master of modern Chinese cuisine and the menu he designed is packed with incredible options, from mouth-watering xiao long bao to fresh noodles. Diners can also choose to simmer up their own dishes and share a hot pot at their table. The decor and atmosphere are spot on.
I wish I could take home…
The ambience of nighttime at the resort. The bright stars and clear moon. The light breeze. The reef sharks and fish swimming in the illuminated waters. Runner-up: one of the Conrad Maldives’ top chefs. It wouldn’t help my middle-aged physique, but I’d love to enjoy the cuisine I had at the resort a couple of times a week.
Conrad Maldives boasts two spa facilities: one over the water on Rangali Island and the other one billed as The Spa Retreat off the tip of Rangalifinolhu Island. The former is a gorgeous oasis where three of four treatment rooms have glass floors so guests can stare at the water as they enjoy their massages. The downside is there’s not much coral, so you won’t really see a wealth of marine life. The latter, where I had my massage, has about a dozen treatment rooms, including a hair and nail salon. Visitors are led down a long wooden hallway with an opening at the end that lets in a blast of bright light and blue water. My masseuse proved skilful at isolating and soothing muscles, finishing different parts of the body with a light pounding technique. The treatment ended with a short yet invigorating stretch, snapping me to attention and leaving me exhilarated. The visit doesn’t end there, though. Guests can take their time unwinding in the dressing room (and marvelling at the open-air, but private, toilet) before heading to the newly renovated Mandhoo Restaurant, which serves organic meals meant to nourish, detoxify and energise the body.
Conrad Maldives sets its clocks an hour ahead of Malé, so sunrise is at about 7.00 am and sunset is 12 hours later. But you’ll be amazed at how time flies when you’re marooned on an island in the Indian Ocean. Feeling adventurous? Try the jet-powered Flyboard. A warning for beginners, though: patrons of the beachfront restaurant and bar will be watching to see whether you soar or splash down. Want to check out the undersea action? There’s a daily, 1.30 pm fish and reef shark feeding by the spa. Guests in water villas can also snorkel off their terraces by day, then stay dry at night and watch the sharks and fish swim in and out of the shadows of the lighted water. If you opt for a beach villa, the house reef is just steps away, home to butterfly fish, angel fish, parrot fish and many other varieties. But it doesn’t take an expert to see the coral has been a victim of a widespread problem in the Maldives: severe coral bleaching. Rising water temperatures made worse by the 2014–2016 El Niño event are to blame, making some parts of the seafloor look more like bombed-out cities than the vibrant images we’re accustomed to seeing online. Conrad Maldives and other resorts are working to help regenerate the coral, but it’s a slow process; recovery after a severe bleaching event in the late 1990s took more than a decade. Snorkellers will notice the bigger fish are trying to do their part by pruning algae that can essentially smother coral. The sound of munching is hard to miss.
Five years ago, my wife and I were in the Maldives and had the exhilarating experience of swimming with wild dolphins. We were keen to have another close encounter with these magnificent mammals, so we signed up for the dolphin cruise, a 90-minute sunset tour in a sleek Gulf Craft Ambassador 55, complete with beds, a kitchen and Wi-Fi for those who are dying to stay connected. Our first dolphin sighting happened less than five minutes after our journey began. Pod after pod appeared, with dolphins swimming playfully alone or in twos, threes and fours alongside the boat. Off in the distance, others put on a performance by leaping out of the water and doing double, sometimes triple twists before splashing back down again. The trip only got better when the staff brought out canapés and Ruinart Champagne, which we sipped as the sun disappeared into the horizon, a long stretch of ocean separating us from the western coast of Africa. I saw dolphins again later in the trip during a snorkel tour. But the team was more focused on finding the elusive manta ray, which we did see briefly as it glided through our group before disappearing like a ghost. As we hopped from reef to reef one morning, we also came close to eagle rays and turtles, watched small sharks mosey by and were surrounded by fish of all colours, shapes and sizes.
- Best Beach Resort 2017, Global Award, Haute Grandeur Hotel Awards
- Best Private Island Spa and Hotel Spa, The Overwater Spa, Global award, Haute Grandeur Awards 2017
- Best Honeymoon Resort, Continent award, Haute Grandeur Hotel Awards 2017
- Best Luxury Family Resort, Continent Winner: Indian Ocean, World Luxury Hotel Awards 2017
- Maldives’ leading luxury hotel villa – Sunset Water Villa – World Travel Awards 2017
- Various honours for Ithaa Undersea Restaurant and Ufaa by Jereme Leung from World Luxury Restaurant Awards 2017
Loungers at the main pool fill up pretty quickly by about noon, so grab one early. Plus fresh fruit is served around 11.00 am. The breakfast buffet at Atoll Market on the main island – with Western and Asian options, along with a fresh juice bar – is much better than the smaller buffet and à la carte choices on the smaller island. Hilton Gold and Diamond members and repeat guests (third visit or more) can enjoy complimentary afternoon snacks and coffee/tea. Most children find the Majaa Kids’ Club a blast, with staff helping them paint seashells and T-shirts and even taking them on a pirate adventure. Finally, make sure you track down the staff member Aayan, who’s not only great with kids but was a welcome presence on the dolphin cruise. It’s easy to see why this star employee has been working at Conrad Maldives for more than a decade.
Room for improvement
Conrad Maldives has already started the process of renovating rooms, which will happen over the course of a few years during the slow season. The revamped beach villa we saw is a breath of fresh air, with lighter materials and a more contemporary feel. But the Conrad would do well to take another look at the lobby. The sand floor certainly adds to the vacation vibe, but the dark-wood furnishings, dated upholstery on cushions and lounge beds and other features make the space feel sombre and uninviting. The paintings could be pulled down and replaced with better art, perhaps a showcase of Maldivian arts and crafts (lacquerware, basketry or framed thun’du kunaa mats). What about filling the wall behind the reception desk with a collage of photos from guests that offer different perspectives on the stunning surroundings? Anything that would make the space scream sun and fun would be welcome.
Housekeeping walked the walk on Conrad’s “You can make a difference” pledge, which invites guests to help with green efforts through the conservation of water and energy, along with the reduction of chemical waste. Towels that were left to dry and intended for reuse were taken away. Lights, televisions and air-conditioning units were switched on following daily cleaning and turndown service. Housekeeping did, however, respond to my request to modify its routine. But perhaps Conrad Maldives could make this part of the check-in process so it can gauge how far guests want to go to help Mother Nature. Or why not take it further and create an incentive program that would celebrate “green warriors” – a free drink at sundown perhaps?