Photography: sharyn cairns
As the speedboat rushes through the pitch black night - no
lights, no sign of land in any direction, just the vast Indian
Ocean surrounding us - it feels as if we're as far from
civilisation as it's possible to be.
This is the final stretch of a Planes, Trains and Automobiles-style journey to the northern-most tip of the Maldives, an 820km chain of coral atolls 600km south-west of the Indian mainland, and by now I'm wondering whether it might have been prudent to take those primary-school swimming lessons just a little more seriously.
When our boat finally glides in to the jetty at Manafaru island after this slightly unsettling 50-minute hurtle into the dark, I'm sure I'm not the only one on board breathing a quiet sigh of relief. We have arrived at The Beach House, a newly opened resort in the Maldives, and it's not a moment too soon.
Only the third property to establish itself in this remote northern part of the Maldives, The Beach House is banking on the fact that when guests finally set eyes on their near-perfect surrounds, all thoughts of how long it took to get there will vanish as quickly as their winter pallor.
The locals call Manafaru The Beautiful Island, and for very good reason. Lush tropical plants - banana, breadfruit and papaya - cover the landscape, and those shimmering lagoon waters, teeming with fish, form a brilliant blue moat around it. It's hard to believe there could be a more beautiful place anywhere in the world.
All 35 acres of the island are devoted to the The Beach House, which comprises 68 suites and villas, three restaurants, two pool bars, an underground wine cellar, spa, guest retreat, children's club and more.
As with a growing number of resorts, The Beach House has capitalised on its location and built most of its guest accommodation above those beautiful lagoon waters. The 38 Water Villas snake out from the island along two wooden boardwalks, each with its own plunge pool set into an outdoor deck. A stepladder conveniently located next to each pool gives guests access to the beachwaters below, should they fancy snorkelling or swimming further afield.
The overwater villas, along with 28 island-based Beach Villas, tucked into the tropical forest and with direct beach access, have all you would expect of a luxe retreat - plasma TV, DVD player, wireless internet access, fully stocked wine fridge and mini bar, plus an espresso coffee maker. The king-sized beds have 300 thread-count Frette linen, there's a pillow menu (including the intriguingly named Conformance Supreme Bed Pillow and the Very Firm Pillow, among others) and the open-air bathrooms have Jacuzzis so high-tech one almost needs a degree to operate them.
Perhaps the best bit about the rooms, however, is the personal butler - in my case the ever-efficient Benjamin - on call to deal with everything from organising a pick-up and transfer to one of the island's restaurants in an electric buggy, to delivering some Dettol after a close encounter between bare foot and sharp coral or to pointing out that the stuffed Turtle with the I Am Sleeping message across its back is in fact the Do Not Disturb sign (Manafaru is a nesting ground for sea turtles).
For a radically upmarket experience, the resort's premier villas are the Grand Water Pavilion, an overwater villa popular with cashed-up Russian guests, or the $5200-a-night Grand Beach Pavilion, which can house up to four people and comes with its own sauna, steam room, massage treatment room, billiards room, full-sized pool and more.
The Beach House at Manafaru is the brainchild of Maldivian businessman Ahmed Siyam Mohamed, who won the island in a $1000 lottery after the Maldivian government decided to sell the remote outer atoll, but doubted there would be much interest.
Having already established two local four-star resorts, Mohamed wanted to move into the luxury market. It was always going to be a challenge, given the high calibre of other Maldivian getaways, such as celebrity magnet Huvafen Fushi, Como Hotels' Cocoa Island and Angsana Resort and Spa, among others, which have already set the bar high.
"The Maldives have always been a haven to the discerning traveller and I knew that I wanted to provide a unique product, serviced by exceptional staff who take pride in their work and offer unbeatable service," he says. "With The Beach House I wanted to have a resort where everyone would be comfortable - from families, divers, honeymooners and couples. I am confident we have achieved this with our unique recreational activities and facilities."
Indeed, there are enough activities on offer to keep even the most energetic of beach bunnies happy. A PADI Dive School and a watersports centre are available to guests (jet skiing, water skiing, parasailing, wake boarding and the like can all be organised offsite). There's also a gym, tennis courts and a guest retreat with a virtual golf simulator (fancy a round at St Andrew's? It's possible, and your swing will be accompanied by bagpipes to boot). For the young at heart there are games consoles, a karaoke room and a trampoline.
There's also the chance to get a feel for the wider surrounds, with full or half-day excursions. If you're fleet of foot and not wary about hopping from jetty to bobbing boat without the aid of a ramp or step-ladder, try the sunset fishing trip on a traditional dhoni. Our party caught dozens of fish, some of which guest chef Christine Manfield whipped up into a stunning baked red snapper masala that evening. (The Australian chef is in the process of signing up as consultant chef and brand ambassador at the resort.)
An excellent alternative to boat hopping is the resort's Shui Spa and Ayurvedic Retreat. Wander along the cobbled paths to one of the 10 secluded treatment rooms for a traditional Thai, Swedish or Balinese massage, aromatherapy or whatever else you fancy from the extensive treatments list. There is also an Ayurvedic doctor offering therapeutic and natural treatments, plus a beauty salon and manicurist.
Kids are well catered for, too. The super-cute Turtle Club - comprising kid-sized pool, work table for painting and cut outs, dress-up corner, climbing frame and even toilets shaped like boiled eggs - will keep them occupied for hours and there's also a crèche for the tiny ones.
Strictly for the adults, on the other hand, are the pleasures of cocktails by the Infinity pool. Pull up a sunlounger and a pomegranate martini before dinner. Or head for the larger Amazon pool and bar in the centre of the island, set in the tropical rainforest. A word of advice, however. Signposting on the island can be confusing so grab a map, or someone who knows where to go, or you may end up doing three laps of the island before finding your intended destination.
There are a variety of choices for dinner. The all-day Four Corners restaurant serves a buffet breakfast, followed by à la carte or table d'hôte international menus later in the day. Medium Rare is a casual grill restaurant (a tip, order the plump, perfectly grilled Maldivian lobster), while the elegant Saffron serves 'Asian fusion' dishes. There is, of course, 24-hour in-villa dining available to guests who want to stay indoors, but where would the fun be in that?
What The Beach House is offering is exquisite solitude in one of the most beautiful, remote places in the world. No cars, no planes, barely even a passing speedboat. So make the most of every minute, because it's a long, long way back to the big smoke.
THE FINE PRINT
Singapore Airlines flies four times daily from Sydney to Singapore, and daily to Male from Singapore: 13 10 11. The Beach House will organise a domestic flight from Male to Hanimaadhoo for its guests, who will then be transferred to a speedboat for the 50-minute journey to the island.
The Beach House at Manafaru Maldives, beachhousecollection.com, +960 650 0400. Beach villas from $800 a night b&b.