Christmas in the Maldives

I spent Christmas in the Maldives which is sort of surreal for someone who has spent the last 15 years enjoying a white (or gray) Christmas in the Northeast. The Maldives is a toy country, a group of atolls really which is geography-speak for tiny islands speckled across the Indian Ocean. The capital, Male has around 70,000 people and is about the size of say, JFK. The people are mostly Muslim but progressive and the streets are orderly and clean. Most tourists however don’t even touch Male. They get into a speedboat and go directly to their resort.

There are resorts aplenty here, catering to every budget, lifestyle and language. Some are 98% Italian, others are favored by the Brits or Germans and some are diving havens. The rates too swing wildly. Paradise Island charges $275 a night even during Christmas time. At the other end are the Soneva Fushi and Gili, the Taj Exotica, the One & Only Reethi Rah and the Four Seasons, which charge over $1500 per night during Christmas season.

I stayed at the Taj Exotica because some European friends who were to join us insisted on it. They had heard that the resort served spectacular Indian dishes. The Malabar prawn curry was a particular favorite as was the zesty Pav-bhaji, which is Indian street-food but thankfully, still tasty in its five-star version. The menu however isn’t all Indian. Besides a couple of dishes, you can get everything from sushi to steak.

When I heard about the rates that the high-end resorts charged, my Socialist sentiments were outraged. But after I spent a few days at the Exotica, I can sort of understand why. I am not justifying anything here but consider. Every single thing in the resort is imported. The Frette linens come from Europe; the organic teabags come from the Seattle Tea Company; the Punch coffee is from Papua New Guinea; the jams are from Tasmania; the produce from Australia; the china is from England and the wine glasses from Germany. Getting the best stuff from all over the world is what luxury hotels do, of course, but most luxury hotels are not set in a tiny island in the middle of nowhere. I asked our waiter what they would do if the Riedel glasses broke or if the ship carrying Tasmanian jams was cancelled. He gave a strained smile and said that their current watermelon crisis was an example. The watermelons hadn’t arrived from Australia and so fresh watermelon juice had to be taken off the breakfast menu. They could only offer carrot, papaya, orange and apple.

We had dinner one night at The Deep End, the Taj’s in-house Mediterranean fine-dining restaurant. The Deep End is new, recently opened after the tsunami. Tables encircle an open hole in the middle which allows you to see the water as you dine. My friends loved the octopus, lobster and reef fish dishes. I enjoyed the champagne risotto with shaved truffles. The wine list, though pricey, would put a London restaurant to shame. When we playfully asked for the Petrus, the sommelier told us that he had just sold it to the neighboring table. Apparently, the English gentleman who was entertaining a large party had asked for a Burgundy. When told that they were out of it, he said, “Oh, then bring me the Petrus instead.” The sommelier still seemed stunned by the whole encounter. They were selling the Petrus was $2500, he said, and the original Burgundy that the gentleman had asked for was a mere $200. Such are the ways and vagaries of the super-rich, I guess.

The Balinese massage at the Taj Exotica in Maldives was okay—nothing special—but the setting was spectacular. I’ve had beach massages in Kerala and the sound of lapping waves while your body is being slapped and swaddled induces, shall we say, somnolence. The Jiva spa gets many things right but not all. The masseuse washes your feet in the beginning and then leaves you cold to get into the massage table. I think spa professionals should be trained to treat every guest as a baby or an invalid– guiding them to the massage table, helping them disrobe, handing them a robe and gently laying them down on the table. The spa at the Oriental, Singapore does this, by the way. Another simple thing is to put a bowl of flowers below the massage table so that when you lying face-down, you have something pleasant to look at. But then busy professionals might ask for a blown-up screen of their Blackberry to multi-task while getting a massage.

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