“It’s all right. You can be impressed.”
A very polite gentleman of slight build and mild manner, standing beside my friend and me, has just leaned in and quietly spoken these words. We are considering the vast, supremely tasteful poolside bar at Cheval Blanc Randheli, a Maldivian resort that has been open for exactly three days. Compressed marble chips and hand-smoothed plaster compete for the most glowingly burnished surface. Butter-soft leather chairs abut low-slung tables in teak and limed oak. The soaring walls at either end are a milky brown, overlaid with whitewashed teak laser-cut screens; the bar itself, some 9m long, is rendered from veined white Carrara marble. The whole is semi-enclosed on three sides, spilling rather extravagantly where the fourth wall should be out onto a balau-timber deck surrounding a 25m pool floored in indigo stone; its inky expanse creates a sharp horizon against the aquamarine of the lagoon beyond. If an interior space could be a supermodel – gloriously lean, supple, invitingly voluptuous in a few key places; dressed in clean lines, natural tones and some well-judged hits of proper dazzle, in a way that recalls elements of, say, Phoebe Philo’s Céline or Karl Lagerfeld’s Fendi – then this bar would be that sexy catwalk habitué.
Which is interesting, and appropriate, given that Cheval Blanc Randheli is the new star of the eponymous hotel brand launched in 2010 by LVMH Hotel Management, part of the conglomerate that happens to own both Céline and Fendi – and Louis Vuitton, and Pucci, and Berluti and Bulgari, and Tag Heuer and De Beers, and, of course, a blue-chip portfolio of wines, champagnes and spirits, including the Premier Grand Cru Classé bordeaux from which the hotel brand takes its name, produced by the château acquired by LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault in 1998.
Many of the great and good in the luxury and hospitality worlds have been waiting to see what this five-island complex in the northeasterly Noonu Atoll would shake out to look and feel like. Cheval Blanc already runs an exclusive lodge in Courchevel 1850, and has an ambitious map of development plans across the globe, from a small island off the southern coast of Oman to a viridescent patch of seaside jungle in Careyes, Mexico. But the Maldives is where LVMH has chosen to make its international debut. The gentleman described above (endowed with the rather whimsical title of head alchemist – one of a small army of ambassadeurs on site) must have seen right past my poker face, for his permission to submit to a bit of wonderment was delivered with complicit amusement. The luxury-goods brand that can marshal the most comprehensive understanding of the demands and proclivities of ultra-high-net-worth individuals and tastemakers alike has brought all of that expertise to bear on these tiny islands in the Indian ocean: it’s sort of impossible not to be impressed with the result.
And the Maldives is a most fitting setting for it. This is a place where outsized luxury is still being writ large, in superlatives, across the limpid horizon. Such extravagance coexists, as any regular reader of this (or any other) newspaper over the past three years will know, with a tumultuous political climate; in recent years this putative democracy has been left in a markedly fragile state. The victory in November’s presidential elections of Abdullah Yameen – after two prior attempts stalled following a Supreme Court annulment and a halt to the planned re-run – was a conspicuously slim one. A host of other issues, from human rights to freedom of religion and waste-management challenges, periodically dog the country’s reputation. Concurrent with these headlines, playing at times like a dissonant note against them, has been column after glossy-page column detailing luxury resort openings, from a Six Senses (whose eco-chic island in the southerly Laamu atoll debuted in 2011) to Niyama (in 2012), which purveys youthful luxury with a bit of cheek. Offensive rich man’s playgrounds, say some. Bar-setting quality of hospitality, contend others. Whatever one’s view, this nation of 1,200-odd islands – for a decade now an established stomping ground of the extremely well-off and sybaritically inclined – is one of the few places on the planet where Cheval Blanc’s formidable offering is met with genuine competition: hoteliers with a parity of expertise, aesthetics or budget.
Among them is Christina Ong, whose 66-villa Maalifushi – the only resort in the southerly Thaa atoll – quietly opened last month. Ong’s COMO hotels and retreats deploy a combination of wellness, easy-going luxury (shoes-free somehow feels like a perfectly acceptable dress code at most of them, even for supper), and impeccably tasteful decor threaded through with signature touches of Bali and Thailand. Ong has opened two resorts within six months of each other: Point Yamu, a Paola Navone-designed hotel on Phuket’s east coast; and Maalifushi, designed by Koichiro Ikebuchi (whom COMO proselytes – and they are legion – will know as the man behind the COMO Shambhala Estate in Bali).
Cocoa Island, Ong’s first Maldivian retreat – 40 minutes by boat from the capital, Malé – opened in 2002. Tiny and intimate, it has retained an unornamented elegance, from the silvered wood of the compact but charming dhoni suites (modelled after the traditional wood-hulled fishing boats) to the restaurant where diners are served heroically proportioned chirashi platters and spa cuisine from the COMO Shambhala menu, their feet deep in the talcum-soft sand at a smattering of tables around the pool. Maalifushi is proposed as a natural partner to Cocoa Island, but it’s a bigger-scale proposition in every way, with one-, two- and three-bedroom beachside and over-water suites, three restaurants covering the gamut from Asian seafood specialities to wood-fired pizzas, a 44m pool, and a full-range Shambhala spa, with Ayurvedic programmes, the requisite yoga pavilion and eight over-water treatment rooms. There is also the design thread that runs throughout the COMO hotels: waxed wood-strip floors, plain-ish white beds canopied in translucent linen and turquoise tiles in the spacious baths. Ikebuchi has streamlined some of the silhouettes, and incorporated a few of his own furniture designs; vast swaths of creamy stone and chic hammered brass and copper have entered the mix. It promises to be a slicker, more grown-up iteration of Cocoa.
All of which brings us back to Cheval Blanc, which takes “grown-up” and lobs it into another atmosphere – starting with the customised seaplane that bears guests from Malé International Airport (those may be dual-prop engines roaring outside, but the slick taupe calf-leather interiors are decidedly more Bespoke Gulfstream G-III). At Randheli, sheer scale elbows its way to front of stage as an indicator of exclusivity, as manifested in the soaring spaces of that foxy supermodel-esque bar, the cathedral-like pitched ceilings of its modern European restaurant The White, and in the 45 villas, with a minimum of 1,400sq ft of interior space, roofed in dense thatch and floored in compressed stone. Most have extensive gardens (some with dining pavilions), and all have 12.5m-long infinity pools. The living, sleeping and bathing areas are divided by 7m-tall louvred oak panels – pivot doors, which spin 180º to convert the three discrete spaces into one, or seamlessly partition them. In their marriage of European palette (warm taupes dominate, mediated by shots of the primary yellow that is Randheli’s signature) and Asian materials (teak and rattan, cinnamon wood, thatch and coconut shell), the villas are quintessential Jean-Michel Gathy, the project’s principal architect-designer who, as much as anyone in the industry, can claim to have defined what a contemporary luxury resort should look like. (Interestingly, Gathy’s involvement with Randheli preceded that of Cheval Blanc; he was retained by the island’s owner, I&T Management, before LVMH Hotel Management signed up to operate the resort.)
Given its provenance, intimidatingly good looks are a no-brainer for this hotel brand; a convincing service tradition, on the other hand, must be crafted from the ground up. Despite the relative inexperience of some of the staff (for a few, this is their first job), Randheli puts on a commendable show. Cheval Blanc touts something called l’art de recevoir, its bespoke service model, extending from the so-called “experience alchemists” to the majordome assigned to each villa. He or she is on call 24 hours to itinerise your day, from a dive along the gentle S-shaped reef at the atoll’s eastern edge to an in-villa trunk show of fashion and accessories from the resort’s Concept Store (whose inventory, it is emphasised, consists not only of marques from the LVMH stable, but also of independent producers of fine jewels and swimwear, fashion and accessories).
My majordome, a young woman called Aishath, was an icon of shy charm and calm competence, sorting last-minute requests for dive lessons and spa treatments, and indulging with less-expected ministrations: I returned from my maiden discovery dive to find a huge drawing in the sand in front of my villa, depicting a smiling clownfish in a coral reef. “Finding Nemo” read the florid script above and below. The following day, after a sunset dolphin cruise, the path was lined with sketches of the frolicking spinners. Clearly no one in management is overly attached to the belief that serious sophistication categorically disallows a little wink here and there.
Cheval Blanc Randheli won’t be to all tastes, though I would defy anyone – oligarch or tuhao, Silicon Valley squillionaire or jaded Euro fashion executive – to find any real fault with Gathy’s villas. Some won’t require the two tennis courts on a nearby island, also part of the resort. Others are certain to miss entirely the point of Le 1947, the gastronomic dining room at the resort’s centre – perhaps more confused by finding parquet floors, elaborately corniced windows and chandeliers on this definitively un-Gallic sliver of sand than by the gold-leafed foie gras, truffles and Comté on the menu (by now hardly vanguard fare for luxury Indian Ocean resorts). No one, though, should fail to get the appeal of The Deelani, the overwater restaurant; open on two sides, dressed simply but chicly in aqueous blues and greens and serving seafood and wood-fired pizzas, with the bartenders grinning and mixing in rhythm to Isaac Hayes playing in the background, it achieves the alchemy of the place perfectly.
A half-hour yacht ride across the Noonu lagoon, and within the same atoll, lies what many regard as Cheval Blanc’s primary competition: Velaa Private Island, which opened in December. Its managing director collects me from Randheli in one of a fleet of customised leisure yachts and spirits me across the water, a butler proffering Ruinart Brut Rosé and tuna sashimi along the way. Velaa is the maiden hospitality venture of Czech fund manager (and Greek lottery co-owner, via an investment vehicle he manages) Jiri Smejc, who purchased Velaa originally for private use, and then decided to embark on its transformation into what he and his crew maintain is the most exclusive and luxurious island in the Maldives.
What Velaa lacks in marketing and positioning clout (for which it does help to have a global conglomerate behind one), it makes up for with a curriculum vitae replete with claims of excellence. A day spent exploring the island’s turtle-shaped reaches gives credence to quite a few of them. There is the Troon short-game golf academy, which is state-of-the-art (though to the layperson’s eye not unlike a very posh, monochrome miniature golf course), designed by no less a personage than José María Olazábal. There is a shaded full-size tennis court, cooled by industrial farming fans, and an indoor-outdoor kids’ club that seems to stretch on forever, with plush canopied daybeds in corners and a minor amusement park of water-issuing statuary on the playground. Tavaru, a sinuous dining “tower” at the centre of the island, houses a stunner of a wine cellar for private dinners and a rooftop terrace, where I lunched on a series of exquisite small plates (green mango and sorrel gazpacho with rock oysters; vanilla-cured salmon with konbu), while enjoying the 180º view of the atoll. All of these are sequestered at the centre of the island, while its near-perfect ring of beach is lined with waterfront villas and two four-bedroom residences – small palaces, really, of 13,000sq ft, spread across two storeys. The presidential/royal/honeymoon villa is set 100m off-island, and can only be reached by boat; the palms studding its twin man-made beaches – one off each master suite – sway gently in the breeze.
Velaa’s idiosyncratic good looks are the work of Petr Kolar; his design, which recalls in places the genius of Ilse Crawford, fizzes with colour, elegance and wit. The Avi pool bar is an ornate installation of gleaming chrome, glass and polished limestone. The adjacent restaurant, Athiri, is wall‑less and shaded by a pitched thatch ceiling, strung intricately across with elegant white-ceramic chandeliers lined with silver gilt and hanging from jade‑green cords. Numerous opportunities have been created for feet to rest in sand or water, whether in the public spaces or the villas’ ample outdoor living areas and bathrooms.
A sensible concession, really: gilt and marble, foie gras and designer accoutrements aside, at the root of the Maldives is its elemental beauty. Sand, water and sky are still its true luxuries; and the art of these resorts is ultimately in their packaging of them.