Story and photography by Sharon King Hoge
Maldives -- Shangri-La Villingili
The dictionary defines "Shangri-La" as "an imaginary paradise on earth," and except for one word of that definition I've been there. For there's nothing imaginary about the heavenly Shangri-La Villingili resort in the Maldive Islands. One of 1190 Maldivian islands, Villingili lies in the Indian Ocean just below the equator in Addu Atoll, the southernmost of the country's 26 atolls. As recently as a few years ago it was uninhabited, but it has been transformed into a resort that offers accommodations as luxurious as the island is idyllic.
There are a few international direct flights to nearby Gan Airport, but it's easier to fly to Male, the country's capital city and main airport. From there you connect to a comfortable 70 minute flight on efficient Maldivian Airlines. Awaiting the flight south, I passed the time in the airport's airy lounge where beverages and snacks are provided -- slices of omlette, baby bananas, cheese and crackers, cappuccino. On arrival, before disembarking at Gan, Maldivian presented each of us an official "Equator Crossing Certificate" signed by the Director of Flight Operations and bestowed by the attractive flight attendant.
Once off the plane, Shangri-La staff staff greeted us on the tarmac and us escorted to a private lounge before leading us along the jetty to a speed boat which whisked us five minutes across the sea to the Shangri-La's thatched dock. Awaiting each of us in electric buggies at reception was a personal Villa Host who chauffeured us over to our accommodations.
I was led by Anwar to an Ocean View Beach Villa -- or villas! Designed to be a private retreat, my "villa" was actually a two-room complex nestled in the foliage: the main building, which included a large adjoining bedroom and bathroom, was juxtaposed to another villa which was my living room with a seating area, bar, and extra wide-screen TV. Facing both was my personal deck pool, long enough to accommodate swimming laps and two partially submerged chaise lounges. Off in the distance, providing a constant roar of crashing surf, was the ocean.
I was almost tempted to settle in to the sanctuary of my villa, but a weekly sheet lists each day's scheduled lessons, tours, and activities and there is a lot in the island's three kilometer-length to explore. Guests can call at will for chauffeured electric buggies but walking is an option, or each villa is supplied with two sturdy white bicycles. I pedaled off on the loop around the beautiful nine-hole golf course, stopping on and off along the way to read the instructive signs which are being prepared as a nature trail. At one spot in the golf course I paused to take some photos of "Mount Villingili," one of the golf tees which, at 16.7 feet above sea level, is officially the highest spot in the country. I came home with an official certificate issued by the resort to commemorate that I had reached the "summit."
I took some time to tour the Chef's Garden where herbs, flowers, and vegetable plants are beautifully laid out in hydroponic channels and plots defined by coconut shells.
Central on the island is the Village, a cluster of shops selling art, jewelry, clothing, antiques. At the Cool Zone for children I admired coconuts junior guests had painted in a variety of designs and colors. The Eco Centre is staffed by a marine biologist who led a flora and fauna nature walk explaining why coconut palms lean toward the sea (for better photosynthesis), pointing out a white tern settled on its nesting place, and describing the "natural" umbrella frames growing on the local cork wood trees.
I eschewed water skiing, kayaking, parasailing, surfing, reef fishing, and visits to 25 local SCUBA dive sites, but the Silver Sands Water Sports Centre loans out masks and flippers free of charge, and I picked up some gear and went snorkeling around the house reef, eyeing the exotic fish and coral formations.
Located beside the tennis court, the 24-hour Fitness Center is well stocked with machines plus a steam room and sauna. Besides rescuing humidity hairdos, the salon offers a wedding package -- renting out gowns, bouquets, jewelry, tiaras, -- including makeup and a hair style for $500.
Nearby the elegant Chi Spa provides guests a suite of treatment rooms, many overlooking the sea and treatments inspired by traditional Asian healing philosophies. I was greeted with a glass of delicious "alona," a concoction of iced ginger, lemongrass, lime, and honey. During my signature Kandu Boli Ritual massage, the attendant rubbed me with heated coconut oil and stroked me with heated cowrie shells. Even my face and hair were covered in warm coconut oil and swathed in warm towels.
Besides in-villa dining and various outdoor and seaside site specific Dine-by-Design options, three restaurants and an outdoor bar cater to guests' culinary wants. Fashala offers sophisticated contemporary cuisine. At Dr. Ali's Restaurant & Bar each of three rooms offers a different cultural and dining concept themed to different Indian Ocean countries -- Middle East, South Asian, Maldivian. Seaside sipping is provided at Manzaru, with trendy couches overlooking the lagoon.
For lunch and dinner, Javvu the main indoor/outdoor dining room serves steaks and seafood with a Mediterranean touch. It's breakfast buffet is amazing -- after starting with the "healthy drink" of the day -- maybe carrot and orange juices flavored with ginger -- you can go on to myriad ethnic options: mini egg sandwiches, stir fried cabbage, jelly donuts, roasted vegetables, mixed leaf salad, a heap of sushi, waffles, oatmeal made with either water or milk, curry bread loaf, shrimp and butterfly wantons, -- plus each day there's a featured item, perhaps the Vietnam Pancake Breakfast -- and all the while the waiter is passing croissants from table to table.
With incredible facilities and idyllic activities -- feeding fish that swim up to the pier, arranging a sunset cruise on the yacht Horizon, Dining-by-Design at a private table set up in the Chef's Garden gazebo -- it's no wonder that a stay at the Shangri-la feels like a visit to the garden of Eden.
Villingili Island, Addu Atoll, Republic of Maldives
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