Story and photography by Sharon King Hoge
Vivanta By Taj Coral Reef
Sitting on the chaise of my "Indulgence" villa I'm in the best of both worlds: modern convenience combined with nature. Simultaneously I'm catching a CNN or HBO broadcast on my wide screen TV, while outside I can literally watch bright-colored fish swimming by through the pristine water at the foot of the deck of my water villa -- it's the best of both worlds. For people whose idea of paradise is living close to nature -- but in total convenient luxury --consider a stay at the Vivanta by Taj Coral Reef.
Nature and elegance are constant companions on the heart-shaped island, one of 1200 coral rimmed islets in the Maldives each with a vibrant green tropical interior ringed by powdery white sand beaches and immaculate turquoise lagoons. Arrival at the Taj is by speed boat direct from the airport in the capital city Male. After an hour skimming over the Indian Ocean we arrived at the Reception Desk situated in a thatched hut suspended over a sea so clear we could look down to see a massive school of assembled fish below. Boats rest on the beach in front of the main dining room and the library lounge that lends out books and musical instruments and doubles as a business center.
My villa was suspended on stilts hovering over the lagoon. Decorated with tasteful wooden accents, the cottage's layout was perfect. A door from the boardwalk led inside to a spacious dressing room and closet with a handy ledge for storage. At the foot of the bed was a glass table that served as a desk fronted by a spacious wicker upholstered chaise lounge. To the left of the bedroom, a huge bathroom included a glass enclosed rain shower and vast bathtub both fronting the sea. Wi-fi was free and speedy, in-room dining offered a package of a movie and snacks along with full meal choices. A desk card offered a selection of eleven different types of pillows, laundry service was 24/7, and a military shoe shine was complimentary.
A wooden deck stretched across the entire front of the villa with another glass table, two more spacious cushioned lounges, an outdoor shower, and steps right down into the sea. In my "snorkle in/snorkle out" setting, I could slip into my flippers and face mask, walk downstairs and slip directly into the lagoon -- an activity I indulged in four or five times a day, puttering through the water watching fish -- blue, yellow, striped, tiny, iridescent-- gliding by or nosing around the banks of coral. As night fell those same vivid colors showed up echoed in magnificent sunsets.
Besides my own "front yard" excursions, I went out one morning with dive shop manager David Jacobs on a guided snorkel tour of the resorts two-acre coral gardens. Exiting the protective reef, we flippered along -- there were fish everywhere. He pointed out an eel wedged down into the coral and then showed me a turtle wafting gently through the water. It looped around to check us out and then continued on its own path -- we followed it for over twenty minutes before turning back to wind up at the base of the stairs to my villa. There was a heron perched on the steps. As I swam up, it walked up the stairs leaving the lower steps free for me to remove my flippers. As I ascended to the shower, it took up a seat on one of my chaises, then perched on the railing for a few minutes before flying off.
But my favorite nature experience was feeding the sting rays. Every day around 4-ish they start to assemble at the water's edge just beside the reception jetty. There are about a dozen of them, each with a wing span of about three feet and the coarse tail trailing behind. Swooping back and forth, weaving in and out, over and under each other they nudge against visitors who reach out to pat their silky muscular wings. Charmingly comical, they are accompanied each day by an astute pale yellow tiger fish who has opted into the ritual.
Just at 5, the staff arrives with a bucket of fresh fish chunks. Guests put on plastic gloves and wade out to tuck fish morsels in front of the rays who suck them into their mouths. By the time the bucket is empty, they satiated stingrays exit, undulating off until the next afternoon.
Equally well-fed are guests of the resort. When not snorkeling I was apt to be eating, the delicious cuisine a remarkable achievement in a country which has to import almost every ingredient -- first through the capital Male and then to each island. The Taj's Latitude main dining room is open to the beach and the food is inventive fusion: creative Indian, Asian, and Continental cuisine. The first day from the a la carte men I started with a refreshing pad Thai salad, followed by local reef fish perfectly spiced and grilled, and finally a selection of fresh sorbets -- mango, coconut and raspberry.
At lunch the Pizzeria indulged me with a wood-fired pie divided into thirds for three flavors: ham and pineapple, vegetarian, and Marguerita. Dinner outdoors on the Open-the-Grill terrace was an indulgent roasted corn pudding and then lobster -- three tails grilled and served with slices of pepper, carrot, zucchini, and roasted potatoes. Special site-specific meals can be arranged on the Moon Deck or as a sandbar picnic. One night they offered candlelit dinner in a table and chairs molded right into the sand.
Occasionally forsaking my flippers I lounged at the resort's outdoor Jacuzzi and the infinity pool which merges with the ocean beyond the house reef. Beach side couches comprise an outdoor lounge adjacent to the Reef Bar and face a hammock suspended over the water beside the Moon Deck which is a popular site for weddings and romantic private dinners.
The fitness room is fully equipped and another creature comfort is the Jiva Spa, its philosophy rooted in the Indian ancient rejuvenating approach to wellness and spirituality. Arriving early, as instructed, I was given a cup of signature detoxifying Vishuddi chai, tea with lemon, jagggery and holy basil. After ten minutes in the steam room and then a shower, The Vishram aromatherapy relaxation massage started with a ceremonial washing of my feet in a basin with blossoms bobbing in the water and concluded with a string of wooden beads placed around my neck. For men, special shaves include the Classic Barbershop and the Japanese Sake Modern Shave.
One afternoon I toured the variety of lodgings water or beachside villas ringing the tiny island or nestled into the foliage near the gently lapping water: "Charm" villas, deluxe "Delight" accommodations, and "Nirvana" beach suites -- each a mini paradise.
I didn't have time for all the activities -- a complimentary portrait session with the in-house photographer, night fishing, pool, table tennis, windsurfing, sailing, or the Discovery diving one-day course which qualifies divers for SCUBA jaunts to the historic shipwreck just off the shore line. Dedicated to "the aquatic outdoors," the company maintains a program of replanting its coral and guests will soon be able to participate. A stroll all the way around he Vivanta's heart-shaped Hembadhu island takes all of five minutes--not a lot of exercise, but more than enough time to fall for its charms.
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