The Party Island — Finolhu
“Actually, it’s not a party island.” Or so I was assured more than once during my stay at Finolhu, the words usually just audible over the Rod Stewart/Michael Jackson/Sugarhill Gang blasting out of the sound systems in seemingly every public space — from the spa, with its treatment cabins named after the likes of Karen Carpenter and Barbra Streisand, to the second story of Baa Baa Beach Bar, a man cave with arcade games, self-serve beer taps, and a beanbag-lined screening room (“Cinema Retro”). There were flame throwers and aerial-silk acrobats performing by the main pool; a woman dressed as a mermaid frolicked periodically in the water. Highway signs inexplicably marked the intersections of paths. A Nikki Beach–style hangout, the Fish & Crab Shack, was set halfway down the long sandbar adjacent to the island (a dhoni boat ferries people from the resort’s main jetty), where I watched a gaggle of Russians with epic tattoos slurp down champagne next to a palapa-style DJ booth. In my own beach villa, the resort literature trumpeted the arrival of a“retro-inspired paradise for fun-loving beach-erati!”
In short, and with apologies to Finolhu’s branding team: it’s a party island. Finolhu is the second resort from the Small Maldives Island Co. (the other is the more family-centric Amilla Fushi, which opened in 2014), owned and operated by two Australians, one of whom earned his Maldives chops as general manager of the One&Only Reethi Rah. Their concept was to import the jet-set glamor of Mykonos and St. Tropez to the Indian Ocean, flagrantly eschewing the local thatched-roof building vernacular, along with most every other conventional reference to local culture, in favor of man caves, mermaids, and lots of out-of-context antique signage.
Fair enough, and to each his own. But the thing is, Finolhu is in the Maldives; specifically, in the Baa Atoll, one of only three UNESCO-designated World Biosphere Reserves in the Indian Ocean — which made the zeal with which its creators proselytized about the high-flying hedonism of their vision, to the exclusion (at least on my visit) of any mention of the country’s environmental and wildlife issues, feel slightly tone-deaf.
That said, Finolhu has some notable things going for it — starting with its prices. With one-bedroom beach villas coming in at around $850 in the low season, it offers better value by local five-star standards. The rooms themselves are sleekly designed, with wide private patios laid with Balinese tiles, enormous beds under pitched, palewood ceilings, and gorgeous outdoor bathrooms, those in the beach villas bowered in palms and bougainvillea. The food was creatively conceived and beautifully presented, from the crunchy soft-shell-crab tacos at the Fish & Crab Shack to the poke and heavenly spiced crispy eggplant, vivid with roasted chiles, at Kanusan, the Pan-Asian restaurant. And there’s the island itself, whose windswept sandbar should, on an early-morning ramble, fulfill just about every permutation of castaway fantasy that’s out there.
Left: The Gathering is the communal centerpiece of Soneva Jani. Right: A pool at the resort.
For Americans, Finolhu’s fun but very site-unspecific offerings ultimately lead to one question: Why come all this way for something you can arguably get in Ibiza, or Turks and Caicos — or South Beach? On the other hand, what is working here works well indeed. Those in the market for a good old time — as opposed to an edifying local experience — now know where to book. Doubles from $850.
The Bucket Lister — Four Seasons Private Island at Voavah
Private islands are somewhat of a thing for 2017, and the Maldives is full of them. But this latest retreat in the northern Baa Atoll from Four Seasons — which already has two best-in-class Maldives resorts, Kudaa Huraa and Landaa Giraavaru (the latter located just two miles from Voavah) — is the real deal: an exclusive private island that sleeps anywhere from two to 22 people, has its own chefs, staff, spa with therapists, and 65-foot-long PADIequipped motor yacht with a dedicated divemaster.
Voavah, which opened in December, offers once-in-a-lifetime luxury for people who are celebrating something big or a holiday redoubt for those wealthy enough to not even blink at the $36,000-a-night rate. The rooms have been cleverly configured in three separate villas to accommodate friends, multigenerational families, or entourage-heavy celebrities/oligarchs/tuhao (Chinese nouveaux riches). The Beach House has the main living and dining areas spread across its wall-less ground floor and richly appointed mezzanine suites above. A three-bedroom villa at the island’s northern end has a master suite with a truly dreamy 200-degree sea-and-sand view; the two-bedroom overwater villa, at the island’s other end (Voavah measures only about 1,000 feet long by 350 feet wide) has one of the more spectacularly photogenic conflagrations of infinity pool and horizon I’ve ever seen.
But what Voavah is really about is total personalization. Pancakes at midnight? Of course. Impromptu cruise on the Summer to snorkel among manta rays — which, in late summer, convene in Hanifaru Bay by the hundreds — with one of the researchers from the Manta Trust, a charity based at the nearby Landaa Giraavaru? Ready when you are, ma’am. Pizza-making class for the kids, while the grown-ups enjoy sundowners on the sandbar across the channel — perhaps with a traditional dance performance? Done — just give them a day to organize it.
That guests can also partake of any of the top-notch restaurants or services offered at Landaa Giraavaru only expands the territory. But when you’re standing ankle-deep in opalescent wavelets in the morning, looking northward to a constellation of uninhabited islands, a soaring expanse of milky-blue sky, and, beyond, the ocean — luxury at its most elemental and rare — it’s hard to imagine needing anything else, ever again. From $36,000 per night, all-inclusive.
The Details: Maldives
Velana International Airport, located on Hulhule Island, is the main international airport in the Maldives, reachable via cities like Frankfurt, Istanbul, Doha, and Dubai. Many resorts can provide air or boat transfers to their properties.
When to Go
December through April, when the weather is dry and the humidity is low, is peak season for travelers. Low season is between May and November, which typically means more rain but cheaper rates.