I'd seen it on the travel programmes and in the glossy brochures, but nothing quite prepared me for my first glimpse of the Maldives.
Arriving at Malé Airport after a two-day stopover in Dubai, it was quite a culture shock following the five-hour early morning Emirates flight, to arrive blinking into the Maldivian sunshine for the next leg of my journey – by seaplane! This was a first for me and waiting for our flight in the Trans Maldivian Airways (TMA) terminal, the anticipation had been building as I stepped out to board the Twin Otter plane. Compared to the jumbo jet I'd arrived on, it looked tiny! By now the butterflies in my stomach were doing somersaults and as our bags were stashed away at the back of the plane, I found myself trying to calculate the combined weight of my fellow passengers, wishing I hadn't packed that extra heavy case or indulged in the hospitality at the dedicated JA Manafaru lounge.
However, the friendly crew soon put me at ease, the weather was balmy, TMA is one of the most experienced air transfer companies in the Maldives, what was there to worry about?
Despite being slightly taken aback by the sound of the engines starting up (earplugs are supplied by the way), within minutes of the smooth take-off, my nerves evaporated and I was captivated. I'd managed to bag myself a window seat and the all-too-quick journey proved to be an experience in its own right. The archipelago of coral islands, reefs and sandbanks unfurled below, in a dazzling array of colours, like a giant mermaid necklace, strung out across the Indian Ocean. Camera in hand I snapped away and relaxed into the 75-minute flight before arriving at our destination, the luxury JA Manafaru island retreat.
As I jumped out on to the jetty, to be greeted by a welcoming party, cocktails at the ready, one pinch-me moment followed another. All the superlatives I'd ever read about the Maldives, were true! The turquoise water was crystal-clear, the white sand was powder-soft and when I arrived in mid October, the sun was shining – bliss! It was like stepping into a film set, living up to all my expectations and more.
Room with a view
Located 320km north of Malé in the northernmost Haa Alifu atoll, JA Manafaru is a jewel in the Maldives crown, spread over 35 acres, it's a little piece of paradise and a perfect romantic bolthole for honeymooners. It's hard not to be bowled over from that very moment as you step out on to the pristine beach and gaze out across the great blue yonder. A treat for the eyes and the soul, all the stresses and strains of everyday life quickly vanish as the island starts to work its magic. Luxuriously designed villas blend with the natural setting, combining acres of flawless beach with lush greenery.
Water, water everywhere
With friendly, welcoming staff on hand around the clock to see to your every need, I was chaperoned to my stunning water villa, complete with its own private infinity plunge pool and sun deck to take in the breathtaking views of the Indian Ocean, glass of fizz in hand. The open-plan living and sleeping spaces embrace the outdoors, so you're never more than a whisper away from the gentle lapping of the water or the loud, distinctive call of the Asian Koel, a native bird and part of the lingering soundtrack to my stay. My luxurious bathroom boasted a fabulous ocean view and even the shower room provided a sensory experience with slatted external walls so you can feel the warm, tropical breeze. It's possible to savour the natural wonders of the place without leaving the villa, you can swim in the ocean from your own private deck or watch the exotic marine life from the glass viewing panel in the living room floor. With 24-hour room service, a constantly replenished fridge-full of treats, drinks and snacks on hand; personalised butler services can also be arranged for romantic alone-time. Or for Robinson Crusoe-style privacy, how about a tailor-made castaway experience on a private island – great for the honeymoon photo album?
Mind, body and soul
With luxury at its core, the resort offers a range of 84 villas and suites to suit all needs including two Royal Island Suites, big enough to host a family- or buddy-moon, each with a private pool, beach cabana, outdoor dining spaces, sauna, steam room and private massage room, for your very own self-contained honeymoon getaway.
Although it's possible to cut yourself off from the world, it would be a shame to miss out on all the resort has to offer. With seven different wining and dining experiences offering a range of local and international food, all tastes are catered for ranging from the infinity bar and pool – great for chilling out with waterside drinks and snacks – to the White Orchid restaurant serving Asian fusion cuisine.
There's also a fabulous spa and salon providing a tempting menu of therapeutic and beauty treatments as well as a dedicated fitness and wellness centre with private instructors, tailor-made yoga and fitness programmes. For active types the watersports centre offers windsurfing, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding and more. The pace is deliberately gentle though, so if you're a hard core adrenaline junkie, you might get a bit twitchy at the sheer, relentless bliss of it all after a few days. Personally though, as I dug my feet a little deeper into the warm sand and gazed out over the unbroken ocean vista, I reckon I could have toughed it out a while longer!
- Fish feeding from the jetty. A regular attraction on the resort itinerary and the turtles and manta rays rarely disappoint.
- Maldivian cookery class, assisting the resident chef prepare a sumptuous lunch, including hands-on chapatti-making, before tucking into the fruits of our labour – traditional drumstick soup with coconut milk and smoked tuna to die for!
- Toes-in-the-sand dining at the beachside Ocean Grill feasting on yellow fin tuna tartar, followed by a trio of salmon, king scallops and tiger prawns, with basil panna cotta, tomato confit and mascarpone honey cream for dessert.
- Sublime massage at the heavenly spa; an oasis of relaxation and therapeutic wonders. Not that I needed much to help me unwind after a few days at the resort but I left the scented haven feeling totally rejuvenated.
- Even for a rookie like me, snorkelling in the crystalline water is magical. Beware though, it's easy to get carried away, so make sure you've got your back covered with a T-shirt or high-factor sunscreen.
- An archipelago of around 1,190 islands grouped into 26 coral atolls, the Maldives' closest neighbours are India and Sri Lanka.
- The tropical climate provides sunny weather throughout the year with gentle, sea breezes to alleviate the humidity.
- Average temperatures range from around 31oC during the day and rarely dip below 25oC even at night.
- Malé is the capital and one of the most densely populated cities in the world.
- The islands are five hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time. For further details, go to www.visitmaldives.com
Stays at JA Manafaru, Maldives start from around £475 including taxes and service per night based on two sharing a beach bungalow on a B&B basis.
To book visit www.jaresortshotels.com/properties/jamanafaru