August 23, 2008

Barefoot Paradise

By Alice Wyllie


To a list of things with which the world would do better without - nuclear warheads, Jeremy Clarkson and Brussels sprouts - I would add shoes. They pinch and rub, they're sweaty and uncomfortable, and they're always tricky to match to your outfit.

Admittedly, shoes are something of a necessity in Scotland, be it for dodging broken Irn Bru bottles and discarded fag ends on city pavements or navigating the harsh terrain in the countryside.

Happily this isn't the case at the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, where you really do leave your shoes at the door. From the staff in Vilu, the resort's fine dining restaurant, to the therapists in the spa, and even the pilot who flies you to the island in the hotel's private sea plane, everyone goes barefoot, and guests are encouraged to do the same if they wish.

Reached by a 30-minute flight from the capital, Male, the resort lies in South Ari Atoll, three degrees north of the equator. Surrounded by a deep blue lagoon and a coral reef, it consists of two reasonably large islands, joined by a 500-metre walkway, with accommodation including secluded beach villas and luxurious spa villas built on stilts out on the water. Dark wooden walkways - slightly too hot in the midday sun - connect each element of the resort, so otherwise glamorous guests can be spotted hopping, comically, to their villas.

The epitome of luxury fused with breathtaking natural beauty, this is a resort meant to be experienced barefoot. The white sand surrounding the islands melts seamlessly into a turquoise sea and remains soft underfoot - not a sharp pebble or tangle of seaweed in sight. In the resort's reception and bar, soft sand fills the spaces, and in the underground wine cellar where guests can sample some of the world's best wines and a selection of 101 cheeses, sunburned toes are soothed by cool, black sand.

I believe the marketing men call this "barefoot luxury" and by the looks of things, the many honeymooning couples at the resort have fallen for it big time. If your idea of romance is the single- lonely-palm-tree-on-a-perfect-beach tropical postcard, and you're looking for a luxury destination to blow your savings on, then stop searching - the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island will happily serve you up cliched romance on a (silver) platter.

There are numerous treatments for couples in the sublime spa, and villas are equipped with everything from outdoor Jacuzzis for two to his and hers bathrobes. One evening, I spot a couple being served a candlelit dinner of lobster and champagne on the beach - one of the many romantic packages the resort offers. As lovely as it looks, it seems a little contrived, and I wonder if the couple feel pressured to conjure up some stellar sweet nothings to match the slightly artificial mood.

Perhaps I'm not enough of a romantic. This is a resort that has attracted the creme de la creme of celebrity couples, including Paul McCartney and Heather Mills who came here on their honeymoon, and (ahem) Peter Andre and Katie Price. (Both couples chose to stay in one of the two sunset water villas, which feature revolving beds - not a pretty thought.)

It's a popular resort with celebrities, who may be attracted to the privacy the islands offer. They're so big that I see very few other holidaymakers during the day even though the resort's 148 villas are nearly 70 per cent full. Anyone wanting that "shipwrecked in paradise" feeling (but with waiters on hand to refill your glass) could do a lot worse than this island, where it sometimes feels like the only other souls present are the staff hovering in the shadows ready to cater to your every need.

I find that - as with the best things in life - everything I love about the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island is free. Even the biggest cynic couldn't fail to be blown away by the gleaming blue waters and flawless sand. During the day, shoals of tiny silver fish skim across the surface like brilliant light hitting the water. Trumpet fish hang out under walkways in their hundreds and, as evening falls, the rays come out to play. Palm trees sway over the sand, with the occasional hammock strung between them, and the sun bobs on the horizon, a little pink disc at sunset.

I sleep in a spa water villa that features views of an uninterrupted horizon and steps leading straight into the sea, where I find, among other things, stingrays, reef sharks, parrot fish and various unidentified tropical fish swimming next to me. I can hear nothing but the sound of the sea, and I'm lulled to sleep each night by the gentle washing of the waves against the villa's stilts. I could be shipwrecked, I think, a modern-day Robinson Crusoe. If Robinson Crusoe had Molton Brown spa products and a flat screen television at his disposal, that is.

The Conrad Maldives Rangali Island leaves you feeling saturated in luxury, from the seven restaurants, three bars and (count 'em) 10,000 bottles of wine (the widest choice of dining in the Maldives) to an incredible two spas. The Over-Water Spa offers couples treatments in glass-floored rooms, so you can watch tropical fish flit by while being pampered, and the Spa Retreat is a self- contained, over-water resort offering holistic treatments and spa packages, plus the services of a personal trainer, naturopath and nutritionist.

And since a stay in the Maldives is all about the resort, anyone with island fever can choose from a dizzying array of activities and excursions, from whale shark and dolphin watching trips to private sunset yacht excursions and fishing. And, of course, nearby are some of the world's best scuba diving and snorkelling sites.

In some respects, however, nature takes a bit of a back seat here. On one early morning stroll I notice a groundskeeper raking the sand on the beaches to remove any pebbles. And, in order to truly allow guests to navigate the island barefoot, soft, sandy paths have been created, snaking across the island. You have to look very closely to spot the joins, but the cynical part of me thinks that bits and pieces of this version of paradise feel a bit man- made. However, if flawless is what you want, you certainly get it here. And who am I to argue with perfection?

Because perfection is undoubtedly what this place serves up. Who wants to go on their dream tropical honeymoon to find the water is not quite so blue, the sand not quite so smooth, or the island not quite so beautiful as the brochure made out? I'm sure lots of couples have shelled out their savings on a trip that only really exists in a glossy brochure. Not here. What you pay for is a secluded, luxurious, picture-perfect paradise. And that's what you get, with fabulous food, wine and service thrown in.

By the end of my stay, my feet are looking a little worse for wear. A week of swimming in the sea and padding about in the sand has left them dusty and crumbly, and not at all in keeping with the glamorous resort that they've been making themselves very comfortable in for the past week. But this is a land of paradise and pampering, so it's nothing the therapists in the spa can't sort out.

My real concern is how, on return to the hazard-riddled pavements of Edinburgh, I'll ever be able to cram my slabs of meat into a pair of shoes again... sm

Factfile maldives


n Kuoni (tel: 01306 747001, offers seven nights at the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island on a B&B basis in a beach villa, including flights from Heathrow, with seaplane transfers in resort and airport lounge access in the UK. Prices start from GBP 1,713pp based on two sharing. Spa Water Villas start from GBP 3,147pp.


n Guests staying in Spa Water Villas receive 220 spa credit per villa per day, which can be used for any treatments, products, fitness classes and therapies at the Spa Retreat, as well as a choice of freshly squeezed juices, a daily fresh fruit basket and a lifestyle and wellness consultation upon arrival.

n For more about the island and resort, visit

n Scotsman Reader Holidays offers 10-night all inclusive trips to the Maldives from GBP 1,470, staying at Kuredu, with flights from Glasgow. Contact Oceanic Travel, tel: 0131-555 4704.

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