Natalie Marsh tests out new resort Varu by Atmosphere and sister hotel, Kanifushi, on her first trip to the Maldives.
My eyes dart frantically across the surface of the water. Suddenly, spiralling up from the waves, I see one – my first glimpse of a spinner dolphin. There’s one, then another, and within seconds the calm waters are disturbed by dozens of them. They’re all around us.
Dolphins swim gracefully either side of the boat, mothers and babies jumping in unison. Some are zigzagging up front, using the boat to chase them, while behind, more tail us and jump over the waves to our cheers of delight.
We’re all completely awestruck. We came across this pod of dolphins unexpectedly, on our speedboat ride back to Atmosphere Kanifushi Maldives after a snorkelling trip off the island’s shores.
Our snorkelling guides took us straight to the spot where they’d seen a manta ray that morning. These creatures can measure a whopping 25 feet in diameter and the thought of sharing the water with them felt a little unsettling at first, until I discovered they were harmless. They’re curious creatures and one glided gracefully right beside us as we floated across the surface of the water.
A manta ray and a pod of dolphins? All in a morning’s work here in the Maldives.
Welcome to the Maldives
There’s a warm welcome, and then there’s a Maldivian welcome. We pulled up to the brand-new island resort of Varu by Atmosphere – sister resort to Kanifushi – to the sound of staff beating boduberu drums in an infectious rhythm and blowing conch shells to signal our arrival.
Varu by Atmosphere opened in October last year and is the latest addition to the hotel group’s portfolio. It’s in the North Malé Atoll, just 40 minutes by speedboat from Malé international airport.
It didn’t take long to get our bearings here – the island’s small size means it’s easy to navigate and nowhere is more than a 10-minute walk away. But guests can also hitch a lift on a golf buggy, a welcome respite from the midday sun.
“The hotel opened Kaagé at the end of last year, a restaurant that serves up traditional Maldivian cuisine with a modern twist.”
The island is unimaginably tranquil. Sitting on the edge of the decking at the back of my overwater villa, feet hovering just a metre above the water, I could hear nothing but the waves lapping against the rungs of the ladder that led to the sea. Flashes of colour caught my eye as schools of fish swam past, their scales shimmering in the sun.
We might have been on a remote island with what felt like nothing but the sun, sea and marine life for company, but there’s a rich culture here in the Maldives. The hotel opened Kaagé at the end of last year, a restaurant that serves up traditional Maldivian cuisine with a modern twist, with many of its dishes showcasing the best of the country’s two most common ingredients: coconut and fish.
Before arriving, I wondered whether being on a small island might feel confining, yet it was the opposite. Being able to jump into the sea and snorkel at leisure was extremely freeing, plus the adventures don’t start and end on the island. There are plenty of opportunities to leave the resort behind on sightseeing cruises, fishing trips and snorkelling excursions to nearby reefs.
Sunset cruises were a particular highlight. As we bobbed along on the waves, our island on the horizon, the sky began to project hues of orange and pink, before the scarlet sun quickly descended out of sight.
After a morning spent snorkelling with manta rays and sailing with dolphins by our side, the speedboat driver put the pedal to the metal and we were off again, bouncing over the waves back to Kanifushi Atmosphere Maldives. There were only seven of us in the small speedboat and I was up front, taking the full brunt of the spray hitting my face – but I loved every minute.
It was hard to contain my excitement as we tore across the waves. I was holding on tight, one hand on the side of the boat and the other clasping the seat underneath me, the resort drawing closer and closer.
“Once we were on board, our co-pilot poked his head through the small opening separating us from the cockpit, telling us where the plane would be stopping.”
Our initial arrival at this island had been very different. The hotel is a 40-minute seaplane journey from Malé airport. I was a little apprehensive as I clambered on board, the plane swaying as it rested on top of the waves. Once we were on board, our co-pilot poked his head through the small opening separating us from the cockpit, telling us where the plane would be stopping, while the pilot started the engines. I noticed he was barefoot – in fact, it was all very relaxed.
Reef after reef passed by as we glided above the turquoise atolls breaking up the sapphire-blue ocean underneath us. It was exhilarating, but also, surprisingly, the smoothest plane journey I’ve ever experienced.
At just over one and a quarter miles long, Atmosphere Kanifushi Maldives is on a narrow island with powdered sands lining its long beaches, so soft it feels as if I’m standing in flour. Unlike its counterpart Varu, where vegetation is only just starting to grow, this island is coated in tropical rainforest, covering many of its tracks in a verdant canopy, while birds can be heard flitting through the trees.
Kanifushi is just half an hour by boat from the island of Naifaru, with excursions offered from the hotel. Islands where locals live were previously off-limits to tourists, but a change of law in 2009 means visitors can now see local Maldivian life for themselves.
The excursion was even more appealing when we learnt Naifaru is home to a sea turtle rescue centre. Five of the world’s seven species of turtle can be found in the Maldives, and the Atoll Marine Centre rescues those that are injured (usually by fishing nets and boat propellers) and helps nurse them back to health to be released. The turtles were so inquisitive, poking their heads above the water to suss us out.
“Five of the world’s seven species of turtle can be found in the Maldives, and the Atoll Marine Centre rescues those that are injured.”
But here, marine life is all around. From the decking of my overwater villa, sundowner in hand, I looked out at the horizon. As the sun slowly dropped behind the clouds, something caught my eye. The spinner dolphins were back, jumping and twirling in almost perfect formation along the horizon. This is what the Maldives is all about.
Tried and tested: Varu by Atmosphere
Varu by Atmosphere opened last October as the fifth property in Atmosphere’s portfolio, comprising 108 beach and overwater villas. Though small, the island packs a punch when it comes to cuisine, with five restaurants. Lime & Chili serves up a buffet and has live cooking stations three times a day, and guests who stay longer than four nights can dine à la carte once in each of the speciality venues, as part of their all-inclusive plan.
The overwater Elena spa is a real highlight, and the epitome of relaxation. The glass panel on the floor of the treatment room was a small touch but made me feel even more relaxed during my aromatherapy massage, as I gazed into the sea below, to spot fish swimming by.
Some cases of coronavirus have been found in the Maldives, but a temporary quarantine imposed on four islands last week has been lifted. Excursions to other islands are limited and cruise ships are prohibited from docking. Check the FCO website for the latest news.
Where to eat
Teppanyaki is open to a limited number of guests each night, and dining here means you get a performance as well as delicious food. The chef tosses ingredients and flips his tools while creating guests’ orders. For the best of both meat and seafood, the surf ’n turf includes top-notch wagyu beef and lobster, as well as a starter of sushi and maki.
Just Veg, Kanifushi
The first vegetarian restaurant in the Maldives, Just Veg serves up an inventive menu of soups, curries, pasta and rice dishes, and more. Carnivores shouldn’t be put off by the lack of meat on the menu, as the dishes are some of the most flavoursome I’ve ever tasted. Ensure there’s room at the end for one of the elaborate desserts.
Nü, Varu by Atmosphere
This overwater speciality restaurant serves delicious Mediterranean seafood. Guests can build their own course withchoices of fish, sauces and sides. The rooftop is perfect for an aperitif, looking out over the ocean and the rest of the island.
Varu by Atmosphere has a lead-in price of £1,212 per person, for seven nights’ all-inclusive, based on two sharing a beach villa without a pool. The price includes speedboat transfers from Malé international airport, and excludes international flights.
Atmosphere Kanifushi Maldives has a lead-in price of £2,214 per person, based on two sharing a beach villa without a pool, for eight nights’ all inclusive. The price includes seaplane transfers from Malé international airport, and excludes international flights.