Como Maalifushi Maldives: Pint-sized paradise

This new, luxury resort in the Maldives delivers a world of
pleasure, writes Belinda Jackson.
It took me three days to realise I’d lost my shoes. I’d kicked
them off the day I hit the Maldives and never put them back on again until I
crash-landed into the howling winds of a Melbourne winter, tragic in glittery,
strappy sandals. I think the shoes are still on Maalifushi, a remote island
resort in the south-west of the remote island nation.
Let me share some fashion advice about packing for the
Maldives. The first point is: don’t bother bringing heels. They get stuck in
the sand, and every resort worth its sea salt has a sand floor restaurant, lobby
or walkway. The second fashion tip is: unless you’re going to sweat it out on a
treadmill, leave your runners behind, too. Preferred sports on these balmy
isles are barefoot – swimming, yoga and messing about in boats.
 The new Maalifushi by COMO is the Singaporean hotel group’s
second Maldivian resort. The first, Cocoa Island by COMO, is 40 minutes by
speedboat from Male airport, past a plethora of single-resort islands. In
comparison, Maalifushi is the only hotel in the isolated Thaa Atoll, deep in
the vast Indian Ocean.
An aerial view of the tiny resort. 
Getting to Maalifushi is half the adventure. At Male airport,
we learn that the closest airport, Thimarafushi, is closed because ocean swells
have engulfed the runway. “It’s a very, very low atoll,” a local
tells me. “Very good for surfing, very bad for flying.”
Instead, we fly to tiny Kadhdhoo airport then board a very
white, very luxurious pleasure cruiser. Flying fish skip alongside the boat,
and the water changes abruptly from deep ocean blue to pinch-me-I’m-dreaming
turquoise as, after two hours, we pull up at the island. It is a study in green
coconut palms and raked yellow sand, tiny crabs scattering at our footfalls.
Maalifushi is tiny: even by Sydney standards, 800 by 200
metres ain’t a lot of real estate. To compensate, the spa’s eight treatment
rooms, Japanese restaurant Tai and 33 suites and villas are off land and over
water, connected by timber boardwalks. Absolute beachfront is claimed by 22
suites and the two-bedroom, 296-metre-square COMO residence, at almost $7000 a
night in peak season.
My room is, quite simply, breathtaking. Forget shiny surfaces,
this is a decorating exercise in island chic. White curtains billow from the
four-poster bed, the high-pitched ceiling is thatched, the deep bath is
unpolished marble, and the timber deck leads out to a thatched bale beside my
plunge pool. There are indoor and outdoor rain showers, daybeds and sofas. In
fact, there are so many places to sit, I don’t know where to start. Ripping off
clothes and leaping into the pool seems a good start. Shy? Think twice about
skinny-dipping – the deck’s not as private as you’d first think.
Island chic decor sets the tone for a blissful break.

Banish any notion that all this gorgeousness is reserved only
for lovestruck couples. The kids’ club is a jaunty affair with swings and
climbing apparatus, and there are six very private garden suites targeted at
families who don’t want to mix young children and plunge pools. The
well-equipped dive centre has quality Japanese masks for all shapes and sizes,
and the kitchen promises to cater for all tastes and dietary persuasions.

The COMO brand is all about luxury pampering: the signature
scent is a cool blend of peppermint and eucalyptus best served on cold towels.
The spa is a palatial affair and COMO’s signature Shambala spa cuisine offers
an array of organic deliciousness featuring seed breads, healthful juices and
sublime local raw fish, which is unsurprising given the country’s national fish
is the yellowfin tuna, its national tree the coconut palm. The weekly seafood
barbecue is an extravaganza of local lobster, a carpaccio of kingfish, trout
and tuna, and sweet rock shrimp.
Unfortunately, I realise the food is actually too good, when
breakfast comprises saffron-poached pears with papaya and lime, watermelon
juice, eggwhite omelette, French toast with fresh mango and a lavish porridge
made from crushed almonds. It’s all healthy, I tell myself (OK, maybe not the
French toast).
I try burning off the excess with a healing, Shambala
signature massage and join marine biologist Francesco on a tiny speedboat to
play with happy little spinner dolphins who gambol alongside us, occasionally
thrusting into the air to spin once, twice, thrice, just for sheer joy. There’s
talk of year-round whale shark spotting.
One evening, three of us take a pre-dinner night snorkelling
safari. It’s a first for all of us, and we lower ourselves gingerly into the
dark water. Call me unAustralian, but the marine life in the Maldives makes our
reef look like a jaded nightclub at the end of the night, just a few old
groupers hanging out, trying their tired old lines. A young green turtle glides
beneath us, which I find slightly disconcerting but completely exhilarating.
Nocturnal surgeonfish are everywhere and the most beautiful purple spotted
starfish are surely the mirrorballs of the Maldivian seas.
Marine life aside, the big drawcard for Maalifushi is its surf
breaks. The luxury surf safari group TropicSurf has a shack on the island and
the staff are constantly discovering new reef breaks. Farms is the best-known,
which TropicSurf calls “the perfect right-hander” in peak season,
from April to October.
Back on my villa’s deck, I discover a set of stairs that lead
down into the island’s lagoon. Moments later, I’m swimming with some rather
nonchalant little black-and-white striped reef fish called Moorish idols.
Professor Google tells me Africa’s Moors considered them “bringers of
happiness”. The sky overhead is clear and blue, the water I’m swimming in
is clear and blue. Their mission is accomplished.
The writer travelled as a guest of COMO Hotels.
TRIP NOTES 
GETTING THERE There are no direct flights from Australia to the Maldives.
Fly via Kuala Lumpur or Singapore with Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines or
Virgin Australia. Australians are issued a free visa on their arrival in the
Maldives. See malaysiaairlines.com, singaporeair.com, virginaustralia.com.
GETTING AROUND Maalifushi is a 50-minute flight from Male Airport to
Thimarafushi, followed by a 25-minute boat ride. COMO Resorts plans to operate
a seaplane between its two resorts.
STAYING THERE Maalifushi’s “soft-opening” special allows for
low-season rates until December 26. Garden suites from $820 a night, water
suites from $1400 a night. COMO Villas are open for bookings. See website
(left).
MORE INFORMATION visitmaldives.comcomohotels.com.
This feature by Belinda Jackson was published in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers.

Revenge of the weather lords

It hit 30 degrees on the weekend here in Melbourne. Right. Well, that’s summer out of the way then.

And with the end of summer comes the end of holidays. On the first week’s struggle back at work for many  people, I am delighted by the response from one PR (that’s public relations person, to those on the know – as a rule, overpaid punters who turn blind at this journalist’s requests) who I emailed for a price for a hotel to run in a travel story. I asked last week. Silly me. I forgot that even non-Christian countries delight in the holidays that Christmas affords. “I just got back from a long break. I will get back to you shortly,” he told me for his week-long silence, obviously still stunned at his misfortune to find himself in the walls of an office once again. At least he’s honest.

But really, I shouldn’t moan about the weather. I could be up to my armpits in sludgy brown flood water, with swimming cows and snapping crocodiles floating down the main street – to wit poor, soggy  Queensland at the moment. 

Yet Melbourne, I have to say I’m disappointed you, turning on today’s sporadic rain, grey skies and general morbidity in mid-January. But then sometimes, you get your priorities right. A quick trip into the city while the definitive grudge sport, the Australia v England cricket series, the Ashes, was on, and the streets were full of smug, boozy, benevolent English people. On the tram, an older Englishman gave me his seat, saying, “I don’t normally do so, but I’m feeling quite happy today.” Reader, I took the seat.

While I’m not a cricket tragic, our drubbing was made worse by the fact it was done in mostly miserable weather, which would of course made our northern-hemisphere visitors more comfortable and therefore happier. Then, on the last day of the Melbourne series, the Aussie sun came out and did the job. The English fans were still understandably smug, but now they were at least sunburnt and smug 😉 You takes your revenge where you can gets it…

Kashmir pyjamas, punts and politics

The safety announcements were in one language only, and it wasn’t mine. And there are no other blondies on the plane. Praps they’re all going on the direct flights to Srinigar, instead of stopping momentarily in Jammu. We’re on the way to Kashmir.

The northernmost state of India has been on and off the tourist trail since Partition, thanks to the concentration of Indian Muslims living here, and the constant attempted infiltration of Pakistani ‘mischief-makers’, as one columnist today charmingly called those who have been found responsible for the 2008 Mumbai bombings.

So ‘hello’ is no longer ‘namaste’ but asalaam alyukum’ and ‘thank you’ has changed from ‘danyawat’ to ‘shukrai’. Sound familiar, Cairo?

Writing in the anti-government newspaper, the Hindustan Times, columnist Vir Sanghvi says, “The real target of the Hindu right is not Pakistan. It is the Indian Muslim…all Indian Muslims …can they be portrayed as traitors who enjoy the facilities offered by India but remain Pakistani at heart.“

Case in point is the news that India’s star tennis player Sania Mirza is going to marry Pakistani Shoaib Malik, a world-class cricketer. The gossip mags have had a field day with such vital information as Mirza being a traitor to India and Malik not good enough for her etc etc. And so the world turns.

Flying up to the capital of the state of Kashmir, Srinigar, the plane bounced around but I seemed to be the only one concerned. When I looked out the window, all was explained: we were ploughing through a massive cloud bank on top of a Himalayan peak. Enough said.

The next couple of nights are on a houseboat on the incomparibly beautiful Lake Dal, then on the ponies into the Himalays. 

Weather: cold.

Pyjama assessment: Poor.

Spire of spite: Cairo Tower

Today, we went to the Cairo Tower for breakfast. We took the lift to the 25th floor, to the top of the 187-foot tower. The city coughed and spat way down below: the Great Pyramid of Cheops is 50m lower.

Cairo would be the last to call itself an early riser, and Saturday mornings are still the time to catch a quick lie-in for many people (though interestingly, the unfortunate kids who go to government schools have to go to school SIX DAYS A WEEK), so there were just six of us on the platform at 11am. No great loss, it was heavily clouded with a grey cloud we reckon was a mix of fog and pollution cloaking the Nile and making the city shrink. I like this photo because, amazingly, you can see a glimpse of blue sky. Which just goes to show what hangs over Cairo. Breathe deeply, people.

A photographer approached us brandishing a camera cheaper than mine, so we waived him away. But he told us within 20 minutes, it should clear. Twenty minutes later and Cairo was but a concept. The river was barely visible and it wasn’t until we’d struggled through the shaky SkyGarden menu that the cloud lifted and suddenly three little triangles appeared on the horizon, and the Pyramids did a quick nod, before pulling the curtain again.

According to Wiki, the Great Pyramid held the record as world’s highest building until 1311, before being bounced by England’s Lincoln church.

According to my fab Wallpaper guide, the tower was built by the then-president Nasser with money America had ‘donated’ to him to buy his support in the region. To snub his wanna-be benefactors, he threw the money at a completely meaningless structure and it earned amongst bitter Americans the sobriequet Nasser’s Prrrr(is this a family blog?)ick. Hey, I just read this: don’t shoot the messenger.

Obviously, the altitude got to us and we went all touristy: we stood on the revolving restaurant, compared similar towers from Kuala Lumpur, Toronto and Sydney, and chatted to a pharaoh on the viewing platform.

In a quick analysis of the hyrogliphcs that make up my name, offered by the slightly embarrassed pharoah, I travel a lot, am mysterious and sarcastic. Two out of three…

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Cairo Tower costs LE70 foriegners/ LE20 Egyptians. There is a LE30 minimum charge in the SkyGarden cafe, which has charming service, but flaccid cappuccinos and stodgy – but ENORMOUS club sandwiches – no, no oriental food here, ma’am. (Confusingly for Australians, Egyptians refer to their food as ‘oriental’. Yet not a beef’n’black bean in sight…)

The revolving restaurant opens at noon, and we reckon it’s just the place to pull up a table in the afternoon, fill it with mezze (samousek, kobeba, baba ganoug and if you’re so inclined, a few beers or a glass of wine) and watch the sun set over Cairo.

And there’s also a cute looking cafe, Villa Zamalek, at the foot of the tower, which serves shisha (untested, sorry). Because you’re not going into the tower, you don’t have to pay the admission fee.

The price of Paradise

This weekend, I went to Paradise. Entrance costs 50 Egyptian pounds ($12). But if you know a guy who knows a guy, you can do it for maybe 20 ($5)…

Summer in Cairo? Insa! (Forget it!) Come Thursday evening, the highways are packed with cars and minibuses taking Cairenes away from the city and to the nearest body of water – the Mediterranean. Much of Egypt pours up to Alexandria for at least one month, while the north coast, ie. everything west of Alex, is littered with beach resorts whose names range from the chic to the corny: my favourite was the humble, unassuming, ‘Nice’ resort. A fake Dolce & Gabbana t-shirt is this year’s must-have accessory, worn by the sharp-eyed, dark-skinned boys of Upper Egypt, out for whatever havoc they can create on their holidays.

The beaches are a bewildering mix of public and private, and the private beaches can range from a strip of sand cordoned off from the great unwashed with a few beach umbrellas and seats to the lavish – bean bag at the water’s edge, shisha pipe in the pools, chaise longue on the white sand beache.

Their names are as evocative as they are global – Paradise, Cuba Cabana, Tahiti, La Plage…
Paradise is the basic number, with lifeguards on duty as this stretch of beach is notoriously dicey, with a strong undercurrent and waves that have no qualms about dumping you on the beach, swimmers full of sand, in front of hundreds of amused Egyptians.

After you have found your spot, hired your umbrella and beach chairs and settled in, guys wander past selling everything from ice creams to cappuccinos, frecia (a sweet wafer peculiar to Alex) to blow-up beach toys. You want it, they’ll run for it. They’ll even take your money and bring your change a half hour later, remembering your spot amongst the crowds. Australia, take note.

In comparison, entrance to Tahiti, a beach resort further up the coast in the gated community of Marina, costs LE75 (about $17) entrance (absolutely no alcohol, they even looked in my bag) and the scene was coooool. Lots of bikinis, lots of long hair tossed about, belly jewellery, Gulf Arab families with Filipina nannies, young actresses spotted in the mix, funky music and the smell of pizza wafting through the air. We lazed along the beach on chaise longes and bean bags and swam and drank coffee then moved to the pool and the lounges to order pizza and watch the big orange sun slide down past the palm-lined horizon.

Another night, we nipped into an open-air beach club at Agamy Bay. Slap bang on the beach, its location is impeccable. Blue has a reservations-only upstairs section, which this night was into bottle service (ie a bottle of Jack Daniels or vodka on each table, resting in an ice bucket) while downstairs was more into the dance floor.

Surely to be Dutch means you must be a great DJ? (Think Tiesto, Armin van Buuren etc). Wrong. The Blues DJ was cashing in on his famous brothers, but himself was a dud, yelling heavily-accented inanities into the mic whenever he got excited, “Take it easy, guys!” when a rare fight threatened to break out on the dance floor to “There’s a girl dancing on the beach!” as well as the obligatory advertisement for tomorrow night’s foam party, every third song.

Windswept and interesting

Everyone loves a good windswept look – think Kate Winslet in Titanic. But on Saturday, it all got a bit ridiculous, with a fierce wind, the khamaseen, whipping across the city.

This wind tears across the country from the west, hauling great quantities of dust and sand with it. It was said to have choked Napolean’s soldiers during their invasion of Egypt from 1798–1801, which you can believe if you heard the shutters and windows crashing during the night, when it howled like a banshee. I had left a window open, with the shutters closed, the night before, and the next morning, everything was coated in a thick layer of dust, which I’m still mopping up.

According to Al-Alhram journalist Gamal Nkrumah’s column this week, the month of Mechir or Amshir, the sixth month of the Coptic calender,”invariably 8 February to 9 March, is the month of howling winds and sandstorms, which is why it is named after the ancient Egyptian god of winds, Mechir”.

Cairenes have explained the weather as 10 days of cold and rain or howling winds, then 10 hot days when the clothes you wore yesterday are completely out of kilter, leaving you covered in either goosebumps or sweat. On the positive side, you can make a statement with big sunglasses, and there’s no need to use exfoliating face scrubs…just stick your head out the window.