Published: Verve Magazine, February 2010
A weekend celebration can start out incredibly wrong and become magically perfect, finds Sitanshi Talati-Parikh, at a recent jaunt where she revels in the pristine beauty and gastronomic delights of the two Taj Maldivian properties
Turning a decade older in one year, nay overnight, is never easy on the heart. As others in my new age bracket mourned in solitude, I figured that it would be perfect to throw a rather irreverent bash and, right after, take off in fabulous style to a destination of no dispute and great repute. Finding this place was easy – the image, torn from a lifestyle magazine, was tacked up in my husband, Sahil’s, den. As he worked, he rested his eyes by looking up at the beckoning azure waters, reflecting the sunlight in a way that only a location so close to the equator could – a place where an elixir of youth could be snatched for just a little while.
When we got there, that is. Did I mention that our flight to paradise got embroiled in the sudden cyclone that hit the coast? That twisting and turning (and it just wasn’t my stomach) we got to Colombo airport, only to realise that our connecting flight to Male had already left – without us. Day one of azure waters down. Hello, rotating fan, airport odours and Sri Lankan beetroot curry.
When we arrived at Male International Airport (15 hours later), we found the Taj staff and speedboat awaiting us, with smiles and refreshments. We took off, cutting through the inky waves, with a sense of sheer relief. And then we felt it. The humungous wave that nearly knocked us off the cushioned seats and made my stomach lurch in the way that no horror movie or sexy man ever had. And another. And another even bigger one. Apparently, the cyclonic weather had turned the still-as-a-lake-waters of the Maldives into a raging dark monster that threatened to eat us alive.
This really wasn’t how it was supposed to be, I told myself. Sahil reassuringly clutched my hand, and the general manager of the Vivanta Coral Reef, Allwyn Drego, who received us, also emphasised the fact that things were normally very different. Escorted to our room, I was touched to see the remnants of balloons and streamers lining the door. A reminder of what the day was to have been – a celebration.
Weary, but making the effort to change for dinner, we found ourselves placed by the rouge waters, on the beach, touched by a wispy breeze that floated with the promise of better things to come. Executive chef Vikas Milhoutra aroused our senses with a perfectly proportioned four-course candle-lit tasting menu. Think green pea mash with soya and aged balsamic foam, rice-paper wraps of enokitaki, brioche crouton with tossed mushroom and goat cheese salad, grilled Maldivian snapper, polenta with ratatouille of vegetables and feta with beetroot foam, and a crème brulee taster. Sigh. I felt like the best part of my life had just begun.
I believe we brought the sunshine with us. The next day awoke spectacularly. Time began to pass us by in the haze of snorkelling and finding a magical world of stunning multi-hued coral gardens that the island was a part of, scuba-diving lessons, sea-plane island hopping, deep-sea fishing, sun bathing to dry off, and copious amounts of delectable food – excellent sushi, Australian wagyu beef and Tasmanian lobsters cooked to a tantalising finish by the devilish Teppan chef Allwin. Stargazing (it’s unbelievable how many celestial bodies are in sharp focus from this point of the world) over post-dinner liqueurs and single malts, Drego and his charming wife explained how these blissful island-hotels in the Maldives had to be self-sufficient entities. The Taj Maldivian properties import the freshest ingredients from varied international locations, while also maintaining their own waste-management and bottling plants on-location. It’s not surprising how quickly the island had begun to feel like home – like everything one needed, existed in this one microcosmic place.
As we made our way on beautiful, still waters, coasting along with the setting sun, to the other Taj property – Taj Exotica Resort & Spa – I wondered how the two properties would differ. While the Vivanta Coral Reef’s genial vivacity, with its music-filled environs and bright décor, is a perfect uplifting getaway, the Exotica is a lovely, long slim piece of pristine floating land that in the midst of overhanging trees and outstretched shrubs, fiercely protects privacy and your need for seclusion. Everything was about discovering each other: even in-room dining was a truly cherishing experience. As we sat in plush robes, in our sprawling lagoon villa, we were truly pampered by the head butler, Himanshu, who laid a table with the finest linen and cutlery, chocolate sculptures and flutes topped with heady bubbly, and enveloped us with mood lighting, piped music, fresh floral scent…always anticipating our every need.
A champagne breakfast set up on a small sand bank was located far enough from civilisation that everything else became irrelevant. We were spoilt for choice (think a dozen different kind of egg preparations) and it was the perfect way to begin a day that you wished would never end. If love makes you hungry, the options here are unlimited. Under the supervision of F&B director, Bjoern Hiller, our taste buds were tantalised: from the chi-chi progressive world cuisine restaurant The Deep End (must-have the lobster ravioli) where the genial sommelier Luigi paired the perfect wine to match mood and food, to the interactive menu prepared by renowned chef Sandeep Narang, where our palate was intricately challenged with as many courses as we could take, picking from nearly 20 cuisines. And if while exploring the island, we were to discover a perfect spot for an intimate dinner, we would find it transformed with blazing lanterns and sunken candles to light the way – our own exclusive dining experience. Conversation became irrelevant; the experience leaves me breathless at the mere reminder of it.
There remains something intrinsically Taj about these two island retreats – the open, friendly charm of the staff in perfect combination with the privacy and space afforded by them, the attention to detail – like the paved sands of the entire island that were quietly in place every single day.
Maybe it was the uncompromising beauty of the locations, or the richness of colour (that our hazy city-life makes drab and grey), or the sheer understated luxury of the environs that made one feel desperately pampered – spoiled even, as if we were the only ones that truly mattered here, or maybe it was the fact that here, no one else mattered to either of us. It completed us.