Cycling along the jetty, I spot a dark flash in the water just outside my villa. A pectoral fin breaks the surface. It’s a black tip reef shark. Not too huge; about a metre long. I park the bike by the front door and fumble for the keys in the depths of my tote, still keeping track of the shark. It disappears under the villa.
I can’t get the door open quick enough. Once I’m in, I dump my bag on the day bed, grab my fins and mask and make a beeline for the deck at the front of the villa. I haven’t been swimming with sharks for ages and don’t want to miss the opportunity. But I’m too late. I realise I’m never going to catch this fish and watch it lazily swim away through the sea grass in the bay. “Next time,” I say to myself.
And I’m pretty certain there will be a next time. Tomorrow I have an appointment with Clare Baranowski, the resident marine biologist here on Gili Lankanfushi, who is taking me on a snorkelling trip along the reef wall. I’m hoping for more than one shark sighting.
Gili Lankanfushi is a luxury sustainable resort on North Male Atoll in the Maldives. It was recently named the world’s most ‘Eco-friendly Hotel’ at the Haute Grandeur Global Hotel Awards 2017 and the ‘Indian Ocean’s Leading Resort 2017’ at the World Travel Awards. And it’s my home for the next four days.
The Overwater Villa
Back on the deck of my overwater villa, after I watch sharky swim off without me, I slide into the sea, leaving my fins behind. I don’t need them to reach the closest reef. It’s right at my feet. I float on the surface with just my mask on, and hang on to the stairs so the current doesn’t drag me away. Under the bottom step is a little purple and green spotted puffer fish; its tiny fins oscillating at speed to keep it hovering. Mini blue-streaked cleaner wrasse nibble on the wooden steps, and about 60 centimetres to the left of the steps is my own private coral reef. Black and white humbugs and chocolate dip damsel fish weave in and around the coral, and a Picasso triggerfish proudly defends its territory.
The tide is coming in, bringing with it more fish. Before the water rises too high, I swim around to an enclosed section of the villa and duck under the lowest beam into what they call the private bathing area. I saw another puffer fish here earlier hiding under the steps, and a few crabs hanging out on the beams so I go to check them out.
Stairs from here lead up into the bathroom area, which has an open walkway across to the shower. I grab a towel from its bamboo holder and head back into the main living area through beautifully carved double wooden doors. The bedroom is through another set of double doors on the other side of the living room, which is completely open to the elements.
It’s hot now and the only air-con is in the bedroom, which is closed off to keep it cool. A huge king-size bed is mine all mine. It’s glorious to have such a big bed to myself, especially knowing there will be no little people visiting in the middle of the night. Although, I prefer a firmer mattress. This one is much too soft for me. More than four nights and I’d have to book into the spa for a massage and realignment, which wouldn’t be such a bad idea!
Blockout blinds on all the windows mean the sun can wake up the world without waking me. I’m not a morning person, I prefer to stay up late and watch the stars. Although, I may just break the habit of a lifetime one morning as I’m sure sunrise here is pretty special.
The sun by now is most definitely over the yardarm. That means it’s beer o’clock. A well-stocked mini-bar makes it hard to choose. There’s champagne, wine, beer and spirits, which is great pickings for an island in a Muslim country. Alcohol is only allowed on the resort islands, and it’s heavily policed. Of course there are plenty of non-alcoholic options, too, along with a coffee maker and delicious teas.
I decide on a Corona. Cracking it open, I sit on the steps down to the deck and scan the view. I really can’t believe it’s taken me so long to get to the Maldives, especially as a lover of islands and watersports. I have my itinerary in hand. I’m meant to be figuring out what I’m doing next, but the Indian Ocean has my undivided attention. Nina Simone is serenading me with I’m Feeling Good, which is piped around the villa’s surround sound music system. It’s an apt choice for how I’m feeling right now. The beer is good. Life is good.
Making Your Own Gili Story
Before setting foot on the island, I was asked to surrender my footwear, which is safely ensconced in a cotton bag emblazoned with the tagline “No news, no shoes”. I certainly didn’t put up a fight. The ethos on the island is to leave the busy world behind, switch off and instead design your own ‘Gili Story’ while here.
Guests can choose from a number of activities or experiences available, including wellness and spa treatments at the award-winning Meera Spa, scuba diving and watersports (thoughtfully only non-motorised), sessions with the resident marine biology team, extravagant culinary tastings or expeditions to neighbouring islands.
Shaan, my Mr Friday, was allocated to me prior to arrival. He helped organise a package that suited me perfectly. All guests are able to choose the experiences that pique their interest and a personalised itinerary awaits on arrival to the island. Of course, itineraries can be amended once you’re on Gili, but it’s a good starting point to ensure your time on the island is really special, and personal.
Decadent Cuisine and World Wines
Lunch is in the Overwater Bar, a circular bar and restaurant reached by a jetty from the beach. I take my bike and park it up just outside on the sand. It feels weird on the first day to walk into a restaurant with no shoes on, but I quickly get used it.
I’m usually greeted by Rifaque, a cheery Maldivian with a wide smile and bright eyes. He talks me through the offerings at the salad bar and allows me to choose any table.
The menu is varied with a lot of fish options given the locale – each day’s catch comes fresh from neighbouring Himmafushi Island. The salad bar offers a great selection of greens, vegetables, cold meats and condiments. The oils and jams are made here on the island and most of the produce available from the salad bar is grown in the kitchen garden.
A very impressive kitchen garden it is too. Chef John Bakker, who, until recently, had been Executive Chef on Gili for five years, worked with a dedicated team of two to double the size of the previous garden. Over the years, they worked out what grows well in the Maldivian climate and revamped the garden to only grow ingredients that flourish. The end result is a rich veggie patch that would make many green-fingered gardener very jealous.
The wine list is impressive and chosen by Gili’s resident sommelier team. Fabrice Velasquez, the head sommelier has a real passion for his art and tells me excitedly about wines that are extremely difficult to come by, and to get to the island. But he does it. I try the wines by the glass so that I’m able to taste as many as possible. Well, that’s what I tell myself.
Every night, there is a different dining option to discover. The first night I try Japanese – one of my favourite cuisines – matched with different sakes. The next night I enjoy a ‘Gili Tasting Journey’, which is a culinary adventure through the island, led by Fabrice. Five dishes are served in five different spots around the island. Each course is matched with a specially chosen beverage, which accentuates the flavours of the dish.
There is a Spice Souk Dinner one night and a Mediterranean Extravaganza another night. The dishes are all prepared by an international in-house team of around 50 people. And following their sustainable ethos, they try very hard to not make more than is required, keeping food waste to a minimum.
But you need to be careful not to go too overboard at dinner because the breakfasts are positively sumptuous.
The bread, pastries, jams and juices are made fresh on the island every day. There is a cooked menu to choose from offering eggs cooked your way, omelettes and Maldivian traditional dishes. A classic Maldivian breakfast is tuna mixed with onion and capsicums which is then wrapped in a roti smeared with a spicy fish paste. It is completely addictive.
The piece de résistance at breakfast, though, is the cheese vault. Hidden in the underground cellar, there’s a cheese room with an impressive international variety. And, wait for it, a chocolate room. Can this place do no wrong? Yes, they hand make their own chocolates on the island too. The very idea of leaving this place is ridiculous really. How can I ever face avocado on toast ever again? And if you haven’t had your fill the night before, there is chilled champagne to help wash down your morning smoked salmon and caviar.
The Sustainable Side of Gili Lankanfushi
There are few places in the world I have visited that are as impressive as Gili Lankanfushi in terms of their environmental practices. Constantly mindful of the impact of their presence and that of their guests, Gili Lankanfushi makes sustainability their USP (Unique Selling Point). As an Earthcheck Silver member, Gili Lankanfushi is dedicated to regularly reviewing their practices and ensure certain standards are maintained to achieve this prestigious certification.
The overwater villas are made from sustainably-grown wood sourced in New Zealand. They don’t use varnish, but let the wood weather naturally. Any repairs are done using offcuts or recycled wood from a stockpile the resident woodworkers have gathered.
Handcrafted bamboo bikes are the main mode of transport on the island, with each villa allocated their own set of wheels. Electric-powered buggies are used for big jobs or ferrying guests and their luggage to and from the jetty.
All food and organic waste is composted onsite in a Rocket Composter and either used on the kitchen garden or around the shrubs and trees on the island.
There is an electric crushing machine onsite – the crushed glass is turned into sand or gravel-sized pieces which can then be used as building materials on the island.
An onsite desalination system means the island can produce its own bottled water – both still and sparkling! Sea water from a borehole is piped through a desalination tank and then bottled in reusable glass bottles.
Plastic bottles are banned. The only ones you’ll see are those washed up on the beach. The waste team sweep the beach regularly and recycle anything they find. Very little waste goes to landfill.
A dedicated environmental team brainstorms regularly to ensure the island is always improving on what they do already. There are regular staff trainings to ensure all staff understands what they’re doing, environmentally, and why. The team also visits neighbouring islands and schools to carry out outreach work, explaining to the children how their actions can affect the environment and what they can do to help shape it.
My Gili Story
Everyone who visits Gili Lankanfushi has a different story to tell. Before I landed on the island, I was sure the resort’s sustainable options would be front and centre of my story, and of course they have played a leading role.
But for me, my story is about being able to slip off the edge of the deck and swim with sharks on a whim. To take a leisurely snorkel along the drop off at One Palm Island and be followed by a green turtle. To chat for hours with Clare Baranowski, quizzing her about all things marine biology and the environment. To spend an afternoon wandering the island with my camera just before sunset, capturing moments that I’ll remember forever.
To have time to just be me. On an island. In the Indian Ocean.
I flew from Melbourne to Male with Singapore Airlines. Qantas also fly to Male. From Velana International Airport (Male), you are met by Gili Lankanfushi staff and taken by speedboat to the island. The journey is 25 minutes.
There are 45 overwater villas on Gili Lankanfushi. I stayed in a Villa Suite. The price for four nights in a Villa Suite for two people is $5,892 USD. This is on a ‘Pay for 3 nights, Stay for 4’ basis and includes breakfast. It currently costs $1,675.52 to add lunch and dinner for two people. From 8 January 2018, you can book the Gili Gourmet Experience, which requires a minimum stay of 4 nights. This Gili Wine & Dine experience includes a daily Prosecco breakfast and Gourmet Dinner for two; the Gili Tasting Journey, a private lobster barbecue at Palm Beach including a bottle of Champagne or wine; a sunset cocktail at Castaway and a gourmet wine dinner at the Underground Wine Cellar. Price varies according to dates booked. Please see Gili Lankanfushi’s website for more details.
Disclosure: I stayed as a guest at Gili Lankanfushi, Maldives.
All images © Linda McCormick/EcoTraveller
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