Can a luxury resort ever be green? A new hotel on the Maldivian island of Hadahaa is a true eco-paradise
With great pride, our "butler" Atheef is describing the utter deliciousness, the supreme sweetness, the irresistible flavour and vast superiority of the Maldivian mango. When I offer the Indian mango in comparison, he snorts with derision: the Maldivian variety is clearly in a much higher league. It's also only available in this island paradise for two months of the year, and as Atheef speaks I have a flashback to childhood and the giddy excitement of strawberries coming into season – a delight wholly unknown to my own children, for whom such exotic delicacies are these days pedestrian staples thanks to the global food market.
The Maldives, however, is not the place to get radical about eating only local, or indeed seasonal, foodstuffs: these idyllic islands rely on imported produce, and working out how to feed themselves while striving to become the first carbon-neutral nation on earth is one of the many conundrums facing the inhabitants of this breathtaking collection of islands. There are 1,190 of them in all, scattered among some of the most pristine coral reefs in the Indian Ocean, and at two metres above sea level this vacation paradise is one of the most threatened nations on earth. The most pessimistic estimates suggest that they will be underwater by the beginning of the next century, a danger their energetic new president, Mohamed Nasheed, is striving to publicise to the international community – last October the entire cabinet donned scuba gear and met underwater.
As a result of the very real threat on their doorstep, words like "sustainability", whispered among a very few of the forward-thinking hotels a decade ago, are now littered generously throughout their brochures. The bonanza that took place in the 1980s and 90s, turning the area around the capital, Malé, into a resort metropolis with barely a care for preserving reefs or local livelihoods, has thankfully all but come to a halt.
If the Maldives are a dot on the world map, the island of Hadahaa is a mere grain in an enormous oceanic expanse, as far south as you can go without crossing the equator. It lies in the utterly unspoilt and second largest atoll in the world, Huvadhoo. Until recently the whole area was off limits to visitors, the result of a government policy that sought to protect its ecosystem but also discouraged mingling between tourists and the local population, which put many travellers off these islands because they felt them to be a cultural void.
Since 2007 a small clutch of hotels has been allowed to set up among the native islands under the strictest environmental supervision, bringing employment and visitors to a region previously ignored. The contrast between this gloriously underpopulated, development-free atoll and the frenzy of the resort scene around Malé is extraordinary.
The latest arrivals, such as the one I'm visiting, pay more than lip service to environmental concerns. At Alila Hadahaa, which opened in August, they have their own desalination plant to create drinking water, hold a Green Globe Certification for planning and construction, and use wood certified sustainable from Malaysia. Most commendable of all is the presence of so many local staff; Maldivians make up 65% of the workforce. For a people in search of a homeland – as their president has described them – they couldn't be doing a better job of the audition. Staff such as Atheef – in his roving role of villa butler – and Shamin (snorkeller, babysitter, football expert and purveyor of popcorn) are proud of their country, eager to help you to experience more of it and so good with the kids that I feel surplus to requirements.
For a resort so clearly not imagined with children in mind – from the lavish luxury of the super-chic rooms to the glass and stone-hewn bathrooms – they couldn't cater for them better. Chicken curry sans spices, jelly made to order, babysitting on request and everywhere waiters happy to build "volcano land" in the sand, dive masters who long to take them snorkelling. I virtually have to wrestle the staff to get the children back for a couple of hours a day.
Alila's new resort is certainly architecturally adventurous. The two-storey state-of-the-art restaurant with its Bauhaus severity is slightly wasted on an ageing barefoot boho like myself, but the luxury beach bungalows and water villas make it a positively elemental experience. Of course it's an irony that is hard for the arriving tourist to ignore that the popular wooden water bungalows strung out on stilts above the aquamarine shallows at most resorts could, in the course of our children's lifetime, be all that's left of this island nation.
FOR THOSE WHO stray as far south as Hadahaa, the reward is a pewter evening ocean with a hazy shadow of islands on the far horizon, bearing no sign of human habitation. Ears pump with the complete silence we so rarely get to hear. When I take my four-year-old son snorkelling 5ft off the beach and find a lionfish swaying in the swell, a couple of Moorish Idols guarding the reef and as many small yellowtails as I can count, Dan starts to choke on his snorkel in excitement. To say the ocean is still stocked biblically here would be to underestimate what lies below.
Visiting the local villages is also now actively encouraged, as we discover when we are taken on an afternoon trip to Gadhdhoo, where hand-weaving straw tablemats and fishing offer the only alternative employment to the hotel and tourist sector. Despite obvious poverty and very basic amenities, the village looks like it is auditioning for a Best Kept Town award: no rubbish, well-tended homes with immaculate front yards and trees adorned with colourful strips of the Maldivian flag.
Shamin explains that every evening at sunset the women and children take to street cleaning in order to keep their collective home in good order. If only a similar civic spirit could be nurtured in the UK. During our amble around town an elderly lady in a headscarf (since 9/11 the Maldivians, previously relaxed Muslims with a little bit of local magic thrown in, have increasingly been embracing a stricter Islamic code) stops me to enquire whether Molly and Dan are my only children. When I reply that they are, she looks at me pityingly before declaring that she has produced 14. Patting my meagre contribution to the population on their heads, she wanders off chuckling in amusement at my uselessness as a woman.
This is my fourth trip to the Maldives and the first where I get to meet local people in their own environment and also to eat their cuisine. Along with western delights that include breakfast croissants the finest Parisian pastry chef would be proud of, Alila Hadahaa boasts a local restaurant – sand-floored, trestle-tabled and musically themed – offering the spiciest of curries, the tastiest of pumpkins, the crunchiest papaya and chilli salads on poppadoms, and pancakes with caramel bananas or fresh coconut rice pudding to follow. Where other Maldivian resorts can seem hell bent on ignoring their surroundings, this one is utterly committed to celebrating them.
On our last night, as the great fiery disc of the sun begins its exhausted slide into the sea, we spot a pod of dolphins gliding in and out of water thick as oil, feeding on the plentifully stocked and carefully protected home reef. The children, who have been weaving coconut-frond tapestries with Shamin, run shrieking toward the ocean, dropping clothes along the powder-white sand as they race into the sea in pursuit of each other. The dolphins make a hasty exit to open water, but in their absence a familiar figure steps into the frame: Shamin, waist deep in the ocean, still in uniform shorts and polo shirt, initiating a game with the kids.
It's my abiding image of our brief sojourn on this entrancing island. Thanks not to the cutting-edge design of the resort nor the fantastic food but to the seductive charm of the local staff, the five nights here number among the best vacations of my life.