Just the very whisper of the Maldives is enough to send shivers of delight down any sea-loving sybarite’s spine. After all, it could well pass as a byword for a paradise destination complete with every conceivable five-star luxury and images of little over-water villas set in lagoons that are no less than fifty shades of blue. Very nice but very expected. The recent opening of the Joali Maldives, however, will enchant even the most jaded jet-setter.
First thing: it is not part of the usual big chains that have dominated several of the thousand-plus coral islands that make up the Maldives’ chain of 26 atolls. The Joali is a new, brave and, frankly, beautiful effort by the Turkish family-owned Gürallar Group who makes their money in machinery, roof tiles and glassware, including the Lav brand which is currently the sixth largest glassware manufacturer in the world. One of its scions, Esin Güral Argat, had always loved her visits to this Indian Ocean destination and felt it was time to make a solid (and business-savvy) commitment to it: by building a resort that would encapsulate all the magic of the Maldives with a unique, engaging approach.
Second, the Joali also sets itself apart from all other luxury resorts by offering such an impressive array of art and design, all cleverly blended among lush surroundings that would have you feel you were walking through an island gallery conceived by Gauguin.
After a 45-minute seaplane from Velana Airport in Malé to the Raa Atoll, the final approach to Joali is nothing short of breathtaking, arriving at an Atölye4n-designed jetty that looks as if Zaha Hadid herself sculpted a manta ray or perhaps imitated the undulation of the ocean waves out of thatch. Besides the works of art in each villa, every turn of a corner also affords something to delight the senses. Patterned wood panels by South African-based Ardmore pay tribute to the Maldivian grey heron, several of which can be seen roaming around the island all the time, while sunset cocktails taken around a staggering 10,000-lb table that looks like a blend of Gaudi-esque and Niki de Saint Phalle sensibilities and created by Brooklyn-based Misha Kahn give fresh frisson to the term “happy hour”.
Meander a little further and you would soon come across Cape Town-based vernacular architect Porky Hefer’s “inhabitable nests” that take their shape from various local wildlife, including a sea-facing swing in the shape of a heron’s head. The most awe-inspiring piece, however, is undoubtedly his manta ray tree house which invites you (and up to seven friends) to climb in and snuggle up within its “belly” with a good book and a long cocktail. Immersive, interactive art? We certainly approve.
Given that the Gürallar Group’s name carries a lot of weight, it was no surprise that celebrated Turkish design studio Autoban also came in to lend its touch. For those unfamiliar with founders Seyhan Özdemir and Sefer Cağlar’s handiwork (voted Best Young Designers by Wallpaper* in 2005 amid a slew of other accolades), if you ever passed through Baku’s extraordinary Heydar Aliyev international airport or perhaps whiled away a few hours at Turkish Airlines’ world-class CIP lounge in Istanbul (voted by Skytrax as the world’s best business class lounge) or even dined at restaurant impresario Alan Yau’s Duck + Rice in London, just know that you have been Autoban-ed without being aware of it. And the pleasure of staying at Joali is being able to discover and delight in all its design-conscious touches, from green quartzite quarried in Norway for the bathrooms to soaring ceilings that easily evoke a sense of tropical cool.
Immersing oneself in mind-blowing art and design can also make it all too easy to forget that you are, in fact, supposed to adopt a lotus-eater’s lifestyle. But if you wish to do more than soak in the aquamarine ocean, sun by the poolside or fall into a transcendental state of bliss at the stunning ESPA-managed spa (home to a grey and white marble hammam that is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen), rest assured the Joali also provides for those who like to be physically or intellectually diverted. Naturally, every wish may be granted here, from diving with manta rays to sailing in a traditional dhoni (sailboat). But given it is Joali’s raison d’etre to combine nature, luxury and art, Kahn was also commissioned to create an underwater coral garden made of mosaic sculptures, which kind of makes the idea of a day’s kayaking, however beautiful the Joali fleet of glass kayaks are, pale a little in the offering stakes.
For guests with pampered palates who fear being caught on a coral island for a week’s stay and be inadvertently let down or bored by the resort’s F&B, Joali’s attention to detail will allow for no such travesty. Presiding over the property is Ashley Goddard and his crack team of chefs who have put together a pleasing melange of four distinct dining places, including Japanese restaurant and bar, Saoke, breakfasts with a view at Vandhoo, hearty yet contemporary Italian at Bellini’s and casual deliciousness matched with clever cocktails at Mura.
The etymologists among us might wonder as to the provenance behind the resort’s name and we discovered it is Dhivehi for “hammock”, ideal for the languid way of life you find yourself so easily slipping into after a few days here. But the word that struck me as most apt for Joali, however, was the Hindi word jadugar, which means magician or wizard and is the name given to the butlers who look after all guests in the 73 private beach and water villas scattered throughout the island. Chances are, as you watch your hopefully more than once-in-a-lifetime holiday of dreams unfold, you would wholeheartedly agree with me.
This article first appeared on Feb 11, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.