On my second day at JOALI, there’s a murmur of anticipation among staff. “We’re on ray watch,” one explains excitedly. A squadron of mantas was spotted close by, and staff will notify curious guests should they appear again. I keep one hopeful eye on the glassy water for the rest of the day, and the next morning, spend 10 minutes staring at what I’m sure is a rock… or is it a ray? I’m elated to discover it’s neither rock nor ray when the outline of a green turtle becomes clear as it paddles slowly towards me, then banks beneath my overwater villa.
One of 19 new hotels in the Maldives to open in 2018, JOALI was launched by entrepreneur and owner Esin Güral Argat. Every time the travel industry thinks the Maldives has reached peak one-upmanship, the archipelago’s first ice rink or largest underwater restaurant is announced, but JOALI serenely sidestepped the competition without a floating cinema or five-figure bottle of champagne in sight. Rather than imposing its own ideas on you, this is a resort that gives you the space to work out exactly what you want from your time here instead.
When you arrive at JOALI by seaplane, your personal ‘jadugar’ (Urdu for ‘magician’, JOALI for butler) whisks you away to your villa and hands you a mobile phone with which you can contact them day and night. In the overwater villas, Istanbul-based design studio Autoban has made the most of natural materials (glossy marble tables, bamboo headboards, rose gold hardware) both inside and out. An open-plan design and soaring ceilings allow light and air to between the interior and the split-level decking outside, which blends into the surrounding sea with an infinity pool and a hammock suspended over the water. There’s no sense that anything here is too precious to be put to immediate use, which means making yourself at home is a breeze.
While I preferred to idle in my villa – I savoured the privacy, the solitude and the proximity to air-con – there are also divine sweeps of beach and a communal pool popular with families. I wondered how I’d top snorkelling directly from my bedroom, but an early morning scuba dive blew it out of the water (excuse the expression). Playful spinner dolphins joined us on our voyage to Hulhudhoo corner, where perfect visibility and a gentle current allowed us to experience unicorn fish, needlefish, Moorish idols and eagle rays in a dive led by Abdul Alim, a free-diving 23 year old ex-soldier who spoke five languages. It was magical, and somewhat moving, too. There’s beauty in abundance here, but that beauty is under threat.
What JOALI understands is that it’s not enough for a hotel to take an interest in sustainability for the sake of its own success: it must also invest in the future of Maldivians, marine life, the islands and the planet. Not only does the hotel carbon offset your journey before you even arrive through local tree-planting initiatives, but it’s working towards EarthCheck certification by reducing the resort’s impact on the environment. From harvesting rainwater and growing vegetables on-site to creating a water-bottling plant and using a rocket composter for food waste, the processes aren’t always glamorous – but they are essential, particularly when microplastics are at a record high in the Maldives and rising sea levels threaten the very existence of the islands.
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