A SANCTUARY for the SENSES - A review of Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru and Angsana Ihuru

Circled by a dazzling coral reef, the island offers some of the best snorkeling and a fabulous range of facilities.
PUBLISHED February 12, 2020 | updated November 08, 2020 01:17

Is it possible to elevate paradise? Is it possible to transform a charming coral island that brag sparkling cerulean waters, and sands dazzling, deep, and soft as newly-fallen snow—into a testament to environmental conservation—that will push far beyond all previous notions of Heaven on Earth?
The answer is yes. To find out, we ventured to this little island of Vabbinfaru, barely five hectares in size, yet a laid-back palm-painted idyll tucked away in the turquoise azures of North Malé Atoll, just twenty-five minutes by speedboat from Velana International Airport, Malé.
The heavens unleashed a tropical downpour as I stepped from the speedboat on to Vabbinfaru’s jetty. Instead of viewing the rain with contempt, I embraced it, as local historians suggest, it is a sign of welcome, a momentary bond between the sky and the ocean. A smiling resort staff welcomed and escorted me to a hut-like pavilion under an industry sized umbrella to complete the check-in formalities while I was given an ice-cold towel and lemongrass tea to brave a minute’s walk to the villa.
Incorporating the island's natural resources and elements is a design element, and the furniture and structural elements had appealing Indonesian influences - hints of dark tropical wood and raw silk fabrics. During mid-'90s, when the island was being developed into a resort, its indigenous palm trees were unharmed, so the lush island has plenty of shade under swaying palms. The 48 round villas, topped with cone-shaped thatched roofs are dramatic, and dominates around the centre of the island. They hide discretely amid lush greenery, built extensively using tropical woods, coconut, palm, woven grass and bamboo.
The Beachfront Pool Villas are positioned by the shoreline, with jetties beside the water, each with its own patio and garden opening onto the spectacular views of the ocean. All the villas have their own private plunge pool and adjoining jet pool.
Like the exterior, the interior color scheme is neutral -- with enough white for an Apple store, some beige, brown, and black furnishings, and a bit of greenery for contrast. The villa's bedroom is circular rather than rectangular, and therefore, the teakwood canopy king-size bed is smacked at the center. Around the bed, which is dressed in quality white linens, is a cushioned daybed (perfect for families with kids), an incense burner and oil with Banyan Tree’s scent of the day, 32-inch flat-screen TV, narrow desk, a Nespresso machine, stocked minibar with gourmet snacks and liquor pints, and a mini-fridge offering half-bottles of wine, beer, soda, juices, and mixers. 
Dinner is served at the main restaurant, “Ilaafathi”, a bamboo pavilion offering a selection of haute cuisine. Cultural evenings are held on Friday nights including traditional Maldivian drumming and singing (Boduberu). We were hosted by the resort’s Assistant Sales Manager, Alissa Marcelo and kicked-off with the first course appetizer, a bite-sized Amuse-bouche followed by seafood congee soup. The third was Beef tataki served with a citrus- and ginger-infused vinegar soy sauce. The evening's fourth entrée was Coconut crumbled prawns on avocado puree. And the evening was topped off with freshly homemade lemon sorbet. We had an exhilarating gastronomic journey that truly pampered us with dishes that defined a very unique sensory experience.
Despite not been able to experience the wellness scene at the spa, it offered a wide range of treatments curated exclusively based on traditional Asian healing techniques and philosophies that rejuvenate the body, mind and soul. The immaculate setting of the spa is perfect for guests to bask in the sanctuary’s warmth whilst leaving the rest to the dedicated therapists to connect into relaxation with the lightest of intuitive touches. The combination of the beautiful facilities, wonderful therapists and the uniquely nourishing balm of locally grown coconuts used in the treatments, promises to soothe anyone into a state of ataraxia.
Apart from the resort’s fitness centre, there’s a plethora of water sports activities that range from boating, canoeing, wakeboarding, waterskiing, windsurfing, catamaran sailing and island excursions. Back on dry land, there’s beach volleyball, ping-pong and yoga sessions through sunrise and sunset at the western or eastern jetty, or watch the daily stingray feeding sessions.
Snorkelling around the island’s long coral reef is magical and a must-do - with angelfish, butterflyfish, parrotfish, pufferfish, turtles and small sharks. Guests can also take part in the resort’s marine conservation activities, such as coral planting and reef cleaning, run by the resident marine biologist.
The next morning, the day began with a swift check-out from Vabbinfaru, as adventure awaited us at Banyan Tree’s sister resort, Angsana Ihuru - a stone’s throw or five-minute boat ride away.
Having heard so much, we arrived the island whose reef was transformed two decades ago by Abdul Azeez Abdul Hakeem – more familiar as N.D. Azeez, renowned Maldivian environment champion, former Director of Conservation for Banyan Tree and Angsana Maldives. 
It was in 2001 when Azeez initiated “The Necklace Project” – a 40-metre long, 4-metre wide steel structure, laid in the lagoon of Ihuru at a depth of 0.5 metres with large corals attached on top of the structure for stabilizing. Then, the steel structures were supplied with low voltage direct current which resulted the growth of calcium carbonate, dissolved in seawater over the steel surfaces - completely protected from corrosion. The growing calcium carbonate on the steel structure thickened by about 20 centimetres in diameter in some places, and began acting as a natural barrier to strong waves. Five years later, without direct current to the steel structure, it turned strong and perfect for the corals to grow. During bad weather, it served as a protective barrier from being battered by large waves, breaking the energy before it reached the beach. The necklace ultimately proved evident as the perfect haven for corals, and for fish and other forms of marine life. 
Ahmed Hamdhan (Hambe) from the Dive Centre shared some insights of the “Rannamaari Wreck” - a sand dredger that was brought to Maldives from Singapore for the 1982 Malé Reclamation Project. In April 1999, the sand dredger was towed to Ihuru to be sunken to create an artificial reef. However, it capsized mysteriously two days prior the planned date and has since become home for thousands of sea creatures.
The two resorts aim at ensuring that the vibrant islands and coral reefs are around for generations to come. These efforts have already been recognized for its conservation projects, numerous programmes and activities that help reef preservation. Angsana Ihuru is the first resort in the Maldives to have its own Marine Lab in 2004, and a second on Velavaru in 2007. Banyan Tree has also been the first resort to hire marine biologists to protect, enhance and educate about the reefs.
But like all good things, with the lunch hour at Ihuru’s Riveli, our trip came to an end much too soon.
As I waited for the speedboat to head back home, I kept flashing back to the short-lived, but spellbinding stay at Vabbinfaru. I must confess that I even had my memory bank highlighted by an inebriated sunrise by the pool where an overcast sky paled to a rosy apricot - blink and it changed colors - a shift from an inky-grey to a purple-black. As the sun rose further it changed more and more, at the same time pushing my sensory boundaries. It is no ordinary holiday destination, it is truly “a sanctuary for the senses”.

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