There’s something indescribably delicious about staying at a resort created by a squillionaire. But I’ll try.
Broadly speaking, they can do what others can’t. They have the blanchest of all the cartes, not tethered to the humdrum of spreadsheets and returns and narrow-shouldered accountants in transition lenses talking about fiscal this and expenditure that. (Apologies to accountants. We once met one who wore Oliver Peoples sunglasses!) So when Esin Güral Argat, owner-creator-dreamer-upper of JOALI first conceived of her own private paradise, on the untouched Maldivian island of Muravandhoo in the remote Raa Atoll, there was no holding back on anything. On all fronts. Not even those! From the way it looks to how it gives back.
Equal parts taste and virtue, JOALI is the first high-concept, sustainable, immersive art resort in the Maldives. Which is already a pretty nifty USP among these storied isles. And there are hundreds of isles, literally. 1190. A fraction are inhabited, as in real life inhabited, lives and locals and markets and shops and popping down the 7/11 for a Curly Wurly. The interest in this prosaic side of the Maldives is growing in popularity with tourists, wanting to get to the warts ‘n’ all ‘n’ all that, which can range from the simply voyeuristic to actually doing some good for local economies. A larger fraction are purely, simply holiday islands, one-stop sybaritic atolls, unadulterated this-and-that and don’t-give-any-jot frolics, probably in a throwaway Boohoo two-piece as you watch the sun set over these precious and precarious islands and never mind the irony.
But there are also very special ones. Where genuine, we-actually-do-give-a-*&%! eco credentials – with world-class experts at their helm – sit alongside all the earthly delights anyone could wish for. Because, these days, people want hedonism and a slot in heaven. Because why not? And this is JOALI, which means ‘joy’ seeing as you ask. And all of this roughly translates as gorgeous on gorgeous on gorgeous.
So get ready to have your secret-socks knocked off. You know the drill, right? A dinky plane the size of an HB pencil swishes you from the main island, Malé, and 45 minutes later you’re descending into JOALI’s slice of all that blue, all that icing sugar sand, and the greatest tan lines of your life. And yep, that is a manta ray-shaped welcome jetty designed by Istanbul’s Atölye4n making the endless Indian Ocean pop, thank you very much. Look at it, all slick and sexy and sucking up the remnants of your camera battery before you’ve even had time so say ‘three skinny margaritas please, and hold the salt!’ at Mura’s, the bar that will keep you refreshed for hours by that glistening infinity pool that seems to be drifting into that never-ending blue ocean we mentioned. Which may or may not be the tequila talking.
Or maybe the daily sunrise meditation in the yoga pavilion – just you, your mantra and whole bunch of zen – will get you, you know, right there; or the sunset champagne cruise, bobbing along on the beautiful briny Indian Ocean as all the dolphins you ever did see come along for the ride, is more your cup of Veuve. Or, if you’re planning on maintaining that belly you can bounce dumbbells off, there’s something called ‘Raw Fitness’. Or HIIT classes on the sand. Or maybe you’ll see us face down at the ESPA Spa.
Perhaps you’ll take a bike ride. No effort needed, FYI, as you glide across those telltale boardwalks perched over the blues and whites, leading you to more and more paradise, their loose wooden slats playing a sunny tune under all the wheels, your flip-flops, SPF and perhaps a change of swimsuit thrown in that basket up front. Or maybe you’ll take one of those cabanas, nothing but sea and sand up front, easy access to the bar behind, and write that novel you’ve been promising your mates since 1973. Maybe even a lesson with that tennis coach who’s fluent in flirt to break up the day. Ain’t nobody’s business if you do, or don’t.
We digress. Because, remember, JOALI was created from the silky sand up as an eco resort. So they bought all the neighbouring islands to prevent them from being developed. Nice, right? Before you even set foot on the resort, your carbon emissions have been offset via a local tree re-planting scheme. As much food as possible is grown on-site or locally sourced, with any waste recycled using a fancy rocket composter. Single-use plastic is banned, and all your bathroom products are vegan and chemical-free. There’s the pioneering Reef Restoration Project – a response to the catastrophic bleaching event in 2016 and headed up by marine biologist Samantha Reynolds – that you can get involved in. And that barely touches the benevolent surface.
And all of the above attracts the right kind of people, even if we do say so ourselves. And people watching, whatever anyone doth protest, is a total hoot. Like the Russian family. A brusque man never knowingly not grasping a Baltic snifter shadowed by a towering woman who’s thin and does the kids. A common sight in this neck of the Indian Ocean, you can normally tell the caliber from the diamonds. Just ask my friend Yuri whose family used to take over the whole top floor of Badrutt’s Palace in St Moritz for the winter. All I got was Blackpool Illuminations, a ride on the Big One if I was lucky. Anyway, these diamonds needed one of those warnings at the start of a Netflix movie, top left. ‘Contains flashing jewellery’, ‘Bling envy’, ‘Where the hell did I go wrong?’. Suffice it to say, we’re not talking a love charm from Pandora.
Oh, and if loved-up couples rubbing your noses in their smug makes you feel queasy, don’t worry. While just-marrieds make up a sizeable chunk of these isles, there are just as many groups of mates, singles getting away from it all, singles not getting away from it all, families doing something special, once-in-a-lifetimers, a hotchpotch of all of the above. And LGBT people all over the shop, whether as guests or staff. Because, whatever you may have heard, it isn’t a problem on these very international, very free-thinking, very forward-facing islands that to all intents and pragmatic purposes are self-governing oases that embrace a we-are-the-world way of doing things – whatever the archaic small print might say back at government HQ on Malé a million miles away, figuratively and (almost) literally. Besides, there’s nothing more powerful than visibility. Some people on this tropical island are gay. Get over it!
And while we’re here we should mention JOALI’s work with gender-equality. In a mostly Muslim society, Maldivian women are culturally discouraged from working, ergo the cycle of oppression that enables. But not here, where redressing the gender balance is a top-of-the-list concern for Esin and her team, whether it’s actively employing local women or international talent like Samantha Reynolds, who we mentioned, and her biologist intern Martyna Socha, or commissioning artists including Zemer Peled, whose otherworldly ceramics pepper the island, looking like they just fell out of a Martian’s carry-on.
And oh, that art! Here, there, in your villa, on the beaches, hidden among the palms or under the waves, an ever-growing roster of international artists has been curated by No LaB and sensitively integrated into the island’s ecosystem by Autoban to create an immersive experience that dazzles and marvels and tickles all the right senses. A tree house that looks like a manta ray by Porky Hefer, underwater sculptures by Misha Kahn, tapestries by Soojin Kang, furniture for lolling around on by Chris Wolston and John Paul Phillip, right down to that pink glass decanter by Feleksan Onar. This isn’t any old art, this is JOALI art.
And can we talk about the villas? As is par for this kind of Maldives, you’ll be choosing from over-water or beach. And it’s a tough one, because there are pros and even more pros for both, a toss-up between silky sand right there or your own private reef right underneath your tootsies. Sod it, keep coming back then you can take turns. Then it’s just a matter of how glorious you want to go. Even entry level one-bed villas come with private pools and can sleep up to three, making them penny-pricewise if you’re coming with mates and would rather spend said pennies on other things.
But it’s the proportions of the villas that will get you. Relatively unassuming from the outside (organic materials, thatched roofs, in sync with its world), you’ll be knocked sideways – hell, every which way – by the interiors. Like odes to something way greater than us, and with towering monoliths of carved wood where doors would normally be, your glorious sitting room cascades into your glorious bedroom and then into your glorious, and huge, bathroom-and-then-some, creating a space of almost ecclesiastical proportions – but without any of that judge-y stuff. Though that kicky bottle of Ruinart, chilling for my pleasure, shimmering in the evening sun, was a religious experience.
All your floor-to-length windows are fully retractable for spotless views of the ocean, and the spec is off. The. Scale. Fancy lighting system, bespoke vegan bathroom products, mod-cons you didn’t realise they’d invented yet, even your beach kaftan is made from babies’ back bottoms or something. We totally kept ours. And yep, they know. Might even be wearing it. Oh, and of course we had our own 24/7 butler.
And for your dining pleasure we have Vandhoo, Her Kitchen, Bellinis and Saoke. The first being casual, hair-tucked-behind-an-ear dining, endless breakfast buffets, experiential dinners from around the world, all the wines you’ll ever need, that kind of thing. Her Kitchen is a personalized culinary experience, where you cook your own with the help of chefs who really know what they’re doing, and Bellinis is fine Italian. Saoke, though, is your Insta-melting showstopper, a slick, shimmering Japanese masterpiece floating above the ocean, designed by Tokyo-based Studio Glitt (off-of Zuma and other-esteemed-restaurants fame) with its timber roof as delicate as origami and headed up by an actual Japanese chef, which is actually very rare in the Maldives. Or in-villa dining if that’s your bag.
Or, come sundown, something more convivial, out on the sand, summer linens rippling in the heat-soaked evening breeze, freshly sun-blushed cheeks glowing from table to table, guests hopping among new pals, staff swinging by to say hello. All to a light chorus of Bossa Nova, bons mots and clinking champagne flutes. And you should hear our mots after champagne!
It’s a tough gig trying to stand out in the Maldives and an even trickier one finding that special place that also ticks all the right eco boxes. Because there’s a lot being said and predicted and promised over sustainability in the travel industry, and any resort wanting clout, here on in, has to take it as seriously as a heart attack. But that alchemy is here. JOALI does magic. It’s a stairway to heaven, the one on earth and all the way up there.
From $1,924 (approx. £1,456) per night based on two sharing a Beach Villa with Pool on a B&B basis.