It’s like I’ve stepped back in time as I walk through Nika, a boutique resort in North Ari, run by a family of Italians. Coral stone figures prominently in its buildings, the reception, the rooms, even the low walls marking its lanes. The corals are painted white but it’s not exactly kitsch, it seems almost Mediterranean. And of course, the roofs are thatched.
“What we’re going for is something different,” Edoardo Caccin (Edo) tells me. Edo is the resort’s external director who handles public relations and marketing. “We want to show people what the old Maldives is like. You have so many resorts now with all sorts of modern architecture but that’s not what it means to be in the Maldives. That’s not the real Maldives.”
Arches at the reception and bar, grey against the white coral, lend a curious, almost hobbit-like air to the place. Sipping a virgin Mai Tai, I glance out, the sky is grey, complimenting the interior. There are people outside by the beach, seated on plush armchairs, drinks on their coffee tables. Couples mostly, watching their children splash in the sea. It’s low season, and though Nika has just 47 villas, there’s a fair number of guests.
Strolling through Nika is soothing; there’s nary a sound, no buggies competing for space on the lanes, and you hardly meet anyone. The lanes are manicured, there’s a profusion of tropical flora here.
Edo takes me to the garden where the resort grows its produce. Vegetables, herbs, even pineapples. “Have a taste,” says Edo plucking a bright green leaf. A minty, peppery flavour saturates my mouth.
“It’s basil, great isn’t it?” Edo says with a note of pride. He tends to the garden sometimes and is fiercely proud of its offerings.
We walk by squiggle-shaped pits with banana plants, relics from the time Nika was an agricultural island. Clearly, it’s an island with a history, as its structures attest, almost as old as tourism in the Maldives. A particularly interesting exhibit is the Fornace Studio. It’s a spacious accommodation unit with an extensive deck. Venturing in, you see metalworks, bronze crockery and the like in a large studio room. There’s a mound behind the bed, the remnant of a furnace, the very one that was used to craft the items in the room. It was a storeroom for a long time until the management decided to breathe new life into it three years ago.
We pass the spa, a gorgeous complex with several cottages linked by wooden walkways upon an artificial pond. The waters are filled with lotuses, only proper for a place dubbed the Lotus Spa. Fish swim in their multitude in the green waters, a natural deterrent against mosquitos. The spa is also home to a spirited grey heron and a striking, pheasant-like bird called Richard.
Another villa that Edo unveils is equally impressive. Nika may be old-school but that doesn’t mean it’s not style conscious. Boasting pleasing curves and a neutral colour palette, the family villa is spacious, with wooden floors, tasteful artwork on the walls, including a miniature dhoni, a lavish sofa, and in a separate room, an equally lavish fourposter bed.
“Every single item here was made on the island,” says Edo, beaming.
“Even the bed?” I ask.
“Yes. Even the doors. They may not be perfect, they may not have machine-like precision but they have individuality. It’s their imperfections that make them beautiful.”
That last phrase reminds me of the film adaptation of Emma where Mr Knightley tells the titular character that maybe it’s their imperfections that make them so perfect for one another.
All beach villas have access to a secluded beach walled off by groynes. Nika doesn’t compromise on privacy and bills itself as the only resort providing guests their very own stretch of powdery Maldivian sand.
“Tonight, we’re having a special event,” says Edo. “We’re going to exhibit some unique Maldivian art by a very talented group. Make sure you’re at the Bepi Bar after dinner.”
Edo leaves and I have lunch at the main restaurant. It’s very casual and Maldivian – sandy floors, high conical roofs – with an Italian touch. Elegant handblown Venetian lamps from Murano, a locale renowned for its glassworks, hang from the ceiling and from lampposts outside. It’s a subtle blend of Italy meets Maldives that Nika has gone for and it works.
Lunch is not extravagant, that’s not how it’s done at Nika, but it’s nevertheless excellent – tuna carpaccio, lemon rice, roast chicken drumsticks. I have some of each and relish each bite.
Sunset by the beach. It’s a timeless Maldivian experience and though the sky is foreboding, there are flashes of colour. Slivers of orange slice through the grey, dramatising an otherwise dull horizon. People have come out to take in the moment, they sit on traditional Maldivian swings by the beach with their loved ones and children. It’s universal, this appreciation of nature, and even on a day like this, when nature’s moody and withholding, there is an undeniable beauty, sombre, yet alluring.
That evening people begin to gather at the Bepi Bar, which is decorated with ancient-seeming artefacts, spheres and panels of coral stone featuring carvings that seem as intricate as those found at the Friday Mosque in Male.
“Nostalgia is about the pain of coming back home to a past that doesn’t exist anymore,” Edo says to an audience of about sixty. “We’re all travellers, we’re looking for experiences. People want an authentic experience. Over the past year, foreign direct investment in the Maldives exceeded 500 million dollars. There are theories positing that if the economy grows while the human capital lags behind, the two lines will collapse. So, culture must be preserved.”
He goes through a presentation focussed on Nika’s approach to tourism, one that values local culture and attempts to preserve age-old practices. Later, a slide on the TV screen arrests me: there’s a rendering of a futuristic resort, with a tiered spaceship-type structure in the water.
“This is a resort that’s going to open in a couple of years,” Edo says. “This is not my idea of tourism, this is not my idea of the Maldives. This is not my idea of culture. We want to preserve the identity of these people, of this nation that I think is the most beautiful after Italy.” There is laughter at this last statement, but it resonates with me; the joke is, I feel, that the Maldives really is the most beautiful place on earth. And here at the bar, fanned by fresh gusts from the sea, under an inky sky speckled with stars, it seems all the more obvious.
Edo briefly introduces and vacates the ‘stage’ for Mohamed Imran, the star of the night. He’s the founder of Gadheemee Collection whose stone-carved artwork that mimicks ancient techniques populates the bar.
“I started this as a hobby,” he tells a captivated audience. “This ancient art of coral stone carving is very powerful, it tells us about who we are, our past, our culture. There’s so much that it reveals. As I delved deeper into the art, I found out many things. I learnt that we were able to master whatever was available to us; wood and corals. And that we’ve been here for millennia; our stories appear in ancient Roman and Chinese records. I don’t use corals in my carvings, I use substitute materials. I want to preserve and rejuvenate this art because it’s been perfected after centuries. Our carvings are unique, they’re deeply tied to who we are. They’re part of our heritage and worth treasuring.”
The bar fills with applause and Imran attends to questions from some members of the audience while others examine the carved objects. It’s difficult not to feel a tug in my heart. The words of Edo and Imran hit home. Here is an artist, struggling to revive an ancient tradition, not from desire for monetary gain but out of a genuine love and care for an indigenous art. And here is a resort that reveres tradition, going out of its way to give that artist a platform. It seems a fitting partnership and I hope this is a portent of good things to come.