Even at midday, with the sun a burning disc above, the water is surprisingly cool, clear as glass. I dive in with my young guide, Saif, who warned me that the current was strong. Though the vivid colours we’ve been accustomed to have bled away, there’s life beneath the waves. Such a profusion of life that it gives pause to a casual snorkeler such as myself.
I can only imagine what it would do to someone unacquainted with South Ari waters. How this bleached remnant of a reef can support all these wonderful creatures is a question for marine biologists.
Two octopi settle on a slab of coral and begin, eerily, to alter their shape and colouration, their siphons winking on and off. I take a photo with the complimentary GoPro Hero5 that the hotel has provided each villa; Kandolhu wants you to share and helps you do just that.
Saif has to drag me through a patch where the current is far too strong for me. He does so without the slightest hint of condescension. It’s just as well that I’m his only charge. We get through the tough stretch and he takes me to an anchored lifebuoy to which I cling and rest my weary legs. Saif points out a school of jacks, big and wary, their blue fins glinting in shafts of sunlight. Below them, with its head in a little nook in the corals, a beautiful green turtle.
“We get many turtles here,” Saif had told me before we set out. “They are quite used to us, they won’t be bothered even if you’re inches away from them.” He warns me not to touch them, though.
It takes about an hour to go around the house reef, with generous stops along the way. Saif helps me out of my fins and we clamber up the stairs of the jetty. This 30-villa resort is a far cry from what Saif was used to at the much bigger JA Manafaru and he likes it here. “Working here lets you have a bit of time to yourself,” he says. “Plus, the stuff we do, like excursions, are quite exciting. I never imagined I’d see so many manta rays in my life.”
I return to my villa after a brief walk from the water sports centre. That’s part of what’s good about this island, everything is just seconds away. Earlier in the day, I was checked in by Mae, a cheery Filipina from Cebu, who received me at the seaplane platform. Like Saif, she had worked at a larger property and finds the pace of Kandolhu preferable.
Where similar properties may have only a couple of villa types, Kandolhu offers five categories, packing impressive variety for a resort its size. My home for the night is a duplex pool villa decked out in a neutral colour palette with an upstairs bedroom, a spacious seating area replete with wooden settee and armchairs, a workspace with an iPad and a Bang & Olufsen sound deck. There’s also an LG widescreen TV.
Tucked away near the stairs is a smart grey cabinet containing a minibar kitted out with a good selection of drinks. The cabinet also houses a slew of spirits and a Liebherr wine fridge with thirty bottles from different grapes. One of the perks of being on an all-inclusive plan is that all of this is complimentary. Kandolhu is generous, perhaps to a fault.
The corridor that leads to the downstairs bathroom has charming Italian Bisazza mosaic tiles on one wall, framing twin mirrors and washbasins. The opposite wall is concealed by a custom-built wardrobe. The bathroom is open and airy with a spotless white tub and an outdoor shower area. Fixtures are by Swiss company Laufen, designed by Italian firm Alessi.
After a warm shower, I enjoy a smoke out on the veranda by the plunge pool. Beyond it is a small manicured garden, and beyond that, the beach and ocean. I unwind listening to the afternoon playlist on the iPad. It’s an eclectic mix featuring several artists from the likes of art-rock heroes Radiohead to downtempo electronica outfit Tosca. Cigarette over, it’s time to lunch.
There are five food outlets here (or six including the bar) resulting in a remarkable villa-to-restaurant ratio. There’s the main restaurant, The Market, whose complex also houses the modern Mediterranean restaurant, Olive. There’s the Japanese Banzai restaurant, and the Sea Grill. The latest culinary addition is Ata-Roa, which opened in February. It’s a shack on the jetty specialising in just two things: tacos and ceviches. And there’s the Vilu Bar.
The Market is my pick, and the circular dining area boasts slices of curved wood on the ceiling like a labyrinth. The menu is excellent, you’re not spoilt for choice but there are just enough options. I have the red snapper nigiri, followed by confit de canard. No dessert. The nigiri arrives quickly, the rice holds up well and the slice of raw snapper is fresh. The duck that follows is fantastic, tender, practically falling off the bone, and it’s accompanied by a delicious truffle mash.
Post lunch, I meet Marc LeBlanc, a young man in his mid-thirties who happens to be the resort manager. Meetings between management and guests are common in a small resort such as this. It’s part of the allure and charm.
As we sit in the market with a cup of coffee and iced cocoa, I ask him if managing a small property is any easier.
“It’s very hands on,” he explains. “For example, I don’t have an F&B manager so I spend quite a bit of time with my chef overseeing the outlets, their operational and creative aspects. You wouldn’t have to do that at bigger properties. You’re very involved in everything, in every aspect, whether it’s retail, or spa, or even sales and marketing.”
“The food here’s great,” I say. “And you’ve got a lot of comments saying as much on TripAdvisor.”
“Yeah,” says Marc. “What I’ve observed is that in recent years guests have come to expect a lot from food and beverage. There is a bigger, food-focused culture around the world. So, obviously keeping up with these expectations is key to success. I think we’re able to do that well because we’re small, so we know our guests a lot better than most. We know their preferences, especially those of our repeat guests. It’s all about knowledge and application.”
I tell him I like the playlist on the iPad.
“Oh, I curated that,” he laughs. “I used to be a DJ when I was younger, and I still spin from time-to-time.”
We talk a bit more about the hotel and life in general; Marc’s partner Laura Robinson is the assistant manager at Kandolhu. “Between the two of us I’m the dreamer,” says Marc. “She’s a marine-biologist, she’s more pragmatic, methodical. I sometimes want to try out new things and she’ll tell me to bide my time until the right moment.”
Marc wants to steer away from doing too much. “Too much innovation is messy,” he says. “Like I’ve said, you need to know your guests and do things that you think would make their holidays better.” Like complimentary GoPros and wine-fridges I suppose, they’re not over-the-top gestures, they are ultimately thoughtful and useful.
It’s windy when I arrive for dinner at Olive that evening; the palms and trees rustle furiously, it’s like being by a particularly fierce sea. The appetiser arrives quickly, rock-lobster tartare on a melon bed, topped off with beluga caviar. The lobster has a delicate taste, and it’s coupled with notes of subtle sweetness from the melon and the caviar adds a rich, almost creamy finish. The main is a beautifully seared yellow-fin tuna topped off with pan fried foie gras; the portions are small here but the quality is superb. I wash it down with some home-made iced tea and decide to call it a night. Kandolhu is much too relaxed a place for night time activity. Leave boduberu nights to other resorts.
The next day dawns grey and gusty. At breakfast, a waiter tells me it might rain. Breakfast is the only time you see buffets at the restaurant but even then, you can order a la carte. I have an egg white omelette with salmon and cheese off the a la carte menu, and bread and honey and muesli. I can’t find fault with any of it.
The time to leave Kandolhu approaches, and soon my GoPro will be collected and its contents transferred into a complimentary pen-drive. As I wait to check out, I check TripAdvisor reviews of the resort. Each is glowing, praising the people, the rooms, the food. It’s saying something that Kandolhu has received almost no negative reviews in the four years since it opened. With Marc and Laura in no hurry to leave, I can imagine this continuing for quite some time.