It’s a sunny day in Baa Atoll, not entirely unremarkable though it’s July, monsoons sometimes gift periods of splendid sun. Here on the large deck of my ocean reef house in Amilla Fushi, I’m sipping an ice-cold welcome drink. This articles was published in our print issue no. 6.
Before me, the sea is tumultuous, frothy, and wave after wave crash into the pillars supporting my over water villa. Sometimes the spray spills over into the small plunge pool. The setting is a far cry from the generic depiction of our island environs; nevertheless, I’m enjoying it. The wind, though strong, is fresh and cool, the bleached sky sprinkled with milky clouds, and the horizon beyond lies under a veil of haze. Seabirds hover over the water, dive and rise up with fish in their beaks. I can completely bliss out to this.
A while ago, I had a dip in the sea. What’s particularly great about the ocean reef houses is that they are perched right by the reef slope. So, you don’t need to arrange a snorkelling tour, you get the gear yourself and dive in straight from your deck. And being in Baa Atoll, the country’s as yet only UNESCO biosphere reserve, you can expect to be thrilled by the underwater vistas. In spite of widespread coral bleaching in recent times, there’s enough life beneath the waves to beguile snorkellers such as I. If not for the sheer ferocity of the waves, that is where I would have spent the entire afternoon.
Amilla is four years old now and displays all the signs of having settled down. It still retains most of its old characteristics. The Baazaar, a cluster of restaurants by the beach, is still there. As are the residences; lavish four to eight-bedroom ‘homes’ that took a while to catch on with travellers. The level of service is excellent, you feel looked after wherever you are, be it at the bar, in the spa, out on one of the many lanes; buggy drivers will pass you and ask you how you are, where you’re going. Jambe, our Katheeb – Amilla hasn’t changed the nomenclature – is more than happy to assist, however minute the task.
Though excellent service is Amilla’s strength, what strikes me yet again is its aesthetic. You’ll find no thatched roofs here; Amilla is bold and confident enough to espouse a different design philosophy. It’s minimalist, the rooms’ exterior appears boxy with sharp angles, the over-water accommodation especially. That same minimalist approach is continued in the interior, where nude white walls meet warm wooden floors. The rooms are airy and bright, thanks to a series of French doors. And beautiful cream and teal mosaic tiles adorn the floors of living and bathing areas, the teal a nod to the hues of the lagoon nearby.
I especially love the treehouses, perched high above ground, their pillars clad in cadjan. It’s one of those touches that lend the otherwise modern resort a local flavour. On their balconies you’re enveloped by the island’s lush vegetation. These treehouses are focussed on wellness; here, highly trained instructors guide their residents on a healing path.
As I walk along the fern fringed paths, I find it easy to admire this resort. It retains the island’s natural feel; I stroll under dhigga and screw pine while the occasional banyan hulks over me. Old, old trees. Only fitting for a resort in a nature reserve.
Lunch time. I enjoy the meal in the company of Finolhu’s resort manager Marc Reader, a Sydney-sider with a passion for the Maldives. He left once, briefly, only to return.
“Sydney was turning quite hipster when I left,” I tell him. “Around 2010.”
“Yeah,” he says. “That’s when all these hole-in-the-wall roasters started cropping up. Also, these days, you can’t be a barber in Sydney unless you have a full-on beard.”
We share a laugh.
I have the salmon, the skin is crispy and the flesh tender, flaking a bit when I prod it with a fork. Drizzled over with a squeeze of lemon, it’s a simple and delicious meal, and the greens on the side round it off with an earthy flavour.
I ask Marc where Amilla gets their salmon from.
“Australia,” he replies.
“I wouldn’t have guessed.” I say. “Do you know, a while back, some scientists introduced salmon to New Zealand. They released all of them into a river believing they’d come back to spawn. But they never did.”
“Haha,” laughs Marc. “I reckon they all moved to Aus.”
Afterwards, we relax, sipping cool drinks and drinking in the scenery. It’s still blustery, the palms rustle furiously and the sea looks fierce in the distance. I recall how a young Chinese tourist had been sick on the way from the seaplane platform to the resort. The rocky platform must have churned her stomach. On the brief ride to Amilla, the speedboat crew radioed the staff waiting at the jetty and they handled her with kid gloves. The kind of care you’d expect from a place like this.
I amble through the property, passing by the Javvu Spa, a chilled-out space that’s completely at home in its surroundings. Among other things, Javvu houses a laid-back communal area, a beauty bar, a salon, secluded treatment pods, and of course, yoga and meditation pavilions. Though I’m not having a massage today, there was a time when I did. Three years ago, I opted for a jet lag massage, which was on the house (Amilla’s generous that way), and without my telling him, my masseuse knew I spent most of my time hunched over a computer. That was impressive, but not nearly as remarkable as the skill with which he worked my body. It’s saying something that I can recall it years later.
That evening, I pay a visit to the resort’s signature restaurant, a striking complex built over water called Feeling Koi. Those who’re familiar with Huvafen Fushi will know the name. It’s a fusion restaurant and here at Amilla, the executive chef Lucas L Varin is preparing a very special meal. It’s one that he has showcased in his native Brazil and also France and Luxembourg to great acclaim.
“Basically, it’s a Maldivian ‘dhon riha’ (yellow curry) paired with valhoamas (smoked tuna) and tuna sashimi,” he explains. “The valhomas really catches people by surprise, especially the Europeans. Their idea of smoked fish is halibut and salmon, smoked tuna is a curiosity.”
I have a taste of the finished product, the gravy has seared half the sashimi, and the valhoamas lends it a potent, smoky flavour. A lovely dish.
Accompanying it is duck kaeshi, the latter being a Japanese sauce sweetened with honey. Lucas decorates it with globs of pumpkin and beetroot puree and something darker: black garlic, another Asian ingredient where whole bulbs of garlic are aged in a temperature-controlled environment. He garnishes the dish with carrot leaves and dill, and delicate petals from fresh violets that he’s imported from Europe.
The result is stunning, visually and gastronomically. The duck is beautifully cooked, its flesh moist and flaviourful, and the crispness of its skin lends the dish a delightful crunchy dimension. Add to this the subtle sweetness of the kaeshi sauce and you’re in a space much like the one Kantaro visits during his foodgasms on the runaway Netflix hit.
“I swear I’m not eating again,” I tell an amused Lucas on my way out. The sun is setting, my visit is drawing to a close. The lights turn on in the distance as I amble down the walkway, the world seems ethereal, the only reality, I feel, is the lingering taste of Lucas’s magnificent creation, slowly becoming a memory.