Mechanics are Jan’s work and hobby at the same time.
While it is difficult to see traveling as an actual job, there is an aspect to frequent travel which means that at some point you do get the feeling that you’ve kind of seen it all. When you’ve stayed in many of the five star resorts that grace the paradise nation of Maldives, the level of comfort (and perhaps decadence) that they offer does stop surprising you. And yet, Cheval Blanc Randheli, owned by LVMH, surprised me in a big way.
Though it’s been about a decade since I first got shoved into a Twin Otter sea plane at Male airport, I remember the experience vividly. The Maldives are paradise in the way that a cartoon would portray it, it’s scarcely believable the first time. The low flying sea planes offer a great view of the many light blue and green atolls that are dotted all over this particular stretch of the Indian Ocean. It’s really rather magnificent. Fast forward 10 years and two dozen sea plane trips later, you kind of wish like you could skip the cramped, hot and above all very loud part of the journey and just fast forward to the island already. While this kind of teleportation has yet to be invented, unfortunately, the Cheval Blanc resort has tried to make this part of the trip as painless as possible by flying their own branded sea plane with a much more spacious and comfortable layout. Business class, if you will. It makes the whole thing a lot more bearable to the point that you can enjoy just looking out the window again, like that first time.
Of course, it is true that there are plenty of resorts that are located close enough to Male airport that you only need to hop onto a speedboat and be at your destination in half an hour or so. It’s true. But it’s also true that in doing so you unfortunately have to forego seeing the loveliest and most stunning parts of the Maldives in terms of nature. Since pretty much all suitable islands near Male are occupied already, the many new resorts that are still coming in to get their slice of the luxury tourism bonanza are resorting to creating artificial islands on existing reefs. All this activity and close proximity to other resorts means that the area right around Male is starting to feel a little crowded, and you don’t get that middle-of-nowhere paradise feeling as a result. If a short plane ride puts you in proper paradise, away from the crowd, I figure it’s worth it. And so, apparently, does Cheval Blanc. The short sea plane ride also has the distinct benefit that you get to see the resort from the air right before you land, so you can see firsthand how this place has been planted in what must be one of the most beautiful Islands in a place that is full of beautiful islands to begin with.
At the Cheval Blanc level of luxury, and pricing, guests will obviously expect a rather impressive villa. Even so, I think that the structures on Randheli island manage to surpass every expectation. Each villa on the island has the same layout, is enormously spacious and feels pretty much brand new. There’s amazing swimming in the ocean right in front of your garden, or in your own fairly gigantic swimming pool if you prefer. Looking out onto the water, there’s really nothing to detract you from the natural beauty.
The villas blend in very nicely into the scenery and there’s not a jetty or ugly supply ship harbour anywhere to be seen. All this means that you settle in very nicely, of course helped by the very intuitive and reassuring interior design of the villas. You do need to be a little bit handy with touch screens as the villa’s domotics are controlled by an ipad type device, but you certainly get used to that very quickly and it’s very handy to be able to turn out the light in the bathroom without leaving your bed for example. Refreshingly, there are no typical “water villas” that you see everywhere in the Maldives where they build a whole bunch of them right next to each other on wooden stilts. Cheval Blanc Randheli does have water villas, but they are connected to land on one side, so you can walk in through a small garden while on the other side you have only water. It’s a very elegant and natural looking solution.
The same goes for the owner’s villa, a huge 4-bedroom palace which sits on its own two acre large island and as such as only reachable by boat. Not that I would imagine anyone staying there would want to leave their own beautiful island very often.
Infrastructure is, of course, mostly a matter of money. Anyone with a sufficiently stratospheric budget can buy the best designers and materials to build a place like this. But where the real greatness of Cheval Blanc lies is the experience and know-how in the field of luxury hospitality. In a way this place reminded me of some of the world’s top hotels in Paris, except that the nearest Eiffel tower is thousands of miles away and all you can see here are palm trees, sandy beaches and lots and lots of very picturesque H2O in the shape of a rather warm and turquoise coloured ocean. To add to the confusion, the villas are referred to as “maisons” and the staff will greet you with a sincere “bonjour”. And the service is beyond brilliant, actually, from our amazing butler Sam right down to the people who take care of the gardens and paths that run through the island. You can’t fake being a genuinely nice person, which is one of the things that makes this level of luxury so hard to achieve. But here, they absolutely have, with every single person, which is pretty much a first for any resort that I’ve been to.
The food, as you would expect from a place that very much feels like it’s being run the French way, is pretty stellar as well. Which is important when you’re quite literally trapped on an Island — it’s not like you can tripadvisor your way to a nearby restaurant if you don’t like what your hotel is offering. From breakfast to dinner, Cheval Blanc delivers a taste and quality that matches anything, anywhere. Which is impressive considering that so many things have to be flown in or boated across an ocean from very far away. They even managed to make some genuine tasting fries the Belgian way (double battered) after the chef learned that I hailed from this tiny, potato-obsessed country which despite having some north sea coastline can’t really call itself much of a beach destination. Anyway, while I do believe that the quality of fine dining in the Maldives as a whole has made great strides in recent years, it seems to be a matter of honor for Cheval Blanc that they have to be on top. Which is quite the selling point for those of us who like food — I suppose that’s pretty much everyone. It was all done perfectly, from the French foie gras to the Italian pasta and, yes, the Belgian fries.
Clearly, you might be in need of some exercise afterwards, and if whacking balls with a tennis racket is something you like to do, this resort has quite the party piece for you. There is a a dedicated uninhabited island nearby which holds two state of the art tennis courts. It takes a couple of minutes by speed boat to reach, but once you’re there you start to wonder whether you’re awake or dreaming. There’s a small cabin where the tennis equipment is stored and where you can drink from a nice cold coconut, but you need a short trip on a narrow path through the jungle to reach the courts. Once there, you are entirely surrounded by the palm tree forest. It’s no surprise that many of the world’s top tennis players like to come to Randheli island for a nice family vacation while at the same time being able to practice without drawing a crowd of onlookers. Knowing that you’re hitting balls on the same court as some of the greatest tennis players that have ever lived, and with these surroundings to boot, is beyond special. Fun fact: this year’s Australian Open finalists Roger Federer and Marin Cilic both practiced on these courts not long before the season started as they both found themselves staying at Cheval Blanc Randheli at the same time by coincidence. It was pretty easy to recognize the place when they posted a picture of them together on this rather unique looking tennis court on Twitter. A resident tennis coach is available, in fact when I was there he actually lived all by himself on the tennis island, which I suppose made it slightly less uninhabited, but still.
The Guerlain Spa, too, sits on its very own island. It’s not only a beautifully green place, it also has something that you don’t normally see in the Maldives: butterflies. They’re actually being bred on this tiny little island by the staff, so on your walk from the boat to the spa reception, and the spa rooms, you’re surrounded by these colourful flying creatures. You couldn’t really make this up — it’s almost annoying from a journalistic point of view how perfect they’ve managed to make this place. One can’t help but sound like an advert while the reality is that you can’t really do the resort justice when trying to describe it. Anyway, if you’re feeling a tiny bit guilty about the amazingly tasty calories you had earlier, you can have a very healthy low-calorie lunch on the spa island itself. Somehow, it does make it easier to eat healthy food when you need a boat to get to the somewhat less healthy options.
The thing is that, if money is no object, I don’t see where else I’d want to go for a relaxed tropical holiday than Cheval Blanc Randheli. But it’s pretty clear that you need to be among the very, very fortunate to be able to stay there. Being this close to perfection is always going to be expensive, though it can easily be argued that the experience they offer is such that actually the value is incalculable. If the goal is to have the best, when compromise is a dirty world, when you want to live the fairy tale, Randheli is where it’s at. Which kind of begs the question of whether or not it’s possible to get used to even Cheval Blanc levels of holidaying. I suppose one can only hope to find out, one day.