Is it possible to find kinship thousands of miles across the water in the heart of the Indian Ocean? Not just another ultra-luxury resort, Cheval Blanc Randheli shows us how.
Many luxury travellers would be familiar with the destination of Maldives, which is home to nearly 1,200 small coral islands of which only about 200 are inhabited. While all manner of resorts – from affordable to swanky – each take up over 100 islands, the tourism-focused country is well-known for high-end travel. Guests are known to island-hop or try out various resorts across different stays to indulge in each individual hotel brand’s kind of hospitality, but how many properties feel more like a home than a transient escape? This is where Cheval Blanc Randheli shines.
Having visited nine properties for work and leisure across the past decade prior to Randheli, I thought I knew how things were at the top-end resorts. Service would be attentive, transfers painless, spa of a high standard, and food excellent despite land-scarce Maldives’ remoteness and need to import nearly everything.
Nevertheless, I jumped at the opportunity to experience Randheli. After all, aren’t the LVMH hotel brand’s super-exclusive properties totalling just five in the world the playground of not just the rich and famous, but European royalty? Also, there’s the draw of the resort’s secluded and pristine location: in the government-protected reserve of Noonu Atoll, far north from the island city of Malé surrounded by the main cluster of tourist resorts, and about 40min away on the resort’s own sea plane. Perfect for a sea lover like me.
Perhaps I expected to be blown away by Randheli, but what I didn’t anticipate was how this three-night trip would change my mind about the meaning of luxury. No matter what the glossy brochures say, you’d never believe it when hotels claim to be “a home away from home”. Sure, the tropical marine paradise could feel like a haven, but how could it be home? The resort answers it readily.
Sanctuary within a sanctuary
Our arrival at the island was a sight to behold. Our seaplane glided into a calm lagoon surrounded by five islands, all of which form the resort, and came to a halt by a jetty with a group of staff clad in Cheval Blanc yellow and grey, led by their charming general manager Laurent Chancel, who was as hands-on about retrieving the luggage and jumping aboard the buggy to ferry us as the other crew members.
My mansion for the next few days would be a 2,580sqft Garden Water Villa. Saddam, my butler, showed me around the stunning villa, which is cleverly laid-out in a long, rectangular format along the shoreline to take full advantage of the panorama and sunsets. A living and work space leads to the master bedroom with a most indulgent king-size bed. It then opens out to a bathroom on the far end in a continuous line. Each of these spaces can be enclosed by easily operable floor-to-ceiling folding panels.
A walk-in wardrobe and vanity area is situated behind the bedroom, while the living room is flanked on one side by a sandy “backyard” with a garden set. There is also a pantry with a full-sized fridge and other appliances. You’d really have no want of more amenities – there are two mini fridges of fine wine; the bathroom is kitted to the brim with toiletries, fragrances and candles; and the closet comes with flip flops, espadrilles, umbrellas, beach bags and handy purses. Special items include Cheval Blanc’s signature scent, Island Chic, made by François Demachy, the renowned nose of Givenchy and Christian Dior parfums. You are also spoilt with nine choices from the pillow menu.
The interiors are expansive, bright and beautiful, but nothing could beat the view from the entire sea-facing length of the villa lined with full-length glass doors. Open any one to step out onto a huge wooden over-water deck featuring a lap pool, a sheltered outdoor lounge, a rain shower and two lower-deck spaces for chilling by the water. Floating in the lap pool on a giant waterproof cushion with sunshine and sea breeze on the face was a transcendental experience.
Lounging was also possible at my very own landscaped, terraced swath of sand right next to my villa. Named Lovely Beach, this secret nook is furnished with a pair of loungers and leads directly into the shallows. Each villa is shielded by large sails on one end from sight from the neighbours, but whether you are sunbathing or taking a dip in the calm sea walled off from the deeper part, you’d feel like you’re in a world of your own.
In total, there are five categories of villas spread across two connected islands ranging from one- to two-bedders, on stilts or nestled within gardens by the water. Those who desire complete privacy should consider the Private Island, which is sprawled across a 1ha islet with a private berth and jetty. Its tasteful four-bedroom villa offers supreme comfort, exclusive services and unique facilities including three reception rooms, indoor and outdoor dining rooms, an oversized 25m long outdoor pool and adjacent jacuzzi, its own spa, a guest villa, as well as an array of sunny terraces and untouched beaches. The 24/7 service of a dedicated team and a fleet of private dhonis are also at the guests’ disposal.
Reasons to stay out
Speaking of dhonis, we were ferried on these beautiful Maldivian wooden boats as well as speedboats to the Private Island, Spa Island and Maakurandhoo Island – all a 5min ride away – during our stay. The Spa Island is home to a terrific swimming beach oft-visited by baby sharks, a pool, yoga and meditation pavilions, and the Cheval Blanc Spa run by Guerlain, the boutique of which retails makeup, skincare, as well as the Parisian house’s famous haute parfumerie collections.
Highly customised treatments can be had at its private villas, including two large Orchidée Villas that overlook the sea and even comes with a complete set of makeup and fragrance products for guests for after-treatment prep. Signature here are facials with the beloved Abeille Royale and Orchidée Impériale ranges. There are also hair spa treatments using products from Leonor Greyl. Having tried an insane number of massages throughout my career, those at the top of the scale never fail to induce me into a slumber – and sleep, I did, under the gentle hands of my Vietnamese therapist, who is fluent in English and had previously served at a six-star resort in her homeland.
If action is what you want, you got it. From working out at the state-of-the-art gym and playing volleyball or table-tennis (with the staff, should you need to form teams), to scuba-diving, night fluorescence snorkelling and jumping on a jet-ski, there are too many to choose from. Two luxury catamarans, an Azimut yacht and a big game fishing boat can be booked for more pleasure. Unlike some resorts located on single islands, there are plenty of alluring beaches and swimming spots here.
Unfortunately, the weather was inclement during our stay, and for our safety, the staff advised against snorkelling or diving. So, we surfed – on the only surf simulator in the country, under the guidance of a most patient instructor, who was also kept busy with lessons for the handful of children on the island. I don’t remember laughing so hard despite falling over a few times (on a soft padded surface).
Another highlight was our highly enjoyable group tennis lesson with Serbian former pro Marko on an artificial grass court, which is complemented by another hard court and two padel courts on the jungle island of Maakurandhoo. All built to international competition standards, mind you, and surrounded by rambling greenery that was quite exciting to weave through. When we were there, construction was afoot to turn the beach into a dedicated area for staff – how nice!
Since the resort is owned by the LVMH group, there is no wondering whether shopping is on the cards. In the Concept Store, there is a sitting area for Hublot watches, where a new Big Bang Unico Sapphire 42mm was on display; jewellery counters; a children’s section, and a large collection of resort wear by European labels.
Adults with families in tow need not worry about the kids. The Le Carrousel kids’ club and Le Paddock teens’ club within a spacious compound by the watersports centre ensure the young ones are well-taken care of. The former has a jungle gym and pool with a water slide, and offers a host of activities including kids golf and cooking classes in a little kitchen. The latter boasts VR video game sets and various game tables. They are the most well-staffed and impressively equipped of their kind I have seen in the Maldives.
Food is life
The beauty of the culinary offerings at Cheval Blanc Randheli lies in the fact that while there are only 46 villas in total, six dining establishments are poised to indulge every whim and fancy. They include Deelani, a Mediterranean restaurant; a private chef’s garden La Table de Partage; The Diptyque, which serves Japanese teppanyaki and Southeast Asian fare; and The White, a casual brasserie-style place that serves breakfast and round-the-clock favourites.
Worth applauding are Le 1947, a French fine-dining restaurant, and The White Bar, a poolside joint adjoining The White, which serves all-day cocktails, snacks and dishes ordered from the restaurant. One evening, we met with general manager Chancel for some Ruinart in Le 1947’s cellar, which has the nation’s largest collection of fine wine and spirits. It features estates across the world under the LVMH group and bottles of Château Cheval Blanc (oldest vintage 1947, of course), among others. Opposite the cellar is a cigar room lined with elegant bottles of cognac and whisky. We found out that Chancel was a former chef, explaining the sheer quality of gastronomy on the island.
This was at its highest expression at the elegant restaurant, where we were treated to a spectacular 12-course extravaganza that would rival any top establishment in the world. The langoustine carpaccio, turbot fillet and Pyrenees lamb were so fresh they must have flown in on a magic carpet from Europe. The menu was the work of director of culinary, chef Eric Vidal, who comes from a Michelin-starred background. And the tableware – exquisite.
And The White… I almost never gush, but in this case I have to. Imagine a breezy, open, white-washed bar that looks out to a stylish pool flanked by a cabana-lined beach on one side and a manicured garden with a human-sized chess set on the other. The cocktails were fabulous and I chatted with a female bartender from Manado responsible for them. The vibe is so welcoming and relaxed that I could remain frozen in time here forever.
No stranger to Maldivian fish curry, I tried Randheli’s superb version twice, and also Chancel’s very own fusion dish that has become a hit: the absolutely delicious escargot pizza strewn with the juiciest, plumpest snails. There are also authentic Thai dishes and nasi goreng. What I love about this resort is that the wait staff are self-assured to recommend items and see to your preferences readily, having the confidence that the kitchen could make-to-order whatever your heart desires. Even the Spa Island has a bar serving fruit juice concoctions and healthy, light bites such as soba noodles and mochi. I could get used to this new home.
I would be remiss not to mention another culinary genius with a Michelin-starred resume: executive pastry chef Rémy Janicot, a charismatic, larger-than-life character who showered us with more pastries and confection than we could muster. In-room daily, we’d find generous platters of chocolates, parfaits and candy (pink guava jelly, do I miss you). And across the day no matter whether we’re “home” or dining out, we’d be surprised with creations we’d casually mention we loved to him.
Kouign-amann, chocolate croissants, Bundt cake, palmiers… They were exceptional, as were his chocolates, for Janicot is a specialist in this field and serves as a judge for international chocolate-tasting competitions. He even shared his expertise, as he does with other guests, during a workshop where he explained the tedious process of cocoa production and took us on a journey around the world with samples from places like Peru, Ivory Coast and Ecuador.
Cheval Blanc Randheli calls itself a maison, and Chancel referred to his staff and guests as “a family” – and this kinship is palpable from the camaraderie one can definitely sense. Service is white-gloved, but there is no trace of stilted formality, rigid protocols or awkward deference for guests, which was quite surprising to me for a resort of this class.
From the wait staff at the restaurants, to our tennis coach and spa therapists, and even the management-level staff, everyone seemed genuinely glad to be there. Randheli demonstrated that the true meaning of luxury, for holidays at least, is making guests feel so comfortable and at ease that they don’t feel like visitors but more like old friends. And the resort never says no. Case in point: At breakfast at The White, I didn’t even look at the menu and asked for thosai, which the restaurant happily obliged.
When I’d first checked into my villa, a warm bath scented with a blue Ocean Extract was ready. Strolling around, I saw flourishing orchid and fruit tree gardens. One morning, our lavish Floating Breakfast magically appeared in the outdoor pavilion. Every night, after being dropped off at the entrance of my little palace, I was greeted on the footpath with “Sweet Dreams” and “Welcome Home” scrawled onto the sand. All guests were gifted a sarong for the thematic Indian Ocean Night Dinner. Artworks and sculptures dot the whole property, just like how an owner would lovingly decorate his nest. And the number of little gestures that reveal the thoughtfulness behind them: The tissue boxes were presented with the top piece crimped into a curling wave, and the bed with the top sheet folded into pretty designs.
It was hard to leave. There were hugs all round upon our departure. Even on the seaplane flight back to Malé, we were given more of Janicot’s to-die-for chocolates to make sure we never forget him. A trip to Cheval Blanc Randheli isn’t simply a sojourn; it says you have arrived – home.
This story first appeared in the Dec 2022 issue of Prestige Singapore.