The grande dame of the Maldives is emerging in this post-lockdown world with elevated experiences and refreshed interiors grounded in mindfulness for the environment. Crystal Lee visits the new-generation Conrad Maldives Rangali Island.
The silhouette was easy to miss – a giant fish with a broad flat head, two pectoral fins and a crescent-shaped tail gliding beneath, but there was no doubt it was a whale shark. We’d been snorkelling around the South Ari Atoll when we were prompted by our guides to duck our heads into the waters to catch the distinctive pattern of white spots and stripes wafting through the ocean from under us. In a few minutes, it was gone.
Whale sharks – one of the largest marine creatures in the world – are year-round residents of the Maldives, and where we swam is a marine protected area renowned for almost daily sightings, no matter the time of the year. Conrad Maldives Rangali Island is among the resorts in the archipelagic country that offers excursions to see these gentle giants in the wild. It is also one that encourages responsible behaviour with a pre-trip talk by marine biologists on the endangered species, as well as swimming etiquette.
Into the blue
Conrad Maldives has been on a sustainability trajectory since 2017, contributing to parent company Hilton’s group-wide Travel with Purpose 2030 Goals to cut environmental footprint in half and double social impact investment.
In the face of mass coral bleaching caused by global warming, the island resort put in place a coral regeneration programme in 2017 to safeguard and nurture the reefs surrounding the resort. Led by marine biologists from Ocean Group, a leading dive and watersports operator in the Maldives, the initiative includes a coral nursery and coral adoption scheme that guests can partake in.
Taking its conservation efforts a step further, Conrad Maldives roped in environmental organisation Parley for the Oceans in 2019 to help drive change and promote sustainable travel through the sale of an exclusive Parley Kit. Inside each set was a reusable stainless steel Conrad X Parley co-branded water bottle and a Parley Ocean Plastic tote bag, made of an average of five plastic bottles that were dumped in the ocean. Proceeds from one kit contributed to the removal of 4.5kg of marine plastic waste via the Parley Global Cleanup Network.
For a resort banking on nature’s uplifting, awe-inspiring beauty, environmental sensitivity is intrinsic to Conrad Maldives. When the property underwent an expansive multi-year refurbishment after a quarter of a century in the country, it sought to preserve and restore – rather than overhaul, in part to minimise waste. The 50 overwater villas on the adults-only Rangali Island maintained their classic Maldivian thatched roofed-villa aesthetic and signature minimalist interiors, albeit with a more seamless indoor-outdoor layout with collapsible partitions that open to eye-wateringly beautiful views of the Indian Ocean. Similarly, the refreshed Over Water Spa on Rangali Island now features glass-bottomed spa rooms, as well as breezy, inviting lounge spaces to relax in before and after a treatment. Says Nils-Arne Schroeder, the vice president of Luxury & Lifestyle brands at Hilton Asia Pacific, “We opened this hotel 25 years ago, and it’s our responsibility to ensure that it looks the same as it first opened.”
Such sentimentality is understandable. Conrad Maldives remains one of the best resorts in the country, with enough awards and accolades to substantiate that claim. It prides itself for pioneering multiple hospitality concepts in the Maldives, including the first overwater villas built on stilts; the first Chinese restaurant (Ufaa by Jereme Leung); the first and largest underground wine cellar in the region, housing over 15,000 bottles and up to 800 labels; Ithaa, the world’s first undersea restaurant boasting 180-degree views of surrounding vibrant coral gardens; and The Muraka, the world’s first undersea residence with a master bedroom submerged over 16 ft or five metres below sea level.
While it may not look like much has changed for Conrad Maldives, there have been meaningful adjustments to the guest experience as part of the makeover. Since January 2020, single-use plastics have been eliminated from the resort. Bathroom amenities now come in large, refillable dispensers; toothbrushes are of the bamboo variety; key cards are made of wood; and drinking water is housed in reusable glass bottles. In all of the 12 restaurants, single-serve items such as yoghurt and butter are offered in glass vessels.
Executive chef Christian Pedersen is also working towards zero waste in his kitchens. “We calculate everything in our recipes for all our menus, so the team knows exactly how much they have to utilise,” says the Copenhagen native, who joined the resort in November 2020. “We also combine ingredients in different dishes. For example, if I use asparagus, I make sure to use the ends in soups. Our buffets are set up to focus on quality, not quantity. Portions are smaller. We make to order and take a lot of chances by not preparing extra as back-up. Sometimes it works out, sometimes we end up doing more. But in the end, not only have we managed to cut waste by 60 per cent, we also save costs.”
What is less discernible to guests is the resort’s long-standing contribution to the people of Maldives. Beyond having a largely local team, there have been outreach programmes to empower the community, including a hydroponics project at a school in the island of Dhigurah. Produce is sourced locally as much as possible (which is why Maldivian lobster is always on the menu). Carla Puverel, general manager of Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, sums up his resort’s philosophy: “We’re doing as much as we can for the people and the environment. It’s not just kept to certain areas; we take a holistic approach to sustainability – whether it’s in the spa where we use organic products, in our kitchens, the engineering department or our supply chain. That’s our ethos.”
On our last day at the island resort, we got up at the crack of dawn for sunrise yoga on a pool deck that overlooks the mesmeric lagoon. Along the way, we spotted a stingray, nurse shark, hermit crabs and clouds of shoaling fish. Getting here via fossil fuel-powered planes isn’t great, but with sand between your toes and the abundance of nature at every turn, these sights are perfect advertisements for conscious travel. Resistance is, hopefully, futile.
(Main and featured image: Justin Nicholas for Conrad Maldives Rangali Island)