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Saturday 3 October 2015

Welcome to Loama: One of the most beautiful islands in the world

Who knew there were so many shades of blue?

We are flying on a Trans Maldivian Airways seaplane from the Maldives capital of Malé to remote northern Raa Atoll, the location of the new Loama Maldives at Maamigili resort and spa.

Our pilots are barefooted - and there is no doorway between the cockpit and the cabin. It's all pretty laid-back.

The Indian Ocean below us is sparkling and the centre of the atoll is heavily dotted with coral patches - called giris in the local language - some submerged and some awash. 

The colours range from dark inky blue to azure, ultramarine to navy and blue-green and dozens of shades in between. The local fishermen, it is said, know exactly what water depth each colour means.

As we fly over busy Baa Atoll, home to many high-end resorts, there are dozens of boats going about their business, but then the resorts start to fade away and we find ourselves over much less-visited territory.

The are 88 islands in the Raa Atoll in total; 15 of them inhabited, mostly by local fishermen and their families. Locals say this area, alive with marine life, has the most number of small reefs and shoals in the entire Maldives.

You can't miss Loama from above with its distinctive over-ocean villas and almost ridiculously pristine sandy beaches. This teardrop-shaped private oasis is billed as a perfect get away for high-rolling couples.

The seaplane lands after the 45-minute flight from Malé docking at a floating pontoon with a sign reading: “Loama International Airport”. Guests are then shuttled by traditional wooden fishing boats known as dhonis, or via fast speedboat, to the resort jetty.

The journey to this brand new luxury resort; the first in a chain of Loamas planned by Singapore investors, really is half the fun. And it is a totally safe adventure: TMA currently operates the world's largest seaplane fleet.

Guests are greeted at the Loama jetty by dozens of staff, singing, banging drums and offering cold drinks before being guided to either their bungalow (all have direct beach access) or over-water villa (you can choose from those offering the best sunsets or sunrises).

What I liked most about Loama, other than the unpretentious luxury, was the way the many experiences are designed to give guests an insight into the ways, traditions and stories of the Maldives. This is not just another place to lie in the sun and drink expensive cocktails, although you may if you wish.

The 105-suite resort has “a museum in the lobby, a contemporary art gallery over water, and a determination to break new ground”.

The gallery is dedicated to Maldivian contemporary art - the first certified gallery outside of Malé – while the small museum that includes a replica Maldivian home; refurnished 11th-century sunken baths discovered during the construction process and 15th-century Chinese porcelain discovered at the same time.

A history tour of the 100-hectare island opens a window to the Buddhist and then Muslim based history of the area, trading routes and local mores and customs that hark back centuries. Few resorts can boast their own history and culture manager like Loama's urbane and knowledgeable Umair Badeeu.

Guests are also encouraged to go fishing the local way on one of the dhonis – I caught a sizeable green jobfish on a traditional hand line that the resort chefs cooked up for me for dinner.

And to visit nearby islands like sun-baked Maakurathu (population 1000), where you can sample dried fish, local fruits and nuts and watch locals fix their fishing boats (lobsters are common in the surrounding waters) or engage in traditional thatching and rope making. Many of the thatches are sold to luxury resorts as roofs for their bungalows.

This is a remarkably undisturbed region; walk out along the Loama jetty and you see manta rays and schools of rainbow-hued tropical fish – and there are plenty of diving and snorkelling spots. Evening cruises allow guests to enjoy interaction with the curious local dolphins and to take in the spectacular sunsets. New dive sites are constantly being discovered.

Loama Maldives at Maamigili is only a small resort in what is described as the final frontier for Maldivian resorts.

I preferred the over-water villas, with ladders you can climb down into the warm waters below, over the beach villas – and both have outdoor decks and rain showers.

As you'd expect at a five-star resort; there is plenty of pampering to be enjoyed, either next to one of the largest infinity pools in the country, or in over-water villas where you watch the fish as you are being pummelled and prodded.

The resort features six gastronomic havens, with Thundi, a Thai fusion fine dining restaurant the flagship. Other options include Meyzu, a Japanese restaurant with sushi bar and sizzling teppanyaki offerings, all-day dining at Fazaa, and poolside Iru Cafe, where the Ceasar salad is as good as I've had anywhere.

Cocktails and high teas are served al fresco at Marha Bar, and there are plenty of opportunities to sample local specialities like Maldivian fish curry, spicy soups and traditional bites such as bajiya (vegetable fritters), garudhiya (clear fish soup flavoured with curry leaf and pandan) and mas roshi (smoked tuna and coconut bread).

For a night of romance, a private dinner can be arranged on the island's sandbar, perhaps featuring fresh local crayfish, or there is 24-hour room service for those looking for a little personal time.

Both drinks and food tend to err on the expensive side of the ledger, understandable given the logistical difficulties and transactions are undertaken in US dollars rather than the local currency.

In addition to the spa, there are yoga and meditation classes available (held on an over-water pavilion), although I found my heart rate had dropped within a couple of hours of arriving on an island where there are no cars and limited shopping. Guests who do not want to walk, or are unable to do so, are transported around by golf buggies.

Spa treatments and therapies are in line with the resort's ethos of using local goods where possible; the Loama Spa features only local ingredients in its glass-floored treatment rooms.

There are all the five-star trimmings; a fully-equipped gym, kids' club, motorised and non-motorised water sports, business centre with Apple computers, international power sockets in rooms, and free wifi throughout the property. It is hard to resist posting pictures to Twitter and Instagram.  


Loama Maldives Resort at Maamigili. Tel: +960 658 8100. 

Beach bungalows start from around $US600 plus local charges and taxes a night with oversea villas more expensive. Loama can arrange seaplane transfers from Malé when you book.

Singapore Airlines flies from most Australian capital cities to Singapore with daily same-day connections to Malé.

# The writer was a guest of Loama Maldives Resort at Maamigili and this is an edited version of a story that first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. 

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