I saw the azure water appear under the clouds as I descended on my Maldivian Airlines flight from Malé to Gan, first. Surrounding a flat hunk of sand in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the water got lighter and clearer the closer it was to land. At the most Southern reaches of the Maldives, a stunning island-nation, just an hour-and-a-half from Sri Lanka and Southern India, lies a private island I had heard about in recent years – Villingili. And, the resort managing the island, The Shangri-La. I had to experience it. So, as I landed on Gan Island – I knew, in the back of my mind, it was going to be great.
The Maldives isn’t short of beautiful hotels. This island-nation relies on tourism and fishing as its main source of GDP and tourism here is geared towards luxury. You can’t throw a stone, or a seashell, without landing on the beach in front of The Four Seasons, Conrad or Taj – all names synonymous with some of the best luxury hotel experiences in the world. But, it’s on Villingili, with The Shangri-La, where a different type of luxury experience waits.
Located just off the island of Gan, a small island with a community of local Maldivian people, Villingili is a palm-fringed paradise surrounded by a coral reef. With over two kilometers of white sand beaches, 17,000 palm trees and some of the most beautiful water you’ll ever see in your life – it really is a Utopia waiting. The Shangri-La offers over 132 private villas, in 9 different styles. A 10-minute speed boat ride from Gan Airport and you’ve arrived somewhere you’ve only imagined in your dreams.
I stayed on Villingili for six nights. As soon as I stepped onto the speedboat and was handed a water and cold towel scented with lemongrass, I felt at home. I was sped right-up to the waterfront open-air lobby and greeted by a slew of team members from the hotel. After a speedy check-in, I was put on a golf-cart and taken right to my villa. And, what a villa it was.
The overwater bungalow, or Water Villa, was perched right atop the crystal seas ebbing and flowing from the island. As soon as I pulled-up, a school of parrot fish and a giant manta ray swam past – under the boardwalk and into the open sea. What a moment that was. Walking-in to the villa, my jaw dropped as the expansive space was laid-out and decorated to a tee, bringing a chic South Indian Ocean vibe into every corner of the room.
The villa was equipped with a massive bathroom with indoor and outdoor showers, two vanities and sink counters, expansive closets with plush robes and slippers, a large bar with alcoholic beverages and coffee and tea station, a writing and work station, a sitting area, a fantastically huge bed and a terrace deck over the blue water with tiered lounge areas and overwater hammock. I was beyond impressed, and instantly relaxed.
Villas are spread throughout the island and all have their own unique environments. You can essentially choose from a treehouse style space that is tucked amongst the palms with a private beach and pool, or an overwater moment that you’ve seen so many times on Instagram. Amongst the 132 villas, there really are so many different environments to choose from on the island and, the irony is, you barely ever see anyone else. You literally feel like you have the entire place to yourself.
Villingili is a unique island. It’s not just sand in the middle of the sea, but it has history, interesting features and the Shangri-la does an amazing job of offering curated experiences for you to keep yourself occupied while here. You want to lay on the beach for 7 days straight, no problem. You want to snorkel and dive around the reef, you can do that. You want to play golf on the only 9-hole course in the Maldives – you’ve got it. There’s something for everyone here. You can even scale to the top (17 feet above sea level) of Mount Villingili – the highest natural point in the Maldives.
The golf course here is fun, and can be tailored to beginners or pros. It offers unique holes with shots over the sea and dramatic vistas over beaches and wild palms swaying in the gentle breeze. The clubhouse is great for a cocktail in the heat, or to gaze up to the sky and see one of the giant fruit bats gliding through the air while indulging in a homemade ice cream.
The Shangri-La offers three restaurants and three snack and drink bars. Endheri is by the stunning oceanfront pool and you can sit in one of the cabanas sipping a glass of Veuve and share a plate of fried calamari with your travel companions.
M Lounge is on the sand and sits right near the open-air lobby. Chairs and tables are set-up for the evening and you can sit and watch the sun dip below the pink horizon while downing expertly crafted cocktails made by one of the bartenders. This is one of my favorite experiences on the island. In the evenings you might see a cute little frog or two hopping around, or one of the giant bats overhead. The bats quickly became a signature of the island in my mind, and one of my favorite things.
The Shangri-La offers private experiences whether it’s tea near the golf course to break-up the holes, dining by design (which can be set-up with a personalized menu from the chef and stationed atop Mount Villingili for incredible sunset views over the Indian Ocean).
One of my favorite things on the island is to watch the coconut climber scale to the top of one of the thousands of trees and hack-off a bunch of coconuts.
He can teach you about the coconuts on the island, the various forms of consumption and how to spot one that is ready for drinking or eating.
And, of course, this experience wouldn’t be complete without sampling some of the sweet meat inside or guzzling the water right from the shell – the perfect hangover cure.
After your coconut experience, make your way down to the shore where a representative from the island’s conservation center will meet you to educate you on the Shangri-La’s efforts to conserve the island and its reef – which includes planting broken coral underwater to help begin new reefs. You can take-part in this, as I did, and it is truly fascinating. Learning about the problem of coral bleaching and human beings’ effects on the sea from a luxury resort is a first, but noticed and appreciated.
Another favorite moment I had on Villingili was the sunset dolphin cruise. The Shangri-La will take you out on their own yacht and you will have the opportunity to look for pods of spinner dolphins – watching them jump, dance and dive in and out of the sparkling sea. The proximity you have to these creatures during the cruise is incredible.
The Shangri-La offers three different dining experiences on the island. Of course there is a stunning breakfast, vast and filled with options that are cooked with various inspirations. I fixate on the breakfast here because you can choose from local Maldivian specialties like fish curry, or Western specialties (i.e. omelettes, waffles and french toast), French, Chinese and more. It is truly and event on Villingili.
The chefs at the restaurants, whether Indian at Dr. Ali’s, seafood-focused at Fashala’s or international at Javvu, all utilize the island’s garden where organic produce is grown. You can tour the garden and find fresh chilis, cilantro, herbs, tomatoes, potatoes and most anything else you can imagine.
Watching the harvest is extra special, because you can literally see what will end-up in your dinner that evening.
I would recommend trying all the restaurants on the island as they are so different and each menu is well curated.
You can sit outside at Dr. Ali’s and take-in Cantonese, Indian and Vietnamese specialties that are harmonized by similar ingredients, yet distinctly reflect the styles of cooking from the country where the traditions are born.
Sushi on the island is absolutely phenomenal. Being that the Maldives is known for their incredible tuna stock, you can imagine what a spicy tuna roll tastes like here.
A grill-focused buffet can be found at Javvu, which is fun for families and friends.
The chicken tandoori at Dr. Ali’s was some of the best I’ve ever had.
And, of course, cocktails are delicious at any of the dining establishments, day or night. The Maldives has strict alcohol policies being that it is a largely Muslim country, but guests don’t really feel that at large resorts. Alcohol flows freely here.
No matter what your food selections are, you can be guaranteed that everything is fresh and the chefs will do their best to accommodate any requests, including for those with allergies.
After six days at The Shangri-La Villingili Maldives resort, I felt refreshed, relaxed and above all else, reconnected with myself. I spent time in the water, in Chi the spa, dining around the island, sipping coconut water and just having a good time. What made this island different was the effortlessness in luxury colliding with nature, local culture and service. A hand over the heart is the signature greeting of the brand, Shangri-La, to show guests that everything being done, comes from the heart. You can actually feel that on the island everywhere. From the landscaping crews to the restaurant staff, it feels like people love what they do and love this island. That is imparted into every experience at the resort and I cannot wait to return.