IF there's one thing folks remember from their holidays in the Maldives, it's the crystal clear waters, in which sea creatures oh-so-casually swim right by. These are magical moments, like scenes from the surrealistic Japanese animated fantasy film, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea. But instead of fish turning into cherubic little girls, what you get are holidaymakers frantically trying to capture everything on their smartphones to upload on Instagram.
When you come from an island like Singapore, where sea water alternates between green-brown and just murky brown - Maldivian waters are simply unbelievable.
It's not without effort, either. In the Maldives, keeping the ocean and its precious inhabitants the way they are is an ongoing effort requiring the cooperation and commitment of residents, visitors and business owners. Even if you don't see yourself as some kind of an environmental champion, a close look at the amazingly rich Maldivian marine life can change your mind.
At the Gili Lankanfushi in the North Male Atoll, a dive right by the resort's house reef is enough to convince anyone to quit their environmentally unfriendly ways. Or at least, try to use less plastic.
On our 45-minute dive with an instructor from Ocean Paradise Dive Centre, we spotted an array of sea creatures living amid the coral reefs - majestic Napolean wrasse, large groupers, moray eels, a solitary lionfish and lots of colourful angelfish, parrotfish, gobies and clownfish. Even a sea turtle surprised us as it moved from its position on the reef. Considering there are some 1,100 species of fish in the Maldives, what we saw was, well, a drop in the ocean.
Better still, many types of fish can also be seen right by the resort's villas - all of them built over the water. This is because the luxury Gili Lankanfushi (formerly known as Soneva Gili) is perfectly sited in a lagoon just a 20-minute speedboat ride from Male International Airport.
The resort, which came under the management of Singapore's HPL Hotels & Resorts last June, does not just pay lip service to sustainability - everything from its physical structure to its operations, are as environmentally friendly as possible.
These include a heat recovery system that uses excess heat from the power generators to heat up water for the villas' bathrooms, filtering shower water for use in watering plants, and a treatment plant that turns rain and seawater into drinking water. The resort has its own Eco Centre where waste is sorted; drink cans are crushed and compacted to be sent out for recycling; and glass bottles are crushed and mixed with cement to create flooring material. Plant trimmings, leaves and food waste are turned into compost for its gardens, while an organic vegetable garden produces herbs and vegetables used in the resort's restaurants. Most of its smaller pieces of furniture are made in-house. Every day, it takes about 14 staff members to manually remove seaweed from the beach. This is to avoid the use of coral-damaging chemicals to kill the marine algae, which can grow excessively.
"It's not possible to have a resort that's 100 per cent eco-friendly and we have to import some things, but what we do is focus on sustainability, working with local providers as far as possible to take local produce," says Roberto Arganese, the resort's director of sales and marketing.
It doesn't hurt either that the resort is as serious about luxury as it is about eco-consciousness. Of its over 45 water villas, seven are what it calls Crusoe Residences which are accessible from the resort island only by boat. Topping it off is the single Private Reserve, which, at 15,070 sq ft, is a five-unit bungalow on the water complete with a fully equipped gourmet kitchen and private spa, gym and entertainment facilities.
Maldivian resorts are typically self-contained - you eat, sleep and play without having to leave the island, even when it's a small one you can literally walk around in 10-15 minutes like Lankanfushi. This means resorts have to vary their F&B offerings and Gili Lankanfushi does this with three restaurants, an underground wine cellar and chocolate cave (featuring a large piece of driftwood as its dining table), a bar and various destination dining options around the island.
A slew of water sports as well as facilities including a tennis court, gym, swimming pool, dive centre and jungle cinema complete the resort's on-site activities.
A must-visit is Gili Lankanfushi's Meera Spa, whose six over-water treatment rooms feature glass floor panels beneath the massage tables. As your therapist works on you, you find yourself thinking: this is so much nicer than staring at a bowl of rose petals. Soon, the hypnotic sight of colourful fish quietly finning about in the lagoon below lulls you into a dreamland filled with magical fish that turn into sweet little girls.
Just like Ponyo . . . only better.
Lankanfushi Island 08290, North Malé Atoll, Republic of Maldives
Tel +960 664 0304