Picture an abstract Rothko painting. A block of azure blue sits above a foundation of powder white. The colours are infinitely layered, impossibly deep, yet refreshingly pure. But we’re not in a museum. We’re standing waist-deep in the middle of the Indian Ocean: a handful of snorkellers on a deserted sand bar barely the size of a football oval; the morning sun beating down on our backs; a lick of a breeze whistling past our ears, rippling the glassy ocean that surrounds us; and peering down, through the crystal clear water, a wavy image of feet planted in shifting white sands.
An uninterrupted horizon: no ships, no islands, no clouds. An alien landscape. But a heavenly calm.
Waldorf Astoria has opened in the Maldives. Synonymous with uber-luxury and sophistication, the internationally acclaimed hotel brand hailing from New York City (and managed by the Hilton Group) has just unveiled a 122-villa retreat, a mere 50-minute yacht ride from Malé International Airport, and we’ve been invited to savour this wonderland first-hand.
Over a decadent breakfast, with the Indian Ocean lapping onto combed shores in the background, I chat with Daniel Welk, vice president of Hilton’s portfolio of luxury and lifestyle properties in the Asia-Pacific region, and Etienne Dalançon, general manager of Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi, about this unforgettable slice of nature’s paradise.
ESQ: Waldorf Astoria has such a prestigious heritage. How was that infused into this property in the Maldives?
ETIENNE DALANÇON: It's the luxurious size of all our villas; that generous sense of space that has been created in the past with the other properties. We have villas that are large but, at the same time, have the right orientation to ensure privacy and to capitalise on the amazing views.
ESQ: The villas have such high ceilings that it almost feels cathedral-like.
ETIENNE DALANÇON: Space is money, especially here in the Maldives. But it doesn't feel like you're in a hotel room. It's really your home. Your own world.
ESQ: The Hilton Group that owns Waldorf Astoria was the first international brand in the Maldives. How did you build on that experience to elevate the offering here at Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi?
DANIEL WELK: The Hilton Maldives Resort and Spa, which is now called Conrad Maldives, opened 21 years ago. It was the first resort to have over-water villas on stilts. And now that is iconically associated with the Maldives. So, I would say, the importance of doing something new in the market. For Waldorf Astoria Maldives, it is three interconnected islands including an independent 32,000 square metre private island. The island is one key. It’s the first of its kind in the Maldives.
ETIENNE DALANÇON: This is a world product, it's not just a Maldives’ product. This is really going to be a game-changer because it doesn't exist anywhere. It's only accessible by yacht. It can accommodate 18 persons in the four-bedroom residence, beach villa and over-water villa. It also has its own restaurants with a dedicated chef and personal concierge team, five swimming pools, water sports, spa and gym—it's a resort within a resort. So you could stay there and be 100 percent private or you can come back to the ‘mainland’ and use the facilities here if you want to.
ESQ: For a resort that has just opened, I must say it already looks very ‘green’ with established vegetation.
ETIENNE DALANÇON: I’m glad you realised because that, again, is from experience. Most resorts build the infrastructure and then, as the last step, plant the vegetation. But we built the resort and planted along the way. So this is why you now have that green and fresh feel when you arrive. This is very important because the green provides contrast and layers—you have the green of the trees, the white of the beach and the turquoise blue of the ocean.
ESQ: The Maldives is known as the rich man's playground. How else have you set this property apart to capture the attention of demanding customers?
ETIENNE DALANÇON: I think that there are a few components and, all of them added together, make us stand out. Besides the private island, I think our location is critical because our customers don’t want to waste time. When they go on vacation, they want to arrive at Malé and be in their villa as soon as possible. And with our own 24-hour luxury yacht service, it’s only a 50-minute ride from Malé International Airport. And this can happen at 11am or two o'clock in the morning—you don’t have to wait for a seaplane which only flies during certain times in the day. Then you have this diversity in terms of dining options. There are 11 free-standing restaurants ranging from Chinese at Li Long to Middle Eastern at Yasmeen.
ESQ: It's transformative. You walk in and you feel like you're in another part of the world.
DANIEL WELK: Exactly. It's unexpected, actually, to have great Peking Duck in the Maldives or to be seated high above the ocean in private dining pods crafted from natural bamboo at Terra; which is a great place to end the evening with dessert and wine.
ESQ: Why did you decide to position the barbecue grill restaurant, The Ledge, by the pool? It’s arguably one of your highlight dining options given that it’s overseen by Dave Pynt from Singapore’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Burnt Ends.
DANIEL WELK: If you're in a resort, there's a good chance you're going to order something around the pool at some point. But usually that experience is fast and low-key. We’re turning it into a Michelin-star level experience. And that brings us back to the legacy and the heritage of the brand because Waldorf Astoria, which is now 88 years old, was the first to offer room service. We wanted to bring the best dining experience to complement out 40m lap pool and lagoon pool.
ESQ: If you only had 24 hours at Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi, how would you personally plan out your day?
ETIENNE DALANÇON: Oh that's a good question. I'll probably start with a floating breakfast in the villa’s pool; then take a cruise across the lagoon to take some beautiful photos of the water and try to see the fish; arrive by the beach and enjoy a poolside drink; drop off the kids over at the kids' club so I can read a book in peace and go for a swim; pick up the kids for sunset drinks at Amber overlooking the Indian Ocean before finishing the night at one of our restaurants.
DANIEL WELK: I would do it completely different. I wouldn't bring my kids here for a day. I’m here in the villa with my wife and I will have everything delivered to the villa; that’s why you’re here in the Maldives—to get away from it all. I'm going to have the outside decks set up with a couple of cartons of beers, the champagne, the wine and then have my freshly cooked lobster brioche roll brought in from The Ledge. Just have food brought in from all 11 restaurants at one-hour intervals.
ESQ: Would you go snorkelling?
DANIEL WELK: Definitely. Morning is the best. And I would arrange a massage at the villa before I fly out. I’m coming here to zone out.