From the awe-inspiring sea-and-sky surroundings to the sumptuous food and service,  InterContinental Maldives Maamunagau is a destination like no other

Words Libby Norman

The Maldives is the most recognisably (Instagramably) island nation. A sea-and-sky setting of perfect sand and swaying palm trees. As first timers, we are prepared for that, just not for the wistful responses when we say that’s where we’re heading. A friend sighs and says: “it’s my place”. Another, a rugby lover not known for poetic outpourings, talks about his four dream holidays there and looks longingly into the middle distance.

If that intrigues us, then the prospect of a week on its most celebrated recent opening – InterContinental Maldives Maamunagau – becomes even more intriguing. Here we have a small-scale resort on Raa Atoll, lovingly conceived and designed as a next-level Maldives experience. The team who crafted it were dropped off – Robinson Crusoe style – to develop it sustainably, and that took two years. We have the feeling we are going next level when we are asked to fill in a pillow preference form.

Ocean heaven at InterContinental Maldives Maamunagau
Our overwater villa at InterContinental Maldives Maamunagau is next-level luxury – and the marine life is spectacular

The adventure gets off to a fine start with the journey. Air travel has largely been stripped of romance, but seaplanes are different. Having worked out we have a 45-minute seaplane ride to Maamunagau, I am beyond excited. Seaplanes have been on my bucket list since I was seven and read about these magnificent flying boats in The Famous Five.

And it is magical when we are ushered away from the crowds of Velana Airport by our Manta Air rep to a cool and elegant terminal containing the largest fleet of seaplanes in the world. The ride to our island destination gives an extraordinary bird’s eye perspective as you see some of the 26 atolls (made up of over 1,100 coral islands) unfolding below like a yellow ribbon.

Inter Continental Maldives Bedroom Overwater Pool Villa
Wherever you are on Maamunagau, you are lulled to sleep by the gentle sound of the Indian Ocean

Landing in the Indian Ocean, we watch with admiration as the barefoot seaplane stewardess leaps from the plane and, with steady seafarer’s hands, moors us on the pontoon. Whisked by speedboat to shore, we arrive to the most gracious of Maldivian welcomes, and within minutes we are in our overwater villa.

“We have the feeling we are going next-level luxury when we are asked to fill in a pillow preference form”

This is where the next-level luxury of Maamunagau reveals itself. We are in a totally private detached pad, a dreamtime space between earth and ocean. There’s a giant bed with a multitude of fluffy pillows (pillow request had been actioned) and this overlooks a view that stretches to infinity. Private plunge pool, ocean all around and steps down to the beautiful briny – even a deliciously deep bathtub overlooking the deck.

Ocean heaven at InterContinental Maldives Maamunagau
The pace of life is as active or slow as you like it – busy children have their own activity club and adults have The Retreat

The pace of life slows to a blissful calm in Maamunagau almost instantly. Usually on a holiday, it takes a day or so to unwind, but not here. Our villa is on the long boardwalk that runs like a ribbon down the island. Our wonderful concierge tells us that shoes are optional – and to call him anytime we need anything at all. Every day we try to think of something, anything, we need, but most days we fail. It’s all here. Many guests use the handsome black bikes that are parked outside every villa. Being pragmatic, I decide that if anyone is going to wobble slowly and emphatically into the ocean it will be me. The views are just too distracting.

Travel on foot is a pleasure but takes longer than it should because fish spotting becomes our thing. One day we stop to watch a tiny baby shark foraging on the rich marine life. We delight at the bored (and extremely well fed) heron in residence on the water at The Retreat, the super-calm lagoon where swimming, sunbathing and lounge music make for a chilled and adults-only alternative to the beach (there is a fabulous kids’ club here to give parents down time). We love the lagoon swimming, but the beach is our usual spot – white sand, gentle waves and a delightful swim up bar where we discuss cricket in some depth with an extremely well-informed barman from India. The team of staff are very international, just like the guests, and all delightful.

G Manta Trust
Marine ecology is prioritised, with opportunities to see mantas, dolphins and endless tropical fish

The bar sits close to the all-day and evening dining spot Café Umi, where breakfast starts the day right. All great hotels know you have to give everyone their perfect breakfast. Here, the incredible team of chefs have done that – with everything from sushi to eggs benedict to dosa to fabulous breads and pastries to exotic fruits. It becomes even more difficult to choose what to have at lunch – fish, grills and salads are all divine, but we’ve invariably eaten rather too well at breakfast. 

The food is exceptional wherever you choose to dine. We eat at The Fish Market a couple of times and love the Maldivian and East Asian flavours. Located right on the water at the end of a dock, it’s a romantic spot for dinner – especially with the Sunset Bar upstairs for sundowners and nightcaps. The Lighthouse offers truly standout Spanish and Mediterranean-inspired food. We are seated at the base of the tower and are mesmerised by the intricate tiled ceiling reproducing an ancient seafarers’ map. 

Inter Continental Maldives Fish Market Restaurant
Food is exceptional at every restaurant. We love the Maldivian and Asian flavours at the Fish Market

With so much sea life around – including a protected manta ray reserve – there’s a strong ecological focus. That means no plastic, anywhere – water is freely available but in reusable glass bottles – and we like that. One evening we join a dolphin spotting boat ride led by the British marine biologist in residence Emily, and it turns out to be a highlight. We have been on enough of these trips on past holidays not to expect too much.

“The dolphins are so synchronised, so balletic, that it feels like we’ve landed in some maritime homage to a Busby Berkeley musical”

This one feels a bit different when the team tell us we’re going out quite far to a channel that’s favoured hunting ground for spinner dolphins. It’s a beautiful sunset ride, and then suddenly we spot them. There are scores of them all around us, spinning and leaping, babies and adults together. They are so synchronised, so balletic, that it feels – bizarrely – like we’ve landed in some maritime homage to a Busby Berkeley musical.

Ocean heaven at InterContinental Maldives Maamunagau
The Lighthouse offers exceptional Spanish cuisine and beautiful views of the ocean

There is a lot of swimming – at the beach or the lagoon, and with a morning and evening dip off our deck. My companion’s new GoPro is tested underwater when we snorkel off our deck and house reefs. Every day he tries, but fails, to capture the lightning-fast schools of fish that churn the water and leap past our villa twice a day, on the clock. The fish are so prolific here you barely need a snorkel.

On one of our last nights, I mention to a member of the team what people had told me about the Maldives, and that was before we’d experienced Maamunagau for ourselves. She tells me how all the staff love watching this kick in, as shoes are shrugged off, shorts thrown on and people forget the stresses of busy lives and lean in to the elemental sea and sky environment. As the seaplane carries us back along the ribbon-like atoll, I realise that Maamunagau – after one utterly dreamlike week – has achieved a miracle. It already feels like ‘our place’.

InterContinental Maldives Maamunagau

Further reading: Sicily in style – a two-centre villa stay