By Thomas Shambler
For the UAE there's no better – or quicker – place to find barefoot island luxury than the Maldives, and at Constance Halaveli, it's the service that really shines
You'll be hard pressed to find a more glamorous location for luxury travellers than the little island chain of the Maldives. The country's first documented tourists arrived in 1972, several Italian divers who stayed in rough-hewn shacks on the beach.
The food was basic – whatever the locals ate – and water came from a well. While it was rudimentary, the setting was fantastic and soon word of mouth spread of the secret island paradise hidden amidst the vast blue hues of the Indian Ocean.
Fast forward 50 years and more than 90 of the country's 1,190 individual islands house private resorts – many catered toward the luxury market. Today, almost 28 percent of the country's GDP comes from tourism.
You'll no doubt be familiar with the classic Maldivian island resort (the country is the third most Instagram-friendly location in the world per active users). You can expect exceptional-looking villas – some overwater on stilts and others with private beachside terraces - water sports on crystal-clear seas, and some of the world's best diving. It's particularly popular for honeymooners.
While all the big names in luxury travel are well represented in the Maldives, there is one relatively young upstart hotel chain – when compared to the Four Seasons and Park Hyatts of the world – looking to make a name for itself. Constance – a French company – was founded in the 1920s, a player in the sugar cane industry, before diversifying into everything from energy to banking. In 1975, the brand moved into tourism and opened its first property Belle Mare Plage Hotel in Mauritius.
Much like what the Maldives' first tourists encountered, Belle Mare was basic – just ten self-catered bungalows with three bedrooms each. But its location was stellar, and regular customers kept the hospitality brand going until 1992 when it announced sweeping renovations and the addition of a new wing going from just ten rooms to 178. Having opened two more properties in the Seychelles and Madagascar, 2009 marked the inauguration of its first resort in the Maldives – Constance Halaveli.
Located in the North Ari atoll, the hotel is a 25-minute flight by seaplane from the capital city of Male. Like most hotels in the Maldives, Halaveli takes up the entire island and beyond – a majority of its villas exist on stilts that spread out into the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. It's just a half-hour boat ride away from its sister property, Moofushi - which opened in 2010 – and while it's lively and well-priced, Halaveli is most certainly the flagship when it comes to luxury.
Unlike other chains that want to offer a sense of resemblance across all hotels – which gave rise to token travel tropes along the lines of "all visitors are at home when they stay with us" etc. – Constance celebrates the individuality of each hotel. Both in terms of natural beauty and the history. For example, the reason for Halaveli's proclivity for over-water villas is due to the relatively small nature of its island habitat (it takes around five minutes to circumnavigate the beach).
That's not to say the hotel doesn't make the most of its reduced space. The sugar-white beach is wide enough for a quiet stroll around the island, and there's a plethora of loungers and beach hammocks for those looking to laze the day away. If guests can tear themselves from their villas, that is.
Unusually, the 57 entry-level rooms are all overwater, and provide 100 square-metres of bedroom, bathroom and small landing area, along with a private plunge pool and deck. The 28 beach villas are extremely private, and purpose-built for families – some have a master bedroom with adjoining bunk rooms, while double-storey villas have a second-floor bedroom with separate outdoor access. Each comes with an iMac entertainment system, as well as a well-stocked minibar and wine fridge.
The design is streamlined, but not minimalist, courtesy of noted interior designers Martin Branner and Emma Matias. Rooms are all polished wood and thatched roofs, with architectural lines that mimic those of a traditional Dhoni boat.
Service can be a sticking point in luxury retreats like the Maldives, where the government requires a certain number of locals versus expats on staff. Happily, it was impeccable – all team members are first put through their paces at the Constance Hotel Academy – and it's not unusual to see guests deep in conversation with members of staff all over the island. Constance puts a lot of emphasis on its wine cellar, and its sommeliers are supremely knowledgeable (all are sent on at least one 'discovery' trip per year, often buying whole vintages for Constance to offer exclusively at its resorts).
The Constance U-Spa has won a raft of awards over the years, and has beds that overlook the waters – there are even windows below each headrest, letting guests engage in a bit of fish spotting while being pampered. There's a wide range of Balinese massages on offer, plus natural wraps and treatments to be had inside one of the eleven spa rooms.
There are segregated areas for both men and women, as well as couple treatment rooms. Elsewhere, public spaces are clustered around the dive centre and water sports facility (indeed, you'll often see guests windsurfing, kayaking or out on paddleboards) and the infinity pool area sits to the beach.
Unlike many resorts in the Maldives, Halaveli has a fully-stocked gym and an artificial-grass tennis court with a pro available for coaching. There's also a kids club, open daily from 9 am to 9 pm – which is free of charge. It offers supervised free play and structured activities, including treasure hunts, face-painting and hermit crab-racing. The dive school has a number of programs for experts and novices alike, and while basic snorkelling equipment is complementary, Constance also stocks a host of next-level snorkelling gear such as ninja masks and fins.
It's hard to understand just how the kitchen at Jahaz - Halaveli's main restaurant – manages to create the sheer number of delectable dishes served each breakfast, lunch and dinner. There are fresh pastries, tarts and caked – baked fresh everyday – along with themed nights and live stations every evening.
Elsewhere, there is Asian fine dining at Jing, out on an overwater jetty that shines blue lights into the water at night – letting diners eat while watching the sharks below endeavour to do the same thing. It features a private dining room-come-wine cellar and a selection of menus. There is also a poolside grill that serves a variety of seafood and stakes, along with a sushi bar open for lunch by the sea.
On the face of it, Halaveli ticks all the right boxes. It offers the classic Maldivian island resort while catering for families as much as honeymooners, and unlike those travelling from the US or America (complete with double-digit flight times and connections) guests from the UAE can get there in just under four hours. But the resort doubles-down on charm, and that comes from the service of the staff.
One evening, a guest was overheard asking for the chef's recipe for a particular tuna dish. Promptly, the chef came out to the dining room and explained how the curry was made, before promising a copy of the recipe delivered directly to their villa just after service. While a lot can be said about the quality of the crystal clear water and white sandy beaches, in the Maldives those have become common place. But service? That's where a smaller brand like Constance can really shine.