As the 50-seater plane circles Kooddoo Airport, my three-year-old son hollers: “Look, mum, blue rainbow.”
Can it be? But he is right.
The plane window looks out to a spectrum of azure, cobalt and turquoise and an incredible palette of crystalline blue shorelines. The waters shimmer, fringing little dolphin-shaped isles that seem to bob off them.
That moment you lock eyes with a Maldivian atoll mid-air – though you have seen it many times in brochures before – it is hard not to gasp.
Maybe it is the long transfers – involving international and domestic flights and, occasionally, seaplanes – but as you gather your crumpled self and step out onto the tarmac, the sense of arrival is grand.
After a bus ride and a speedboat ride, which each takes about seven minutes, we are booked in at The Residence Maldives, located on the island of Falhumaafushi, in the Gaafu Alifu Atoll.
Often likened to Robinson Crusoe island for its seclusion, the first thing you inhale are the views of a wide open horizon that looks out to more shades of blue and nothing else. It is beyond inviting.
My five-year-old daughter disrobes, dives first into her swimmers and then the deck pool.
In a sense, all the rooms at The Residence – as in most other surrounding resorts – are homogenous. All look out to the sea. All boast floor-to-ceiling windows, languorous patios and deck chairs. Many have plunge pools, hammocks and throw cushions. They all beckon you to laze, flop, swing, roam or explore, tumble, be free.
We move seamlessly between pool dips, digging in the sand, picking out shells and exploring coral life in the shallow reef lagoons fringing our villa. We go through tubes of sunblock.
It turns out to be the perfect beach-front vacation for parents with young kids. The five days we spend there pass in a flash, with the children asking daily – and plaintively – if we can stay yet another day.
For parents, it feels like an escape – but with the kids. Much like supervision from a low- slung deck chair, with shades on and an iced tea in hand, thanks to a hyper-efficient Kid’s Club.
The Residence’s two Kid’s Club attendants go beyond babysitting, providing a slew of island-themed activities for little ones aged three and up. There are organised crab hunts and races, sandcastle building, coconut and seashell painting, and henna tattoo sessions. The kids return daily, proudly clutching fondant cakes they decorated, aflutter with plans.
Mornings, the spouse and me sneak off for early morning dives and snorkels, depositing the kids to their activities, then retrieving them for lunch. Afternoons, we spend eating pomegranates and mangoes on the patio. Or we go for a picnic on a nearby castaway island with pillowy white sands, take the kids out for a snorkel in less choppy waters or take in a dolphin-spotting cruise.
Every day is a treat for the senses. The sandy path to breakfast is rhythmically swept, in the same swirly pattern, by a platoon of Maldivian gardeners.
Just walking around the resort, there are plenty of young reef-tip sharks or sea turtles to be spotted in the warm shallows. Such sightings become so routine, we soon forget how extraordinary they really are.
At lunchtime, the kids grab fistfuls of bread from the table and run to the water’s edge to feed swarms of glassy needlefish.
Food – which we did not hold out much hope for – hits the right spot too. The international buffets serve up the usual competent plethora of shellfish, roast lamb and parfait choices. But at this Singapore-owned resort, run by home-grown Cenizaro Hotels & Resorts, the real gems are a few extremely accommodating resident chefs – Indonesian and Thai – who are willing to cook you anything you feel like.
They are widely extolled on Tripadvisor for their flexibility and customisation, giving you the exquisite pleasure of nasi goreng, khai jiao moo sap (Thai ground pork omelette) or arrabiata penne on request, as you sit beach-side, with sand between your toes.
After dinner, the largely Indian contingent of waiters coax you to try new ice cream flavours and stop to chat, showing you pictures of the brides they left behind and sharing nuggets of Maldivian folklore.
At night, we retire to our patio yet again, watching the stars glow in an inky sky.
Yes, the kids continue to whine, bicker and spat, even in “paradise”. The spouse and I still squabble over whose turn it is to shower the kids.
But maybe it is the hours spent facedown snorkelling or in the spa. Before long, our stooped shoulders straighten. And a languid tranquillity sets in.
I remember it was not long ago that the prospect of Maldives with kids sent a shiver down my spine, like most parents. First, the epic connections seemed insurmountable.
Then, many resorts expressly welcomed adults or couples only. Hordes of serenity-seeking honeymooners and lovers on romantic getaways, with shrieking kids thrown into the mix, just seemed like bad comedy. And I am not impervious to withering looks.
But when I planned our recent holiday, I was surprised to see a deluge of Maldivian resorts now beckoning families. Many have cottoned on that honeymooners do not make repeat business, but selling the space, seclusion and comforts of a family home – the idea of retreating to a summer family beach house every year – just might.
While we were there, The Residence was building an adjoining family-themed resort at Dhigurah. At 19.88ha, it will be four times larger than its current premises and will house the ultimate kids’ playground, with tyre swings and ocean trampolines. It will even have dedicated spaces outfitted with PlayStations and computers for teens to hide away with their devices.
The Residence at Dhigurah, which will be ready at the end of next year, as well as other high-end resorts in the archipelago are now wooing the family market with spacious two-bedroom villas and dedicated facilities for children.
A host of them supply cots, bottle sterilisers and strollers. Many have also rolled out age-appropriate fun experiences from nature walks and treasure hunts to beach sports and marine life education.
Their nightly turndown treats now include milk and cookies. And a dolphin cuddle toy awaits on the kids’ pull-out beds.
I guess it works. One month after returning from the Maldives, we still get occasional flashbacks of the pillowy white sands, cerulean blue waters in 50 shades and that sweet sense of freedom.
And, of course, the kids are still bugging us to go back.
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