More often than not, here at Hashtag Life, we will seek the world’s few unknown havens, off the beaten track. We took a walk on the popular side and sought to find out what makes The Shangri La Villingili the most celebrated Island of the Maldives.
Nearly everyone I know who honeymoons in the Maldives, chooses to do so at the Shangri La.
Not one to wait for a betrothal as an excuse, I set off to see what makes Villingili Island irresistible to couple after couple, and how it would fare for visitors who aren’t perhaps as high on happily ever after!
Let’s just say, Shangri La Villingili is the happily ever after.
Approaching the island, an expansive landscape of lush forestry takes over from the typically uninterrupted endless ocean blues that characterise the Maldivian islands.
Later during our stay, our Island host would recall to us his memories of locals coming to the island to play football, lay out picnics, and enjoy what was then a completely uninhabited, rugged, natural atoll; dirtier, he said, less beautiful, but still in his mind, a personal destination of special memories.
It’s somewhat harmonious then, that this sense of personal belonging on the island drifts through you from the moment you arrive. Perhaps this is a signature characteristic of the Shangri La brand, but I like to think there is something specific about Villingili. It reminded me of the vanishing islands you’d read of in fairytales – only a few can find them, and once you’re there, you disappear to the rest of the world.
The resort itself is absolutely huge, covering each corner of the island and all in between. For the Maldives especially, this eradicates any potential for boredom or laziness. Bicycles aplenty allow guests to roam freely to and from the many snorkelling points, beaches, activity centres, beach bars, golf courses, the infamous ‘turtle point’, and my favourite of all: the ‘star-gazing point’ a beautiful little wooden deck with beds from which to count the stars at night. The utter romance is killed only by the colonies of mosquitos you can practically feel sinking their fangs into you for dinner!
Then there’s me: walking my way around the island or hitching a ride with staff on a passing buggie – because for all my travels – I still haven’t learned to ride a bike!
Accommodation options are so very extensive at the Shangri La – and each option feels superior to its counterpart from the “Pool Villas”, to the more secluded “Tree House Villas” to, of course, the signature “Water Villas”.
The Tree House Villas sound like something for the kids – but they are much more sophisticated than that. Perched on stilts amongst the island’s luscious greenery and abundance of palms, these villas resemble private little island houses, with both seclusion from the rest of the resort, yet panoramic ocean-views all the same.
Featuring exquisite views of the ocean, Ocean View Tree House Villas are secluded, private island hideaways. Perched on stilts among the treetops, these tropical luxury tree houses provide guests with unforgettable memories. With 230sqm of space and their own private infinity pools, these villas are tucked away from the rest of the island for the illusion of total seclusion, yet all the accessibility of the resort just minutes away.
The second branch of villas on land – the ‘Pool Villas’ are again nestled within lush vegetation, equipped with their own out-door showers, private pools, patios, and for the deluxe villas – their own direct access to the beautiful coral beaches of Villingili.
Last but not least are the Over-Water Villas – which, predictable as it may be, we opted to stay in. It has to be the vastness of each aspect of the villa which is most attractive; the deck itself is a room of its own – and unlike most other resorts – you would most certainly not be able to spot or hear your neighbouring water-villa residents, making your own little bungalow feel like an island of it’s own. The long, uninterrupted canvas of the island’s azure waters is also unbeatable of course. We paddled out a couple of kayaks from the activity centre to our villa one evening, and defiantly held onto them past our curfew so that we could sit silently and row through the sunset as the sky turned red. The oneness and withdrawal which the islands architecture somehow manages to provide its residents is truly delivered at moments like this, and makes it suddenly understandable as the obvious choice for any couple or honeymooner.
The resort offers complimentary daily-activities- a welcome inclusion when you’re stuck on an island! From coral planting, to glass bottom boat expeditions – the choices are well-thought out and non-repetitive for the week-long visitor. By far, one of the most special offerings, is the dolphin cruise. The crew know exactly where to take you, and won’t rest until they’ve introduced you to what must be an oceanful of well-bribed Dolphins, as this is the only explanation for the number of them which we sighted. Tricks and flips aplenty, it is such a riveting experience to see so many of these beautiful creatures all at once, that the eye can barely keep up.
The snorkelling at the Shangri La, is amongst the best you will experience. An accessible pathway from the centre of the island leads straight to an area titled The Whispering Palms where you will find the wide-spanning House Reef marked out by buoys in the water. Of course, once you’ve dug your nose into the serene waters and begun to feel at one with the beautiful and extremely busy sea life, you will know nothing of any buoys and hear no one (as I did) when they call out to tell you you’ve wondered too far in this mesmerising little underwater world. All sorts of aquatic life swim passively through bulging, red, coral formations aplenty. Impossible to grow tired of, and soothing for the mind and soul, I would recommend a morning paddle as the ultimate mood booster and start to your day.
The ‘Chi’ Spa should be an island of it’s own, with options for tranquil massages with a sea-view, neighbouring yoga-rooms, and palm-laden gazebos to unwind, read, or sip iced-tea from post-pampering.
I doubt anyone arrives on any island in the Maldives, expecting to leave as trim as when they arrived, however The Shangri La should come with a warning. Three outstanding restaurants, which take no hostages with the plentifulness of their offerings, will have you feasting until you surrender. If I could give my old self one piece of advice to take back to my stay it would be: pace yourself – marathon not a sprint! I recall one morning being (physically) restrained from grabbing just one last mini-donut from the breakfast buffet on my way out.
The breakfast is served at Java with both al fresco seating along the shoreline, as well as a beautiful glass-walled dining room for more intimacy (and air-con!) whilst you dine. The breakfast buffet is served in a separate room where guests can expect an individual station for every breakfast-option you can think of, including a daily selection of local dishes at the hot-food stations. I never, ever, thought I would be the person who samples a vermicelli stir-fry in the morning, but here I was. Watch out for the morning tipples the friendly staff will tempt you with; as inviting as the readily-popped bottles do look, that glass of champagne that no one really wants or needs first thing in the morning, does come at an additional charge. This is the restaurant which is included in all half board and full board packages, and by evening it serves a truly outstanding a la carte menu of ‘Western Cuisine’ with ‘Land’ ‘Sea’ and ‘Grill’ options as well as Pastas and Risottos for good measure. Despite being the main dining option, it by no means makes any compromises on the signature Shangri-La pledge to fine dining.
Guests are at leisure to enjoy either of the two remaining restaurants, Dr Ali and Fashala as part of their board as well. Whilst Fashala was closed during our stay – Dr Ali was a more than compensatory alternative. A ’credit’ in the region of $80 is applied per person – which I assumed would cover all of two grilled prawns. Bracing myself for an evening of mental arithmetics, to make sure the combination of each persons order’s tallied perfectly, even if it meant handing plates over to their rightful orderers once they arrived – I was pleasantly surprised to the contrary. The credit will comfortably cover 2 courses sans compromise of ordering ‘the chicken’ to be frugal and the offering is definitely worth the indulgence. The menu is divided into three cuisines, and not just by throwing a dish from each corner of the world into each course. It could effectively serve as three different restaurants; Arabic, Chinese and Indian Ocean, as the selection is so wide, and so tantalising. So rather than my usual party trick of deliberating between dishes like its my death-row meal, I found myself pensively flipping between ‘cuisines’ wondering which one to opt for and whether it would be complete nonsense to order a Chinese starter and Lebanese Main. The solution was obvious: visit more than once. Each menu out-does the other – and the secret lies in the fact that Shangri La ensures a native Chef for each cuisine, delivering that authenticity and flavour-combinations which often only a local truly can. The ‘Arabian Gulf’ menu, outstandingly, serves even the dishes my Egyptian grandmother would make, alongside the more commercial favourites such as mezzes and mixed grills. The poshly titled ’South China Sea Room’ (aka Chinese) menu, is perhaps of the best I have had anywhere. So there you have it: you only need travel to the Maldives for your best Chinese food experience! If ever there was a restaurant which could make a crab meat spring roll taste hearty rand healthy rather than greasy and gluttonous – this is it. Lastly, the ‘Indian Ocean’ menu will satisfy any curry-craving with aromatic, slow-cooked, staples.
As cliche as it may sound the worst part of our stay was leaving – Shangri La’s little island of splendour is really quite faultless. Neither it’s breadth nor its commercial offering take away from the level of privacy, attentiveness and individually tailored offerings. The island hosts fast become ‘friends’ you’ll hope to see again, and the canvas offered to each guest to create their own memories as inclusively and seamlessly as possible – without the gimmicky ‘additional costs’ beyond their base-offering – makes this understandably one of the Maldives’ best resorts. Sometimes it’s good to veer away from the crowd. At other times, it is wise to fight your way to the front of the line to avoid missing out. Booking your stay at the Shangri La – is one of those times. Once you’re there – you won’t want leave.
Visit: Shangri La Villingili
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