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Hannah Faulder discovers an authentic taste of the Maldives at Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu
Ask a group of people what their ultimate honeymoon setting would be, and many would say the Maldives. The white sandy beaches, Insta-worthy sparkling crystal waters and total relaxation at its core means you'd be hard-pressed to find somewhere better to celebrate the start of your married life.
Flying to Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu by seaplane, you can't help but be mesmerised by the azure lagoons and chains of atolls sprinkled below. Landing in the beautiful southern waters of Baa Atoll, you're entering an ecosystem so incredible its been named as a UNESCO biosphere reserve. It felt so far removed from the grey drizzle I left behind in England that it could've been another planet. There have been concerns in recent years over the impact tourism has on this paradise in the Indian Ocean, but at Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu, it's a completely different story. Being eco-friendly is not only important here it's integral to its way of life. Protecting the natural wildlife of the Maldives has been central to the island's philosophy since day one, marketing and sales manager Sarah Hilmy told me over dinner one night. Twenty years ago, when it was founded long before the popularity of eco-tourism Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu pioneered conservation and sustainability efforts.On the first evening we head out on a sunset cruise aboard a dhoni a traditional fishing boat. Lazing on the sundeck, glass of fizz in hand, watching the last of the day's rays dip below the horizon, I realise I could get used to this.
First things first: kick off your shoes as soon as you arrive I promise you won't need them! Arriving on the island is a slightly surreal feeling, as you're stepping into picture-postcard bliss. Wide sandy beaches give way to a canopy of lush green vegetation, dotted with rustic huts interlinked by sandy pathways and a vast indoor-outdoor reception. Dreaming of those classic Maldives images of the rooms on stilts over the twinkling ocean? Yep, they've got those here too. My oceanfront villa is set back from the main path. The rustic, thatched exterior is deceiving, as you enter to find a huge space dominated by a four-poster bed. Open the back door to find an open-air bathroom (don't worry you're totally hidden). This took a little getting used to, but the more I relaxed and got in tune with island life, the more I let my highly strung English ways go, and I totally embraced my al fresco shower. Located at the front of the villa was a plunge pool, with the beach and ocean beyond my own little utopia. I'm given a backstage tour as if I weren't already sold on the resort's green credentials, I get to see firsthand how it generates its own electricity, creates every item on the island from reclaimed wood and produces its own water in reusable glass bottles. Sarah tells me, These efforts are specifically aimed at minimising the impact of development while also adopting policies of conservative energy generation, water production, recycling, environmentally friendly rubbish disposal and protection of the natural flora, fauna and marine life of the island. Something that made my heart sing was the resort's Marine Turtle Rescue Centre. Over the course of my week here, I checked in on my pals and watched them take tentative steps (well, strokes) to return to the ocean as they were nursed back to health by the dedicated staff.
This tiny island packs a punch when it comes to the experiences it has on offer. Even the simplest activity of grabbing a snorkel and flippers turns into an epic adventure, with turtles, reef sharks and a whole rainbow of pretty fish calling the nearby reef home. One day, our guide takes us out into the ocean so we can no longer see the land in any direction. We plop into the warm water, and it isn't long before a manta ray comes to check us out. Maybe I was naive, but I had no idea how huge these creatures were. Ghostly and majestic, it glides and circles around us, with its huge mouth gaping wide to collect plankton. Back on the dhoni, I feel like I'm on an emotional rollercoaster, as a group of spinner dolphins join us for the ride home. I lose count at 20, and we watch in awe as they leap and dance and revel in the squeals of delight from their audience on the boat. It's almost impossible to imagine real Maldivian life, so a visit to the local island of Thulhaadhoo is a must. We arrive by speedboat and spend a morning wandering the quiet streets lined with shops, little cafes, a mosque and walls adorned with images of local politicians. We visit a boat-building yard before hitting upon the opposite shore, where a group of local lads are preparing for a kite-surfing event. One evening, we take a 15-minute speedboat ride across to Embudhoo. A private deserted island owned by the Coco Collection, newlyweds can channel their inner Robinson Crusoe and spend a secluded night here in a traditional hut. Chefs will come to the island to prepare your meals, but they leave you to spend the night with just each other for company. It sounds like honeymoon perfection, and how many couples can say they've spent the night alone on a tropical island? Not quite brave enough to stay entirely on my own, I linger for an hour or so and enjoy cocktails (try the Beach Bubbles concoction divine!) while spotting baby sharks in the shallows. Delighted by yet another animal to tick off my must-see list, back at the resort, I spot these little sharks' big brother. It was an altogether more eerie encounter but an incredible moment that'll stay with me. After spending a morning lazing on the beach, sipping fresh juice straight from the coconut, I thought I might as well get even further into relaxation mode with a trip to the spa. The Balinese massage was performed in an open-sided treatment room, and I slipped into a meditative state to the sounds of the island's feathered residents chirping in the background.
The main restaurant, Cowrie, offers live cooking stations and a mouth-watering choice of dishes, including some Maldivian favourites. The staff can't do enough for you; after finding out I'm a vegetarian, the head chef would bring me a delicious vegetable curry for each meal even though I could've easily gorged myself on the buffet offering. À la carte-wise, Cornus brings some Asian-style spice to the island. Sitting toes-in-sand while feasting on an incredible Thai curry was too good to only have once, so I enjoyed my last meal here too. You can also chill out at the Beach Bar or Conch Bar as the sun sets to soak in the atmosphere and take a moment to pinch yourself that you're really there. For me, the ultimate dining option was the beach barbecue. Held once a week, it's an absolute must for honeymooners, and I'm struggling to picture a more romantic scene. Festoon lights hang across the beach, illuminating a string of intimate tables for two, which are curved across the sand. A chef prepares the most incredible delicacies and the freshest seafood in front of your eyes. Pure magic.
After a week of absorbing everything this incredible place has to offer, I can't help but think this is the honeymoon to end all honeymoons. Time spent here will provide you with endless memories beyond your wildest dreams. What more could you want than cherished shared experiences you can draw upon for the rest of your lives?
For more information, and to book your stay, visit www.cococollection.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org