Wylde World: LUX* South Ari Atoll, Maldives
Report and photography by Leanne Bracey
We landed in the afternoon via seaplane, excitedly flying over distant dots of sand surrounded by pure blue. I’d heard so many wonderful things about the Maldives; the incredible diving, the picturesque sunsets, the warm sea, but nothing prepares you for seeing them for real, from the air.
Recently there have been a flurry of new openings so there’s even more choice and competition. Our destination was the LUX* South Ari Atoll Resort. The LUX* brand is well-known for its playful, relaxed approach to hotels, with plenty of things to do; an important thing when you’re kind of stuck on an island.
Where is it?
At the Southern point of the atolls that make up the Maldive Islands, this LUX* is situated on the island of Dhidhoofinolhu, said to be the best for diving and seeing Whale Sharks. It’s not too far from Male airport; around a 25-minute seaplane journey, depending on the amount of stop-offs.
What’s it like?
Upon arrival, a little knackered from the journey (5 hours to Doha, a few hours stopover, then a 4-hour flight to Male, is actually not a bad way to get the the Maldives. Doha airport is like a shopping centre on steroids and it’s actually quite nice to have a good walkabout), we were greeted on the jetty by some front of house staff, pristinely yet casually dressed in their white uniform; big infectious smiles welcoming us.
We were perked up immediately by refreshments in the lobby; a kind of extended bungalow with comfy lounge chairs, light and airy decor and the soft Maldivian breeze passing through. LUX* is all about cool beach vibes. The island is 2 miles long, so it’s pretty big to get around, in fact, it’s one of the biggest in the Maldives.
Our villa is based at the far end of the island, so a shuttle golf buggy was on hand every few minutes to ferry guests about. The transport takes you past the beach villas, some of the resort’s restaurants, couples lounging on the chair swings or snorkelling in the lagoons.
We were so excited to finally be here, and couldn’t wait to get stuck in. There’s no pretentiousness at LUX*; many of the couples are honeymooners, as you might expect, or groups of friends, and families. We didn’t need to keep up with a particular style or look, many people just keep to themselves, but there’s always a new group of people to talk to if you want to make friends.
What’s on offer?
I can count the amount of resorts I've been to on one hand; they're not normally my thing. But since visiting LUX* my mind has been totally changed (although a recent trip to Cuba and a resort stay that was pretty terrible means I’m a bit down on them now, but Cuba isn’t the most advanced tourist country, to be fair).
I'm not sure if it comes with age and the need to slow down a bit, but to not be rushing about sightseeing and enjoy where you are, is something now high on my list. The thing I learnt to appreciate very quickly was the amount of restaurants on offer.
When staying on an island for a period of time, a good variety of food is welcome before boredom sets in, and LUX* doesn't fail to meet this requirement. The East Market and Mixe are the breakfast destinations every morning, each one with a slightly different offering.
Mixe is in the middle of the island, hidden away under palm trees and resting on sand. This restaurant hosts a Maldivian evening on a Tuesday, where local people set up food stalls, rustling up local delicacies; fresh fish, samosas, stuffed pastries and fish cakes alongside ‘Bodu Beri’, authentic music and dancing of the Maldives.
The East Market (above and below), at the top of the island, is bigger. The breakfast buffet is epic – I soon learnt to love a gyoza with noodles for breakfast, alongside fresh fruit and homemade pastries. It was so easy to overeat! East Market is situated over water, I found it really relaxing to watch local fish swimming underneath alongside the occasional manta ray whilst tucking into my breakfast feast. There’s an authentic Japanese restaurant which is a must for at least one evening, an Italian on the beach, and casual beach bars for lunch and dinner. In total, 7 restaurants and 5 bars. I needed to go on a diet when I got back.
We are morning people, so didn't miss out on breakfast, but some guests were night-owls. They would order an early lunch at one of the bars next to one of the two infinity swimming pools on the beach and stay there all day. Over at the dive centre, my favourite place to lunch was the casual BBQ beach shack; pedalos sat in the sea alongside inflatables for people to lounge on, as reggae music made things even more relaxing. There’s a gym (which i actually didn’t get time to use), a floodlit tennis court and the aforementioned Dive Centre, important for booking all ocean activities, an absolute MUST when in the Maldives.
How about the rooms?
These are the kind of rooms you want to move into and never leave. Ones you want to try to recreate at home. Our stay was in a water villa and although at the bottom of the island, away from most of the island events, it’s worth the extra walk for the peace alone (although the island is pretty quiet). It was getting dark by the time we got to our room, so we immediately leapt into the lagoon below our private veranda, the bottom of the water slightly craggy from the dead coral beneath our feet, but warm and pretty private.
We spent our days on the veranda reading and snoozing; there’s plenty of room to sleep on the daybed or relax on the netting over the water, choosing the comfort and shade of our room over relaxing on the beach. Inside, the air conditioning was most welcome. The bed perfectly huge for the two of us, with a wonderful bathroom complete with double sinks and a free-standing bath overlooking the ocean. There’s also glass below your feet at times so you can see the baby sharks and manta rays passing through.
The rooms come equipped with LUX's own toiletries (that you will want to take home, and can buy from the hotel shop) and smells fresh and clean everyday. The water villas are middle of the range, but I’d equally be as happy with the beachside villas, allowing you to sunbathe on the sand, still with quick access to the sea. I’d be inclined to ask for a room near the spa, where the water seems to be extra warm and extra calm. Some of the villas at the top of the island have private pools but maybe a little bit nosier, but don't take my word for it.
What can keep you busy?
There's a lot to do at LUX*. We spent some of the less weather-friendly days in the fabulous library housed in a glass building with two floors, stocked with a great array of travel and photography books. Most mornings, we would use our hired snorkels (from the dive centre) and head to the lagoon near the spa to immerse ourselves in the underwater world. At the time of our stay, there was a Padi event going on, and 'Underwater Festival', where key people from the diving community gave talks and ran expeditions. Sadly, we didn't have our basic dive qualification (so if diving is something you'd like to do, I'd strongly advise you get this before you head to the Maldives or book this in near to the start of your stay. If you leave it too late, you won't be able to fly home) but we joined in on the presentations and talks each night, learning about sea life, diving, and also socialising with other guests and staff. We went out on a Whale Shark Dive (the south of the Maldives islands are the best places to see these amazing mammals, especially this island) and although we were restricted to snorkelling, we were lucky enough to see one. That was pretty incredible! Boats head out daily, so check out the schedule when you arrive and find out what's going on so you don't miss out.
The spa is an absolute must. If you can, I strongly suggest you book in for a treatment every day, if just to be in the stilted huts over the very lagoon I loved snorkelling in. As if you've not eaten enough already, the island roasted coffee bar in the reception area is a good pick me up from the soporific sun, and it's a must to have an accompanying cake because they look like they've just been plucked out of a top French patisserie. On our way back down to our villa one morning, we took a stroll back, rather than taking the shuttle bus (you can also hire bikes to get about) and were invited to make a wish on the tree of wishes, a beautiful tree covered in red and yellow ribbons. We were sneaky and looked at the wishes of others, some of them quite amusing.
Further down, we noticed an ice cream parlour (above), luring us in with its multicoloured choices of gelato and toppings, a total kids (and adults) dream. Some evenings, you'll find a film being screened on the beach, so best to check out daily what's going on as you wouldn't want to miss out. We didn't feel landlocked at all, but tours out to neighbouring islands can easily be arranged. Everyday, the hotel fills glass bottles with prizes and they’re left dotted over the island. Some guests take this daily treasure hunt seriously, up at sunrise to start the search. Prizes range from a bottle of wine at dinner to a spa treatment, and finding the bottles is a lot of fun. I must make a special mention to Sowkat, one of the buggy drivers, who assisted us in finding one on our last day. He always had a brilliant smile and greeting everyday and we looked forward to seeing him.
What I loved:
The casuality of LUX*, the friendly staff, especially some of the golf buggy drivers (as mentioned above) and waiters. Plus the food was incredible, especially the breakfast at East Village. Have I gone on about that too much already?
Another random mention; the toilet up by the East Village is AMAZING (see above). I spent a few private moments in there, dancing to the brilliant club music playing at top volume. A genius and fun addition, really a small example of what LUX* is like. We spent hours snorkelling in the lagoon and I managed to get rid of a long-held fear of the sea. Rather excitingly, LUX* had a new opening in February 2019 at the North Male Atoll, and on my next visit, I plan to divide the stay between two hotels.
What I didn’t love
Going home! Quite honestly, there wasn’t much I didn’t like. Going to and fro between the water and villa sometimes took quite a while, so wasn’t too easy to just nip back and forth and a bit of a pain if you forgot something. Altogether a wonderful relaxing destination that allowed us to totally switch off. I can’t WAIT to go back.
Low season April-December from £332 per night. High season, December-April from £413 per night, both in a beach pavilion