Across the water and into the future, in the Maldives


Some of the most innovative architecture on the planet is being built in the most improbable and difficult of places, in the middle of the Indian Ocean

Across the water and into the future, in the Maldives

It’s easy to lose track of time in the Maldives. I don’t just mean that whole hours can slip away as you drift through cerulean sea over reefs teeming with spectacular, strange and sometimes just plain stupid-looking fish, or that you can lose an afternoon to a long relaxed snooze under the sun. I mean that different Maldivian islands have their own individual timezones, to ensure that the sun doesn’t set before you sit down to your evening meal. I think we can all agree that the stately turn of the planet as it orbits our nearest star ought not to inconvenience our dinner plans. On a three-stop trip around the Maldives, you might therefore be on Maldivian, Cambodian or Bangladeshi time: be prepared to be late for one of your snorkelling, spa or dining experiences.

When resetting your watches, you should also recalibrate your notion of modernity

When resetting your watches, you should also recalibrate your notion of modernity. Below we highlight four of the newest design-forward resorts to have opened in the Maldives’ thousands of islands and atolls, but these are being unveiled against, well, a veiled backdrop. Flogging remains a favoured tool of the judiciary system, and should you be using a dating app here, you’ll see a message that emanates not from any twenty-first century timezone at all, warning that “same sex sexual conduct” is a criminal activity, punishable under Sharia Law. Welcome to paradise.

The St Regis Maldives at Vommuli by Mark C. O’Flaherty

We live in interesting times, and it can be tricky for travellers to reconcile their personal attitudes with their desire for a holiday in a place whose politics are problematic. Maldivian attitudes seem unlikely to change any time soon; meantime, the government aims to increase visitor numbers to seven million a year (from the current 1.3m) in the next decade. As a design destination, it’s already moving at warp speed. What, exactly, will the Maldives look like in a decade’s time? If these designs are any indication, like nothing else on earth.



Maldivian designer Mohamed “Sappe” Shafeeq has drawn inspiration from island design and traditional architecture, putting a fresh spin on traditional Maldivian design for his Milaidhoo project. “Story of a small island” is the marketing tag, and it is small indeed.

Milaidhoo by Mark C. O’Flaherty

Villas may look like the prows of ships erupting from the sand, but they are completed with traditional thatched roofs. Interiors are unfussy and contemporary, with a palette of pale wood, white and aqua, and neat details: ceiling fans resemble orchids, while the bedside alarm clock is styled like the propellers of the sea-plane that has brought you here.

Milaidhoo by Mark C. O’Flaherty

Signature restaurant Ba’theli is, extraordinarily, the only Maldivian restaurant in the Maldives. It’s also the resort’s most striking and photogenic feature. Fashioned as Ark-sized replicas of two dhoni – traditional Maldivian fishing boats – afloat on the lagoon, Ba’theli lets diners sit out on the water, on the lookout for a curious lemon shark drawn to floodlighting below the waterline. The restaurant is accessed via a walkway whose clever use of rough-grained wood makes it appear to change colour in different directions.



Architect Jean-Michel Gathy has brought his signature aesthetic of restrained opulence to Randheli. His island villas are 130 square-metre giants, rising to triple-height gable roofs. Huge and airy open-plan spaces, the villas also include sets of swivelling shutters that allow the bedroom area to be screened off for privacy.

Cheval Blanc Randheli by Mark C. O’Flaherty

At strategic points, the straight lines and clean angles of the public spaces – such as the Japanese-style semi-private dining room, a cubic pagoda overlooking the beach – give way to wave-like curvilinears, as in the undulating wall of overlapping verdigrised copper panels by Reception, or organic influences, as in the decorations of the Guerlain spa, which look they’ve been dredged, or grown, from the coral reef. Le 1947, the resort’s fine dining restaurant, creates “rooms” from translucent white curtains, and uses a subtle, pleasingly integrated design palette of white with a red detail, apparent in everything from the servers’ uniforms to the red stitching on the white leather placemats, as well as in the symmetrical patterning of red hemispheres, by artist Vincent Beurin, on the wall.

Cheval Blanc Randheli by Mark C. O’Flaherty

Subtle details reinforce the property’s identity: the signature taupe of Le Cheval Blanc is lifted here by flashes of acid yellow on ornaments and soft furnishings throughout. In the White Restaurant, Manuel Merida’s wall-mounted “sand clock”, a fixture of other Cheval Blancs, is echoed in the menu design. And a stunning wine cellar beneath Le 1947 prioritises (but doesn’t force upon guests) wines from vineyards owned by Le Cheval Blanc’s parent company LVMH.

One thing you won’t find is a copy of the equine statue by Bruno Peinado that stands in Le Cheval Blanc Courcheval: instead, to avoid falling foul of local laws regarding idolatry, a highly stylised, gate-like sculpture, also by Beaurin, greets visitors.



The only Maldivian island to operate two hours ahead of Malé, Amilla manages to take full advantage of its equatorial jungle setting while also incorporating strikingly incongruous European-style architecture and design.

The pick of Amilla’s suites are its dozen Wellness Treehouses, each with its own private plunge pool, couples massage room, and a small outdoor exercise area with TRX ropes: the West London-originated Bodyism brand has a studio on site, and a trainer who’ll come and – sorry – show you the ropes. The highest of these treehouses stands 12 feet up in the trees – just the right height for you to eyeball the fruit bats that come to snack in the coconut palms.

Amilla Fushi by Mark C. O’Flaherty

Architect and designer Kelvin Ho has given villas numerous striking and pleasing details: wall sconces that pattern the walls with radiating lines like sunbeams, and attractive geometric tiles in the bathrooms and massage rooms (as well as in the restaurants).

While the setting is unmistakably in the tropics, the design of public areas here takes cues from the European: the poolside, and the four-postered beach pagodas that surround it, have a Mediterranean feel, bolstered by the variety of dining options in the “Baazaar” collective (including, alongside Asian options, a pizzeria and fish and chip shop). The signature restaurant, Feeling Koi, meantime, has a streamlined yet spacious, Scandinavian feel. In a further Euro touch, guests staying in the Residences can drive themselves around Amilla in golf buggies customised, by manufacturers Guangdong Lvtong, to resemble classic motorcars.



For unequivocally the most stunning overall design among these four, The St Regis Maldives (pictured top), Singapore-based architects WoW drew inspiration from the lifeforms teeming in the atoll reefs. The individual spa rooms are designed to resemble bivalves, the boutique a squid, and the activity centre Vommuli House a large, branching banyan tree – all of them fashioned wherever possible from wood, to make this an impressive project ecologically as well as aesthetically.

The St Regis Maldives at Vommuli by Mark C. O’Flaherty

Really what you want to stay in when visiting the Maldives is an overwater villa set on stilts above the reef, so that you can sit on your sundeck and dangle your feet in the water to entertain clown fish. These grey-scaled buildings – stylised manta rays, superimposed on a sea of incredible blueness – look distinctly unreal. Interiors – also by WoW – have mosaic panels that resemble the patterning of sunlight on water, and striking blown-glass chandeliers reminiscent of the work of Lindsey Adelman.

The St Regis Maldives at Vommuli by Mark C. O’Flaherty

The original St Regis’s famous mural of Old King Cole receives a tropical twist here, refigured as part of the ceiling of the Whale Bar – a curvilinear, slate-scaled bar that, yes, resembles a whale. There’s even room for the grand sweeping spiral staircase: it doesn’t really lead anywhere, but you could still scurry up and then slowly descend, making a grand entrance to the vast jewel-box of Alba, where breakfast and dinner are served.

The St Regis Maldives at Vommuli by Mark C. O’Flaherty

Subtle touches help integrate the design: a honeycomb motif in Alba is echoed in the geometric tiled walls of the pan-Asian restaurant Orientale, while the swirled triangle where the three “arms” of the overwater boardwalks meet recurs in the skylight at the centre of Vommuli House. The lighting design on the island is nowhere more impressive than in wine cellar Decanter, illuminated by dozens of blown-glass pendants that hang from the ceiling, like the strangest of reef creatures. C