“Show me your glass my friend” says Pavel, a mysterious Russian, as he fills my outstretched tumbler to the brim with thirty-year-old single malt whiskey.
I stand in slack-jawed disbelief, soft reggae lapping at my eardrums, as he then proceeds to empty the remainder of the bottle straight onto the bonfire. As the flames and earthy vapours lick high into the tropical night, enriching the island air and illuminating the many surfed-out souls sprawled languorously on the sand, I see myself from afar. How the hell did I get here? To a place where luxury overflows so gratuitously, that fine malt whisky is cast wantonly onto open flames.
Five days prior to our encounter with the ever-immoderate Pavel, my cousin and life-long amigo Murray Smith and I stand expectantly on a long pontoon adjacent to Malé international airport. We watch through squinted eyes as our 13:45 sea plane transfer touches down in the chalky blue harbour and swings inch perfectly into its parking space. The pilot stops the engines and hops down to introduce himself; his gold striped epaulets, mirrored aviators and polished peaked pilots cap glinting together in the afternoon sunshine. “You’re a 30-minute flight from surfer’s paradise guys, load the boards and let’s get airborne”.
Soon we’re strapped in for takeoff. Twin props rage as the horizon drops out of view beyond the cockpit. The pilot, who’s sitting within arm’s reach, turns around to peer over the rim of his shades and bare his pearlescent teeth once more. As he does so my gaze drops to his feet working away on the pedals beside jettisoned flipflops. “The dudes not wearing any shoes?” I say to Murray whose eyebrows are already raised in awe. “No shoes no worries I guess man, they did say it’s barefoot luxury”.
Niyama Private Island Resort on Huluwalu in the central Maldivian atolls is, for all intents and purposes, a myth. It’s a place so far from what 99.9% of us call ‘the real world’, as to almost be beyond all hope of reach; and yet we all suspect it’s out there, somewhere beyond tangible bounds. Imagine if you will the most remote and beautiful tropical island in the universe. Then continue to imagine that island, only this time, absolutely devoid of every known hardship associated with a tropical destination I.e. heat, insects, lack of infrastructure etc.
And finally, once you’ve imagined all that, please if you will, zoom out until you’ve got an eagle’s eye view of the place and picture it besieged on all sides by perfect, private surf (yes… I did say private). That is the reality upon which, by some miracle, my cousin Murray and I stumbled this May.
Lights from the surf shack reflect kaleidoscopic neon blue and violet in the mirrored liquid ahead, whilst house music reflects faintly off the glassy surface.
Waiting for us as we step from the seaplane into ankle-deep bath temperature water on Huluwalu is the lovely Camile, our personal Thakuru (butler). Our vague clichéd conceptions about stony-faced butlers in starchy white gloves are blown clean out of the water as she floats across the beach, blonde hair caught by the breeze, green eyes ignited by the sea to stretch out a manicured hand in greeting. “Welcome to nature’s playground” she says stressing and softening the syllables iambic-ally through rounded lips in a sensual French accent “Your luggage will follow guys. Let me show you to your villa where you can settle in before I introduce you to your surf guide”.
Another butler dives in stage left with cold towels that we press gratefully to our faces and necks before climbing into a golf buggy beside Camile. As we do so I overhear another of the new guests, a young girl clutching her father’s hand on the beach say “Daddy, is this the most beautifulist place in the world?”. I chuckle to myself as we buzz off into the island interior, the sun flashing star-like between palms lining the sandy pathway.
Before long we’re sat at a waterside restaurant named Dune, putting away fresh tuna steaks and cold Coronas whilst discussing the mind-boggling magnificence of the room we’ve just been handed the keys to, a room with beds bigger than full-size billiard tables, indoor and open-air bathrooms sporting rain showers that could be mistaken for waterfalls, a sundeck on which you could land a light aircraft, a swimming pool fit for Phelps, a banging Bose entertainment system, fully stocked deli to rival most small high street supermarkets and a humidor crammed wall-to-wall with Cuban cigars.
As the last exquisite piece of tuna vanishes off the end of my fork a lively lad by the name of Ricardo trots up to our table. “I’m your surf guide. You guys wanna go catch a few lefts before sunset?” he asks semi-rhetorically, knowing full well what our response will be.
We warm to Ricardo instantly, a young guy, super casual, but without the carelessness that generally comes with it. He adds our numbers to the surf club’s WhatsApp group and explains how, each morning at first light, and again later in the afternoon, he will head out on a jet ski to check the three local breaks Kasabu, Vodi (which breaks directly onto the island) and Hocus Pocus. “I upload film of each break, along with tide times, wind directions and swell predictions for the rest of the day” he says “then I suggest the best location for our morning and afternoon sessions”.
I stare at him stupefied and reply “So all we have to do is check our phones and turn up?”. “That’s it man. Your push bikes have board racks so just come and meet us where it’s good. Tonight, that happens to be a Vodi, our own private ‘world class’ left. See you down there in 20 minutes?”.
The DJ gives us a wink from her palm thatched booth as we arrive at the beach bar on Vodi point. After planting the kickstands on our chopper bikes, we de-rack boards and skip straight down a flight of purpose-built stairs to the paddle out spot. Like ancient Indian firewalkers Murray and I pick our way tenderly out to deeper water across the uneven reef. As we do so Ricardo catches sight of us from the line-up and raises an arm in salute, his solitary form illuminated above the gilded sea by the glow of a sun hidden low behind palms to the west. Through more luck than judgement Murray and I time the paddle to perfection and pull up out the back beside him without getting our hair wet.
After high fives all round our faces turn in unison toward fractures on the smooth horizon, an approaching set. Perfect host that he is, Ricky remains upright and signals for us to take our pick. Murray takes off on a wide one and gets pummelled by the close out, his board thrashing wildly above the white water like a small kite in too much wind. Chuckling I angle myself slightly for a backhand takeoff, submit to motor memory, and paddle into the last wave of the set whilst Ricardo whoops approval.
My outstretched fingers plough furrows in the steepening wall and time slows. Lights from the surf shack reflect kaleidoscopic neon blue and violet in the mirrored liquid ahead, whilst house music reflects faintly off the glassy surface. I apply a bit of front foot, blurring the lights and racing through a steeper section on the reef knuckle before sitting back and pulsing to a cruisy finale. All too soon, after a handful of similar rides, it’s just us and the moon. Content to have squeezed in a session before bed we catch our last ones back to the foot of the stairs. Jade and Nick, a pair of honeymooners we befriended on the flight, are waiting with ice cold beers at the water’s edge. As I’m dragged around the sandy dancefloor in front of the shack, board in one hand, beer in the other, I wondering if, for a surfer, life can get any better.
We head out to dinner on our bikes slightly tipsy that evening following the après surf beers at the Vodi beach bar. Murray races ahead, dicing dangerously with the staunch looking roots of the Ficus Benghalensis trees that skirt the path. I watch him disappear up ahead and slow down to take a moment to myself. Flashing through pools of light welling below the path lights, I enjoy the warm wind across slightly sun burned skin. Feeling that kind of joyous lethargy and freshness only a surfer knows; the one that comes from hours of exercise in a cool briny sea followed by a warm shower and freshly donned clothes. I tilt my head back toward the Milky Way, breathing deep the aromas of spice gardens hidden deep amid the forest. As I bring my head back level I notice the wooden plaque between my handlebars with my name skilfully engraved thereon.
I can’t help but smirk at this, it sums up perfectly the lengths to which the resort will go in the interest of customer comfort. They know full well that when I’m stumbling drunkenly along the bike rack later that evening, trying to figure out which of the contraptions is mine, I’ll be in desperate need of a name tag. Soon Murray and I arrive at a solitary pontoon, at the end of which waits a small boat. I say a boat, it’s more like a motorised floating couch. We climb aboard and begin our journey, reclined in silken luxury, guided by submerged lighting in the reef channel, to a uniquely located restaurant called Edge, which stands stilted and alone below sweeping white canvas, one kilometre offshore, hemmed by the unbroken horizon.
A dinner of absurd decadence is waiting for us at Edge. At a table inches from a vertical drop into the deep blue we enjoy all the succulent delights of the Indian Ocean. Fresh oysters followed by yellowfin tuna tartar, coral lobster and tiger prawns. Our private sommelier (I never thought I’d say those words) recommends wine to compliment every dish. Dinner over, and with palates refreshed by a locally grown coconut, passion fruit, pineapple and mango desert sensation we are ushered, together with our new friends Nick and Jade, down a flight of stairs and onwards toward by far the most unique experience of the night; cocktails in an underwater nightclub.
Feeling like the villainous Karl Stromburg in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ I lead the way six meters down the steep, shadowy staircase. As I push the heavy doors that seal the corridor asunder we’re bathed in a brilliant blue light as the artificially illuminated reef rises beyond panelled glass at the club’s perimeter.
Having set the TV to timer mode, I’m woken the next morning by Niyama’s dedicated surf forecasting channel. Conditions are looking perfect for Kasabu (the right that breaks off the neighbouring island of Kudahuvadhoo) and my WhatsApp plinks continually with excited messages from Riccardo telling us to get our butts to the boat transfer. As the electric curtains whir open at the end of my bed, I’m temporarily blinded by the morning sun; detail soon returns to reveal a line of ten guys with rakes, reversing methodically across the beach in front of the villa, smoothing out every imperfection in their path. Sublime quickly turns ridiculous as I notice another group of island workers wheeling a fumigator machine through the beach front foliage.
As they progress, thick bluesish smoke billows from a long tube killing every insect within a twenty-foot radius. With mixed emotions regarding such extreme levels of meticulous manicureisation I check for mosquito bites, realise I haven’t a single one, and set about waxing my board for the off.
Being a natural footer I’m more excited than my goofy shipmates as we motor out to the right at Kudahuvadhoo corner. The trip takes all of about five minutes, we cream up on the journey and start lobbing ourselves into the line-up before the boat comes to a stop. Unseasonably light wind from the north west (considering its June and the height of the monsoon), and a small groundswell from the south west, are opposing each other to glorious effect.
As I paddle yet again toward a perfect empty line up, the silence is broken momentarily by a jet ski smoking abrasively into the channel. A mean looking guy on the back, who I later recognise to be the 2015 WSL World Champ Adriano de Souza, throws himself into the drink and paddles off like lightning ahead of me. Moments later the driver drops an anchor and follows suit, sporting swim fins and a giant camera housing.
“Look over your shoulder sir, all the Brazilian’s are here this week… that’s Gabriel Medina.”
The cold pastel gold of the morning, and a continued stream of crouching cover ups, make for a memorable session. As I paddle back up the point after what I deem to be a well-executed ride, I watch Adriano drop late into the wave of the day. He tucks into a tiny barrel, flies out, up, and off the face, throws a full rotation and drops back into the wave before laying waste to the rippling lip in a relentless series of vertical snaps. Suddenly feeling beyond inadequate I decide my time would be better spent taking snaps from the boat. I paddle back, grab the zoom and head up to the sundeck to revel in the mastery of ADS.
By midday we’re back at the resort having drinks on Vodi point. Even though the swell is building, and a couple of guys are in the water, I’m all paddled out from the early shift. Still feeling slightly star struck I show the barman shots from our earlier session on the back of my camera. He nods in approval and smiles “Look over your shoulder sir, all the Brazilian’s are here this week… that’s Gabriel Medina.” And so it was; two world champs in as many hours. Saluting the barman, surprised yet again to be rubbing rash vests with the world’s greatest, I sink the last of my drink and head down to the reef to see if I can’t nab a few shots of yet another surfing legend.
So, for a surfer of modest means, is a stay at a super-luxury five-star private island resort like Niyama justifiable? Should we be supporting the privatisation of world-class waves, or any waves for that matter? Does it undermine everything that’s great about surfing in the first place i.e. the freedom of enjoyment it offers to all, not just the privileged few? Well, when you’re dropping unimpeded into your tenth glassy pearler of the day you definitely don’t miss the hustle of a crowded line-up, especially when you ride nothing but a desk for the other 340 days of the year.
If you like the thrill of the chase, and the added satisfaction that comes from having suffered in search of some secluded secret spot, maybe a manufactured paradise like the one here described isn’t for you. Niyama is for the guys and girls who’ve done nothing but graft for waves since the early days; for people who’ve been around the world on a budget, sweated it out searching for swell, and tasted all too many times the disappointment that comes with intrepid speculation. At Niyama, for £700 per night (starting price) wealthy wave riders, well-healed honeymooners or those simply willing to lay down a solid slice of their life savings can achieve, whilst in the lap of the most exquisite luxury, a weekly wave count beyond all belief.
On Niyama, the search for undiscovered secrets doesn’t exist since the secret, thanks to Ricardo and the rest of the team, is right in front of you day after day after day. The culturally conscientious part of me disagrees with the privatisation of peeling points but the wave hungry, hardworking, holiday-maker in me just wants to be as fiscally irresponsible as necessary in the interests of relaxation, revelry and rides. The tears that welled in the corners of my eyes immediately preceding our departure are testament to the sort of time a surfer can have if he or she is willing to make a significant financial sacrifice.
All photos Maxwell Roche