Velaa Private Island, in the Maldives, is a resort for billionaires by billionaires. Where else, in addition to the standard private pool and butler, does the hotel provide a personal submarine? Welcome to the real James Bond island.
In true 007 style, as if seeking an exotic rendezvous with Scaramanga, I arrive at sunset by seaplane. Velaa is a 45-minute flight from Malé International Airport. Through the spray and bumps, Velaa appears like a beautiful oasis. Its name translates as “turtle”, not only because it’s a popular nesting spot but because its shape is reminiscent of a turtle shell, and the thatched-roofed overwater villas are arranged to represent the head.
The island is really quite tiny with most of its 47 private villas spread a discrete distance apart on the wrap-around beach and others sprouting from the sea. There is also the highly sought-after ‘Romantic Villa’ that can only be reached by boat. In the centre of the island is a compact golf course, sketched by two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal, and other seductive leisure facilities. Several long pontoons spread out into the lagoon and accommodate pool villas, a restaurant, a My Blend by Clarins spa and a couple of waiting seaplanes and speedboats.
The island was bought by Czech billionaire Jiri Smejc as a present for his wife. The 46-year-old Emma Capital and Home Credit Group founder has spent the last five years and about £200 million of his own cash in making it the most ultra-lux holiday destination in the world, where the rich and famous can come to improve their tans, feast on the finest food, and indulge in every form of watersport.
Velaa is a 25-acre circle of white sand in the glistening cerulean water of the remote Noonu atoll. This is the stuff of the most envied postcards, but then that’s true of much of the Maldives. What marks Velaa out are the toys, and particular attention has been paid to the aquatic garage.
I put on a mask and grab a Seabob from the boathouse. This jet-powered gadget lets me bounce across the reef and dive to the depths like a dolphin. Note to self: Make sure your trunks are always tightly tied. There are flyboards and hoverboards available, if you like your vacations ‘extreme’. Basically, there’s every watery activity you can imagine; scuba diving, jetskiing, jetsurfing, windsurfing, kayaking, paddleboarding, sailing, wakeboarding, waterskiing, kitesurfing, parasailing and big game fishing. I’m probably forgetting something.
There’s a flotilla of vessels available to guests, including a traditional Maldivian wooden ‘Bahtheli’ boat, upon which I enjoy sunset aperos, a 50ft Prestige 500 flybridge motor yacht, and a luxurious dive boat.
The resident dive master takes me out alone and we anchor over Christmas Rock, half an hour’s smooth cruise from Velaa and so-called because of the coral’s giant pyramid shape. The visibility and temperature is as perfect as bath water, and the shades of rock and fauna are pretty vivid. We descend to 28 metres and paddle through tunnels and under ridges. Clouds of fish cross like little silver knives. There are lion fish feeding off flowering coral, octopus lying in wait, many oriental sweetlips – one of the Indian Ocean’s most colourful residents – and, almost completely camouflaged in the champagne-hue sand, a guitar shark. My Maldivian dive master, who is also a marine biologist, starts to get very excited. It’s only the second one he’s ever seen. It eyes us cautiously for a minute and then, with a flick of its long tail, it shoots away across the seabed like a stealthy Lamborghini.
Scuba is certainly the best way of getting up close with the sea life, but it’s not the only underwater option. Velaa has a mini-sub which can accommodate two adventurers and descend around the same depth as my PADI licence will allow. I suppose it’s what you’d call a semi-dry submersible, because you swim into the craft from underneath and then sit on a stool with water up to your waist. A series of pumps control the depth while propellers motor it along, and expert control of the joystick lets you steer inches away from the coral. It’s difficult to gauge because objects are closer than they appear through the thick windscreen and concave portholes either side. The cockpit is very humid and the glamour of my Bondmobile is broken by the sound of the pumps, which has the resemblance of a flushing lavatory.
Taking a mini-sub to the wreck of the Titanic remains a personal ambition, but for me I like my water toys to go as fast as possible. Velaa boasts over half a dozen seriously powerful jet skis and, with my butler dispatched with a Chablis and sashimi-filled hamper, I’m pointed in the direction of ‘Picnic Island’; a 45-minute ride away, most of which I spent a couple of feet in the air. Picnic Island is a wild paradise, completely undeveloped and untouched. The white sand is covered in coral and eggs with seabirds crowding overhead. The shallow water is the same shade as a Tiffany’s box.
The oval shape of Velaa gives me the idea to rope in other guests and stage an Indy 500 of the high seas; a jet ski race around the island.
After all that exertion, you may wish to recover to the out-of-this-world spa, with six private suites that hover above the lagoon on stilts and peer out to the ocean. There are portholes in the floor so that you can watch stingray as you receive a back massage. The spa also has a Cloud 9 floatation suite, an avant-garde pod which slowly sways and cradles you to sleep, and, as incongruous as this sounds, the Maldives’ only snow room.
The food and drink will satisfy the most demanding epicurean. The ivory-coloured Tavaru tower, which is 37ft tall and looks like a butterfly’s cocoon, has a teppanyaki grill on the top and 360 degree views high above the palm trees. Within the structure is the most fabulous wine tasting room with an internal cherry-picker so you can grab impossible-to-reach bottles. This is the largest (and most expensive) cellar in the Maldives. The wine inventory is never under £1 million.
The menus in the property’s three restaurants are international, with many ingredients flown in from around the globe. I haven’t done a whole lot of research on this, but I’d wager their cheese trolley will beat any other within 2,000 miles. Aragu, Velaa’s gourmet restaurant at the end of one of the boardwalks, is actually worth the trip in itself. Having tucked into lobster and Wagyu beef under an installation of illuminated porcelain fish, the sound of the sea lapping under my feet, I suspect a couple of Michelin stars are in Aragu’s future. Given Velaa’s isolation, the chefs here, at Tavaru and the casual beachside Athiri all do a truly astounding job.
Isolation is undoubtedly part of Velaa’s appeal. The toys and food are, for most guests, a welcome bonus because what they are really in search of is peace and privacy. Despite the vast nightly rates and six-figure souvenirs in the onsite boutique, it is a place of discretion. Owner Smejc has referred to the style of the place as “polite luxury”; it’s not in-your-face, and that extends to the service. Several A-listers have visited, but you won’t find out who unless they tell you themselves. And if you require absolute privacy, the whole island can be hired by one guest. Four nights is £1 million. They’ll double that if you polish off the wine, mind.