It can be difficult for a resort to stand out in the Maldives. Overwater villas, private pools and endless ocean vistas have become de rigueur for luxury hotels in the island chain. But JOALI Maldives has managed to set itself apart by offering all those amenities with artistic flair. Everything from its treehouse dining space to the chairs dotting the resort takes on unusual forms that make for lots of Instagram fodder, and there’s even an art studio where you can create your own masterpieces.
On top of that, the Maldives resort recently earned its first Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star rating in the 2022 Star Awards, which means that you can expect virtually flawless service there.
Here are more reasons why this art-driven retreat is unique:
One of the biggest and most Instagrammable art pieces at the Maldives hotel is the treehouse hoisted among the palm fronds. Cape Town artist Porky Hefer, known for producing oversized mutant marine creatures, shaped the treehouse into a manta ray with a winding wooden walkway as its tail. The structure is a nod to the Maldives containing the world’s largest population of reef mantas.
Not merely an artwork, the aquatic animal sculpture serves as an intimate private dining venue. It’s a whimsical alternative to JOALI’s other destination dining options, including private meals on the beach or a sandbank. In the manta, curved banquettes look out over the treetops and the stunning aquamarine waters beyond.
You can choose from Indonesian, Sri Lankan and Maldivian menus, but we opted for breakfast. The table, dressed with a white lacy crocheted cloth, had a spread that included “Our Favorite,” a satisfying omelet studded with Parma ham, salty halloumi, dried heirloom tomatoes and garnished with arugula; the flavorful Maldivian omelet with onion, Maldivian chilli, curry leaf, spicy katta sambol and moringa leaves; a basket of freshly made pastries; and a steaming glass pot of black tropical tea. The treehouse’s unusual design, secluded perch and views made for a memorable meal.
Among the 73 villas, the 49 overwater options are the most popular. But the beach villas are also enticing — they have picturesque alfresco tubs and direct access to the sand. Location aside, both villas share the same amenities: each comes with a jadugar (a butler), bikes, Apple TVs, Bose sound systems, white Illy coffee machines, a sprawling pool and outdoor showers and cabana lounge areas.
Soaring cathedral ceilings make the villas feel vast but touches like beautiful dark wood sliding doors and dividers carved with palm patterns, pale blue and pink throw pillows and rugs, curvaceous bedside lamps and rose-gold accents add warmth. Another design highlight: The separate shower and toilet stall are both covered in dark green and white swirling marble.
Of course, there’s also art. The centerpiece is Turkish artist Seckin Pirim’s work that hangs on the wall. A pearl sits in the middle surrounded by ripples of darkening turquoise oval rings. The colors recall the waves outside.
When you examine the thoughtful touches throughout, it’s apparent that a woman (that is, forward-thinking Turkish entrepreneur/hotel owner Esin Güral Argat) had a hand in designing the spaces — the expansive dressing areas have sit-down vanities lined with bright lightbulbs and magnifying mirrors, toiletry kits include hairbands, and in addition to the hairdryer, there’s a straightener.
The Arrival Jetty
After landing at Male’s Velana International Airport, hop in an SUV for a seven-minute ride to JOALI’s complimentary seaplane terminal lounge. As you wait for the last leg of the trip, the lounge eases you into your vacation. You’ll instantly unwind upon inhaling the lemongrass-scented air and feel refreshed after a long flight with chilled lemongrass towels and either non-alcoholic champagne, coffee or tea.
Though you’ll really feel like you have arrived once the seaplane glides over the hotel’s jetty, a double-helix pattern that trails almost a mile into the Indian Ocean (it was designed to snake around the coral reefs), and lands in front of the distinctive pavilion. The undulating roof makes it look like a manta ray or waves, and inside the alfresco space, beaded walls resemble a life-sized abacus. It hints at what awaits on shore.
The Art Experiences
To explore your creative side, make your way to the art studio, where resident artist Nataliya Kuleshova conducts pottery, painting and drawing workshops. The Moscow native draws inspiration from nature for her own work.
The female-owned resort aims to foster gender equality, and it found a way to do that through art. It recently launched Women in Arts, a program that gives ladies a platform through the arts and spotlights their talents. Local women visit the property to hone their skills through training and workshops facilitated by Kuleshova. Their resulting artworks and crafts are then sold at the property. Additionally, the program collaborates with local schools and communities.
The program also works with prominent female artists from all over the world. JOALI Maldives invites them for a one-night-only art-immersive, interactive dinner. Past meals have included the chef plucking various herbs and flowers from the onsite garden to make natural pigment paints for the guests to create art on the dinner tablecloth. In August, the visiting artist will be NYC-based Elizabeth Sutton, who is known for her bright, bold works. The artist and designer will host a dinner that will feature a hands-on art experience that incorporates bespoke patterns inspired by the island. Throughout the meal, Sutton will help guests create their own mixed-media butterfly artworks, reminiscent of her signature 3D pieces.
While big pieces like the treehouse and the arrival jetty steal the attention, smaller nature-themed artwork (all curated by Istanbul company No LaB) is found throughout the 24-acre private island. And you’ll discover it in the unlikeliest of places, like chairs.
Hefer adopts another animal for his Kara chair that dangles from a tree poolside. It’s fashioned like a grey heron — the Maldives’ national bird — where you sit in the head and sprawl your legs out on the cushion tongue and let them hang from the beak. Under a palm, Spanish designer Nacho Carbonell’s Evolution Chair looks like a snail. Be social and sit on the yellow bench portion or hide in the black shell. Coral inspired New York artist Misha Kahn’s long, vibrant mosaic table and stools behind Mura.
Take a self-guided art tour of the property by seeking out the works and reading the plaques next to each.
The luxury hotel offers several dining options, including Vandhoo, which churns out delectable Southeast Asian, Chinese and Indian cuisines; Bellinis, where you can sip the namesake drink and housemade limoncellos and savor Italian food from noted chef Theodor Falser; TUH’U, which specializes in Levant fare; and Mura, the bright aqua-walled indoor-outdoor poolside bar.
Though the must-visit spot is Saoke, both for its design and food. Conceived by Tokyo architect Noriyoshi Muramatsu, the Japanese restaurant is atmospheric. At night, the illuminated wooden walkway leads to the glowing overwater venue. Inside, backlit wooden bookcases artfully displaying Japanese liquor bottles flank the wooden path to the bar, where stacked wood beams form square cutouts on the ceiling. The modern open-air space affords water vistas, but if you want to get closer to the waves, opt to sit on the pier at the live-edge table.
Chef Hidemasa Yamamoto, who has restaurants in Singapore and Dubai, oversees the menu, which includes sushi, teppanyaki, tempura and robata (charcoal grill) and Nikkei (a fusion of Japanese and Peruvian) dishes. We started with the assorted tempura. Crispy, well-battered pieces of prawns, white fish, pumpkin, eggplant and more arrived on a plate with long beaded handles. Then we moved on to the delicious lightly battered shrimp tempura roll (stuffed with shrimp, avocado and tobiko) and one of Yamamoto’s trademark dishes: light, chilled handmade soba noodles with citrus, spring onion and crunchy tenkasu in soup. The soba is crowned with a generous helping of Imperial Sevruga caviar, an artful touch.