Katie Roberts visits the Maldives to see how conservationists at Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru and its sister resort Angsana Velavaru are taking steps to protect the stunning coral reefs from the impact of climate change. It isn’t all hardwork though – she also finds time to check out the spa and sample a cocktail!
No Maldives holiday is complete without an exploration of life under the water – the abundance of colourful fish and coral allow for an escape and respite from our own urban reality. In fact, along with discovering its famed romantic side, snorkelling and diving are two of the best reasons to visit this beautiful country. It’s reassuring, then, that the environmental and social initiatives of luxury accommodation group Banyan Tree include more than 20 years of conservation work in the Maldives. Group Director of Conservation, Dr Steve Newman, says there are few places in the world that are as dependent on their environment, so Banyan Tree’s trailblazing work has been crucial. “
We started out with marine biologists who were educating and guiding guests, and planting corals – and that’s since become the norm in the Maldives. Now it’s widely accepted that any new resort should hire marine biologists,” he says. “Without the pristine environment, people wouldn’t come here. Everything is here because of the coral reefs – they make the islands.”
The seventh-largest reef network in the world includes 26 atolls (ringshaped coral reefs) and 1,192 islands – just 200 of which are inhabited. Among the latter are stunning Velavaru and Vabbinfaru, home to two of the resort group’s Maldivian properties. The latter is where I meet Steve, at Banyan Tree’s Marine Conservation Lab. Nearby is a tank of very cute month-old green sea turtles – recently hatched from protected nests, and in the process of being lovingly reared for up to 24 months. The turtles are part of a programme to improve their survival rates once they are released into the wild. Sharks are another priority animal species, as they were heavily fished until a ban was introduced in 2010.
Restoration, education and research are the other key factors in the environmental strategy, and they complement the conservation work. “Education is integrated within guest experiences, because the best learning is when you don’t realise you’re learning; when you’re just having fun,” says Steve. This seems particularly appropriate for beautiful resorts like this, where every guest is, after all, taking a holiday.
And how are Maldivian reefs faring after the 2016 global coral bleaching that made headlines across the world? Coral is especially vulnerable to high sea temperatures – which, in the Maldives, are caused by El Niño weather patterns. It can cope for a short period, but if the high temperatures are prolonged, the coral expels the algae living in its tissues, causing it to turn white – hence the term “bleaching”. Steve is optimistic that the reefs could recover quickly, as they did after a similar event in 1998. “As the Maldives has a small population, the reefs can rebound really quickly and have done so in the past – much faster than in other parts of the world,” he says.
There are various opportunities, both passive and active, for guests to learn and see at both the resorts I visited. They include coral planting, as well as twice-weekly talks about all things marine; these are highly recommended (and great accompanied by a pre-dinner cocktail!). On Vabbinfaru, you’ll also have the chance to get involved in nightly stingray feeding, a turtle conservation programme, reef monitoring and weekly reef clean-ups.
With their current custodians, there’s no doubt that these waters are in safe hands.
I can’t think of a more spectacular way to travel to a resort than a 40-minute flight by seaplane over azure seas dotted with atolls, ending in a touchdown on water just metres from a coral reef. Angsana Velavaru is in the southern reaches of the Maldives, so an air transfer from Malé International Airport is the only viable way to get to the tiny island.
Some people will prefer the cosy land villas tucked away among the island’s lush gardens – all with direct beach access – while others will opt for the floating-on-water experience of the in-ocean villas. I stayed in one of the latter, a Sunset Pool Villa with direct access from the back verandah to the clear blue water and the reef for anytime snorkelling, and a rooftop sala for relaxing and enjoying the amazing views.
Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru
It’s barely a five-minute walk (via a quick luggage tag and check-in) from Malé’s airport to the busy jetty where fast boats whisk passengers away to the tropical island paradise that is Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru. I’m impressed by the way the barefoot skippers and the deeply tanned crew in shorts have us settled on the boat in minutes, ready for the 20-minute trip.
The resort’s 48 villas form a ring around the perimeter of the island; all have beach access and private gardens with plunge pool, spa, outdoor shower and a semi-outdoor bathroom. Some villas (mine, for instance!) have a small jetty extending over the fine white sand into the ocean; it’s the most peaceful place to relax. A short stroll along the pathways lined with tropical trees leads you to a sandy-floored bar and restaurant, spa, shop, reception and a marine and sports centre.
Make it happen
- The InOcean Sunrise Pool Villa at Angsana Velavaru is around US$1,480 per night with full board (breakfast, lunch and dinner). Return transfers on Trans Maldivian Airways are US$460 per person.
- An Ocean View Pool Villa at Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru is US$1,069 per night with full board (breakfast, lunch and dinner). Return speedboat transfers from Malé International Airport are US$150 per person.
- Singapore Airlines flies 14 times a week to the Maldives, with fares from $518. Obtain a visa on arrival at the airport. banyantree.com angsana.com singaporeair.com
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