Cocoa Island: Perfect Zen
Our stay on Cocoa Island was always going to be special. It was, after all, our Honeymoon. But the stars aligned, the angels smiled and Mother Nature herself stepped in to conjure up the most magical ten days of my life so far. I say "so far" because we will certainly go back for seconds.
We arrived at Male early in the morning, stumbling out into the brightest sunshine to see a charming young man smiling at us. He deftly guided us to a spacious boat and handed us cool, lightly scented towels as we sped off to a turquoise horizon.
Half way to our destination the pilot slowed down to let us watch a school of dolphins, playing on the breakers around a reef, leaping into the air in groups of three and four. Our Honeymoon had truly begun.
We soon pulled in to the island's own jetty, where gentle hands steered my disorientated body up the steps and onto terra firma. Our smiling guide, Farin, who we came to know and admire during our stay, escorted us to an open air lounge and handed each of us a chilled green coconut with a straw in it. Perfect.
The island is tiny, only a few hundred metres long, but you wouldn't know it. An immense amount of thought, love and care has gone into this place to make it feel wonderfully spacious and yet intensely private. Cocoa is all about cocooning you, buffering you from the outside world. As you walk over the combed sand, occasionally ducking under the intricately twisted branches of a hibiscus, taking a few indolent moments on one of the many swings and hammocks to marvel at the zillion-shades-of-blue ocean, you forget that you and your loved one are not alone. The only trace of other guests being two pairs of sandals, his 'n' hers, side by side on the steps of a pavilion.
The suites here are dhonis, styled after local fishing boats, generously spaced along a wooden walkway built out into the lagoon. There's a front deck (quite literally, since it's a boat) and a larger back deck with my new best friends; soft, canvas-covered loungers and astute screening for maximum privacy for those "Darling, help me with my suntan lotion" moments. Steps lead down into crystalline water and the smooth sandy bed of the lagoon, where cute, unbelievably bright, and perhaps slightly scary fish swim undeterred and unflustered by human interaction.
Diving is what people here in the Maldives do on their day off. It's part of life, in their blood. And even the locals will tell you that the Cocoa Island reef, just metres from your dhoni, is one of the best there is. It's teeming with Angelfish, Wrasses, Pufferfish and even the Titan Triggerfish on patrol in mating season. We spotted a pair of baby sharks, who stick stubbornly to the shallows until they are big enough to defend themselves out there in the deep. But you don't need to dive to experience the aquatic wonders of the Maldives, you can relax on your deck, cool drink in hand, and watch transparent Needlefish, iridescent Parrotfish, striped Sergeant Majors and yellow Butterflyfish (very romantic, always in pairs) play chase amongst the corals that dot the lagoon floor.
Inside the dhoni is light, airy and spacious. There is no contrived 'native' feel, the emphasis firmly on a soothing, calm ambience. Floor to ceiling windows are draped in embroidered cotton voile, filtering the sunlight and keeping the interior cool and comfortable. Hardwood floors and whitewashed walls play host to huge daybeds heaped with crisp white bolsters and squishy cushions, with a coffee table thoughtfully piled with relevant books, such as our well-thumbed favourite, 'Reef fishes of the Maldives'. The high ceiling is clad in pandanus leaves, and an antique bronze and wood ceiling fan spins quietly, though it's the ac units that do the real work. The bathroom is immense, and balances Zen with luxury. There's a marble clad wetroom, a deep, double ended rolltop bath, twin vanities and open shelves stuffed full of fluffy white towels and indulgent Como Shambhala toiletries. Up the open-tread stairs to the bedroom where you'll find a divinely comfortable low-slung bed with thick, soft linen plus another bathroom, so you really don't have to leave the bedroom if you don't want to... but then you'd be missing out on the Spa.
The Como Shambhala Spa is integral to the Cocoa Island experience. Physically it takes up half of the island, with its individual treatment rooms, reception room and yoga pavilion peppered throughout the frangipane trees. The staff are gentle souls; smiling but serious in their work. There's none of the idle gossip you might get at the local beauty salon. This is spa raised to an art form.
I had chosen the Javanese Royal Lulur Bath, which sounded fit for a Princess and in reality was worthy of a Goddess; a divine, cossetting, pampering bliss for two and a half hours. Taking in the gentle sound of the breeze in the palms, the textures and scents of the Ayurvedic-inspired scrubs, oils and lotions, while my adorable therapist led me gently from jetlag to nirvana, was truly a highlight of my stay. Oh and don't forget the ginger tea. Their own special recipe, the Como Shambhala ginger tea is a wondrous thing, offered at the end of all spa treatments. Sweet and uplifting, it soothes and warms the body whilst sharpening the brain. The Como Shambhala Spa is something everyone should experience at least once in their life.
The Como Shambhala ethos touches all parts of the island, including, much to my delight, the food. Shambhala cuisine makes up about one third of the menu, introducing a lighter touch, adding steamed rather than fried, wholewheat rather than white, fruit rather than chocolate variations of the restaurant's exquisitely crafted pan Asian fare. Fish, whether steamed, barbecued, skewered, sushi or fried, takes pride of place, but whatever you choose there's a fabulous wine list to go with it. There's a casual edge to Cocoa dining; you can hardly aspire to rigid formality when half the diners are wearing a kaftan and flip flops, but the warmth of the staff is endearing and the attention to detail is at once perfect and unobtrusive.
As a special treat, a wedding gift, we dined "under the stars" one evening; surrounded by magnificent hurricane lamps, in perfect privacy amid palms and red hibiscus with the gentle rhythm of the tide just yards away. Holding hands, toes buried in the cooling sand, my husband said, "If I hadn't already done it, this is where I would want to propose." What more do you need to know?
Louise Santa Ana