Paradise, Backstage

Travel Stories: What happens when a guy who buys luggage at Target finds himself in a $16,000-a-night villa in the Maldives? Andrew Evans reports from the lap of luxury.

07.26.10 | 11:21 AM ET

Photo by Andrew Evans

“Joan Collins stayed here,” name-dropped the marketing manager. He paused for my reaction. He reached out with one hand and tilted a silken square pillow just so atop a mountain of other pillows piled on the circular day bed. His other hand pretended to rub a memory from his forehead: “Paul McCartney, too.”

The world’s highest-class hotels typically brandish airtight non-disclosure agreements—the rich and famous pay extra for privacy. And yet, celebrity stays sell suites to the middle-class masses, which is why PR people don’t mind leaking Madonna’s one-night roost in Bangkok or pointing out the 12-story beachfront high-rise that housed W’s entourage in Panama City. 

I had originally been sent to the Maldives to write about a guest chef from New York City, but later picked up a few assignments to review the property: the Conrad Rangali Resort. Reviewing luxury hotels well is both an art and a bit of a sham. I personally will never spend $16,000 for a hotel room. I buy my luggage at Target and enjoy eating bagel dogs at the airport. How come I get to be a Judge Judy of five-star resorts?

The Maldivean resort’s ultra-private Sunset Water Villa is more worthy of someone like Joan Collins, a Dynasty star with a hip replacement. After the private seaplane carries guests to the private island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, a white golf cart carries them down the long wooden bridge to a distant private over-water bungalow on stilts with Japanese paper walls and a palm thatch roof. Indoors, square glass floor panels reveal the aquamarine water below, where, like a screen saver, real-life reef sharks buzz past every few seconds.

During their stay, guests need never leave the villa—they can soak in their private outdoor Jacuzzi (maximum occupancy eight adults) or descend from their private deck into the bath-warm sea. Tropical architecture keeps the outside world from looking in while granting a picture window view of an empty blue horizon from every one of the airy rooms. One may pee in a different toilet every day of the week—almost—and should one ever run out of drinks (not possible) or crave a midnight snack of grilled spiny lobster or want one’s ceiling fan adjusted down one-and-a-half degrees cooler, a 24-hour butler smiles a magazine smile and says, “Done.”

I stood in the middle of this Condé Nast centerfold and wondered who deserved this $16,000-a-night pad-on-stilts. My mother and father, of course. Me and all my very best friends—my mind began designing an imaginary Evite to worthy friends but by mid-page we had already outnumbered the fire marshal’s recommended maximum capacity. I consoled myself with the silver platter of raw oysters in front of me, then looked down and watched another slender shark slither past, four feet below my own feet.

I keep telling myself that it’s a job like any other. I get paid to opine on executive floors and junior suites and elite spas. I describe the difference between this nice place and that nice place, but I am rarely impartial. If a hotel claims to have Wi-Fi but I can’t pick it up in my room—well, I might take that very personally and feel the need to mention it. And if some marketing manager has the foresight to leave a platter of aged French cheeses in my room, then I might just think that theirs is the most perfect little hotel on earth. In “Notes from a Big Country,” Bill Bryson confesses that his allegiances can be purchased with a doughnut. Likewise, a hotel may gain my good favor with a medium-sized chunk of Roquefort.

The Conrad Rangali failed to bring any cheese to my room, but it did have a climate-controlled cheese-tasting cellar and a full-time fromagier—a local Maldivian who had never seen a cow in his life until the company sent him to France for two years of study and he earned a degree in cheese. Now he gets paid to help guests choose between, say, a lesser-known triple cream Brie and the AOC Pont L’évêque. The kindly Filipino sommelier can then help pair the perfect wine from their collection of 3,000 bottles, including a $52,000 magnum of pink Champagne that I cradled with both hands. (I wondered, stupidly: Was that charged on a single check or could the waiter run it on a handful of different cards?)

Extreme luxury is not a soulmate to extreme privacy. The natural laws of travel declare that far from the madding crowd is also quite far from our usual comforts—be they McDonald’s and 3G networks or else Tiffany’s, memory foam mattresses, the perfect soufflé and a 24-hour emergency room. The quest to have one’s luxurious cake and eat it undisturbed is what inspired the invention of the motor home and what spawns private island resorts like the Conrad Rangali. But to make the desert island dream come true requires building a whole new civilization on that desert island, rendering it desert no more. 

Providing 350 guests with a Park Avenue version of Robinson Crusoe requires the work of 700 staff who live on the island for six-week shifts. The cleaners, cooks and gardeners are all housed in a separate staff village, hidden from view by vine-twisted walls of thick tropical growth and angry KEEP OUT signs. I looked over the wall—took a peek into the staff’s world and saw their private mosque; their underwear drying on a clothesline.

No matter what side of that wall we were on—whether we were paying or getting paid to live on Rangali—together, we made up the population of this speck of sand in the sea: British bankers with Channel Island addresses, shady Russian byznessmeny with broken noses and pouty 19-year-old girlfriends, mid-career celebrities looking for peace, rich Arab wives who clinked diamond bracelets beneath covers of black cloth. Also, the fromagier, the sommelier, the dive master and the marketing manager. The women who raked the white-sand beaches in the morning and the women who followed behind, removing every dead leaf from the ground. The guys who cooked lunch for the women who raked the sand, and me—the American guy with Marxist pretensions who was reviewing the hotel.

I imagine that in some of the Titanic’s lifeboats, the crew and first-class passengers sat side by side. For a few brisk hours, they were all similar, adrift in the middle of an open sea. Remote, high-end resorts feel similar—the staff and guests may go home to very different worlds but for a little while, they all occupy the same wondrous destination.

I asked the marketing manager for a tour of the staff village—said it was necessary for my review. He kindly obliged, brushing past the KEEP OUT signs and pointing out the halal cafeteria, the indoor air-conditioned badminton court, the outdoor movie theater, and the staff gym. Dormitories were decorated with tender bits of home, even a live goldfish swimming in a glass bowl—an ironic sight given the Maldives’ bright coral reefs and the tropical fish that swam freely around the island.

“You have a much better gym than the guests,” I pointed out, and it was true. What I saw was a veritable Gold’s compared to the beachside yoga studio at the resort.

“Well, we find that guests don’t like to exercise so much when they’re on vacation,” he replied. “Our staff need this—it’s important that they feel comfortable when they’re so far away from home.” I agreed.

In the late afternoon, I happened upon a rowdy game of volleyball on the palm-shaded beach not far from my own private villa. It was near the end of day, after the long hot hours when everyone—guest and staff—stops everything and waits for the sun to move along in the sky.

“Wanna play?” yelled a lanky, dark-skinned boy. “We need another on our team.” I had stared too long at him and so he recruited me for his back row. He was one of the villa butlers and was eager that I join. The other players were the dishwashers, waiters, and kitchen staff from the restaurant—all on break until five o’clock.

It didn’t matter that I was a foot taller than the rest of them because I play volleyball like a fish. I mustered up all my middle school gym skills and gave it my best shot, knocking the ball and hitting the net, then accidentally stepping on each of my teammates’ toes. After every disastrous play, the skinny dark kid came up and patted me on the back.

“It’s no problem,” he laughed and shook his head. He said it again and again, especially after we lost and switched sides, then lost again. The team with the tall white guy got whupped, but no one seemed to mind: For this one brief hour, we were all on vacation on a beautiful private island right on the equator. After game point, we all ran into the sea—12 sweaty bodies diving into the blue jello water of the Indian Ocean. We splashed and shouted like kids, exuberant and silly. I suddenly felt happy and in love with this country, the Maldives. The British bankers looked up from their books in a mix of surprise and condescension and jealousy.

Dripping, I shook hands with my new friends before we all went back to work—they to their kitchen and me to my desk in my private villa—where incidentally, the Wi-Fi worked fabulously.

Andrew Evans is a travel writer based in Washington, D.C. He is a contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler, a speaker for the Smithsonian Institution and he once rode buses all the way to Antarctica.

10 Comments for Paradise, Backstage

Grizzly Bear Mom 07.26.10 | 12:08 PM ET

I wonder if Andrew would have been thrown out of the game if he were a staff member.

nick 07.26.10 | 12:24 PM ET

My wife is a travel agent and I completely understand the weird feeling of interloping on luxury. Our rooms are frequently posh and super-private. But this usually just makes us lonely. We too try to befriend the staff, to chat with our waiter. Anything to cut through the isolation. I like a massage as much as the next guy, but I like sharing a beer with a fellow traveler too. Whenever I’m at the luxury places, I long for a hostel or a guesthouse where such things are possible.

great story.

bunny 07.26.10 | 12:44 PM ET

“Park Avenue version of Robinson Crusoe” Love it! Wonderful piece.

Lexy 07.26.10 | 8:52 PM ET

I really liked this article! Especially the implication that such luxury can be too isolating.

india travel packages 07.27.10 | 2:49 AM ET

Nice article…..

Yasmin Selena Butt 07.27.10 | 6:04 AM ET

I’ve been lucky enough to have worked in the Maldives twice as an English trainer to the staff, and though I loved living in a luxury resort, the experience for me was made special by living in the Maldives and being with the people.

I worked with Maldivians, Indians, Sri Lankans and Bangladeshi’s predominantly, but also got to learn Thai from the Thai carpenter and was shown around Sri Lanka when the watersports instructor took me home to his family. I loved it out there.

Weirdly when I went back on my first official holiday last year initially I felt oddly isolated as I didn’t know the staff! I always feel much, much happier when I’m engaging with local folk, then you finally feel you know a place. Once the staff learned I spoke a bit of dhivehi it all changed and I had a fantastic time on my own terms and was allowed into the staff village

Like the writer, I can imagine feeling a weird sense of disassociation despite all the opulence and beauty all round you. Ultimately, I think you want to feel liked for you being you, not just for the fact you can whack down a platinum card to get the ‘perfect experience.’ 

And if the guests are game, staff love recruiting them for sports and games as they love meeting people from around the world. Being on a wee island all the time can be isolating for staff too, so becoming friends with guests is a two way thing and expands their world view too. That part of the world attracts repeat guests because it’s chilled and beautiful. And also contrary to popular belief it is affordable if you look for a 3star resort.

I would love to visit Rangali, I’ve heard it’s amazing. Don’t think I’d want a personal butler though, I quite like unpacking my own undies!!

Laura 07.27.10 | 11:04 AM ET

I love how you engaged with the local culture.  :)  I think that when traveling anywhere you should strive to break out and understand where it is you are.

Also, I agree that while luxury is, well, luxurious, it’s best when shared with family and friends.

SARAH 07.30.10 | 2:33 PM ET

I’m just curious why this is being billed as a $16,000 hotel room? I searched the entire year and prices didn’t go over $1,200 with most being around $500.

Camels & Chocolate 07.30.10 | 3:38 PM ET

Great story, Andrew. And I totally know this feeling. While not $16,000, I was in Tas reviewing a $2400/night property last week and felt like such a poseur!

Robin Graham 08.02.10 | 6:59 AM ET

A really well executed “fish out of water” story.

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