Sample some deep perfection at Cheval Blanc Randheli in the Maldives.
When the hotel you are staying at is owned by one billionaire and managed by another, you can expect standards to run pretty high.
And you would not be disappointed at Cheval Blanc Randheli, arguably the Maldives’ best resort and undoubtedly one of the world’s finest.
Little is known of its Middle Eastern owner, although he is said to have spent US$200 million to buy it two years ago, coming as one of the biggest single hotel deals of all time.
That was more than partly down to the hotel’s management by Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH) Group, the holding company owned by Bernard Arnault, the French tycoon widely considered the ultimate tastemaker of our time.
It’s no coincidence that LVMH’s portfolio spans the most sought-after brands on the planet, from Berluti to Bulgari, Céline to Fendi, Givenchy and Dior, not to mention an A-list roster of vineyards and Champagne marques, including Château d’Yquem, Krug, and, of course, the eponymous Château Cheval Blanc, the Grand Cru Classé Bordeaux of which Arnault is particularly proud.
And just like an exquisitely crafted Berluti loafer, or a meticulously made Feadship yacht, the attention to detail at Cheval Blanc Randheli is second to none.
The holiday starts in a custom-designed Twin Otter seaplane, reclining in buttery leather, private jet-level comfort. The serene 40-minute flight from Malé takes you over an electric turquoise sea, a neon so vibrant it seems impossible. Seen from above, it’s a Shibori tie-dye of white sands melting into the infinite fringes of the Indian Ocean. Save the odd speck of a palm-fringed island, the sheer blueness is unadulterated.
Then comes the thrilling touchdown onto that jewel-like water, the backdrop of a lush tropical beach, and a smiling welcome party on the pier.
In every sense, you have arrived.
Cheval Blanc Randheli is basically flawless. This, I have just been told, chatting to another guest, the head of a private bank who has flown in with his wife from Rio. Their journey took a gruelling 26 hours and four flights. Like some 70 percent of the guests here, they are repeat customers. “It is a journey worth it for perfection,” he says with a smile. It is not long before I begin to see what he means.
Opened in 2013, the 45-villa resort set on the North-easterly Noonu atoll, is built on a secluded lagoon ringed by six private islands. One island is dedicated to the twin tennis courts built to Australian Open Standards (enjoyed by Roger Federer when he comes to stay), while another is entirely given over to the four-bedroom private island villa on its own hectare of exotic gardens (recently occupied by US rapper Pitbull and his posse) available for a nightly rate of between US$30-60,000. Another island houses the sumptuous Guerlian spa accessible only by traditional wooden dhoni. The other islands are for the villas and restaurants, linked by bikeable wooden jetties, framed by lanterns that glow seductively as dusk falls.
But row back seven years, before it all came about. In a place as naturally beautiful as the Maldives, how do you design a hotel to do it justice? The key, according to the resort’s iconic designer Jean-Michel Gathy is “seamlessness”.
“So, you never know where the architecture stops, where the interior design starts, and the landscape starts,” he tells me.
I reflect on this philosophy as I gaze between the horizon and the spectacular, 130-square-metre overwater villa we are lucky to call home for a few days. Gathy truly paid homage to the beauty of nature with his design here. Each villa has its own 12.5m infinity-edge pool that blends its blue at once with the sea and the cornflower sky. Exterior walls slide open to maximise the Turner-esque sunsets on the wooden deck, where a breezy white sail protects your privacy from the stray snorkeller.
The villas themselves are cathedrals of luxury and tasteful taupe, (on your pre-arrival questionnaire, choose between white or taupe bed linen), elegantly thatched and finished with teak and compressed stone. The Randheli signature pops of yellow (the cushions, toiletries and an elegant urn juxtaposing the ocean) provide the most satisfying complement to the vivid blues outside. Ceiling-height oak panels swivel to divide the room seamlessly into lounge, bedroom and bathroom or can be left open for palatial open plan. The villas even have their own signature scent, Island Chic, concocted by François Demachy, the creative director of Parfums Christian Dior, evoking the briny breeze and the orchid-laden pathways.
There’s a good reason why Prince William and Kate chose this destination for their holiday in 2014, and why they left baby Prince George with the nanny. Although the Kids Club is beautifully done, this is a place for grown-ups. Decadence doesn’t come close to describing the French fine-dining restaurant, Le 1947, complete with chandeliers, waterfalls and a grand piano. Here, expect to be proffered with 12 elaborate courses, and drowned in the finest vintages, from a perfectly-chilled 2009 Dom Pérignon to a 1947 Château Cheval Blanc, for which the resort, and restaurant, are named (for guests with the deepest pockets only: a bottle is priced at US$45,000).
For those who prefer the sand under their toes and the breeze of the Indian Ocean, there is the cool Teppanyaki restaurant Le Diptyque, where we are fed seared scallops, lobster and steak grilled underneath our noses. The menus at Cheval Blanc were designed at the outset by triple-Michelin-starred chef Yannick Alléno, and now overseen under the expertise of executive chef Eric Vidal. Every morsel we eat is superb, from the fresh madeleines that appear in our villa to the traditional Maldivian coconut and tuna dosa we sample at breakfast.
Almost everything we consume — save for the mint in our tea and the catch of the day — is flown over weekly, cherry-picked from the finest suppliers in France, Australia and Italy. This is in contrast to certain nearby resorts that grow much of their produce locally to reduce their carbon footprint. Indeed, this is not a resort that sits lightly on the land. Cheval Blanc Randheli is about big statements and unabashed grandeur, and absolutely nothing but the best will do.
That said, it is trying to do it's bit, GM Laurent Chancel tells me, with plans to roll out a floating solar panel in the sea the size of a football pitch to heat the resort’s water. It also has a coral nursery programme, which has been spearheaded by resident marine biologists, Maeva Beltrand and Judith Hannak. As we head to a dive site one morning, Hannak, also a divemaster, describes the devastation that occurred to the world reefs in a mass bleaching event in 2016. The Maldives, sadly, was not spared, and much of the coral around the resort is dead. But as we dive to a cooler 20m, there is encouraging evidence of coral growing back and plenty of fish life.
It’s well known that you can have the most gorgeous hotel in the world, but without excellent service it won't leave an imprint on the memory. Here, the service is beyond excellent. Every member of staff receives regular etiquette training from a coach known as Ms Metro, a personal friend of Arnault. She assigns written exams and practical tests, whipping into shape everything from table manners to self-care. I find myself wondering if telepathy can be involved as the butler or majordome assigned to us, Samantha, appears yet again exactly when we need him. With his infectious grin he relates how one of the repeat guests, a Hong Kong family, regularly Skype him and have invited him to visit their home as a friend. I can well believe it.
I am amazed when I hear that Arnault has never visited on holiday, although his daughter Delphine is a regular. At the age of 70 he doesn’t apparently care for long-haul travel, preferring to stay closer to home at Randheli’s original sister resort in Courchevel.
But I can assure him, if he is reading this; perfection is definitely worth making the journey for.