Looking for a little privacy from the 21st-century chaos, the sturm und drang of daily life? How about a hideout on an atoll in the Maldives? It sounds remote enough to indulge all your castaway imaginings, but make those fantasies the five-star kind. Coco Privé Private Island is a tranquil complex of astonishing architecture surrounded by coral reefs in the cerulean blue of the Indian Ocean. There, guests can swim with rare sea life, dine on gourmet meals, relax with exotic spa treatments or just wander along gently manicured jungle pathways rich with the odor of bougainvillea and frangipani.
The Maldives, with its cluster of beautiful islands, is South Asia’s most luxurious escape. Many, however, may not remember when that same destination was once a hippie hideaway, where a room on the beach went for a pittance. Hussain Hilmy does. He and his three brothers own Coco Privé. “Maldives, the destination,” he says, “was known as a place for backpackers with rooms for 60 dollars. Can you imagine such a thing now?” It was, however, back in the 1980s, that Hilmy, then a young tour operator, had a vision. He was sure that the Maldives could shed its “Maldives on $10 a Day” reputation and host luxury travel. That, he says, was an idea that at the time went completely against the grain of the local hotel industry.
The naysayers didn’t stop Hussain Hilmy or his three brothers from going ahead with their radical plan. When one of the Maldives’ small islands (there are nearly 1,200) came on the market, the brothers jumped at the chance to test out Hilmy’s theory and built a high-end boutique hotel. They kept the rustic ambiance, but they combined it with luxury accommodation and service. That, Hilmy says, ushered in “a whole new hospitality concept in the Maldives.” Other luxury properties followed. It took time, but Hilmy says with some modesty, “We really opened up the market then and changed the way people viewed the Maldives.”
That change led the brothers to a new concept of building other luxury hotels. Later, with four properties under his belt, another special island became available. This time he thought, “Why not have an entire island, a secluded a compound of a few elegant villas, available for rent to high-net-worth individuals?” Once again, his peers in the hospitality industry were skeptical. “People thought I was crazy,” Hilmy says, but he was undaunted. And so the work on Coco Privé began.
The traditional vernacular of the Maldives resort architecture was a rustic timber house on stilts with a thatched roof. While Hilmy had used that in his earlier projects, this time he was interested in something more modern. He called on an architect committed to honoring the environment. Singapore-based, Guz Wilkinson, famous for his green roof constructions such as Meera Sky Garden House on Singapore’s Santos Island. Wilkinson is also known for his reverence for the careful craftsmanship associated with Frank Lloyd Wright and the Arts and Crafts tradition, and for being able to bring those concepts to a tropical context.
For Coco Privé, Wilkinson (with the family’s input) created a design for six open-plan villas, using timber, glass, and concrete. The structures would maximize ocean views, create an unrestricted sense of open space, blend with the environment and be jaw-droppingly modern. At the same time, Hilmy says, “We wanted the entire island to feel very comfortable and home-like, while still being modern and sophisticated.”
Part of creating a homey atmosphere in the starkly modern structures is having the floor-to-ceiling windows of each villa create a seamless transition between outside and inside and offer views of lush expanses of trees and flowers. Those views of nature’s textures and colors add to the warmth of the homes, as do the off-white and gray concrete floors and walls and mellow-toned wood chosen to bring additional warmth to the interiors. He also points to the pops of intense color on neutral backgrounds and the large dark wood abstract carvings on the walls of, for example, the Manta and Gecko villas. They add to the structures’ warm and intimate ambiance.
Of course, as lovely as is the interior in each of the residences, most guests prefer to spend their time outside. Whether taking in gourmet meals prepared by Sri Lankan Chef Neel (Don’t miss his Maldivian tuna curry!) on a villa patio or swimming in the more than 130-foot pool, guests are surrounded by nature. There are tall coconut palms and banana and papaya trees, massive sea hibiscus with their twisted roots and glossy heart-shaped leaves and scarlet hibiscus and sweet or citrus-smelling frangipani. “We try to keep some of the wildness of the surrounding Maldivian jungle,” Hilmy says, with understated pride.
The beach and the sea are undoubtedly what draw most people to the Maldives and Coco Privé is a place uniquely set up to experience both. The family’s commitment to the health of the oceans and its sea life, evidenced by the presence of an on-site marine biologist, is one of Coco Privé’s major attractions. Guests can learn about the care of the island’s coral reef and Coco Privé’s participation in the Maldives’ National Sea Turtle Photo Identification project. The resident marine biologist also takes curious guests on guided snorkel trips. “The best way to explore the waters of the Maldives is to set off with someone who really knows the behavior of the various sea animals,” Hilmy says. Maldivians are, after all, as legends proclaim, “Children of the Sea.” So, in addition to snorkeling, guests can expect plenty of other watersports such as canoeing, kayaking, and windsurfing on the private island.
One “sport” you won’t find on any other beach is chess. Hilmy, a longtime fan of the “Game of Kings,” installed an oversized, hand-carved chess set on the beach. But these chess warriors are inspired by Maldivian culture, he says, and are dressed in traditional Maldivian attire. “The kings represent the former sultans of the Maldives and the queens are inspired by Rani, former ruling queens of the Maldives.”
At the end of the day, after a challenging game of beach chess, a spa treatment or yoga session with the resident yoga instructor, Hilmy suggests his favorite place of repose to just, as Maldivians say, fikureh nethi araam velahvaa, relax without a care in the world. Head toward the very tip of the main jetty for pitch perfect views of sky and sea as the day ends, he says. “The island behind you is beautifully lit with the last rays. It’s just wonderful!”