Learning to love thyself in the Maldives


Learning to love thyself in the Maldives

I’ll be honest: I thought I had my shit together. Then I spent four days at Joali Being…

Hannah Dace

BY Hannah Dace25 February 2022

Arrival to Joali Being is via seaplane – a 40-minute flight from Malé where the pilots take the Maldivian ‘no shoes’ approach at face value – and with a view that’s decidedly more 50 shades of blue than grey. This first-of-its-kind retreat spans an entire island in the Raa Atoll, cocooned by crystalline lagoons and schools of Nemo fish. From above, you’ll be able to appreciate the biophilic design (fear not, I had to google that too). No trees were toppled in the making, and its wooded interior remains untouched, a sure sign of the owners’ commitment to protecting the environment – something that you’ll find runs through every sustainable sinew of the island.

Before you ask, this isn’t a Nine Perfect Strangers-esque retreat, although the linen ‘uniforms’ left in our walk-in wardrobe did incite a raised eyebrow from my travel companion. Nicole Kidman isn’t hiding among the palms – and we’re certain that the 60+ teas on offer aren’t spiked with psilocybin, although you might end up feeling high on life given the daily sun salutations, the palm-lined paths and the elysian over-water villas.

Guests start their stay with an ‘integrative lifestyle assessment’, which is more eye-opening than it sounds, given that it covers all aspects of health including skin, energy, microbiome and mind (I was determined to not get emotional in my session, but alas, my tear ducts betrayed me). From here, a wellness program is carefully curated just for you. You can choose to target a particular worry – such as mental clarity, hormone imbalance, sleep quality, skin health, or digestive and weight rebalance – or simply give your entire body and mind a good seeing to. Either way, you’ll end up with a schedule of wellbeing activities and treatments to suit you – anything from a blissful 90-minute massage to a Russian banya or sensory deprivation session. Group classes are arranged every sunrise and sunset too, but these are somewhat optional (I skipped the 7am run, because, well, one does not run).

You’ll also have the option to work with a nutritionist to create a tailored meal plan (sans alcohol; this is a dry island), but fear not – this is far from the all-or-nothing 500-calorie retreats made famous by the likes of Galia Grainger. Unless you specifically ask not to, you’ll still have the freedom to make your own choices (and what choices they are – the three kitchens here are helmed by extremely talented chefs) – and this approach will support you in creating habits that genuinely fit with your lifestyle for the long term. And so yes, I did eat a four-course dinner and ice cream every day because even though my body is a temple, it’s a temple that welcomes sweet offerings.

‘Spa’ is far too loose a term for the 39 wellbeing spaces and 45+ consultants spanning more than 20 nationalities at Joali Being: you might find yourself learning about Chinese medicine, Turkish bathing techniques or Indian Dinacharya – ancient wisdom that explains how to use the circadian rhythm of your body for pièce-de-résistance health (my consultant was devastated to hear about my standard 8am alarm, caffeine dependency and lack of meditation). With so much wellness to get on with, you might have to be strategic with tanning time. Thankfully, each and every villa has an infinity pool, sun hammock and plush sun loungers – otherwise how on earth would you acquire an envy-inducing Maldivian tan?

Speaking of time, you’ll find there’s little of it left for worrying about romance. Sure, the Maldives is touted as a honeymoon destination, but the focus here is really on you, your body and your environment. As a couple, we were outnumbered among guests: plenty of solo travellers, same-sex and mixed groups and father-daughter combinations made up the tables at the beachfront dinner restaurant. Even if you’re travelling in a group, you’ll have your own experiences during the day – and that much-needed but hard to come by time to focus on you – and then be able to come together over dinner to share the tales of your Turkish hammam, herbalist workshop, or sound therapy session.

But no matter who you are or aren’t with, you won’t be wanting for anything while at the retreat. Every villa is paired with a jadugar, which translates to ‘magician’ in Dhivehi, who will arrange all manner of things – a table for dinner, tour of the house reef, tiger-balm making or tennis court set-up. Save for in your villa, there’s no WiFi on the island, so you’ll be given a 1990s-style Nokia-type phone to contact your jadugar on at any time, although you might find that they have an unlikely ability to know what you need before you do – that’s the uber-personal, hyper-sensitive touch that’s a signature at sister property Joali, too. So much so, you may find yourself waving goodbye with a heavy heart – not your typical holiday romance, but a romance all the same.

And so in place of souvenirs, you’ll collect guidance, recipes and practices that you’ll be able to put into practice back home, too. Yes, you might crave a chilli margarita or two (look, you’re only human) – but that really isn’t the point of being here. This isn’t your typical holiday, and it would be remiss to treat it as such. Drop all expectations, lose the ego, and in the words of Natasha Bedingfield, ‘release your inhibitions’. Take a breath, take a moment, damn, take a whole week or two, if your bank balance allows. Because health is wealth, and vice versa.

The Maldives: also a place to embrace the concept of mindlessness…

Additional photography by the author