With more than 90 hotels across Asia, North America, the Middle East and Europe, Hong Kong-based Shangri-La operates a diverse range of hotels from a Paris palace (less than ideally located, but built for a Bonaparte, it’s a vrai palais all the same) to 900-room business behemoths across China. But as many who know its Villingili Resort and Spa, the only resort in the Maldives located south of the equator, will tell you, they have a special expertise when it comes to Indian Ocean hideaways.
By Claire Wrathall
Villingili is exceptional for several reasons beyond its 2km white-sand beach, not least its Eco Centre, part of whose work is amassing a database of photographs of manta rays to assist in their conservation, and where guests can volunteer. But in a nation where tourists and the local population are mostly segregated, it’s the unprecedented insight into Maldivian life afforded to guests that most impresses. Here there’s a 17km cycle path that links the hotel island with its neighbours – Feydhoo, Maradhoo and Hithadhoo – via causeways, along which you can cycle or walk through remote fishing villages, pausing to watch fisherman unload the day’s catch from their dhoni, picnic on secluded beaches, even shop for the crafts for which Feydhoo is renowned.
It’s good news then that on November 1, Shangri-La will open in Mauritius, another small Indian Ocean island with more to offer than its beaches (its hinterland and culture are well worth exploring).
The hotel is not itself new: rather it’s a reinvention of the Le Touessrok, one of the best known, longest established hotels on the island and once part of Sol Kerzner’s One & Only stable, but now owned by the Mauritian company Sun Resorts.
Built in 1978, it’s not a development of architectural beauty, but you can’t argue with its location on the east side of the island, where the best beaches are. The property is strung out over a little archipelago and its two furthest-flung islands – Ile aux Cerfs (for water sports and golf, thanks to its 18-hole, Bernhard Langer-designed par-72 championship golf course) and Ilot Mangénie (for seclusion and 3.5km of pale soft sand) – are accessible by boat.
This earlier incarnation was voted the best hotel in Africa and the Indian Ocean by Ultratravel readers in the most recent ULTRAS awards but the hotel itself has been closed since April. Since then, it has been substantially refurbished and updated. The old Givenchy spa been redesigned and is now a Chi spa (Shangri-La’s excellent in-house brand) and will use oils extracted from plants grown on site. New alluringly private cabanas have been added to Ilot Mangénie. And there’ll be five new restaurants and bars, including a new beach club and grill and a Mauritian rum shack.
But not everything has been replaced. Its finest restaurant, Safran has merely been “refreshed”. It was originally the creation of Vineet Bhatia, the first Indian chef to win a Michelin star in London, and will continue to specialise in Indian cooking of a rarefied kind. (Bhatia himself has moved on, but still has a restaurant on the island in his portfolio: Amari by Vineet, about 15 minutes’ drive away, near the village of Belle Mare.)
The technology in the hotel has been brought up to speed too. Wi-Fi will at last be complimentary. (Credit where it’s due: Shangri-La has never charged for Wi-Fi.) And guests will be able to scan a QR code giving them daily updates of what is of offer in the way of activities.
But if, in addition to r’n’r, the purpose of travel is to learn about and interact with other cultures then perhaps the most encouraging innovation is the attitude of its new general manager, Gabriele Lombardo. When I last stayed there guests were, disconcertingly, greeted with the banging of a gong upon arrival and subsequently discouraged from leaving the compound but he wants to welcome local visitors into the hotel as well as overseas guests. “Locals love to eat out and experience luxury hotels,” he said in London earlier this year, “but for so long there was a kind of invisible barrier to them enjoying these places. We will be changing that. We want guests to look around and see locals enjoying themselves too.”