The white speedboat cleaves through the dark sea under a star-spangled sky, illuminated from time to time by flashes of sheet lighting. It's travelling so fast its prow is at a good 35-degree angle to the sea. After half an hour it slows, its path through the darkness marked by a sequence of small red and green lights. It slides to the pier. You took off your shoes when you boarded and the sight of the welcoming party, each member barefoot, indicates that you will not have to put them on again until you leave. Gingerly you step out on to the decking and then on to silvery sand. Chilled towel and an icy welcome drink await. The air is warm and lightly scented. Frangipani? Or just the smell of fresh air and salt? You are at Huvafen Fushi, labelled the most beautiful resort in the world - although the world as you know it seems thousands of kilometres away from this Maldivian paradise.
The brainchild of Australians Tom McLoughlin (a former hotel GM) and his wife Jane Quinn, Huvafen Fushi's groundbreaking underwater spa put this luxury resort on the map. And its constant evolution - since its July 2004 opening the resort has seen additions such as a quirky underwater cellar and improvements to the aforementioned spa - ensure it will hold its position as one of the world's most exclusive destinations.
In the evening you stand quietly by Huvafen Fushi's infinity pool - one that for once justifies that appellation - the panorama of ocean extending so far towards the horizon that it seems to dematerialise and merge imperceptibly with the sky above. A thousand tiny fibre-optic pinpoints of twinkling and shimmering light set in the tessellated tiles of the pool floor mimic the stars above. If this be paradise…
Can there really be almost 100 people staying here? One sees few of them, at least during the day. A Japanese couple snorkelling on the house reef that encloses the lagoon, a curly-headed two year old inspecting the baby turtles in a hatchery, some of the adorable, eternally smiling staff gliding from bungalow to bungalow to sweep smooth the Frette sheets or replenish the supply of bottled water.
At night it's different. From bungalow and beach cabin emerge the guests who've been private all day, swaying in a hammock, reading between intermittent plunges into a private pool, napping. Now assembled, shoeless, shampooed, conditioned and comprehensively pampered, they sit around the pool, looking as shiny as its still surface. A lobster buffet is set out in the sand. A band plays a cool, easy island sound. There is wine. Wonderful wine. Food and beverage manager Sunny Chuang is a serious oenophile, travelling to France annually to scoop up first-growth Bordeaux and sumptuous Burgundies. And being Australian, he makes sure our best wines are showcased there. Chuang has put together a selection that would shame many a restaurant in Melbourne or Sydney, where he worked as sommelier at Bel Mondo.
You dine. You drink. You chat. You take a barefoot walk along the boardwalk to your bungalow and you sleep the sleep of the blessed. And thus life proceeds. There is not a lot to do at Huvafen Fushi apart from kicking back and that's why it's so damned popular. Kate Moss and Elizabeth Hurley swap catwalk and collection chaos for the caressing calm of this place. John Galliano retreats here to shuck off the stress of conjuring up yet another couture collection. So does Stefano Gabbana. So do other interesting folk from a dozen countries who have heard that this is the place that epitomises unwinding.
You may snorkel until you drop, engage in other strenuous physical pursuits (jet skis are available but directed to a stretch of water that's well out of earshot) but better you should lay back and stay calm. Which brings us to the spa and what are rather clinically described as 'treatments'. This may summon to the mind images of fat Europeans taking the 'cure' (another word with medicinal connotations) at a fashionable 19th-century spa, but taking the waters and taking to the water are two entirely different concepts. Imagine this. You traverse a long boardwalk that snakes out into the ocean. At the end is a symmetrical building with a large central mass and smaller wings to the side. This is the spa. Huvafen Fushi style. Your therapist shows you where to shed your quotidian shorts and T-shirt, instructs you to shower and slip into a cotton robe and then, like a handmaiden at the Temple of Calm, guides you to a personal cabin. You lie on a massage table, face down. Through the hole in the headrest you see that there is a large panel of glass in the floor through which you can watch fish flutter about in the aquamarine water below.
The air fills with the heady scent of lemon verbena and the ritual begins. For the next two hours you are the recipient of a barrage of sensory experiences; warm oil, a gritty salt scrub, anointing with silken creams, a body wrap. Stripped to basics, what the spa delivers is a sybaritic physical experience that makes the recipient feel nothing short of fabulous. And after it's over, you descend to an underwater lounge - a recent addition to the ever-evolving haven of calm - where you can watch more fish, a wall full of them in colours so eye-popping they could have been ordered up from the aquatic division of Central Casting as extras forFinding Nemo II.
If these remarkable and often unique techniques for rejuvenating a body provide one strong and persuasive reason for visiting, the other equally powerful pull of the place is the food and wine.
Sometimes it can be hard to differentiate resort food from airline food, but in establishing this resort, McLoughlin and Quinn sought out like-minded colleagues. Enter Mark Hehir. Although now veering toward management, Melbourne-born Hehir trained as a chef. London's Dorchester and Hilton operations in Kuala Lumpur, Colombo and Tokyo were his training grounds, followed by a stint at a resort in the Maldives where McLoughlin was also working. Bingo. Since then the world has become their oyster. McLoughlin is constantly chasing new opportunities in his corner of the world, dreaming up new ideas to help his flagship resort and its siblings stay ahead of the pack. He's hired celebrity DJ Ravin of Paris's acclaimed Buddha Bar. He's also commissioned a luxury yacht to cruise between his three Indian Ocean resorts.
Taking the plunge into hotel development - and leaving a well-paid and successful career as a hotel GM to do so - was a risk, but one that McLoughlin and Quinn were prepared to take. "After Tom left his job, we travelled like gypsies for 12 months with our son Billy, looking at what people did right and what they did wrong in resorts in tropical locations around the world," Quinn says. "We worked on a concept that combined everything that we personally as a couple would want from a resort experience. That concept is now Huvafen Fushi."
But Quinn and McLoughlin are not prepared to rest on their laurels, despite the worldwide accolades their Maldivian paradise has received. "We are all about evolution and staying ahead of our competitors. We weren't 100 per cent happy with the spa's finish, so we refurbed it," says Quinn. "It's now a lot more cutting edge, curvaceous, cavernous. We created a relaxation area for people to sit pre- and post-treatment and embrace their surrounds. We are completely happy with where it is now. The feedback has been phenomenal."
People are talking, too, about Huvafen Fushi's dining scene. There's no central feeding station. There's one for breakfast and occasional grazing, of course, but the satellite restaurants and eating spaces are a major point of dining depature. You can eat Indian at Cardamom Lounge, an outdoor dining room with the trees overhead lit up as if for a permanent Diwali, the centrepiece a tandoor oven sunk into the sand.
Then there's Raw, with light food such as chicken breast poached in oolong tea with a cocktail of coconut milk, mango and pineapple. And there's fine dining, too, the aforementioned underground cellar being the ultimate on offer. In the 18th century, grandees built follies in the form of ruined castles or Greek temples or shell-encrusted grottoes. McLoughlin's folly is his underground cellar with a round table of Arthurian proportions. Floor-to-ceiling backlit racks are stacked with wines from four corners of the world. On the floor are cases branded with names of the great houses of France, Mouton Rothschild, d'Yquem, Latour and Cheval Blanc, alongside magnums, double magnums, imperials, jeroboams. It's bizarre to be sitting in a cellar below sea level in the middle of the Indian Ocean drinking the same wines as are being simultaneously poured at l'Ambroisie in Paris, Gordon Ramsay in London and Jean-Georges in Manhattan, as your tootsies are warmed by hot stones on the floor, an island version of the hot-water bottle.
Meanwhile, there's an even more extravagant way to enjoy Huvafen Fushi. Check in at the small sister resort, Dhoni Mighili, board your own personal dhoni (McLoughlin built six of these traditional Maldivian fishing boats and equipped them with air conditioning, smart Smeg fridges stuffed with bubbly and raft-sized beds) and sail to HF, sunning en route on the vast lounge on deck. A double whammy of luxe if ever there was one.
And there's much more to come. McLoughlin and Quinn, under the Per Aquum banner, will open Zil Pasyon, a Seychelles resort that's "a level above Huvafen Fushi", in 2008. Two new Maldivian escapes - a wellness retreat and a family-friendly luxury tented camp - are in the pipeline and a luxe Marrakesh property is under way. A Dubai hotel is weeks away from opening. The boutique 24-room Desert Palm - an oasis in an Arabian desert full of mega-room monoliths - is a world away from their previous island-based ventures.
"Initially we focused on desired locations surrounded by water," says Quinn. "But then we found a desert and thought, 'why restrict ourselves?'." Indeed.