Arriving in the Maldives is a surreal experience. Not because of the color of the water or the distinctive cultural influences, which are both admittedly astounding. It is surreal because of the islands that dot the Indian Ocean, each operated by one resort, and one resort only. It’s a true private island experience, one that is dreamlike to visitors, but also one that takes a lot of behind-the-scenes work to operate.
According to Travel Trade Maldives, 1.6 million tourists visited the Maldives in 2022. With 147 resorts in operation since 2019, each resort must be prepared for each guest, whilst taking care of their staff at the same time: think water, food, building maintenance, basically everything you would need to house hundreds of guests and staff.
About 300 miles southwest of India and over 400 miles east of Sri Lanka, the islands of the Maldives must think long and hard about ways they can become self-sufficient, both to turn a profit and to be environmentally responsible.
One standout resort I had the pleasure of visiting is Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu. The minute you step off the tender that picks you up from the seaplane drop-off about 100 yards off the coast, you notice that this island resort is special. Why? Because you can’t see any of the resort from the beach. If it weren’t for the dock and a few boats moored nearby, you’d think someone must have made a mistake and dropped you on a deserted island.
But no worries. Coco Palm is just that good at blending into its surroundings, much like the octopuses you’ll see – or won’t – taking on the color and texture of their underwater environment. The sand path that winds through the resort veers off into fingers that lead to hidden villas nestled among palm trees.
Right along the main path, you’ll tread barefoot to the Olive Ridley Project, which houses sea turtles undergoing rehabilitation.
The first turtle rescue vet center in the Maldives features a clinic with an x-ray machine, ultrasound, and surgery facility. Its focus is on protecting Indian Ocean sea turtles – rescuing them from entanglements, usually in discarded fishing nets; rehabilitating them, oftentimes by reattaching a limb or getting them healthy enough to survive with three limbs; and educating visitors about the dangers to sea creatures and how they can help.
I was introduced to Kakuni, a 22-year-turtle that had been under the center’s care for seven months. Like the other turtles flopping around in the large outdoor tanks, this was an Olive Ridley, a species notorious for unknowingly following its prey into the “ghost nets” left behind by careless fisherman. I got the rare opportunity to see Kakuni’s bittersweet release back into the ocean, his caretakers at once sad to see him go and joyous that he did so successfully.
It’s the kind of thing that happens here at Coco Palm, the kind of thing that brings everyone out of their lounge chairs to video and to cheer. It brings attention to the role we play in our environment, and it’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what Coco Palm is doing to be environmentally responsible, to care for the land, its inhabits and the creatures that make this their home.
Like many eco-conscious resorts, Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu also runs its own coral restoration project to encourage ocean life and repair damage caused by climate change. The man-made coral garden located just off the coast of the deluxe villas is a snorkeling treat. Iron rebar cones coated in cement and sand form the base to which small pieces of collected broken coral are attached. To get visitor buy-in, literally, the resort offers guests the chance to adopt and sponsor one of the coral restoration cones – it then follows up with photos of the increasing growth and abundance of sea life attracted it. Onsite marine biologist Rosie Ballie says, “We’ve lost a lot of branching corals that are important to small fish, so we focus on these, specifically. Climate change, especially in 2016, has brought increasing heat to the water. This breeds disease and infection, which kills a lot of coral.” So in 2019, the coral garden was begun, and the sea life has grown, as a result.
On land, more self-sufficiency is evident, both in the buildings and in the food that is served there. Everything from the reception area to the main restaurant is roofed with local palm fronds, abundant and entirely natural, not to mention affordable. And since each island must purify its own water, Coco Palm designed its own glass liter bottles that are refilled constantly with its purified water – no plastic bottles to be found here.
And then there’s the garden. For an island that is only a half-mile long, the garden is stunningly substantial, and amazingly compact. The resort grows more vegetables and fruits than you can imagine: beans, herbs, lemongrass for their Thai restaurant, peppers, sugarcane, eggplant, pineapple, even aloe to treat the sunburn of the ill-prepared traveler. The produce is lush, in large part because the resort composts its food scraps to fertilize the soil. Just down another sand path is a banana garden that towers overhead, giant clusters of bananas just waiting to be whirred into daquiris and baked into cakes.
So if you want to travel to a dreamlike locale that also embraces sustainability, Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu is a model of what can be done, even with limited resources. It’s also a reminder to us as individuals of the many ways we can practice wellness not just for our own health, but for the health of every creature around us.