Situated in the northern Raa Atoll and 45 minutes to reach by seaplane from Male, the castaway island of Joali is the epitome of eco-luxury, combining contemporary design with nature-led architecture. Back in 2016, El Nino threatened the region’s rich ecosystem and culminated in the bleaching of formerly vibrant coral reefs. It is no wonder then that for those living and working on the island, the appreciation for nature runs deep. Evoking feelings of harmony with the natural world that only a truly sustainable destination can bring, Holly Payne shares her experience of Joali, Muravandhoo one year after its eagerly anticipated opening…
Stepping out of the speedboat that brings me from a modest seaplane onto the beautiful manta ray-shaped cabana that serves as the entry and exit point for Joali, I feel a growing sense of anticipation and excitement. It isn’t that I am always impressed so rapidly but even as I approach, I notice an intricacy in the composition of the structure that is particularly compelling. Unable to quite put my finger on what it is, my only just allocated butler – or ‘jadugar’ as they are more commonly known on the island – mercifully relieves me of the effort of piecing it all together and whispers, “The roof… it looks like two fish kissing.” And so it does.
Crowned the Maldives’ first and only immersive art resort, Joali is a place that is bursting with architectural delights and sustainable design concepts, a fact I come to realise throughout the duration of my stay. As I cross the 24-acre island of powder white sand accompanied by the occasional small lizard or fruit bat nibbling somewhere in the canopy above, I arrive beside a vast wooden manta ray suspended by stilts and concealed amongst exotic coconut palms. Gazing out in the direction of the Indian Ocean’s topaz waves, it is a hideaway imagined by South Africa’s Porky Hefer to convey a message of conservation and Hefer’s own personal passion for local wildlife and endangered species. Woven in-situ from natural materials it is a further reminder of the precious wildlife that can be seen frequenting the waters surrounding the island.
Hefer-designed heron head seating areas can be seen scattered across the shoreline. Also eco-friendly, they provide welcome space for those who wish to fill their senses with the delights of nature without the distraction of overt patterns and flamboyant textures. The national bird of the Maldives and Joali’s very own ‘spirit animal’, it is poignant that Hefer has chosen to celebrate the grey heron through his artistry.
The emphasis on wood and natural materials that binds an earthy feel to each ornamental feature and design comes from Argat’s own ethos. One of Turkey’s leading businesswomen, Esin Güral Argat, the hotelier whose vision it was to create Joali, possesses a personal interest in art, design and wildlife. It has been said that both beach villa and water villa are intended to reflect Esin’s interests in travel, photography, fashion and wellbeing through the delicate ornaments and features that can be seen.
A floating haven designed by renowned Japanese architect Noriyoshi Muramatsu – and which grants Joali another first place spot as the principal restaurant in the Maldives – SAOKE captures the attention of customers with its superior ceiling of criss-crossing wooden blocks, authentic kotatsu seating and elegant tabletops sourced from Thailand. One of four restaurants that cater to the island’s guests, Studio Glitt’s handiwork in combination with hand-picked stones means diners can begin their journey to finding their inner Zen. Dark tones of deep wood, bamboo, grey and bronze ease the soul and offer a sense of mindfulness.
Each of the 73 private beach and water villas that make up Joali offer a path to escapism with the chance to become lost in the hypnotising and all-encompassing ocean waves. A light-hearted addition to the villas’ mini bars, tropical glass pineapples and pink-tinged coral glass drink decanters are an expression of this sentiment. Crafted by Turkey’s Felekşan Onar they can be found on display alongside a turquoise clam-like centrepiece from Seckin Pirim that mirrors the ripple effect of water.
Personal touches can be found throughout the villas and hint at the spirit and framework upon which the resort’s design was established. They tell a story of a living space that belongs to a sophisticated and well-travelled female, who has amassed a collection of unique and dazzling possessions from journeys far and wide. Isak Dinesan’s ‘Out of Africa’, Susan Casey’s ‘Voices in the Ocean’ and Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s ‘The Wavewatcher’s Companion’ wait to be perused from their position on shelves in the bedrooms. In the living room, a graceful colour scheme of pastel blue and pink tempers the soul in the form of plush, welcoming cushions and in Futa Carpets’ thick, pink-toned carpets that retain their coolness under foot.
Beach villas and water villas alike have high ceilings that feed into an atmosphere of freedom and openness. As the sun goes down across the sparkling clear waters, ambient lighting from Damien McKay at Light 360 UK continues to illuminate artisanal amenities and deluxe objets d’art, including heron and filigree decorated robes and Joali’s own luxury bath salts. Beyond the privacy of the villa, Doug Johnston’s light shades create a similar feeling; constructed from coiled rope and stitched using industrial sewing machines, they showcase skills gleaned in masonry construction, 3D printing, basketry and cordage. Found in Joali’s boutique, the organic shape reflects the island waves.
A luxurious resort, Joali nevertheless maintains a feeling for nature that allows it to retain its uniqueness. In designing the resort, Autoban worked hard to preserve the natural flora of the island as much as possible, saving in excess of 1000 palm trees in the process. Its custom-made furnishings – in combination with hand-carved wooden panels, local wood, bamboo and terrazzo flooring – create the ultimate sense of tropical chic. As in every villa, overhead showers from Hansgrohe add a sleek touch that makes every wash time an indulgent experience. Chrome soap holders and wall-mounted shower heads from AXOR complete the look, while in an adjacent room, bronze toned taps by Gessi mirror the shape and form of pebbles in a return to Mother Nature.
There are six categories of villa overall, ranging from four-bedroom beach residences with outdoor spa and four dressing rooms, to ocean residences with two pools and three bedrooms, as well as the picture postcard water villas. All are furnished with marble, rose gold, natural wood and bamboo, but while each come with opulent living quarters it is the Private Ocean Residence and Private Duplex Beach Residence where guests are equipped with a staggering 500 sqm of space, all of which embrace L’art du Vivre in flavour and expression. Infinity pools create the sensation of being in a space without boundaries where the ebbing
and flowing of the waves unite with the pools’ glassy surfaces.
Autoban and Tokyo-based architects Studio Glitt have endeavoured to ensure pool and sunbathing areas, like the villas, are shrouded in privacy. High wooden fencing separates the midnight swimmer from the eyes of those around. Outdoor seating areas located by each pool equally serve as a refuge from the powerful midday sun, as well as a place separated from the world. Set beneath a cabana, thick trunk-like wooden blocks function as stools, which complement the foliage beside the outdoor shower.
Gazing out across the jetty that connects the water villas to the island it is impossible not to comprehend how perfectly Joali fits within the essence of its surroundings, a small paradise thrust into an expanse of heavenly blue that coalesces to produce the most enviable of destinations. Flourishing in its isolation, there comes a feeling of a commitment to retaining the spirit of the natural world. From pastel hues to No LaB’s hand-carved Maldivian Heron panels, Joali is made up of elements that leave guests unarmed to the force of the island’s surroundings. Nacho Carbonell, John Paul Phillip and Misha Kahn also add a whole new lease of life to the way we perceive and relate to furniture, with each simultaneously serving as functional and as works of art. The Evolution Chair, formed from materials that include sand and tree sap, offers quiet introspection from the hive-like structure that adorns one end, while long strands flow artistically from top to bottom in thread tapestries created by South Korean visionary Soojin Kang. Mini stools made of ceramic are no less visually impressive, replicating shapes that are inspired by the Tepius mountains of Reinaldo Senguino’s native Venezuela.
Embodying the simple joys of life through its focus on art, wellbeing and sustainable luxury, Joali’s eco-luxury is sure to set a standard in the world of hotel interiors. Extraordinary artworks from 13 international artists, handpicked by the curators and concept developers of No LaB, Ala Onur and Zeynep, add to Joali’s reputation as an immersive island retreat.
Joali’s charm lies not in heavy embellishment nor decor that orders the attention of visitors but in its use of delicate hues and raw, earth-inspired furniture, drawing on its greatest asset – the island and the ocean itself.
The timeless beauty of Muravandhoo’s Joali evokes an uplifting sensation with every step. Its greatest achievement? To meld the rawness of nature with the refined to create a space that is truly remarkable.