(THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Diving into a bed of rose petals, sipping on champagne in an infinity pool, enjoying a private candle-lit dinner on the beach: activities in the Maldives used to be largely of the romantic variety. But when the honeymoon is over and the little ones start popping out a few years later, does it mean that couples have to forever forgo this tropical paradise for the other happiest place on earth, Disneyland?
Thankfully for those averse to overpriced churros and over-sized cartoon rodents, tykes no longer receive the dreaded side-eye from lovey-dovey grown-ups in the tropical Indian Ocean nation. And the luxury Asian hotel group Anantara has managed to corner the family-friendly Maldives resort market, with three out of four of its resorts in the Maldives being havens for guests of all ages.
Flying into Male - the capital of Maldives - late at night, my family is immediately ushered into an air-conditioned mini lounge at the airport, while we wait for the rest of the guests to arrive and board our speedboat for a 35-minute, slightly bumpy ride to Anantara Dhigu, the largest Anantara property in the region. It is an experience arriving at your private villa in the darkness of night, and to awake to a brilliant blue sky and a view of the shimmering Indian Ocean.
Anantara Dhigu is a luxurious destination targeting families and couples alike. All beach and natural wildlife, the idea of "family-friendly" here does not translate into being held captive on a desert island full of screaming kids. In fact, most of the pint-sized guests are calm and well-behaved, in all likelihood due to the array of healthy activities for children to burn off excess energy, without the sensory overload of urban kiddie distractions like rides, bright lights, and a-mile-a-minute stimuli.
For a five-year-old whose idea of outdoor playtime mainly consists of scooting down our street without getting run over by an Uber, it is no surprise that my son is exclaiming to everyone within earshot that he wants to make Dhigu his new home.
Any worry about getting bored during our five-day trip is unwarranted as soon as we spend over an hour traipsing down the pristine white beach picking up shells, only to discover that the "good" ones are all inhabited by translucent hermit crabs. Which was fine, because the activity evolves into locating homes for other exposed crustaceans, swapping remaining shells with our next-villa neighbour, and soaking in views of the sunset.
Besides off-the-cuff, lazy activities, there are plenty of other ways to keep grown-ups and bubs occupied. Nestled within a lagoon, the surrounding waters are relatively shallow and calm. During the low tide, when the water is less choppy, little ones can wade through or snorkel in the lagoon to easily spot various species of marine life in the see-through waters. Older kids can try out surfing and paddle-boarding in the safety of the lagoon, or even pick up diving from the resort's dedicated water sports centre, Aquafanatics.
Despite our reservations, we sign up for a snorkelling trip in the open water with the little guy. He had practised using his fins and snorkel in the pool prior to the trip, but had little experience swimming in the sea. However, our guide holds our life-vest-wearing kid throughout the swim, pointing out baby sharks, sea turtles and other wonderful sea creatures that even the grown-ups miss - since we don't have the benefit of a private tour.
Another excursion worth the splurge is the dolphin-watching trip. Expectations are low since the boat ride starts with a disclaimer from the captain that there is no guarantee we would spot any dolphins. Bearing in mind that we aren't exactly in Seaworld, we keep our eyes peeled on the water surface and are perhaps overenthusiastic with our cheers when we see a couple of flying fishes.
But within minutes, we reach the atolls where the cetaceans call home. And, boy, it is a veritable display of Flipper-level dolphin acrobatics. The highly sociable mammals come up to our boat in pods - without the need to lure them with feed as they surf in the wave created by the boat to conserve energy.
While some experts believe that dolphins jump out of water to get a better view of potential prey or even get rid of parasites, based on the sheer number of slick-bodied fellas doing aerial flips, it is apparent that they are pretty much showing off and having fun in front of an audience. Naturally, guests of all ages are delighted by the experience, and it seems like the dolphins are too, trailing behind us even when the boat picks up speed to head back to the resort.
While Dhigu is the ultimate spot for spending quality time with the family, grown-ups can still take a break with a little help from the friendly team at the Dhoni Kids Club. More like a massive sand pit of activities, the club consists of an air-conditioned playroom fashioned from a dhoni (a traditional Maldivian timber boat), mini sand field for sports and a tree house.
Our little guy could spend hours painting coconuts, designing his own T-shirt and decorating cookies - while mum sneaks off for a massage. Each of the nine spa suites are perched over the lagoon, so one can hear the soothing sounds of lapping waves while the therapist coaxes your body into relaxation. The holistic treatments are designed to detoxify and relax the senses, and can be tailored to your needs, or even to soothe sunburnt skin.
Like any other luxury resort in the Maldives, dining on the property does not come cheap. But at least one sees the value in the meals at any of Dhigu's four restaurants, and another three at the neighbouring adults-only resort, Veli (children are allowed on the property after 6pm). The menus include farm-to-table options (with ingredients harvested from the chef's own garden - including a fiery variety of chilli that only locals can tolerate), and a range of surprisingly fresh and expertly prepared imported ingredients like juicy cuts of steak.
And while we are told that the resort is almost fully occupied, guests never feel like they are jostling with the hoi polloi at the breakfast buffet line, or disturbed by children playing a game of catch during happy hour. This is possibly due to the privacy of the self-contained villas and strips of white sandy beach surrounding the island - including a teensy island just a three-minute boat ride away with a picturesque private lagoon and sand bank.
Maldives is certainly the most budget-busting beach destination in the region, especially when compared with beach spots closer to home. But one reason why we could spend ages just exploring the island are the details: the lack of sand flies due to the high level of cleanliness means we could walk around barefoot; the absence of pesky vendors hawking henna tattoo services and the crystal-clear waters make spending whole days on the beach a happy pastime; and then there is the high level of service - a doctor is immediately sent for, for example, when our child tripped on a step and bumped his shin.
This particular resort offers 110 villas and suites, and while staying in a water villa might be the epitome of a Maldivian holiday, parents of younger children can choose from luxurious private villas with spacious gardens and beach-edged pools instead of one that is perched over open water.
It is also part of Anantara Vacation Club, a shared ownership programme which allows members to stay at luxurious properties in the region, as well as partner hotels around the world. In other words, members can conceivably pop into the Maldives every couple of years, in between exploring the chain's other properties in relatively less-upscale beach destinations like Phuket and Bali. And why not? Because in the Maldives, one can slow down time and truly bond with the whole brood, all without feeling held captive in a massive - albeit decadent - day care centre.