Kurumba: The fairytale development of an iconic, island holiday resort

Kurumba: The fairytale development of an iconic, island holiday resort

For visitors flying into the Maldives in 2022, it must be hard to imagine how the Indian Ocean archipelago was 50 years ago, when Kurumba, the country’s first private island resort opened to receive her first guests on the 3rd October 1972.

Situated in the North Malé Atoll, merely 10 minutes speedboat from both the capital and Malé International Airport, Kurumba is a 5-star resort that peerlessly blends the heritage of the Maldives with contemporary luxuries. On arrival guests are greeted with the staples the Maldives are renowned for, a tropical sanctuary of powder soft sands and the azure waters of the Indian Ocean; but it’s the charm of Kurumba that sets this island apart from others. An idyllic home away from home for both couples and families, Kurumba’s pathways through lush foliage and stunning gardens of frangipani, hibiscus and bougainvillea lead to a myriad of private villas steps from the shoreline.

The lure of this island has seen guests revisit Kurumba time and time again. Its story is synonymous with tourism in the Maldives, an industry that could have easily missed its chance to grow, yet flourished thanks to the right people in the right place at the right time, and the passion and determination of its young Maldivian founders…

For thousands of years the Maldives have been a magnet for travellers, with seaman and merchants sailing across the Indian Ocean happening upon the islands either by design or shipwreck. With 1,190 islands (of which only 200 are inhabited) the Maldives in 1972 was mostly unknown to the outside world, with no foreign investment this remote archipelago was home to fisher folk. The 122,673 inhabitants spread across the capital, Malé, and several local islands. Those who have seen Malé in recent years will know it as a bustling city, but in 1972 it consisted of coral-stone cottages, coconut trees, unpaved sandy streets, no main water, and an intermittent electricity supply. There were few motor vehicles, only two taxis, and zero guesthouses. The country’s industry relied almost entirely on its fishing exports to Ceylon.

After a halt in this export in 1972, the Maldives turned its attention to new horizons: tourism. The first travellers, a group of Italians, arrived from Ceylon in February 1972. There was neither any guesthouse, nor resort – the guests were hosted in February 1972 on Malé by three friends, Ahmed Naseem, Mohamed Umar Maniku and Hussein Afeef.  The three young men were vanguards in Maldivian tourism and began working together to develop the first islands for tourist resorts. М U Maniku, became the Chairman of Universal Enterprises, a position he still holds and Hussein Afeef, who is today the owner of several resorts in the Maldives as well as in the Seychelles and in Norway.

They chose their first island, Vihamanafushi (the original name of Kurumba) for their first foray because of its proximity to the airstrip and the capital. Access was by sailing Dhoni, but the island had no jetty (although one was later built using coconut trunks as pillars) so guests had to wade through the surf to the beach.

Kurumba Village, named after the Dhivehi word for coconut, officially opened to guests on Tuesday 3rd October 1972 and was a true testament to the tenacity and resilience of Maniku, Afeef and Naseem, their stylistic choices for the resort’s first rooms set the scene for the aesthetic still known in the Maldives today.  The goal from the outset was to develop something unique, they had no interest in mass tourism and concrete buildings, they celebrated Maldivian culture in every decision. Local materials such as coral stone and lime for walls, coconut timber for beams and palm thatch for the roof were used on the 30 beachfront rooms in blocks of three, each featuring a brackish water shower, toilet, basic furniture. Meals were taken in the makeshift restaurant, but most often guests ate their catch of the day barbequed on the beach.  Recalling the pioneering days М U Maniku says: “We were very young, only in our twenties and we had a lot of ego, a lot of confidence. It was like a fire in my belly that couldn’t be put out. We never looked back. Luckily for us, tourists wanted simplicity in natural surroundings and that was what we had to offer – we had nothing in the Maldives then. The streets were sand. There were no banks, no proper airport, no telephone, only ham radio or Morse code contact with Colombo. Even the UNDP experts said that tourism would never succeed because there were no facilities, no infrastructure.” he recalls. “We used small boats to get around the islands. The rooms had a tarpaulin on the sandy ground to start with, at first there were no fans, just open doors.”

Over the next several years Kurumba’s reputation spread by word of mouth, and the resort went from strength-to-strength.

In the space of just six years (1973-1979) 26 resorts opened including Baros, Kuramathi and Velassaru, bringing the number of beds available to 1,536. In 1978 as his involvement with Kurumba and other resorts grew, М U Maniku joined forces with his brother, Ahmed Umar Maniku to consolidate their various enterprises into one entity: Universal Enterprises (Private) Limited, with M U Maniku as Chairman.

Sustainable tourism practices were introduced, some obvious – passport control, some more nuanced for the Maldives – a ban on spearfishing and a law prohibiting the unauthorised felling of trees on resort islands. Kurumba began plans to completely redefine what Maldivian tourism looked like; the benchmark standard of accommodation and facilities for tourists was set for other resorts to follow.

The reopening of Kurumba Village in 1987 ushered in a new era, forever changing guest expectation of a holiday in the Maldives. Universal Resorts engaged architects from Germany to help modernise and expand Kurumba whilst preserving their gardens and coconut groves. The new designs were groundbreaking, with specially engineered swimming pools and restaurants curated around specific cuisines. At the time, Kurumba was achieving the impossible; “our food and beverage philosophy has always been the same – to listen and give guests what they want.” says M U Maniku, “When we added those restaurants, we had to make sure we provided the best in service and cuisine. We started the new Kurumba with a German chef and we had the best ingredients, the best of everything, regardless of the cost. We wanted to set a standard.”

The island’s infrastructure too, was dramatically improved with the construction of a desalination plant converting seawater to freshwater to accommodate their new capacity of 300 guests. Throughout the following 15 years Kurumba’s heritage in Maldivian hospitality was cemented, Universal Enterprises’ policy with resorts, especially the flagship resort of Kurumba Village, has always been to pioneer.  “We would often break and build,” says М U Maniku, “so that we could create something up to date.” With renovations came innovations with conservation at the heart, solar energy was introduced for hot water, Maniku’s background as a horticulturist developed the garden’s Kurumba are known for today, the orchid nursey was introduced, along with a vegetable garden and thousands of plants specifically introduced to help the control of erosion and countering sand movement to ensure the ecology of the island survives.

In 2003, Kurumba underwent a complete transformation yet again, to meet the demands of the 21st century. The result was a world-class resort with 180 rooms, including the Royal Residence, Presidential Suites, Pool Villas, Family Villas and beach and garden superior rooms.

Kurumba’s advent as the first holiday resort 50 years ago was the catalyst for the country now known to be one of the world’s most luxurious destinations for discerning travellers. From its humble origins accommodating only 60 guests a month, it’s somewhat astonishing to think that in 2019 there were 1.7 million tourist arrivals to the Maldives’ 132 resorts. In 2022, Kurumba is still driven by the pioneering spirit of M U Maniku, continuously breaking boundaries of Maldivian tourism.

Celebrating Maldives in full colour, the resort now features eight room categories, seven restaurants, an award-winning spa, and a kids club for children ages 4-13 years.  The resort’s signature Deluxe Bungalows and Deluxe Beachfront Bungalows hide among the fragrant tropic flora in graceful horseshoe shaped clusters, just yards from the pure white beaches corralling the island.  Each features a king-sized bed, luxurious dual-basin bathroom, a glass-walled shower, a giant free-standing bathtub, and- adjoining the bungalow- a delightful garden containing an outside shower and spacious decking veranda.

Guests wanting more luxury and privacy can opt for Kurumba villa rooms, starting with the Beach Villa and the Garden Pool Villas that offer plunge pools within your private open-plan courtyard with rain shower to cool off. Kurumba’s Deluxe Pool Villas are even more sumptuous with the additional luxuries of a large private pool (each uniquely shaped) with a waterfall, day bed and wooden terrace, all enclosed within a walled garden.  The largest of these pool villas are the resort’s four Family Villas; these are duplex apartments of over 306 sq metres, each with a large living area and interior courtyard.

However, the largest and most extravagant villa on the island is the Two Bedroom Kurumba Residence.  Measuring 768 sq metres in diameter and housing two bedrooms, two private pools, a huge living area and veranda, this opulent suite has proved a favourite of many visiting dignitaries and heads of state.  Every category of accommodation on the island comes fully equipped with all the modern amenities you would expect from a first-class resort.

Few resorts in the Maldives can match Kurumba for the variety and quality of the food available.  The resort has a total of 7 restaurants serving an eclectic selection of the finest world cuisines.  One could eat solely in Vihamana, the main restaurant, and never tire of the international gourmet cuisines served for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  The speciality restaurants on the island still offer a range of fine dining options to suit every palate. Deciding whether to savour far-eastern sushi and teppenyaki at the over water Hamakaze or feast within the palatial Lebanese décor of Al Qasr (sampling its grilled meats and kebabs) is not an easy decision.  Making a choice between the delicious Indian, and Thai menus of Mahal and Khing Thai, respectively, is equally difficult.

For guests who want to season their meals with a pinch of Maldives romance, Kurumba’s award-winning restaurant Thila offers a unique beachfront setting in which to dine; relish the finest grilled seafood by candlelight surrounded by a panoramic vista of the ocean.  Those seeking total intimacy can request a private dining experience for two, either on the beach, out on a yacht or even on their own desert island. The Sounds of the Sea is a favourite. For those feeling a little more social, the resort also features three bars: Fez, the island’s shisha bar with rich Arabic colours and elegant designs serving colourful cocktails and a range of shisha flavours, Athiri, set on the beach for the best sunsets and the lively Kandu, where guests can share a drink and conversation in the company of a live bands and local dance.

Surrounded by soothing reflection ponds, the Veli Spa is an oasis of serenity in the heart of the island.  Here, guests can enjoy a dedicated yoga session and unwind in the relaxation lounge.  Guests are led to one of eight single or couples treatment rooms to feel stress melt away via the creative range of treatments available.  Using fragrant local herbs and spices the Thai, Balinese and Maldivian massages are a particular treat.  Alternatively, you may want to indulge in reflexology or simply revitalize your skin with a selection of exotic body wraps and polishes. For a more romantic experience “The Spa Under the Stars” offers couples a chance to watch the sunset whilst enjoying unique cowrie shell massage using local hand pressed Coconut oil.

The resort’s other facilities are equally impressive. For families there is the Majaa Recreation Club and the Majaa Kid Club offering fun and enriching experiences with a Maldivian twist including traditional craft making and beachfront games. The Sports centre offers a fully equipped gym, pool, and three floodlit tennis courts.

However, if water sports are your passion then Kurumba is the place to visit, with the Dive School offering a full range of PADI diving courses.   Beginners are eased into the sport gently in the clear shallow waters of the lagoon and, once competent, guests are taken to explore the most spectacular dive sites in the Maldives.  Dazzling shoals of iridescent tropical fish wait to greet you as friendly reef sharks, manta ray and turtles swim by.

The calm waters surrounding the island are also ideal for kayaking, waterskiing, windsurfing and parasailing, all of which can be found at the Water Sports Centre and there are Fun Tubes and Banana Rodeos available to keep children entertained.  This is all in addition to a wide range of fascinating local excursions including the Sand Bank Picnic.  Guests can sail the Indian Ocean in a traditional Maldivian Dhoni (stopping for a picnic on a desert island), wave to the dolphins on the ever-popular sunset cruise or partake in a spot of night-fishing under the stars.

Sustainability and conservation have continued to play a pivotal role in Kurumba’s story.  The resort run and support several CSR programmes including the Kudhakudhinge Hiyaa Orphanage in Villingili and the new ARC’s Early Childhood Play and Development Training Programme. They continue to strive to operate as sustainably as possible, Kurumba boasts one of the most effective and comprehensive recycling centres of any resort in the Maldives; their glass is ground to reuse in cementing and their recyclable plastics cardboards and metals are all fully recycled.  They have ‘super composter’ that composts Kitchen waste within 3 hours for use on the gardens. Kurumba also support local artisans across the resort, Veli Spa uses locally sourced Maldivian coconut oil for massages and treatments and their Nala Boutique brings guests paintings and crafts from Maldivian artists.

A process of natural growth, and of proud perseverance, led by heartfelt service over the years. Kurumba has matured into the Grand Hotel of the Maldives, continuously and proudly setting the benchmark for hospitality in the region.