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Into the Blue: Saving the Maldives

While the Maldives struggles to deal with the rising seas of climate change, new resorts like the St. Regis are doing their small part.


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The view from the John Jacob Astor Estate at the new St. Regis resort in the Maldives faces northwest. Step onto the second-floor veranda, off the master bedroom, and you look out over your own spiral jetty, past the distant whitecaps at the rim of the Dhaalu Atoll, and off into the expanse of the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea beyond.

Ocean and the Arabian Sea beyond. It’s an impressive view, rivaled only, perhaps, by the estate itself—an extravagant overwater villa that rests on concrete stilts, is full of bespoke furniture and art, and covers more than 16,500 square feet, spanning three buildings. There’s a 990-square-foot infinity pool alongside a huge sand-filled beach deck, all built about ten feet off the water.

With rates starting at around $26,200 a night, the estate is the top offering at the property, which opened in November around the same time as several other new high-end resorts in the country. Consisting of nearly 1,200 islands, fewer than 200 of which are inhabited, the Maldives has long been associated with this kind of wealth. In fact, well before they were a playground for well-heeled honeymooners and vacationing royals, the islands’ famously rich seas were exploited for money itself. They were a major source of cowrie shells, an ancient form of currency used over much of the world, in some places as recently as the mid-19th century.

Today, though, the islands of the Maldives—spectacularly beautiful and scattered off the southwestern tip of India—are perhaps best known for how quickly they will disappear. The country’s average elevation is less than five feet above sea level, and about 80 percent of the land lies below three feet. It is the flattest nation on earth. With sea-level rise accelerating because of climate change, some experts warn that the country could be almost entirely inundated by 2085. When the 400,000 Maldivians who call the islands home have to find another place to live, they will be joining an ever-increasing number of climate refugees.

And there will be many of them. Low-lying coastal areas are some of the most densely populated parts of the planet. Where resources are too scarce to build levees and other adaptation methods—in places like Bangladesh and Vietnam—millions of people are at risk. The wealthy West is hardly immune. Venice is behind schedule and vastly over budget on the construction of an elaborate flood barrier. Miami, where I reported on sea-level rise for departures in 2014, faces losses of $3.5 trillion due to rising oceans by 2070, according to some estimates.

Malé, the capital of the Maldives, is home to about a third of the country’s people. The city’s main island is just over half the size of New York’s Central Park and is one of the most densely populated islands in the world. It is crammed with concrete buildings, almost all of them under ten stories high. From the air the city looks like a bristling bottle cap floating in a dark pool.

In 1989, Ali Rilwan founded Bluepeace, the country’s first environmental nonprofit. “We don’t have much time, that’s the scary part,” Rilwan said to me in a café on a dim, narrow street in Malé. The government recently began charging tourists a green tax, which raised more than $17 million in its first six months. “It’s supposed to pay for environmental projects,” he said, “but so far there’s no sign of that.”

Yet there’s no shortage of other infrastructure projects, with financing apparently pouring in faster than the rising ocean. A bridge connecting Malé to the international airport’s island will be completed next year, built on what was a favorite local surfing break, and cranes rise above the city skyline everywhere you look.

“The poles are melting, and we don’t have the dry land we need,” Rilwan said. There is a dark sense of humor in the shrug of his voice—a coping mechanism for the long odds he faces. “The islands are sinking, but construction is booming. Buildings should be on stilts—we’ve been saying it for 30 years, but no one takes us seriously. Except the resorts. They’ll be around longer than the rest of us.”

The St. Regis encompasses the entirety of Vommuli, a dot of an island, small enough that a pro could nearly drive a golf ball over it stem to stern. Luxury private-island resorts are common in the Maldives, but what the St. Regis has done with Vommuli stands out, and you can see it even from your seaplane as you fly in. There is a sweep to the wooden pier that leads to the overwater villas (44 of them in all, including the Astor) that brings to mind the coiled tail of a great sea creature. At the other end of the island, the Iridium Spa, also built on stilts, looks like a giant lobster at play in the shallows.

These ocean-inspired design flourishes are carried throughout the resort. Colorful beach furniture has been fashioned from salvaged fishing boats, the shape of the overwater villas was inspired by a manta ray, and, best of all, there is the Whale Bar, its mouth gaping open some 30 feet across, framing the sea and sky to the west. Sit back at the end of the day with an Island Bloody Mary, served in a shell, and watch the sunset from Jonah’s point of view.

When the Singapore-based firm that designed the resort began work four years ago, the goal was to create something visually unusual that went beyond the typical luxury experience. “Luxury as conspicuous consumption has been done to death,” said Chiu Man Wong, the lead architect, over a glass of champagne at the Whale Bar one evening. “Time is the one thing money can’t buy. We wanted to do something ecologically aware—where you have the luxury of time to communicate with the environment and reconnect with whatever matters to you.”

But conspicuous consumption hasn’t been done away with entirely. In the wine cellar one night the sommelier proudly showed off a bottle of port from 1755—at $33,000, it’s not even the most expensive bottle in the cellar, which holds 2,020 of the 8,000 bottles on the island. Earlier, over a five-course dinner that included strawberry risotto with crispy langoustine, confit of légine with a black-olive tapenade, and a grilled short loin of lamb with Jerusalem artichoke ragout, the executive chef told me his preferred cooking wine is a 1996 Chianti that costs $750 a bottle.

uring my first two nights, I learned that sleeping on stilts wasn’t quite my thing. The unobstructed view of the ocean from my overwater villa (at $2,200 a night) made me feel at times like I was in some kind of John Berger Ways of Seeing experiment—Now that this ocean scene has been stripped of the beach, palm trees, and surf to which you are accustomed, how does its meaning change? The view, while beautiful, felt too isolating and monotonous. I switched to a $2,500-a-night beach villa. Nestled among jasmine and hibiscus flowers, banyan trees and coconut palms, the A-frame building had a soaring wall of windows facing the ocean. Most important, I could get out of bed, walk outside past the plunge pool, and step directly onto the beach, my feet sinking into pale, pristine sand.

But I couldn’t shake the feeling of being completely vulnerable to the elements. That sparkling beach sand was pulverized coral from the house reef, and reefs all over the Maldives (and worldwide) are dying from rising temperatures. With the polar ice caps continuing to melt and ocean levels on the rise, what if all that’s left of this resort someday are just bungalows on stilts? That doomsday scenario is far enough off that there is still plenty of time to soak in the sun—and plenty of time for hotel companies to make good on their investments—but what will happen to the people who actually call this place home? During part of my stay, the island was battered by rain—the outer edge of tropical cyclone Vardah, which was ravaging southern India. Lying in bed, listening to the wind howl, I found it hard not to think about how vulnerable that spot was, and how many hundreds of thousands of people in the country were in a position more precarious still. (And don’t forget the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Although unrelated to climate change, it wreaked havoc on Malé, as water crashed over seawalls and turned narrow streets into rivers. Countrywide it killed 82 and left many islands crippled by damage to water and power systems. Some islands were completely flooded—there was no dry land to run to.)

Much of the credit for drawing attention to the plight of the Maldives in the face of sea-level rise goes to Mohamed Nasheed. In 2008 Nasheed became the country’s first democratically elected president, defeating Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who had held power for 30 years. Nasheed campaigned largely on a platform of democracy and human rights, but once he took office he quickly turned his focus to climate change, becoming something of a cult hero to environmentalists worldwide. In March 2009 he pledged to make the country carbon-neutral by implementing solar and wind power, and in October of that year he held the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting, which made headlines internationally. As the leader of a country that was much too small to force the U.S. or China to enact policies that might reduce carbon emissions, his only alternative was to wage a moral fight in the press—to show the world what it might be like if the Maldives succumbed to rising seas.

“The impact of climate change is not something in the future—we are facing it now,” Nasheed told me from London, where he’s been recently living. (He was ousted in a coup in 2012.) He presented a list of immediate problems facing the Maldives, including coral bleaching, coastal erosion, a freshwater aquifer contaminated by salt water intrusion, and a sitting president who dismisses environmental concerns, encouraging disbelief in climate change throughout the population.

“We can leave the islands, but where would you take the flowers, the sounds, the birds, and the butterflies?” he said. “You can relocate a people, but the Maldives has been there for thousands of years. We have a written history that runs for more than 1,500 years. We are a civilization, and we can’t go elsewhere.”

Mark O’Sullivan is the general manager of the St. Regis on Vommuli, and he has a clear interest in helping to keep his small part of the Maldives as sustainable as possible, using the resort to benefit the ecosystem locally and on a grander scale. “I’ve always been very cynical about hotels that say ‘Please keep your towels to do something decent for the environment,’” he told me at our table at Alba, the resort’s main restaurant, a lofty space with 20-foot ceilings, marble everywhere, and massive walls of glass looking out over the pool and beach. “People see that as the hotel trying to save money.

The St. Regis is trying to help in other ways. Fifty-eight percent of the staff is Maldivian, O’Sullivan said, well above the required 45 percent. And he is exploring ways to provide management training for the locals. “There’s not a single Maldivian general manager of an international brand in the Maldives,” he said. “There’s no reason why there can’t be.”

O’Sullivan also pointed out that the dive center isn’t just for scuba and catamaran trips. There is a staff marine biologist, and she and her colleagues are working to catalog the unexplored marine life of the atoll. They’re also building frames for coral farming, which guests will help plant. Bleaching is a problem, but there’s still plenty to see. I snorkeled with schools of blue surgeonfish, snappers, and oriental sweetlips. I saw two reef sharks and a couple of sea turtles. One of the divers said they’d been on a boat recently to look for dolphins and were surprised to see orcas instead.

I got up early my last morning to see the sunrise, and as I walked from my villa, the air was thick with sea spray and tropical blossoms. I sat on the beach, watching the sun come up, and eventually a young man in a St. Regis uniform strolled by. He stopped to talk. He was a landscaper and had grown up on a nearby island. He spoke of how hot it had been last summer. “My skin turned so black. There was so much bleaching on the reef—it went all white.” I asked if he was worried about sea-level rise, about his country sinking into the ocean.

“No, we have to worry about erosion here and there—but we have to live with it,” he said. “It’s natural.”


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