Where was Maldives first overwater villa built?

If you think Maldives has always been synonymous with luxury island paradise, you are mistaken! Four decades ago, this remote archipelago was inhabited only by fisher folk. It was unknown to the outside world and there was no foreign investment. There was only a small airstrip on Hulhule Island (the present international airport), built by volunteers, with no regular flights.

That changed on October 3, 1972 when Kurumba Maldives (then called Kurumba Village) opened for business as the first resort in the Maldives. Two hundred and sixty-six foreigners visited that year, staying in rustic huts and marvelling at the gin-clear water lapping at their ankles.

Over the past 46 years, that number has crossed 1.4 million. More than 140 resorts have since opened across the archipelago. The Maldives has transitioned from hidden gem to highly-coveted, must-visit holiday destination, and with exclusive water villas that rise out of aquamarine lagoons and picture-perfect beaches, it’s not difficult to understand why.

Did you know that the Maldives is home to about two-thirds of the 8,000 plus overwater villas in the world? And the list continues to grow longer almost monthly!

But where in the Maldives was the first water villa built? Who brought this concept to the shores of Maldives?

That’s a question that fetches so many conflicting answers, as was evidenced when longtime Maldives aficionado Paola Mattana Lamperti recently posed it to her Facebook friends! Was it Kuramathi Maldives or Baros Maldives, two resorts owned and operated by tourism pioneers Universal Resorts? Was it Conrad Maldives Rangali Island (then called Hilton Maldives)?

Mohamed ‘Modi’ Ibrahim Didi, who served as the manager of Baros in the 80s and 90s, told Maldives Insider that the first overwater villa was built at Adaaran Prestige Vadoo (then called Vadoo Diving Paradise) in 1986. It was conceived by the resort’s then Japanese owner Tokohiko Sakamoto, who sold the resort to Sri Lankan hotel group Aitken Spence in 2006, he added.

Overwater villas at Vadoo, when it was operated as Vadoo Diving Paradise.

According to others that served in the industry at the time, the first overwater bungalow at Vadoo was designed by a Singaporean architectural firm. A Japanese team provided the engineering expertise to the project.

“That particular water bungalow is now not used for accommodation but for historical purposes,” Pranjal P D Sarmah, founder of travel agency 360 Degree World, said in a comment to Paola’s question.

Ahmed Waseem, who was the Resident Manager at Vadoo at the time, said officials from leading local resort operators like Universal and Villa Hotels visited the island to study the concept. Malaysia’s then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed also paid a visit, he added.

Sakamoto’s innovation undoubtedly set in motion a wave of construction projects involving overwater villas. Two years later, Kuramathi opened its first overwater bungalow, followed by Baros in 1992. And the rest is history, as almost every resort that opened since features overwater villas.

The model for overwater villas in Maldives is simple. Like pearls over water, these villas are set suspended on stilts into the turquoise lagoon, connected to the island by a timber walkway. A private sundeck of the villa extends into hammocks or similar items to sunbath, lazing over the water, listening to the sound of the waves and observing the vivid marine life beneath. A wooden staircase leads directly from the sundeck to the lagoon, for the daily dose of snorkelling or for the occasional plunge into the ocean. Most villas have an additional living room attached to the bedroom. A spacious bathroom opens to the outdoor with an open-air bathtub, and is equipped with the latest luxury amenities.

Some new entrants in the Maldives resort market now go the extra mile, with multi-storey palatial overwater residences that offer guests everything they can think of without having to step out. Private pools above the lapping waters of the lagoon, sky-decks that transform into anything you want it to be, spa sanctuaries within the residence, retractable roofs… you name it!

The concept of overwater bungalows itself is relatively new. It’s been said that a group of three Americans running a small hotel in Tahiti built the world’s first overwater bungalow some 50 years ago. It was a creative solution to the issue of their hotel lacking a beach!

That’s not an issue for Maldivian resorts; almost every island has long stretches of powder soft white sand beach. But overwater villas in Maldives continue to get bigger and better. And their allure continues to grow.

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