The thick grove of over 500 palm trees, gives little hint of the 5 star, 180 room luxury resort hidden in its shade. Kurumba is Dhivehi for coconut and synonymous with the birthplace of the multi million dollar tourist industry of Maldives.
It all started with a few thatch covered coral structures without doors or ceiling fans, quickly put together to accommodate the first batch of foreign tourists in 1972 brought by an Italian travel agent, Giorgio Corbin. Only a few years earlier a UN agency had concluded that the Maldives offered no prospects for tourism development. The obstacles were simply too large.
A chance meeting between the adventurous Corbin, who’d been searching the world for unspoiled tropical islands, and Ahmed Naseem, then a junior member of the Maldives embassy in Colombo, changed the history of the Maldives forever. When Corbin arrived in Male by freighter with Naseem from Sri Lanka 44 years ago, he found a capital city that didn’t have a bank or telephones, there was no regular electricity service, no guesthouses, no sealed roads, no proper airport and no immigration office. But it had everything he’d been searching for.
Corbin’s arrival was well timed. The country’s economy was reeling after Sri Lanka had unexpectedly reduced the quota of fish to be imported from Maldives. The government quickly realised that tourism could be a new way to earn much needed foreign exchange. Accommodating the first guests on an uninhabited island, where they could expose their sun-starved flesh and ring in the tropical sunset with an alcoholic beverage without offending the local Muslim population, set the trend for the future ‘one-island-one resort’ concept that is unique to the Maldives.
Corbin’s guests, who arrived by chartered Sri Lankan air force plane, wanted simplicity, sand, sun and fish. And that’s about all Naseem and his friend U M Maniku, the founder of Universal Enterprises, now the country’s largest resort operator, had to offer. “We knew nothing about tourism,” Maniku recalls. “It was tourists who helped us build the industry here. We listened to them and gave them what they wanted.” That’s still the prevailing philosophy at Kurumba. The resort is proud of its many return guests who value the personalised interactions with staff. Some have been coming for 20 years.
But it has been a steep learning curve. The first guests wouldn’t have been aware of how Maniku and his friends, young, inexperienced and passionate, struggled to pull it all off. That Italians liked pasta and generally disliked the spicy local food was easily understood, but who had any idea how to cook western food? Maniku recalls translating an English recipe book page by page into Dhivehi for the local kitchen staff. To meet the request of an Italian woman who demanded ‘acqua minerale’, Maniku asked a pharmacist in Male’ to mix up some minerals into a powder which he then added to filtered water and hand bottled using his father’s bottling machine. The signora was delighted.
Being resourceful and making due with limited, local resources, is a time honoured tradition in a country made up of a string of remote coral atolls that have existed in geographical isolation for many centuries before tourism arrived.
Sourcing ingredients was one of the first challenges the resort needed to overcome. In the beginning guests would bring their own sandwiches for fear of having to eat nothing but grilled fish, rice and bananas. On days of rough weather when the small dinghy couldn’t make it across from Male, they had to make due with what was available on the island, native leaf vegetables mixed with grated coconut.
Herbs and salad are still grown on the island as part of its commitment to sustainability, but the opening of the new airport in 1981 allowed Kurumba to gradually take dining to another level. Today there are eight restaurants specialising in different cuisines, from Indian, to Asian, Middle Eastern, Japanese, French and Italian. My angus steak from Australia at the stunning Thila restaurant is cooked to perfection.
Looking across from Thila restaurant to the crowded concrete jungle of Male and watching international planes land at Hulhule airport island, it’s hard to imagine the resort’s humble beginnings, when guests had to wade ashore through the surf from a small dinghy. Today, guests arrive in a two-storey air conditioned speedboat and the original coconut plantation is a manicured garden.
Kurumba’s evolution from spartan village to upmarket destination was gradual. In 1986 the resort got a make over that set a new standard for the entire industry. Building a pool in a country that consists to 99% of ocean was not without controversy and challenge, getting the first desalination plant made the resort independent from rainwater tanks, a state-of the art conference centre meant that suddenly Kurumba Village attracted VIPs and international delegates.
To reflect its stellar evolution, in 2004 Kurumba Village was rebranded Kurumba Maldives. And kurumba, the coconut, is still king here. From coconut-themed signature cocktails served in the fancy Kandu bar, to a small coconut oil factory that produces 100% virgin oil used for cooking and at the Veli Spa as the base for herbal therapy treatments. It’s another of example of Kurumba’s spirit of innovation, honouring the Maldivian tradition of self-sufficiency. The Veli Spa hopes to set a new trend in reviving old Maldivian traditions, offering treatments based on Dhivehi Beys, traditional medicine made from herbal remedies that are passed down the generations by knowledgeable hakeems, Maldivian healers.
The proximity to the airport means you can dip your toes in the water within an hour of landing. Ocean barriers made from dead coral now surround the island to protect it from erosion. It also protects less confident swimmers from the swell. But venture beyond the barriers, snorkel along the fine house reef and find a world that still looks much like it did 44 years ago when Giorgio Corbin found his paradise.
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