The Barefoot Eco Hotel: The archetype of a truly natural experience
It was an early morning flight from Velana International Airport to Hanimaadhoo Airport, in the northern Haa Dhaalu Atoll; the perfect time for picturesque scenery, with the sun’s bright rays leaving the ocean below glistening in a golden aura. Hanimaadhoo, home of The Barefoot Eco Hotel—a four-star escape tucked away around lush vegetation, long stretch of private sandy beach and turquoise lagoon on the north-western shore of the island—is large compared to most other islands and inhabited with some 2000 residents.
A car was already waiting for us as we left the airport, and the 15-minute drive to the hotel was an experience in itself, through the tree-lined roads and the lazy and relaxed streets of the island; as thus is island life in the Maldives. It felt as if the hotel had it’s very own private airport, little fisher village, and the expansive scenery of the beautiful island, all by itself. We turned off into a dirt lane, lined with banana trees and other lush vegetation, and a minute or two later, we dawned upon the grand entrance of the hotel. A cold towel and a welcome drink later, we were greeted by Raffaella Colleoni, the exuberant general manager of the hotel, who was excited to share the plans for our stay.As we sat at the reception lounge, chatting about what to expect during our stay, what struck me was the simple, yet classy décor, showcasing a bit of Maldivian culture through the white coral stone wall behind the counter. Built on its jungle setting, the hotel was remarkably green, with its well-kept gardens, and tall palms surrounded by the dashing flowering plants at its bottom. Despite a gleaming sun, the hotel’s walkways were well-shaded from the harsh rays by the palm fronds and other tropical trees.
The hotel offers 52 rooms, and to my delight, mine was an Ocean View room—sitting atop a Beach Front room, with its grand view of the ocean, just over the top of the trees and shrubs that were outlined outside of my room. It was spacious and comfortable, with the bed facing the terrace and its Hessian-style bean bags; all-in-all, a very relaxing ambience. The bathroom certainly caught my attention, with its minimalistic and sustainable approach, and what really caught my eye was the tiles—with its old castle feel and look.
Out of the 52 rooms, 40 comes in fours, two Ocean View rooms atop two Ocean Front ones—these come with their own patios leading out to the sand, and just beyond the shrubs lay the azure ocean and the expansive beach dotted with parasols and loungers. Some of the beachfront and ocean view rooms are interconnected on the floor with a staircase, allowing for a more family-like setting. On the other end, past the main restaurant, are the 12 Seaside Rooms, nicely furnished with garden-walnut furniture, wooden veranda and a sandy inner courtyard just beside the endless white beach.
After a little nap, I headed down the sandy trail past the swimming pool to the main area of the hotel which housed the main restaurant, a lounge, a bar, and the hotel’s iconic Conservation Centre. The Barefoot Eco Hotel offers buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner at its main restaurant—delectable choices of everything, cooked to perfection by the Italian executive chef and his team. The atmosphere was exciting, and the food was great; I especially loved the home-made pasta, cooked at a live station, compliments to the chef.The Juice Bar, on the other hand, is the place to hang out, escape the blazing sun, and enjoy an ice-cold drink—or an espresso, if you must. Since the hotel is located on an inhabited island, regulations dictate that it cannot serve any liquor; but no worries, you can hop on a free-transfer to the Boat Bar, docked just outside on the lagoon, for an evening of fun.
In the evening, right before dinner, I headed out to the Conservation Centre for a session on plastic pollution with Massimo Casali, the resident marine biologist. Learning about the scourge of plastic to the environment and the measures undertaken at the hotel to minimise plastic pollution, was a real treat, and a major principle on eco-sustainability and conservation followed by the hotel.
I had a chat with Raffaella the next morning to capture a glimpse of how the Barefoot Eco Hotel is an environmental champion. The eco-concept at the hotel was put in place even before its development, where ecologically grown wood was used in development, and the surrounding nature kept as was, with minimal changes. It creates part of its own electricity using solar energy with the remainder provided by the local powerhouse in the island, avoiding the use of an in-house generator.
Under its fight against the use of plastics, especially single-use ones, the hotel has completely phased-out plastic bottles and straws, and uses its water bottling plant to provide drinking water to the guests and its staff; two bottles are provided in your room every day. In the rooms, hot water is provided by recovering the heat generated from air-conditioners. The Conservation Centre is the hub for all activities, and the marine biologist oversees the “responsible activities” taking advantage of the excursions to carry out projects on environmental monitoring, collecting data on the ecosystem and the impact of the hotel on the ecosystem.
There was not a moment to get bored at The Barefoot Eco Hotel, which offers a number of exhilarating activities to choose from. The Barefoot Diving Centre is the base for all water-based activities, including snorkelling, diving, and other non-motorised water sports activities. With a number of exciting dive spots to choose from—including the famous Filladhoo Wreck, Alidhoo Caves, Barefoot Thila, Heaven & Hell Thila, etc.—the dive centre is PADI and SSI certified, guaranteeing the highest level of quality and professionalism.You can also hop on a boat with the marine biologist for a day filled with fun and adventure; go snorkelling on the house reef, or go on an excursion learning about dolphins and manta rays. In the evening, my colleague and I set off on bicycles—provided free for your leisure by the hotel—with Massimo, on a journey learning about the environment and culture of the local village. We ended the evening around sunset with evening tea hosted at one of the local houses.
The Barefoot Eco Hotel is not just exemplary in its efforts on sustainability, but it is also a champion in its relationship with the local community. For starters, a number of the hotel staff are from the local village paving the way for direct economic involvement with the community, while it helps in the development of the people, especially the young, through specific awareness and education programmes. The hotel also had a role in the development of the local school in the island, in addition to its role in introducing a project to sort waste created at the local households. Guests are invited to join in these activities, including the beach cleaning programmes carried out twice a month.
Heading back to the hotel before sundown, I did not realise that we were in for a special treat. It was “Maldivian night” at the restaurant, and I found the other guests buzzing around the buffet, sampling the real taste of Maldivian cooking, inquiring about the many special dishes that we call our own. Donned in Maldivian attire, the staff were busy explaining the different dishes that were a pure delight on the taste buds.
After a lazy morning the next day, I went around the property to check out the other facilities and services that were so loved by the guests. Of course, it all starts at The Barefoot Spa & Beauty, where you can pamper yourself after a day on the beach, where the treatments are combined with spiritual and meditative experiences to achieve total wellness of body and mind.
The Barefoot Boutique is also a must-visit, which offers guests custom-made clothing, souvenirs and personal care products. It was the place for the perfect souvenir to carry home; a reminder of a vacation well-spent, of an experience that must not be forgotten, and a time that should be engraved and cherished for years to come. The Barefoot experience, was for certain, a new way to experience the pristine and natural Maldives in all its glory.