News & Reviews Indian Ocean Maldives Review: Joali Being, Maldives

Joali Being holds the esteemed title of the Maldives’ first wellness resort.  That might turn out to be the equivalent of boasting about having set up the first fight club in a monastery – not something people really get behind.  It seems the concept of a high-end wellness retreat, set in a remote and exotic location with a hefty price tag per night, isn’t universally appealing.  Now, Joali Being finds itself amid a full-blown identity crisis.

Concept

Joali Being is a wellness retreat that opened in 2021 in the Raa Atoll.  The brother from the same mother of Joali, you can get between the islands in 15 minutes via speedboat.  Joali Being’s philosophy centres on personalised wellness experiences, combining elements of nutrition, fitness, spa treatments, and mindfulness.  Offering 68 rooms, split between beach and overwater, with the Maldive’s most comprehensive spa facilities – my notes say 38 treatment rooms.  That seems absurd to have a 1:2 ratio of guest rooms to spa rooms, so I fact-checked myself, and it turns out I was wrong: it’s 39.

Being the first to do something should be commended, except for that guy who got a bit too creative with gerbils.  If we all shit over people coming up with new ideas, then we’d all still be living like cave dwellers, using an iPhone that’s been around for a whole two years.  Joali Being must have performed some market research and decided this was a viable business.  The problem is they seemed to have hired Derek Zoolander to do that research.

Joali Being’s original rulebook read like a boot camp manual: no alcohol, kids, and WiFi in public areas.  Sounds like a right laugh.  Now, there’s a wine cellar and a kids club; everyone is glued to their phones, and soon enough, they’ll probably go for it and open a strip club, cockfighting ring, and casino.  It’s changing at such a rate that if you came a year ago, this is now a different resort, and by the time this is published, it’s probably now a crack den.

At its inception, I picture lights out by 5:30 pm, guests obediently chanting “Yes, chef” like they’re in a scene from “The Menu,” meals eaten with military precision, and gym attendants roaming like guards to ensure everyone’s sweating enough.  A year ago, this place would have been anathema to me.

Their problem they must contend with: who are we?  Deep, I know.  It wants to be a wellness resort but has had to change tact due to this minor issue of no guests.  I recall a GM of one of the best properties in the Maldives saying when they opened in the late 2000s, it was all about honeymooners, whereas those honeymooners got a bit frisky and now have children.  If they had to rebuild the property, it would be for families.  Joali Being thought they could do different, but I’m glad they weren’t so stubborn that they refused to change when it was clear it would not work.  Otherwise, they’d be bankrupt right now.  They now seem to be on a path to try and find the right mix between wellness and realising that people with kids also have money and like peace and quiet – probably even more than those without kids.

I would sleep on this boat for a week, just for five minutes peace

Getting there

We came to Joali Being from Velaa on a speedboat, which took around an hour.  And quite an arrival it is, as you arrive into this stunning piece of architecture that reminds me of a whale’s vagina.  Not that I erm have much experience in these things.  At this point, we were greeted by a mass of cultists, I mean staff, and you walk through the building, transforming “Being to Becoming” like you’re on some kinda purge.  I think they should make you throw up at the same time.  Enough of that.  We asked for a tour of the island before any more bizarre rituals, like blood sacrifices, were suggested.

That tour wrapped up in about 18 seconds.  I wondered if they’d skipped a few spots, but Joali Being isn’t exactly sprawling.  That said, it’s one of the most stunningly designed places I’ve ever seen.  The island’s a natural beauty – lush and green – yet so compact you can circle it in just a few minutes.  It isn’t the most charming, though – unlike the soft, sandy paths of Velaa, here I found myself wearing shoes most of the time, shelving my dreams of a barefoot existence.  Furthermore, it lacked the charm of other resorts – walking around Joali Being felt more like a stroll through an industrial park at times, with staff accommodation directly opposite our room.  And, unrelated to the island’s layout, but whilst I’m moaning – it was so blisteringly hot at times that I’d hit the gym just to cool down.

Stunning

But first, let’s skip ahead to the room where they had a waiver just for riding a bike.  Come on, who was it?  Who tried to turn a harmless tumble off a bicycle into a courtroom drama?

They nailed it with the stay list.  It annoys me to see properties that give you a single bottle of water barely designed to quench the thirst of a newborn mouse.  Joali Being seemed to want to waterboard us instead.  Maybe it’s a new treatment.  You could have made the Songkran festival take place with just the contents of our room.  I salute you, you hydration gods.  For a wellness resort, there sure were a lot of chocolates, pastries and even gummy bears in a custom-made gummy bear glass jar.  Then, they seemed to go even more overboard with the branded hats and t-shirts for the kids, along with some toys for making sand castles.  It gave the impression they were perfectly set up for children—the impression, at least.

We stayed in a Grand Beach Villa that I endlessly adored.  From a visual point of view, that is.  The practical side left a lot to be desired.  But first, the beauty of it.  You enter a gated area, which feels completely private.  You are surrounded on every side by greenery.  In front is the villa, and in front is the pool that leads to a little slice of your private beach.  Visually, I don’t think I could have loved the room anymore.  Even the ceilings were absolute masterpieces.  The shelves!  Even the room keys.  Even that crazy arse chair by the desk that moulds into your arse.

Every inch of the room was a design feat.  The semi-enclosed bath outside?  Gorgeous.  The outdoor shower by the pool?  A masterpiece.  Even the shower gel containers were a sight to behold.  And don’t get me started on the wallpaper and bathroom marble – so lovely, I’d elope with them.  The design of the minibar, with all the carefully designed areas for tea.  The softest slippers.  The best and quietest air con.  A stunning dressing area with wonderful amenities.  It’s so beautiful and well thought through that you then wonder how they put such little thought into other areas.

Joali felt revolutionary when it first opened, but Joali Being made it look like it belonged in the stone age.

The room layout begins in the living area, beside the bedroom, behind the bathroom, though there is an outdoor bath and shower.  In front of the bedroom is the pool, which was so slippery it should just come with a chiropractor.  There’s a swing, two chairs, a table and two sun beds.  It’s also where I spent a lot of time because whilst there is a separate living area, they are not entirely shut off from the other due to this huge, gaping hole that appears above the doors.

The practicality is not there.

First was the arty, small, sad-looking Christmas tree my kids broke in about eight seconds.  There’s no TV, of course, as relaxation goes against wellness.  But the room is filled with tech, even if none ever worked.  An iPad offers menus while controlling lights, door locks, and shades, and even has timers to wake you up or put you to sleep.  If you force everyone into using an iPad, it shouldn’t be so slow.  I could have made the food quicker than it took to look at the menu – and I can’t cook.  When someone rings the doorbell, the iPad switches to a video of who it is.  Fantastic, except ours kept crashing, so there was no way to let anyone in.  The stupidity of the living room switches being behind the curtains; no plug sockets beside the bed (which I assume is deliberate rather than forgotten, but still annoying); the plug sockets are placed so close to each other you can only use one at a time, and the fan sounds like a hurricane going in the toilet; like Darth Vader growling at me.

Staying in their fanciest one-bedroom suite, you’d think you’d get a separate living room that actually, well, separates.  Sure, they slide open, but since they don’t close fully, it’s like living in an open-plan setup with imaginary walls.  This would not matter to me whether I’m there as a couple or with children; I just don’t like it.  Maybe it’s cos I actually have (some) manners and don’t want to disturb other people when I wake up early in the morning, or now that I’m getting close to my 40s, I wake up for the toilet ninety-five times a night.

The facilities are also, unsurprisingly, beautifully designed.  The whale’s vagina welcome jetty is another work of art.  Whilst the island is tiny, they have managed to pack a lot in.  There’s a tennis court, which looks like a roof will soon be going on; a paddle ball court, a multi-purpose court, mainly used for five-a-side football.  An art gallery, boutique, and high-end jewellery stores for “retail therapy”, whilst actually therapeutic, is their ‘sound path’, a tour you can take of unusual musical instruments that are rather lovely.  There’s a turtle rehabilitation centre and a marine biology education area.  They even have room to fit in a private dining, treetop experience – well, maybe more like near tiny treetops, it’s not that high, but close enough to the ocean you can hear it.  There’s also water sports.  The real highlight is the main area, where the Mojo restaurant is located beside three multi-layed, swimming pools and the beach.

Food

There are two and a bit restaurants, Mojo and Flow, with Ocean Sala, a pop-up that was so temporary we couldn’t go there due to high wind.  Also, there’s a beachside teppanyaki pop-up right next to Mojo.  Handy thing is, everything’s within a minute’s walk of each other.

Every menu at Joali Being comes with calorie counts and macros (fat, protein, carbs) displayed, which I loved.  If you’re just tuning in and think of me as a sugar-holic who scoffs at salads, let me update you.  The last two years have been my fitness odyssey.  I hired a sports nutritionist, built a home gym, got a personal trainer, and now I’m working out like it’s my job, sometimes twice a day.  I have become the cliche man approaching his 40s!  My physique has gone from Napoleon Dynamite to that of a long-distance cyclist on chemo.  Big improvements – I can almost see a bicep.  Joali Being is now my kind of place.  Even though I still love junk food, so don’t you dare take that away from me; you just see what will happen.  Just now, in moderation.  So don’t expect my hatred of this stuff to come through; I’m now a fan.

The menus feature four unique concepts spotlighting benefits for your mind, body, and other nonsense I didn’t care to read.  I also admired some of the descriptions next to items on the breakfast buffet, like claiming a cinnamon roll lowers blood sugar levels and heart disease.    I might live forever.  I’m all for healthy, but my palette has not been readjusted quite to the level of some of the stuff in their buffet that tasted like someone pissed on a stinging nettle.  The best I can say about it is that it’s different, particularly if you like gluten-free and if you’re not that big of a fan of fruit.  One way to stay healthy is not to eat.  It took me a few days, but I finally managed to order from their a la carte offering and get everything I liked: their “healthy” French toast with blueberry jam.

Mojo is the only restaurant open for lunch, which you cannot blame them for, seeing they told us almost no one goes there.  That might explain why everything is so expensive cos when everyone is nibbling on air and yoga manuals for 90% of the day, you need to grab what you can during that short window.  Children under 6 eat free, so my advice is to bring a 5-year-old with you (any will do), order to your heart’s content, and blame it on the porker having quite the appetite.  Plus, all their house still and sparkling water is on the house – just order it a few hours in advance of your thirst, as service can sometimes move at a glacial pace.  The problem with having to hang around for three hours to get a drink is your soundtrack during this time is the frequent noise of seaplanes.  Not exactly the tune of serenity you’d expect.

Come evening, Mojo transforms into a Japanese restaurant, which was surprisingly decent.  Besides Mojo is Sai, a tea restaurant that must be the most pretentious thing I’ve ever seen.  Which is why I loved it.  Then there’s Flow, the other dining option, featuring three unique kitchens: Plantae for the veggie and vegan crowd, Su for the pescatarians, and B’Well, which serves what they call “earth-to-table” food.  As opposed to what?  “Landfill-to-table”?  “Alien symbiote-to-table”?

Other than the breakfast buffet, I liked the food.  It was great to see healthy options everywhere and have a vague idea of what you were eating.  However, I have become a bit of a calorie-counting freak, so I certainly have my suspicions on some of their numbers.  In the UK, you have to legally show the calories in most restaurants, so the fact that salmon sashimi managed to be half the amount in Joali Being than in England raised an eyebrow.  Maybe the salmon here are on the keto diet?  I’m convinced all the calories are half what they should be, and if you put on weight, they tell you you didn’t spend enough at the spa.  Portions were small, though, so that may have been more the secret than culinary magic.

Wellness

My wellness journey began as most do: being asked for my room number for a spa tour.  Do they get many people swimming here from nearby islands or drop in from the sky?

But let’s talk about the positives and what it offers: sound therapy room, watsu, hammam, cold plunge – all stunningly designed.  Separate changing rooms with hydrotherapy pools, saunas, steam rooms, relaxation areas, and even ice showers.  You can craft your own candles and perfumes and pick essential oils, all using natural ingredients.  It’s like wellness heaven.  I wish I could tell you how great it was to have a treatment, but I have kids, and god decided he’d stick me on this earth to test me.  Like forcing a chocoholic on a diet to work at Wonka’s chocolate factory.

Lucie, though, got to indulge – a facial that was top-notch and a massage that ranked as “ok”.  You know the kind.  Where someone asks how you’re doing and you have nothing to look forward to in life, but you haven’t thought about killing yourself in the last week.  That kind of “ok”.  The spa facilities are epic, maybe just not everyone working inside them.  The skin analysis, taken during her facial, found her skin had aged by a couple of decades, and then, surprise, they happened to have the cure: skincare products with a four-figure price tag.  Praise Jesus.  I love nothing more than having made-up problems immediately solved.  It reminds me of the time my roofer said to me “Tom, I have great news: I found some xenomorphs in your attic, no big deal, I took care of it before they could impregnate you.  Here’s a bill for $25,000”.

They also have specialists who visit the island, including one who was a breathing coach.  Ever woke up one morning and thought, “I wish I knew how to breathe if only there were an expert for $300/h that could fix this for me?” It’s your lucky day.

Moving on to the gym, they claim it’s the biggest in the Maldives.  True, but it’s one giant open space, which feels like working out on a stage in front of the reception.  Sure, all the equipment is spanking new TechnoGym – the same as everywhere else – with just a few extra gadgets Velaa doesn’t have.  But the real draw seems to be the swanky, extra-fee facilities.  Signing in to use the gym is a bit odd, though.  Again, do they have issues with spies on this island or something?  They have a TecnoBody machine for health assessments, spotting imbalances, and a 3D body scan. If your body fat percentage is over 10%, you are publicly flogged and put on a new diet that helps you lose weight by being unaffordable.  They also have consultation rooms where you can pay a machine to tell you how useless you are.  It’s like Twitter, but costs more.  There’s a separate room for spinning and boxing and a cryo chamber.  You know, in case you ever fancied chilling your body to sub-zero temperatures for three minutes to feel like the villain from Terminator 2 or something.

Adults friendly

The kids’ club had just wrapped up construction a few days before we got there – thank god.  But it’s as if they’ve never met a child: they included an outdoor meditation area.  The indoor space was tiny, with little to do, and you couldn’t even see it from outside, creating an impractical situation of moving between the two options.  The first day’s activities were so dull my daughter bailed to watch Bluey and then napped – probably to escape the boredom.  There was a bit of life during a birthday celebration with music and games, but our daughter wasn’t a fan, and that soured our view.

The real issue at this place seemed to be less about generosity and more about the lack of training and standards.  They had nice gestures, like bikes with our names on them – though they misspelt our 2-year-old’s name (she’s too stupid to notice, anyway).  There were plenty of thoughtful gifts, from drawing books provided during meals to farewell gifts for kids and adults, including a photo they printed as we left.  But what you really want is for your child to be genuinely happy, and that’s invaluable.  It’s clear that corporate tried to steer the place towards being kid-friendly, but the staff just didn’t seem prepared for it.  Watching them try was like observing a kale salesman at a cannibal conference.  They made an effort but were hampered by being short-staffed.  The manager was terrific, but the rest of the team seemed inexperienced.

And then, if you’re not at the kids club, everything is trying to kill them.  It’s deathly with how slippery so many surfaces are.

Shining Light

During our visit, we witnessed the magical Christmas lights switch on, an event I’ve mentioned before.  I won’t go into details again, but it was a standout moment – think twinkling lights, delightful canapés (including caviar and truffle), and a festive atmosphere with short massages and staff singing.  It was the high point of our stay.

But that was pretty much it.

I love to see what properties will do when they have the information already.  I absolutely hate wasabi; it’s on the notes I send over in advance.  So I thought I’d order something with it in, and lo and behold, wasabi arrived, even though at lunch, they pointed out the mushroom risotto had mushrooms in it.  How stupid do they think I am?  Very – they must have read my blog.  The funny thing is that I don’t have anything against mushrooms.  This didn’t happen once either, they seemed to be an anti-mushroom tirade, like they were Mario.  They also ran out of berries.  Surely, even in a hippie commune, someone needs to lose a hand for that.

In comparison, at Velaa, everyone was eager to assist, and the butler service at Waldorf Astoria Maldives was top-notch.  Here, we had just one guy who, on the rare instance, seemed to go above and beyond.  Overall, the experience was decent but noticeably a notch below elsewhere.  It lacked that warm, engaging vibe you get at Velaa, where everyone greets you enthusiastically.  Here, the friendliness was missing, starting with our butler, who always seemed a bit lost.  Like the time Lucie struggled across the beach with the buggy and two kids, and no staff offered to help until a gardener finally stepped in – and that was after she’d passed all the beach staff.  It felt less hands-off and more like no hands were on deck at all.

On our last day, our options were to head to Joali early without a room or linger at Joali Being till 2 pm.  We chose to bail out early.

The Good

  • I’m not feeling much in the way of mosquitos, nor have I seen any.  Strange.  Maybe they’re all chilled out in the spa.
  • Food
  • The concept

The Bad

  • Not ready for children
  • Service was patchy

The Luxurious

  • Spa
  • Just so darn beautiful

Rating

Good

Conclusion

Joali needs to decide what they want to be.  A wellness retreat, which clearly has not worked, or a family retreat that offers wellness.  If you’re unsure what Joali Being is, congrats, you qualify to own it.  A leopard might not change its spots, but Joali Being needs to.

Something about the place didn’t quite hit the mark for me.  Maybe the abundance of dark chocolate and kombucha or the scarcity of quality at the kids club.  Their children welcome policy is as clear as mud, too – first, it was just Christmas, now it’s “holidays.”  When you make things difficult for people, they’re unlikely to figure it out themselves and return.  All that said, and against all odds, I would consider returning to Joali Being, but probably sans kids – at least until they figure out their existential dilemma.  Without kids….sorry, I fell into a peaceful slumber.  Then awoke and realised that means we might return sometime in the next 10-15 years.

Their strapline is “Joali Being – the first Wellbeing Island in the Maldives”.  I suspect it will be the last, too.

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Tom Cahalan

Written by Tom Cahalan on 30th Jan '24

Dorsia Travel’s co-founder Tom Cahalan’s take on travel is reliably candid. Here’s his take on what’s good, bad, and luxurious.

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