Maldives: Hits and misses in the luxury holiday destination of a lifetime
Sun, sea, sand
The Maldives are one of the best places on earth to do nothing, writes Pól Ó Conghaile, but couldn't more be made of the local culture?
I'm diving off a reef in the Maldives, floating among colours you wouldn't see in a packet of Skittles, when my world is turned on its head.
A huge manta ray glides into focus. Its wings are angelic. Its huge mouth scoops up tiny threads of plankton. Its white belly, its radiator gills, its long, thinning tail steal by like a bird on a thermal. And then, just as mysteriously, it's gone.
Cornelia Delnnes, a dive instructor at Olhuveli Resort, is equally excited. I've forgotten my hand signals, but I can see in her wide-open eyes, in the smile breaking out around her mouthpiece, that the moment has moved her too. Time jolts into slow motion, memories of the nine-to-five pummel upwards with the bubbles and I tick a dream off the bucket list.
The dream doesn't come cheap, of course. The Maldives, an archipelago of 1,200 islands spotted about the southern Indian Ocean, are the dictionary definition of a honeymoon paradise. Several dozen islands have been developed as luxury resorts, and the tropical idyll of white sands, stilted villas and gentle jade waters is marketed almost exclusively at well-heeled, or once-in-a-lifetime, travellers. But more of the prices -- and how one might make a dent in them -- anon.
My holiday begins the moment I step on to the seaplane. All Maldivian adventures start this way, with small planes or speedboats collecting visitors from long-haul flights and spiriting them to the outlying atolls.
It's pretty magical.
The propellers whirr, my plane banks over the candy-coloured capital of Male and we rise up over a violet ocean inscribed with lagoons and coral circles. I'm used to writing for the pages of magazines. Now it feels as if I'm flying in them.
Vilu Reef is my first stop, a resort in South Nilandhe Atoll. Surfing to a halt, the plane deposits its passengers on to a tyre-strewn pontoon, and a shuttle boat brings us from there to the resort jetty, where a welcoming committee distributes coconuts, cooling towels and hibiscus garlands.
A boy beats a drum, my body osmoses into the tropical humidity and we're led over water so clear that I have to fight the urge to jump straight in.
Before swimming, however, there's the small matter of 14 hours of flying to tend to. At Vilu Reef's Sun Spa, I sign up for a jetlag recovery massage ($65/€45). A bare-footed Balinese therapist hands me a cup of ginger tea and a choice of five oils -- earth, fire, water, air and wood -- before leading me to a treatment room. There follows a knot-busting massage of such scrunchy deliciousness, I feel less like I've flown to the Maldives than the Isle of Man.
The following morning, I set out to explore the island. Like most Maldivian resorts, Vilu Reef is small and self-contained, with 169 rooms fronting on to sugary white sands and bowing palm trees. A quick paddle leads to a house reef alive with baby reef sharks and all manner of flittering fish. At reception, sandwich boards list the activity options, including sunset cruises ($40/€28pp), snorkelling excursions ($37/€26pp) and big-game fishing trips ($400/€280pp for a half day).
If it sounds expensive, that's because it is. The Maldives trades on long-haul luxury -- you won't find a backpack in sight on islands graced with brands such as Conrad, Hilton and Taj Exotica. If you have the means, you can dive with whale sharks, dine in underwater restaurants, drink $18 cocktails and pay extortionate Wi-Fi and direct dialling rates in splendid isolation here.
The resorts even set their clocks an hour later than the capital, so the sun rises and sets at a time more agreeable to guests. It's the holiday of a lifetime.
Or was, at least. Recession has made a difference -- if you book off-season, it's now possible to spend seven days in the Maldives, with flights and half-board, for less than €1,300pp. That's a lot, but substantially less than one would have paid in 2007, and the fact that resorts charge in US dollars is a boon to anybody paying in euro.
The Maldives will never be cheap, but if you shop around, book all-inclusive and risk occasional rain by travelling between April and November, they can certainly be cheaper.
After my morning explorations, I set off from Vilu Reef on an island-hopping excursion. We stop by Faandhoo Island for a seafood barbecue and Bandidhoo for a token 'local lifestyle' experience.
There, I see an older man making fish hooks, hear the drones of a minaret and watch a boy fishing with the aid of two jerry cans, but there's hardly any actual interaction.
I'm surprised so little is made of the indigenous culture. Throughout my stay, the Maldivian currency (rufiyaa) is never seen, its language (Dhivehi) is barely heard, and its capital, Male, is constantly talked down. "There's nothing to see there," one resort manager tells me. But what about its markets, its 400-year-old mosque or its chatty teahouses?
What about real Maldivian life?
No doubt its resorts are providing what their guests want (and certainly, the Maldives are one of the best places on earth to do nothing). But surely it wouldn't hurt to make things a little more, well, Maldivian?
For sun, sea and sand, these tropical islands are first class. But if, like me, you like to mix your R&R with a little culture and stimulation (and no, synthesised bar bands, crab-racing nights and all-you-can-eat buffets don't count), plan in advance for itchy feet.
All quibbles are washed away, of course, the minute I hit the water.
On the way back from our island excursion, I pop on the snorkel and dive down along a reef known as Paradise Point. Straight away, I spot two white-tipped reef sharks. Later, a fellow traveller will have a similar epiphany, catching hundreds of dolphins and a dozen whales over the course of a single sunset boat cruise. "It was one of the top five experiences of my whole life," she gushes.
There's another boating adventure at my next stop: Olhuveli Resort in the South Male' Atoll. It's a 'Catch it and cook it' excursion, and offers some of the local colour that has so far proved elusive.
Dropping lines into the blue, I eventually hook a red snapper. Afterwards, on a private beach, I'm shown how to scale it, marinate it, skewer it and barbecue it the old Maldivian way -- on a big barrel of flames. My fish is served up under the stars and at the water's edge, to a soundtrack of splashing sting rays. Yum.
Olhuveli is a 45-minute speedboat ride from Male Airport, and offers a larger, less personal and slightly classier feel than the friendly intimacy of Vilu Reef.
Both, however, boast activity centres, dive shops, spas, infinity pools, and several restaurants and bars, and both bill themselves as four-star plus.
The water villas in both are top drawer too, with welcome messages spelled out in palm leaves, private decks looking out over twinkling lagoons and a ladder leading down to the water.
By night, the odd gust of wind rocks the villas ever so gently. I don't hear much more than the gentle rub of ocean among the stilts below, the plops and splashes of fish, and the relaxed scratch of passing sandals.
It's amazing to think both islands were devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami. "I heard this wind sound," is how Ali Yoosef, Vilu Reef's operations manager, recalls the 2004 catastrophe. "Then the water came into the office, floating everything." Ali got out, went with the wave and remembers guests calling for help, shinning up coconut trees and clambering onto roofs. Slowly, the sea receded, draining the lagoon dry.
Both resorts closed for months, but, thankfully, no lives were lost. "It's hard to imagine now."
At least it would be, were it not for Mohamed Nasheed. The Maldives' 42-year-old president last year held an underwater cabinet meeting in an effort to highlight the threat rising sea levels pose to his nation, and upstaged even President Obama at a UN Climate Summit last September.
"We know you are not really listening," he charged. "Once the rhetoric has settled... the world carries on [with] business as usual."
If global warming continues, Losing Nemo seems a genuine prospect.
For the time being, of course, Atlantis remains above the waves. The Maldives may be a one-trick pony, but what a trick!
Setting off in the speedboat back to Male Airport, I may rue the soullessness of resort tourism, but I also cradle one of the most exciting memories of my life in travel.
Until now, I had only ever dreamed about diving with a manta ray. The Maldives made that dream a reality.
When to go
The Maldives enjoy average temperatures of 30° year round.
December to April is high season, because it is drier. Lower prices are available from May through November, but these months also bring with them a higher risk of rain. If you plan on visiting Male, Ramadan is best avoided.
Tropical Sky (068 56800; tropicalsky.ie) has seven nights at Olhuveli Beach & Spa Resort (left) from €1,269pp. The price includes return flights from Dublin (via London Heathrow and Muscat) with Aer Lingus and Oman Air, accommodation in a deluxe room on a half-board basis, taxes, speedboat transfers and surcharges.
The same package to Vilu Reef starts at €1,289pp. Based on May departures.
Visas are not necessary for stays of 30 days or less in the Maldives. Male Airport is small and most flights are briskly processed, but visitors may not import alcohol: it is an Islamic state.
Travellers to the Maldives should bring insect repellent and take all the necessary precautions against sunburn.
Children are welcome at resorts, but many jetties and walkways do not have handrails or barriers, so they should be supervised at all times.
Despite its luxury reputation, the dress code on the Maldives is downbeat, with guests frequently dining in shorts and flip-flops.
Leave the heels at home, in other words.