Following is the report of my amazing trip to the Maldives. Trust me when I say it was great! And I will explain what an atoll is. Read more.
When the plane took off from Trivandrum, I realized I had left my sunglasses at the Bengaluru hotel. The kind of glaring overexposure I was heading for needed protection for the eyes almost as long as the sun was up. It’s pretty amazing how these pilots take off for the open skies with the endless ocean below with a compass as a guide, because by the time you’ve looked through some legible reading lights and you’ve settled down, the plane starts to lose altitude and the it’s time to land. Forty minutes, and the blue distance below began to change with the torquoise atolls of various shapes rising all over the ocean below. Sunglasses or not, the view was breathtaking. On the equator, almost a stone’s throw from the southwestern edge of our country, rest 1190 islands, 200 of which are inhabited, beautifully sculpted by nature, but slowly passing under the sea with the passage of time as the sea level rises.
Maldives is one of those rare, exotic paradises on Earth that is quickly disappearing and there is not much humanity can do to save it. So, if you haven’t already, try to visit this incredible place before it’s all as blue as the Indian Ocean. Hulhule is the airport island, where the end of a not-so-long runway is flooded several times a day at high tide. This incredible piece of land almost ends before it begins. Pilots are extremely careful, sure, with their landing math, and it’s a treat for passengers with their faces glued to the windows to get a wide angle of the airport and sea from their seats. Hulhule to Malé, the capital of Maldives, is a 10-minute speedboat ride away. Maldives is a Muslim country with strict alcohol and dress code standards, at least in Male. With a population of 1,40,000, it is a bustling town with a number of fine buildings, all on a sandy island that can be reached in a 30-minute walk. Maldives is not just about its capital city.
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The real Maldives are located on the remote islands in the various atolls. An atoll is a group of islands with a reef almost or completely enclosing it in an annular lagoon. Maldives has 26 of these atolls, all of which are natural and further divided into 20 administrative ones. The real action is in these small islands where all the luxury resorts are located. Islands with resorts are auctioned, the highest bidder gets it for a period of five years until the next bid. The country’s economy relies heavily on tourism, contributing nearly 20 percent to GDP. The resort islands are spread over hundreds of miles and are accessible by seaplanes or water taxis as they are popularly known, and speedboats. Most islands have water villas and beach bungalows. These are not very large islands; you can circle them on foot in a short time.
The airport transfer will take you to a nearby jetty, where I find a red and white seaplane and a smiling male attendant in shorts and sandals walking towards us. The man helped the passengers get onto the wobbly, floating plane. The pilot and company were also in shorts and sandals, which I thought was their uniform, a seaworthy vehicle. When the door was closed, the engines went to full throttle and in no time we were airborne. Within minutes, the scene changed on the plane and below us. Passengers got stuck to their windows as the water below turned from gray to torquoise to blue and the show began. Countless atolls rose from the sea, as if made by hand, some with sparkling lagoons between them. Small islands erupted with designed waterfalls into the sea. Uninhabited islands of green, and some with white sand, passed by. Landing on the water was quite a bumpy experience, but the ever-smiling, shorts-clad crew made it bearable. The sun outside was as equatorial as it could get, and my new pair of shades seemed like a blessing. A small boat was waiting to take us to our resort that looked like a floating bun from the sky. The water taxi pier was a bit far from the main resort pier in the middle of the lagoon. The short ride to the resort pier was quite entertaining with flying fish flying along with the boat as we moved forward. With the vast expanse of crystal clear waters surrounding us and the white sandy bottom visible from the boat, I knew I was in paradise.
A fleet of battery operated buggies picked us up with our luggage from the jetty and transported us to the resort reception where we were greeted with a cold towel and a welcome coconut drink. When planning a trip to the Maldives, keep a few things in mind. In the first place, it is always advisable to choose an island near the airport according to your taste and what you want to do in the Maldives. The speedboat transfers from the airport or Male to the holiday islands are quite expensive, and air taxis even more so. Unless you are booked under a non-Maldivian resort like the Taj or Hilton where the deals are all inclusive or packaged, keep in mind when booking please note that you are not allowed to carry any food or drink to the islands and you must purchase everything, including activities, on the islands. So, try to get an all-inclusive deal for the best buys with three basics prepaid – all meals, lodging and airport transfers.
Just after the check-in process, the buggies took us to our rooms. If you stay in a beach bungalow they usually drop you at the door, otherwise you walk up the wooden ramp to the water bungalows. The water villas are one of a kind. Most islands have water villas, but they vary in design and luxury. The best have private infinity pools with decks. Ours was one of those villas in a row of twenty. The main door opens onto a square living room with glass walls and a view of the clear blue ocean. Fit for royals, the bedroom has a rectangular central glass floor from which you can see the ocean below. The private terraces give you complete privacy with the infinity pool on the side and steel steps from the deck take you directly to the lagoon. Jump into the mid-high clear ocean at any time and have a ball with the schools of colorful marine life swimming around. I was speechless for a while. The sand underneath was fine and white, the temperature of the water was perfect, the only problem was the bright sun, but after a while you get used to it.
Service is excellent despite the distance of the villas from the main room service hub or kitchen. As soon as I got out of the water soft drinks and snacks were served and to my disbelief I found the man serving us to speak fluent Bengali. A majority of the staff in the Maldives resorts are from the districts of West Bengal and Bangladesh. Syed Kamal, our villa attendant, also performed the duty of feeding the manta rays and taking tourists on night fishing trips. We know ocean sunsets are dramatic, but the ones here would leave you spellbound. The staff are understandably indifferent to it as they see it every day. But for us it was dreamlike as the sun started to drop below the clouds on the horizon. We decided to take a walk on the beach after the sunset and walked down the slope to the beach. There we saw Syed at work, kneeling in water that fed between 20 huge manta rays. The view was breathtaking, and we learned that the creatures are completely harmless and have been coming to the spot around the same time of day for years. The weather in the Maldives is clear and sunny one moment and unaffected rain the next, although daylight doesn’t fluctuate much throughout the year. A poolside barbeque on our private terrace was waiting for us when we got back. Syed had organized the beautiful evening with our choice of wine and champagne with a helper. Aside from the regular chicken and meats, lamb, scallops, squid, lobsters and various other sea fish were on the grill. The sky cleared in a while as we passed through the evening. We did wonderful things over the next few days, including a sunset fishing trip. We left the jetty around 5pm and set off in an open boat with about eight people in it. After about 30 minutes we dropped anchor to go fishing. We have a line with a baited hook and a small weight that we dropped into the ocean.
For starters, the bait was just being picked off the hook, and we lost quite a few hooks because they got stuck in the seabed. But as it started to get darker, people started pulling fish up. We managed to catch the largest in the fish group – a nice big red snapper. At about 8pm we came back to the island for dinner where the big fish was grilled and served with some salad and drinks. The other thing we dared ourselves to do was snorkel in the lagoon and learn to dive at a nearby dive site that the resort instructor took us. Lots of lounging and peaceful floating is what we ended up doing, not missing out on the excellent Maldivian cuisine. Bikes were available to ride around the resort but walking was more fun. Maldives makes the most of Mother Earth’s beautiful side, even as you nestle in the lap of man-made luxury. Experience it before it all goes under the waves.
Navigator: Catch a train or flight to Trivandrum or Cochin. From here a flight to Hulhule. You will receive a 30-day visa upon arrival. Advance reservations are necessary for island resorts.