The most lavish resorts on the Maldives lose out against the seductive charm of the surrounding seas
Despite the botoxed thrill of sophisticated luxury to be found in the tourist-resort coral islands encircled by azure lagoons in the Maldives, these temples of pleasure can’t ever hope to compete with their environment. For no matter under what configuration of the verb ‘to pamper’ their services fall, the expansive Laccadives sea that surrounds these resorts dwarfs their seduction.
Which is why, when I tell the first hotelier I meet that I’d like a native experience on a local island, a peek beyond the cordoned-off worlds of luxury found on the tourist islands, he tells me with an indicative nod towards the water, “Honey, just dive into the sea and you’ll experience all the ‘local’ you want. The reef and the waters have more life forms than any living environment onshore.”
To engage in any meaningful tête-à-tête with underwater life, diving or at the very least snorkelling is a recommended activity. A fledgling swimmer, I shy away at first, preferring to view the world underwater from the security of a submarine ride or through visits to underwater restaurants or spas. But it is a reliable truism that the best experiences are often the more demanding, and rarely the most pampered.
Nearly every resort has a house reef where you can snorkel or dive. In the rare case that it doesn’t, it runs a daily trip to a nearby reef. The underwater seascape — with its staghorn, brain and flat corals, the wrinkly, the round, the crunchy, of all varieties and colours — resembles a summer flower meadow in bloom. Brittle stars, stingrays, oriental sweetlips, blue sturgeon fish, clown triggerfish and bluestripe snapper sail about bringing me face to face with a kaleidoscopic world of colour and activity.
The further away from my comfort zone I swim, the more enthralling the waters become. The edges of the reef slope slowly into deeper waters and this is everything it’s made out to be. I let go of the idea of being able to place my feet on the ground and I know the waters will hold me up. Here, in the depths of the blue, I learn the meaning of surrender. Rainbow runners and blue-striped snappers go about their business, feasting and trying not to be feasted upon. Sharks and manta rays are not uncommon, especially in the deeper waters, but when unprovoked are, I am told, as safe as the ghost crabs that scuttle about on the beaches.
It’s easy to see why the coral reef, with the cornucopia of underwater life it sustains, is of paramount importance to the Maldivian economy. Many travellers visit specifically for opportunities to dive and experience this beautiful and diverse eco-system. But like other low-lying countries at a time when sea-levels are rising and the coral under threat due to rising water temperature, no thanks to global warming, the Maldives with their marine life are vulnerable and precarious.
Like the weather is discussed in London or the Pope gossiped about in Rome, in Maldives a recurring conversational theme is the idea of being eco-friendly. Resort islands have begun increasingly to invest in state-of-the-art engineering to ensure sustainable development. Some have on-site water bottling factories that produce both still and sparkling mineralised water, solar thermal heating to minimise power consumption, and use biodegradables for composting, fertilising and landscaping.
The marine biologist who accompanies me on my trawls through the treasures of the sea is as passionate about the Picasso triggerfish as he is about his ambitious project to relocate corals within the lagoon in frames designed to promote the flow of water and nutrients that enable the coral to grow faster than it normally would.
The national museum in Male, the small buzzing capital, has alongside its collection of cultural artefacts and coral samples the programme of the cabinet meeting held underwater in 2009.
It was at this seabed gathering that the then President and eco pin-up boy Mohamed Nasheed called for global cuts in carbon emissions.
At the coffee shops in Male where the locals sit around talking till the wee hours, I am told, “Fishing for tuna used to be the only thing beneath the waves that interested us locals, but tourism changed all that. Now when we take travellers out to explore the waters or on night-fishing expeditions, we are interested in all the diverse life forms our sea sustains, but we follow a conservation policy that disallows the hunting of marine animals such as whales, dolphins and giant fish like the white shark.”
What strikes me is that along with a proactive look at how future development plans can be more sustainable, the risk of potential loss has created a deep sense of appreciation and caring for the present. The endangered turtles — hawksbill, green, olive ridley, leatherback and loggerhead — have groups of activists discussing how to best protect them and poets writing odes to them.
On a dolphin-watching cruise, as dolphins perform back-flips in the air around me, a boatman says with a hopeful grin, “If you minimise air-conditioning, refrain from feeding the fish or touching the coral when snorkelling or diving, avoid all stores that look as though they’ve been mining the waters in the name of interior decoration, it will be a start towards appeasing the gods of the environment, and the experience you’ll own when you leave the island will be a resolutely organic one.”
And it is this proactive spirit of the Maldives that is as riveting as its beauty. That makes it more than just turquoise lagoons and dazzling white sands, endangered turtles and hammerhead sharks. Visit while stocks last.