Tuesday, 3 November 2015

The life aquatic: 8 watery reasons to visit the Maldives

My first overseas trip in too long (see my last post Dear world, I miss you) was worth waiting for. The Maldives is a daydream of a place, a nation of islands and atolls (lagoons ringed by coral reefs or coral islands; the word "atoll" actually comes from the Maldivian word "atolu") in a sea even more exquisitely turquoise than it looks in the travel magazines. 

Happy feet, at
Cocoa Island by COMO
Everything revolves around water in the Maldives. It makes up more than 99.9 per cent of the country after all; the rest comprises about 1200 coral islands scattered like oceanic oases on an undersea plateau stretching between India and Madagascar. The local environmental organisation is even called Bluepeace

As a water-loving Piscean, I spent most of my five days there salty and sun-kissed. When I wasn't actually in the water, swimming or snorkelling, I was wrapped in a towel on a beach or a boat. Or sleeping over the water, listening to the wind talking to the waves beneath my bed. 

Snorkelling selfie
Or looking at the sea, which is visible from pretty much everywhere on a small island. Or drinking desalinated water (served in glass, not plastic, bottles, a victory against ocean pollution) and eating fresh seafood (fish is sustainably line-caught in the Maldives as fishing nets are banned). My only regret: no surfing (will save that for next time).

So you won't be surprised to see that my trip highlights - 8 more reasons to visit the Maldives - were all aquatic in nature:

1. Arrival. Where else in the world can you arrive at an international airport, situated on its own island, and step right onto a waiting boat? Like most visitors, I never set foot in the over-crowded capital, Male, population about 300,000. It was the middle of the night when I landed and found myself suddenly seduced by the tropical treacle-heat mixing with the dark sea air, en route to the first of three resorts I stayed at, Cocoa Island by COMO resort. 

My over-water cabin on Cocoa Island
2. Pre-breakfast swims. This is how my mornings went at the castaway-chic Cocoa Island by COMO: wake up, throw on a bikini, walk down a few steps into that gin-clear water for a pre-breakfast swim. (A word of advice: leave something recognisable on your deck. I almost bungalow-crashed my neighbours; got as far as their door before I noticed my towel wasn't where I'd left it and high-tailed it back into the water to swim back to my own bungalow. Oops.)

3. Marine beings. Juvenile sharks no longer than your arm, just off the beach. Manta rays that can feed in groups of more than 100. Whale sharks and hammerheads, at the right time of year. There are marine creatures great and small every time you put your face in the water here. I got to swim with hawksbill turtles (see below) and manta rays, moray eels and lionfish, and saw acrobatic spinner dolphins on a sunset cruise. 

4. Night snorkelling. A confession: I don't love snorkelling, largely because I always get cold too quickly. Not in the Maldives, where the water was a bath-warm 29 degrees and I could stay in forever without so much as a rashee. At Cocoa Island I even went night-snorkelling, a revelation, not just for the nocturnal marine animals we saw with our waterproof torches, including a needlefish that changed colour like a chameleon, but for the surreal sensation of being surrounded by blackness, like deep space without stars.

The castaway sandbank experience
5. Cast away experience. The Maldives is said to be the lowest country in the world, its highest elevation just 2.4 metres above sea level (hence its anxiety over climate change). Some of its islands exist only at low tide - like the sandbank my friends and I visited one afternoon for sunset, only to get a storm instead. I love it when weather has the last word.

6. Horizon-edge pools. Immersing yourself in water is one of the best ways to experience a new place, even if that water is a hotel pool (see my essay on swimming as travel). One monsoonal morning when the sea was too rough for swimming (it was the rainy season), I did laps in the new Amilla Fushi resort's pool, the largest in the Maldives. It was deep, there was no-one else in and a very kind pool-boy brought me a dry towel when I had finished. Bliss.

Aerial yoga warm-up
7. Aerial yoga. Even yoga can be aquatic in the Maldives. One of the highlights of my stay at One & Only Reethi Rah was a one-on-one aerial yoga lesson with Ukrainian teacher Yulia using a nylon sling suspended from the rafters of a thatched pavilion surrounded on three sides by the sea. Part circus art, part yoga, it makes you feel like you can fly right out and over the sea... 

8. Seaplanes. Much as I didn't want to leave, one island departure was my final highlight: the Trans Maldivian Airways seaplane flight from Amilla Fushi back to Male. The two pilots might have been wearing thongs, but the cloud's view of atolls, islands and reefs, like sapphires and emeralds laid out on blue velvet, was priceless. 

Even seaplane pilots go
barefoot in the Maldives
Big thanks to Maldives tourism, Singapore Airlines, Cocoa Island by COMO, Amilla Fushi and One & Only Reethi Rah for a wonderful first, but not last, visit to the Maldives.

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