Get the best of marine life and culture at this exquisite Maldivian island

From the airplane – Sri Lankan Airlines’ chic and classy new Airbus Boeing 320 – the Maldives lives up to its moniker of the ‘Necklace Islands’. The stunning archipelago – comprising 1,200 coral islands placed prettily 700 km southwest of Sri Lanka in the Laccadive Sea – looks like emeralds strewn in a sapphire sea.Though the capital city of Male is usually the port of call for tourists, I chose Gan Island, the Maldives’ biggest island located on Addu Atoll that is increasingly finding resonance with discerning travellers. This is also where the superrich land in their private jets – 10 a month, on average.There’s a whiff of history in Gan’s frangipani-scented air. From 1941 to 1976, it served as a strategic outpost for the British Navy and later the Royal Air Force. The English imprimatur is evident everywhere. There are still perfectly preserved buildings from the Thirties and Forties on Gan: barrack-style, pale blue buildings where British soldiers were housed, and the Astra, an elegant Art Deco cinema that still runs movies. Gan is connected to its neighbouring islands by a 22-km road, the longest in the Maldives.At Suvadive Cafe in Addu, indulge in soulful Sri Lankan curry with rice and a potroasted chicken with crispy skin. My abode in Gan, Canareef Resort, sprawls over 4.5 km and comes accoutred with a decadent spa, a bar, two restaurants showcasing global cuisines and offers a host of water-based activities. Snorkel, dive, fish, sail. However, rather than go for these highoctane activities (more suited to adrenaline junkies), I’m more keen on immersive cultural experiences that allow an insight into the country and its people. I try authentic local cuisine, island hop, engage with the warm and friendly Maldivians… My guides Saeed and Firaq, a trove of knowledge, keep me hooked with their engaging narrations while also teaching me a smattering of Dhivehi, a mix of Arabic, Urdu and Sinhalese.Island hoppingThe Maldives – though Asia’s smallest country – isn’t a homogenous landmass. Each of its islands has its own unique culture, cuisine, dialect, customs and traditions. And there’s nothing more rewarding and enriching than to explore them for a more holistic travel experience.I begin my explorations by cruising from Gan to Hithadhoo Island on the 17-kilometre stretch of road past a swooningly scenic route that links four islands through a series of causeways. Giant banyan trees with straggly vines and coconut palms with their trunks bending into the ocean add to the journey’s allure. We swing past the parade ground and rows of lowrise garrison buildings. There’s a mildewing art deco cinema, the ‘Naafi’ armed forces store and a British war memorial featuring two large guns.The island of Maradhoo has modernised boat yards where we spot local craftsmen building ‘dhonis’ or Maldivian fishing boats. Each dhoni, explains a boatsman, takes about three months to make and costs about Rs five to seven lakhs. The quaint Island of Maradhoo- Feydhoo is the smallest community in Addu. We walk around the island and soak in its laid back lifestyle and exotic biodiversity.Picture courtesy: Mail Today Hithadhoo, the capital of Addu City, hosts one of the largest natural lakes in the country brimming with exotic flora and fauna as well as rare migratory birds. It is believed that the early inhabitants of Meedhoo Island were the first Maldivians to embrace Islam. We see some World War 2 relics near the beach area. The oldest cemetery in the country, Koa-gannu, is peppered with mosssheathed graves of Maldives’ earliest Muslim royalty. Hulhumeedhoo, a sleepy village, has a laidback vibe and no shops or cafes simply because there are no tourists here.Picture courtesy: Mail Today So spa, so good!The Maldives spells decadence, and so some serious pampering is in order. The first tourists arrived in the Maldives in only 1972, but all the world’s major hotel brands are now here. And each one has a dedicated spa that offer rejuvenating wellness packages. At the Canareef Resort’s Sanctuaire Spa, soothing music plays as my petite Indonesian masseur rubs away the aches and pains from my jetlagged body. Discreetly located within a waterside compound amidst lush gardens, it offers a smorgasbord of treatments – detoxifying massages, wraps, facials, aromatherapy and scrubs – in private suites. Post the relaxing session, I quaff a delicious honey-ginger tea.Culinary treatsMaldivian cuisine is a feast of flavours. Local chefs leverage the region’s fresh sea produce, vegetables and fruits to craft tasty treats. I tuck into an array of authentic Maldivian dishes during my fourday stay. The flavours still dance on my palate! While super-spicy tuna curry tops the menu, cafes dish up short eats or snacks usually deep-fried but delicious. Maas roshi (tuna and coconut patties) and kaashi bokibaa (coconut, rosewater and palm sugar balls) are to die for. At Suvadive Cafe in Addu, my smorgasbord included soulful Sri Lankan curry with rice and a pot-roasted chicken with crispy skin. Dessert was a sinful tiramisu. All was washed down with the famous Maldivian lemonade’. Joy!For a true blue Maldivian food experience, try to eat at a local home for this is where the real culinary treasures are. I was fortunate to be invited to one such home for a fulsome feast: steamed breadfruit and bananas, boiled yam and papayas, grilled parrot fish, wahu and tuna. Dessert was Bondiba, a delicious confection of rice, palm sugar, rose petals and jasmine water compressed into laddus.Honeymooners can plump for a sunset beach or sunset pier dinner with a bottle of champagne, a private waiter and a meal prepared right at your table that will take up the romance several notches up. Chic restaurants have sandy floors that offer toesin-the-sands dining, resorts have open-air lobbies, thatch roofs and the swish of an overhead fan. The colour scheme – usually turquoise and white – is mesmerising.A local shopkeeper in Addu. Picture courtesy: Mail Today Dolphin spottingOne of the greatest joys of the Maldives are its little spinner dolphins. They earn their names for their antics: in the late afternoon, as they make their way out of the lagoons and into the deep ocean to hunt, they leap into the air to spin playfully. Friendly that they are, the fat fellows will happily follow your boat! So make sure to book a dolphin spotting tour. Maldives is home to several species of dolphins, including Spinners, Bottle-Nosed dolphins and pilot whales.{mosimage} If you have more time, go for the Maldives’ marine Big Five: manta and eagle rays, sea turtles, dolphins and sharks, including whale sharks. On the islands’ protected species list are turtles, great clams, whale sharks and conch shells. Endangered marine species such as the whale shark, turtles, dolphins, as well as corals, are all protected by law and special tours can be organised to see them and have a whale of a time!

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