Pool or beach? Snorkel or spa? Champagne or wine? For four sinful days in the Maldives, my life revolved around tackling these tough questions. As time ticked by languorously, the luxury of doing nothing, or doing it at my own pace, offered a great escape from the real world to a palm fringed haze.
Actually, the haze began the moment I set my eyes on this Instagram heaven from the airplane — tiny islands on crystal-clear waters that fade from a soulful cyan to a pretty periwinkle, white-gold sands with a turquoise trim and burnished sun framed by a curtain of palms. Located 700 km south-west of Sri Lanka in the Laccadive Sea, the cluster of 1,200 coral islands form 26 ring reefs called faru in the Maldivian language Dhivehi. Childlike glee is appropriate, whatever your age.
No news, no shoes
Some two centuries ago, Arabic traders bestowed upon the Maldives a moniker that still seems appropriate: the Money Isles. Today, these “no news, no shoes” islands straddling the equator have evolved into a vibrant playground for the chichi set. Singers, sport stars, TV personalities, Hollywood A-listers land in their private jets to enjoy quality downtime, honeymoon or renew their marriage vows in barefoot ceremonies on velveteen sands. With MICE — meetings, incentives, conferences, events — gaining traction, corporate honchos are also congregating for company conferences.
Given its high-profile clientele, it’s no surprise that the Maldives — Asia’s smallest country — is also one of its most exclusive and expensive. World-class luxury resorts are a major draw. My own is located just south of the equator and sprawls over 4 km. I can hardly wipe the grin off my face as a white speedboat whisks me from the Gan Airport to the resort located in Addu, the Maldives’ southernmost atoll. Jetlag vaporises as the boat flies over the sapphire sea, mist spraying my wind-whipped face. Smiling staff are waiting at the jetty with welcome cocktails and scented towels.
The resort is set amid white sand, 25 dive sites and an expansive ocean brimming with spinner dolphins, whales, marine life and some of the most colourful corals on earth. There is spa as well as water sports: jet skis, catamarans, snorkels, stand-up paddling, diving. Hike, bike, trek, dive. I weave through foliage-laden pathways to my ocean-fronted villa (complete with an open-air bathroom larger than most one-bed flats).
My first meal is next to the lapping waves of the Laccadive Sea. Maldivian delicacies like muranga tholi kiru garudhiya, or drumstick curry, made with the flesh of the long drumstick bean, and reef fish curry tickle my taste buds. The sizzle of meats, being grilled in one corner, whets my appetite further. Dishes infused with sambol and lonumiris (a mix of spices, curry leaves and chillies) take me to places I had never been. There’s also fish in mas huni, a paste of chilli, coconut, onion and tuna, which locals enthusiastically chow down morning, noon and night.
Next morning, Saeed, who leads the resort’s historical and cultural tours, takes me around some nearby islands.
“The Maldives was a British protectorate between 1887 and 1965 and became an independent republic in 1968,” he says. “The first settlers were from what is now Kerala, who arrived more than 2,000 years ago, though records of earlier visitors from the Indian subcontinent also exist.” During World War II, the British had a Royal Air Force base in the Maldives. “The islands were strategically important as both Japan and Germany used the surrounding shipping lanes and trade routes between the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal,” Saeed elaborates.
(Diving underwater in the Gaafu Alifu atoll)
We stop at Hulhumeedhoo island where an air of tranquillity pervades. Although geographically a single island, it is administratively divided into two — Hulhudhoo and Meedhoo. At the harbour, fishing boats called dhoni are bobbing up and down on an ocean so blue that it seems fake. Labourers are offloading cement sacks from cargo vessels. There’s a frisson of excitement in the local community, explains Saeed, about the harbour’s expansion and the consequent surge in tourism and trade. A couple of local fishermen are disembarking from their vessels carrying the catch of the day — yellow fin tuna and wahu. We watch the men fillet and clean the fish with knives called fiyohi.
Next we tour a mosque. Saeed explains that although the Maldives is an Islamic state, over the years, Hinduism and Buddhism have both held sway. There’s an intertwining of religion and politics on these islands. Following a drive to bolster “Islamic values”, public dancing, singing and spas are banned on some islands. Alcohol and mixed sex beaches may follow in future.
The 900-year-old Koagannu Cemetery — the oldest and the largest in the Maldives — on Meedhoo island looks like a macabre movie set. Row upon row of moss-sheathed tombstones dot it. “The cemetery was built for the burial of the island’s ancient rulers,” says Saeed as we tiptoe between the graves, some of kids as young as five.
Feast of flavours
Maldivian cuisine, unsurprisingly, revolves around seafood. Prawns, squids, crabs, lobsters and fish form an intrinsic part of home meals as well as of restaurant menus. Tuna, available plentifully, is incorporated into a variety of dishes.
( A meal with a Maldivian family)
One day, I visit a home for an authentic Maldivian meal. The ever-smiling Marryam Manikufaah welcomes us, “Come, come, we don’t lock our houses here. Everyone knows everyone and the community lives like one big family.” Marryam’s neighbour Shanthi has popped in to help and the duo have been cooking since 4 am. There’s steamed breadfruit and bananas, boiled yam and papayas, sambol-anointed parrot fish, wahu and boiled tuna. Dessert is bondiba, a delicious confection of rice, palm sugar, dried rose petals and jasmine water compressed into laddoos. To wave off the food coma, I jump into the undholi, the traditional Maldivian swing found in most houses in the atoll.
Island in the sun
The heart-shaped Addu Atoll (also called Seenu) has the British imprimatur all over it. It was a military base until the 1970s. “The British bases were first established in Addu during World War II as part of the Indian Ocean defences. In 1956, the British developed a Royal Air Force base here as a strategic Cold War outpost,” explained a local guide.These days the RAF barracks form part of Equator, one of many resorts that pepper the archipelago.
(The white tern, an endangered bird indigenous to the Maldives)
Gan Island, also part of Addu, received its first flight —Sri Lankan Airlines — in late 2016 and tourism is expected to boom in the southern atoll. As we tour Feydhoo and Hithadhoo islands, both seem bereft of any hotels or shops simply because there are no tourists. The World War II memorial built by the British attracts some footfalls though. The islands have a multitude of mosques as well as picnic spots near the reclaimed area where the elusive pine screw grows. Koatey, a wetland, shelters over a hundred of species of birds, many of them endangered. Calm permeates the area. There no hawkers selling sarongs, taxi tours or touristy tat.
There are no signs of agriculture or industry either, though there is a nine-hole golf course, one of the longest roads in the Maldives and the nation’s tallest mountain, Mount Villingili.
Addu is also the Maldives’ economic and administrative hub, and it is the second most important city after capital Male. Its 32,000 inhabitants are spread over seven islands. It teems with spinner dolphins, sea turtles, whale sharks and white terns, an indigenous seabird now endangered.
As the world’s flattest country, the Maldives’ vulnerability to climate change makes its fragile biodiversity seem all the more valuable. Should global warming melt the polar ice cap, the Maldives will be one of the first places to be submerged under water. Apparently the Maldivian government already has a plan in place to relocate its 400,000 inhabitants to safer shores should Apocalypse arrive.
(A mosque in Addu)
Hope it doesn’t. For the islands are one of the earth’s greatest treasures. And their beauty far too exquisite to be lost to man’s follies.
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