Made up of more than 1,000 coral islands floating in the middle of the Indian Ocean, this unique tropical nation is home to some of the best hotels and marine life in the world, says Alannah Eames.
“Go to the Maldives before they sink. By 2050, the Maldives will be under water.” The media hype is that this island paradise – whose highest point is 1.5 metres – will be swallowed by the sea within the next 50 years, thanks to global warming and climate change.
Are the locals sitting around waiting for doomsday to hit? Far from it! The Maldives has shifted from playing the sustainability card and its pledge to be CO2 neutral by 2020, to opening up for development to benefit its people.
They are busy luring more tourists to their unique country, dredging sand to create new (higher) islands and developing more robust infrastructure. Despite all the ‘doomsday’ scenarios, there is still a steady flow of foreign investment into the country. Just one example is the Saudi royal family which reportedly invested $10 billion in a group of islands. An additional 20 to 30 resorts are expected to open in 2019 including a Hard Rock Hotel.
My first trip to the Maldives was in 2005 when it was a haven reserved for the rich, famous, divers and honeymooners. Tourists were ‘limited’ to the resort islands and a trip to a local island was sold as an exclusive sightseeing trip. This changed in 2015 when the Maldives opened up for budget travellers with new laws allowing the local islands to open guesthouses.
A magical welcome
For the past 14 years, the memory of landing at Male International Airport has stuck in my mind. The aerial view of the turquoise-coloured waters of the atolls, with their lush green islands ringed by white sandy beaches before landing on the airport-island’s ‘one-lane’ runway bordered on four sides by the Indian Ocean, followed by a short stroll to the speedboat pick-up pier or seaplane terminal, is simply unforgettable. And, the suspense builds as you are whisked away James-Bond style through the coral atolls to a castaway island or luxury resort.
Returning to the Maldives in 2019 with my family, I was not disappointed. Some things had changed. Male, the capital and home to one-third of the country’s population, is growing higher and wider. Like in Malta, squeezed for space, the buildings are now a few storeys taller and the skyline is dotted with cranes. The traditional dhoni boats are outnumbered now by bigger, more powerful speedboats and luxurious yachts. The domestic water plane fleet has quadrupled.
Prices are still high. Which is not surprising given that every luxury and whim is catered for at the five-star resorts and everything needs to be imported as not much grows locally except for coconuts and (great) fish.
The isolation means it takes much longer to get things done
If you are a seafood lover, you will be in heaven here. Because of its close ties to India and the Middle East, plus its island set-up, the Maldivian cuisine is a blend of all of this. It is a culinary journey at the resorts where everything from fresh local lobster and juicy tuna steaks to shellfish and reef fish are served up on beachfront barbecues, in exquisite sushi restaurants, or as local Maldivian curries.
On the subject of coconuts, the other ‘local’ ingredient, Umar and Xavier, our beach coconut gurus at the Anantara Dhigu, gave us a lesson on coconuts as they wheeled their barrows around the island. Apparently, the orange ones are healthier (even though they taste bitter) than the green ones. And, did you know that, after 10 months, the large green coconuts turn brown and hairy and shrink into the coconuts we buy at Halloween?
The wonders of the ocean
The Maldives is home to some of the most spectacular marine life in the world. From 1,600-kilogramme manta rays, five species of sea turtles, over 25 species of sharks to pods of 100 dolphins and innocent-looking but highly venomous beauties like puffer fish and lionfish, you often don’t need to leave the shores of your resort to see them.
Venture further out past the coral reefs and the ‘safari’ gets bigger and better. Like in other parts of the world, the reefs in the Maldives have suffered from bleaching triggered by climate change and sea pollution. Many hotels including the Anantara chain are regenerating their local reefs replanting corals grown in their nurseries. As corals can grow up to 25 centimetres per year, all hope is not lost yet that one day these reefs will return to their former glory.
During the day, statue-like herons wait patiently on the water’s edge for their favourite fish to pass by. Sometimes they try something new and if it is not to their taste they drop it on the head of a startled guest. As the sun sets, the bats and flying foxes come out, their dark wings silhouetted against the twilight. When the hermit crabs retreat into their shells for the night, ‘ghost’ crabs – the residents of the large tunnel-entranced ‘caves – on the beach come out to ‘hunt’.
Many foreigners jump at the chance to live in the Maldives. Some tire of the isolation after a year or two. Others like Lisa Jakobsson, the Swedish PR manager at the Anantara Dhigu, love it, even after five years. “The isolation means it takes much longer to get things done but you also learn to love it. And, in less than five hours I can be in Dubai, Singapore or Bangkok so the location’s pretty great, really,” she says.
If we believe everything we read or hear, the Maldives will be long gone by the end of this century. It may not be the remote ‘undiscovered’ paradise it once was but, for me, it remains one of the most unique and intriguing island nations in the world.
When to go: The peak season is December to March, which traditionally has also been the best weather in the Maldives, but, like everywhere, the weather patterns are changing. You can get better deals in ‘low’ season from June to September – a time of the year which is more popular with divers who don’t care about the sunshine and Arabs trying to escape the stifling Middle Eastern summer.
Hotel tip: The hotels which are closer to the airport are perfect for short stays but if you really want that castaway feeling, head further afield to the more remote resorts. If you get claustrophobic at the thought of being stuck on one island for two weeks, split your trip into two resorts or stay at a resort like the Anantara Dhigu (perfect for families) or Anantara Veli (adults-only) where guests can hop between four islands (Dhigu, Veli, Picnic/Snorkel Island and Naladhu) and can dine at nine different restaurants.
Useful advice: Bring everything you need with you – from snacks to sunscreen because prices in the resorts are high and there’s no convenience store close by.
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