Made up of over 1000 islands in the heart of the Indian Ocean, an experience in the Maldives really depends on where you choose to stay. Without a lot of effort you are more or less resort-bound, so do your research before you leave home so then you can just relax and enjoy it when you get there. Arriving is nothing short of spectacular. Not much more than a runway juts out of the ocean, so you might find yourself reaching under your seat to check for your life jacket! The international flight is just the beginning, however. Once you land safely and step into the tropical warmth of the airport, you transfer to the domestic terminal to catch your water plan to your final destination.
The resorts arrange onward transport and several passengers are transferred together. It is a sure way to get to your destination, but the schedule is made to suit the resorts' convenience, not yours. There is a great lounge to wait in, however, so you can relax and enjoy a tropical drink until you're taken to paradise. Flying and landing in a sea-plane is a special experience and as you soar over the tiny islands that look like emerald drops in the bluest ocean, you get a real sense of what the Maldives is like. Then finally you spot your little island that looks just like what you saw in the brochure, and the pilots bring you down to a floating platform, where you are then collected by boat and taken to your island resort.
I stayed on a small island called Mirihi. A slow stroll from one end to the other takes about ten minutes. The accommodation is a choice of beach-side bungalows or the more luxurious water bungalows with steps down to give you instant access to snorkelling. You can leave your shoes in your luggage and just walk around the island with the sand sifting between your toes. Even the restaurant boasts a floor of sand, a constant reminder that you're on holiday.
So, what does such a small island have to offer? Well, hopefully you brought some good books with you, or you enjoy diving. Mirihi doesn’t really offer many on-island activities; all the action is under the water. The house reef is home to excellent snorkelling; I was fortunate enough to see moray eels, turtles and brilliant parrot fish, just to name a few. Snorkelling gear can be borrowed from the dive centre and used at your leisure. For those who want to go a little deeper, the PADI dive centre caters to all levels of divers. You can be a total beginner and do your open water course here or, if you’re more experienced, you can go out on trips around the area. There is usually a variety of options, including single dives off a boat, day trips out to see manta rays and night dives.
We did a day trip hoping to see some manta rays and luckily we weren’t disappointed. This was only about my tenth ever dive, so I was still worrying about the equipment and my breathing. I followed the other divers down where we rested on the sandy bottom. Everybody was very still except me who was having difficulty balancing with such cumbersome fins and depth gauges and other gadgets dangling off me. I was thinking what a boring dive this was just sitting around on the bottom of the ocean when suddenly the large wings of a manta ray passed us overhead. One lucky diver was directly underneath so we got a good impression of the size of this great creature.
Although we were underwater and unable to hear a gasp, I’m pretty sure our bubbles must have momentarily stopped as we held our breath in awe. I forgot about the silly gadgets floating around me and stayed to watch as several mantas circled around us for a while. It was a magical experience.
The strange thing about the Maldives is that because it is resort based and so spread out, it is difficult to get a sense of how the country is for locals. After a few days of eating too much at the buffet and gazing over the ocean from my waterside balcony, I started to wonder how this type of tourism affects both the locals and the pristine environment around me. On our way out of the Maldives we decided to spend a night at the capital, Male, to see a different side of the place. I gathered that most tourists spending a night here are just unable to get a connecting flight out, as it is not exactly a tourist highlight. However, it is a behind the scenes look at the city that is servicing all these tiny private resorts. The harbour is filled with speed boats carrying supplies back and forth. The water is filthy from the heavy traffic it experiences, although you can still see a few tropical fish if you look carefully. Male is quite small, around 5km2, and completely covered with buildings. It is nothing like the sandy paradise we left behind and the only beaches they have left have been reconstructed at either end of the island. With a booming population you really have the feeling this place could sink if a few more people step on it. There are a few things to see if you do stay here: the local mosque, a park, a tourist shopping area and a strip of restaurants. However, it really does take less than a day to tick off the highlights. Perhaps I had the blues after leaving Mirihi, where you can really forget the world beyond the sea exists, but certainly the contrast in Male is striking.
Overall I enjoyed visiting the Maldives with its unique geographical situation, beautiful underwater scenery and crunchy sand underneath my feet. My only wish is that its beauty can remain for future generations to enjoy and in these changing times many Maldivians must feel the same way.