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I’ve never quite realised how glorious a sunset can be when viewed from the middle of a vast, immeasurable ocean. As our speedboat slices through powerful waves on our way from Male International Airport, I feel as though I am gliding along on a cloud of turquoise mist. The ocean is so tranquil that you can view the sea bed for miles below its glassy surface and appreciate the wealth of life that thrives within it, surrounded as it is by sands that are as soft and white as talcum powder.
As we approach the Taj Exotica island resort, built on a gorgeous shallow lagoon, the waters seem to magically transform from sapphire to bright green. The difference is marked and perceptible.
In many ways, Maldives is a revelation. A cluster of over a thousand beautiful isles in Indian Ocean, (of which only 200 are inhabited; over 80 are devoted exclusively to promote tourism), the country is grouped into 26 main atolls (a group of fragmented islands encircled by gorgeous coral reefs soaked in shallow waters). Maldives is a curious mix of cultural ethos and hedonistic pleasure. I’m very surprised to learn that it is a proud Muslim nation with many women sporting purdahs. Originally, Hinduism and Buddhism were widely practiced here. As Arabs became increasingly dominant as traders in the Indian Ocean during the 12th century, their influence was seen as one of the reasons for the country’s conversion to Islam.
The people here are warm and friendly, truly denizens of the world and as I soon learn, intensely individualistic. Most of the staff at our resort sport name tags with only their first names. When I ask about this, I am told that Maldivians are rarely called by their surnames! This custom gives them a sense of individuality. Himanyu, our butler, tells us that many Maldivians are settled in Trivandrum today, because of needs such as higher education for their children and lower costs of living. There is a community near the coastal strip of Trivandrum that is just like a mini-Maldives in terms of population and culture, he says.
These islands are certainly a study in contrasts. I marvel at the way sheer luxury co-exists amidst the wild backdrop of nature. Our villa comes equipped with a private swimming pool and a wraparound porch with a cane sofa, wooden picnic table and chairs; all this built just above the shallow waters of the lagoon. As we swim or have our meals, we can gaze out at miles of beautiful ocean on all sides and observe the schools of vibrant tropical fish that glide by. A frequent visitor is the baby shark, instantly recognisable by its sharp fin that cuts through the waters like a black blade. I’m relieved to hear that it is harmless. Baby sharks love these shallow waters but are very careful to shun human company. Within minutes, the fin melts away into the shadows.
Feeding the fish with bits of bread and pastry soon becomes a much-loved breakfast ritual and as the days pass, we can recognise the different kinds of sea creatures that flock to our feeding station. We meet the powder blue surgeonfish, the long nose hawkfish (aptly named, I thought, because its fan-like fins give it the appearance of sporting a Mohawk and its body is colored bright orange) and the spotted butterfly fish, the color of sunshine, with glowing polka dots. Our favorite by far is a fish we fondly name “the monster,” because of its huge size and surprising agility. Much to our amusement, it manages to hang around the longest and grab the choicest titbits, often right from under the snouts of the others!
Tiny bits of coral wash up on the sands and my eight-year-old daughter collects this excitedly, assuming it is a curious kind of shell. I point out the numerous spaces in that piece of orange coral she holds, and tell her about the tiny sea creatures that had once made it its home. She is fascinated by this jewel from the ocean and for the duration of our stay, it never leaves her side.
For a chance to witness this fascinating underwater world close up, we decide to take a submarine ride. A fifteen minute journey by speedboat takes us to the submarine base, where we queue up with tourists of almost every nationality. The powerful submarine can hold sixty people and soon it plunges into the underbelly of the ocean. Our captain points out every sea creature, from the electric eels, jelly fish and seahorses. Marine life stare curiously at our metal craft and a giant octopus hovers gently just by our window! The multi-colored coral reefs are breathtaking and it’s truly a whole new world under the deep.
As much as I love the submarine ride, I am happy to emerge into the bright sunshine, nearly an hour later. We are ravenous and quite game for a picnic right in the middle of the ocean! For lunch we pack a hamper full of continental food, fruits and other delicacies and head out to a little cove nearby. Here, on this tiny wooden parquet maintained by our resort, we set the table for a picnic.
Before we eat, we take a dip in the ocean (the water is much deeper here and far more turbulent than at the lagoon, so we are careful to don life jackets and our guide ensures that we don’t stray from the wooden steps off the dining area ).
After lunch, we decide to ride the waves in a catamaran. The ocean is smooth as glass when we venture out. I understand that at times, it can get quite turbulent, like a rollercoaster without the seat belts! Our boatman manipulates the waves with great ease and expertise—you can sense the dexterity and skill that goes into this sport. The sails have to be adjusted every few minutes in order to effectively catch the wind.
Stretching out languorously, oblivious of the waters that drench us, we breathe in the fragrant sea air and watch the shades of blue and green merge into the horizon. To date, this remains one of my most overpowering memories of the emerald isles.
Kamala Thiagarajan writes on travel, health and lifestyle topics for a global audience. She has been widely published in over eight countries.
How to get there: There are daily flights from India to Male (the capital island of Maldives)— from Trivandrum and Bangalore. Most island resorts are 30 minutes away by seaboat. However, some require a journey by a private sea plane (best arranged by your hotel).
Best Buys: Handmade paper, albums sewn with leaves and rosepetals, writing implements carved entirely from bark, tiny glass bottles that hold the pristine white beach sands with a selection of colorful shells, magnets shaped like tropical fish and brilliant water colour paintings, Maldives is a handicraft lover’s paradise!
Maldives Cuisine: For non-vegetarians, fresh seafood is the obvious answer! Steamed grilled or deep fried, you get a variety of exotic dishes. Don’t miss the mas huni which is shredded smoked fish with tender onions and grated coconut. As a vegetarian, I enjoyed the exotic salads, exquisite mocktails and pastries.
Tips for travelers: Be sure to have your passport, hotel reservations and return ticket handy when you disembark at Male.
Where to stay: There are many beautiful islands on the Maldives worth exploring. Before you book, be cognizant of your needs. If you like Indian food and water sports, then Taj Exotica would be the perfect choice. You can sample the world’s first underwater spa experience at Haven Fushi resort, located in North Male Atoll. Here, you can get booked for massage treatments in rooms that have been built entirely underwater!
If you’re keen on island hopping, you can travel by sea plane to explore other islands. This way, you can catch some breathtaking aerial views. You can also explore by motorboat. Arrange expeditions with your resort in advance.