Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 6 December 2019

No worries atoll in the Maldives

As we’re herded onto a cramped, stiflingly hot seaplane, I wonder how something so dinky can possibly float, let alone fly. Although air travel is part of my job, I still fear flying, and specifically taking off. The smaller the aircraft, the more my fear grows. Still, once everyone – and everything – is strapped in, we’re off, and we’re OK.

The plane soars over the ­Maldives’ Malé Atoll as we head south-west towards Constance Halaveli. I peer out of my window and strain to focus on the water below, rather than a propeller that, much to my dismay, is in my direct line of sight. As distractions go, it’s a good one. The deep blue water beneath us is hypnotic – ebbing and flowing, and intermittently giving way to dollops of aqua marine, turquoise and white. It’s every bit the postcard image of a tropical paradise.

After a 35-minute flight, with one short stop, we’re deposited about a kilometre offshore, and clamber, luggage in hand, onto a floating wooden platform. The wait isn’t long, but allows enough time to take a few photos before one of the hotel’s boats arrives.

The Maldives, located south of the Indian subcontinent, consists of 26 coral atolls – approximately 1,200 islands in total. The country has only been a holiday destination for about 40 years, but isn’t short of mid-range to high-end resorts. The North Ari Atoll alone, where Halaveli is located, is home to several, including W Retreat and Spa Maldives, Banyan Tree Madivaru and ­Kandolhu Maldives.

Once we have checked in, we’re whisked away to our beach villas on golf buggies. I’m shown to a family beach villa, one of 86 villas that make up the island resort. The well-hidden accommodation sports its own plunge pool, private beach access and sun deck. Paired with the option of room service, guests could easily hole up for days on end without interacting with another soul.

That evening, we dine at Jing, one of the four on-site eateries, and the only restaurant here that asks guests to wear shoes. Over a delicious meal of shiitake mushroom cream soup, black Angus beef and a beyond-decadent dessert (the black chocolate combination comprises a long tube of chocolate over chocolate ice cream on a giant chocolate-­dusted plate, with hot liquid chocolate poured over the tube to reveal yet more, fudge-like chocolate), we’re told by Sindya Cecile, the resort’s guest services manager, that there has been a slight drop in bookings during the past year. This, she explains, is mainly down to the global economic downturn, and is most noticeable among ­Russian travellers, a result of the collapse of the rouble.

Despite this, the resort is, during our visit, at 60 per cent capacity, even though it’s monsoon season (May to November). It’s little ­surprise that “low season” hasn’t put people off visiting entirely. We experience only a few, momentary showers, and glorious temperatures that don’t rise above about 30°C. Though the seas can also be choppy during these months, which makes for several less-than-pleasant boat journeys, hotels are noticeably quieter and rates cheaper – prices are about US$450 (Dh1,653) per night lower than during the high season (November to April).

It’s incredible how fast one acclimates to island life. On our second day, I spend the afternoon indulging in one of U Spa by ­Constance’s mind-meltingly relaxing massages. As the therapist works out the knots in my neck and lower back, I’m privy to a view of the ocean below through a cleverly placed transparent pane of glass under my table. After 45 minutes of being pleasantly poked and kneaded, I’m ushered into a lounge area overlooking the water, and spend the remainder of my time sipping tea. One morning is spent watching the sun rise over the water while we’re led through various yoga poses by Halaveli’s on-site yoga instructor. At this point, I begin to feel almost entirely at ease, letting go of the stresses of everyday life waiting back home. I even find it relatively painless to disconnect from my smartphone, despite the strong Wi-Fi.

The same day, a group of us head out on one of the hotel’s boats for three hours of snorkelling. We drop into the sea, one by one, and are guided by several instructors around the edge of the reef. The water is warm and teeming with life – we spot beautiful coral and fish of varying sizes and colours during our experience.

Yet all this beauty is bittersweet, as the lowest-lying country in the world remains extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change. A paper published by the Maldives’ Ministry of ­Environment, Energy and Water reported that from 2000 to 2006, 90 inhabited islands flooded at least once, while 37 islands flooded regularly. While the government is working on several environmental initiatives, the resorts also have to do their part. A brief discussion with ­Serjoscha Grünzel, ­Halaveli’s assistant front office manager, reveals that both ­Halaveli and Constance ­Moofushi – our second destination – are Green Globe certified. The international certification for sustainable tourism has a stringent set of criteria that includes sustainable design and construction of buildings and infrastructure (new and existing); strict labour practices that follow the conventions of the ­International Labor ­Organization; the purchase of disposable and consumable goods; and energy and water consumption. While many of these steps take place behind the scenes – which I see first-hand as I’m given a back-of-house tour – some are noticeable throughout our stay. Glass water bottles are used most of the time – even in the rooms – and AC units shut off when doors to the villas are open longer than three minutes.

On the third day, we board a speedboat for a 40-minute ride to Moofushi, in the South Ari ­Atoll. The water is so choppy that I begin to question whether we will make it in one piece. The resort offers an all-inclusive, more sociable experience than Halaveli. It also lends itself to more water activities. Snorkelling, kayaking and windsurfing are readily accessible, from the steps of your water villa or from the public beach areas. I’m also not at a loss for photo ops. The sea is, if that’s possible, a clearer shade of turquoise than at Halaveli, and the resort’s layout makes for perfect Instagram snaps.

The next three days are taken up with more yoga and yet another soothing massage, this time for a full hour. I spend one afternoon happily paddling around in a kayak for an hour, taking in the views of the sea life below.

While on a walking tour of ­Himandhoo, a neighbouring island 20 minutes north-east by boat, I ask our guide for a brief history of the Maldives. To my surprise, he laughs and says he doesn’t know, despite being ­Maldivian. The information I do eke out of him, however, is that the majority of Himandhoo’s male residents – about 75 per cent – are fishermen. Most women are homemakers, though some work in government jobs, including as schoolteachers. It’s a Saturday, so there are small children flitting around on bikes, throwing the odd “hello, what’s your name?” our way, before laughing and running off. Though the tour starts out promisingly, with a visit to the local school and a quick chat with the principal, it ends disappointingly touristy, with our guide pushing us to buy from the few local vendors hawking tat on the main strip.

As we’re readying to board the boat back to the resort, I point to a tattered yellow flag with a set of scales flying over the island. The flag, I’m told, is from the old government regime. It seems that many of the islanders still support Mohamed Nasheed, the country’s first democratically elected official in 30 years. ­Nasheed was ousted in 2012, and jailed in 2015 when found guilty of terrorism by the current regime. The current government has ­experienced ­continuing ­political protests – some of which have been violent – in the capital, Malé. But unless you have done your homework before arriving, you would have little clue this could be going on 30 minutes from the resort. The subject comes up briefly one night over dinner, and the lack of discussion is perhaps understandable, given that most visitors come here to get away from the worries of their own lives. In a way, you can’t blame them – it really is easier to look past the propeller and into the beauty beyond. It’s just a shame that the effort to insulate guests in pampered luxury in paradise will mean most will leave without seeing or hearing much about life beyond their resort.

alane@thenational.ae

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Updated: June 15, 2016 04:00 AM

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