Guide to the Maldives

Guide to the Maldives
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Feature

A safe haven for tourism

By Stuart Forster


(Credit: Stuart Forster)

Social distancing was, by default, a happy norm at Maldivian resorts long before it became a global buzz phrase and an element of everyday life. Secluded overwater villas and beachfront accommodation promising both luxury and privacy have helped establish the Maldives among the planet’s most desirable destinations for honeymoons and romantic breaks.

That seclusion now broadens appeal of Asia’s smallest country to sun-seeking holidaymakers warier than ever of spending time in strangers’ company because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Grouped into 26 atolls, the Maldives’ 1,192 islands straddle the equator and are blessed with an average of at least 200 hours of sunshine every month of the year. From Ihavandhippolhu Atoll in the north to Addu Atoll in the south, they are distributed across more than 500 miles of the Indian Ocean, naturally limiting contact with passing strangers.

Since the opening of the Karumba Maldives on Vihamanaafushi in 1972, the country has practiced a one island, one resort concept. More than 150 island resorts currently operate, giving holidaymakers choices of accommodation across price points. At a time when travellers are seeking reassurance, it’s worth noting that inter-island travel must be approved and is subject to health screenings.

The combined landmass of the Maldives measures just 115 square miles. The islands’ have 400 miles of coastline. Much of that shoreline is characterised by palm-fringed beaches of soft white sand offering open space for barefoot strolls. As the appeal of some of the Maldivian resorts broadens to families and multigenerational travellers, the soft sand represents a safe space for youngsters to play near other family members.

Proximity to water is a factor in average temperatures fluctuating by just 1.5°C across all 12 months the year, remaining in the high 20s throughout. At a time when experts have deemed outdoor spaces safer than those indoors – because fresh air enables coronavirus particles to disperse rapidly – the islands’ beaches, swaying hammocks and roomy balconies offer visitors plenty of places to lounge in confidence away from other people.

The Maldives has put in place stringent measures to hinder transmission of the coronavirus and, simultaneously, reassure both locals and visitors. The Maldives’ Ministry of Health requires people to stay three feet apart, an outdoor practice that UK residents will already be familiar with from back home. Similarly, frequent hand washing is also recommended.

Tourists do not need to quarantine upon arrival but all travellers arriving in the Maldives are required to take a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test that produces a negative result within 96 hours of departing the first port of embarkation of their journey. The name on the certificate must match the passenger’s passport and display the test lab’s name and address. Anyone in transit for longer than 24 hours must take an additional PCR test.

Face masks must be worn in transit between islands. Most visitors arrive into the Maldives at Velana International Airport, close to Male, the nation’s capital, in the North Male Atoll. From the airport transfers tend to be by speedboat or light aircraft – often seaplanes with floats that take off and land on water.

In addition to the island resorts that many holidaymakers now associate with the Maldives, a smattering of hotels offer upscale accommodation. Even those in Male, where a third of the country’s 540,000 population resides, offer access to beaches and activities on and in water.

Private islands are an option for people seeking opulent luxury without disturbances from other visitors. At Voavah on the Baa Atoll, Four Seasons operates a seven-bedroom villa giving access to a spa, yacht and a team of dedicated staff plus 24-hour security.

Around 200 of the Maldives’ many islands are inhabited. Staying at a guesthouse on what are termed ‘local islands’ represents a way of gaining insights into traditional ways of living. Typically far less expensive than overnight accommodation in resorts, guesthouses are likely to appeal to independent travellers who appreciate immersive experiences, local cuisine and freedom to arrange activities.

The tropical water of the Indian Ocean is characterised by colourful coral species and teems with marine life, including more than 1,100 species of fish and five types of sea turtle. Integral to the success of the country’s tourism industry, the health of the ocean has prompted increased commitment to the environment and sustainability.

Renowned for its clarity and warmth, the seawater of the Maldives is regarded among the world’s best destinations for scuba diving and snorkelling. Boats and yachts with accommodation aboard enable keen divers to explore dive sites and uninhabited islands while enjoying personalised service. Many of the vessels offer intimate experiences geared towards couples and small, self-contained groups of friends and family members travelling together.

At a time when travellers are seeking safe destinations for holidays in the sun, the Maldives, traditionally seen as an exclusive destination, increasingly presents a range of options across price classes.

Feature

Luxury holidaying in the Maldives

By Stuart Forster


(Credit: Stuart Forster)

Imagine an overwater villa with a wooden boardwalk jutting from a palm-fringed tropical island into calm, clear ocean water. There’s every chance the picture in your mind’s eye is of accommodation at a luxury resort in the Maldives.

It’s almost 50 years since the Karumba Maldives, the first of the country’s island resorts, initially welcomed visitors in the October of 1972. Over the intervening decades the ‘one island, one resort’ policy has proven so successful that more than 150 have opened.

Dispersed across the Maldives’ 26 atolls, the island resorts have become synonymous with tropical luxury. Even those falling within the affordable luxury bracket present guests with multiple dining options, spa facilities and attentive service.

Across the board, service aims to impress. Proportionately high staff to guest ratios help make stays as close to perfect as is possible. Guests can expect touches such as personalised greetings accompanied by refreshments upon arrival.

Towards the lower end of the country’s broad price spectrum for resort accommodation, the Bandos Maldives offers world-class scuba experiences from its onsite dive centre, one of 56 in the country accredited by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI). The island in the North Male Atoll features its own coral reef, accessible by both divers and snorkellers, providing habitat to an array of marine life – including Olive Ridley turtles and blacktip reef sharks.

Thanks to long average hours of sunshine throughout the year, beaches of soft white sand and coconut palms leaning photogenically over the Indian Ocean, the Maldives are naturally blessed with a climate and setting that puts people at ease. The tropical scenery lends itself to holiday snaps that induce envy when viewed on social media in cooler climes. Guests can learn how to make the most of picturesque locations, natural light and flattering yoga poses through the help of Instagram butlers.

The butlers were first employed at the Conrad Maldives on Rangali Island. The resort in the Alifu Dhaali Atoll also claims the world’s first underwater accommodation, a villa called the Muraka which presents opportunities to view colourful reef fish from a bedroom with transparent walls beneath the surface of the Indian Ocean. The chic bi-level villa features floor-to-ceiling windows, a private pool deck plus two other bedrooms. Guests can expect a private chef and a 24-hour butler service. Experience packages can be added to tailor stays, enabling guests to enjoy activities such as stand up paddle boarding and fishing excursions.

The world’s first undersea restaurant is also at the Conrad Maldives. Ithaa features an arching glass ceiling enabling diners to view marine life while eating exquisitely presented fusion food served with appropriately paired wine. Deeper and larger, the restaurant 5.8 – whose numeric name represents its depth in metres, is at the Hurawalhi Maldives in the Lhaviyani Atoll. With views onto a coral reef, the restaurant can seat up to 10 couples at a time, serving five-course lunches and seven course dinners – including vegan and seafood-free options.

Foodies can enjoy cuisines from around the planet in Maldivian resorts. Dishes by globally renowned chefs are designed to tempt gourmets to reserve tables. Dave Pynt, the chef at Singapore’s Michelin-starred Burnt Ends, created the menu for The Ledge at the Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi in the North Male Atoll.

Acclaimed chef Theodor Falser was recently appointed as Italian Food Consultant at Bellinis at the Joali Maldives on Muravandhoo Island in the Raa Atoll. The Joali’s new alfresco Tu’hu restaurant serves Levantine style dishes and is one of five restaurants at the immersive art resort, whose Manta Ray Treehouse provides elevated views of the shoreline.

Geared towards travellers seeking high-end experiences, the recently opened Ozen Reserve Bolifushi in the South Male Atoll can accommodate up to eight guests aboard its superyacht. Soaking in the hot tub on the yacht’s upper deck is an alternative to the Indian Ocean’s pleasantly warm water. Incongruously, skating while enjoying sea views is a possibility on the resort’s synthetic ice rink.

The Kagi Maldives Spa Island resort opened in the North Male Atoll last November. Featuring an overwater spa complex named Baani, meaning ‘the ocean swell’ in the Maldives’ Dhivehi language, the expansive wellness menu offers personalised holistic and restorative treatments.

The Raffles Maldives Meradhoo at the Gaafu Alifu Atoll also offers treatments at an overwater spa. Guests are welcomed to the resort with a glass of Champagne. They subsequently have opportunities to sip Singapore Slings at The Firepit, an interpretation of the Raffles Hotel’s famous Long Bar, while stargazing.

Eco-conscious travellers may be tempted by the sustainable credentials of the Six Senses Lamuu on the Lamuu Atoll. Thatched villas and low-key luxury make the resort an idyllic place to unwind during yoga and mediation sessions in the open-sided studio.

Like sunshine, luxury is abundant in the island resorts of the Maldives and travellers can take their pick of where to enjoy it.

Feature

Turquoise water and below

By Stuart Forster


(Credit: Stuart Forster)

Excellent underwater visibility, colourful corals and a wealth of marine wildlife make the Maldives an outstanding destination for diving and snorkelling holidays. Newcomers to scuba can learn and build confidence in the calm waters of island resorts in the company of experienced instructors. Meanwhile, seasoned divers can look forward to the thrill of drift and night dives in waters offering frequent sightings of the world’s largest living fishes – whale sharks.

The relative warmth of the Indian Ocean around the Maldives makes it pleasant to spend time in seawater off the 1,192 islands. Water temperatures tend to fluctuate around 28°C throughout the year, facilitating lengthy dives and snorkelling sessions even without the protection and insulation of a wetsuit.

Simply swimming by a beach in a pair of goggles is likely to result in sightings of darting fish and, occasionally, creatures such as hawksbill turtles. Guided snorkelling tours of resort reefs introduce local marine life and increase the likelihood of spotting camouflaged creatures such as stonefish and scorpionfish on the underside of rocks and semi-hidden among sand.

From north to south, the country’s 26 atolls are distributed across more than 500 miles. Inevitably, that broad geographic spread means variations in local water conditions plus pockets of diversity in marine flora and fauna.

Underwater visibility approaches its crystal best in time for late-December holidays and continues into April. That coincides with the northeast monsoon – the Maldives’ driest season.

By contrast, visibility dips due to the southwest monsoon’s rainwater flushing sand and other particles into the sea. The rains tend to be heaviest in July and August, particularly in southerly atolls such as Addu, Fuvahmulah and Huvadhoo, whose density of marine life accounts for their popularity among keen divers. Travellers are likely to find favourable accommodation deals at this time of year yet may experience only passing, intermittent rain, leaving water conditions fine, except after the heaviest of downpours.

Liveaboard vessels prove popular with scuba aficionados, facilitating access to leading dive sites and varied itineraries. Floating resorts such as Scubaspa Ying and Scubaspa Yang offer spa treatments and sunrise yoga sessions, providing alternatives to non-diving partners who prefer not to participate in training to acquire the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) certification that opens access to the world below the water’s surface.

Channels plummeting to depths of up to 1,000 feet run between Maldivian atolls, allowing deep oceanic currents rich with nutrients to flow. Known locally as kandu, the channels funnel creatures accustomed to the deep sea towards the comparatively shallow water of lagoons and prove popular sites for drift dives. Frequently spotted ocean dwelling species include barracuda, swordfish and wahoo – whose name sounds like a cry of joy prompted by viewing majestic sea creatures in their natural habitat. Sightings of hammerhead sharks are common from December into April.

It’s 10 years since UNESCO inscribed Baa Atoll as a Biosphere Reserve because of the global significance of its biodiversity. As many as 62 of the atoll’s 75 islands remain uninhabited. They are dotted with mangroves, beds of sea grass and coral reefs providing habitat to around 1,200 fish species, five of the planet’s seven sea turtles plus 250 types of coral. Pocked with underwater caves, the Golden Wall on Kihavah Huravalhi Island is a dive site that wows visitors with the colours of swaying corals, shoals of reef fish plus sightings of earnest-looking humphead wrasses – often referred to as Napoleon fish.

From June until November plankton washes into Baa Atoll’s Hanifaru Bay meaning it acts like an enormous, sun-kissed feeding bowl for whale sharks and manta rays. For conservation reasons, diving is no longer permitted in the bay but snorkelling, regulated by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rangers, brings opportunities to see dozens of the world’s largest population of manta rays congregating for food. Their varied habits include visually impressive mass spiralling known as cyclone feeding.

Along with biodiversity, visibility of up to 120 feet makes the Maldives a rewarding location for underwater photography. Holidaymakers have the option of submitting images and information about their encounters with manta rays to IDtheManta. That database has helped identify around 5,000 individual rays and a significant amount about the creature’s behaviour since the Manta Trust’s Maldivian Manta Ray Project was established in 2005.

The Maldives hosts around five per cent of the world’s corals. A spike in sea temperatures during an El Niño phenomenon in 2016 resulted in widespread bleaching. Coral restoration projects are practised on several islands to safeguard and replenish reef ecosystems. One example is the reef care project at Shangri-La’s Villingili Resort and Spa, where guests can participate in activities coordinated by the Eco Centre.

As concern for the welfare of oceans increases, EPA regulations and increasingly widespread sustainable tourism practices aim to ensure that people can swim with the fishes in the Maldives long into the future.

Feature

A taste of local culture

By Stuart Forster


(Credit: Stuart Forster)

The Maldives’ island resorts are renowned as luxurious tropical playgrounds operated by multinational brands. Amid their international appeal they present opportunities for visitors to experience Maldivian cuisine and, along with local islands, chances to embrace aspects of the country’s culture and traditions.

Unsurprisingly for a nation comprised of more than 1,000 islands in the Indian Ocean, fish figures prominently in the traditional Maldivian diet. After tourism, fishing is the country’s second largest industry and taking to the water a traditional part of life.

The Bandos Maldives, a resort in the North Male Atoll, offers a night fishing experience. Guests board a traditional wood-built fishing boat shortly before sunset and chug out to sea. After cutting the vessel’s engine, the crew demonstrates how Maldivian fisherfolk cast and haul in reels by hand. Lamps are lit as night falls and guests tend lines while the boat bobs gently on the ocean surface in the hope of landing catches such as red snapper and jackfish.

After returning to the resort, chefs at the waterfront Sea Breeze restaurant demonstrate how to baste the fish and grill them over charcoal. Participants then sit and sample the succulent freshly caught fish.

Coconuts also play a major role in Maldivian cuisine. Palm trees rustling by beachfronts bear one of the islands’ traditional staples. Their water is drunk, the flesh is consumed in multiple ways and they are pressed for oil. Nothing is wasted as fibres from dried hulls woven into coir ropes often used decoratively and to create souvenirs. For nearly 1,000 years the tree trunks have been fashioned into boduberu drums, whose rhythmical beat is the core of traditional Maldivian music.

Made with grated coconut, tuna, chopped onion, lime juice and chili, the traditional breakfast dish of mas huni is widely served, typically with a flatbread known as roshi. Those breads and the generous use of aromatic spices in Maldivian cuisine reflect culinary influences from Sri Lanka and southern India. Breadfruit, taro and sweet potatoes have long been among the staples on the Maldives and several of the island resorts grow fruit, vegetables and herbs in their carefully irrigated kitchen gardens, reducing reliance on import fresh ingredients.

Increasingly, holidaymakers are seeking immersive experiences and opportunities to learn about aspects of places that they visit. Many resorts offer cookery classes during which chefs discuss the Maldives’ culinary heritage and demonstrate how to prepare a selection of the country’s best loved dishes. Lessons are offered both as group experiences and private sessions. Conducted at a relaxed pace, cooking classes typically conclude with a beachfront meal featuring the sessions’ culinary creations. They mean guests can leave with recipes to try at home.

At Spice Spoons on the Antara Veli Maldives Resort in the South Male Atoll the private cooking class presents opportunities to prepare a menu featuring the likes of subtly spiced Maldivian potato and crab cakes, and a main course of yellowfin tuna curry with a creamy coconut sauce. Reflecting growing demand for vegetable-based cuisine, Mirihi Island Resort in the South Ari Atoll offers vegan cooking classes that segue into lunch or dinner. Guests have opportunities to learn how to prepare the likes of banbukeo riha (breadfruit curry), baraboa satani (pumpkin salad) and a banana-based dessert.

Cookery classes are also an option at many guesthouses on the 200 islands inhabited by Maldivians. Known as ‘local islands’ – as a way of differentiating from the resorts and private islands where the majority of international holidaymakers stay – Guraidhoo, Hulhumale and Maafushi count among the islands offering accommodation. Most rooms fall within the budget price bracket, opening the Maldives to travellers beyond its established upscale client base.

It’s common for local islands to have a demarcated ‘bikini beach’ where visiting holidaymakers can bathe wearing swimwear. Elsewhere on the islands, visitors are expected to respect local customs and dress modestly, covering up shoulders and thighs. Public displays of affection may cause embarrassment and consumption of alcohol is prohibited.

Local islands opened to international visitors in 2009 and have grown in popularity in recent years, largely because of the value for money that they offer. Amicable interactions between Maldivians and holidaymakers continue a way of building mutual understanding. It’s by no means uncommon for locals to invite visitors to dine in their homes. That may me an opportunity to taste garudiya, a fish soup typical of the Maldives, a widely served dish usually accompanied by rice.

Day visits to local islands are also an option. In addition to excursions from resorts, ferries and speedboats operate from Male to the likes of Huraa Island, where snorkelling counts among the menu of water-based activities offered to visitors. Simply taking a stroll, popping into local shops and pausing at a café offer insights into everyday life.

Local flavours and experiences count among ways of making lasting memories of holidays in the Maldives.