Scattered across 35,000 square miles of the Indian Ocean, the Maldives is a group of white-sand, castaway islands that float across the imagination, sun-lit pockets of downtime where there’s always a cocktail on the sundeck and a hammock waiting to be swayed. Here is a list of things you need to know before you visit the Maldives. Here is my experience of stays at over-water villas at Fushifaru Resort, Gili Lankanfushi Resort and Four Seasons Maldives. But what lies beyond the over-water villa? Here is an incredible list of 10 things to do in the Maldives:
Everyone knows about the snorkelling, but serious wave-hunters have been heading to the Maldives since the 1970s, when two Australian surfers were shipwrecked on the shore breaks of North Malé atoll. While fixing their boat, they realised how incredible the islands were and one of them, the late Tony Hinde, stayed here for the rest of his life. The islands now draw international surfers with competitions such as the O’Neill Deep Blue Open. The southern atolls are one of the world’s last surfing frontiers, and the Huvadhoo atoll has the best breaks: Beacons, Castaways and Tiger Stripes are well-known, but there are many secret surf spots waiting to be discovered.
After looking down to spot the life aquatic, it’s time to look up in wonder. The islands have little or no light or air pollution, and so the stargazing opportunities here are incredible, making it one of the best natural observatories on Earth. What’s more, being close to the Equator, you can see constellations visible from both hemispheres. Scorpio, Omega Centauri, the rings of Saturn and belts of Jupiter can all be viewed. The star- and moonlight, in turn, can light up the sea – a rare occurrence, in which bioluminescent plankton in the water creates a natural phenomenon that turns the nocturnal ocean into a beautiful glowing star field.
Charles Darwin is usually associated with the Galápagos, but although he never visited the Maldives, he developed the first theory of how atolls were formed, taking the name from the local word ‘atholu’. To put it simply, they were volcanoes that subsided slowly into the ocean while coral built up around them. The Maldives has 26 natural atolls – smaller ones in the north, larger ones in the south, with deeper lagoons. Not two islands are the same. Saturated islands are stable, with a beach all around, while dynamic ones are always shifting up and down, back and forward, inside their reefs. The Huvadhoo atoll is the second largest in the Maldives and Meradhoo is a particularly lovely island within this, spread over two pristine reefs in clear water.
The history and culture of the Maldives is one of sea and water and the boats that sail between islands. Arab traders and Indian settlers arrived from across the ocean, survivors from early shipwrecks became unintentional islanders. Legends tell of beautiful women, dressed in red, who walk along moonlit beaches, helping shipwrecked sailors onto dry land. Fall into the sea, Maldivian folklore has it, and the flesh-eating demon Kandufureta will get you – though don’t tell the snorkellers that. Intrepid visitors in the 1970s made their way here by cargo ship and then by fishing boat to island homestay. It’s much easier now, but ancient settlers would be reassured to find that the dhoni, the Maldives single-sailed fishing boat, has survived – traditionally crafted from coconut palm cured with fish oils, but now often made of fibreglass. The ones at Raffles Maldives Meradhoo can take you on sunset voyages and desert-island picnics, even right to the line of the Equator for snorkelling.
Well, as one imagines, a lot of seafood, and a lot of coconut, but in deliciously inventive combinations. Freshly caught tuna is mixed with coconut, onions and chilli to make the breakfast dish mashuni. Cuttlefish is served with spicy soup. There’s rihaakuru, a fish paste, and local versions of chapatis and samosas, spicy boakiba smoked-fish cakes, wonderful chicken and vegetable curries, and the tropical screw-pine fruit, used to make ice cream. A highlight, though, has to be garudiya, the fragrant fish soup served with lime and rice. The islands’ open-fire-cooking traditions can be experienced first-hand at the Raffles Maldives Meradhoo’s Firepit barbecue restaurant.
The Maldives may be remote and invisible on many maps, but they were never ignored by adventurous travellers, from Phoenicians and the Chinese to the Portuguese. Arab traders knew them as the Money Islands, for the cowry shells that were used as money at the time. The great Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta, who travelled around Asia, Africa and the Middle East, landed here in 1344 and lived on the islands for eight months. Marco Polo described the Maldives as the ‘flower of the Indies’. One of the most remarkable travellers was navigator François Pyrard, who was shipwrecked in these parts in the 17th century, made friends with a sultan, and whose account of his five years here is a fascinating insight into the history of the Maldives.
Sea life in the Maldives is nothing short of spectacular – it’s a place where you can lose yourself in a plankton-rich wave of flat-faced, mammoth manta rays, zebra and hammerhead sharks, striped bannerfish, clownfish and oriental sweetlips. If you’re lucky you might encounter up to five species of fascinating sea turtles, from the hawksbill to the leatherback. Maldives sits unspoilt by city pollution, so you can snorkel in pristine waters, among distinctive reefs, and commonly spy black-tip baby sharks, parrotfish and spotted eagle rays, among many other exotic finds.
The Maldives hosted the first ever underwater cabinet meeting (in 2009) to highlight the dangers of climate change. It’s no secret that the islands are at high risk, due to the fact that they sit just above sea level. Their beguiling coral reefs are also endangered, along with their fragile ecosystem. The good news is that conservation projects are rife and heartfelt – there’s a whole project dedicated to protecting Olive Ridley turtles (the world’s smallest), for example, to help increase their numbers on Maldivian reefs. Staff at several hotels are fully on board with passionate conservation efforts at the hotel, so if you’ve ever wanted to take up interesting interactive activities such as tree planting, turtle identifications and coral growth monitoring, this is your moment.
Mythical fish called bodumas woven from the leaves of coconut palms at the Eid celebrations in the Maldives are a nod to its vibrant and fun-loving culture. Parades, costumes, flags, feasts and folktales are all central to the way of life, but its most widely known music is boduberu (‘big drum’). It has been around since the 11th century and involves an African drum rhythm and a lead singer, leading up to an intense dance that will have you throwing frenetic shapes alongside the islanders.
The power of nature is not to be underestimated when it comes to a Maldives spa experience, nor are the appearance of coffee and wine (which are often used in massage treatments). From the soothing oils of tropical plants to the scents of hibiscus, jasmine and frangipani, the Maldives is rich in the natural ingredients that make highly effective spa products. They believe in the power of ancient rituals, and most of the ingredients used are sourced from the gardens, including coconut, lemongrass, betel leaf and rose.
Get FREE access to our member’s only club and enjoy unlimited travel resources. Be the first to find out about new travel discounts and exclusive discount coupons for leading brands. Did I mention it’s all FREE? Are you in? Great! Sign up below!