A Room With A Lagoon
It’s night when we touchdown at Male airport which is not in Male at all but in Hulhule – a dedicated airport island some 10 minutes by speedboat from the capital of Maldives. There is such little land in this watery republic – a turquoise and gold necklace of 1,190 tiny islands strung out in the Indian Ocean – that there are islands dedicated to select purposes: the garbage landfill island, the oil terminal island, the tuna fish cleaning island and then the staggering number of high end luxury resort islands which are happily, the reason I am here. But first, we are to spend a day in Male where my husband discusses tsunami recovery and future disaster risk management plans, potent for the 300,000 Maldivians whose homeland is increasingly being threatened as sea levels rise.
I wonder if this existential threat is making people more religious when we encounter the unexpected strictness with which Islam is observed in the country. The surprise begins at customs where all bags are screened for duty free liquor and checked-in bottles are confiscated. The country absolutely forbids import of alcohol, pork products, dogs, pornography or any idols of worship. All Maldivians are required by law to be Muslims and I can gauge the growing influence of conservative Islam by the fact that nearly all women are covered.
Having reluctantly divested ourselves of our liquid sustenance, we follow our bags out to the ferry and head out to Male. The sea is dark and I can’t see the beautiful island resorts that will reveal themselves later on our return trip. What I do see after 15 minutes is a city rising vertically from the sea like some industrial Atlantis. It’s crowded and full of neon signs including one for our hotel, the Mookai, which turns out to be eminently forgettable. The only distinctive feature in Male’s skyline is the gleaming golden dome of the Grand Friday Mosque which can be spied from any part of this minuscule 1.7 sq km capital. We check in and decide to call it a night after visiting the best bar in town – which is alcohol free.
Day One Male
I’m in the city’s main area and soon begin to feel like I’m walking through the yellow pages of a tourism directory as I pass endless travel agencies, air taxis, resort and ferry operators. Male is one big tourism business hub but has little to offer tourists itself. The real attraction is the exquisite luxury resort islands where Islamic restrictions are waived in the interests of commerce. My wanderings take me to the much-recommended National Museum which turns out to be a motley collection of coral and limestone Buddha sculptures, Korans gifted by visiting heads of state and royal bric-a-brac from the Sultanate. I’m the only visitor in this newly refurbished museum, which is all that remains of what was once the Sultan’s Palace. Twenty minutes later, I make my way across the crowded main street to the island’s other attraction, the Munnaaru, a white and squat minaret built in 1675 by Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar. Male’s chief muezzin called the faithful to prayer five times a day from here before Arabic money funded the impressive Islamic Centre next door.
By now I’m thirsty and the sun is hot, so I head to a shady garden café across the street. “Where are you from?” asks the Bangladeshi waiter, who seats me. He’s the first in a stream of many Bangladeshi waiters who, together with Sri Lankans and Indians, make up 50 per cent of the islands’ workforce. “Where are you from?” is their favourite question and if the asker is also Indian, you invariably get served before Europeans and locals. It’s a reverse discrimination that I frequently encounter when meeting Indians overseas, all caste and class differences dissolve besides our common national identity. Refreshed, I thank the smiling Bangladeshi and ask directions to the fish market. “Everything is 10 minutes from where you are in Male,” he laughs.
The fish market is bustling with colour and chatter and assaults the senses with its smells and sights. I regret not bringing a camera when I see rows upon rows of big fat yellow fin tuna laid out on the glistening white floors. In fact, I’ve never seen such large numbers of tuna. I’m told it’s the country’s chief export and since all the catch is exported there is so little left for local consumption, it has to be re-imported…sounds crazy but maybe it makes sense in our economically lopsided world.
Sightseeing done, I decide to spend the afternoon more profitably by browsing the souvenir stores. They look impressive with their window displays of wooden carvings, corals and shell-ware till I enter one and realise I’ve seen most of these souvenirs elsewhere – then it strikes me, they’re all made in Indonesia! The guy behind the counter – he was Indian some generations ago – confesses that the only true cottage industry here is reed mats, lacquer boxes and coral and turquoise jewellery, so I splurge on a gorgeous coral choker.
I wear it that evening as we head back to the award winning Hulhule Island Hotel for yes, a drink. The hotel’s packed poolside is famous for its live seafood barbecue but what turns it into a memorable evening for us is the enthusiastic singing and pole dancing from the increasingly inebriated airlines crew at the next table. The crew captain is being teased with good natured amorous advances from the pole dancer and the group breaks out cheerfully into Mustang Sally. I’m beginning to wonder if some moral police is going to escort them away as the night draws on and the dancing becomes more X-rated. I wonder at the two extremes of behaviour that coexist here: the completely hedonistic visitors and the strictly conservative locals. Perhaps that’s why Maldivians aren’t encouraged to visit the resort islands – the visitors there enjoy a way of life that is unacceptable, even punishable, in its Sharia-based society.
Day Two Embodu Island
We have been speeding past some picturesque resorts and reefs for some 40 minutes when our destination looms into view. It’s a picture perfect paradise island with white sandy beaches, coconut palms, lush vegetation and one of the best ‘house reefs’ – the coral reef garden and enclosed lagoon which normally surrounds each island. Every hotel advertises its amazing house reef in much the same way a vineyard owner will talk about the virtues of his house wines. The truth is all the resorts — 80 and counting — have pristine coral reefs and lagoons which are so placid even little children can snorkel safely here. With three or four days in hand, one can become a diver learning from foreign instructors at the professionally licensed dive stations. Maldivian dive sites rank among the world’s best as enthusiasts swim with really big fish including sharks, manta rays and turtles. Not interested in diving? You can still enjoy the spectacular marine life in a glass-walled ‘whale submarine’ but be sure to book this popular tour in advance.
Disembarking at Embodu Village, we hug ourselves in delight as shoals of colourful fish welcome us in the clear turquoise waters. A black-tipped baby reef shark swims right along the shoreline trying to beach a school of miniature fish for dinner — only to find that the whole school takes flight in a graceful silvery arch. Barely on the island and we’ve already seen a shark! Can’t wait to go snorkelling but first we are escorted to our wooden water villa, built on stilts directly on the reef. The porter proudly shows us the Jacuzzi but what takes our breath away is the glass panelled floor through which we can watch the glorious fish day and night with underwater lighting. A private wooden deck from the bedroom provides direct access to the reef under a most magnificent full moon.
We’ve chosen Embodu for its proximity to Male and its comparative affordability but there are plenty of more luxurious options available, with the Four Seasons at the top end, offering an ocean villa with private pool for US$1,850 per night. The hotel has an award winning spa and Ayurvedic retreat as well as a Marine Research Centre with an interesting fish breeding programme and coral reefscaping conservation projects. The Four Season’s Explorer, a luxury catamaran with 10 staterooms and a suite, is another popular way of visiting some remote dive and snorkelling sites in uninhabited islands on the outer reaches of the atolls. If you don’t have the time to cruise, hire a seaplane from Maldivian Airtaxi and fly out for a gourmet lunch on an uninhabited island.
Most resorts attract visitors by positioning themselves through special features. The Conrad, for instance, has a unique fine dining restaurant set five metres underwater on a coral reef. It’s a glass cube serving breathtaking views of the island’s marine life along with an exclusive menu — it’s open only to hotel guests though. The Waldorf Astoria on the other hand has the only art gallery in the Maldives – the National Art Gallery in Male had no permanent collection or exhibition when I visited. Or head out to Kuredo which boasts a PGA certified golf course and the largest dive centre in Asia.
It’s our penultimate morning in Embodu and we sit down for a snorkelling brief from a young German dive instructor: “You should stay in the shallow lagoon till you feel comfortable with your snorkel,” he advises. “You can see lots of fish and baby shark but please don’t feed them, you may lose your fingers.” I’m beginning to have second thoughts when he cheerfully advises us not to swim on the reef outside our water villa after 10.30 a.m. because “the current is so strong you might be carried out to sea and no one will ever find you”. Armed with his reassuring advice we set off with our snorkels and soon get the hang of it.
What awaits us is shoals of brilliantly coloured tropical fish and banks of glowing corals. Absolute paradise – we float in bliss for almost two hours. My husband is pointing frantically at a long black tail near his feet and as my eyes follow it I know excitedly it is a manta ray! The instructor had told us this part of the lagoon was a manta nursery and having almost stepped on one we both decided to retreat, remembering how crocodile hunter Steve Irwin had died from a stingray barb to the heart.
Later that day we head back to Hulhule to board our flight home – but not before we retrieve our confiscated alcohol from the customs. Respecting local customs in the Maldives depends entirely on which island you hit.