We’re 10 minutes into the Sunset Dolphin Cruise when a local guide leans over and informs me that, until recently, these excursions were actually called Lucky Dolphin Tours.
“As in,” he says, “you’ll be lucky to see any.”
He smiles at me. I scowl back. This two hour trip costs the best part of Dh250 per person. For that layout, I was half-hoping we’d not only see the eponymous sea life but that they might come on board for drinks and nibbles too. Not so, it seems.
“About half and half chance of see,” my informant is saying. “But, hey, no frown. No dolphins, no problem. Just look around - you’re in paradise.”
It’s a word I’ve heard a lot this last few days.
Paradise. AKA, the Maldives. AKA: possibly the most ridiculously, outrageously beautiful place on earth; a turquoise water world where 1,200 white-sand, palm-covered coral islets sit, sun-soaked, in shallow lagoons slap bang in the middle of the equatorial Indian Ocean. Ibn Battuta called this archipelago “one of the wonders of the world”. Marco Polo declared it the “flower of the Indies”. Neither were being over-hyperb-
An entire shoal suddenly swimming up to the boat, jumping and leaping from the water, racing the vessel, playing and splashing, flippers flapping, chatting in clicks and ticks. Dozens of them. Smooth-skinned and sleek, magnificent and mesmerising. Dolphins!
The guide looks over at me with a thumbs up. “Lucky,” he grins.
Paradise, I mouth back.
I had arrived here at Vilu Reef island on the South Nilandhe atoll a few days earlier.
The Maldives are, geographically, unlike anywhere else on earth. Of those 1,200 specks in the sea, only about 300 are actually occupied. Roughly 200 of those - including the capital, the island-city of Male - are home to the country’s 350,000 population. The rest, like Vilu Reef are resorts. They cater entirely for holiday-makers.
Until recently, in fact, they catered entirely for super-rich holiday-makers. Trips here have traditionally been the preserve of those with fame or fortune, or couples on a once-in-a-lifetime (one hopes) honeymoon. Paradise, as a general rule, doesn’t come cheap.
Which is sort of where Vilu Reef comes in. This is one of a number of resorts attempting to make the country’s islets more than merely the palm-shaded playgrounds of the posh and privileged.
Calling the place accessible might still be a slight exaggeration. This, after all, is somewhere which can only plausibly be reached by taking a Dh1,500 seaplane from the capital’s Ibrahim Nasir International Airport and where a villa will generally set you back north of Dh2,500 a night.
But nonetheless Sun Aqua - the Maldivian brand behind the newly-refurbished resort - is attempting to attract more of us money mere mortals with out-of-season deals, last minute offers and features designed to appeal to families, like a kids club.
“Our motto is naturally playful and that’s exactly what we are,” says David Keen, brand consultant, when we talk over cappuccino by the resort’s beach side pool. “Yes, we offer luxury but we also want to get away from some of the pretensions that have been associated with the Maldives. Sun Aqua Vilu Reef is where you can come with people you love and find joy and find yourself away from the stresses of everyday life.”
Certainly, it’s away from the stresses of everyday life. That’s partially, if one’s honest, because there’s nothing much here to do. Amenities include two sleepy bars, one restaurant (buffet and a la carte), a barbecue grill, a spa, a water sports shack, and a souvenir shop. And that’s pretty much your lot. The entire island takes just 15 minutes to walk around. There are no cars or bikes, no roads even. Most people seem to spend their entire stay barefoot.
Tourists come here to laze on the bone white, silk-soft sands; to splash in the sea and dive down into the fish-rich, rainbow waters; to see sunsets and sunrises like nowhere else on earth. They come to relax and rejuvenate.
And it’s lovely to do all that. But after a couple of days reading and roasting in the sun, I’m personally ready for something approaching adventure.
That’s where the dolphin cruise comes in. Vilu Reef organises daily excursions and this is one of them. Others include a snorkelling safari (we see giant turtles and more marine life than even Dubai Aquarium), a fishing expedition and a Robinson Crusoe Cruise where participants spend time on a preserved desert island.
There’s also that water sports shack.
With not much on one day, I leave my lounger and the amazing fresh fruit drinks which keep being brought out, and, on a whim, hire a jet ski.
“Is it safe for a first timer?” I ask, as I’m put snugly into a life jacket. Completely safe, I’m told. “Just one rule,” the kid say. “Don’t crash it, please.” Natch.
You’ll be relieved to know I don’t. In fact, skimming the sea’s surface at 90kph - gripping tight for fear of flying off - is one of the most exhilarating experiences of my entire life. Some weeks before I’d flown in a plane doing loops in the American sky and this makes that seem passé. The adrenaline as you speed and slalom is utterly charged. The spray in your face is a feeling you don’t forget.
“How was it?” I’m asked afterwards. I debate the question in my head. “Even better than the dolphins,” I say.
On the third evening of my stay, the midnight sky fills with clouds and paradise disappears for a while. And it’s not entirely pleasant.
I’m staying, not in any of the 62 beach bungalows hidden among the island’s foliage, but rather in one of the resort’s 41 water villas - luxury wooden cabins built on stilts in the sea itself.
On arrival, this causes me all kinds of giddiness. I will be living directly above the waves. My bedroom doors open out onto a decking with steps directly down into the sea. When I sit in the bath - or on the toilet, for that matter - the vast floor-to-ceiling window offers an uninterrupted view out across the lagoon and to the ocean beyond.
It is wonderful. Until the storm comes.
At around 2am, I am awoke by a howling wind so sharp it comes in through the doors and dances the curtains. When I look out of the window, the waters are wild. Waves are crashing against the stilts that support the villa. The lagoon has risen several inches from when I went to bed. Ominously, the entire wooden building vibrates just slightly with every crash of wave. I debate momentarily getting up and making a run along the jetty and back onto the island. And then I guess I fall asleep. And then it’s the morning, and the sky is blue and the sun brilliant again.
“The storm scared you?” ponders Zuley Manik, Sun Aqua marketing director when I mention it later that day. “I don’t think you need to worry about the villas being secure. They survived the tsunami.”
Ah. Yes. The Tsunami. Possibly this might be the elephant on the island.
In the 2004 Boxing Day disaster which left 230,000 people dead, the Maldives escaped relatively - and the key word really is relatively - unscathed. The archipelago caught only the tail end of the giant wave that devastated great swathes of coastal Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka. The coral reefs that surround the islands here helped reduce the impact.
Yet nonetheless 82 people died and 12,000 were left homeless. On Vilu Reef itself, the surging waters submerged the entire island - which rises just half a metre from the sea - for more than half an hour. Holiday-makers stayed safe by clinging to trees and climbing the one-story buildings. There was no dry land for them to run to.
“There were no fatalities,” says Zuley. “But a lot of damage. And for three-four months after, people just stopped coming. It got so bad the staff would run outside when they heard a seaplane, just to see if it would land.”
Gradually guests returned. A place like this is too perfect for people to be cowered by once-in-a-millennia disasters. Yet, today, 11 years on, the only precaution in case anything like it should happen again is a life jacket placed in the room of every guest.
It sits there on top of the cupboard, ominously; a reminder of nature’s power; proof that even paradise can turn on a six pence.
The other elephant in the room is what happens two days before I arrive in the Maldives.
The vice-president is arrested, accused of planting a bomb intended to kill the president. In Male, people and troops are on the streets. The airport - an entire island to itself - is under lock down. Marshall law is later declared and democratic freedoms suspended.
In the resort you wouldn’t know this. The holiday islands are bubbles. They don’t observe many local laws nor even use local currency. There is no interaction at all with local culture.
Which seems a shame. Why travel across the world if not to experience the place you’re visiting? In Vilu Reef this is a particularly pertinent question because right across a small channel - five minutes by boat - is a residential island of 2,000 people, Meedhoo. As such, I charter a speedboat and a guide, and go there.
The political unrest hasn’t appeared to stretch here either, as it goes. This island town - currently being expanded under a land reclamation project - is a sleepy sort of a place. A handful of fishing boats sit in the tiny harbour. In the town’s only cafe, opposite, a couple of older Maldivians sit in the shade. We fall into conversation after my guide orders Maldivian coffee and they tell me they were born here, raised families here and don’t plan on leaving now they’re in their twilight years.
“Why would I move?” asks one, Ali, when I vaguely raise the possibility, “Where to go?”
He casts a hand around at the sandy streets, the blue skies and the crystalline waters, as he ponders my own homeland and scoffs. “Go to the UK?” To the rain?”
I look around. He has a point.
Meedhoo isn’t pretty as such - the buildings are crumbling, the streets are potholled and the skyline is dominated by two towering pylons - but it’s charming somehow. There’s a school and a mosque and a magistrates court (“no police station, though,” I’m told, “police come from another island if needed”) which all have a certain civic charm. There’s an ice making factory that’s absolutely pivotal to the local economy. It allows those fishermen to preserve their catch during the four hour boat journeys to sell up in Male.
Back on Vilu Reef, it’s my last evening and, after sampling the spa’s sublime massages and eating a dinner of Maldivian tuna curry (one word: spicy) I’m having a drink on the wooden decking of The Nautilus bar, looking out at the sea, trying to capture in my mind, this image of a setting sun and a rising moon both shimmering out on the vastness of the Indian Ocean. As I do, Ibn Battuta’s words of wonder seem entirely appropriate.
Zuley joins me and asks what I’ve thought to the place. I search my vocabulary for something original to say and come up short. “Like paradise,” I tell her.