The cries rang out, plaintive and desperate, in the hot rainforest air: “I’m NOT going. You can’t make me!”
In a soundscape of cicadas, birdsong and gently lapping waves, this rare note of discord sizzled into the atmosphere like the steaming droplets of a recent rain shower.
“Come on darling, it’s not that bad. It’s meant to be a nice thing.”
“No! I can’t do it. I WON’T do it… Oh, do I really have to do it?”
As much as it might sound like a dispute between mother and toddler, that’s an actual conversation I had with my husband as I tried to convince him to join me for a couple’s massage during our holiday at the Viceroy Hotel Maldives on Shaviyani Atoll. About as far from a metrosexual as you can get, my husband had never stepped foot in a spa before in his life, and had no intention of ever doing so. Until I’d had the bright idea of booking a treatment for two, that is. But what I’d envisaged as a romantic couple’s pampering session was turning into an increasingly juvenile battle of wills...
Naturally, I won in the end. The next thing he knew, we were both swathed in fluffy dressing gowns, sipping ginger tea and appreciating the picture-perfect view from the wooden water villa treatment room. Teetering on stilts in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the villa’s open French windows gave us an uninterrupted panorama of the swirling turquoise water beneath us, the sugary white sand of the island’s sweeping beach and the shimmering sapphire sea in the distance. It’s almost impossible not to speak in clichés when describing the beauty of the Maldives – everything is so much like the Disneyfied version of an ‘island paradise’ that it’s hard to believe your corneas haven’t somehow been computer-enhanced by a maverick Hollywood director.
Disney flashed into my head once again as I took a sideways glance at my husband – so utterly out of his comfort zone as the spa therapists soaked and scrubbed our feet in scented water, for a surreal second I was reminded of the tutu-clad ballerina hippos in Fantasia.
On the surface, it couldn’t have been more perfect. A light breeze whispered through the room, the waves were lapping in a restful rhythm between the stilts of the villa and the sun was at that perfect afternoon slant that turns water into dancing molten glitter – but I could tell from the stern set of my husband’s chin that he was still determined to treat this whole experience as some kind of ordeal.
And then, all of a sudden, I saw his eyes light up. Outside, almost within touching distance, a pod of dolphins was streaking through the water. Six, seven, eight sleek dark fins carved through the ocean, just metres away from where we were sitting. The stillness and the eerie proximity of these majestic wild creatures made for a magical moment that even those who roll their eyes at Hollywood blockbusters (this is when the soundtrack’s rousing crescendo would be, by the way) couldn’t deny. My husband turned to look at me and his face finally cracked a smile. Perhaps this wasn’t going to be so bad after all.
The Maldives is well known as an idyllic destination and – aside from the almost too-perfect scenery and the possibility of rogue wives booking surprise spa treatments – there’s very little anyone could possibly find to complain about. The sand is floury soft, the water is warm and the sheltered lagoons and vibrant coral reefs make for safe snorkelling and excellent diving, with a high chance of seeing any number of the 1,100 species of fish, five species of sea turtles, and 21 species of whales and dolphins that frequent the islands’ waters.
Having remained an independent polity throughout most of its history, the Maldives has escaped the poignant colonial past that haunts many other island destinations such as the Caribbean, and has long profited from its natural resources – back in the second century the Arabs knew the Maldives as the ‘money isles’ because of the wealth of cowry shells to be found on its beaches, which were an international currency of the early ages.
A double chain of 26 atolls made up of 1,190 islands (the name ‘Maldives’ is thought by some to come from the Sinhalese for ‘necklace islands’), about 700km south-west of Sri Lanka and 400km south-west of India, its location on the trading routes of the Indian ocean has made for a relatively outward-looking and diverse culture and friendly locals, combining Southeast Asian, African and Arabian influences.
Having traditionally relied on fishing, the major contributor to GDP is now tourism – the number of resorts increased from two to 92 between 1972 and 2007, and there are now 105 resort islands, with the figure rising every year. So not only are tourists to the Maldives made very welcome, it’s also made as easy as possible to be a tourist – a direct flight to the capital, Male, takes just four hours from Dubai, and visitors need not apply for a visa pre-arrival, regardless of their nationality.
However, it’s not all romcom material – with only 80 per cent of its islands more than one metre above sea level, the Maldives is the country with the lowest high point in the world and, according to climate scientists, it will be the first nation to disappear when the seas begin to rise. All of which means this is a destination that you should be looking into visiting sooner rather than later.
But with so many islands to decide between – ranging from the glitzy and nightlife-rich to the quiet escape-from-it-all – it’s important to choose your resort wisely.
We’d opted for the secluded variety in selecting the Viceroy Maldives on the island of Vagaru, which lies 192km from Male, in the Shaviyani Atoll on the Maldives’ unchartered northern edge.
While the Viceroy is one of the further-away resorts, it makes for an unparalleled sense of remoteness, and our 50-minute seaplane ride from the capital gave an unmissable sense of context as we glided over constellations of islands before splashing down by the Viceroy’s 17-acre stretch of palm trees and pristine sand encircling a twinkling turquoise lagoon.
And so our Hollywood-filmset holiday began. Suddenly those villas-on-stilts that seem to define the desert-island-escape ideal on the silver screen were there before our very eyes, in the string of 32 over-water villas curving out from the island into the sea. We were based in one of the 29 villas scattered along the beach, all of which are spaced and designed for the utmost privacy – surrounded by a screen of lush vegetation, our private garden, plunge pool, outdoor showers and sunloungers were all totally concealed from the stretch of beach just on the other side of the bushes.
The Maldives has a tropical climate that remains about 30 degrees all year round but also sees frequent-yet-short-lived rain showers, and the villas’ luxurious interiors – created using rustic and natural materials to resemble the hull of an inverted Maldivian dhoni (traditional fishing boat) and featuring free Wi-Fi and a mammoth TV system that boasts a plethora of international channels and movies – comes into its own when the clouds decide to gather.
However, we spent the majority of our time outside, exploring the island’s beaches and keeping an eye out for sea turtles and manta rays, feeding the harmless reef sharks that cluster in the shore surrounding one area of the resort, languishing in the central infinity pool and our plunge pool, or lazing on sunloungers with a book, watching large fruit bats flit in and out of the trees.
While seclusion is all good and well, something many potential visitors to the Maldives worry about is getting bored. We didn’t get anywhere near it, although admittedly we only stayed for two nights, but with the many activities on offer – from snorkelling and diving trips to deep-sea fishing, visits to villages on nearby islands, catamaran sailing lessons, dawn and sunset yoga and free kayak and boat hire – there’s more than enough to keep even the most active people occupied. There’s also the gym – a prime place for dolphin-spotting in the morning – the Ayurvedic spa and its vast list of treatments (as my poor husband found out), an all-day kids’ club for little ones, and the resort’s five first-class restaurants.
But, like all feel-good movies, eventually the credits have to roll. We spent our last evening – the spa trauma now a distant memory – sipping pre-dinner drinks in the resort’s beautiful Treehouse restaurant, an Arabian-themed outlet situated high up in the trees at one end of the island, with seating areas and bars linked by suspended rope bridges. As the coastal breeze rustled through the leaves we peered over the edge of the treehouse platform, watching translucent ghost crabs scuttle on the wet sand below, and gazing up at the inky, star-spangled sky.
A picture-perfect evening in picture-perfect surroundings, the Maldives is a destination to cast all cynicism aside and melt into the simple island lifestyle. But with climate change an ever-present spectre on the horizon, it’s also a destination to get to soon – before the romcom becomes a disaster movie.