In the spectrum of good ideas, perhaps it wasn’t my finest. But, at 24-metres down and with nowhere else to go, I was rather out of options. I could hit the reef and hold on against the current, flail towards the surface, or simply keep swimming. I chose the last.
Unfortunately, so did the shark.
We’d seen plenty of the ‘men in grey suits’ that morning. We were, after all, diving the reef known as Bathala Maaga Khan Thila: Shark Point. But this shark was different. First off, I could tell it wasn’t one of the elegant elongated white-tip reef sharks that cruised past at a respectable distance in the deep-water gloaming. This shark was barrel-bellied with a snout that meant business. And it was swimming fast. Towards me. Most disconcertingly, it didn’t appear to be stopping. Playing chicken with a shark at 24-metres? As I say, perhaps not the best idea I’ve had underwater.
Just as I was wondering what swimming headfirst into a shark was going to feel like, it turned. An imperceptible flick of a fin and it shot off into deeper water, a bolt of grey leaving me breathing heavily in its wake.
That was just the first of my watery adventures on the reefs of the Maldives. Here in the North Ari Atoll, on the western edge of this necklace of coral islands, there’s no shortage of deep blue sea to explore. For the Maldives is no place for you if you’re not a fan of sun, sea and a tiny bit of sand. Looking for local culture? Move along, nothing to see here. Fancy a bit of independent travel? Try India, just across the Laccadive Sea.
But if you’re in the market for the quintessential island paradise, you’ve come to the right place. For the Maldives is where tropical indulgence was invented. Where eco-friendly luxury resorts top barely one hundred of the 1000 atolls. Where you can pretend you’re Robinson Crusoe in style; without all the island hardship and imaginary friends.
I found it hard to stop smiling in the Maldives. I smiled at the barefooted pilot who ushered us onto our seaplane at Malé International Airport. As we flew west I smiled at the impossibly blue seas surrounding the slips of sand that are home to the Maldives’ many resorts. I smiled at the warm welcome and jasmine-scented towel offered on arrival at Constance Halaveli, washing away the 24-hours of travel from my Cape Town front door.
It’s a long journey, no doubt, but worth every airline meal along the way. Provided, of course, you enjoy the water.
For the sea – that warm, enigmatic, translucent tropical sea – is far and away the reason to visit the Maldives. Yes there is unimaginable luxury on offer in dozens of sublime resorts, and some superb wining and dining to be had, but really you’re coming here for the water.
To snorkel in it. To dive in it. To wander aimlessly along the beach with your beloved and let the ripples wash over your toes. And, to marvel at the creatures that call these fecund waters home. You’ll meet turtles on almost every snorkelling trip. The reefs abound with colourful tropical fish. Keep one eye on the drop-off and you’ll spy schools of pelagic fish, Giant Trevally and Dogtooth Tuna patrolling the deep.
But if there’s one underwater resident that people come here to meet, it’s the manta rays. Between June and October changing currents and water temperatures see plankton blooms across the Maldives, a vast microscopic buffet for the gentle giants of the deep. Manta rays flock here in their thousands, hoovering up the feast. Whale sharks arrive then too, meandering gracefully between the atolls. For divers it’s a chance to get up close to these open-ocean wanderers and, with a little bit of luck, even snorkelers can catch a glimpse of the spectacle.
Up on the surface, the Maldives is also carving out another niche, as surfers wake up to the world-class breaks on offer on the eastern edge of the North and South Malé Atolls. From April to October the south-west monsoon delivers the combination that surfers dream of: plenty of swell, and offshore winds. Throw in an array of reef and point breaks, and it’s no surprise that on the eastern atolls surfing is drawing a new breed of well-heeled tourists to the Maldives. For the dedicated surfer, charter boats offer multi-day voyages that shuttle between the best spots, bringing the waves, literally, to your doorstep each morning.
But even if you prefer dry land, chances are you’ll be happy with your doorstep just about anywhere in these islands. Beach villas spill out onto impossibly powdery sands, or book one of the over-water villas the Maldives is famous for and you’ll enjoy your own private staircase leading straight into the water. Roll out of bed, strap on a mask and you’ll be snorkelling before your first cup of coffee.
Follow that up with breakfast in the resort, with a side order of sea views, then fill your days with diving, snorkelling and swimming. Schedule in some sloth on the beach, or a spa treatment perhaps, and then repeat. Do that for a week and then, I dare you, tell me you won’t be smiling too.