My friend Mollie has been vacationing in this Indian Ocean paradise of islands almost every year for the past 26 years. She swoons when talking about her perfect holidays: sensational snorkeling, gorgeous accommodations, fabulous food, pristine beaches. What more could one want?
We had booked a trip to Sri Lanka last February (see previous posts, “Wonders of Sri Lanka” and “Sri Lanka: Wondrous Wildlife”). The Maldives were in the neighborhood, about an hour and 15 minutes flight time from Colombo. We had to see this paradise for ourselves, so we added a week of Maldives R&R to our trip.
No doubt — the Maldives are magical. Postcards cannot capture the beauty of beaches surrounded by shimmering sapphire waters. Our resort was luxurious. We had our own bungalow, our own piece of beach. The food and resort staff all rate five stars.
Yet, we were not overwhelmed. Unfortunately we did not have the best weather. Too many cloudy, overcast days and rain. When it rains in the Maldives, it teems. I had been eager to experience what is considered some of the best snorkeling in the world. I was disappointed. I did see colorful, exotic fish and other creatures, but not the extravagant underwater wildlife I had expected. Mollie said we should have chosen a smaller island and resort, and I should have taken boat excursions to other places for better snorkeling…
The Maldives consist of more than 1,190 islands on a coral-formed archipelago. Only about 190 of those islands are occupied by the country’s some 341,000 inhabitants. The rest are virgin islands, or, like our Island, Horubadhoo, Baa Atoll, private islands developed for individual resorts – one resort per island.
Hasan Ibrahim, reservations manager at Royal Island Resort and Spa where we stayed, told me there are 114 of these private island resorts in the Maldives, with another 14 under construction. On the main island, Malé, and on some of the other larger islands, there are guest houses offering far more reasonable accommodations than the pricey, private resorts.
Royal Island Resort and Spa has a capacity for about 300 guests, and a staff of 350 coming from at least 10 different countries, he said. Most of the guests are Europeans.
“Since the tsunami (2004) everything has changed,” assistant manager Sharif said. “The winds, the waves, you can’t predict. The rains are heavier now.’’ The inclement weather we experienced in March was abnormal. “This is supposed to be the dry season.”
He explained that El Nino in 2016 killed the coral, turning it brown. “It will take eight years to come back.” Although Royal Island did not suffer extensive damage from the tsunami, a rock wall, mainly underwater, was built around the island in 2008 to protect it from big waves and erosion. I did venture outside the wall when snorkeling several times and spied different fish, but the sea was a bit rough and I feared venturing too far. There were no other swimmers in sight.
I did fulfill one wish – to scuba dive again. I am certified, but have very few dives on my dive card. I just wanted to prove that I could still dive, and thanks to a very patient and understanding diving instructor, Anne from Russia, I succeeded.
Bungalows at Royal Island are spread throughout a tropical forest, but all facing the beach. The only sounds are the gentle slapping of waves on the white sands and bizarre shrieks from all manner of jungle fowl.
In addition to diving and snorkeling, tennis, big game fishing, sailing, and canoeing are offered. A posh spa offers a variety of treatments, massages etc. We took beach walks around the island (800 meters in length and 220 meters wide), and rarely encountered another soul.
If you seek solitude and tranquility, the Maldives is the place. We like both, but mixed with exploring and mingling with locals. We had our chance for the latter on a boat trip to a larger island where we followed our guide through a tiny fishing village — and shopped. There were just a few souvenir shops, but each offered bargains and friendly, delightful shopkeepers who, not only gladly posed for pictures, but showered us with small presents after we made our purchases.
A bit of adventure awaited on the shark and ray feeding outing. The marine mammals are obviously accustomed to visitors and snatch food from your hands if you are brave enough to offer. I was intrigued.
The majority of Maldivians, Sunni Muslims, live in the capital city on the island of Malé where the main international airport is located. Their religion prohibits drinking alcohol and eating pork, but the resorts are an exception to this ban.
Ibrahim said managing Royal Island is“like running a cruise ship. We have to do everything ourselves… We produce our own water. All the food is imported.” All the staff live on the island, he said. “We are like a family. We live and work like a family.”
The Royal Island family treated us and all the guests royally. We were amazed with the variety of tasty food. The surroundings, both the beach and the jungle-like interior, are enchanting. All is magical, but perhaps not the kind of magic that will lure us back for a repeat visit.
More photos follow.
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