Magical Maldives

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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.

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No crowds on Maldive beaches

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.mblog.13a

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. mblog.17a

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.  mblog.14a

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.

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We left the island paradise to visit an island where Maldivians live and work. These friendly women were happy to pose for photos in their shop.

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.

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Fun feeding session on outing to a nearby island

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.

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Village women were at work cracking almonds.

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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Chefs at resort prepared different ethnic specials every night.
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A beach brigade cleans and sweeps the sand very early every morning.
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The men fish.  The village women have other chores.
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Not camera shy, these Maldivians.
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Cats wait for leftovers from shark and ray feeding.  I made sure they got plenty.

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Sri Lanka: Wondrous Wildlife

As a cat lover (big and small), I was hell-bent on a leopard sighting. This solitary, secretive feline had eluded us on two different safari trips in Africa. Sri Lanka had to be the place.

Sloth bear

Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park is said to be home to at least 25 of these beauties. During our February tour of the island nation, we visited that park as well as two others. Sadly, no leopard showed his spots to us. We did see elephants, rabbits, a spotted deer, one wild boar, a mongoose, turtles, lots of birds including numerous peacocks. And, a sloth bear, a rare sighting according to the guide.

Mongoose

“Most tourists don’t see the leopard,” a guide later told me. However, we did learn that the day prior to our visit to Yala and the day after, lucky tourists did spot the evasive cat. We felt cheated.

No leopard, but lots of magnificent elephants. Some 4,000 Asian elephants, an endangered species, make their home in the tiny nation. Herds of 200 or more are a common sight in August and September in Minneriya National Park. The herds we saw in that park were much smaller, 25 to 30, but fascinating. The pachyderms are obviously accustomed to tourists and come very close to the safari vehicles. Guides know many of them by name.ff.41

I was intrigued, touched, with a mini-family grouping. A crippled mother and two offspring, one four years old and the other eight years old, were alone, apart from the herd. The guide explained that the mother, about 40 years old, had been hit by a train. She was left with a bad limp, forcing her to move very slowly. She could not keep up with the herd. Her two offspring stay with her to protect her, he explained.

Elephants need about five square kilometres each to support their 200 kilograms per day appetites. Deforestation and over development in Sri Lanka have diminished their habitat. As in Africa, they encroach on farmland. As in Africa, it’s elephants vs. humans, a challenging conflict.

White birds hang around the elephants we saw. We learned that the elephants, grazing on grass, shake the stuff before eating it. Worms fall out – a tasty meal for the birds.

Painted stork (I think)
Serpent Eagle?

Sir Lanka is a paradise for birders with 400 different species, 26 of which are unique to the country. We saw many on our safaris.

On a visit to a turtle hatchery we learned about the island’s sea turtles which lay their eggs along the coast. Eggs not collected by poachers (turtle egg omelettes are popular) hatch after several weeks and hundreds of baby turtles make their perilous way to the sea. Few survive. Many are devoured by fish and birds. At turtle hatcheries, eggs are collected and hatched in an incubator. After just one day, they are released into the sea at night. Even with this method, only one in 100 survive, about the same as in nature.

The conservation benefits of the hatcheries are limited, but the tiny turtles are adorable. Adult turtles of varying sizes also swim in hatchery tanks. Many have been injured and would not survive in the sea.

The hatchery we visited had been started by the owner’s father in 2000. He died shortly thereafter and his sister took over. She, another sister, their children and his mother all perished in the devastating tsunami which ravaged Sri Lanka in 2004, killing roughly 40,000 of its citizens. The owner and his surviving brother refurbished and reopened the hatchery.

No doubt more popular than its animals and safari parks are Sri Lanka’s beaches. They are grand, but the mountainous interior was my favorite. We spent two nights in the hills above Ella, a picturesque area of tea plantations with splendid views, hiking trails and cooler temperatures…a paradise.

For more on Sri Lanka, see previous post: Wonders of Sri Lanka.

Nimal De Silva, (ndsilva67@yahoo.com and info@dsltours.com)  chauffeured us around his country, made hotel arrangements, arranged local guides at many places — and taught us much about this fabulous country.  He is a delight, very patient and accommodating. We were happy with all.

More photos of Sri Lanka follow.

Unique tree in Peradeniya Botanical Garden in Kandy.
No wonder they call them street dogs,  There are not as many of these homeless dogs in Sri Lanka as in neighboring India, but still too many, and sad.
Only five percent of Asian elephants have tusks. They can live to be 65 years old.

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Sri Lankan tea is famous worldwide. Tea, first planted by the British, thrives in the hill country.

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At last, a new recipe and just in time for those summer blackberries.  Click on photo of berries, upper right, for recipe, and scroll down for more recipes.

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Tiny Aix – a French Island Paradise

This was my favorite of the recent visit to France’s mid-Atlantic coast. See previous post, “Discovering more of France,” June 2015. aix.blog7

Islands are intriguing. These chunks of land surrounded by water are a curiosity, and much more. They inspire and captivate our imagination, offering a unique way of life, a different state of mind.aix.blog11

The miniscule French island of Aix off the country’s mid-Atlantic coast is indeed an island pearl. Step off the ferry from the mainland and enter an enchanted world – no cars, little commerce, just one hotel. Aix has not been gussied up for tourists. It’s authentic with many buildings in need of a coat of paint. Its few shops seem to have changed little in decades. There are no fancy restaurants, no classy cafes – just a small number of simple eateries.aix.blog8

About 240 residents live on the island which is 1.8 miles long and .4 miles wide.   Of the permanent inhabitants, only 100 remain on the island in winter. In summer, between 4,000 and 5,000 tourists arrive each day to bike, walk, swim, fish and soak in the beguiling island ambience. Most leave in the evening. The nights are silent, magic.

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“I come here every chance I get. It’s a little paradise,” said Christine Lacaud who lives in Rochefort, a city in the Poitou-Charentes region adjacent to the ferry departure point in Fouras.

Island resident and historian Pierre Antoine Berniard sums it up: “When you take the boat and arrive here, there’s something different… Kids can play everywhere. There are no cars to hurt them. It’s really a privilege.”aix.blog4

I spent a night at Aix’s Hotel Napoleon, a charming abode with just 18 rooms and an excellent restaurant, Chez Josephine. Our group had come to admire the replica of the frigate Hermione anchored off shore before its April departure for an amazing journey to the U.S., duplicating a voyage of 235 years ago. During that epic voyage, the ship ferried Marquis de Lafayette across the Atlantic to help General George Washington and the rebels in the fight for American independence. (See previous post, “Hail Hermione,” May 2015)

Aix harbor decorated for the departure of the frigate Hermione to the US.
Aix harbor decorated for the departure of the frigate Hermione to the US.

The magnificent ship was just one attraction. We also biked. You can walk around the island in two to three hours, or take a leisurely horse-drawn carriage ride, but discovering Aix by bike seems to be the most popular. There are several bike rental depots. Ride through lush forests, marshlands, along a rocky coast, past pristine beaches and hidden coves. It’s tranquil, peaceful — and flat. Pedaling is fun and easy.

Plenty of bikes for rent on Aix
Plenty of bikes for rent on Aix

Stop for an oyster break. Aix’s one weather-beaten oyster shack should be on a movie set – the perfect oyster shack stereotype. Oysters are shucked on the spot. Order a bottle of white wine; sit outside surrounded by stacks of oyster-growing paraphernalia, bikes and the sea. Oysters have never tasted better.

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Aix’s deputy mayor, Jean Claude Poisson, told me the island doctor, who lives there year round, does big business in summer thanks to oysters. Tourists comb the shore looking for the mollusks and cut their feet on the razor sharp rocks. The doctor is kept busy stitching wounded feet.

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A wealthy American, Eva Gebhard Gourgaud, gets credit for Aix’s revival in the 1920s. The island, initially settled by monks in the Middle Ages, played an important role in France’s military history throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. During the Napoleonic period, several thousand troops were lodged in forts and barracks on the island. Napoleon even requested reinforcements of Aix’s fortifications after an island visit in 1808.

Carriage rides are popular
Carriage rides are popular

But by the beginning of the 20th century, the military presence was on the decline. The island was dying. A French journalist wrote a report on the island’s imminent demise. Eva, wife of Baron Napoleon Gourgaud who was a descendant of Napoleon’s aide, read the article, visited, and fell in love with Aix. ”She decided to buy everything.” Berniard said. She opened the island to culture and aix.blog6tourism.

A tourist favorite is the house where Napoleon surrendered to the English in 1815, and where he spent his last three days on French soil before being exiled to St. Helena in the South Atlantic. This year marks 200 years since Napoleon returned to France after nine months of exile on the island of Elba.

The house, which has displays on the Napoleonic era, is open to visitors, as is Aix’s Mother of Pearl House where proprietor Herve Gallet will tell you the fascinating story about the island and mother of pearl.aix.blog9

His parents moved to Aix in 1948, hoping to grow grape vines and sell wine. That failed, so they started making objects of shells collected on the beach to sell to tourists. That enterprise took off, and they expanded to make products of mother of pearl. “There are 148,000 varieties of sea shells,” Gallet said, “but only 16 can be used for mother of pearl.” Mother of pearl was imported from India, Mexico, Polynesia and other countries, since shells from Aix are not suitable.

Mother of pearl in the making
Mother of pearl in the making

Between 1720 and 1980, mother of pearl was a major industry in France, Gallet explained, with some 30,000 workers in the country producing buttons. On Aix, however, mother of pearl was used to make souvenirs and decorative items, not buttons. These are still made by Gallet. In his workshop he demonstrates the process of extracting and polishing mother of pearl from shells. His Mother of Pearl house is a type of museum where an audio guide and videos explain the biology and chemistry of sea shells. His shop offers an extensive range of mother of pearl products, from reasonably priced jewelry items to a mirror with a price tag of 1,750 euros.   I bought two pairs of earrings — a pearl souvenir from a pearl of an island.

Hotel Napoleon, http://www.hotel-ile-aix.com

Les Paillotes, island restaurant, http://www.restaurantlespaillotes.fr

In addition to the Hotel Napoleon, Aix offers numerous bed and breakfast accommodations. www.Iledaix.fr

More on Aix: www.iledaix.fr/?lang=en

The Ile de Ré and Ile d’Oléron are two other, much larger French islands off the country’s west coast. Both also offer beaches, biking, hiking, boating, fishing – plus more hotels. http://www.holidays-iledere.co.uk/and oleron-island.com

Try my aioli — the recipe featured in Today’s Taste in column at right.

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