THERE’S MORE TO THE MALDIVES THAN
by JOHN BORTHWICK
The daisy-chain islands of the Maldives are famous for romantic resorts. But after you’ve done the eat-drink-get frisky thing, what else is there to do? Try these.
Diving and snorkeling. Most island resorts have a dive centre from where they run excursions out to the local reefs. The drop-offs and channels here can be spectacular, with the strong currents between islands also providing long drift dives. Bring your certificate, try an introductory dive or do a full PADI course at North Male resorts like Centara Ras Fushi and Cinnamon Dhonveli. Snorkeling here can be almost as good. Just dive off your boat or swim out from the resort beach to where the reef is littered with clown fish, cornet fish, fusiliers, Moorish Idol fish — a menagerie of simile fish. There’s a good chance, too, of encountering turtles and spinner dolphins.
Male Sightseeing. A trip to Male is one of the few chances you have to meet urban Maldivians “at home”. With an area of less than six sq km and a population of 150,000 people, this is one of the world’s smallest capitals. Its handful of attractions include Sultan Park, the President’s modest palace, golden-domed Grand Friday Mosque and 17th century Hukuru Mosque (which non-Muslims can’t enter), plus good spots for eating such as waterfront Citron and mid-town Seagull Cafe. The harbour esplanade sees a constant shuttle of ferries and resort launches although the traditional, wooden, Viking-prowed dhonis of old have mostly disappeared, as have the shoreline cannons left by the Portuguese who were slaughtered for their presumptive invasion back in 1573.
Fishing. The Maldives waters are a riot of marine life from coral polyps to whale sharks, neither of which will be much interest to fisherman looking for a catch. The waters are equally rich in catchable, edible species such as red snapper, sailfish, wahoo, grouper and yellow fin tuna. On live-aboard dive boats and surf boats there is almost always a trawling line or two in the water or a couple of serious rods in action at the stern. Not surprisingly, sashimi, straight from hook to plate, is often on the menu for dinner. Fishing gear is standard on most boats but dedicated anglers often bring their own rods.
Village Excursions. For decades resort islands and village islands were separated by a bikini line, so to speak. The two cultures — traditional Sunni Muslim and international hedonist — could meet but not collide. That is, tourists stayed only on resort islands or Male, but not on village islands. That has now changed and foreigners are now allowed to stay in the villages. Already there are some 300 guesthouses and homestays across the country. Village islands are often so small that you can see blue ocean at each end of the main street. In between will be neat coral-block or concrete homes, corner stores, a mosque, school, gardens and often a bunch of friendly kids. The dress code for local women ranges from niquabs to jeans. Visitors should just dress modestly and not flash excessive flesh.
Whale Sharks and Mantas. Land constitutes less than one percent of the Maldives 90,000 square kilometres of ocean area so it’s little surprise that any charismatic creatures are found below rather than above the waves. Giant whale sharks and manta rays are on the international Red List as species in decline in most places but are still present in numbers in the Maldives. Sign up for spotting cruise and keep your fingers crossed and camera poised. You’ll probably also spot dolphins and several species of sea turtles, such as hawksbill, loggerhead and olive-ridley.
Surfing. The reefs of Male Atoll are littered with dreamy, warm water waves wearing eccentric names like Honkys, Sultans, Jailbreak and Pasta Point. You get to them by being a guest at a resort with a private reef (such as Lohifushi or Cinnamon Dhonveli) or via liveaboard surf cruise. The southern islands too have great waves at places like Laamu Atoll and to South Huvadhu Atoll, just above the Equator. Brilliant waves, they all break over reefs, so the magic Maldives are no place to learn to surf.
Getting There. It’s a four-hour flight from Bangkok to Male with Bangkok Airways. www.bangkokair.com.