March 2013


A kaleidoscope of experiences in the Maldives
March 2013




The turquoise lagoons of the Maldives are every tourist's idea of paradise, and there's plenty to see and do both above and below the waves

Words Sarah Harvey Photography David Devaud


The speedboat zipped across the glassy lagoon as I stood and waited at the rear, strapped into a parachute and braced for lift-off. ‘Three, two, one - go', the water-sports instructor shouted, and I rocketed up into the air as a canvas of turquoise unfolded rapidly beneath my feet...If you thought the Maldives was just about lazing about in the sun, take another look and you'll discover a kaleidoscope of exciting experiences awaits you.


There's something to suit everyone if you scratch beneath the glossy façade of resort life. Apart from parasailing (which is surprisingly more relaxing than one might expect) some of the gems awaiting travellers include diving, surfing, golf, traditional drumming, spicy cuisine and dolphin-spotting cruises, not to mention discovering island communities with a fascinating heritage drawn from South Asia, Africa and Arabia.

Diving is yet another exhilarating experience not to be missed. Highlights often include white tip reef sharks, mantas, whale sharks, turtles, enormous wrasse and fascinating macrolife
Of course, if all you want to do is relax then the Maldives is a fabulous destination to pick, with picture-perfect beaches and unmatchable levels of privacy (there's actually just one resort on each of the tiny resort islands). While the majority of visitors stay at resorts, there's also a rapidly-growing guest house market which allows tourists to stay in local communities for the first time, plus a booming diving cruise market (there are now more ‘safari boats' than resorts).


The most obvious answer to the question of what to do in a territory consisting of 99 percent water is ‘get wet'! It's often said that if you don't dip your head under the water, you only see half of the Maldives. The coral reefs are teeming with colourful marine life such as clownfish, parrotfish, napoleon wrasse, green turtles and moray eels. The water is a balmy 29⁰ Celsius on average and snorkelers can easily access ‘house reefs' from the shore. One of the ultimate snorkelling experiences is Hanifaru Bay in Baa Atoll. At certain times of the year when the conditions are right, large aggregations of manta rays and whale sharks (the biggest fish in the ocean) gather there and gorge themselves in a zooplankton feeding frenzy.


Diving is yet another exhilarating experience not to be missed. Highlights often include white tip reef sharks, mantas, whale sharks, turtles, enormous wrasse and fascinating macrolife. 
Throw into the mix excellent visibility, caves, thilas, wreck dives and drift dives and it's clear to see why the Maldives is reputed to be one of the world's best diving destinations. Keen divers can even book an entire holiday aboard a diving boat. The ‘safari boats' cruise around the atolls, dropping divers off at the best dive sites three times per day.


As peak diving season comes to an end, surf season takes off. Visitors are often surprised to hear that the Maldives has world-class coral breaks. Some breaks are privately owned by resorts, some can be accessed from beaches and others are so remote that they are best accessed via private charter seaplane or boat, for the ultimate luxury surfing experience.


For travellers who prefer to splash around in the lagoons, all kinds of watersports including jet-skiing, windsurfing, knee-boarding, fun-tubing and banana-boating can be found. More laid-back activities such as catamaran sailing, dolphin-spotting, picnics on sand-banks, fishing and tennis are also common. Less run-of-the-mill is the 18-hole floating golf course set to open in 2015, five minutes from the capital city. In the meantime, a handful of resorts have 9-hole golf courses for those who can't resist teeing off while on holiday.


The capital city, Malé, is the second most densely-populated island in the world, with around 100,000 residents squeezed into 2.2km. The high-rise concrete structures are a sharp contrast to the idyllic islands surrounding it. Most of the tiny city's attractions can be seen in a day. These include some architectural treasures such as a 17th Century carved coral mosque, a bustling fish market and the new National Museum. Travellers can also pick up some souvenirs (some authentic, others pan-Asian) in ‘Souvenir Street'.


Genuine souvenirs include traditional lacquer-work in red, black and yellow and woven reed mats. Travellers can sometimes experience them being made on local islands, although the craft is becoming increasingly rare. However, one age-old Maldivian artform still popular today is ‘bodu beru'. Performances of the African-style drumming can be seen around the Maldives and spectators are often encouraged to join in.


With a culture drawn from Indian, Sri Lankan, Arabian, Persian and African seafarers, one might also expect some exotic cuisine. Local products such as fresh tuna and coconuts feature prominently in Maldivian dishes. Spicy fish curries and deep-fried snacks are popular although international cuisine can be found across the country including noodles, pizza and pasta, complimented by home-grown salads and fresh mango juice.


There is plenty more than meets the eye if you dig a little deeper in this exotic archipelago.

 

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    A clownfish, made famous by the movie - Finding Nemo and frequently spotted by divers in the Maldives, cautiously peers out from behind a vibrantly-coloured anemone

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    This quaint little mosque surrounded by trees in the capital city dates back to the 17th Century. It is constructed from large comlete slabs of coral hauled from the surrounding area, which have been decorated with intricate patterns

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    Sunset fishing using the traditional line method is a popular activity amongst tourists and locals alike. Half of the experience is enjoying swapping tales with companions

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    Iconic water villas stand elegantly on the lagoon, as the turquoise outline of sunken extinct volcanoes stretches away into the distance. The archipelago is made up of 1,190 islands

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    Gentle plankton-eating whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean and can grow to the size of a double-decker bus

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    Dolphin-spotting cruises are an excellent way of discovering some of the Maldive's most curious residents

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    The graceful yet unearthly-looking manta rays are frequently spotted across the Maldives, particularly in Ari Atoll and Baa Atoll

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    The bustling capital city, Malé, lies on an island of its own. Around a third of the country's population lives on the remote 2.2km slice of coral

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    Water villas and turquoise lagoons are iconic images of the Maldives. They offer the ultimate in seclusion and relaxation, as well as a host of sporting pursuits and activities

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    Many Maldivians make their living from the ocean, in fact fishing is the second biggest economy after tourism

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    Popular local cuisine includes dishes such as mas'huni roshi (right), a breakfast snack made from tuna, coconut, chilli and lime served with flatbread, as well as deep-fried snacks known as 'hedika'

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    Chandhanee Magu, aka 'Souvenir Street' is typical of many streets in the capital, with rows of scooters lined up next to brightly-coloured buildings, but it's here that you can grab a holiday momento to take home. Staff wait outside to greet customers

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    Beautifully-decorated lacquer-work painted with natural dyes and topped with a glossy finish is one of the traditional handicrafts of the island nation

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    The Maldives is a melting pot of Asian, African and Arabian influences. African-style drums made by Maldivian craftsmen are adorned with detailed designs and broad bands of colour

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