With 1,200 islands clustered into 26 atolls, this island paradise is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places on earth. About 200 of these islands are inhabited, and most private resorts have an island all to themselves, naturally helping social distancing.

 

As a professional swimmer, water is definitely my element and vacations by the ocean, where the surf, sand and sun combine to create magic are always welcome. So, after months of lockdown, when the air bubble between Maldives and India opened, it was a difficult call to resist. With 1,200 islands clustered into 26 atolls, this island paradise is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places on earth. Emerald islands bordered with golden beaches, scatter dazzlingly across an azure sea. It’s hauntingly beautiful. About 200 of these islands are inhabited, and most private resorts have an island all to themselves, naturally helping social distancing. So, if you’re considering the Maldives for travel this winter, you’ve picked a winner, and here are my recommendations for your travel to the destination:

Capital: Most visitors will head directly to their resort island, but Male is a great place to experience local culture and get to know the locals. A third of all local Maldivians live here and the city is filled with high rises and narrow streets protected by high walls to keep the sea out. The city’s urban buzz is very distinct from the gentler pace of the other atolls. Traditionally home to the royal dynasty, the palace in the city was destroyed when monarchy was abolished and President Ibrahim Nasir›s rule was established. Today the golden-domed Friday Mosque oversees the brightly painted houses and friendly teashops while shops selling carved wooden dhonis (boats) and local markets packed with fresh produce form highlights of this miniature capital city. Unfortunately, for the moment, tourism to Male is closed, and island hopping is also discouraged. But with rules changing all the time, this may also change.

Island Resorts: The strict Muslim code on lifestyle is relaxed as you leave the local islands for the private ones with a resort.  Travel costs can vary between $100- $3000 a day, depending on where you choose to stay and when you go. One of my favourite resorts, is the luxurious Seaside Finolhu on the scenic Baa Atoll, that has been recently refurbished in kaleidoscopic colours that are inspired by the elements of the water, sand and skies. Delicious food, warm hospitality and plush villas with their own private pools and mesmerising views of the ocean and sunsets make this my choice for stay.

What to do: You can make your stay as active or as laid back as you choose. Walk leisurely on sandbanks, picnic on deserted islands or meditatively match your breath to the beat of the ocean waves at sunrise, Maldives is an island paradise for those looking for a quiet holiday. I enjoy an active pace and loved that the house-reef of Seaside Finolhu was teeming with rich marine life. It was easy to spot rays, reef sharks and flying fish from the steps of the villa. Snorkelling or scuba diving will give you many National Geographic moments to capture on your cell phone, with so many colourful fish, turtles and coral all around. Many resorts offer a range of non-motorised watersport free of cost, so you can snorkel, paddle board, kayak and enjoy the beautiful sea in many different ways. This is particularly great when you are travelling with family as there’s plenty of nature to keep kids happily engaged and off their screens. One of the most delightful new additions at Seaside Finolhu is the new Golf Simulator, the best in the Maldives, that allows you to play a variety of courses across the world in airconditioned comfort. A great way to beat the afternoon heat!

What to eat: Local Maldivian food expectedly has a lot of fish, so if you are a piscetarian, you’re in for a treat. The Mas Huni is the delicious traditional dish for breakfast in Maldives – a bowl of finely chopped tuna, onion, coconut and chili, rolled up in freshly baked roshi.  Curry rice is popular as well in Madivian cuisine. Mas Riha is a popular curry made of diced fresh tuna while Kukulhu Riha (chicken curry) is cooked with a different mixture of spices. There are vegetable curries as well made for instance with eggplant or pumpkin, but if you are vegetarian, do be aware that Maldivan cuisine often adds fish to vegetable curries for flavour. If local fare is not your thing, don’t worry, resorts like Seaside Finolhu cater to a wide variety of international cuisines suited to vegans, vegetarians, fish fans and meat lovers alike. With five award winning restaurants that serve up a variety of cuisines from fine dining Asian fare at Kanusan, barbecues at Arabian Grill to eat-with-your-toes-in-the-sand at the Crab Shack, you will be spoilt for choice. My absolute favourite was having a floating breakfast served to me in my private pool of the villa.

Paradise Lost: A memorial in Male reminds me that the Tsunami in 2004 permanently swallowed up 20 islands of the Maldives. As the country with the lowest elevation in the world, some estimates suggest 77 percent of the land in Maldives will be flooded by 2100. Global warming is definitely taking a toll on this vanishing paradise and corals reefs are severely bleached in many places affecting sea life that depends on them. The government and environmentalists are working hard to protect these as are the resorts, and many offer programmes to educate visitors on coral restoration programmes and more to assist the underwater life around the islands thrive.

Travelling during Covid: Airlines, airport authorities and hotels are all making a considerable effort to make travel safe through the pandemic, but it is advisable to plan ahead for changed travel requirements. While Indians do not require a visa to travel to the Maldives, all tourists are required to take a PCR Test and upload results along with a health declaration before travelling. States in India have different entry and quarantine rules for returning international travellers, and it can be confusing, but fortunately most airlines have these specific rules listed on their websites. The upside is that with only a few destinations open to travel to, getting through immigration and security these days is a breeze!

The author is an Olympian Swimmer and Arjuna Awardee with a passion for travel.