Maldives has a one-island one-resort concept. The islands are private and secluded, with arrivals from outside limited to guests for whom arriving with Covid negative certificates is mandatory. This has helped Maldives open up for tourism.
If breathtaking had a colour it would be blue. If breathtaking had a name it would be Maldives.
Who would have imagined breathtaking would be such a short flight away from Delhi—four hours and 15 minutes to be precise?
It hits you as soon as you step out of Male’s Velana international airport and walk to the jetty to catch a speedboat to your resort.
Do they paint their ocean blue?
Who knew so many shades of blue existed in nature’s palette? Navy, aquamarine, cerulean, turquoise, azure, sky, royal… And those reefs—made of coral and clearly visible to the naked eye, reflecting the sunlight and adding to the colour of the ocean. At times it is like looking at the bottom of a crystal-clear swimming pool, only it’s all natural and stunning.
The Maldives archipelago is a collection of 1,192 islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean, spread over 871 kilometres, with one arm lightly touching the southern hemisphere across the Equator. The islands are grouped into 26 natural atolls—ring shaped coral reefs that encircle lagoons and islands with white sandy beaches and equatorial vegetation. Of these only around 200 islands are populated, with capital Male having around 20% of the country’s approximately 5 lakh people. The capital is a short hop away from the island of Hulhumale, where the airport is located, but is off limits for tourists in the time of coronavirus, unless stringent quarantine measures are followed if one wants to go to Male.
But tourists do not need to visit Male while in Maldives. Maldives has a one-island one-resort concept because of which tourists, after landing at Velana airport can take either a speedboat or a seaplane to their destination island without visiting the capital city even once. The islands are private and secluded, with arrivals from outside limited to guests for whom arriving with Covid negative certificates is mandatory. This helped Maldives open up for tourism, one of the mainstays of its economy, way back in July 2020 after a few months of lockdown.
It was to one such island, Kagi, that the Indian media team that the Maldives government had invited was headed on a sunny Sunday afternoon. As the white speedboat sent by the resort cut through the ocean—deep blue and glittering—it left on its trail sparkling white suds. A new property, Kagi Spa Island opened its door to tourists in November 2020. A partially reclaimed island, it is a tiny white jewel in the middle of the Indian Ocean with its ring-shaped spa, standing over water on stilts, giving the resort its name and uniqueness. The island has only 50 villas, with 40 of them located over water, on stilts. Each villa comes with its own plunge pool facing the lagoon or the ocean, depending on where they are located.
Water villas are a Maldivian speciality. All luxury resorts have them, with the villas standing on stilts on the coral reefs surrounding the islands. A pier stretches into the ocean from the main island and the overwater villas are spread like wings on both sides of the pier. Each of these villas comes with its own deck, deck chairs and beach umbrellas, and a stairway to the ocean below. With the water shallow, rippling over the coral reefs where these villas stand, the adventurous can just step into the ocean from their deck and walk on the coral bed, or go for a swim. The less adventurous non-swimmers like this author can go to sleep and wake up to the sound of water splashing around the villa or lounge on the sunbed and stare into the ocean as it changes its blue as the day passes. And if the villa has its own plunge pool overlooking the ocean, floating there in the privacy of the villa is always an option.
While the days are sunny, blue and white, it’s at night that one understands the meaning of sublime. With strategically placed low lighting, a walk down the pier at night can be pure magic, especially so if the moon is nearly full, making the white sand sparkle.
Maldives has beach villas too—villas on the beach with their own plunge pool, both at Kagi and Emerald, the two resorts the Indian media team stayed at. Emerald’s villas are bigger in size than Kagi’s and has family villas too.
WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE
Maldives is 99% water, 1% land. To experience Maldives you have to love the water. From fibre glass speedboats to traditional wooden dhonis—big sailboats, now motorized—tourists are taken to the middle of the Indian Ocean for activities that can be a lifetime’s experience. On a dolphin cruise from Kagi island in a speedboat, we didn’t spot any dolphin the first time we went into the ocean on the afternoon we arrived. But the non appearance was more than made up by the sun setting where the horizon met the ocean.
The dolphins appeared the next day, literally out of the blue. This time the boat was headed towards the coral reefs near the Makunudu island. When suddenly, deep inside the ocean, the boat’s engine fell still and a buzz cut through the silence: “Dolphins, dolphins.” And there they were, at least four or five of them, traipsing through the water—surfacing and going down, surfacing and again going down, blissfully unaware of the excitement surrounding them.
That trip to the ocean was meant for snorkelling activities near Makunudu. With flippers/fins on feet, life-jacket firmly in place, and snorkel attached to the diving mask, even non swimmers can jump into the ocean, but clutching on to a lifebuoy that is expertly guided by the diving instructor. Dipping your head into the water opens up a world of corals, turtles and colourful fish. Gently bobbing in the Indian Ocean while looking at the ethereal beauty below can be an out of the world experience.
The third trip, again from Kagi was for water sports—for catamaran sailing and for kayaking, enough water activity for a non swimmer, even though the kayaking was carried out in chest deep water. Other water sports too were available, including stand-up paddling and wind-surfing. In fact, Emerald Maldives Resort & Spa even offers training in diving. All these activities are conducted by professional companies with instructors and by using proper gear.
The fourth trip to the ocean was from Emerald for what the resort describes as “Lucky Dhoni Fishing”. Dhonis are big boats crafted locally from timber and guests are provided with fishing lines and baits to catch fish the traditional way from the dhoni. But then as it soon became apparent, Maldives has some very smart fish that do not take the bait, but instead eat it, literally. Even then some amateur fishers were lucky enough to catch a few, including a fish that looked a lot like Nemo from Finding Nemo. It was too cute to be allowed to become fried fish, so was released back into the ocean promptly.
THE SEAPLANE EXPERIENCE
The thrust of the Maldives government is on giving tourists “experiences” that go beyond the normal beach holiday. These experiences can range from spending a night in a bubble on the beach to living in an underwater room—for a hefty price. But one of the best experiences of Maldives is flying by seaplane to the respective resorts. On our way to Fasmendhoo island, where the Emerald resort is located, we took a speedboat from Kagi back to Velana airport, from where the Trans Maldivian Airways’ flights take off. The TMA operates a large fleet of De Havilland Twin Otter seaplanes. These twin-engine aircraft can seat around 12-14 passengers, are easy to manouevre, have short take-off and landing on water, and are flown by barefoot pilots wearing shorts. Can it get more “tropical/equatorial” than that? The planes also fly from island to island during the course of one flight, almost like a local bus disembarking passengers and picking up others. They fly at a low height, thus offering an incredible view of the azure waters, the aquamarine reefs and the green and white islands below. The flights last from 20 minutes to 60 minutes, depending on the destination and the Maldivian experience would be incomplete without a seaplane ride.
THE WELLNESS EXPERIENCE
Spas are an intrinsic part of Maldivian resorts, with both Kagi and Emerald called “spa islands”. This helps Maldives promote wellness tourism. Interestingly, Bali has a strong influence on these spas, with both spa islands that this author visited offering Balinese oil massages. The masseurs too are from Bali—slight looking women with incredibly strong hands. In Kagi, the Baani spa is the central feature of the island and is designed by a Japanese architect, Yuji Yamakazi. Ring-shaped, it is an overwater structure extending into the coral reefs from the main island and the spa experience is enhanced by an uninterrupted view of the ocean from the massage bed. While in Emerald, from the masseurs to the décor, everything is Balinese. Built on land, the spa has ten villas and a Balinese pool with floating flowers and colourful fish.
Food is something that troubles some Indian tourists while travelling. Maldives is an ideal visit for them because the cuisine there is close to Indian cuisine—specifically South Indian—thanks to the island’s proximity to India. Spices and ingredients are either same or similar; curries are prevalent, including coconut-based ones. But even otherwise the resorts have several Indian chefs and kitchen workers who rustle up an Indian meal at the drop of the chef’s hat. Kagi has a designated day for Indian dinners, where everything from shahi paneer to chicken biryani is available, while Emerald has an Indian section at its Aqua restaurant.
But for those willing to go beyond alu paratha, daal and idli-dosa, Maldives is gourmet heaven because it offers an array of world cuisines. Be it South or North American, European, or Far Eastern, Maldives has it all. Maldives is also seafood heaven, with its batter-fried crackling calamari and succulent, juicy tiger prawns being this author’s favourite.
Alcohol is not allowed in Maldives except in the resorts. So while one may not be able to carry alcohol into the country, the resorts offer a huge choice of beverages, both alcoholic and non alcoholic.
LANGUAGE, CURRENCY, MOBILE
The language the Maldivians speak is Divehi, with roots in Sanskrit. But English is widely understood and spoken. The currency is rufiyaa, but dollar is the accepted mode of currency at the resorts, hence there is no need to change money. Phone calls are expensive and Indian telecom providers do not provide a special package for Maldives. Phone cards can be bought at the Velana airport. But the resorts have wi-fi connectivity all over the island, so making wi-fi calls are not a problem unless one is in the middle of the ocean.
INDIA NUMBER 1 MARKET
Maldives is primarily about luxury tourism, and currently India is Maldives’ number 1 tourist market, ahead of Russia, breaking the perception about Indian tourists being largely budget travellers. China comprised around 30% of the market before Covid happened. Since the Chinese are not travelling at present, India is now the number one country and some resorts such as Emerald are giving special rates for Indians, that are lower than the rates they offer to others. India established an air bubble with Maldives last year from October, allowing Indians to travel to the island nation, as long as they follow all Covid protocols. The tourist traffic from India has been very high ever since, with all flights packed to the brim. Maldives, for which tourism is its life breath, is immensely grateful to friend India for starting this air bubble, say Maldivian officials.
TRAVELLING IN THE TIME OF COVID
The arrival process at Male is simple: a Covid negative certificate is mandatory for all international passengers. The Covid test must have been conducted inside four days, 96 hours, before arrival at Velana. All documents and information have to be uploaded online on the Maldives immigration site a day before arrival, making entry into that country smooth and easy.
However, certain resorts are asking for tests to be conducted inside 48 hours prior to arrival so if one wants to visit different resorts, then a second Covid test will have to be done at the resort one is staying at a particular point of time. Another Covid negative report is needed before boarding the flight to India, so one more test has to be conducted at the resort and the report uploaded online on Airport Authority’s Air Suvidha website, a day prior to travel. This author took three Covid tests in seven days—one in India and two in Maldives.
A piece on Maldives will be incomplete without writing about “island time”. Some of the islands operate in their own time zones. While Kagi follows Maldives time, which is 30 minutes behind India, Emerald follows a time zone which is 30 minutes ahead of India, in effect, Bangladesh time. This gives more daylight time for guests to enjoy the islands. And when in Maldives you need as much time as you can get to soak in the beauty of the place.
Disclaimer: The visit was on invitation by the Maldives Marketing & PR Corporation of the Maldives government.