The Maldives: up close and unfiltered

By Mark Hodson, Editor of 101 Holidays

Instagram, the photo sharing platform, has turned millions of smartphone users into budding photographers with its use of digital filters. But there’s one place on Earth that can’t be improved by adding a filter: the Maldives.

A 10-hour flight lands you in a sumptuous world of turquoise lagoons, crimson sunsets and swaying palm trees. The colours are breathtaking in their brilliance and purity.

Recently I visited the Maldives for the fourth time – the first since I reported for The Sunday Times in the wake of the 2004 tsunami. Back then, the tourist industry was experiencing a serious wobble. Today it is booming with new resorts opening regularly. This year – the 40th since the first tourist arrivals – the government hopes to welcome a million overseas visitors.

Here’s what I found on my four-night stay, with the help of an iPhone 4, Instagram … and no filters.

The excitement begins before you land in the capital, Male. Here are some views from the plane. You can see the shadow of our BA Boeing 777 as we come into land.

On arrival at Male, you will be transferred to your island by speedboat or – if the distance is too great – seaplane. Both are great fun, but the seaplane is a unique experience. The views were sensational.

After a just over an hour we touched down at the Beach House at Iruveli, a newly-opened luxury resort in the most northerly atoll of the Maldives, Haa Alifu. (Note: the aerial photo above left was provided by the resort).

The hotel is spectacular. One morning, we enjoyed a buffet breakfast at the Grand Water Pavilion. I was staying in a beach villa – check out my bathroom complete with plunge pool, outdoor shower and sun loungers.

Much as I loved the resort, I had a lot of fun leaving it. One afternoon we were “stranded” on a nearby deserted island. This was made easier by the fact we were supplied with sun loungers, shades, champagne and snacks.

One day we visited the nearby island of Utheemu, where we toured the wooden palace in which the national hero, Sultan Mohamed Thakurufaanu, grew up. But far more interesting was simply wandering around this tiny, undeveloped island, meeting the local people.

One of the waiters at the hotel, Rameez, lives on Utheemu and agreed to show us round. His mother and two aunts had prepared for us an afternoon tea of traditional Maldivian spicy snacks. Delicious!

The only real industry on Utheemu is the weaving of thatch for the roofs of resort hotels. The raw thatch is delivered on the beach and local women take it home to work on it. Most young people leave the islands to attend college, or work in hotels or in construction.

Another day we sailed on a dhoni to the island of Mulhadhoo (population 350) where many of the resort workers live. The island chief and his deputy met us on the jetty and gave us a tour.

One of the resort’s chefs, Naxxa, gave us a Maldivian cookery lesson in a makeshift kitchen near the jetty. We learned how to roll chapattis then lunched on a meal of drumstick curry, pumpkin and coconut salad and curried red snapper. It was probably the best meal I’ve eaten all year.

It struck me as rather strange that, despite staying in a drop-dead gorgeous five-star resort, my most treasured memories will be of wandering around the local islands, meeting the local people and being invited into their homes. And the finest meal I ate was not in a gourmet restaurant, but served on a plastic table in the sand. This was a genuinely authentic Maldivian experience, and a great way of breaking down the barriers between tourists and local people. It was, however, very nice to get back to the hotel for a shower and a cocktail.


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