As of July 15, 2020 this island nation in the Indian Ocean is reopening for international tourism with few strings attached. But before we jump onto the first available flight we need to check country specific travel advisories.
Feb. 2019…..Surfing the television on a particularly boring day I am riveted by Becca Kufrin, the star of ‘ Bachelorette’ (14thseason finale), serenade the man of her dreams. But, wait my focus is not the humans but the different shades of blue waters, the arrogant banyan trees, limbering coconut palms amid unpretentious lagoons, quintessentially inviting hammocks and the romantic water bungalows…..Maldivian trademarks to lure paradise hunters. This idyllic Island resort is one of the numerous mesmeric ’emerald’ studs embellished with white (sands) in eclectic azure background (water) of Maldives. Skip to Google ‘Maldives’ and you come across …a basket full of scenic properties, sea creatures including spinner dolphins, sea turtles, whale sharks and white terns, exclusive flora and fauna and the confetti…a tropical islands paradise.
By now my demeanour was akin to a Victorian damsel in distress in need of fresh sea breeze to cure land affliction. I am not a water person and before husband could counter my request to celebrate our 40thwedding anniversary on one of the islands I pushed the Maldives page within his eyesight.
Maldives is a giant jigsaw puzzle of 26 atolls spanning 1,190 different islands (of these, less than a third are inhabited). Nestled between Sri Lanka and India it is the world’s lowest lying nation with some islands maximum eight feet to minimum four feet above water, a magnet for tourists wanting to commune with the sparkling turquoise tides. There are nearly 100 private resorts and 20 public Islands, a gargantuan choice for landlubbers like us. The cursor stopped on the man-made local island of Hulhumale located south of North Male Atoll and North East to Hulhule, the airport island. Hulhumale is closest to Male (capital).
We board Go Air flight or I should say the ‘honeymoon express’ from New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport (Feb 20 2019) with about eight newly married Hindu Indian couples with girls clinking red give away bangles or churas a new bride wears. There are others… ‘fresh off the altar’ of different faiths, few long married with kids and solo travellers and handful of senior citizens like us out for fun times. I agreed with the young Indian lad from Abu Dhabi on his take of a ‘holiday blast’ before joining his father’s business. An Abu Dhabi resident he was in India to meet with family then return via Maldives.
A bride screams ‘its gorgeous’ and I look down at the tiny silvery dots in the sparkling cerulean waters. The dots expand as we approach Velana International Airport and it is a smooth landing. Our hotel representative is there with a placard, infact it is a jungle of placards as we are trotted to waiting vehicle for a forty-minute comfortable ride on newly tarmacked road to our hotel on Nirodhu Magu (Street name) to a welcome of cool fruit drinks.
Alcohol is prohibited in Maldives, it is Muslim country, and permitted only on private Island resorts. This probably explains the popularity of private resorts for Instagrammable shots of designer swimwear and exotic cocktails/mocktails. Another no-no on local islands and public beaches is swimwear and tourists are expected to be appropriately clothed. Some private resorts permit day visitors so if on budget one can divide time between local and private islands and atolls to take care of luxury cravings.
Hulhumale is familiar and then I realize that it is a throwback of any developing Middle Eastern city with laidback desert vibes, coconut palms and clothing. Two wheelers dominate road traffic, with cars and buses adding to the vehicle milieu of this tiny, only 4 km, area accessible on foot and public/private transport. Later we learn that only residents can drive vehicles. We wanted to go to male from Hulhumale and planned on taking a bus. I do not remember the reason, no local currency or card, as a helpful local swiped his card for us for the bus ride: Small courtesies that endear people and their nation to tourists.
Standing on our room balcony, breathing the salty crisp ocean air, looking across the waters lapping against the string of ferries and speedboats, I spontaneously quote Khalil Gibran ‘if there is a paradise on earth it is this, it is this.’
Past Tales: 1800 years ago Maldives was the money island for Arab traders as the trade currency, the cowrie shells (boli), was found in abundance. I remember reading about their usage in India (ancient texts) and Oman in the 1700s. The swapped cowrie shells validated the islands as playgrounds for the rich and famous and the not so rich and famous like the Indian family sitting behind us on return flight to New Delhi. During the entire return journey they tutored their five year old to remember the island they had visited (Diffushi), what all they saw and did so that she could tell her friends and teachers in school about her exotic holiday.
Maldives is a place where one cannot have a bad holiday. This is true even for someone like me who cannot visualize being clamped in a container to gawp at exotic fishes and other sea creatures, or take a scooter ride underwater or extremes, to live in an underwater hotel. It was land for me and I was spoilt for choice on this fully reconstructed and reclaimed island. The adventures were there…. from private time on the beach, a laze out at in a water bungalow, guzzling and gorging on exotic multi-cuisine and thirst-quenchers available across hotels and resorts.
Construction is in full swing in flood resistant Hulhumale with government and private offices, commercial complexes, hospitals, new schools, gardens and playgrounds. The Beach road boasts of bungalows converted into hotels, making it easy for travelers on budget or with families to stay on the island on transit to private resorts. The outlaying Atolls and islands are connected by ferries and seaplanes making it easy to island hop.
Further down, past private residences, eateries and shops selling sea adventures from diving, snorkeling, visiting the sandbars and private islands (few allow day visitors) is/was a food-cart selling kebabs, corn on sticks, barbequed fish, chicken and beef. The tantalizing flavors made us purchase freshly grilled chicken lollipops. It is advisable to carry Maldivian Rupiah instead of US dollars as we felt that we were charged more. But money was forgotten as we strolled on the cool sand, savoring chicken roast in the orange glow of the setting sun.
Our first day in Hulhumale was a precurser of a dream vacation. Water sports is not my forte so did not have jealous pangs watching tourists and locals revel in aqua fantasies, para sailing, kite surfing, reef dives and exploring the waters.
We walked most of Hulhumale covering local shops, the new malls, watched children cavort in the newly constructed housing playgrounds, admired a house owner proudly turn used plastic bottles into planters, cheered teenagers freaking out on the floating raft opposite our hotel. Hulhumale is a workingman’s new city with much to appreciate and share. The restaurants and eating-places cater to increasing tourist traffic and it is not surprising to find Chinese citizens running eateries and hotels. Till recently China was the country-in-favor and construction partner contributing to new projects including the Maldives-China Friendship Bridge or the Sinamale Bridge, roads and buildings.
Hulhumale Central Park, a car free zone, with greenery and water bodies, open-air gym and play areas for children is a must visit.
Another stop, for us, was the ‘market under a tent’ with a cache of exotic fruits and vegetables. The Maldivian banana is expensive than its Indian counterpoint and to my question on ‘difference’ the stall owner insisted that Maldivian variety is better. The pride was evident and we bought a dozen small bananas and my favorite.
No matter how much one wants to look the other way water continues to dominate the vision. Surf and dive tourism is the lure and Hulhumale’ has a fully-fledged marina with boats of different hues and sizes permanently docked here. Nearby dive spots are accessible by local boats ‘dhoni’. Another advantage of Hulhumale is that it has easy access to safari boats enabling movement. Guesthouses and expatriate houses along the beach facing the sea are ideal for budget traveller. There is constant flow of one-nighters with dive gears, and already booked on different sea adventures. Our hotel Manager, a Nepal resident, seeing my despondent visage cheered me by telling me that ‘we from the subcontinent are not so water crazy. All this is over-hyped.’ He gave the example of Japanese girls who had spent their stay sitting on the deck chairs on the beach or another Chinese couple who preferred land tours.
Villimale or Villingili… For more native flavor we visited another local island in North Male Atoll about two kilometers west of Malé. It is impressive with its white sandy beach and clear blue waters and compared with Male a quieter and definitely a worthy day-trip destination. From Hulhumale to Male ferry station and from here a public ferry to Villingli….this is the cheapest form of travel and very convenient.
In 10 minutes we were at ferry terminal of a purely residential island wrapped in tropical foliage with wide, open sandy streets and peaceful ambiance. The ferry had been crowded with returning school children (studying in Male schools) and workers. The young girl in national dress was all smiles waving her country’s flag due to some celebration. We exchnaged smiles and choclate bars I had with me. Talking with her father I learn that he escorts his five-year-old daughter everyday to school in Male. His reasoning that there are better English medium schools in the capital city but living is simpler on Villimale. He does not mind the daily commute.
It was lunch time and looking for a good restaurant we came across a playground or open land around what looked like an office compound with swinging hammocks or ‘undolis’ that were tempting. Seeing no one around I spent a few minutes lulling myself into sleep, swaying with the breeze before husband woke me up.
There are two beaches: one, facing the reefs and the other the skyline of Male. Both are tempting except no sunbathing is permitted. On the one facing Male we watched locals from nearby housing come in for quick dips before, what I presume, siesta time. This is a vehicle free island, except for government vehicles and ambulances. Another advantage of Villingili over Male’ is that being a satellite island housing is cheaper.
By now we were hungry and were guided to one of the restaurants along the ferry landing. It is a Chinese restaurant; one of the good ones, décor and layout is Chinese, miniature wooden bridges, and facing the beach and Male. The waiter told me that the owner is a Chinese gentleman, a resident of the island and married to a local girl. He travels between China and Maldives. During our stay in Hulhumale we would come across other establishments owned and run by Chinese and and the unmissable groups of Chinese tourists with their quintessential flag bearers.
Male, traditionally the King’s Island called Mahal, was a walled city surrounded by fortifications and gates and ruled by ancient royal dynasties from the palace located within. The Royal Palace, along with the picturesque forts (koshi) and bastions (buruzu), was destroyed when monarchy was abolished in 1968 and the city re-modeled under President Ibrahim Nasir.
Physical and political changes over the years contributed to the changing appearance of Malé. The island of Malé, with three other islands, forms the capital city inhabited by slightly one third of Maldive’s population. rest preferring to commute from neighboring areas such as Hulhumale and Villingli. A commercial harbor is located on the central island and serves as the heart of all commercial activities in the country.
Walking or rather nudging our way through the city we did the straight line from Villingili ferry point to Hulhumale ferry point past the fish market, the Mosque and complexes.
Cinnamon Resort: Finally some water adventure as we board the ferry for the luxury resort on Dombvilli Island. Ferries to most resorts are available outside the airport and for those far away it is the helicopter commute. Till 2009 government had imposed restrictions on visitors wanting to explore and stay on non-resort islands, but now inhabited islands are open for day trips or even overnight stays, making island culture far more accessible.
The sea is rough, in patches, and I tightly hold onto husband. We were given safety instructions and life belts. Up and down, the ferry swaying with the waves and I look around at the expanse of sea green waters. There are resorts in the distance, the quintessential mesmeric water bungalows and after, to what appears to me a never-ending sail, we arrive at the resort to be welcomed by cool soothing drinks. Months later another Cinnamon is the target of terrorists in Sri Lanka and I was reminded of the ebullient staff of Cinnamon, Maldives.
Cinnamon is one of the handfuls island resorts open to public and it was crowded. There were residents and there were visitors like us, making the most of the day stay. We could use the pool, the beaches, and the coupons for dining. The bungalows were out of bounds and so were some other facilities. We spent majority time in the clear cool waters, with fish for company, followed by sumptuous sleep inducing international buffet lunch at ‘Rehendhi’ named after late Queen Rehendhi, the Sultana of the Maldives from 1347 to 1380, and one of its most popular historical figures. I noted it down to Google this information once back in India.
As the Cinnamon brochure proclaims ‘the waves around Dhonveli are known to be a surfer’s best friend, pushing them just enough to live a little more’. But being no surfer I watched the lashing waves, the sea was rough, and the frisky crabs being washed ashore. I was getting worried about the return ride in the rough waters. Maldives tourist season is from September to March and we were missing the monsoon season by few days.
Some one rightly said that ‘Maldives is like an over used sponge the more you press the more water comes out’.
Back on Hulhumale and one more day to bid adieu. We still had to try out the local eateries serving snacks with tasty filling and curry or rice. Food is shades of Sri Lankan and South Indian with other Asian flavors for added zest. We walked into one of the newer places, MANHATTAN FISH MARKET for a fish treat but the food was passable. There are fancy restaurants but we gave them the miss for beach eats.
5 days is insufficient to savor the touristy delights of bioluminescent beaches, sandbank dining along coastlines, Sunset sailing through the calm reef-sheltered bays or simply swaying in hammocks.
We fly out, one amongst nearly 600,000 (annual) satisfied visitors from neighbouring countries, from Europe and North America for adventures on land or in the mesmeric depths of the surrounding waters.
Information: There are direct flight from India to Maldives. Air India, Go Air, SpiceJet, Mega Maldives, Sri Lankan Airlines, Mihin Lanka, Emirates, Saudia, Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airways, SilkAir, Etihad Airways, Bangkok Airways are some of the airlines flying to Maldives.
The Maldives, made up of 26 atolls with over 1,000 islands occupied by resorts, is spread out over 90,000 square kilometers.