Male - There is paradise on earth. It’s called the Maldives. Imagine this… a sunrise dawning on a pristine world sprinkled with desert islands fringed with palm trees and white sand.
The islands are set in rings of turquoise so startling there is not yet a word invented to accurately describe it.
It’s a place of turtles, rays, eels, whale sharks and a zillion tiny colourful fish by day; of flying foxes (which are actually giant fruit bats) by evening; and of a thick curtain of the Milky Way punctuated by shooting stars by night.
This is the Maldives – a chain of ring-shaped reefs and islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean, formed of coral.
Really, the pamphlets and postcards don’t do it justice.
Flying over them in a little seaplane, they look like fairy rings bejewelled in turquoise set in navy velvet.
So where are the Maldives?
Very far from South Africa. They’re in the middle of nowhere (part of the appeal), in the Indian Ocean, about 600km south-west of India and about 750km south-west of Sri Lanka.
There are about 1 900 islands in the Maldives, but more than 90 percent of them are unpopulated, due to the fact that they’re submerged at high tide.
Even those that are populated are so remote they can only be reached by boat or seaplane.
They stretch from north to south in a double chain of atolls, and are spread out over about 90 000km2 – so it’s a physically disparate country.
The big difference between the Maldives and somewhere like Mauritius, Reunion, Zanzibar or the Seychelles, is that the islands are tiny.
Even some of the inhabited ones are so small it takes only 10 minutes to walk right the way around on the beach.
There are no roads or cars on these little islands.
Even the buildings on the two islands I stayed on – the Moofushi and Halaveli resorts operated by the classy Constance Hotels and Resorts group – have an air of (rather opulent, admittedly) impermanence about them.
The Maldives is a paradise that attracts the rich and famous, and is especially popular with honeymooners.
Because it is so remote and the islands are so small and private, it’s very paparazzi-unfriendly.
Roger Federer and Michael Schumacher, for instance, have stayed at Halaveli. David and Victoria Beckham regularly take their kids to the Maldives for a family holiday; Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes honeymooned here (not that it ultimately helped); and even Prince William and Kate basked in the sun in the Maldives earlier this year.
Most Maldivians are Muslim – in fact, you can’t be a Maldivian citizen otherwise. There is not much evidence of the country’s sharia law in the resorts, other than the fact you won’t see local women working at them (the waiters and room attendants, for example, are all men). You’ll still be able to enjoy alcoholic beverages (except in the capital, Male, which is dry) and eat bacon and pork if you wish.
Accommodation at upmarket resorts like those operated by the Constance group is typically in “water villas” – gorgeous wooden structures built on stilts off a boardwalk that juts out over the crystal water. The water is so clear, you’ll see plenty of sea life swimming beneath and around your villa.
You can’t miss the black-tipped reef sharks, which are light grey with black tips on their fins, up to about a metre long and move quickly in twos and threes as they hunt smaller fish.
There are also fat “bluefin jacks” – largish electric blue fish with stripes, which patrol the shallow water in bigger shoals.
Also look out for trumpetfish, which are long, thin, translucent-looking or yellow fish that float about ethereally in small groups; and up to 23 species of dolphins and whales (most frequently the little spinner dolphins, which jump in the air and “spin” in sideways somersaults).
You’re also likely to see large eels (though no sea snakes), rays and purple jellyfish, all before you even set foot in the ocean.
You might be thinking you wouldn’t want to go into the sea with all those things swimming about, but relax – there’s nothing too dangerous to humans in the Maldives.
The water is so warm and inviting that, even if you are not a big swimmer, the lure of the turquoise will be irresistible.
If you’re staying in a water villa, you just go down your private set of stairs and slip into the warm Indian Ocean.
And what lies beneath the surface is even more special. Put on your snorkel and fins and begin to explore.
While there isn’t much animal life in the Maldives above the surface (other than the intriguing flying foxes), under the (very gentle) waves, you’ll be dazzled by coral gardens filled with species like anemone fish (the little orange and white ones of Finding Nemo fame); unicorn fish (they have large “horns” projecting from their foreheads; parrotfish (with beakish lips to chew on the coral); sea goldies (tiny orange sea goldfish); little zebrafish that hang like dust in shafts of light; bright blue and yellow angelfish; turtles; and rays that float under the water like giant birds gliding in the air.
The Maldives must be one of the best places in the world to learn to dive – or to practise your skills if you already can.
There are coral reefs everywhere – around every island and even scattered in the ocean beneath the surface between islands (these are typically accessed by attractive local wooden boats, often brightly painted in yellows and blues).
And the water is so warm and clear, the fish life so vibrant, you’ll forget in seconds you are 10m or more beneath the surface.
The Maldives islands comprise a set of 26 atolls. “Atoll” is a Maldivian word in the local Dhivehi language for a ring-shaped reef.
The word “atoll” was introduced into English by Charles Darwin, whose visit to the Maldives helped him develop his theory of evolution. He used the term “atoll” in an acclaimed scientific paper, “The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs”, published in 1842.
The Maldivian islands were built up over long periods of time by an accumulation of broken bits of coral and shells.
Then plants started growing, germinated from seeds of species like coconuts and beach almonds, which have evolved to survive months at sea and germinate quickly in sandy conditions.
Small islands in the Maldives are constantly forming, disappearing and re-forming. It’s all part of what makes the Maldives magical.
So as night approaches, flop into a beanbag on the beach, order a glass of chilled chardonnay, and watch the sun sink over the curvature of the Earth. As night falls, you’ll be sure to see a shooting star or three.
Could Paradise possibly be any more magical?
Getting there and what it will cost:
This is not a cheap destination for South Africans (perhaps not for anyone). It’s going to be more expensive than Zanzibar or Mauritius, for example.
First, it’s pricier to get there – you need to fly either via Dubai on Emirates and another four hours or so to the capital, Male, an overcrowded little island not really worth a visit.
Then you take a small seaplane to your island (a flight of 30 minutes or so, depending on where the island is). You can also fly Qatar Airways to Doha, though the wait-over to fly to Male is longer (seven hours versus an hour).
Prices range (as they do widely in Mauritius or Zanzibar, for example), but I would highly recommend both the Constance group’s Moofushi and Halaveli islands (even if you have to save for a long time to enjoy a week there).
There’s a “Cristal Package” at Moofushi, which means all meals and drinks are included in the rate. The food is excellent and you can barely plop down somewhere comfy without someone offering you a piña colada or glass of wine.
Expect to pay about R60 000 a person for a seven-night package that includes air flights and transfers.
Also worth noting is prices are a little cheaper in the “rainy” season, from May to September, though I went for five days in September and never saw a rain cloud.
Enquire at any good travel agent for packages.
l Tara Turkington was a guest of the Constance group in the Maldives.