Maldives travel guide

The pristine reefs of the Maldives teem with showy, shimmering clouds of fish, while above water all is serene and sybaritic. Helen Anderson enjoys the best of both worlds.

There's blood on the tiles, guts in the gutters.
The great harvest of fish delivered this morning by a score of wooden dhonis anchored outside the market has been sold and dispatched. Every fish - the skipjacks, the jobfish, the snapper, no matter the size - was caught by line, one fish at a time. Fish are the biggest export of the tiny Republic of the Maldives, and each of the millions caught represents skill and effort, and triumph over the temptation to illegally use nets instead. Somebody landed the 65-kilogram yellowfin tuna, the size and shape of a torpedo, resting on the slab in front of me. I watch a fisherman flense the fish in five minutes; within 15 it's butchered. The fish, the man and this bloody theatre in the island capital of Malé are magnificent.
The likely destiny of the tuna belly is tonight's sashimi on a handmade plate at one of a hundred resorts, one per island. Until 42 years ago there were no resorts and few travellers - just fishing families living on 200-odd of the 1200 islands in this remote Indian Ocean archipelago. Now there are butlers and chefs, diving instructors and overwater suites with infinity pools, and tourism has overtaken fishing as the nation's biggest industry. The fishing and the tourism rely on one thing: the health of the coral reefs that form the white-sand foundations of these islands. The reefs and the marine life are wondrous, and it's largely because the Maldives has one of the few sustainable fishing industries in the world. This morning's tuna represents much more than tonight's sashimi.
As we arrive, Malé is a starburst in the dark void of the Indian Ocean; its closest neighbour, southern India, lies 400 kilometres to the north-east. With 105,000 people living on only 1.7 square kilometres of land, it's among the most densely populated islands in the world. Malé airport occupies its own neighbouring island, and from a taxi rank of boats anchored outside we board an oligarch-white cruiser with 400 horsepower out the back and bolt into the night. Cocoa Island is close - 40 minutes at full tilt - and we arrive at midnight. I remember fine white sand underfoot in the lobby, a warm welcome and a long jetty, but the island remains a dark mystery until dawn.
At the end of that jetty, a warm breeze ruffles muslin curtains in a fishing shack, though a particular kind of shack that has a mezzanine bedroom, light-filled bathroom, open-air shower, and a white-on-white living room open to a deck. Beneath the deck are steps to a still, shallow lagoon of startling clarity. And in the lagoon is me. A little stingray ripples past. A baby black-tip reef shark darts nearby me, surprising us both. Forty metres out is the navy arc of reef; a salt-rim of waves lies beyond. It's as quiet as an aquarium.
A German Playboy photographer named Eric Klemm washed up on the "island of my dreams" when he ventured to the Maldives on a magazine assignment in 1979. He named it Cocoa Island, though the Maldivians called it Makunufushi: "Five hundred paces in length, 80 wide, with not a soul to be seen, only 12 classic south sea island palms." He had a girlfriend with him and they "felt like Adam and Eve discovering paradise", he writes in a book on my coffee table. "I wondered if this was the ultimate state of happiness."
Eric discarded shoes and surname. He was so happy he wanted to live here and he bought the lease on the uninhabited island, though this required him to build a "resort" - in his case, four bungalows, often used by friends from Europe, among them fellow photographer and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. Eric weathered storms, shortages of water and occasionally food, built another four rooms and over the next decade planted more than a thousand palms and fruit trees.
Eric's paradise is now named Cocoa Island by Como, bought 12 years ago by Christina Ong's Singapore-based Como Hotels and Resort Group. The island retains the castaway charm that so entranced Eric - hammocks strung between palms, fish dinners on a beach of talcum-powder sand - but raised many notches by Como's assured sense of understated elegance. Radiating from jetties are 33 over-water suites, some built to resemble dhonis, the traditional Maldivian fishing boats, and all are a short swim from the house reef for spontaneous, effortless snorkelling. There are Como signatures - a top-quality Como Shambhala Retreat spa, a seriously good raw-food menu designed by the group's executive chef, Rockpool alumnus Amanda Gale, and distinctive Como-prescribed lotions in indoor and outdoor bathrooms. Guests gather for Ginger Mojitos beside the beachfront pool and order from frequently changing menus of southern Indian and smart-resort dishes - light and unfussy but designed to satisfy rather than whet appetites.
Over breakfast of Maldivian egg curry, tuna sambal and roti, the tanned, French-born general manager, Laurent Sola, talks of being "Cocoa-ed" - which I take to mean the inability to recall problems that loomed large only yesterday, perhaps even the inability to remember when one is meant to leave.
Sola learned to dive at Cocoa and knows how lucky he is. "The marine life is phenomenal. We have about a dozen world-class dive sites close by, from five minutes to no more than 40 minutes by boat. That makes Cocoa very special." His favourite spot is Cocoa Thila, a shark-cleaning station at a depth of about 30 metres. "You might have 30 or 40 sharks around you, grey-tips and white-tips, being cleaned by little wrasse."
There's another site called Manta Point, for the big rays that gather, a series of four submarine caves at another spot and another where hammerhead sharks mass. Cocoa's dive centre arranges three dives a day and the chance to dive at night, with no more than three divers per instructor, and tuition from beginner to instructor level in four languages. One day I'll learn to dive. For now, I snorkel and at Cocoa I can swim safely from suite to reef whenever I like, which is often. There are 40 or so shark species here, but none that trouble divers or snorkellers. The one to watch is the deceptively comical triggerfish, which defends its nest by biting swimmers and should be avoided (unlike Cocoa's rum, pineapple and lime cocktail of the same name, which should be embraced).
According to Dr R Charles Anderson, who wrote my coffee-table text Reef Fishes of the Maldives, it's possible to see more than 200 species on a dive or snorkel on these reefs. Who could count them? For there are fish everywhere, in glittering, shape-changing clouds moving at speeds that defy attempts to count or identify. I swim towards the reef, feel the panicky rush of vertigo as the sandy floor drops deep. The water cools instantly. Strobes of sunlight fall upon a vertical coral garden of delicate fans and outlandish appendages. A quicksilver army of fusiliers charges and surrounds me, then vanishes. Powderblue surgeonfish and delicate Moorish idols sidle up. I spot unicorn fish by their namesake horns, angelfish and parrotfish, Napoleon wrasse and emperors, neon damselfish and the exquisitely striped oriental sweetlip, a favourite among Maldivians.
The world has been simplified: complex, gaudy and exhilarating underwater; pared-back, understated, sybaritic on land.
There's another dimension to the Maldives that can be appreciated only by air. This is when you have to reach for a Dulux colour chart to name a hundred shades of blue, and still fail. Speakers of Dhivehi, the national language, have many more words to describe precisely the colours and moods of the ocean (and an entire vocabulary for coconuts). From my seat, islands and sand spits appear as bleach spots concentrically circled by the blue upon blue of lagoon, reef and atoll (another Dhivehi word).
Como has recently started direct hour-long seaplane flights between Malé airport and its newest island resort, Maalifushi by Como, and also between the two resorts. We take a long route, before the seaplane is launched: from Cocoa to Malé airport by speedboat, a Maldivian Dash 8 south to an island airstrip named Kadhdhoo, then a two-hour speedboat to Maalifushi. There's a much closer airport on a neighbouring island, but the unusual confluence of a king tide and ocean surge means its airstrip is underwater. It's a reminder of the nation's vulnerability. The average height above sea level is 1.5 metres; the nation's highest natural point is just 2.4 metres.
Nothing is built on the islands above the height of the tallest coconut palm, and Maalifushi pops on the horizon as a bristle of palms on eight hectares of sand - much bigger than Cocoa. The first resort in the southern Thaa Atoll, Maalifushi by Como opened in April last year with 66 suites and villas, three restaurants, a Como Shambhala Retreat, dive centre, surf shack and children's program. And a tiny uninhabited island next door for picnics. Suites are in tropical gardens favoured by families, facing the beach and over the lagoon, with decks, daybeds, outdoor showers and infinity pools. Interiors by Koichiro Ikebuchi, who designed Como Shambhala Estate in Ubud, have clean, uncluttered lines and luxe textures: unpolished stone, timber, linen. By contrast, the underwater world is eye-popping. Coral gardens beneath the jetties linking lagoon villas are teeming with life, making every stroll an aquarium excursion.
The reefs are a revelation for Maalifushi's resident marine biologist, Francesco Comezzi, who grew up and studied in the Mediterranean and the UK, and he's fascinated by the difference a sustainable fishing industry makes. He talks about this complex marine world on day and night snorkelling trips with guests, and mentions that parrotfish lodge themselves in coral to rest at night, and careful snorkellers can sidle close. "But snorkelling at night isn't for everyone," he says. "You have to manage the fear."
That night I take a torch, a marine biologist and my fear to the end of a jetty and prepare to snorkel in the dark. A reef has a different tempo at night, more waltz than jitterbug. The crazy daylight energy ebbs. The fish drift closer to us, slower, fewer. We switch the torches to UV light for a moment, and the otherwise drab coral springs into shocking fluorescent colour and detail, and purple starfish pop out of nowhere.
The effect is so trippy I cut the light, panicky. Something stings my neck. Deep breaths, keep breathing. I manage the fear. A posse of oriental sweetlips waft by, distracting me. And there's the big opalescent parrotfish gently rocking themselves to sleep in coral branches. A green turtle rises from the dark, paddles a circle and departs with a royal wave.
Until now Thaa Atoll has been a well-kept secret among global surfers willing to charter seaplanes and live-aboard boats to find the atoll's long curving reef waves and barrels. "The resort really opens up these amazing spots to surfers, but the good thing is there'll only ever be a handful of surfers out here at the same time," says Tropicsurf instructor Gavin Potter. The Noosa-based luxury surf expedition company has a shack at the resort, and Potter guides daily trips and coaches surfers of all abilities. One of the finest breaks is Farms, a medium-sized right-hander that's "still under the radar", says Potter, and perfect for intermediate surfers. A Californian mother and daughter at the resort are surfing Farms the next morning. They're chasing waves around the world with their private surf coach.
We meet a group of local surfers on the neighbouring island of Guraidhoo, where a slow walk along sandy streets gives a glimpse of life for 2500 people. The surfers are watching the ocean from a row of joli, the public seats dotted around the island, made of fishing nets slung on steel frames. There are a lot of seats and, I suspect, a lot of ocean gazing. It's Friday, a day for prayer and rest in this Islamic republic, and all is quiet as we pass anchored dhoni and brightly painted concrete-block homes, each with a name rather than a number; our guide named his Paris. A handful of old homes are made of coral, a practice since banned. Everyone will be sitting down soon to the national dish: garudhiya, a simple fish soup with rice, often spiced with dried chilli, lemon juice and onion. That might also be dinner, or perhaps rice flavoured with rihaakuru, a caramel-coloured paste - "fish silicon" is how our guide describes it - extracted by boiling and skimming tuna for hours. We watch it simmering near racks of smoked tuna drying in the sun in a backyard factory. Called valhoamas, this tasty smoked and dried tuna is central to the Maldivian economy and table.
It appears in Maldivian and southern Indian dishes at one of Maalifushi's restaurants, alongside a raw-food spa menu and lots of fresh fish, cooked simply or in the tandoor, or as sashimi in the Japanese restaurant. The executive chef is playing beach cricket when we arrive. Born in Darwin, the youngest of 12 in a southern Indian family, Tim de Souza worked in Melbourne and Tokyo, then joined Como five years ago at Parrot Cay in the Turks and Caicos Islands, then as exec chef at Cocoa Island. He fishes, swims, canoes, manages supply, menus and 60 staff, and has planted a market garden. An island is a place to challenge yourself, he says. "My style has become a lot bolder since I left Australia. Partly it's the seclusion but also this immersion in traditional southern cuisine."
Late afternoon - before a last-dinner spread of kingfish, yellowfin tuna, rock shrimp, skipjack, lobster - we head to a channel just beyond Maalifushi and idle in the chop. Soon there are 10, then 20 dolphins crowding close. "Now, watch out there," Comezzi says, indicating the middle distance. Suddenly a dozen spinner dolphins begin spinning - they launch themselves vertically, spin once, twice, thrice, and splash down. One over-achiever spins four times. But why spin, if not to find food or a mate? "It's social behaviour but for what exact reason we're not sure," says Comezzi. "They're intelligent animals. They feed and when they have enough they have time, perhaps, to play." The dolphins keep spinning on and off for an hour. At sunset they vanish, and we all go searching for a fish dinner.