If you've ever wanted to imitate Tattoo from Fantasy Island and croak, "da plane! Da plane!" as you watch a red seaplane land in a turquoise lagoon where you exit to shake hands with Mr. Roarke in a white tuxedo, then the Maldives is definitely the place to do it.
With 1,200 islands, 90 resorts, 99.6% water, .4% land, and all less than 2 meters above sea level, the Maldives is not your average, run of the mill country: five star is the norm here, and with daily rates rising from $500 plus per person per day, to the sky's-the-limit resorts where the room alone costs $10,000 per night, (plus service charge!) most independent travelers would be bankrupted within hours of arrival and sent packing on the next flight to Sri Lanka.
However, if you are able to afford the sticker shock of the accomodation the country is one of the most unique on the planet. As a completely independent archipelago, the country has its own language and culture; the Maldives is where the concept of shell money was invented, even the word 'atollu' in the Maldivian language became the English word 'atoll,' a perfect metaphor from a country that almost invented this picture perfect icon of paradise.
It is the only place I've ever been where the photos in brochures simply fall short of the reality: there are no roads or highways here, and there is so much water and open space that you have to get almost everywhere by seaplane. Gone is a horizon interrupted by mountains; the sky comes straight down to the sea on all directions, similar in a sense to a blue desert rippled with waves. The country's airport is an aircraft shaped island with water on all sides and an aborted takeoff here would mean a dunk in the Indian Ocean.
On the surface, the Maldives is paradise, in the classic sense; Robinson Crusoe excursions visit sandbanks with exactly one palm tree on it; water bungalows have retractable glass floors to feed the colorful fish, buffets serve mountains of seafood and fresh fruit three times a day, and water temperatures are a perfect 29 C every day of the year and a 'cold' day is one where the air temp drops by more than four degrees.
But there is a side to the Maldives guests don't see: the water in the sink and in your glass is desalinated; (even the Coca Cola bottling plant here uses seawater to make soda) all trash has to be removed on time each day to avoid burying the island; sand is pumped from the lagoon to preserve the sugar white sands from the rising sea levels; and every food item from Dom Perignon champagne to sea salt has to be imported.
The biggest danger is getting hit by a coconut, and in fact it's the leading cause of death in the Maldives.
Spending a week on board a liveaboard affords a view of the other half of the country, reefs full of fish and mantas and even whale sharks, so common in some places encounters can be guaranteed year round. And in between the diving were visits to the many luxury resorts.
Perfectly manicured pathways, luxury water villas and blinding white beaches were strange oases in the deep blue ocean, morgue-like and quiet on the expensive ones, (Soneva Fushi) and rowdy and boozy on the cheaper ones (Club Med).
Even the staff were weird. Cast adrift in the Indian Ocean with little contact with civilization, staff was imported along with the food and the furniture. It was precisely this that attracted some Europeans to the country in the first place, including a London party girl at one high-end resort, who needed some more distance from her coke dealer. "Lots of sand around but none to snort," she said ruefully as she tucked into her dinner one night while everyone looked away uncomfortably. Actually a lot of the staff in the Maldives were rumored to be on the run from something: ex-wives, debtors, the police, Interpol, and more. If so, it was the perfect place to do it.
The antidotes to the resorts were the local islands, that were off limits to overnight stays for foreigners; there you can experience the country's culture (that was so often ignored in the luxury resorts that could have been anywhere). Life there was as fragile as the coral reefs: developed over thousands of years, the Maldivians had learned to survive with meager vegetation; learning how to use coconuts for food, shelter and even clothing, to tap toddy, go fishing for marlin with just a hook, or navigate at night by the stars.
The locals are always willing to teach you how they built their traditional dhonis without plans, or even nails; and I couldn't believe that two weeks before, I was telling bewildered Ladakhis in the far north of India about what it was like to swim in the ocean, and now I was explaining to Maldivians the concept of a mountain to people that have never seen snow, a hill, a cow, a skyscraper, or even a dog (because canines were banned throughout the country).
But while a lot has changed in the country in less than three decades, since tourism was first introduced, now the Maldives was threatened with extinction by a far more sinister force than package tourists. The very sea itself. The Maldives are famous for being the country that won't exist in less than 100 years. Even though the unthinkable is decades away, their sunken future is already here: a strong tropical storm arrived during the time I was in the Maldives, bringing the highest tides ever recorded: beaches across the atolls were eroded leaving resorts with washed away coconut trees and collapsed water bungalows; but with sand pumps worked overtime to repair the damage. Luckily they finished the job quickly, and the white sand blue water paradise that attracts 700,000 people each year was quickly restored. For now.
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