The Maldives: Undersea | The Times
The Times | 17 November 2012
Dip beneath the surface of the Maldives
Laura Ivill enjoys diving, dancing and a massage in full view of tropical fish and coral reefs.
A fascination with the coral reefs of the Maldives, rich in sealife, has made this one of the world’s most exotic playgrounds. Scuba divers come not just to watch, but to be subsumed in a spectacularly different world. But nowadays you don’t have to be Padi certified to experience the wonders of the ocean, there are many different ways for visitors to enjoy what lies beneath. However, this is a luxury destination bar none and being able to splash the cash certainly helps.
Flying into the capital Malé is an unforgettable sight - the white-sand islets sprinkled with palm trees look like pearls set in an aquamarine sea. Development has been restrained to discrete low-rise resorts of premium bungalows and infinity pools, and the powdery-white sand is raked to within an inch of its life by staff at daybreak.
The double chain of 1,192 low-lying islands and islets that make up the Maldives (the highest point measures just 2.4 metres) is strung out north-south 400km from India. These are clustered into atolls, and it’s the formation of these atolls that holds the key as to why the Maldives is so rich in coral reefs and attendant sealife.
Only 1 per cent of this archipelago is land. Millions of years ago, volcanic islands would have been visible above the ocean, and corals started to grow around them to form fringing reefs. Over hundreds of thousands of years, the corals grew up and the islands began to sink until they disappeared, each leaving a lagoon surrounded by a barrier reef. This is an atoll; 26 atolls make up the Maldives, each containing coral islets, which the resorts have colonised.
Fish love reefs – only 0.1 per cent of the oceans’ surface has them, yet they are home to 25 per cent of marine species. It is highly likely that your resort will have a dive centre so that you can learn to scuba dive, hire equipment or join a snorkeling group to the best spots.
Whether you are diving or snorkeling, you will be surrounded by bright orange clown fish with their distinctive black and white stripes, “beaky” parrotfish, wafer-thin butterflyfish and bright blue and yellow sturgeonfish. They swim by in schools, darting past in clouds of colour, or mingle in shoals, nibbling at the coral. It is common from an overwater villa to see chunky jackfish swim past in the lagoon; and stingrays, manta rays, eagle rays, turtles, friendly whale sharks and reef sharks are all likely species you will spot.
Resorts differ in access to the reef. Taj Exotica is fringed by a magnificent shallow lagoon that’s ideal for a dip, but it’s a boat ride to the snorkeling reef. At Huvafen Fushi, the beach bungalows look out over the sand, so just grab your complimentary snorkel and flippers and, just metres from the shore, the house reef will reveal all its wonders without you ever being out of your depth.
If you are staying at Huvafen Fushi, there’s a treat in store for nature lovers – the Lime spa offers overwater and underwater treatments. Overwater your pavilion will have a glass-panelled bottom, but descend an enclosed wooden stairway and you emerge into the underwater spa. Floor-to-ceiling windows look out onto the sea bed where a coral garden is now well established. Some of these corals have been “adopted” by guests and planted here by the resort as a lasting contribution to the marine environment. As you lie down for a massage, sunlight pours down and you see clouds of tropical fish in their mother-of-pearl coats swim past. It feels like being in a giant aquarium, yet illuminated by sunlight and visited by sea creatures swimming freely.
So successful has the underwater spa been that the company, Per Aquum, has followed it with the world’s first underwater music club, Subsix, at its sister resort, Niyama, further south in the archipelago. This larger resort has activities galore, because sometimes couples want different things – perhaps you want to flop out on a lounger, whereas your other half just loves to be busy. Together, head to Subsix for an after-dinner drink. It was built as a watertight circular room holding up to 45 guests, and then sunk six metres below the waves. Don’t be surprised to find big-name artists on the bill - Tinie Tempah, the music artist of the moment, played the opening party in October, and London DJ and producer Kris Di Angelis has held a residency here already. Into the wee hours, underwater lights illuminate the coral garden while guests drink and dance the night away. Unforgettable.
The refined pleasures of a tasting menu paired with the perfect wines knows no bounds in sophisticated restaurants across the globe. Naturally, cocooned in the high-end luxury that you find in the Maldives, you have this on a plate, if you choose where you go.
Spending your days in the equatorial sunshine, gazing to the far horizon, lunch in the shade of an overwater pavilion might just tick all the right boxes. And how about a light meal entirely assembled of raw ingredients? At the aptly named RAW, built over the lagoon at Huvafen Fushi, the menu has not a stick of celery in sight. Executive chef Daniel Johnson, presides over such imaginative dishes as horseradish cured Angus beef, tofu guacamole and scallion ginger dressing, or try carpaccio of avocado, local reef fish, wild mushroom, pomegranate and pink peppercorn.
Then, as evening falls, head down to Huvafen Fushi’s fine-dining restaurant Vinium. It’s an intimate underground room, lit by candles and lined with wine stacked to the rafters – just a sample of the 700 bins carried in the cellar. With so much choice the sommelier Ilyas Easa has passion enough and scope enough to make it a meal to remember.
Also underground, but this time under the sea, is Sea.Fire.Salt.Sky at Anantara Kihavah Villas. Dine on roast lamb with rosemary grilled on a Himalayan salt block, while angelfish dart outside. Upstairs in the teppanyaki lounge, there’s more to entertain you as the chefs show off their acrobatic cooking skills. Admire their local rock lobster, grain-fed Japanese beef or catch of the day as they grill it to your liking. At Sky, the all-day-dining rooftop bar, the dishes are presented on skewers. Try and rouse yourself after lunch or you will find you are still encumbent when the cocktail hour arrives.
And if molecular gastronomy curries favour with you, at Niyama, their overwater fine-dining restaurant Edge uses techniques from the chemistry lab. Surprises might include a shot of bubblegum flavoured trifle in a test tube. It’s a British chef de cuisine cooking for you, Arron Rhodes. Just call him Professor.