Travel

Travel Reports

Maldives



You have to hand it to Sri Lankan Airlines. They make a damned fine cup of tea, and although it's not served up in clattering St Mary Mead bone china, flying with them transports you back in time to a more genteel Home Counties' yesteryear. The stewardesses, resplendent in emerald-green saris, have the poise, elegance and elocution of Roedean alumni, and any awkward customer request is met with polite but glacial Swiss-finishing-school dismissiveness. The Captains too have that assured, clipped diction that wouldn't sound amiss in a 1950s’ BBC public information broadcast – all that's missing is for Miss Marple to find a body. It seems an incongruous introduction to the Maldives, but until the world's most photogenic atoll chain launches its own international airline (unlikely), Sri Lankan Airlines keeps its paradise-bound British clientele happy with the best brew in the skies.

Tourism arrived late in the Maldives, and it was only by the skin of its teeth that it avoided becoming the Costa del Indian Ocean, thanks to an unlikely combination of hippies and conservative Islam. The Maldives are staunchly Islamic but, by the mid-70s, they had become a popular hangout for pot-smoking Italian hippies with a penchant for nude frolicking on the beaches. Their antics so enraged local sensibilities that president Gayoom was forced to intervene and draw up a tourism blueprint.

Several uninhabited islands were handed over for development where, away from prying eyes, tourists would be relatively free to do as they pleased. In a masterly stroke of foresight, the president also realised that the Maldives’ chief allure lay in its Robinson Crusoe good looks and pristine marine environment. To preserve this, he opted for a limited number of luxury resorts with stringent environmental and architectural controls, thus saving the islands from the horrors of mass tourism. Speeding across North Male lagoon from the airport to the Full Moon Resort on Furanafushi Island, I could immediately see the wisdom of this decision. Few places on earth seem so fragile and vulnerable to the elements. The ocean is so envelopingly blue, the few palm trees on the tiny specks of land that pass for islands seem to be waving for help as they sink into inky oblivion. There's no way that these miniscule islands could possibly have survived a Benidorm-scale tourism onslaught.

Wherever you go in the Maldives you're greeted with refreshing citronella towelettes. You'll also do a lot of jumping on and off golf buggies, which trundle lackadaisically around the resorts, transporting guests to and from their rooms. Heeding the rather alarmist warning that “falling out could result in injury or death”, I held on tight and soon felt like a lemon-scented Queen Mother, meandering through the sandy hibiscus and frangipani-filled gardens to my beachside villa. This stood like a thatched Masai hut yards from the limpid pale-blue lagoon, and its sleek teak-finished interior came complete with a delightful outdoor desert-style bathroom. I showered with the cutest designer geckos east of Timbuktu.

It can take a while to adjust to the slow pace of the Tropics, and one of the best ways to unwind is to take a sunset dolphin cruise. Boarding the boat, I was greeted by a handsome crew of Maldivian lads with dazzling smiles, who, like Borat the Kazakhstani cultural ambassador, all shook hands with me and completely ignored the women in the group. Once we reached the open sea, a school of dolphins quickly appeared, racing like silver arrows in front of the prow of the ship. I was horrified to find myself feeling resentful towards them as they seemingly flaunted their freedom at me. Ten minutes later, though, I was utterly mesmerised. From of sheer exuberance, they started leaping out of the water and twirling like champion Olympic divers. Any residual grudge I had quickly dissolved in wonder and admiration. It hadn't taken long to slip into the tropical rhythm of Maldivian life, and that evening as I sat enjoying a pre-dinner cocktail at the beachside bar I felt deeply relaxed. The only tense moment came when, in a scene straight out of Ray Harryhausen's Mysterious Island, I jumped out of my skin as some monstrously magnified silhouettes of pincer-waving crabs, caught in the beach floodlighting, scurried across the sand.

“Drop your pants, Sir,” Tan, my diminutive Thai masseuse, ordered, sending me flushing in crimson embarrassment. She was the first woman to ask me to do this since a matronly doctor had given me a medical inspection in the Fourth Form. I was preparing for a Maldivian "monsoon" massage in the Full Moon's spa, located on a peaceful sandy islet just offshore from the main resort island. She'd just pinched the palm of my hands and, observing how quickly the blood flowed back, had determined that I was a “cool monsoon”. Feeling quite pleased but anything but cool, I flung myself facedown on the massage couch to avoid any further chagrin. Dropping a hot sand poultice infused with seawater on my back, Tan began to pummel it gently, an exquisite feeling akin to having bread dough kneaded on ones back. She then trickled over my back an exotic cocktail of Ayurvedic oil mixed with local herbs with seductive-sounding names, such as lansimoo and bokharu. A warm tingle immediately spread over my skin, and slowly she began to crush my back muscles with powerful forearm strokes that followed the rhythm of the breakers crashing on the nearby shore. Occasionally I looked up to see surfers careering along the crest of the waves, and although I had slight pangs of masculine envy, I knew where I'd rather be.

The following day I made the two-hour crossing over the choppy Indian Ocean to Kuramathi Island on the remote Ari Atoll. With feet dangling in the sparkling sea spray, the strong wind tickling my eyelashes and flying fish and the odd dolphin leaping out of the water, the journey couldn't have been more exhilarating. Kuramathi feels wilder than the manicured Full Moon, and consists of a collection of thatched Polynesian-style villages scattered through a forest fluttering with ghostly flying foxes and squawking parakeets.
I was keen to experience the Maldives' legendary marine life. It’s home to 75% of all known reef fish species and, after checking into my water bungalow, I wasted no time in donning snorkelling gear and swimming out to the nearby reef. No sooner had I reached the open sea, than I was confronted by two enormous, round Jackfish, floating stupidly like submerged Space Hoppers while a greedy looking Reef Shark, as big as me, hungrily eyed them up. These sharks are quite harmless, but I beat a hasty retreat back behind the reef while the dithering trio decided who would eat whom. Twenty minutes later I returned, and was soon swimming in shape-shifting shoals of fish, flashing like paparazzi in the underwater sunbeams. I quickly adopted a favourite species. This was the Pinocchio-nosed Pipe Fish, which, for the rest of my trip became a sort of underwater gay companion. Every time I looked round, I could be guaranteed that a devoted posse of lavender-coloured noses would be poking over my shoulder.

Back on Kuramathi, at sunset, I strolled over to the beachside spa for a self-indulgent double treatment comprising an Indian foot massage followed by an “Oriental Glow” body wrap. This time, I was given a ridiculous paper posing-pouch to wear, and I couldn't resist pulling my best Athletic Model Guild muscle pose, which sent Sindhu, my sweet Keralan masseuse, into fits of giggles. To a lilting soundtrack of Indian flute music, she grabbed some ropes dangling from the ceiling and began an extraordinarily dextrous ballet, in which her feet glided up and down my back and expertly sought out the knots with her nimble toes. Turning me over, she then placed her big toe in my navel and moved it in a circular motion to energise my solar plexus. It definitely worked as, by the time she'd covered me in honey and sesame seeds and swaddled me tightly in towels for my body wrap, I felt like a fidgety embalmed pharaoh, bursting with energy.
Kuramathi is unquestionably honeymoon heaven. Towards the tip of the island motionless herons and skittish rainbow-coloured lizards hide under the tiny palm trees. These gradually give way to an impossibly romantic spit of dazzling white sand, flanked by a gently lapping aquamarine lagoon. It's here that newly-weds come for their paradise photo shoots, the girls posing like Little Mermaids on the water’s edge while the guys strut like Freemans catalogue models along the sand. Honeymooners can be a bit of a nightmare for single gay travellers, but only if you acquiesce to their cliquey dominance. I was having none of that. The following day, I strode purposely up to the end of the sand bar in my Speedos, laid a garish purple sarong on the sand, took out a good book and settled down for a balmy afternoon's sunbathing. No doubt I ruined many a honeymooner's snapshot, but I didn't feel guilty at all. Instead, I felt really pleased that, as a gay man, I'd staked a rightful claim to my fair share of this ultimate paradise getaway.

Essentials
Kuoni Travel (01306 747008, www.kuoni.co.uk) offers seven nights at Kuramathi Cottage & Spa on room-and-breakfast basis in a beach bungalow, and seven nights at Full Moon on room-and-breakfast basis in a deluxe room, including flights with Sri Lankan Airlines from Heathrow with transfers in resort. Prices for September 2007 from £1506 per person, based on two sharing.

For further information on both resorts, visit www.universalresorts.com

Neil Gregory

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