A flavour of “real Maldivian life”: The Observer newspaper

Writing for UK-based ‘The Observer’ newspaper, Ruaridh Nicoll asks if it is possible to experience luxury within the atolls of the Maldives without breaking the bank.

“Standing on the bone-white sand, gazing into the clear water, I watched a blacktip reef shark cruise past my big toe. It was a tiny shark, maybe 10 inches long, but it moved as if a major predator: I imagined that in its mind it was the terror of tiny things.

‘Do they bite?’ I asked.

‘No, they are completely harmless,’ said Ali, operations manager of Vilu Reef, a resort on the Maldivian atoll of South Nilandhe. ‘We’ve only had one incident with them. A small boy of maybe four managed to catch one, which is hard , and he carried it up the beach and dropped it in the swimming pool.’

There was, he said, pandemonium.

My gaze rose, over a sea richer in fish than your average aquarium, past cabanas on stilts over the water, past the reef to where a blue seaplane was landing with more guests. The Maldives, coral islands on long-extinct volcanoes, pulsed in the sun – a million visions of paradise.

I’d never thought of visiting the atolls, seeing it as a bit posh, a bit package. A friend from British Airways changed my mind. He complained that because so many visitors to the Maldives were on honeymoon (or were just plain rich), the front of their flights were always packed, while economy sat empty. I got to wondering whether it was possible to visit on the cheap.

Well, it’s not easy. One option is to avoid the tourist islands, of which there are a little short of 100, and go to the local islands, which number 200. That way you will get the flavour of the real Maldivian life, in all its Islamic constraints. It’s fascinating, but there’s no booze, you’ll spend days trying to get around on small ferries, and have to swim in a burqa (for men, that’s optional).

Most of us who work full-time would, I guess, rather indulge the dream. So I looked for a resort that wasn’t a five-star tower of marble and palm fronds and which offered deals out of season. The result was Vilu Reef, a truly international experience.

‘The Chinese are arriving in ever-larger numbers,’ said Ali. ‘And you know what’s interesting? Not many Chinese people swim.’

We were walking across the island, under the shade of the palms and through the lush and scented undergrowth, a journey which took all of five minutes.

‘Then what do the Chinese do here?’ I asked. ‘The island’s tiny.’

‘Well they walk round and round until they are bored and then they dive in. Our lifeguards are trained to look out for it. We pull them out and then we say, We can arrange swimming lessons.'”

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