Honestly, I have never enjoyed beach vacations. I prefer traipsing around cities and soaking in the sights, sounds and smells of an urban environment. The contemporary architecture, chattering locals and constant activity that make up a city’s character rejuvenate me – not sand, sunshine and sea. And then I visited the Maldives.
WELCOME TO PARADISE
Located just under five hours away by airplane from Singapore, the Maldives is not so much a country as it is a chain of large and small islands – 1,200 of them, to be exact.
The country’s economy is powered by tourism dollars, and it’s not hard to see why. As the seaplane cut through the clear skies on my way to the resort, the 20-odd passengers on board were peering through the tiny windows, oohing and aahing at the beauty down below. It was a magnificent sight, with azure blue waters as far as the eye could see and picturesque islands that would inspire poets and postcard makers.
Many of the islands are dominated by holiday resorts owned by foreign companies and it was only recently that guesthouses started popping up offering spartan but cosy accommodation to backpackers who wanted to mingle among the locals and hop from island to island instead of being in a luxurious sequestered environment. The majority of the population live in the pint-sized Malé, the capital of the Maldives and your first stop before you’re whisked away to your resort. If you have the time, spend a couple of hours in the city among the Maldivians and discover the real essence of the country, away from the manicured beaches and swaying palm trees.
There is no alcohol and pork in Muslim-majority Malé but lots of fresh seafood caught on the day itself. Take a closer look at your surroundings and you’ll realise that Maldivian women are discouraged from entering certain areas of the city. Foreign women exploring its nooks and crannies, however, won’t raise any eyebrows. The unequal power dynamics have resulted in cases of domestic violence with one out of three Maldivian women falling victim. This statistic (see sidebar below) weighed heavily on my mind when I finally made landfall at COMO Cocoa Island.
Prior to the Domestic Violence Protect Act enacted in 2012, there was little legal recourse for victims of domestic violence. Even so, in 2013, a 15-year-old rape victim was sentenced to 100 lashes for “fornication”. It was only overturned after uproar from the international community. Five years later, the social stigma of reporting such cases is still high and many don’t come forward for fear of reprisals.
THE COMO EXPERIENCE
COMO Cocoa Island is tiny. You can leisurely walk from one end of the resort to the other in less than 20 minutes. The design of the 33 suites and villas, all built above the water, are inspired by the local ‘dhoni’ fishing boats (see picture above). At the back are stairs that lead straight down to the ocean.
Every morning, I would take a dip in the waters and watch the sun emerge and bless the horizon with its beautiful golden fingers. In fact, I scheduled all my activities on Cocoa Island around the daily sunrise and sunset timings, such was their seductive appeal. Nothing beats lazing in the Indian Ocean with a drink in hand while your worries gently bobbed away from you, carried by the tides.
Not that you should be doing a lot at COMO Cocoa Island anyway. A good day consists of a hot breakfast, a long spa session, reading in wonderful solitude and dinner by the beach.
For those chasing a bit more exhilaration, COMO has a long list of marine-centric activities that range from simple fish feeding to swimming alongside a majestic whale shark, the largest animal in the world.
Unfortunately, the whale never popped its giant head up the whole time I was in the Maldives so I went dolphin watching instead. These intelligent aquatic creatures aren’t afraid of humans, and love swimming alongside boats. The best time to head to their habitats is just before sunset when they emerge from the atolls to hunt for their dinner. They travel in packs and employ innovative techniques to catch their prey, from stunning their targets with their fins to corralling them into a confined area like sheep herders so that it would be easier to eat them.
SNORKELING AMONG THE FISHES
Three sunrises later, I moved from the solitude of Cocoa Island to the social COMO Maalifushi, the first luxury resort to open in the relatively untouched Thaa Atoll. Three times bigger than the former, the latter is perfect for honeymooners and families, with facilities geared towards romancing and making or entertaining children.
Many of the holidaymakers I chatted with had also completed the same journey I undertook, travelling from Cocoa Island to Maalifushi. But while I was in the Maldives for only five days, a lot of them were staying in paradise for two weeks on average. It made me wonder what I was doing with my life and why I wasn’t in a job that allowed me to shirk responsibilities for two weeks.
The one thing you need to do at COMO Maalifushi is snorkeling. The resort strongly encourages it, giving you a mask and a pair of flippers for free for the duration of your stay.
For beginners, there are house reefs located a breaststroke away from the safety of your villa but I would recommend tapping on your adventurous side and going a bit further away from the shore by boat. The cornucopia of marine life is truly a sight to behold. I saw the fascinating boxfish, which resembles a cardboard package, a one-metre-long harmless Moray eel and even a Hawksbill turtle, which I affectionately named Crush, after the character from Finding Nemo. I wasn’t sure if it had an Australian accent though.
YOUR OWN PRIVATE ISLAND
Back on dry land, I kayaked to a private island for a barbeque lunch on my last day. The house chef whipped up plates of seafood fresh off the grill and retrieved young coconuts that were in abundance all over the island to wash down our hearty and delicious meal.
As I sat down on a tree stump after the meal, swigging a cold beer and watching the waves lap the sandy shores, I started thinking that maybe beach holidays aren’t that bad after all. Especially if that beach is located in the middle of the Indian Ocean.