The trouble with the Maldives, people used to say, is that there’s nothing to do when you get there. The country consists of more than a thousand islands. It is remote. It’s hard to transport things there, so don’t expect restaurants, nightclubs, fine wine and so on. Expect to be sitting on a desert island, under a parasol, or even just a palm tree, eating local dishes. Remember to bring a book. That’s what people used to say.
Actually, that’s exactly what I want to do. My ideal holiday consists of two things: reading books, and swimming in the sea. And that’s what I’m hoping for from the Maldives. There are so many islands, and the islands are so small, that lots of resorts are whole-island affairs. There isn’t that problem that you get in the Caribbean: the dilemma of having open beaches – full of people trying to sell you drugs; or closed beaches – which make you feel like you’re in some kind of compound. Sometimes there is a fence, with crowds outside, trying to attract your attention.
After a seven-hour flight from London to Qatar, followed by another four and a half-hour flight, I arrive in Malé, the capital, about 250 miles southwest of the southern tip of India. The air is humid. Parts of the airport are under construction. It has the feel of the Caribbean. I’ve read that there’s Caribbean-style trouble in Malé: corrupt politicians, drug gangs, stabbings, and so on. But I’m not worried. I’m off to another island, 100 miles further south. Though it might seem selfish, you wouldn’t worry about trouble in London if you were on holiday in Dorset, would you?
I’m going to stay at two resorts. The first, Niyama, opened earlier this year and is a 45-minute journey from Malé by seaplane. I look at the Maldives from the air. There are lots of islands, some round, some long and thin. Some are tiny, like the desert islands you see in cartoons. Some are not even islands, but sandbars aspiring to be islands. Looked at from the air, you can see what people mean when they say the Maldives is the world’s lowest country. If the water rose just a few metres, the islands would all disappear.
We touch down in the sea and climb on to a jetty. I’m led to a studio – a little bungalow, fitted out to the height of luxury. There’s a big, flatscreen TV, an iPad, an indoor/outdoor bathroom, and a plunge pool. The outdoor part of the bathroom is a bit like an oriental water garden, with a shower at the end. There are big ants. There’s a big spider. The sea is yards away. Offshore, there’s a construction on stilts, which is Edge, a restaurant specialising in Heston Blumenthal-style molecular gastronomy, and the entrance to Subsix, Niyama’s just-launched underwater nightclub.
How do you build an underwater nightclub? You build a large, watertight room, take it out to sea, attach weights to it, and sink it to the seabed. Then you hire a DJ from London. The thing about Niyama, I’m beginning to see, is that it is a comprehensive answer to the notion that there’s nothing to do in the Maldives. I still prefer the idea of sitting under a palm tree and reading a book, and then another book, and losing all track of time. But I get the impression Niyama doesn’t quite want me to do that.
This resort is tailored for the modern, well-off couple. You live in a city. You are both busy. To an extent, you both lead separate lives. You are adept at multitasking. Well, you can continue this tradition here. There is no sudden need to relax and spend all day with each other. There’s a spa. There’s a library. There’s WiFi. You can watch movies. There’s a games centre, where you can play Xbox or PlayStation games. Not only that, you can play games of simulated football, golf and basketball, with a huge screen that covers a whole wall. There are also simulated shooting games, with clay pigeons. You can even bring down virtual planes. For a while, I throw a basketball at a virtual hoop, pitch a baseball at a life-size batter, and take penalties against a life-size virtual goalkeeper. I flick an ice-hockey puck. I could spend all day here. And, of course, there’s always the sea.
A boat takes me to a tiny, uninhabited island, where I snorkel. There are hundreds of fish – more than that, hundreds of types of fish. Powder blue with yellow fins. Orange with black and white stripes. Red. Black. On the island, there are huge bees and, again, enormous ants.
Back on Niyama, I notice there’s a gym. Nobody is in the gym. I sit by my little plunge pool and read. Having a plunge pool is great, in a way, but you probably don’t swim in the sea quite as much, even when the sea is yards away. I have a massage in the spa. On the terrace of the spa, just above the beach, I see two small sharks; they’ve come right up to the beach.
In the evening, I take a boat to the construction on stilts. I sit on the terrace, drinking cocktails. It feels weird – not unpleasant but definitely strange. Then I have an expensive meal in the slick, black-marble Edge; it’s like a trendy place in London, with artistically presented fish and vegetables, and things that taste odd but in a memorable way.
Then I enter the nightclub. It strikes me as odd, to have a nightclub in a resort aimed at couples, because a nightclub is where you want to go when you’re single. But I gather Niyama attracts people in groups, often from Russia. In Subsix, so-called because it lies six metres down, you look out of the windows and see fish swimming past. Which makes it an unusual nightclub – normally there are no windows to speak of. I sit at the window, watching fish.
The next day, I find myself watching TV. My metropolitan side, nudged by Niyama, is making a resurgence. I lie on my bed, reading newspapers on my iPad, looking through my curtains at the plunge pool, and the sea beyond. Maybe I’ll go for a plunge. Maybe not.
Huvafen Fushi, the second resort I stay at, is a 45-minute boat ride north of Malé. It’s tiny and, immediately, I feel more relaxed. I stay in a bungalow on stilts. Part of my floor is a glass panel. I find myself watching the BBC news, and scanning the floor for fish. On my screen is a big picture of Jimmy Savile; soon afterwards, a nurse shark swims underneath me. There seem to be more fish here than on Niyama, possibly more than anywhere I’ve been.
The resort had a big refurbishment this summer and it offers all sorts of quiet, relaxing things: restaurants, great beaches, a library, a spa. The facilities are faultless. The restaurants are excellent. I’ve never seen a wine list like this outside a large city. But mostly I end up sitting on my terrace, looking at fish. Immediately below me, in the coral, are the hundreds of reef fish I saw when I went snorkelling – and a big, snake-like Moray eel, which makes me flinch, even though I’m not actually in the water. Further out to sea, something fascinating is happening.
What’s this? At first you see what appears to be a cloud passing across the water. It’s actually a cloud of tiny fish. Black seabirds swoop through the cloud, snapping them up. The cloud keeps moving. Then you see bigger fish leaping out of the water. A shoal of predators. Next, there’s a sort of frenzy. The water boils with murder; funny how mesmerising it is to watch. And it’s quiet for a while. But not for long.
These days, in the Maldives, you could have a holiday that was not quiet for long. You could be pretty active. Even if you came from a huge city, such as London or New York, you wouldn’t have to worry too much about culture shock. But, actually, culture shock is what I want. And Huvafen Fushi offers it – or a very luxurious version of it. You can sit and read, under a parasol. You can watch the fish. You can pretend you’re in the middle of nowhere.
William Leith was a guest of ITC Classics (www.itcclassics.co.uk) which offers seven nights at Niyama, from £2,350 per person, half board, including return flights with Qatar from London Heathrow and seaplane transfers; seven nights at Huvafen Fushi with breakfast and flights from London with Sri Lankan and speedboat transfers costs from £2,699