3/23/08 - 4/19/08
The Republic of Maldives is a 700 mile long chain of atolls in the Indian Ocean just south of Sri Lanka. Twelve hundred tiny islands sitting atop coral atolls dot the otherwise open ocean that make up the country. Of all those islands, only about 200 are inhabited and over half of those are private or resort islands. The remaining few piles of sand are home to about 300,000 Maldivians.
Beyond that basic information from the websites for Club Med, Fun Island or a few dozen more resorts and dive boats, there is little outside proof that the Maldives actually exist as a country. There is basically no information available for independent travel in the Maldives. So how did we end up there? Well, Mary would argue that the Maldives are conveniently on the way to Paris from Bankok. Aside from that, the warm waters teeming with whale sharks and mantas make for good diving. We initially booked a two week liveaboard dive boat trip, but later on extended our stay 2 weeks longer when it seemed that spring wasn't arriving in Paris fast enough.
Our visit started aboard the MV Stingray dive boat. In two weeks, we zig-zagged through dozens of islands and dive sites across five of the Maldive's 27 atolls. We managed to wander the sandy streets of a handful of inhabited islands, have candlelit dinner on a deserted isle and sun on a sandbank or two. Below the surface, we were treated to mantas, whale sharks, hammerheads and plenty of reef sharks. We even had guest appearances by dolphins and a sailfish(!)
After the cruise, we had the whole of the Maldives to explore. But -surprise!- this country really is all about resorts and dive boats. Outside the immediate area of the small capital island of Male, there is very little available to the independent traveler. Male and the couple of nearby non-resort islands can be seen in a couple days. Further 'locals' islands can be reached by ferry, but return trips may be several days away and the chance of finding a tourist hotel outside Male are zero. The choices really are to stay at a resort on a private island, on a dive boat or at a hotel in the Male area. We felt we saw enough island life while on the boat and decided we'd be happy to just relax near the capital for a bit.
So our final two weeks in paradise were spent at the only hotel on the new island of Hulhumale. That's right, when the Maldives run out of space, they just fill in a shallow reef to make another island. Now it looks like the beginnings of a business park with nicely paved roads lined with pine trees. And pinecones. In the Indian Ocean. Weird. But "projects"-style apartments are popping up quickly to turn this strip of man-made paradise into a commuter suburb. For now, it's a quiet place to relax with a near private stretch of Maldivian sand. Quiet? You bet. Construction here happens on island time.
Life on the MV Stingray
We were pretty nervous about spending two weeks on a boat. But we both found our sea legs right away and spent so much time diving, eating and sleeping that we never had a chance to get bored. The boat itself was spacious for the 18 passengers onboard and most of the pasty Europeans stayed topside to capture that trophy sunburn.
Under the waves
We came for big fish and the Maldives delivered. On 36 dives, we had mantas on five and sharks on about half, including a school of hammerheads. Dolphins appeared for two, a sailfish for one and I spotted the only frogfish of the trip on another. The remainder of the dives were disappointingly sparse. When the big fish weren't around, there just wasn't much to see. The coral is poor, macro life is nonexistant and general fish life is just mediocre. We had somewhat poor visibility of 10ft to 50ft, but temperature was a balmy 82F-86F. Currents were not nearly as bad as we had expected, though we did have a couple of dives that literally blew us away. Our whaleshark day consisted of about 5 hours of driving the boat around in search of shadows. When spotted, we'd all jump in and swim with the slothly shark until he'd shy away into deeper water. In all, we snorkeled with seven, ranging from about 20ft to 35ft. Sadly for the photo album, the camera housing leaked on day three, so there are very few photos. Thanks to Marcel for a few of his.
There isn't much going on yet on our island of Hulhumale, so most days involved taking the 20 minute ferry to Male to walk around the tiny capital for gelato or chocolate cupcakes, pick up ciabatta and olives to picnic or go in search of any open shop with A/C during the absolutely random "closed for prayer" times. Male is so small that the entire island can be walked around in about an hour, yet its streets are so crammed with mopeds and cars you think you're in Los Angeles. Sadly for us, it's an LA without bacon in this Islamic land.
For me, the Maldives are most beautiful from the air where you can see the rainbow of blues and greens as the atolls fade into the ocean. Unfortunately, we flew in and out at night and so missed the whole show! Here's a few stolen photos just for fun.