We recently returned from one of the craziest trips I have ever been on. Over the two-week holiday for Christmas and New Years, we crisscrossed Asia to visit the Maldive Islands, India, and Singapore. We had different reasons for eventually visiting all three destinations, we just never anticipated doing it all in one trip. The four of us have wanted to go to the Maldives since before we got to China. We had all seen pictures of the over-water villas, sapphire calm sea, and gorgeous white beaches in the travel magazines we bought as part of our research before the big move to Shanghai. The girls also have a thing for Fiji, but that’s pretty far from China and I was hoping the Maldives would quench that thirst.
As for India, I had no desire to ever go there. I had heard from many people here who travel to India on a regular basis that it was beyond disgusting. (I apologize to my Indian friends, but my next post will clear things up on India.) My wife felt strongly that if we are in close proximity to one of the wonders of the world (the Taj Mahal), then we should damn well see it. The girls and I protested, and I started to put together an alternative trip to Sri Lanka, which I really want to visit. Due to time constraints, that trip fell apart and the girls and I relented on India.
And Singapore, well who really needs a reason? We were flying Singapore Airlines to the Maldives anyway, so why not stop off on the way back to ring in the New Year? I heard that the city-state takes that holiday very seriously and throws a big party every year, so I booked us for four nights. I also thought Singapore would be the perfect antidote to India, going from Asia’s most disorderly state to its most orderly.
So I met with our rock star of a travel agent, Julie, several months ago and explained what we wanted to do on this trip. One of Julie’s many strengths is to be able to look at you very seriously, no matter what amount of crazy travel talk has just come out of your mouth, and nod in agreement, as if you just asked her to call you a taxi. She will give you a smile (though you know she is thinking “crazy expat”), then she will make the trip happen perfectly (firstname.lastname@example.org), which, of course, she did.
Our first stop was the Maldives, which is the subject of this post. When we entered the airport terminal from the hot tarmac at the capital city of Male, I thought that maybe I’d made a mistake. The Maldives is an Islamic Republic and that means alcohol is banned throughout the country. It is literally a stone’s throw from the equator, and in my opinion it should be against international law to ban booze in the tropics. Unfortunately, a very scary looking guy at security disagreed with me and sent me and the bottle of Vodka I had bought at duty free in Shanghai to a desk in a far corner of the airport. The nicer gentleman behind the desk confiscated the bottle, gave me a receipt, and told me I could pick the bottle back up on my way out of the Maldives. This was going to be a long week in paradise. (Maybe Fiji wasn’t so far away after all.)
Fortunately, once you are out of Male, the 100 Maldivian atolls that house resorts become like a never-ending tropical bacchanalian festival. I have been to many tropical destinations around the world, but I have never seen anything as beautiful as the Maldives. The water is calm and crystal clear, full of untouched coral and fish, and the beaches are pristine perfect. Made up of basically of a long string of large rocks jutting up from the Indian Ocean, the Maldives are about one thing and one thing only: chilling in paradise. Oh, and despite the “law,” there is more alcohol at each resort than on most large cruise ships.
Unlike tropical destinations such as Bali, Thailand, or Hawaii, there is no pressure to “see” things in the Maldives. No cultural attractions, volcanoes, or local craftsmen to visit. The Maldives exist soley for your relaxed pleasure. Yes, there are activities to do if you choose, such as parasailing, snorkeling, jet skiing, and the like, but your resort is on a lush rock in the Indian Ocean. You can turn your kids loose, because they aren’t getting off it. You can do only what you want to do, and you can do it on some of the most beautiful real estate on the planet. Though do it quickly, because they say that eventually global warming is going to swamp the Maldives, and they will disappear under water.
In a perfect world, all of our vacations would start in the Maldives. A week there will cleanse you of all the evil in the world, and prepare you perfectly for anything to come. Your mind can literally turn to mush, because unlike other vacation spots, you needn’t think or make decisions if you don’t desire to do so — no pressure. You don’t so much experience the Maldives as it washes over you, leaving you a much happier, calmer person when you finally have to leave. We did some tropical water activities just because we felt we had to, but mostly we just flopped on a beach or a pool, or at a beautiful tropical bar called Aqua. I grew very tight with the bartender, Rahul. I haven’t felt so relaxed…well…ever.
We stayed at a spectacular resort on the South Male Atoll called Anantara Dhigu (dhigu-maldives.anantara.com). After the 35-minute boat ride from Male, it was like we had arrived on another planet. We entered a large lagoon, which looks like what I imagine heaven to look like. We saw the over-water villas, thick palm trees lining the beautiful beaches, and the crystal clear water. We got off at the dock to a drum welcome, checked in at the open air lobby, and were whisked to our family pool villa on the beach (didn’t do over water thing as they are smaller, and expensive). Stephanie was in the plunge pool before our suitcases were delivered. It was part of a lush “backyard” space with a covered deck, that lead to a private path to the beach. The main room was big, and slept all four of us very comfortably. There was a bar area with large closets and space to put suitcases. That room led outside to a giant walled bathroom with two sinks, a huge bathtub, and two showers. I have to say, the best bathroom I’ve ever seen in a resort.
It took us approximately three minutes to slip into tropical mode at Anantara Dhigu. The resort has a great service called Aquafanatics that is housed on the lagoon. They will help you plan any activity you want, from deep-sea fishing to scuba diving. You sit down in their large, open air, very comfortable bamboo hut and plan what you want to do, when you want to do it, and then they make it happen. We did parasailing and jet skiing for the first time ever, as well as snorkeling, kayaking, and something called Sea Bobs, where the girls bombed around the lagoon, both above and underwater, with hand held propeller devices.
The beauty of the South Male Atoll, besides the obvious, is that it is home to two resorts, which gives you extra dining options. Across the lagoon, via ferry, is the Anantara Veli Resort, which is for adults only, except the restaurants. We had dinner over there one night at the Japanese restaurant, Origami. We sat at the grill table and had the best teppanyaki I have ever eaten. The night before we had dined at our resort’s Fuddan Fusion Grill (excellent, by the way) and made friends with the hostess, Cel, who is from the Philippines. When I ran into her the day after teppanyaki, she asked how our dinner had been and I told her how much fun we had with the chef. She smiled knowingly and told me that she had called chef Alfie, also a Filipino, that morning and told him to “really take care of the Hamptons.” Have I ever mentioned how far great, personalized customer service goes when you are traveling?
We flopped hard for a week — and even did a family spa day — and the Maldives did what the best tropical vacations are supposed to do mentally, emotionally, and physically — cleanse the coating of the real world off you and prepare you for what comes next in life. For us, next up was India, and oh sweet mother did we need that cleansing week in the Maldives. We just didn’t know it at the time. That will be part two of this trip and post. Enjoy this cleansing post, because things get dirty next.