Monday 2nd April 2012, 2:06am
Choose the right resorts and going solo is a unique joy
GOING on holiday alone is one thing. Going on holiday alone to the world’s foremost couples’ destination is rather another. I wasn’t off to backpack around the villages of the Himalayas or go down and out in Bangkok and Hanoi, bumping into new people and places every five minutes. No: I set off on a honeymoon with myself: two Maldives resorts, a pair of Birkenstocks I ended up never wearing, single deckchairs and Diet Cokes for one.
Friends took bets before I went on whether I’d go mad, get depressed at going solo in a sea of love, or – actually – fall in love with my own company.
I was curious about the outcome, too, but it made no odds: I had to get to the Maldives. I’m not one for repetitive dreams but for months I’d have one in which I finally made it to the world’s most idyllic archipelago and it would be raining, cold and windy. I’d wake up upset, yearning to go there and prove that it wasn’t so. Anywhere else, maybe, but not there.
And finally, the week before last, I got there. And it was sunny. Boilingly, unrelentingly clear-skied and still; the water a range of colours it makes me salivate to remember.
New “paradise” destinations are emerging all the time; from Philippino islands to Malaysian peninsulas to private Cambodian bays. Mauritius, the Seychelles, Tahiti…the world is blessed with paradise hotspots – particularly if you have money.
But the Maldives are the purest form of holiday idyll: a place where luxury meets shocking natural beauty with such perfected harmony that even promotional pictures don’t do it justice. The place looks computer generated, for crying out loud – and the result is that it’s just as wonderful a place to recalibrate on your own as (I’d imagine) it is to go for a lust-fest with your new spouse. Maybe better.
Relaxation begins with the journey there, simply because it is easy. British Airways flies direct from Gatwick to Male, the higgledy-piggeldy capital (bright, closely packed buildings on a tiny round island – not unlike Manhattan), three times a week, departing at 6pm and arriving around 9am. (You can fly non-direct with Emirates, too, for less money.) The five-hour time difference is eminently manageable – if you haven’t napped on the plane, you can have a cheeky one when you arrive, skip the blazing heat of the day, and emerge fresh-faced for the second half of the sun’s journey west. Stepping off the plane bleary-eyed is no problem as your resort will have arranged your transfer: expect a beaming emissary in arrivals to whisk you to either a motorboat or a seaplane.
The country is Islamic but its increasingly hard-line elements aren’t felt by most tourists. Israeli stamps didn’t attract the remotest blink from passport officials, nor did the revealing nature of my top (and those of the other female holidaymakers loping out of the airport). Traditionally less conservative than other Islamic nations, the well-publicised protests at the end of last year by the opposition party Adhaalat saw calls for the shutting down hundreds of resorts’ spas, halting the sale of alcohol entirely and preventing plans for direct flights to Tel Aviv. In February this year, the overthrow of President Mohamed Nasheed indicated further destabilization. But my impression from talking to a dozen or so locals was that any unpheaval is under control – at least temporarily – and certainly the journey from airport to resort island should be a smooth one.
Of just under 2,000 islands in total, around 100 are resorts, ranging from the three-star (budget by Maldives standards, but still not cheap), to the five-plus star. There are an increasing number of hip and clubby luxury hotels appearing, particularly in the southern atoll – for example, the brand new Ayada, Nyama and Viceroy resorts, featuring the likes of an underwater nightclub (Nyama). There is classic, impeccable luxury from One and Only and the Four Seasons’ two resorts, along with an iconic Six Senses property and outposts of large groups like Taj, Hyatt, Shangri La and Sheraton.
There’s no escaping honeymooners but I chose my resorts carefully, opting for “barefoot chic” and youthful (naturally): the super laid-back Cocoa Island and the more high-octane W, where sexiness is encouraged with every move you make, from the selection of circular swings on your private terrace to the groovy condoms in your minibar.
Cocoa Island – a COMO resort with a brilliant Shambhala spa and healthy spa menu to go with it – is just 45 minutes by boat from Male. It’s got a fabulous lagoon around which the villas are ranged in an arc, all with legs built into the palest of green water. You merely step down your ladder and you’re in the water. You can walk a long way in the shallows – or just relax in them. One evening I took a Diet Coke out to a sandbar as the sun set and watched as the sky met the water in a soft purply haze, a lone fishing boat bobbed in the distance, and a lone stork searched for fish. In the Maldives, the underwater world is just as beautiful, and far more interesting, than that above. The second you look underwater (I opted to snorkel rather than dive), you are treated to all sorts of sights - from bright purple, pulsating coral to an array of Finding Nemo-style fish (such as the Oriental Sweetlips, left); I saw stunning great green parrot fish, trumpet fish and lots more. It’s worth taking the group snorkel trip out to an outer reef so that a guide can point out the species to you.
It’s very easy to be healthy at a COMO retreat, and maximizing wellbeing is an obvious project for a solo traveler. I stuck with the Shambhala healthy menu, a delectably virtuous array of raw veggies, fragrant fruit, fresh seafood, miso-marinated fish with brown rice and the like. The waiters laughed at me for ordering so many vegetables. But, washing this cuisine down with a rich fresh mango juice every day, combined with long snorkels and daily gym workouts when the sun was too hot to be outside, my transformation from pale, bloated and tired to relaxed, thinner and clear-headed, was decidedly rapid.
After three days, I left my spacious wood bungalow and took my sunburned self back to Male and onto a seaplane for the W, in another part of the northern atoll. If Cocoa is all about the sound of the sea splashing gently against the jetty, the W is about clubby vibe music. Cocoa offers you a coconut juice on arrival; the W leaves you alone with a couple of martini glasses and a shaker filled with bubble tea, alongside white chocolate rolls to be eaten with chopsticks. Cocoa is understated, while the W is brashly cool and – if you’re willing to pay – more luxurious. I had a villa set back from the beach, with a private plunge pool and deck area. More expensive would be one of the ocean villas, which have clear, sea-view floors, and direct-water access from sunbed-tastic terraces.
Although the water is laughably beautiful all over the Maldives, from pale-lagoon hue of the shallows, to the shocking green of the reefs to the deep turquoise of the deeps, it seemed that the W had the edge, waterwise. I lay on a deck chair on the beach and just gaped at the stripe where reef met deeps. And the W’s reef is one of the best in the Maldives – not only were turtles, giant purple jellyfish, massive jackfish and dozens of gorgeous small fish everywhere present, but at night, harmless reef sharks swim to the illuminated waters under the resort’s super-swanky Fish restaurant. This is a sight to remember: one evening I saw four two-metre sharks swimming about, nuzzling rocks and nibbling food some Russian guests had thrown for them. Earlier that evening, the bay was riven by waves as swarms of little fish jumped out of the water away from hungry jackfish, hunting them in twos, pincer-style.
Far from feeling lonely or bored on my own, I felt there was too much to do and take in. By the time I’d eaten and slept, swum and gymed, sunbathed and ogled the fish and the sunset, I found myself wishing for more hours in the day.
My Maldives glow is fading now. But what a glow it was: whether you’re in a couple or on your own, I can vouch for the fact that a few days on this cluster of islands really is as good as it looks and, luckily, with better weather than in my dreams.
Article by Zoe Strimpel - CITY A.M. 2 April 2012