Travel: 100 degrees of solitude

Despite the honeymooners, the Maldives is a great place for enjoying some tranquillity.
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The precise moment when I was struck by the weirdness of the situation was when I saw the man ahead of me on the jetty carrying, hoisted up on his shoulder, my suitcase. He was walking about 10 paces in front, and I was following, carrying only my sunglasses. I've lugged a rucksack across the Far East and most of Europe, and I pride myself on being a hardened traveller. I'd never before in my life travelled with a suitcase. It usually lives under my bed, coming out only to hold my posh clothes when I move house. But now someone was carrying it for me. Up a jetty. Towards a tropical island resort.

The rain, wind and frost of a relentless British winter had been getting me and my boyfriend down; in February we saw a cut-price air fare to the Maldives, and rather recklessly booked two weeks there, thinking only of an escape to 30C-plus temperatures. It was afterwards that we got worried. Would we be bored? Was the resort going to be a nightmare? What do people do all day on a tropical island?

In the ensuing weeks, I discovered that everybody's heard of the Maldives but no one knows quite where they are. They are an independent Islamic republic of 1,192 coral islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean, south west of Sri Lanka, inhabited by about 250,000 people. Twenty years ago, the Maldivian government came up with a master plan for sustainable, environment- friendly tourism, citing what they termed "the Robinson Crusoe factor" as the islands' main attraction. Tourists were to be limited to a small number of islands and resorts were to be traffic-free, with buildings that weren't taller than the vegetation and could provide all the necessary catering and infrastructure so that waste disposal and fuel consumption could be regulated and controlled. This gave rise to more pre-holiday cynicism; just how solitary can you feel when you're sharing your island with 500 other Robinsons?

When I arrived at Meerufenfushi - the island at the end of the jetty - the weirdness intensified. A man in a Hawaiian shirt handed us lurid drinks adorned with cherries and, as I discovered throughout my two weeks there, similarly dressed men appeared wherever you looked - serving food, answering phones, talking to guests, tilling the soil, making up rooms, and - weirdest of all - raking the sand. I didn't, however, see a single Maldivian woman. When I asked our waiter where they all were, he looked confused for a moment, then said: "On another island."

Meeru is one of the larger island resorts in the North Male Atoll. It's roughly a mile square, rimmed by white sand beaches and an almost waveless turquoise sea. Rows of rooms are shaded by jungle vegetation, all of them self-contained, with air-conditioning, a veranda and - that quintessentially Maldivian domestic feature - a private, alfresco shower-room. For an island that plays host to so many guests, its most noticeable feature is the silence. There are so many trees, so many shaded inlets and so many mini-beaches that it is perfectly possible to pretend you're alone for a day - as long as you're prepared to discount the free-for-all mass buffet meal-times.

Boredom was something I needn't have worried about. What I hadn't accounted for in my pre-resort holiday nerves was the acclimatisation that takes place after a day or two - both to the oven-like temperatures and to the pace of life. It's like living in slow motion. I am not known for being equable or relaxed, but I soon found I could spend a whole morning just thinking about going for a swim.

My workaholic boyfriend and I became accustomed to 10- or 11-hour sleeps; I would spend hours gazing at trapezoids of light swinging across the bottom of the pool, wandering through the shallows looking for baby sharks and crabs, reading in one of the cafes, or floating aimlessly on my back in the sea.

One night we sat on a beach for ages as Hammer Horror forks of lightning cracked open the horizon and lurid green phosphorescence glinted brightly, like cats' eyes, on the shore of the sea.

The one thing the "Robinson Crusoe" idea doesn't do justice to is the sub-aqua world of these islands. We put on masks and snorkels on our second day, for want of anything better to do, and then practically refused to resurface until our return plane was threatening to leave the runway. Imagine a tropical aquarium, full of clear, warm water and coloured fish; magnify it in size to infinity, and then imagine yourself swimming through it. If, like us, you decide that snorkelling just isn't enough, you can do a scuba-diving course and go down further to swim among thousands of angel fish and herds of dolphins, sharks (the white reef tip kind - small, and friendly), turtles and giant clams.

As the environment minister, John Prescott, recently showed, though, the coral here is dead and lies wearing the grey colour of old socks. A Russian geologist told me over dinner one night that all may not be lost. As we saw, the fish haven't deserted it, and he explained that the warmer temperatures of El Nin that destroyed the coral's living core may just act like a forest fire - a natural disaster that will allow regeneration to take place in its wake. In places, there are signs that the vibrant colours of living coral are beginning to return each year, along with the latest batch of holiday-makers.

The Maldives may not be a place for single people - the veritable plague of honeymooners here lie on sun loungers, build sandcastles together or spend their days snogging in the pool - but if you fancy a bit of couple- based solitude and more than a touch of "The Big Blue" factor, get yourself down to a travel agent. A word of warning though - when you're snorkelling, make sure you have plenty of sunblock on your bum. I failed to do this and was left with a perfect, burnt crescent on each buttock, rendering me unable to sit down for two days.

Maggie O'Farrell paid pounds 430 for a special-offer return flight from London to Male' with Emirates (0171-808 0808). Current fares cost pounds 645 from London Gatwick through Dnata Travel (0500 777310).

Full-board accommodation at the Meeru Island Resort (00 960 440082) cost US $100 per night for two people and the motor boat to the island (about 40km from the airport) costs US $80. A $40 introductory dive class takes one morning and allows you to dive to 12m with an instructor. A full PADI open-water diving course on Meeru starts at around US $450 per person

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