The cleaner, or rather her text message, pushed me over the edge, on to the internet and over to the Maldives. She kindly wished me all the best for my birthday, but then expressed the hope that I would "turn over a new leaf " in the year ahead. That was it: the final nudge that I needed to escape from real life for a time, recharge my dwindling energy and reassess my priorities. And where better to do it than the Maldives?
Well, quite a number of places, according to a friend in the travel business. He was keen to recommend destinations suitable for a "highly sociable high-achiever", as he flatteringly described me. The archipelago that drizzles down to the south-west of India was definitely not among them. When I confessed my choice, he unkindly described the journey to come as "lolling on a sandbank in the middle of the Indian Ocean".
As it turned out, two weeks on a sandbank – in my case the island of Kuredu in the Lhaviyani Atoll, 80 miles north of the capital Male – gives you plenty of time to think about where you have been and where you are going, figuratively speaking. By making the "where you are right now" so exquisitely pleasurable, the Maldives is the place where you can start to make sense of life. I chose the Sangu water villas at the Kuredu Resort, on the north-west side of the island. These beautiful wood structures rest on stilts in the water, complete with veranda, sun deck and steps straight down to the lagoon. Nothing like real life, then.
Real life is where I like to be challenged. Each decade I throw myself off a cliff – from student to teacher in China at 20, changing from journalist to lawyer at 30; then, at 40, moving from secure, well-paid position to a new business owner. It takes it out of you, and for me the cracks were clearly showing (at least as far as my cleaner was concerned).
Tourism has been developed carefully in the Maldives: aside from Male, visitors are allowed to stay only on "uninhabited" islands that have been developed into resorts. And on these islands day-to-day life for visitors is as challenge-free as it gets.
The islands are visually soothing, characterised by fine white sand, luscious vegetation and water of simply breathtaking shades of blue. For most of the day they are bathed in brilliant sunlight, save for sunrise and sunset when soft, pretty shades of pink and blue fill the sky. At night, freed from competition with light from land, the moon and stars shine brightly. Jump into the sea and you see yet more natural beauty in the form of corals and fish of every colour of the rainbow. Nature rules.
The temptation to build high-rises has been sensibly resisted. Buildings are allowed to cover only one-fifth of a resort island's area, cannot be higher than the vegetation and must be made from traditional materials – wood and thatch – that blend beautifully into the environment. Small armies of women clean the islands daily, sweeping dead leaves and stones from the paths. No litter, no advertising, no design faux pas. Nothing is ugly, nothing jars.
Strangely, everyone employed in what we are obliged these days to call " customer-facing" roles is male. Contact with the men who work on the resort islands is as soothing as the landscape, and visitors lift their game to respond in kind, dropping the brusqueness and impatience they might display in their home cities. The net result is that exchanges between Maldivians and their guests seem in general to be mutually respectful exchanges: pure harmony. The fact that the ratio of staff to guests on many islands (such as Kuredu) is almost one to one certainly helps in the delivery of what can only be described as impeccable service.
On top of all this, I also revel in a break from all the things that are the downside of living in a big city: the time and effort it takes to get around, the haemorrhaging of cash on a daily basis, the pushing and shoving that comes with too many people in the same place. Kuredu is one of the largest islands, yet it takes about an hour to walk around its shore, barefoot and in comfort. There is no traffic or timetables.
Hardly any visitors to the Maldives carry cash: people either take an all-inclusive deal – paying for everything up front – or sign for things and settle up at the end of their holiday. All-inclusive gets my vote. At work I have to justify every decision I take by carrying out a cost/benefit analysis (sad, but true). And although we may not realise it, this is what most of us do in our personal lives, mostly subconsciously, every day. Is the price of this cup of coffee or cocktail worth the joy it will bring me? Could I spend my money better on something else? All-inclusive is a break from this; no cash also means a break from trussing yourself up in the sort of "hidden" money pouches that wouldn't look out of place at an S&M party.
And as for crime, how many people make their holidays miserable by worrying about being ripped off or mugged or hurt? Again, the Maldives gives you a break from this. You can relax at dinner here without having to worry about getting home safely – all you have to do is walk back to your room along a moonlit beach. I once left two rings, including a solitaire diamond, on the sink in the bathroom by the swimming pool. Someone found them and handed them in to reception.
So what happens to a person in a challenge-free environment? Do you turn into an uninteresting marshmallow? When you're not bent out of shape by external pressures, you are restored to your natural state. This may, of course, be good or bad, depending on where your capacity for happiness is set. I am lucky, I guess. For me, when stresses and the exhaustion they cause are washed away, happiness floods in. I take pleasure in the simple things. I delight in listening to music, reading, floating in the water, feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin, talking to my partner, savouring the delicious food and drink on offer, sleeping on the veranda. Doing all the things I don't do enough of at home – or don't enjoy enough because they are squeezed into mean little time slots. I relish sessions at the spa, where world-class masseuses offered a globe's worth of treatments: ayurvedic, Balinese, Swedish or oriental massage, bringing about a depth of relaxation close to the delicious state you can achieve in hypnotherapy.
As I start to feel rested and stronger, I choose to take on some physical challenges that feel easily manageable, such as long swims, yoga, snorkelling and diving. What's more, solutions to problems back in the real world surreptitiously begin to present themselves to me. At the end of two weeks, I feel wonderfully nourished: calm and blissful. And two weeks after returning home I still feel insulated from life's challenges. A sign in Kuredu's spa reads: "Happiness cannot be found through great effort and willpower. But is already present, in open relaxation and letting go."
The question now is how to achieve that Maldives feeling at home. Somehow, it seems a hugely enticing prospect to invest another couple of weeks and a couple of thousand pounds the next time I need to escape from real life. The Maldives provides escape like nowhere else on earth.
The only direct flights to the Maldives are on Sri Lankan Airlines (020-8538 2001; www.srilankan.aero) from Heathrow to the capital, Male. Visitors tend to use either charter flights from the UK (from Gatwick with Monarch or from Manchester with Thomson) or scheduled services with Sri Lankan Airlines or Emirates. The main islands are well connected by flights on Air Maldives from Male.
Kuoni (01306 747 002; www.kuoni.co.uk) offers eight-night packages to the Kuredu Island Resort from £1,115 per person. The price includes return Monarch flights, all-inclusive accommodation and transfers.
If you have no pre-booked accommodation, immigration officials may require you to book some on arrival at the airport before they will formally allow you in to the country. The least expensive options are likely to be in Male.
To reduce the environmental impact, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk) or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk).
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