Is there such a thing as too quiet?

Steve Richards hears how the Maldives missed the worst of the tsunami - and now needs visitors to return to its shores

Here is a sad confession. I don't really like the idea of a winter holiday in the sunshine. Something to do with the shock of switching from familiar, grey cold to alien, blue warmth. What is more, I write about politics for The Independent. I'm a political junkie, and I do not want to miss a second of the pre-election campaign. Yet here I am swimming effortlessly in the Maldives while Britain shivers and its political leaders declaim wildly. Amazingly, I seem to be able to cope.

Here is a sad confession. I don't really like the idea of a winter holiday in the sunshine. Something to do with the shock of switching from familiar, grey cold to alien, blue warmth. What is more, I write about politics for The Independent. I'm a political junkie, and I do not want to miss a second of the pre-election campaign. Yet here I am swimming effortlessly in the Maldives while Britain shivers and its political leaders declaim wildly. Amazingly, I seem to be able to cope.

I am on one of the 1,200 or so islands and islets that make up the Maldives; only 200 of them are inhabited. Until the tsunami they were famous mainly for being a tourists' destination, with even some of the more sceptical guidebooks summarising the islands in a single word: paradise. Now they have become part of a tragic news story. About 100 people were killed on the Maldives, and, according to government officials, 20 of the islands were destroyed. Although the islands that are popular with tourists were mostly untouched, the Maldives continues to take another sort of battering - a perception that they were wiped away or that they have become a dangerous paradise. But of course it's not true.

Our island, Kuramathi, is one of the largest, and is an hour and a half's boat ride from the capital Male. It is shaped like a carrot, its tapered end curving sinuously northwards to a sandbank which gives way to an ocean displaying every imaginable shade of blue, from virtually transparent to deepest midnight. Our water bungalow has steps leading directly down into an occasionally choppy sea. At this eastern side of the island the sound is of the sea thwacking and gurgling beneath the underside of our bungalow. A 50-yard stroll through sand paths between palms and banyan trees and you're looking at another beach.

The ocean immediately around Kuramathi is so shallow that you don't need to strap yourself into a diving suit or even a snorkel to get a ringside seat of the cut and thrust of tropical undersea life. Standing knee-deep among a cloud of tiny, almost transparent herrings, I realise that a school of about eight baby black-tip reef sharks, each one the width and length of your forearm, is moving among them. They're clearing their way as efficiently as heavy duty cops in a football crowd, creating pools of panic, forcing some of the herring to leap out of the water to escape. Brooding over the scene is a pair of herons, who then dart forward like hyperactive ballerinas to claim a fish or two themselves.

Coral reefs ring the island, helping to sustain one of the richest and most diverse marine eco-systems in the world. Six years ago, a rise in seawater temperature caused the coral to change colour from its natural reddish-brown to a paler shade and then to white as much of it died. Walking through shallow water around the island you crunch over pale shards of dead coral. They look exactly like bones.

Now the island management and the diving school employ an Austrian marine biologist, Dr Reinhard Kikinger from the University of Vienna, to study the regeneration of the coral and to act as an adviser on the environmental impact of tourism on the marine ecology of the Maldives. Dr Kikinger says what he is doing is indirectly helping to preserve the reefs. "When guests are informed they take responsibility. Once they understand that coral is an animal and it's delicate, they take care not to stand on it or touch it. Damage which takes a few seconds can take years to repair."

Kuramathi experienced the tsunami as merely a swell that swamped the beaches and did scarcely any damage. Dr Kikinger thinks the coral reefs were partly the saviour of these islands from more extensive damage. "Looking down from the air, you'll see we have many very deep, steep atolls coming up from the depths so the tsunami couldn't build up. Also the coral reefs took up some of the energy, so when the tidal wave got here it was little more than a swell."

From our seaward balcony we watch the antics of windsurfers and dinghy sailors as they wrestle with their sails. When our 15-year-old son Jake sees how fast the dinghies can go, he is keen to try his hand. It's some time since he learnt the basics on a sailing course in Fishguard harbour - what he can mainly remember is how numbingly icy the water was during the obligatory capsize exercise. Now he has an hour with a 20-year-old Maldivian instructor with a Nirvana T-shirt and a natty line in bleached hair. After a quick resumé of the basics, and less than an hour at sea, Jake is sailing solo, zipping confidently the length of the north-eastern coastline. Now he is even talking of sailing at the Welsh Harp Reservoir, off the North Circular Road in London. That's how inspirational it was.

A half-hour boat ride from Kuramathi takes us to the tiny islet of Kandaloudou, barely 250 metres long and 100 metres wide. Just 16 bungalows and beach houses have been built on this ultimate refuge, whose name means "the island of beach lilies". The water bungalows each have a whirlpool spa with uninterrupted ocean views. At the heart of the island is a spa and treatment centre - all wooden decking, wind chime music, pebbles, running water and massage tables looking directly out to the ocean.

It's time for some snorkelling. A coral reef is like a submerged city. All sorts of peculiar and wonderful life forms find a niche and thrive in some sort of strange harmony. Some of the coral formations look like ornamental garden urns, some look like cannonballs while others resemble petrified loaves of bread lying on the ocean floor. Our safari guide Melanie, a marine biologist from Bremen, dives down to point out the clownfish that starred as Nemo in the hit film, and then a sea cucumber. She looks like a sea creature herself, gliding gracefully to the ocean floor.

In the aftermath of the tsunami, these islands are incredibly quiet - even Kurumba, the island which is only a 15-minute boat ride from the airport. During our stay on Kurumba it was preparing for a post-tsunami visit by Bill Clinton and George Bush Snr. That's style for you - not one former president, but two.

Walking to the sandbank one evening to see the sunset, I saw my own sandal print from the day before. That evening, I found a plastic bag scrunched up in the shallows - the only piece of detritus I saw in all the time I was there. I picked it up and binned it. Polluting paradise just isn't right. It was now, briefly, my home, and - mysteriously - I found I was losing interest in the British pre-election campaign.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Steppes East (01285 651010; www.steppeseast.co.uk) offers seven nights at Kuramathi Blue Lagoon in a beach villa from £1,345 per person, or seven nights at Kurumba in a superior room from £1,225 per person. Both prices are based on two sharing and include return flights, transfers and b&b accommodation. Steppes East also offers seven nights on Kandholhu in a beach villa starts from £2,165 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights, transfers and all-inclusive accommodation.

Further information

For information about the resorts contact Universal Resorts (00 960 450 527; www.universalresorts.com). For information about the country contact Visit Maldives ( www.visitmaldives.com).

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