The Maldives are renowned for their dazzling beaches and luxury resorts. But, as Julia Stuart discovers, their main attractions are underwater

The first sighting of the Maldives comes as a terrible shock to the system. There you are, having just clocked up your tenth infernal hour on a Monarch flight - cursing an airline so cheap it even rents out its headphones - when your attention is drawn to something out of your window. Below you, the dark Indian Ocean has suddenly grown mould-like circles of intense aquamarine with crusty brown bits round the edges. "My God!" you yelp, "the sea's caught the clap!"

The first sighting of the Maldives comes as a terrible shock to the system. There you are, having just clocked up your tenth infernal hour on a Monarch flight - cursing an airline so cheap it even rents out its headphones - when your attention is drawn to something out of your window. Below you, the dark Indian Ocean has suddenly grown mould-like circles of intense aquamarine with crusty brown bits round the edges. "My God!" you yelp, "the sea's caught the clap!"

The wondrous vision below and a bit to the left of India is the start of 1,190 low-lying coral islands that make up the Maldives. Apart from Male, the country's kooky capital, tourists are largely confined to the 86 resort islands. Most come to spend their honeymoon. But, all too aware that I might end up waiting forever, I decided to brave the company of the terminally lovesick. From the airport, an island in itself, I caught a boat to the promisingly named Paradise Island.

Like many resorts, the accommodation is a choice of water bungalows (rooms built on stilts over the ocean connected by a jetty) or beach bungalows. While the resort's description of the latter as "super deluxe" was something of an overstatement, certainly their location was a marvel. I opened the back door, and several thwacks of my flip-flops later across tree-shaded cream sand I was on the beach, stunned at the colour of the water which really does look like it does in the brochures. The beach appeared deserted, as each bungalow is allocated a pair of sun-loungers positioned at a respectable distance from each other near the tree line. There were no pesky kids, no moronic "boom boom" from the beach bar and no hawkers. The only movement came from the odd fruit bat (which resemble furry Chihuahuas with wings) hanging upside down from the tree above and the sweat moustache gently percolating on my upper lip in the 31C heat.

With over three-quarters of the world's reef-fish species knocking around, I didn't linger long but beetled over to the diving school to sign up for an orientation course. However, the word "embolism" and the mention of "treatment in a re-compression chamber" in one of the forms I had to sign put me right off, and I opted instead for a spot of snorkelling. Head in the water, bikini-clad bottom safely on the surface and sounding like Darth Vader, I passed over a coral cemetery into deeper waters. More colours than those seen at New York fashion week flipped by: chaps in a Monet blue, green and mauve ensemble; black fish with pink trims; sludge green and electric blue quivery numbers feeding out of others' gills; yellow spotted ones with matching stripy tails and plump pale grey creatures hanging around like bored London pigeons. I gawped for almost an hour.

Having braved the deep, I then decided to head for the skies. After all, parasailing - being towed from a speedboat while strapped into a harness underneath a parachute 150ft in the air - had always looked such fun. Just in case it wasn't, and I wanted to come down before my time was up, my new chum and I agreed on a hand signal. As I whooshed up backwards into the air from the boat, emitting a fairground scream of utter terror, I quickly realised that it was, in fact, a form of psychological torture and shouted down that I wanted to come back. But my plea was snatched by a passing trade wind. Too petrified to take my hand off the harness to give the signal, I swung in the breeze cursing the fantastic view, vowing never again to sign anything that involved a disclaimer form.

Once winched back on board and finally on dry land, I crossed the island on a winding stone path shaded by banana and coconut trees, where bandy-legged geckos scuttled and red hibiscus exposed themselves. Hoping to recover at the spa, a real charm of a place with outdoor treatment rooms under thatched roofs wafted by the scent of frangipani, I chose the house special massage. It was so good I came out slurring.

In the late afternoon we boarded a dhoni - a traditional wooden boat - for a spot of night fishing. We were each given a line wrapped around a piece of wood, with a shiny piece of tuna on its hook. As we headed out towards the horizon, the sun slipped out of the sky like a radioactive fried egg and the moon shot up opposite it as if on a pulley system. It sat engorged between two sooty clouds as we lowered our lines and waited. I was not entirely hopeful, having spent one afternoon too many on a damp river bank with a sulky boyfriend. But it wasn't long before we were all hauling up red snapper. It was an absolute thrill. Like gamblers convinced of an imminent win, we didn't want to leave when our time was up. That night, we ate our catch prepared at the resort's Sunrise restaurant, built over the ocean, as grey fish chugged past in single file.

The following day as we travelled on a speedboat back to the airport, we watched flying fish make their potty 50ft dashes across the surface of the ocean. We were taking a seaplane to Holiday Island, which has more identical beach bungalows. That evening while we bathed in the warm ocean, beyond the jetty the sun slunk down a vanilla and silver sky while steel-grey clouds swarmed. It was such a ravishing sight I wondered whether someone from the Maldivian tourist board had walked along the jetty tugging the perfect scene into view for our benefit.

At six the following morning we were back on board a dhoni, this time in search of bigger sea life. We found dolphins 20 minutes away, arcing and dipping majestically in a tinsel line drawn on the water by the sun. We watched them in wonder for over an hour, slowly following their hypnotic procession. After a curry lunch from the buffet, my friend and I sloped off to the water sports centre (which is confined to one area of the island to avoid annoying - or decapitating - other guests) and decided to try out the twin-fun ring. We sat next to each other in a tiny inflatable tube being yanked around the ocean by a jet-ski. We returned, tummies sore from hysterics, covered in snot and spit, unable to see from the salt water in our eyes.

Our final stop was Royal Island, a five-star resort with smart wooden-panelled beach bungalows. At the end of each bathroom was a tiny open-air garden with a shower. This is the sort of place I would like to make my permanent address. Despite vowing never again to sign another disclaimer form, I had by now become a fish voyeur and I lusted for more. After 15 minutes of scuba-diving instruction on dry land, we practised some emergency techniques in the ocean (including that vile bit when you have to fill up your mask with water and snort it out). We then sank down below the surface into silence, which was broken only by the squeak of my ears as I equalised. One of the first things I saw happened to be a young (and apparently harmless) reef shark several feet long. But I was so focused on remembering to breath slowly (particularly nasty things happen if you don't) that I wasn't bothered, reasoning I was more likely to kill myself. The sights were indeed worth risking an embolism for - an M25 tailback of big-eye jacks, spotted emperor fish, oriental sweetlips galore, lion fish and black saddle coral trout. It looked as though someone had shaken a jewellery box into the water.

I rewarded my bravery with a massage in the resort's spa, where just inhaling put you on course for nirvana. I chose the marma massage, for which the therapist uses her feet rather than her hands and walks on your back while holding onto two ropes suspended from the ceiling. I prayed that mine was verruca free and not from Russia. Sarojam was in fact Indian and weighed in at 52kilos. And do you know what it felt like? Like an Indian woman weighing 52kilos was walking up and down my back.

On our last morning we went fishing again, this time, to our great excitement, catching two-foot long small-tooth emperors, which were so heavy that two of us had to pull in the lines. They were to be barbecued in one of the restaurants for our last supper. But having become a fully fledged fish nerd, I needed one more fix before returning home. From the resort shop I bought a small laminated tropical fish guide and took it underwater with me while snorkelling. I spent a happy hour spotting adorned wrasses (which came to sniff my mask), blue surgeonfish, long-nose butterfly fish, more oriental sweetlips and one-spot snappers. Thankfully, no one batted an eyelid at such daffy behaviour. Smitten themselves by the Maldives, they simply understood.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

The writer travelled with Tropical Places (0870 160 5022; www.tropicalplaces.co.uk). Seven nights full-board costs £929 per person at the four-star Paradise Island Resort and Spa, and £949 per person at the three-star-plus Holiday Island. Seven nights all-inclusive (drinks are free) at the three-star Fun Island costs £999 per person. Seven nights full- board at five-star Royal Island costs £1,489 per person. All costs include boat or seaplane transfers and are for departures in November. Most watersports and all spa treatments are extra. From next month flights will be with Qatar Airlines from Heathrow via Doha.

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