The Maldives: A taste of Eden
The Maldives offers gourmet food and luxury on tap. The perfect place for dive virgin Christina Patterson to take the plunge
Saturday 28 October 2006
When I first saw pictures of Baros I thought they had been re-touched. I knew that the Maldives were meant to be picture-postcard pretty, but nothing quite prepares you for the startling vividness of those colours. First, there's the sea, shifting in clear steps from a deep amethyst blue to a brilliant turquoise seen otherwise only in Liz Hurley's range of swimwear. Then there's the sand - not so much golden as eye-dazzlingly white and fringed, of course, with palm trees. It is like a Disneyland parody of paradise, one created, perhaps, for some tale of innocence lost and found or of true love in a garden of Eden.
For the other thing that everyone knows about the Maldives is that it's a place for honeymoons, one that's very far away and where there's nothing to do except bask in the sunshine and gaze into your loved one's eyes. It is indeed a long way away, but the journey is actually quite easy. You can fly direct from Heathrow to the Maldivian capital, Male, an experience which the beautiful Sri Lankan flight attendants actually manage to make quite pleasant. And when you get there, you're whisked off and on to a little boat and are soon bobbing on that turquoise sea, staring out at a little necklace of tropical islands.
There are more than 1,000 of these islands strung out in the Indian Ocean. They look just like palm-covered sandbanks, but each one is, in fact, the coral-encrusted summit of a range of submerged volcanoes. After less than 20 minutes, ours loomed into sight and 10 minutes later we were there. First we saw a circle of wooden huts on stilts, like a fairy-tale ring of mushrooms. Next, we saw a cluster of pointy thatched roofs and a white one that looked like a lighthouse. And behind it all was a mass of green foliage, fruits of a nature whose power, and palette, seemed of a different order from the one we had left behind.
The first shock, apart from the colours, was the scale. Baros is truly tiny. It is a few steps from the pier to the magnificent reception, a large wooden building with an elaborate carved screen, but no walls. It's a few steps from there to the Sails Bar and the three restaurants at the water's edge. And it's just a few steps from these to those mushroom-like "water villas" sprouting straight out of the sea, or to the "Baros villas" on the beach that for the next week we'll call home. It takes less than five minutes to walk around the entire island. You can see why it's a great place for those early days of romantic enchantment - and a very, very bad place for a tiff.
I was not on honeymoon. I was here, in the contemporary jargon, "to chill" - to eat good food, to read my bag of books and, well, to be honest, to do as little as possible. And as soon as I saw my villa, I didn't want to leave it. A tasteful mix of wood, stone and coconut thatch, and of Eastern simplicity and contemporary chic, it was comfortable and classy. There was a massive bed, a wide-screen television hidden in a dark wood cabinet and a lovely veranda facing out to the sea. Best of all, however, was the bathroom. Here was my garden of Eden. Half of it was under cover, but the huge white bath, nestling among plants, was, like the second shower, open to the sky. Later, I would lie in the bubbles and gaze up at the stars.
It's all very smart, but not intimidatingly posh. Designed by a Maldivian architect, and drawing on influences from Thailand and Bali as well as the Maldives, the resort was upgraded and rebuilt eight months ago. Baros was, apparently, one of the first islands to be given over to tourism. It started in 1973 with a collection of very basic huts. Now it features in the guide to the "Small Luxury Hotels of the World" and the guest guide promises "pampering at every opportunity".
It offers a range of "dining options", too - not just in the three restaurants, or "in the privacy of your villa", but on the beach, on a boat or in splendid isolation on a "sandbank overlooking the ocean". You can even have a "private barbecue" with your own waiter and chef, a "Thai banquet" or a specially prepared "seafood extravaganza". None of this comes cheap, but it's all rather touching. It seems to hark back to a time when couples might be consummating their marriage after a long and arduous wait, rather than slotting it into their busy diaries. It also suggests a refreshing lack of irony.
The couples sipping cocktails in the palm garden of the Sails Bar did not seem to be struggling too much with irony. This is a place to knock back a pina colada and love it - and with 230 staff rushing around to fulfil the whims of 150 guests, you can feel like a king or queen. But we're probably talking about royalty on the Scandinavian model rather than Versailles. Outside the villas, and the restaurants, the floor everywhere is sand. You'd feel quite silly tripping around in fancy frock and heels.
Our first dinner was the full cliché - a banquet on the beach, at a lone table, with white linen, candles and flowers - and it was fabulous. The food (champagne rose sorbet, lamb salad and grilled lobster) and the wines (from New Zealand) were all delicious. The Australian chef, Damian Barrett, is, according to the guest guide "more than happy to create a menu to fulfil your needs and specifications". He isn't lying. I e-mailed my tedious dietary requirements to him before my trip (no gluten, no sugar, no dairy, blah blah blah) and he created a range of special menus for me, right down to canapés. For six days, in Baros, I tasted nectar of the gods. For that alone he deserves a medal.
Breakfast the next morning at the Lime restaurant was almost as good. In addition to a colourful array of tropical fruits, cheeses, hams and various cooked breakfasts, there were whole pyramids of perfect (sinful, gluten-ful, sugar-ful) patisserie, freshly baked and screaming to be tasted. We were warned to exercise some self-control. A basket of pastries is not, apparently, the best preparation for diving.
Yes, diving. That's diving as in pointless, dangerous hobby of the boring and the bored. I had known, of course, that the Maldives was meant to be a wonderful place to dive, that the waters were crystal-clear and the coral out of this world, that the colours were amazing, etc. I didn't care. I was happy to snuggle up with my Booker shortlist. I didn't want to get a perforated ear-drum. I didn't want to die.
In the end an equally cowardly friend persuaded me to "feel the fear and do it anyway" - so, within moments of polishing off my tropical fruit platter, I was attempting to squeeze myself into a wetsuit. I am well known among my friends for a near-pathological inability to follow instructions, and for wrecking many a household appliance by failing to note those three little words, "read leaflet first".
The sight of the assembled tanks and padded jackets, sprouting an octopus of rubber arms with knobs and dials and little discs that looked like bath-plugs, did little to alleviate my nerves. But Ronnie, our instructor, was extremely patient. He repeated everything several times and would pause to check that I'd understood. I nodded politely, but kept being distracted by his startling resemblance to Barbie's Ken.
Soon, we were strapped into our jackets and tanks and staggering into the sea. Kneeling in a circle, like a group of missionaries about to baptise a convert, we learnt how to put the mouth piece in and breathe oxygen from the tank, and how to put on the mask and breathe out to clear it. We learnt how to equalise the pressure in our ears - you pinch your nose, contort your face like a madman and make them pop - and, most terrifyingly of all, how to take the mouth-piece out while under water and then put it back in. One by one, we took it in turns to copy Ronnie. I was always last.
An hour or so later, Ronnie declared that we were ready to have a go on the house reef. I was instructed to stick by his side. For the next 45 minutes, we were like Siamese twins.
When I pointed at my ears to indicate that they were going to explode, he led me up to relieve the pressure. When my mask kept filling with water, he swapped mine for his. And when I floated upwards, he gave me not the shirt from his back, but a couple of weights from his belt. Without his hand yanked firmly around my jacket, I would find myself floating up and away. It happens to people who are very fat or very nervous. To go down you have to breathe out. If you gasp in air in a lot of shallow breaths then you naturally float up. But that, as I explained to him later, is how I breathe all the time.
Ronnie had taught us a basic underwater sign language, which included signals for ear problems, breathing difficulties and general danger. It didn't, unfortunately, include signs for "isn't that lovely?" or "wow!". As my new best friend pointed out rare specimens or spiky sea creatures, I tried to nod and smile, but soon discovered that this was something of a wasted effort when you're encased in rubber and plastic. When my mouth filled with water, I was forced to go for the more rudimentary sign for "Shit! I seem to be in trouble". Ronnie saved me, of course.
Yes, it was scary, and my ears hurt, and I couldn't understand why everyone else seemed to be able to stay at the right level when I couldn't, but it was wonderful. Here, as all the bores had said, was an extraordinary underwater world, one of brilliant, iridescent colours and creatures from another planet. There were stripy fish and spotty ones, purple ones and silver ones, blue and yellow ones like some kind of advert for Ikea, and huge grey scary ones that lurked in dark corners and stared threateningly as you floated past. It was like being a hybrid of a mermaid and an astronaut. Here, at long last, was the magical world of those childhood fairy tales. Here, too, was a world of suspended animation, a place to escape from gravity and noise.
It's important, after doing something that scares you to death, to reward yourself with a lot of treats. That was not difficult. Every meal offered further culinary delights. At the Lime restaurant, the emphasis is international, ranging from "Chinese dim sum steamer basket selection" to pizzas, burgers or poetically named sandwiches like "open face of coral lettuce, warm teriyaki glazed tofu and colourful vegetables on cashew and onion bread" or "crabmeat salad on toasted brioche with lightly dressed leaves". I stuck largely to the fish - "seared yellowfin tuna steak presented on warm niçoise salad" etc - which was delicious. At the Cayenne Grill, the emphasis is on fresh ingredients, cooked in front of you: giant prawns, Maldivian lobster (a kind of crayfish), "grass-fed beef T-bone" and "baby lamb rump", which can be plain grilled or cooked in a variety of international styles, from "Maldivian spiced" to creole. They will even cook the fish you catch - and help you catch them.
Initially, it looked as though our "sunset fishing trip" was going to return empty-handed. At the first place we stopped, nothing happened at all, apart from a few twitches on a couple of lines and the disappearance of some of the bait. These, clearly, were clever, post-modern fish, ones who had managed to subvert the relationship between predator and prey. They had stuffed their faces and fled.
At the second spot, however, there was a shriek of excitement, followed by some wild flapping and a horrible Fatal Attraction-type moment when the captured fish tried to leap out of its polystyrene box. At the third spot, clearly some kind of nursery site for embarrassingly unfruitful fishing trips, all hell broke loose. After a manful struggle with a line that I thought was going to snap, even I managed to reel in a fine figure of a fish - an emperor. Two hours later, in the Cayenne Grill, I was staring once again at its beady eyes and, more alarmingly, its teeth. Spiced with kaffir lime leaves, green chilli and coconut, it was very tasty indeed.
And between all these wonderful meals, and all those cocktails in the Sails bar, and treatments at the very smart spa there were further opportunities to get down among those rainbow-coloured fish. On the second day, Ronnie said that I was "a bit better". On the third day, with Biblical gravity, he said that I could go out on the boat if I felt up to it.
This was proper, deep-sea stuff - like Open Water, but not, I hoped, too much like Open Water, the diving disaster movie. Once I realised that I had landed in the water without breaking any part of my equipment, or myself, it was amazing. There were creatures that looked hundreds of years old, some that were disguised to blend in with the coral, some with a funny horn like a unicorn and some that looked like dinosaurs. And there were huge, shimmering shoals: purple and silver and yellow and blue. I couldn't quite believe they were real.
You can get close to the coral, of course, but the fish, with some strange, fishy sixth sense, somehow manage to keep just out of reach. You can, I discovered, have a philosophical crisis at the bottom of an ocean. You can also, amazingly, spend a week in the Maldives without reading a single book. You can remain in a spot not much bigger than a football pitch and not feel claustrophobic or bored. You can be on a horribly restricted diet and eat like an emperor. You can even eat an emperor. And you can dive, and survive.
The writer travelled with Kuoni (01306 747008; www.kuoni.co.uk), which offers seven nights at Baros Maldives in a deluxe villa with breakfast from £1,134. This includes return SriLankan Airlines flights from Heathrow and transfers.
The capital, Male, is served by SriLankan Airlines (020-8538 2000; www.srilankan.aero), which flies non-stop three times a week from Heathrow and daily via Colombo; there are no non-stop flights in the homeward direction, with passengers routed via Colombo - or, taking advantage of SriLankan's relationship with Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com), via Dubai. Emirates offers connecting services to and from Birmingham, Gatwick, Glasgow, Heathrow and Manchesters. Qatar (020-7896 3636; www.qatarairways.com) also flies from Heathrow and Manchester via Doha.
Charter flights from Gatwick and Manchester are available with Monarch (08700 405040; www.flymonarch.com), MyTravel (0870 241 5333; www.mytravel.com) and First Choice (0870 850 3999; www.firstchoice.co.uk/flights).
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Male, in economy, is £18.40. The money is used to fund sustainable energy and reforestation projects.
A five-day PADI Open Water course with certification costs US$575 (£320) per person including all equipment, student kit, logbook and course fees. PADI Project Aware Foundation (conserving underwater environments): 0117 300 7313; www.projectaware.org. Marine Conservation Society UK: 01989 566 017; www.mcsuk.org
Baros Maldives, North Male Atoll, Maldives (00 960 333 2270; www.baros.com).
Maldives Tourism: 00 960 332 3228; www.visitmaldives.com
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