My eyes are stinging from the salty water which is seeping into my snorkel as I navigate the shallows. The odd fish flits past. I’m heading, I hope, in the direction of the renowned house reef at the Lily Beach resort at Huvahendoo in the Maldives. So far so pleasant, but unspectacular.
Then, without warning, a swaying coral garden swarming with shoals of technicolour fish; striped, spotted, yellow, black, purple, iridescent green and pink, emerges just centimetres below. I’m disorientated and dazzled. There’s a second shock. The reef wall plunges dramatically to reveal a deeper-still subterranean underworld of ravines and valleys. I’m suspended in endless blue oblivion. Not bad at all for my first ever attempt at snorkelling.
The Maldives, an archipelago of 1,190 islands in the Indian Ocean, may be famed for being the ultimate honeymoon destination, but it’s increasingly opening up to a wider audience. It’s never exactly been a budget option, but Lily Beach’s all-inclusive Platinum Plan, which includes flights, villa accommodation, unlimited branded drinks, fine dining and even unlimited cigarettes for a seven-night stay is pretty competitive at just over £2,000 compared with similar five-star Maldivian resorts which charge up to £3,750 for just B&B, excluding flights. And with rising sea levels threatening to wipe out the paradise hideaway within a century, it feels timely to take a fresh look at the country.
Its exquisite fragility was brought home during the 25-minute sea plane flight from Male, the capital, to Lily Beach, located in the south-east of the popular Ari Atoll. My gruelling 11-hour flight from Heathrow was soon forgotten as we flew over a patchwork of castaway islands and the eerie phosphorescent ghosts of submerged islands. The sea was striped peacock, luminous turquoise and pale jade. A magical and surreal spectacle.
On landing in the sea, we were met by a traditional wooden dhoni boat which delivered us safely to Lily Beach. The sun was shining and, after yet another chilly English summer, its warmth felt wonderful. I couldn’t wait to kick off my shoes. I found I didn’t need them again for the rest of my stay. All the “floors” within the resort were a continuation of the beach’s powdery, white sands.
Renovated in April 2009, the resort exudes tasteful barefoot luxury; modern décor executed in traditional woods and natural stones blending in discreetly with the island’s lush vegetation. There are 115 secluded, mostly beach-front villas, 40 of which are water-stilt villas arranged in a spectacular fan shape, which are connected by a wooden walkway. I was lucky enough to be staying in one of the most private of these, a Sunset Water Suite. Peering over the edge of golf buggy ferrying me there, I could see shoals of silvery fish swimming below in the glass-clear sea.
Once I’d recovered from the embarrassing magnificence of my three-room villa (King-size four-poster! Free daily restocked mini bar! Shower with glass floor over the sea! Sea views from every angle!), I made a beeline for the private deck, which came complete with its own infinity pool and steps going directly in the sea. It took a while for the penny to drop that, with nobody overlooking the villa, I didn’t really need my swimming costume. Skinny-dipping in the infinity pool, chilled glass of white wine in hand, I gazed out to sea below as the sun shone overhead. The perfect tonic for a tired, stressed-out Londoner.
The next few days flew by in a relaxing haze of daily snorkelling - I spotted a baby reef shark and turtles – swimming, soaking up the flora and fauna, which included some lively herons and fruit bats, and catching up on reading with a cocktail or two in hand. It was all too easy over-indulge at the three restaurants, which served beautifully-presented, international fare including everything from home-made waffles to sushi. My only complaint was the lack of vegetarian options – I don’t eat meat or fish - in the evening. I ended up having to have the same dish twice at the main Lily Maa restaurant – though dining by moonlight on the beach did soften the blow somewhat. There was little else I could fault. The staff were friendly and attentive. Watching fish in the sea below while having a Balinese massage at the resort’s water-stilt Tamara Spa and a champagne-and-canapes trip in a dhoni at sunset sent me into luxe overload.
I did start to feel a bit too cosseted; cut off from any sense of the country’s culture. Trips were available from the resort to nearby islands to see traditional community life, but I missed being able to just walk out of the resort into the hubbub of everyday life as I’d always done during previous holidays. But I suppose it’s this sheer escapism which makes the Maldives special.
In any case, the mosquitos, which are more prolific during monsoon season, soon brought me back down to earth. I have never been bitten so much. My insect repellent wasn’t much use.
I also felt at a bit of a loose end in my vast villa, especially while holed up there during the odd, brief shower and also in the evenings when few guests, most of whom were couples or families from Britain, Germany, Japan and Korea, lingered in the bars after dinner. Night-time entertainment was stylishly low-key, with a DJ playing one evening during my stay. There were not one but three giant flat screen TVs in my villa – it clearly wasn’t designed by a woman – but the choice of music and films available from reception was surprisingly poor. I missed having a lover or a friend – or at least a decent DVD – with whom to share my splendid isolation.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but be sorry when I had to leave. I was amazed to find that I hadn’t spent any of the extra money I’d brought with me, except a little at the end in tips. I can see why the Maldives is billed an once-in-a-lifetime destination, but I’m tempted to buy a return ticket to Lily Beach – for two.
Kuoni (01306 747008 or www.kuoni.co.uk ) offers 7 nights on all inclusive at the five star Lily Beach Resort & Spa, Maldives in a beach villa, including direct flights with Sri Lankan Airlines from Heathrow with transfers in resort and access to the VIP lounge in Male airport on departure. Prices for 2010 from £2149 per person based on two sharing.