Why the Maldives are pure fantasy islands

The first holiday without the children was always going to seem special, but for Claudia Winkleman every aspect of her time in the Maldives combined to make the experience feel like heaven on earth
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The Independent Travel

Paradise: now I know it looks like. I promise.

My husband and I were a bit giddy about our first trip away from the kids since they were born. When I say we were giddy – I felt physically sick with fear and guilt, and he was skipping. Yes, a grown man skipped into Heathrow Terminal 4 shouting, "Come on girl! Let's get the buzz back!".

I wondered whether that meant I had to dress up in a black-and-yellow costume and cover myself in honey as some sort of Maldivian ritual, or whether it just meant we could have a conversation without one of us yelling, "She means she wants the Meg and Mog book, you arsehole!" I couldn't be sure. Still, I followed him in.

And off we went, carrying hats of all sizes (you could say the Joan Collins-never-allowing-her-face-in-the-sun thing has become a sort of obsession with me), boarding SriLankan Airlines flight UL502 to the Maldives.

Sri Lankan Airlines? I expected extremely attentive, nice women with glossy black hair to be handing us lemongrass-scented handcloths and offering us curry for supper. I got... extremely attentive, nice women with glossy black hair handing us lemongrass-scented handcloths and offering us curry for supper. So we slept and ate and read on the flight and we didn't race around the aisles searching for toddlers for 11 hours and it really was excellent.

When we touched down in Male, our arrival timetable went something like this: thank stewardess, show man a passport, pick up bag, show same man luggage, which he sniffed, and then exit building. Truly. I'm not making it up. It took about seven minutes. When I say "exit building", that's a lie. The airport terminal is not really a building. It's more of a long room with fans that happens to sit RIGHT NEXT TO THE SEA. You come out of the room and there, right bang in front of you, is the Indian Ocean.

You will have read reports about the colour of the sea in the Maldives. The following words might well have been used: translucent, aquamarine, clear, crystal, bright blue. It is all of those things, but most of all it's fluorescent. Seriously. It looks imaginary. Fuzzy from the flight, I thought we'd walked on to a film set. Water that colour couldn't be real.

Anyway, before we'd had time to say, "Holy moley, this place looks great!", a man called Ashraf appeared. He was freakishly smiley and friendly (not in a scary way), and he took our bags and lead us across the road to a boat. That was it. We crossed a tiny lane with one taxi on it, then we were in a speedboat on our way to our final destination: Huvafen Fushi.

Three men gave us water and fruit kebabs (these were not, as I had predicted, some squashed banana in pitta bread covered in chilli sauce, but actually some melon, pineapple and papaya chunks on a skewer) en route. After half an hour of Ashraf chat (we found out the sharks were friendly and that Huvafen means "dream"), we arrived at our resort.

Using the word "resort" is misleading. "Resort" conjures up images of large walkways and a big looming hotel. In fact, the boat docked at a tiny, perfect island. It's just that the island happened to have 48 rooms and would be our home for a whole week. We whooped and high-fived (actually, being from England, we just nodded and smiled sheepishly, but you get the picture) and then we were introduced to Jameel.

Jameel was our thakuru, which, we were told, meant butler/helper/guide/stingray-whisperer. He lead us to our room, and I almost fainted.

Huvafen Fushi has four different types of room. There's a beach bungalow, a lagoon bungalow, an ocean bungalow and, if you're seriously loaded or are coming with a family, then you might be interested in a pavilion, of which there are two: the Beach Pavilion or the Ocean Pavilion. Pavilions are like massive houses: they have two bedrooms, pools, dining rooms, bathrooms whose water comes from a hole in the ceiling, and living areas the size of ballrooms. Kate Moss took the one over the water when she was here last year. Well, you would wouldn't you?

Anyway, back to our magnificent home: an ocean bungalow. It was raised up on stilts over water. A huge chunk of our floor was made of glass. As if cued by an off-set stage director, a baby black-tip shark swam directly below our room just as we arrived. Suddenly I felt like a Bond girl (although three stone heavier and 20 years older), and my husband asked Jameel if there was a white cat handy.

Ahem. We unpacked our stuff and placed it all in dark- wood closets, noting as we did so that the Jacuzzi looked out to the sea and that absolutely no one could see us here. We had, in effect, a large de-luxe apartment that was sitting on top of the ocean. We could see the water if we were in the sitting room area or on the bed or brushing our teeth. One whole wall of our room was made of glass.

If you're into gadgets (I wouldn't know a woofer from a Great Dane), then the rooms here are right up your street. There are countless iPod stations, plasma TVs, Bose speakers in all corners of the rooms (including the shower) and there's Wi-Fi everywhere, too.

Eventually, we reluctantly left our new lair in order to eat tuna (it had a swan-shaped boat on it carved out of bread – well, you can't have everything) and watch the sun go down. An hour later, back in room 37, we tried to get the buzz back, but I fell asleep.

In the Maldives, the islands are so small that there aren't many birds (there are bats, but more of them later), so you don't wake up to squawking. Instead, you wake up to the sound of waves – and, in a not-unnerving way, the sound comes from right under your bed.

Huvafen caters for all sorts of eating so you can never get bored. There's a main restaurant called Celsius that serves breakfast and lunch and supper; there's a restaurant called Raw that hangs right over the waves and serves... well, the clue's in the name really; and there's a place called Salt that specialises in cooking the freshest fish (they have lobster pots in the sea, right under where you sit, and they hoist one up when you want to eat one).

Breakfast at Celsius was delicious and buffet-style. There is almost nothing I like more than a buffet. I can prod and poke (with my eyes, I mean) and pick an assortment of things. An egg chef stood around with a hat on and offered to scramble or poach, and a very nice girl was in charge of fruit. She persuaded me to eat a mangosteen. It looks a bit like a passion fruit and, when spliced, pods that look like garlic cloves can be eked out with a fork. Well, whatever you do, pass on the mangosteen. I know it's local and it's good to try new things... but imagine cold slices of buttery sick.

My husband sloped off for a scuba dive (I can't get into the sea since I watched The Deep – The Truth About Sea Snakes on the Discovery Channel one night at 3am. They can kill a man after seven seconds of attack. Really. We shouldn't worry about the Great Whites, that's all I'm saying).

Anyway, he came back pink with happiness. He'd seen friendly turtles and stingrays and huge shoals of tuna, and said he saw the largest number of stonefish he'd ever seen (don't even get me started on those lethal creatures – it's Russian roulette under the waves, as far as I can fathom).

That night, we ordered "whatever the chef wants to cook", which turned out to be an array of Maldivian curries – pumpkin, tuna and lamb – that were so delicious and delicately spiced that we ate until we actually couldn't breathe, and we watched the sun set from our deck.

The next day, I took it upon myself to relax still further. I'd already heard of the Lime Spa at Huvafen Fushi. People tend to speak of it in hushed tones in the same way that they talk about the Taj Mahal. They say its name in a sort of "if you haven't been there then you're not going to understand" way. It's like, "You think you've had a good massage, but actually you're seriously misguided and you have never experienced anything close to this". So I booked in a Thai massage and thought, "Bring it on".

The spa lies at the end of the longest promontory on the island. As you walk across the slated floorboards and spot the crabs, batfish and jackfish darting around in the water either side of you, you start to relax.

On arrival, I was shown to a changing area and then out to the relaxation deck. It's hard to find words to describe what this place is like. Mainly because I'm a bit of a thickie but also because it's so beautiful it takes your breath away. The water here is darker and deeper, and all of the treatment rooms have glass floors. So, you know the hole you stick your head in when you're getting your back kneaded? Well there are baby sharks and huge rays and massive Nemo families to gawp at. Two of the rooms are actually under the sea, so all of the walls are made of glass. It's like having the best massage of your life – in an aquarium.

That night, we ate on the beach, and that's when I noticed a black flapping thing above me. It was a bat. Now I know I'm coming across as a person who is a bit scared of animals (the sea snake and the stonefish and the basic "the ocean is a hostile environment" theme from earlier), but I am definitely not a fan of bats. When we were 16, a friend called Caroline swore to me that bats "went for" girls with long hair. She said that they got all caught up in it and then squeaked with their little mouse mouths and veiny wings until the person had to cut all their hair off.

Jameel insisted that the bats in the Maldives have never attacked anyone, ever, so I had to take that as truth. But I put my hair in a ponytail anyway. You can never be too careful.

By the next morning I was considering sending for the kids and never going home. We ate lunch at Raw: the highlights included a carrot-and-ginger crushed-ice juice, reef fish sashimi (caught that morning and still sort-of twitching) and rice- paper vegetable rolls with spicy soy sauce. If you want to be healthy, then eating at Raw for a week will leave you feeling like you've been on holiday for a month.

That evening was a full moon, and the hotel staff (who are, without exception, completely sweet and brilliant and smiley) had laid out beds all along the tiny beach. Lanterns had been lit everywhere and fresh-fish platters and green-apple sorbet pots were brought to us. And the beds were separate enough for us not to feel that we were part of some hideous Stonehenge get-together. Nevertheless, it was romantic and sweet and extremely starry and the buzz was back.

Then, suddenly, with heavy hearts and grumpy faces (mine sunburnt and tomato-red, despite the hats), we were packing to leave. We wandered about chucking kaftans and shell collections into our bags – and then we heard a noise. It was 5pm and still light, so I didn't think it could be a bat. It was an "eeek, eeek" sort of noise, which reminded me of our youngest child (she is a bit odd, I'll grant you). And then we saw them.

Six dolphins were playing and frolicking right outside our bungalow. One little one was doing massive somersaults in the air; they were probably only 20 metres away. Jacques Cousteau (uh, that'll be my husband) grabbed his snorkel and jumped in to get close to them; we watched them cavort for half an hour. It was, without exception, the best moment I have ever had on a holiday.

So you see: I have been to paradise. And it's called Huvafen Fushi.

Discover the Maldives on the cheap

To visit the Maldives, it is popularly thought, you must book a lavish, all-inclusive package holiday. Not true. On my sole visit to the islands, I took the very lowest-cost option.

Here's how to do it. Emirates, based in Dubai, has a controlling stake in the Sri Lankan national airline. Accordingly, there is plenty of flexibility in arranging trips to and from Sri Lanka. You could, for example, fly non-stop on SriLankan Airlines from Heathrow to Colombo. Once your holiday in Sri Lanka is over, you can book the short hop to Male – capital of the Maldives – on one of several daily flights on SriLankan.

With careful planning, or by talking to a good long-haul agent, you can fly out early in the morning and book an onward flight to Dubai in the afternoon. Check your luggage straight through, so you can enjoy your few hours on the island unfettered, and you also dodge departure tax because you are classed as a transit passenger.

With, say, a six-hour stopover, you have plenty of time to get from the airport (on its own island) by launch to the congested capital, Male. Actual tourist sights are thin on the ground (the national mosque is off-limits to non-Muslims), but you can relax with the locals in one of the many cafés.

It was after a coffee that I wandered to the seafront to meet a British woman who told me how easy it is to spend time at a resort. She said that boats from luxury resorts sailing to Male would canvass for customers wanting to spend a day or so on a "tourist" island. The cost, she said, was about $50 (£27), with unlimited food and drink.

I was unable to test this out since I had a flight to Dubai in a few hours. But perhaps you can, and let us know how you get on. SIMON CALDER

Traveller's Guide

The writer travelled with Abercrombie & Kent (0845 618 2212; www.abercrombie kent.co.uk), which offers seven nights at Huvafen Fushi from £1,739 per person. Price includes international flights, transfers and bed and breakfast in an Ocean Bungalow. Price valid until June.

The only direct flights to the Maldives are on SriLankan Airlines (020-8538 2001; www.srilankan.aero) from Heathrow to Male. Visitors can use charter flights from the UK (from Gatwick with Monarch, Manchester with Thomson), or scheduled services with SriLankan, Emirates or Qatar. The islands are well connected by flights on Air Maldives from Male.

If you haven't booked accommodation, immigration officials may require you to do so at the airport before allowing you in. The least expensive options are likely to be in Male.

For more information, see www.visitmaldives.com

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