Im­mersed in the world of shim­mer­ing la­goons

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

I’m just back from the Mal­dives, again. My friends think this is a flimsy ex­cuse for mak­ing my fourth visit in just as many years but, hon­estly, when you work in the lux­ury travel in­dus­try re­peat vis­its are al­most manda­tory. (It’s an un­for­tu­nate co­in­ci­dence that my trips have pre­vi­ously cropped up when they needed help mov­ing house.) Though the coun­try has only wel­comed in­ter­na­tional tourists for 40-odd years, roughly 10 per cent of its 1,200 or so is­lands now house re­sorts, and most ma­jor lux­ury ho­tel brands have a pres­ence in the coun­try. To­day some 39.6 per cent of the na­tion’s GDP is de­rived from tourism. If you want to see – or write about – how un­abashed and ex­treme lux­ury travel can be, this is the place to go.

With the mar­ket al­ready seem­ing so close to sat­u­ra­tion point, though, it is in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to stand out. Over­wa­ter vil­las are al­ready a sta­ple; pri­vate pools have long been de rigueur; look out for the thatched pavil­ion by the spa – that’s where a be­atific man, of in­de­ter­mi­nate age and clad in im­mac­u­late white robes, leads sun­rise yoga ses­sions each morn­ing.

And what­ever the com­pet­ing high-end brands may claim, the guest ex­pe­ri­ence is sim­i­lar wher­ever you stay. I spend roughly 20 per cent of my vis­its re­fus­ing lemon­grass-in­fused cold tow­els (a nap­kin-dis­pens­ing sen­try ma­te­ri­alises Road Run­ner-style every time you step into day­light) and a sim­i­lar amount of time chat­ting inanely to staff about how I slept and how hot it is again to­day. (Em­ploy­ees have the un­en­vi­able obli­ga­tion of en­gag­ing in con­ver­sa­tion cus­tomers who have mostly spent their holiday do­ing noth­ing and have lit­tle to say.)

Amid all this, my reg­u­lar hu­mil­i­a­tion oc­curs at meal times, when I have to re­peat­edly con­firm the sec­ond ta­ble set­ting can be re­moved. No, no­body is join­ing me. Yes, I am alone again. In this hon­ey­moon haven, a solo diner does not com­pute. I imag­ine the sur­round­ing cou­ples pon­der­ing why a deathly pale Ir­ish­man is wan­der­ing around com­pan­ion­less. Jilted at the al­tar and came any­way? Part­ner died in a div­ing ac­ci­dent? An ap­pari­tion? It’s a touch tragic be­ing on your lone­some in a des­ti­na­tion so hell-bent on ro­mance, so I try not to at­tract too much no­tice.

And still, de­spite the tourist is­lands’ uni­for­mity and the stan­dard­ised hospi­tal­ity ex­pe­ri­ence, not to men­tion how re­moved hol­i­day­mak­ers are from real com­mu­ni­ties, I un­der­stand why big con­glom­er­ates and hol­i­day­mak­ers the world over have fallen head over heels for the Mal­di­vian fan­tasy.

My first sea­plane flight over the coun­try pro­vided a bird’s-eye view of pris­tine atolls that spread across the wa­ter like pea­cock feath­ers. Deep la­goons shim­mered as though stud­ded with emer­alds; turquoise­fringed desert is­lands were freck­led with palm trees. I watched vast pods of dol­phins frolic as we floated on­wards and found my­self im­mersed in a nat­u­ral beauty so ex­treme it was al­most in­com­pre­hen­si­ble.

I still feel that way when I fly over it to­day – though the close-up views of the reefs are dif­fer­ent, due to the ex­treme co­ral bleach­ing that re­cently dev­as­tated the coun­try – and there re­main rare oc­ca­sions when a

A sea­plane flight over the Mal­dives

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