Immersed in the world of shimmering lagoons
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