Six time national swimming champion, Rehan Poncha, shares some pages from his travel diary with Society, while island hopping in the Maldives
Six time national swimming champion, Rehan Poncha, shares some pages from his travel diary with Society
Surf, sand and a dash of clear blue skies has always been the perfect vacation recipe for me. Perhaps because I spent so much time in and around the water through my life on my journey to becoming an Olympian, that this feels natural. But the white sands and solitary beaches of Maldives charm you like few places do. It’s ridiculously beautiful. Mixing resort luxury with a cultural encounter on one of the Maldives’ many locally inhabited islands can make a trip here all the more enriching. So if you are considering the Maldives, you have picked a winner, and here are my recommendations for your travel to the destination.
Maldives has about 1200 islands clustered into 26 atolls. 200 of these are inhabited, and most of the private resorts have an island all to themselves, with iconic luxury overwater villas and picture-perfect views over cyan seas. The 5.8 km wide capital of the Maldives, Male, is a great place to experience local culture and get to know the locals. A third of all local Maldivians live here and the city is filled with high rises and narrow streets protected by high walls to keep the sea out. The city’s urban buzz is very distinct from the gentler pace of the other atolls. Traditionally home to the royal dynasty, the palace in the city was destroyed when monarchy was abolished and President Ibrahim Nasir’s rule was established. Today the golden-domed Friday Mosque oversees the brightly painted houses and friendly teashops while shops selling carved wooden dhonis (boats) and local markets packed with fresh produce, form highlights of this miniature capital city.
The strict Muslim code on dress, drinks and other things is relaxed as you leave the local islands for the resort ones. I was looking for some place fun, relaxing… or both! I split my stay between the two resorts of Club Med Kani and their Finolhu Villas because their fantastic all-inclusive policy really takes the whole stress out of vacation planning. The resorts offer chic accommodation and depending on your preference, you could pick a room in the heart of the resort buzzing with activity or a secluded villa with a private pool. What I like best about Club Med is their wide menu of activities like sailing lessons, snorkelling, yoga etc, that are included along with food, drinks and entertainment in your booking rate. So all you really have to do is wake up and enjoy!
TAKE THE DIVE
If you’re looking to get up close and personal with the denizens of the deep, you should definitely plan a snorkelling or scuba diving trip in this oceanic paradise. It’s very possible that your hotel’s island has a reef that you could spend a month, let alone a week exploring. If not, then liveaboard trips will take you in a comfortable yacht to various spots where you can dive in and explore. If you are up for it, visit Hammerhead Point, a dive spot off an outer reef where hammerhead sharks, manta rays and other large fish are abound. The depth drops to 200 feet and the water is remarkably clear. Or explore the rich, colourful marine life at Maldives’ southernmost atoll, Addu. Hanifaru Bay is a vital feeding and breeding ground for whale sharks, and while diving here is forbidden, you have a very good chance of spotting these giants while snorkelling. A school
of dolphins pass our boat gleefully, jumping the waves ahead, and I am reminded that these creatures swim at speeds 12 times faster than the fastest I ever did!
Since its introduction by French watercraft rider Frank Zapata in 2012, flyboarding has become quite the rage. For those who haven’t tried this, you have to stand on a board connected by a long hose to a watercraft. Pressured water is forced into a pair of boots with jet nozzles underneath which thrusts you 50 feet up in the air. Or you could dive headlong through the water! I have always enjoyed jet skiing but this was the first time I was trying flyboarding and it was exhilarating. With the sea making up 99 percent of its territory, the Maldives is one of the world’s leading watersport hubs and the rings of golden islands and turquoise water make a stunning natural arena for this. While not exactly an exclusively Maldivian experience, the water sports here – sailing, fishing, para sailing and more – are a great way for some ocean fun. Definitely on my to-do-again list.
Local Maldivian food expectedly has a lot of fish, so if you are a pescetarian, you are in for a treat. The Mas Huni is the delicious traditional dish for breakfast in Maldives – a bowl of finely chopped tuna, onion, coconut and chilli rolled up in freshly-baked roshi. Curry rice is popular as well in Maldivian cuisine. Mas Riha is a popular curry made of diced fresh tuna while Kukulhu Riha (chicken curry) is cooked with a different mixture of spices. There are vegetable curries as well. For instance, with eggplant or pumpkin, but if you are vegetarian, do be aware that Maldivian cuisine often adds fish to vegetable curries for flavour. If local fare is not your thing, don’t worry, resorts like Club Med cater to a wide variety of international cuisines – I even tried my hand at a cooking lesson on making tuna sushi! A memorial in Male reminds me that the Tsunami in 2004 permanently swallowed up 20 islands of the Maldives. As the country with the lowest elevation in the world, some estimates suggest 77 percent of the land in Maldives will be flooded by 2100. Global warming is definitely taking a toll on this vanishing paradise and coral reefs are severely bleached in many places affecting sea life that depends on them. The government and environmentalists are working hard to protect these as are the resorts, with many like Club Med offering education programmes to visitors on these. It has been an extraordinary journey, and as I look down from the airplane window on the sunny golden islands with emerald trees scattered like jewels across a pristine sea dotted with sailboats, I wish that we could freeze the clock and hold on to this for generations to come. In the meanwhile, make the most of this heaven on earth, and plan your visit soon!
Rehan swims with reef shark