MAL­DIVES CALL­ING!

Six time na­tional swim­ming cham­pion, Re­han Pon­cha, shares some pages from his travel di­ary with So­ci­ety, while island hop­ping in the Mal­dives

Society - - CONTENTS - The au­thor is an Olympic swim­mer and Ar­juna Awardee with a pas­sion for travel. He is also a travel blog­ger and writes about his jour­neys with travel part­ner Gitika Taraporewa­la.

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.

CAP­I­TAL GAINS

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.

STAY RE­LAXED

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!

HIGH-FLYER

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.

FISHY TREATS

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!

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: GITIKA TARAPOREWA­LA

Re­han swims with reef shark

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