For a country that’s 90% water it’s surprising how little time one spends on a boat; I mean really spends on a boat. Sure, there’s the boat transfer from Male airport island, a boat to go fishing, a boat to go diving, a boat hop to spa island. These, however, are all the functional uses of boats that one just hops in and out of; but given the amount of ocean to be had, if there’s one thing one might return from the Maldives feeling slightly rueful about, it’s not having seen much of the country being marooned on one’s own island, as it were. To remedy that one needs to spend time on a boat. And, ideally, to do it in style.
Perhaps one of the most fulfilling aspects of the Four Seasons’ offering is The Explorer, their triple deck live-aboard catamaran. It’s not simply that it gives a deck-side view of other islands – many, admittedly, are similar-looking, as you can imagine – and the expanse of sea in between, it’s that it stops in places few have set foot (or, rather, dived into) before; remote reefs, little-explored wrecks, breathtaking sunrise spots and wildlife migration sites.
#7 The Carpets on the Explorer
Say cruise ship to anyone and they immediately think of towering sea-bound monoliths, big enough to rival any Manhattan skyscraper and blight any quaint Mediterranean port. The Explorer is nothing of the sort; think more ‘private yacht’, the type you might find moored off St Tropez. Only this one is yours. Accommodating only 22 guests at capacity, cabins are as spacious and sumptuous as a five star hotel room, as are the amenities with indoor and al fresco dining, two bars, a lounge, a library and even a spa therapist on board. And a crew member per guest ensures the Four Seasons’ impeccably attentive service is maintained.
Boarding the boat, one of the first things I’m invited to do is remove my shoes. Far from feeling affronted, there’s nothing like walking about the deck barefoot to flex one’s nautical sensibilities. But it’s better than that, for as I made my way from the dive deck up to the main floor and stepped into the lounge, the real reason for the lack of footwear became evident; we seemed to leave behind the sea, all the salty, windswept, sticky sun lotion-coated, part-baked immersion of beachside living and entered the cooling sanctuary of an inviting living-room. Never have I felt the comforting effects of a soft, thick pile carpet as I did when I stepped into that lounge.
The comforts of the boat may exceed expectation but a trip on The Explorer is less about what’s above the water, than what’s below it. My passage may have only been in transit between the resorts – fortunately the boat offers three, five and seven day itineraries – but I still squeezed in three dives. Three dives and three very different experiences. And one in particular rendered joy in spades.
After an introductory snorkel the very afternoon we boarded, the range of life below the surface merely served as an appetiser for what was to come the following morning. The alarm of a wake up call at 7am was brushed off the minute I was in the inflatable and bouncing to the edge of a reef round an island no bigger than a Chelsea square. Its name was Kagi, it sat on the northern edge of the Male atoll and it seemed utterly unspoiled; the reef showed a lot more diversity of coral, much of which seemed to be just waking too. Polyps were still exposed, feeding, and clams pulsed open and closed, their mouths a deep, electric blue, stark against the more muted shades of the coral. On this side, too, we were at a point where a current approached the island and parted around it, bringing swathes of plankton and an abundance of fish. The more exotic creatures by the coral we’d seen the evening before were one thing but here, as we moved away from the reef, the shelf tapering away to the deep, they came in their thousands. Great schools of fusiliers, banner fish and trigger fish, their numbers receding into the dark murk beyond. It was both eerie and exhilarating at once and, if it doesn’t sound corny to say it, in what amounted to no more than an hour in the water, I felt humbled; just another creature on the edge of the might of the ocean.
#9 Crab Salad
One might think that a kitchen on a boat provides limited opportunities for dining. While not necessarily expecting to fish for my supper, I braced myself for rations of stale bread and a tot of rum. You think I’m joking? I’ve been on boats for a week where the crew on an 18th century naval sloop have had better meals. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the buffet presented at lunch nor – wait for it – the a la carte menu at dinner. And it was that lunch that I had a crab salad so moreish I must have nearly sunk on the dive that followed. I was bowled over by the culinary offerings on The Explorer. What’s more, I got a glimpse of the kitchen; it’s tiny. I commend the chef that can turn out chocolate fondants for twenty, complete with a runny centre, bobbing on the water in the middle of the Indian Ocean in a kitchen no bigger than a below stairs cupboard.
All too quickly, alas, my journey on the high seas through the Maldivian atolls and open water was over. All this already and I hadn’t even arrived at the second resort.
Landaa Giraavaru is bigger than its Male sibling. The island is bigger, the reception is bigger, the suites are bigger. The trees are taller, the undergrowth is thicker. Bigger boats are moored at the bigger jetty. The beaches are bigger, even the sea seems bigger. What was cute and compact on Kuda Huraa has developed in scale on all levels at Landaa Giraavaru. It has grown outwards, upwards and on all levels of its offering.
The main pool is Olympic. In the colossal restaurant villa nearby, the breakfast buffet consists of every conceivable country’s interpretation; a fruit station concocts any smoothie you can imagine, an omelette station seems perfunctory among the rest of the fare on offer. There’s even a masala dosa station, something I had no idea what it was until I entered the spa, itself the size of a small Selanese village and dedicated to Ayurveda. And here I must pause for breath, for Joy Number Ten was beholden to me.
#10 I’m a Pitta?
Landaa Giraavaru has such a comprehensive spa facility that guests make the journey here for the spa alone. Not here is it a token addition to a five star resort, no. In fact, so comprehensive is the spa here that the resort offers a medically-accredited 14 or 21-day Panchakarma, or ‘five therapies’, package to the bodily concerned. Mine was a mere taster but still far more involved than any pre-massage consultation I’ve had before. I was met not by a therapist but by a physician – trained to the umpteenth level in the system of Ayurveda – and given over to analysis. He identified my dosha body type just by looking at me. “You need to eliminate tomatoes from your diet,” he advised, “and bananas. You will have more energy and it will relieve the stress on your bowels.” Good Lord.
To call the spa at Landaa Giraavaru a spa is, quite frankly, to understate it a tad. It’s like saying Chatsworth is a country house. A flag adorned path announces it with a fanfare. The villa complex is broad and comprehensive and it goes without saying that the treatment rooms (and yoga platforms) reach out into the water for that obligatory glass-bottomed view, but everything has been thought of; from the range of treatments to the facilities to consultation and the after care and the shop. It is, in a word, unrivalled.
I fear I’m at risking of talking too much about food in this article but the next two moments that made it for me were less about the food itself than the environments in which we ate.
The first of these is Blu. Blu is a restaurant at the far end of Landaa Giraavaru. Were I not on an island I felt I would have passed it, cycling as I was for what seemed longer than I should. Then again, it was a leisurely ride. In white wicker, eggshell and aquamarine, Blu’s decor is as crisp as its menu. Its sides open out to reveal that definitive Maldivian view, the sand spit, where waves the colour of dreams lap across sand so white it hurts your eyes if you’re not wearing shades. Beneath palm fronded fans I sipped the ubiquitous Lomi Lomi and tucked into salads and seafood linguine and could have sat there for hours. Here, now – as if it hadn’t happened before – I left the world behind. And if dining in the daytime couldn’t be bettered at Blu it was about to get a lot saucier as night fell.
#12 Dinner on a Spit
A champagne reception on the island’s private charter with an hour at sea as the sun went down and our host turned to me with the immortal words, “Please, allow me to introduce you to the most expensive table in Maldives”. We were in the middle of the ocean; nothing was made up on the boat, in spite of its accommodation. A deck hand pulled up a dingy and myself and my co-diners were invited to board. How odd. But, in the near distance, candlelight flickered in the middle of the dark sea. As we got nearer, the candles became torches and we pulled up on the shore of a sand bar. As I saw what was laid out before us, it’s a vision that will remain long in the memory as that twelfth moment of joy.
Fillet steak, cooked to order, was served as we sat in makeshift seats cut in the sand. The spar reveals itself in the briefest window, giving just the turn of a tide for a table to be cut and laid, and a chef with a pop-up kitchen to prepare our meal. As I sipped Chablis and talked talked Swiss politics to my host, for a moment I stopped listening as I considered the bizarreness – not to mention the impossibility – of the situation. We were eating on a sand bar in the middle of the Indian Ocean. After creme brûlée a la pineapple, we had just enough time to race hermit crabs on the sand before the sea claimed our table, and as we retreated to the launch, our restaurant was gone. It was, is, the ultimate pop-up.
#13 The Unseen Manta Ray
There is a facility at Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru that allows guests to witness one of nature’s most captivating experiences, something that has made the waters around the resort a UNESCO biosphere. Such is this experience that one would happily drop whatever one is doing for it. ‘Manta on Call’ is a thrilling service that sees guests collected from wherever they are on the resort to be whisked out in speedboat to swim with migrating manta rays. The idea alone was enough to make me excited, let alone the opportunity to actually swim with these magnificent animals.
It was, alas, not to be. Alerted I was, and hurried to the jetty to join other eager guests, and whisked away we were, but by the time we entered the water, passing the spotter boat and another resort’s launch depositing snorkelers into the water, these elusive creatures had eluded us. It didn’t, however, diminish the moment. The wind was up, the sea was high and foaming, waves cresting and breaking in open water. It was, in the end, between myself and the driver of the dingy who went out for the initial scout and it was that experience, skipping over those waves, vulnerable in our open craft, that really made the moment.
#14 At One with Nature
Yes, there’s the paradise setting. Yes, there are the facilities, the sumptuous offerings, the spa. Yes, there is the unrivalled Four Seasons service, the attention to detail. And, yes, there is the food. Oh, the food. But there is one thing that makes for the Maldives that caps the experience in my mind. The waters around the Four Seasons’ resorts, around much of the Maldives, in fact, are fascinating, but fragile, ecosystems. Maintaining what is perhaps the biggest draw for a destination like the Maldives is something the Four Seasons are immersed in and for which they have received high acclaim from their peers. Conservation projects, ecological initiatives, charitable work and guest education are all high on the priority list for the resorts, and something the guests are encouraged to participate in.
One of these initiatives is coral conservation. Being the backbone, literally, of the islands, reef damage – both natural and manmade – is an omnipresent threat and something that requires ongoing attention. And it was understanding this and contributing to its upkeep that made for my final moment of joy. Building a coral frame and sinking it to the reef bed, then knowing it had my name on it and that I could monitor its development, meant that not only did the Maldives leave a lasting impression on me but that I, too, left a part of me in the Maldives.
Carrier (0161 492 1358, www.carrier.co.uk) offers 7 nights from £4610pp based on 2 people sharing for 3 nights at Landaa Giraavaru in a Beach Bungalow with pool on a bed and breakfast basis, followed by 4 nights aboard the Explorer with 3 daily dives on a full board basis, including return flights from London Gatwick with Emirates and transfers.
New for 2014, Four Seasons Explorer is offering guests a rare opportunity to join a seven-night research expedition studying the Maldives’ most exciting residents: manta rays and whale sharks. Conceived in conjunction with The Manta Trust, and led by the trust’s founder, Guy Stevens, the two all-inclusive seven-day expeditions will immerse guests in every fascinating aspect of the Trust’s research and conservation efforts.
The expeditions will take place on 21 – 28 August and 11 – 18 September, dates identified by The Manta Trust as being peak sighting periods. Rates start at £3, 414 per person for a stateroom, and include transfers, full board and three dives/snorkeling excursions per day.
For more information on Four Seasons’ resort at Landaa Giraavaru, its facilities, amenities, conservation activities and spa and diving packages, visit the website.