February 4, 2007 catherinetownsend

Travel Special: Maldives

Travel Writing

The Independent:

What kind of masochist would take a holiday in a honeymoon paradise when they’ve just been dumped by their boyfriend?
To outside observers, we looked like any other love-struck couple en route to the Maldives, one of the most romantic destinations in the world. Except that my friend Vincent and I weren’t honeymooners. I had just been dumped by my ex with the immortal line, “My feelings for you aren’t black and white, but grey.” Vincent, a platonic friend, had been frantic at work and had a few disappointing dates. Why, we reasoned, should we have to wait for the perfect relationship to visit tropical paradise? After all, by the time I tie the knot, the islands could have been swallowed by the oceans due to global warming. So after an 11-hour charter flight, we landed in the capital, Malé, where a representative from the Hilton Maldives Resort and Spa met us and escorted us to their air-conditioned lounge. We were swathed in orange-scented cold towels before boarding a Fantasy Island-style seaplane for our trip to Rangali Island that offered breathtaking views of the Indian Ocean. Our pilot explained that there were more than 1,000 tiny islands, and that the atolls were actually the coral-encrusted summits of submerged volcanoes. After half an hour, we saw our resort, flanked by white sand and villas on stilts; it looked like the front of a postcard.

Our representative gave us the grand tour of our beach villa – with a private garden and outdoor shower, Bose sound system, wireless internet, private plunge pool, and toiletries provided by Molton Brown. But reality set into our Garden of Eden when we noticed our two-person marble bathtub. “You can put rose petals and bubble bath in it,” she said, looking at us knowingly. “It’s very romantic.”

We tried to distract ourselves by gathering menus from the seven different restaurants, which covered everything from French wine and cheeses to spa cuisine, and of course, loads of fresh fish and vegetables. Later in the Rangali bar, the Maldivian cover band were taking requests – mostly Eric Clapton songs. But after suffering through amorous twosomes slow-dancing to “Lady in Red” and “Wonderful Tonight” one too many times, Vincent and I had had enough. So we wrote down our Clapton pick: “Cocaine”.

On our second evening, we got into a fight over whether we should eat at the Spa restaurant or the Sunset Grill – where I almost had a breakdown after three couples asked us to take pictures of them. With tensions running high, we decided that there was only one thing for broken-hearted people to do when confronted with throngs of loved-up couples sucking face in paradise: go shark diving.

OK, so it was only reef sharks, not Jaws. But by the next morning, Vincent and I had committed to going for our advanced Padi diving qualifications with the resort – even though he’s a nervous diver. I assured him that we would be fine, which seemed to work until our French-Canadian divemaster wished us good luck as we poised ourselves to jump into the ocean. “Remember guys,” he said merrily, “as of now you’re no longer at the top of the food chain!”

I felt like a space explorer underwater, because the ocean’s landscape was incredible. At the wreck site, thousands of disturbed, neon-striped fish of every colour swam inches from my face. We also saw turtles, manta rays, barracuda lurking in dark corners and the occasional shark. Meanwhile, I was way too focused on my breathing and buoyancy to worry about my break-up.

Everywhere we walked, staff followed us at a discreet distance, brushing out our footprints in the sand. “It’s like The Truman Show comes to the tropics,” Vincent quipped. Things were definitely looking up.

Then, on day three, it started to rain. Though we’d been warned that it was rainy season and the weather was changeable, I’m sure that most couples had a way of spending the afternoon in the bedroom that doesn’t include challenging each other to Sudoku. Still, we kept diving – and the experience was so meditative that by the time we booked a table at Ithaa, billed as “the only all-glass undersea restaurant in the world”, we were quite chilled as couples sipped their blue Curaçao-and-champagne cocktails while gazing into each others’ eyes. I was so transfixed by the passing parrotfish and eels – and amazing food – that I actually felt happy for them, instead of wanting to stab them with my fork.

Besides, we’d already realised that when it comes to love, appearances could be deceiving. We learnt to distinguish honeymooners from couples clearly on a Band-Aid, make-or-break holiday: they were the ones giving us the eye when their spouse headed to the bar for another Piña Colada.

Toward the end of our stay, I had a massage at the overwater spa, where I blissfully drooled into the face cradle while watching fish dart below the glass floor.

I may not have found Mr Right, but I came back to London knowing how to swim with sharks – which is sure to come in handy on my next dates.

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