Heaven is a Place on Earth

I knew this was going to be a pretty awesome trip when I saw the word ‘seaplane’ on my itinerary. You see, in the Maldives, the islands are sort of incidental. They’re really just there to give definition to all the water. The way you get around in the Maldives is either in boats, or in boats with wings.

My flight from Cape Town on Qatar airways touched down at Male Airport on the world’s shortest international runway, which covers the entire length of Hulhule Island (affectionately known as ‘airport island’). I was taken straight to the seaplane terminal for the quick hop across to five-star Diva Resort in the next-door group of islands.

It was a little odd to climb into a plane off a wooden jetty, helped in by crew wearing flip-flops (some of the pilots were strolling around barefoot). As we took off, I gazed out of the window at little islands – most of them uninhabited, others given over entirely to one resort – and lots of what looked like the fairy circles in the sea.

We landed with a splash beside a strip of white sand fringed with palms. This was Dhidhoofinolhu Island or, more simply, Diva Resort. ‘Welcome to paradise,’ said a smiling young woman, who introduced herself as Dolores Semeraro.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Everyone calls every tropical island ‘paradise’. Maybe it was a clichéd thing to say. Except, I thought, looking around at the sparkling ultramarine sea, the lush foliage and the tanned holidaymakers snoozing in the sun, perhaps this time it’s true.

A necklace of islands

In some tropical paradises, you’re welcomed with a necklace of flowers. The Maldives actually resembles one. The country comprises almost 1,200 coral islands, arranged in a double chain of 26 circular atolls dangling below India and lightly brushing the bosom of the equator.

The coral reefs that form these atolls swarm with jewel-coloured fish – around 300 species of them – as well as manta rays, stingrays, sea turtles and assorted sharks. This makes the Maldives one of the best places in the world to see underwater life.

It’s a great feeling to step onto a boat early in the morning and chug off over translucent turquoise water to one of the 30 or so dive sites within easy reach of Diva Maldives.

You have a briefing, are assigned your buddy teams (divers always dive in teams of at least two) then go below to don wetsuits, weight-belts, BCDs, fins and, finally, masks. One by one you step off the boat and splash heavily into the water. The okay signal is given and then the downward thumb to start your descent.

Down you sink, in a burble of air bubbles. The light is dim and blue, the sun’s rays slant slowly through the sea, the water is cool and heavy. This is a different world.

You drift along on a gentle current, floating beside a jungle of coral cliffs, flickering with butterfly fish nosing at soft corals like sunbirds. Burly but beautifully painted parrotfish crunch stone corals like crisps. A bad-tempered Titan triggerfish cruises past at a safe distance while a school of unicorn fish darts close by, their long horns making them look like aquatic Pinocchios.

To be honest, you don’t even need to scuba dive to see more than you can imagine. A simple snorkel will suffice. Each time I ventured underwater, I saw something astonishing, such as the enormous, eerie manta rays that circled me as I snorkeled, then vanished like the stealth bombers they resemble.

A whale of a time

But there’s one real star of the underwater world in these parts. For most people, swimming with a whale shark is a lifelong dream – and this is one of the best places on the planet to see them.

So, one morning we boarded a traditional dhoni boat on a whale shark safari. We were sunbathing and chatting when the crew started calling and pointing excitedly. Although whale sharks are common around Diva, it’s still a special occasion to see them. And we were luckier than we could have hoped.

The first whale shark was swimming quite far below us. We jumped in with our snorkels, but it had soon gone too deep to see. The crew almost immediately spotted another. This one was swimming slowly, only a couple of metres below the surface, and was totally unfazed by us.

Whale sharks look cool in pictures, but they are simply fabulous in the flesh. They’re the world’s largest living fish but are harmless plankton eaters. They’re also incredibly beautiful, with skins that look like a cross between Aboriginal paintings and a starry night sky.

Researchers at Diva Maldives actually use software originally developed for star mapping to identify each whale shark’s unique patterns. You can upload your photographs to their database and, if they don’t have a record of your whale shark, you get to name it.

I’d been swimming along beside our shark for at least 10 minutes before it occurred to me that it would be great if someone took a photo. Perhaps we could call this one ‘Cosmo’. Looking around to see if anyone had a camera, I saw a sea turtle paddling right next to me.

I was caught in a terrible quandary: should I hang out with the turtle, or keep swimming along with the whale shark? Turtle or whale shark? Whale shark or turtle? These are some of the truly tough decisions you face in the Maldives.

Nothing but fruit?

Another case in point: I’d arrived at Diva Maldives with every intention of getting ready for summer. I’d test out a new bikini, get a head start on my tan and, let’s face it, lose a few of those kilos I’d been hiding under sweaters for several months.

My plan was foolproof: I’d eat nothing but fruit and I’d spend all my time doing strenuous outdoor activities in my bikini. In no time at all I’d be lean, brown and possibly a COSMOPOLITAN Swimwear model candidate.

The tanning and outdoor activity side of things was a breeze. The sun shone every day and there was a seemingly endless list of things to do. When I wasn’t snorkeling or scuba diving, I could go kayaking, pedal-boating, windsurfing or jet-skiing. If I’d had enough of the wonderful warm water, there was a choice of beach volleyball, tennis, table tennis or a workout in the fitness centre. Diva Maldives even offers yoga classes on the beach.

The problem with my plan only became apparent at meal times. There are seven restaurants at Diva Resort and, besides all being in spectacular settings (think perched over a limpid lagoon full of tropical fish), most of them serve buffet meals.

In my experience, buffets usually involve various brownish stews, stale sandwiches and wilting salads. The buffets at Diva, however, were unimaginably delectable and would defeat the most disciplined of dieters.

Each morning, I had to walk past chocolate croissants, custard Danishes, dainty little bread rolls beside nuggets of Nutella, omelettes made to order, egg noodles, cold meats, cheeses, even dim sum. I usually managed to settle for a three-course breakfast of exotic fruit, Bircher Muesli and freshly-prepared pancakes with maple syrup and crispy bacon, washed down with two cappuccinos.

Lunches and dinners posed a similar problem. No matter how hard I tried, I simply couldn’t pass up on the Caesar Salad station, the just-caught tuna nicoise, the crispy grilled salmon, the smoked salmon, the prawns, the reef fish stir-fry, the chocolate éclairs, the chocolate mousse, and the coconut, coffee, cassis, strawberry and pineapple ice cream.

The best solution I could think of, after my fourth helping of dessert, was to wend my way to the resort’s nightclub for some evening exercise in the form of karaoke and dancing. I have a sneaky suspicion that the mojitos may not have been entirely kilojoule-free, but when a tall, tanned freediver presents you with a tall, frosty drink, what’s a girl to do?

After a week of pampered luxury, exciting underwater exploration and downright gluttony, I was understandably sad to say goodbye to my beautiful room with its view of the lagoon framed by white sand and fragrant frangipani, my garden bathroom with two showers and endless fluffy towels, and the friendly, helpful staff. Dolores had told me about one couple who came to Diva Maldives on holiday for a month and ended up staying a year. I wished that could be me.

As our speedboat skipped away from the jetty, I saw something leap out of our wake and fly across the sea for almost 50m before it dived. Then I saw another and another. I didn’t have sunstroke and I wasn’t hallucinating. The sea had saved one last surprise for me. Magical Maldives: where the planes can swim and the fish can fly.

Need to know

COSMO flew with Qatar Airways from Cape Town via Johannesburg and Doha. Although it’s a long flight, the airline’s service and food is excellent and we arrived feeling refreshed and relaxed. A night’s stopover in Qatar on our return also gave us the chance to see something of this remarkable city. www.qatarairways.com

Diva Resort and Spa is a five-star island beach hotel in the Ari Atoll in The Maldives. It’s a 25-minute hop from Male International Airport in a seaplane. COSMO stayed on a full board package, which includes all meals and bottled water. Book at least a month in advance and you’ll get 25 percent off. www.naiade.com

Originally published in COSMOPOLITAN South Africa, November 2011

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