At four degrees north of the Equator and surrounded by ocean and sky, you are a flea hovering on the curvature of the earth. Even to marine life going about its eternal business with fish-brained stoicism as you waddle deeper into the transparent lagoon, you’re just another plastic-webbed phony, not predator, in search of some cheap thrills. Your big city bluster pops. You realise how irrelevant you are.
Spiritual retail therapy promising that humbling moment of self-awareness is aplenty. Canny contortionists squeeze old yoga into new bottles, motivational speakers in Versace seduce the goofy, soul swamis squint fiercely at us on telly.
Trash it all. Just fly to the Maldives.
Be forewarned: the per night price of true nirvana can be equally humbling. And there are few better places to cushion that bumpy, spiritual fall to earth, than one of only four resorts in the Maldives to be listed among the Leading Small Hotels of the World of 2007: the languid, luxurious Taj Exotica Resort and Spa. But the Maldives are already an active blip on the radar of the global rich and famous, many a jet-setting lotus-eater is an Exotica regular.
So why haven’t thunderously successful urban Indians too, been heading there in hordes, as Maldives Tourismand SAARC brotherhood urge them to do?
Error in Connectivity. Ironically, between the booming big cities of the regional economic superpower, and that of the small neighbour with the highest per capita income in the region, stemming mainly from its exemplary brand of ‘high-end’ eco-tourism.
Most domestic airlines connect Delhi to Malé via various South Indian airports with transfer times so hair-raisingly narrow, that you could well find yourself inaugurating your brief holiday at the wrong bar in the wrong city. Air Seychelles, which once offered a direct connection from Mumbai to Malé, has pulled out of the subcontinent altogether. SriLankan — South Asia’s best — does fly conveniently through Colombo. (But so do the LTTE of late, so that’s out for the paranoid). Surprisingly, Air Sahara—in its last throes before metamorphosing into Jet Lite — seemed to make the grade, so we hopped on.
On paper, the milk train through Cochin and Trivandrum takes six hours, but given invariable delays, you’re in transit for ten. (Of Sahara Pranams and “kindly upright your seats” perforating your ears and senses). That’s enough to make the frazzled look for destinations that offer ‘better value’ — and grammar — ‘for money’. (A month’s salary on a flight, a couple of days on stilts and a bunch of technicolour guppies in ‘our own ocean’?)
My last trip to the Maldives had been to an expensive but wholly rustic resort. Given its half-board prices ranging from US$ 700 up to $7,000 per night, I was curious to see how the Taj, used to the esoteric, not always eco-friendly demands of big-spending bon vivants in India, trod the fine line between cushy comfort and conservation in the Maldives.
Our stilted lagoon villa was glossy, flickering with candlelit sensuousness but understated. There was thatch and embroidered taffeta, there were fluffy towels, bleached cotton robes and roughhewn local handicrafts. Desalinated water jostled for space in the mini-bar with perfectly chilled Veuve Clicquot. One glance at the tea and coffee counter also revealed to us that today’s Compleat Traveller must favour seven different types of espresso.
The artwork was iffy. (I mean, why would you want to stare at an unabashedly amateur rendition of what must be one of art’s toughest subjects, the sea, when you have the real, glorious thing roaring around you?)
I found myself dreaming of the Exotica playing patron to upcoming Maldivian and Indian artists by hanging their prints in rotation and strewing some literature about them around these beautiful villas created by an award-winning Maldivian architect.
The air-conditioning — a Big Thing with me — was perfect: its thermostat was not equipped with a mind of its own. The gardens were leafy and bursting into flower. Herons cruised overhead, roosting occasionally on our thatched roof, fat pelicans hovered at high tide, too well-fed to covet our sashimi. Adding to the unbearable lightness of wellness was our awesome bathroom, a giant bay window running the length of a cavernous bathtub.
“On the one hand, our discerning clientele; on the other, this extremely fragile world,” says marketing manager Chelan Goonetilleke, waving his arm in an arc over the Taj lagoon — one of the Maldives’ largest, which the pre-monsoon wind has now churned into a frothy, Curaçao cocktail. “But the authorities here are so scrupulous about building laws that it’s an easy fit — with our own philosophy and that of most of our faithful regulars.”
We are at the Equator Bar, swilling agreeable Chablis. Zero Degree, the islands’ best band, rasps out some powerful blues as a giant, orange moon rises on Buddha’s birthday.
My gruff teen and I have fallen into the efficient routine we reserve for the MalÃ‚dives. Breakfast at 11am. An hour to recover and Think. The next two on our tummies like deep-breathing Darth Vaders, spluttering in our snorkels only when a zebra-striped shoal of Indo-Pacific sergeants flashes by, or two eagle rays in a graceful mating ritual amidst dancing ribbons of algae and sunlight, melt away into powdery sand.
Doing nothing makes us routinely ravenous. The hotel compendium weighs heavy with the promise of CuisinArt, the Taj’s award-winning medley of pan-Asian and European delicacies, so we now drain our glasses and head for the casual dining restaurant, 24 Degrees. The play-safe purist in me finds the copy on the menu more absorbing than the giddying culinary mélange it promises. We settle for an off-the-menu Maldivian fish curry with screwpine leaves or rampa, and scallops in a basic Italian tomato and basil sauce. Wise, awesome choices.
Sated but determined to indulge the last pore of my city-battered chassis, I head for a two-hour Signature ‘Vishrama’ massage at the Taj Spa, located at a quiet, leafy end of the island. Sylvan Balinese therapists, basil tea, incense and wellness music overwhelm me with spotty guilt. I lumber into the ‘therapy room’ meekly.
The turquoise lagoon surrounds us, a sailboat drifts on the horizon, I dangle cross-eyed over a single hibiscus positioned just below my supine head. Suki raps smartly — 33 times on my vertebrae. I doze and dream — of a long spine of a thousand blue sapphires.
We spend the rest of the drizzly afternoon in our Deluxe Lagoon Villa, plagued by choices. Our private freshwater pool, or DVD on the giant plasma screen? A walk to the western coast of the island to see the sky ablaze at sunset, or stay east for a startling glimpse of a red planet, never to be seen in a smoggy city?
Day four is departure day. The sky is freshly washed, the sun is out and last night’s moon refuses to be ousted. A shoal of blazing silver plops in and out of the lagoon. Why do some sea creatures ever leave the water, I wonder profoundly on the speedboat to Hulhule airport, wishing we weren’t.
But Air Sahara ain’t no flying fish. We hope the delay will banish us back to the Exotica. Cruelly, we’re ‘uprighted’ and in the air, just an hour later. (No “Jai Jet Lites” to report yet).
Jet Airways and Indian connect to Malé through several airports in India, including Bangalore and Thiruvananthapuram. Return economy fares start from Rs 18,000, ex-Delhi. Or fly SriLankan Airlines through Colombo, which offers several daily flights to Malé. Return economy fares for approximately Rs 24,000, ex-Delhi.
62 villas, including 24 Lagoon Villas, 31 Deluxe Lagoon Villas, 4 Deluxe Beach Villas, 2 Beach Villas Suites and 1 Rehendi Presidential Suite.
Two restaurants, including a Mediterranean restaurant and an all-day multicuisine restaurant, and a bar with a walk-in cellar. The Taj Spa is on an island adjoining the resort and offers a wide range of treatments. There’s also a Diving Centre with PADI courses, snorkel and fishing trips, a books and DVD library, snooker, an infinity pool, cycles to explore the island, and beach sports including catamaran sailing, water skiing and windsurfing.
From US $700 for Lagoon Villa up to $5,000 for Beach Villa Suites
What to see & do on a trip
The Hukuru Miski mosque’s ancient, wooded interiors offer a pleasing contrast to the modern and muted Islamic Centre with its shimmering, gold-leafed dome. The Sea Promenade to watch Maldivians shoot the breeze, the Fish Market to see prowed dhonis come in with the day’s catch of yellow-fin tuna.
Try the snacks that Maldivians munch in tea-shops — some fishy, some sweet, all deliciously greasy. Visit the Novelty Book Store in Faradhee Magoo.
Buy a thundu kuna mat, made of indigenous grass.
And check out the grocery shop in the departure lounge at Malé airport
(The author is South Asia bureau chief, Der Spiegel)