We seem to have the Indian Ocean to ourselves. It is late afternoon. We are the only people on the white sand beach, and the sea is a shade of blue that makes me want to use fanciful words like beryl and cerulean. Small hermit crabs scuttle by, giving us a wide berth as they carry off all the best shells washed up with the last tide. A thick wall of tropical green separates the beach from the world. Only two things give away the fact that we are not on a desert island, all evidence to the contrary. My two teens are plugged into their devices, courtesy a phenomenal wi-fi connection at our little guest house behind the greenery. And beside us, a big warning sign proclaims that bikinis are prohibited beyond this point. For some reason, the kids think that’s hilarious.
We are on Dhigurah, almost a 100km south of MalÃ©. A speck in the Indian Ocean, the island is about 4km long and so narrow in parts that you can cross from east to west in a leisurely minute. We are here for a diving holiday. It’s just me and the offspring. I’ve been looking forward to getting away with them. As they get bigger and busier, I am only too aware that my time with them is ticking down.
I spent weeks dithering over where to go and where to stay. The reasons for picking this island were two-fold. Dhigurah has a reputation for its proximity to great dive sites, and for being one of the best places for spotting whale sharks. And The Boutique Beach Club (BB), where we are staying, is a British-owned guesthouse with a PADI-affiliated dive centre that offers an all-inclusive diving package I didn’t need to sell a child to afford.
It has been a bit of a trek getting here–the journey from New Delhi took about 14 hours, mostly due to inconvenient flight connection times. The international flight to MalÃ© was followed by a long wait at the airport for a scheduled domestic flight to Maamigli airport. When we nally boarded the speedboat taxi to Dhigurah for the last leg, we were all feeling quite bedraggled. I felt my heart sinking. What had possessed me to bring two teenagers to an island in the middle of nowhere? What if they hate it? What if the place is awful? God help us, what if the wi-fi doesn’t work? Just then, we spotted a whale shark, and a school of dolphins appeared. They raced along the boat, and escorted us almost to the shore. I took it as a sign.
Deep in the South Ari atoll of the Maldives and home to a traditional Muslim village, Dhigurah is a tiny, sleepy island. Though it has a registered population of about 600, we never see more than 15 people on any given day. No alcohol is allowed on the island and the ‘bikini beach’ where we are lounging is the only place where bathing suits are permitted (though once you get out on the boats, you can wear what you like). We saw few other tourists, though there are a handful of small hotels and bed-and-breakfasts, and there are signs of imminent construction all over the island.
Almost instantly, we fall into a rhythm far removed from life back home. Our days begin early and we head to the BB dive boat after a quick breakfast. The crew takes care of absolutely everything and most dive sites are reached within half an hour. Kitting up, often quite a tedious process, is the most effortless we have experienced anywhere. We manage two dives most mornings and then another one after lunch. Every evening we walk down the beach and pick a new spot to view the spectacular sunsets. There is endless marvelling about the things we have seen under water, and much giggling and posing as Daughter directs photoshoots like the teenage pro she is. Back in the guesthouse, there is a spot with giant bean bags above the rooftop dining area which we have made our own, perfect for stargazing before dinner.
Though diving as a family hobby was very much driven by me, I worry about being an irresponsible parent before every trip we take. BB’s owner, Romney Drury, cheerfully assures me, “We have nothing dangerous here.” No sea snakes, no dangerous sharks, rarely even jelly fish, an ever- growing problem elsewhere in Asia.
A quick Google search reveals a statistic that soothes my motherly fears. The last shark attack recorded here was in 1705. After our first day of diving, I am feeling fearless. Of course, the sea must always be treated with respect, but I can’t recall feeling safer in any ocean or sea anywhere. We have extremely good weather; the ocean is calm as a bathtub, and visibility is brilliant.
This is how our first day of diving went: There is something called a drift dive, where you let the current carry you along. In ideal conditions and when you get your buoyancy (the ability to stay level at a particular depth) just right, it can feel like flying. We get dropped off beside a reef and start to drift on a moderate current.
We pass a giant hawksbill turtle snoozing at an odd angle in the overhangs, like a drunk passed out on a pavement. Two whitetip sharks swim off to the side and an octopus speeds under a crevice as we approach. We spot moray eels and trigger sh, parrot sh and countless more species. But my favourite sighting of the day is a baby box sh. Perfectly square, bright yellow and polka-dotted, with tiny transparent ns. It’s something Disney might have dreamed up. And then we see our first manta ray, which passes us at a stately pace from the opposite direction. This is a parallel universe. Gliding through the clear water, we are gaping tourists on an open-air bus.
A second giant turtle, busy demolishing a lunch of soft coral. I hold onto a rock with my ngertips, trying to stay in one place. The current pushes me parallel to it, and I find myself comparing our heights. Head to tail, it must be at least three feet long. It keeps a cautious eye on me, while continuing to feed with all the focus of a hungry street dog.
What we saw was extraordinary by any standards, but in the Maldives it is to be the norm. On another day, we spot our second whale shark from the dive boat. It’s about 25 feet, an adolescent male. There isn’t time to wear our dive gear, so we jump in with snorkels and flippers and follow him for a few minutes till he sinks out of sight. We are told that we are lucky, the water temperature had risen by a couple of degrees, and the whale sharks haven’t been seen in two months.
One of our most memorable dives is to the Manta point. This is basically a spa for mantas where they congregate to be ‘groomed’ by blue wrasse fish, which are partial to their parasites. We go down to about 10 metres and settle down for the show. Within minutes we see several glide past us. Two of them do a slow, majestic back flip in tandem, as if to give us our money’s worth. This is a popular spot for manta-watching. We can see a group of snorkellers at the surface. The mantas are unfazed by all the attention. They come especially close to the divers below them, possibly because they enjoy the bubbles from our tanks tickling their gills. Having a four-meter-wide manta sail over your head, close enough to reach up and touch it, is quite an experience.
Romney, a passionate diver, gave up the corporate life in the UK to set up BB six years ago. She dives with us every day, and often hangs out with the guests, swapping diving stories and photographs over dinner. She is also very tolerant of us wandering barefoot into her home to play with the assortment of friendly island cats that she has adopted.
The six-room guesthouse has the congenial atmosphere of a homestay with a trifecta of essential mod cons–hot water, air conditioning and wi- . From personalised nameplates on our room door, Molton Brown toiletries and an open-to-sky shower, comfortable beds and the jar of lemon biscuits in the sandy- oored breakfast room, the guesthouse provides little touches that make you feel completely comfortable. The friendly and helpful team is always happy to hear about your day’s adventures.
My one quibble is the food. Meals are pre-plated and no choices are offered during our stay. We go to bed hungry one night after a meal of chewy lamb chops that none of us can eat, as there are no substitutes and no extras available of anything else. But we soon discover that the kitchen staff are quite accommodating with requests. Overall, the food is wholesome and freshly-prepared with locally available ingredients. The fresh juices at every meal, the barbecued jack fish and the traditional breakfast of mas huni (tuna mixed with coconut and chilli) with roshti (very similar to roti) all merit a mention. Don’t expect gourmet meals, that isn’t really the point of this place. But, on the other hand, this is not the place for a fussy eater. I imagine if they introduced a couple of options at each meal and let the guests place their orders in the morning, it would make a huge difference. There are a few places to
eat on the island as we discover–we venture out for lunch a couple of times to a newer hotel down the road for some simple but rather good western fare. There is also one local cafÃ© on Dhigurah that has some good reviews online, though we don’t get around to trying it.
Bonding and quality time was my agenda, not theirs. But I know the offspring are quite into it when one evening I curl up in bed planning to read till dinner, and find Son standing over me, all showered, and reminding me that it is time for our pre-dinner stargazing. Both teens decide of their own accord to go off the radar socially throughout the holiday. If you have met any teenagers lately, you will understand that this is huge. I was worried about the wi-fi access but it ends up being a force for good. With no resort-like facilities and no TV, we are glad for the wi- in the afternoons. They introduce me to AIB and Honest Trailers. Once I stop pretending that I disapprove of the inappropriate language, I laugh till I cry. They stream their music for me to listen–an honour, as fellow parents of teens will know. And we talk about the books we are reading and download each other’s recommendations.
Perhaps the combination of nature, adrenalin and a smattering of creature comforts help us hit that fleeting place I call holiday nirvana. It’s that irreplaceable high you get when you’re in the middle of a beautiful adventure, and you know there is nowhere else you’d rather be, and no one else you’d rather be with. I suspect they feel it too and that, as they say, is priceless.
Air India offers daily direct ights to MalÃ© from Delhi, Bangalore and Trivandrum. Fares are upwards of â‚¹26,800 (round trip, economy) from Delhi. From MalÃ©, the quickest option to get to Dhigurah is a domestic flight from MalÃ© International Airport to Maamigili Airport with Flyme (20 minutes) followed by a speedboat to Dhigurah (15 minutes). Price: $295 per person, return. This is available daily, but be aware that the stated timings are a best-case scenario.
Option 2 is a speedboat ferry from MalÃ© to Dhigurah. Price: $160 per person, return. This operates three days a week, twice daily departures, so check with the hotel before booking interna- tional ights.
The third and slowest option is the dhoni ferry. The Sun Dhoni Ferry offers air-conditioned seating and overnight trips between MalÃ© and Dhigurah priced at $120 return. The cheapest transfer is the MMTC Dhoni ferry (non-AC) at $16 return. Restricted dates and times apply to both these options. Your hotel will provide all the details and the standard practice is for all arrangements and payments to be done through the hotel.
Where to Stay
The Boutique Beach Club on Dhigurah offers all-inclusive packages. The divers’ package for double occupancy is approxi- mately $420 per room per night, including all meals, unlimited soft drinks and water, weights, tanks and three dives per day. It does not include dive equipment (approx. $6 per piece per day for BCD, regulator, wet suit and com- pulsory dive computer) and the daily per person Green Tax of $3. Non-diver packages are approxi- mately $299 per room per night. Extra person charges are $150 for divers and $95 for non-divers. The dive centre offers dives and courses to non-residents. Details can be found at boutiquebeach.club.
Other notable small hotels here are TME resorts (tme.mv), which has some deluxe rooms with a plunge pool and also has a dive centre. The newest entry, Athiri Beach (athiri-beach.com), offers water sports, diving and shing trips as well as a restaurant open to non-residents.
What to See & Do
Diving and snorkelling are the main attractions on Dhigurah. There is a surprising concentra tion of gift shops in the village. Limited watersports are offered by a couple of operators. Prices are similar and you can haggle for a better deal on a one-hour package. It is possible to snorkel off the tourist beach. The village, located on the northern end of the island, is worth a stroll. There is a mosque, a school, a health centre, a football eld and a local cafÃ© where you will always nd a few people. As you walk south, the island gets narrower, ending in a long spit of a sand. You will have your choice of private spots on the beach.
It is perfectly possible to visit Dhigurah without changing to lo- cal currency at all. US dollars are accepted widely–and preferred. I used USD in some of the local shops and was given change in dollars, though some will give change in Rufiyaa. Keep in mind that banks in the Maldives (and consequently many hotels and local businesses) will not accept old-style US currency, damaged or worn notes. Carry smaller denominations in good condition. Hotels will change small amounts of money for local use. Credit cards are accepted at all the hotels but cash was preferred in the small shops.