As a well-traveled friend and I were discussing my recent resort experience in The Maldives, he observed: “Most paradises are phony , including, when you think about it, Eden itself. There’s always a poisoned apple somewhere to ruin things.”
He got me thinking. Probably right, but I was surprised to find The Maldives—not a place I’d ever yearned to visit—exceptionally wonderful and fulfilling as a tropical paradise. My wife had expressed a desire to stop there en route to Sri Lanka, and the four days we spent at the Centara Ras Fushi Maldives Resort & Spa (Thai-owned) were close to perfection. Neither of us wanted to leave when the time came.
Okay, it’s true that I can’t recall a “tropical paradise” that I didn’t enjoy, and I’ve been to many: Hawai’i, Fiji, Tahiti (Moorea), Trinidad/Tobago, St. Thomas, St. John, Barbados, Puerto Rico, Belize, Grand Cayman, Costa Rico, Isla Mujeres (Cancun), several Thai islands, several Philippine archipelago islands, Mauritius, Bali, Vietnamese islands, and others..
Some were more interesting than others, but all had that elusive tropical island feel—you know that white sand like fine sugar, blazing sun, sparkling blue water, coral reef, palm tree allure—which makes me want to believe the fantasy is real. I guess we all feel that way to some extent. Even the popular TV series, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., repeatedly uses the trope “Tahiti” to refer to a calming psychic diversion in the mind of the main character.
I never took much to resort life, though one endures it to experience certain parts of the world. Being a veteran, therefore, I figured the Maldivian resort would be okay but boring. I set my expectations accordingly and took plenty of books to read.
It’s always great to find things are better than imagined. We could have booked an over-water bungalow, but having done that on Moorea in Tahiti, we instead chose a regular seaside room with no frills. We paid for the room and half board (breakfast and dinner, which included three hours of unlimited cocktails) and got a nice upgraded room with a Jacuzzi and gorgeous sunset view, surrounded by palms, frangipani, bougainvillea, and hibiscus with a fresh breeze blowing off the reef.
The tiny islet on which the resort sits can be circumnavigated on foot in about 20 minutes. The resort is the only thing on the little island. It is surrounded by a coral reef which is perfect for snorkeling or diving. We spent hours every morning and afternoon exploring the reef on several sides of the island.
Where are The Maldives? It’s a common question in the USA. The Maldives are 1190 islands and atolls spread across a wide swath of the northwestern quadrant of the Indian Ocean. Low-lying, with the highest point a mere 7 feet above sea level, the archipelago is especially vulnerable to tsunamis and rising sea levels. An NPR story some time back reported that that the Maldives will no longer exist in 20-25 years if global warming continues to raise sea levels at the rate they were at that time.
The usual drill for tourists to The Maldives is to arrive Malé airport and immediately leave via speedboat or seaplane for whatever resort was booked. Most of the fancy places, of which there are scores and scores, are sited on their own private atolls with no other human habitation.
Thus one lives in a resort bubble of unreality when in The Maldives. Firsthand interactions with everyday events and people there are not possible because no everyday Maldivian life coexists on the resort islets.
But there is a more imminent risk than tsunamis percolating. German media recently had a lengthy story about ISIS and The Maldives. Apparently per capita world-wide The Maldives have provided more fighters to ISIS than any other country.
There was even a picture of a demonstration in Malé recently where ISIS flags were carried and prominently displayed. The current Maldivian president takes the attitude that boys will be boys.
The report makes me wonder when the first ISIS kidnapping of Japanese, Chinese, Sunni Arab, or Western tourists will occur there in the dead of night when a boat of zealots from Malé lands on one of the posh island resorts like the one we were on. There are unlimited targets to choose from, none with the slightest means of defense. That would be the death knell for the Maldivian tourist industry.
Oddly, though, because the resorts are so isolated, tourists are not likely to learn of such problems while there. Such is the sharp, and ever sharper, division these days between the haves and the have-nots, a worldwide trend. Which is one reason I never cottoned to resort life anywhere.
Nonetheless, my wife and I enjoyed the bubble, which had its own unique adventures. For instance, we were warned that the many Titan Triggerfish in the reef waters can be aggressive to snorkelers, but I didn’t think they’d bite like a vicious dog. I’ve been snorkeling and diving for 45 years without ever having been attacked by any marine animal. Though I stay clear of sea snakes, box jellyfish, and Portuguese man o’ war, I’ve swum with stonefish, lionfish, big sharks, big rays, moray eels, and barracuda without incident.
My friendly encounters with marine life ended when I was attacked and bitten on my right calf by a large Titan Triggerfish on the resort island’s reef. The teeth marks were impressive, and there was a lot of swelling around the bite.
Too late I read up on the Titan Triggerfish, a species that grows to 30 inches and has a reputation for going after swimmers and divers. The one that got me was darned big and colored very bright yellow with blue and black highlights. There were several other big ones in the area, too. I was surprised at the sheer size of the fish, let alone its aggressiveness. Needless to say, we didn’t return to that area of the reef.
Despite the deep bite marks and heavy swelling, I partied on, though literally limped from the big bump. The local dive shop manager described me as incredibly lucky though “looking like Mike Tyson punched your leg.”
It didn’t keep me out of the water. On subsequent snorkels we found a lobster and saw quite a few sharks. Also got into a big school of what appeared to be silver jacks. Very impressive swimming in the center of hundreds of fish, each twice the size of my hand. Saw a different type of triggerfish, too, iridescent blue and quite curious without being aggressive.
We located several large coral heads directly off our beach at about the 30 ft mark. The coral seacliff was sheer, and the water beyond quickly turned a deep blue and then inky black in the abrupt abyss. Hovering over the edge between the lively coral with its hundreds of species of marine animals and the emptiness of the majestic deep blue sea was awesome, the snorkeling experience I hoped for. By itself, being there made the trip to The Maldives worth it.
We snorkeled out to the edge of that far abyss one last time early the final morning. The fish population on the coral ledge at the drop-off was again astonishing, some of the best I’ve ever seen anywhere, save the Great Barrier Reef 35 miles offshore Port Douglas, Queensland, Australia.
We encountered fierce currents and thermoclines at the edge, to be expected. Water column clarity was near crystal. We were careful to stay at the edge and not to venture beyond.
So the fly in the ointment for The Maldives, aside from being remote and in danger of being swamped, may be socio-religious upheaval. If so, it would upend a huge money-making machine.
Before we departed, for example, we counted roughly 70 over-water bungalows and 30 villas on the sand, including ours, at the Centara Ras Fushi Maldives Resort alone. Figure $500 per night for the landslide units and $700-900 per night for the over-water units. Conservatively, that comes to a gross revenue just for that resort of more than $26 million per annum.
Of course that’s gross, and that place (and all the rest like it among the other 1189 islands) have got to be expensive to maintain, though labor is cheap. Every last item is imported at great expense. There is a hefty tax burden passed along to tourists, too. Still, the margins must be pretty good, and that income stream certainly ought to be protected by the government.
That said, I think of what happened in Egypt. The tourism industry there has been decimated by extremists. Is it a real possibility in The Maldives? Who knows? But the prospect certainly seems to put that particular paradise on risky footing. A false paradise, oh yes, just as they all are when check-out time comes. Maybe also a temporary one.