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Making a Splash in the Maldives
Maldives Underwater School of Yellow grunts (photo by B.Cain)by Bill Cain

“Manta rays!” the cruise director exclaimed. “There’s a school of six or seven feeding on the surface between here and the ship.”

I had just flown in by air taxi to a sand spit of an island in the Baa Atoll to begin a four-day cruise through the Maldives (pronounced maul - deaves) as part of a week-long land/sea package offered by the Four Seasons Resort. For many divers, seeing even one manta ray is about as significant as spotting the magnificent quetzal is for birders. Often times it’s an unfilled lifetime dream. Yet even though I had been told not to expect to see any this time of the season, here I was within an hour of arrival snorkeling with several of these winged denizens of the deep, some passing within an arm’s reach.

An atoll is a ring shaped collection of tiny, flat islands - what is left of the tip of an enormous sunken volcano. The Maldives are a 500 mile-long string of 26 atolls in a nearly perfect north to south daisy chain array, located just above the equator in the Indian Ocean. At last count, 1,194 separate islands comprise this watery nation in which automobiles have little value and where boats and seaplanes are the primary means of getting about. Most of these islands are uninhabited and many of those that are, are so small as to support one solitary community – be it a native village or a hotel complex. A government imposed designation of one or the other exists for every island.

Beach resorts began appearing in the Maldives in the early 70’s when developers recognized this “Robinson Crusoe Factor” of perfect palm fringed beaches  surrounding turquoise lagoons in secluded, tiny island privacy, and today there are no fewer than fifteen 5-star establishments sprinkled throughout – the highest concentration of such indulgence in the world.

Among the hotel chains that have found a niche here, is the Four Seasons family of resorts. With 65 world renowned properties in some of the most exotic and fashionable locations, Four Seasons accommodations have gained a reputation for their unpretentious 1st elegance among well heeled travelers. Their property on Kuda Huraa Island in North Male Atoll is no exception.

Impeccable service, fine dining and infinite amenities go without saying. But there are two distinguishing features which set the Four Seasons Maldives apart. The first is what has become the country’s signature hotel experience – a cluster of discretely designed water bungalows. For those no longer content with simply staying next to the water, guests can now opt for rooms surrounded by, and on top of it. Self contained thatch roofed huts have become fashionably posh throughout the Maldives. Built on stilts (actually concrete sonna tubes) directly over calm lagoons, they are typically reached from the main island and interconnected by a series of cat walks. In the case of the Four Seasons, an ingenious system of power, plumbing and service lines are inconspicuously hidden under the network of these wooden walkways. Each hut has its own private access to the ocean with back steps from a sun deck leading directly into the water where snorkeling with colorful reef fish is possible. I’m told that the huts at another such Maldivian resort even have see-through glass floors for that ultimate feeling of water, water everywhere.

Maldives Aerial view of atoll beach (photo by B.Cain)The other experience that the Four Seasons Maldives is becoming known for is the opportunity to cruise the atolls in the exclusive comfort of their 128 foot catamaran, the Explorer. Since acquiring the boat just two years ago, guests including divers, can now choose between several itineraries which combine time between the resort at Kuda Huraa and other island hopping. Billed as the only 5-star live-aboard dive vessel in the Maldives, the Discoverer leaves each Monday for week-long cruises in seldom frequented waters where diving conditions are among the world’s best.

If the full week cruise is a bit too long, guests can take either the first three days or in my case, the last four days. Every Thursday an air taxi seaplane catches up with the boat mid cruise, shuttling in the back-end tourists and picking up and returning with the front end group. Wonderful aerial views of the atolls – resembling so many splotched oil drops suspended on water - are available during these short, low altitude transfers flights.

Eleven air conditioned staterooms limit the number of guests on the Explorer at any one time to twenty-two – one less than the number of crew - and typically about half take advantage of the full service dive facilities on board. The vast profusion, diversity and sheer beauty of marine life in Maldivian waters can fill volumes, but one reason it has become a diver’s Mecca is the size of many of the fish. Along with the aforementioned giant manta rays; varieties of shark including the world’s biggest fish, the whale shark, tuna, groupers, hawksbill turtles, jacks, napoleon wrasses and enormous moray eels can all be found. Even the smaller species like clown fish, which I had seen on dives elsewhere, are curiously oversized here.

Maldives Water bungalow, bicycle, Four Seasons Resort, Kuda Huraa (photo by B.Cain)Non-diver guests of the Explorer needn’t feel deprived. Snorkeling, deep sea fishing, kayaking, wind surfing and water skiing activities are all available. A member of the crew is a certified masseuse and just lazing about on one of the two sun decks shouldn’t be underrated. Additionally, daily programs include shore excursions, which are conveniently scheduled around dive times. Some excursions frequent native-inhabited islands where cultural experiences are inevitable; others are to uninhabited islands and desolate sand bars where lunch and dinner are imaginatively prepared by the crew.

One Four Seasons touch that’s included with these excursions is the services of a professional videographer who accompanies each cruise and shoots film, both above and below water, of all passengers engaged in their various pursuits. Each evening after dinner,  10 -15 minutes of edited footage of all the day’s highlights is featured on the big screen plasma TV in the ship’s lounge.  DVD’s of the entire combined trip, which are burned during the last night, are available for purchase just before disembarking.

In 1998 many of the coral reefs in the Maldives suffered from what is termed “coral beaching” when water temperatures rose to unhealthy levels, killing off large numbers of coral and negatively affecting the rest of the food chain. There are already efforts underway, in which the Four Seasons is participating, to restore some of the lost habitat by introducing artificial reefs.  But if global warming continues, the Maldives will have more to be concerned with than its abundant sea life. In a country whose highest natural elevation is only 14 feet above sea level, rising ocean levels from polar ice melt could seal its doom. But until that pending catastrophe occurs, the Maldives will continue to enjoy its reputation as an idyllic tropical paradise, top dive destination and international upscale retreat.
Fact File

How:      From London, daily non-stop air service via Sri Lanka Airlines is
               available to Colombo, Sri Lanka with a short 1-hour connecting flight to
               Male, Maldives.

               From the airport island, there is a complimentary 30-minute boat ride to
               Kuda Huraa Island provided by the Four Season’s private water taxi.

What:     Kuda Huraa Resort:  Water Bungalows start at $645./night
                                                      Beach Bungalows start at $425./night

                                                     A full compliment of water-oriented activities is
                                                     available including scuba diving, para-sailing, water
                                                     skiing, wind surfing and kayaking.

                                                     There are three restaurants including
                                                     Baraabaru which specializes in fine Indian cuisine.

                                                     The resort has one of Asia’s top rated spas located on
                                                      its own companion island and reached by water taxi.

Maldives local kids in masks (photo by B.Cain)                   Explorer:                  One week cruises start at $2,880/person

                                                      One week land/sea packages start at $3,250/person
                                                      and include one way air taxi transfer.

                                                      Cruises include all meals and
                                                      activities while on board the Explorer.

When:        Year round. Water temperatures never drop below 78 degrees F.

                    For additional information, see:
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