On the southeastern edge of the Indian Ocean, I found myself on an island waiting for a boat in the 28°C evening heat. Standing on the jetty, I engaged in a light chatter with those around me. Suddenly, a woman’s voice came from behind. “Where does that accent come from?” the mysterious person asked me.
Listowel, Co. Kerry,” I replied proudly. Expect an “oh isn’t that nice” or “is that near Dublin?” I almost fell off the pier at her reply. “My daughter was born in Tralee,” she said.
Although I didn’t fall into the crystal clear water, I was surprised. See, I was on an island called Lobigili in the Maldives, 9,000km from home. I’ve been surrounded by Brits, Scots, Germans, Indians and Maldivians over the past few days, and sure, there’s always a chance you’ll meet an Irish reveler who’s clearly forgotten about SPF. But I never expected to meet someone whose daughter was born in the same hospital as me.
The woman in question was Heidi Grimwood, Vice President of Elena Spa at Atmosphere Hotels and Resorts. She lived in Kerry for 14 years and ran the spa at the five star Aghadoe Heights Hotel in Killarney. Originally from Bristol, she still sees the kingdom as home, as does her daughter, but they now live in Malé, the capital of the Maldives. She was clearly enjoying the perks of tropical island life, but as we spoke I could see the green and gold gleam in her eyes.
As we talked, the sun began to set. The sky turned to fire and then switched to shades of purple and pink. All talk of the old sod vanished. As I watched day turn into night, I thought about the size of our world and how lucky I was to be standing in one of the most beautiful parts of it.
Nestled in the southern tip of Sri Lanka and India, the Maldives consists of 1,200 paradise islands with 26 different atoll formations, coral reefs and sandbars. Two hundred of these islands are inhabited, many of which are home to some of the world’s most luxurious resorts.
Pictures give you a sense of the Maldives, but seeing the islands in person can literally take your breath away.
To be honest, I had some prejudices before I arrived. I figured it was a bucket list destination, somewhere out of reach. I figured you must have big bucks or a natural talent for Instagram photography. However, being there is a different story. Welcoming, cosy, bright and beautiful, the Maldives has so much more to offer than meets the eye.
I started my stay on an island called Helengeli in a resort called OBLU NATURE. Nature lives up to its name and is the obvious selling point. Covered with lush vegetation and greenery, it is a beach resort and tropical jungle rolled into one.
My deluxe villa had direct beach access and for the most part it felt like the island was silent save for the repetitive calls of the koel bird and the waves lapping on pristine white sandy beaches.
The sea with all its abundance lies in the heart of Helengeli. Located in the middle of two deep channels, it forms the largest water inlet in North Male Atoll. The island has its own house coral, making snorkeling a must. As a non-swimmer it wasn’t on my list of possible excursions but I decided to take the plunge.
Like a child getting armbands in their first swimming lesson, I was taken to a shallow lagoon with my own instructor. Away from the depths of the snorkel sites, I was taught the basics while wearing a life jacket and holding on to a swim ring.
My teacher was curious as to why I had never learned to swim at the age of 27. I explained that my family are peat farmers and have never had time for summer vacations. In short, I told him we weren’t beach people. I could tell that he partially understood, but for him water is life, just as the bog was ours.
He was like a merman, graceful and lithe as he floated and swam. As for me, I kept getting stiff on my right side, eventually rocking on my back like someone’s long-forgotten beach ball. Eventually I got the hang of it and was grateful that I had jumped into the unknown.
Below the surface was a different world filled with stunning coral and endless schools of fish. Even a turtle appeared.
After that I thought about the islands and how our carbon footprint hasn’t exactly helped the ecosystem when we traveled there. According to NASA and the US Geological Survey, nearly 80 percent of this area could become uninhabitable by 2050 due to rising sea levels due to climate change.
This threat is being recognized more and more by the collection of islands. The luxury resort of Baros, for example, recycles its water and uses it for garden irrigation, while LED lighting systems reduce electricity consumption.
Elsewhere, the newly opened Ritz-Carlton Fari Islands is home to Asia-Pacific’s first Jean-Michel Cousteau Ambassadors of the Environment program, which educates guests about their sustainable practices to help protect the local ecology. To survive, the Maldives know that education must be a focus of their long-haul tourism.
On my remaining days, I stayed level—although I occasionally got up to enjoy fresh sashimi and salad at The Spice Restaurant and pina coladas at Helen’s Bar. A sunset fishing trip brought me much joy as I watched the local fishermen plying their trade. I had one try but, unsurprisingly, was very bad at it.
Then I made my way from Helengeli to OBLU SELECT Lobigili, a new adults-only five-star resort aimed at couples. Like Helengeli, it’s an all-inclusive affair with Restaurant Ylang Ylang housing a range of cuisines. As with most island restaurants in the Maldives, the fish is fresh from the sea, with lobster and sushi dishes a highlight. Each day ended with a sundowner by the pool while everyone gathered to watch the sunset and fall in love.
After almost a week there, what struck me the most was not the scenic view, but the sense of homeliness that pervaded it, despite being so very different from a traditional sun holiday in Spain or Portugal. It’s almost like living in a world of your own making, where worry and stress don’t matter.
There is a sense of community all around. My preconceived notions of what it would be like to stay there were quickly brushed into the Indian Ocean. And as unique as the Maldivian welcome is, so is the farewell.
As we stood on the jetty, people waved the boat off as if we were embarking on unknown adventures. Eighteen hours later I was back on Irish soil. As I pulled into Tralee I thought of Heidi and her daughter and their move from one side of the world to the other and how they found homes on two very different islands
Tralee and the Maldives are two places you never thought would connect. But they do, because although the ocean is vast, our world is beautiful and oh so wonderfully small.
- Édaein O’Connell was a guest at OBLU Hotels. Seven nights in OBLU SELECT Lobigili from Dublin with Etihad Airways on 15th September from €5,493 from €6,966 for two people. Seven nights at OBLU NATURE Helengeli, from Dublin with Etihad Airways from €5,493 for two people. colorsofoblu.com
https://www.independent.ie/life/travel/much-more-to-the-maldives-than-first-meets-the-eye-41826088.html Much more to the Maldives than meets the eye