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The Air India plane seemed to be landing
in a swirling, angry black sea. Then one got a glimpse of tarmac but at the end was the sea again, in all shades of black, aquamarine blue, turquoise, green and white. We later discovered that the airport took up all of the small atoll and that most of the islands in the Maldives are so small that one can walk around in half an hour. 'Atoll' means ribbons of reef in Divehu, this being the Indo-Aryan language spoken in the Maldives. To travel between islands, one has to take a motorboat or a seaplane very James Bond in feel and atmosphere, except that there are no villains to outsmart.
We were headed for Kurumba, the first ever island resort in Maldives. Opened in 1972 by local entrepreneur M.U. Maniku, its amazing success is testimony to how one man's vision can transform an economy for he took the business plunge despite a UNDP survey that said tourism was a no-no because everything has to be imported. Maniku now owns eight resorts on various islands, a cruise ship and a beverage bottling plant. Many habitable islands are monopolised by resorts. Tourism accounts for 82 per cent of the economy fishing is the other source of income.
The British have taken to this island paradise like ducks to water, packing regular flights as well as charters. The Italians started the trend, responding to Maniku's request to an Italian he met on a ship-one of those historic meetings between two men that can transform an economy. In fact, Maldives as a holiday destination is well known all over Europe, just as Mauritius is in India. The major draw is the sun, of course, plus the fact that the climate is temperate throughout the year, around 28-30 degrees.
Although this bunch of islands was never part of the Raj, it was a protectorate of the British until 1953. It is believed that an ancient race of run-worshippers called the Redin were the first settlers. They wandered off around 500 BC or were absorbed by the Buddhists of Sri Lanka and the Hindus of the Indian mainland. Because buildingmaterials were limited, each group built its important structure on top of those left by previous inhabitants. That is why many of them are oriented to the sun and not to Mecca in this Muslim nation. In the 1860s, Borah merchants from what is now Mumbai came and set up warehouse and shops in Male, acquiring an almost exclusive monopoly on foreign trade. Tired of the Borahs grip, the ruler signed an agreement with the British in 1867, which allowed Maldives full independence but with British defence.
For Indians used to mind-boggling statistics relating to land, natural resources and population, the country seems positively cute: it consists of 1,192 coral atolls across the Equator in a north-south strip 754 km long and 118 km wide.
Some island are just uninhabited snadbars with a patch of others are several kilometres across and wellvegetated. The capital Male, for instance, with its high rise government buildings and gold-domed residential palace, is just 1.77 sq km.
Indians have only recently started putting a toe in the water, so to speak. Until now, we were regarded by the travel trade as incorrigible shoppers, flocking .o Singapore and Dubai to buy, buy and buy. Now that the shopping can be done in malls on Indian soil, hoteliers in Maldives, many of whom have employed Indian staff, are hopeful of luring the upper-end traveller looking for an exclusive, quiet holiday. The only thing Indians can buy here are quality local handicrafts.
The distance from India surely is no deterrent one hour and 45 minutes from Bengaluru and 50 minutes from Thiruvananthapuram. Since the assurance of privacy on most resorts precludes the posting of lifeguards, however, only those who can swim can enjoy the experience of the array of water sports on offer. Otherwise, there is not much shopping, nor the usual street life, not even many glimpses of local colour or local people, except in the capital Male. But the resort you stay in there are 35 to choose from would probably line up some exotic outings as a visit to a local fishing village, barbecue on an uninhabited island, riding with the dolphins and sailing in a glass bottom boat. You can go night fishing. whichis not as primeval as it sounds they serve you cocktails and exotic seafood snacks as you try to catch more of aforesaid seafood from the sea.
Other topographic facts also make a Maldives holiday unique and precious: these are some of the lowest islands on earth, the highest point only eight feet above sea level. And the Indian Ocean is rising, thanks to global warming fed by carbon emissions. In fact, the expert view that these islands might disappear in another 100 years has boosted tourism, If the push comes to shove as far as the sea level is concerned, and all the local people have to be rehabilitated, only five islands are big enough to take on the extra load. However, even during the tsunami not much damage was done as the hungry tide had no real land to smash against.
Such concerns, however, are far from your mind when you come to the Maldives as a vacationer. We had a choice of cuisines after spending leisurely hours at the seaside bar as a live band played. We could enjoy a special massage at the spa or swim in the local pool or the sea. We could go water-skiing, snorkelling (the best way to explore the coral reef), para-sailing or catamaran sailing. We could ride a banana boat or sit in a fun tube and let a boat pull us along. We could row a canoe or pedal furiously to propel a boat or sit on the prow of our motorboat, Titanic style. The idea is to get in touch with nature and through it with yourself. Oh, there is also a golf resort called Kuredu, where PGA pro James Johnson is in residence, ready to help you improve your handicap.
So if you want to pamper your senses in the most luxurious of settings, enjoy a season in the Maldivian sun water, water, everywhere, and not a drop of stress.