Travel: The Maldives

<em>Time Out</em>'s editor ducks out of the rat race and goes in search of his inner surf dude in The Maldives.

Hold your board under one arm at a 30 degree angle and walk casually like this. Check out the girls, but only look once, not twice. Got it?’ I’ve just learned the most important rule of surfing: how to look good. Although I’ve never seen myself as the beach-bum type, the appeal suddenly makes perfect sense. I’m in the Maldives surrounded by clear blue water, the sun is shining and I have a few days to kill. Behind me lies a luxury island resort, the Anantara Maldives Resort & Spa. It holds all the promise of private bungalows, lazy afternoons, dreamy sunsets and candlelit meals. This is all well and good, but men of a certain age require more from our holidays. We want to forget about our jobs and our responsibilities. We want adrenalin and action. There’s only one thing for it – I need to conquer the surf.

My instructor is a strapping Aussie nicknamed ‘Captain Jack’. Years ago, upon finishing university, he realised with horror that he might have to get a job. So he grabbed his board, took to the surf and has avoided the rat race ever since. At the beach, Jack maps out how to navigate a reef surf. ‘Make sure you head to the right if you manage to stand up,’ he warns. ‘Go straight and you’ll get smashed in the coral, and that’s not cool.’ I assure him that I will be fine. I don’t think he notices my knees tremble. We travel by boat to the break. A lazy though sizeable swell carries us away from the boat and Jack barks some last minute instructions. ‘Stand when I shout!’ he says. I brace myself for the wave; suddenly everything happens very quickly. I’m paddling for all I’m worth and I feel the almighty power of the wave rising me beneath me. ‘NOW!’ he bellows. I spring upwards and, to my astonishment, stand immediately. The surf carries me forwards, shooting through the spray. It is exhilarating, I am alive! I am at one with the ocean! I am heading straight for the coral.

The ocean engulfs me. Tumbling into the surf, my board thrashes about on the rope strapping it to my ankle. If it hits me in the face, my nose will break. Gasping,
I swallow a mouthful of sea water. Just as I begin to regain composure, another wavepushes me closer to the jagged reef. I instinctively put my feet down and feel a sharp sting as coral cuts into my sole. If I get knocked over again I am in big trouble. Desperately, I fight my way out of danger and head to the calmer, deeper waters to my right. Gasping for breath, I make it back to the boat and collapse in a heap, shaking with adrenaline and fear.

Luckily, there are lots of ways to recover back on dry land. The island bungalows stand on stilts over the ocean, with wooden ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows and gigantic sea-facing bathrooms. I retire to the sunken bath with a stiff drink and a good view of the flaming sunset, which sets me up nicely for dinner. Baan Huraa, the resort’s Thai restaurant, perches on the causeway spanning two of the resort’s three islands. The food is obscenely fresh and fragrant, and we throw fresh bread to the shoals of fish swimming below as I recount my tales of daring deeds to anyone who will listen.

Far from curbing my enthusiasm, the events of day one have re-awakened my taste for adventure. After breakfast, couples gravitate towards sunloungers by the pool and beach, whereas I make a beeline for the water sports centre. The Maldives has some of the best dive sites in the world, and I intended to investigate. The divemaster, Charlie, is a relaxed, good natured chap who tells me he qualified as a lawyer before realising he preferred water sports. A theme seems to be emerging here.We set off aboard a traditional Maldivian dhoni in the milky morning sunlight, pulling on our gear along the way. After a short brief, we jump overboard. Charlie has chosen a shelf dive for us to explore. It’s 12m down to the lip of the gigantic drop-off point which stretches down into inky blackness. Turtles, baby shark, moray eels and colourful fish flash past. It’s a surreal, magical world and I love it. This is what life should be about, I proclaim to myself triumphantly.

The rest of my trip falls into a similar pattern. Every day I make my way to the water sports centre to try something new. The island, with its discreet air of luxury, has all the amenities and services you could wish for, but I swerve most of them in favour of snorkelling, sailing andsomething I have never heard of before called sea bobbing – which involves holding on for dear life to a battery powered contraption that shoots you under, over and through the water. The word ‘fun’ doesn’t even start to describe it.At the end of each day, tired and happy from a day’s adventures, a sundowner is followed by dinner at one of the excellent restaurants dotted over the resort’s three islands.

The sound of the waves lapping the shore, the clear night sky and twinkling light from the other atolls induces a lulling, calm serenity. I think about Dubai, and London and every other city I have lived in, with all their incessant noise, traffic and pollution problems, and I wonder whether my priorities somehow wound up fatally flawed. On the final afternoon, I savour the lingering moments as much as possible. A spa treatment is booked, and I cunningly time my walk across the island to coincide with cocktail hour at the poolside bar. The fiery, red sun, dropping towards the horizon casts a golden hue over the ocean. By the bar, I bump into Jack. ‘G’day mate, he says,’ warmly. ‘How’s your holiday been?’ I tell him I have to return to reality tomorrow and I’m not especially keen. ‘It’s funny you should say that,’ he says. ‘I was just sitting here looking at the sunset with a cold tinny and I got to thinking…’ He hesitates. ‘You might think this sounds a bit deep for a surfer bloke.’

‘No go on,’ I encourage him. ‘Well, see I was looking at the sunset and I realised that all those people out there in the real world – it’s like they’re running blindly into the light, without knowing where they’re going or why… whereas, y’know, I reckon it’s all about trying to do less, not more.’I lean on the bar, look out across towards the deep red sunset and take a sip of my drink. I know exactly what he’s talking about.

Getting there

Dhigu Island in the South Malé Atoll, Anantara Dhigu Resort & Spa, Maldives is 35 minutes by private speedboat from Malé. For more information visit www.anantara.com or call please telephone +66(2) 725 6000. Emirates fly direct to Male International Airport.

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