Shafeen is swerving the buggy down the snaking wooden jetty like an ace. It’s pitch dark and drizzling, his path is damp from the day’s torrential downpour, but the young Maldivian is jovially transporting our group of seven international journalists to our villas in Mercure Maldives Kooddoo resort. Despite the fatigue from two delayed flights, I’m anxious to find my bearings—they matter, especially when you are in a property that floats atop the Indian Ocean like a levitating yogi.
My ears perk up when I hear the sea roar on either side of the jetty we are now trundling down, but, sadly, all I can see is a bulbous black mass lit in parcels, deep blue reflections cast by the resort’s distant structures glinting off it. “Wait for sunrise, madam. Sea looks gorgeous. Everything here does,” Shafeen reassures me when I alight. “Just hope weather’s good tomorrow.”
Hoping ditto, I finally enter my villa at two in the morning. Out of habit, I inspect the bathroom first. When I turn on the lights, it sizzles like the parties in The Great Gatsby. The only thing missing is DiCaprio. The black-and-white patterned floor looks classic and is rooted in local traditions, “fashioned after the black-and-white sarongs Maldivian men wear during a celebratory Boduberu musical performance,” GM Scott Bowen, an Australian, tells me later. The bathtub is spacious and the shower cubicle standard, but the real showstopper in here is a separate open-to-sky bath area. It opens on to a private deck, which is also where my private infinity pool sits. I postpone a dip until morning and step back into the villa and that’s when, two strides from the bed, I notice something shimmer under the legs of a blood-red stool whose edges are punched with round golden buttons, similar to those pinned on vintage trunks. Curious, I inch closer and peer down. A giant beige coral glares back at me through a glass frame carved into the villa’s otherwise wooden flooring. It’s luminescent from the glow of an underwater LED, and the turquoise ripples embracing it jiggle like a Boomerang. Inspired, I open the app and capture the rhythm of the dancing waves. First Instagram post. Check.
My mind finally veers to more pressing matters, like my stomach’s embarrassingly audible rumblings. My last real meal was a salad in Singapore 12 hours ago. So I rip the cellophane off the platter waiting below the LED TV and wolf down the tuna sandwich and macaroons. All four of them. They had come with a side of fragrant white-and-purple orchids. Touched by the warmth and now well-fed, I bundle aside the palm leaf arrangement—in big, bold letters, they had read Marhaba (Arabic for greeting)—and sink into bed. That’s when I give the giant sepia-tinted canvas above the headboard a second, closer glance. It’s a take on a nautical map, with the equator slicing through the Indian Ocean. Maldives is marked, as are some of its 26 atolls, and lurking in the foreground is a tiny airplane.
French architect Meriam Hall subtly superimposed the seaplane on the map, Scott explains when I bring up the map later. “People probably flew in these planes when transcontinental travel first opened up. That’s why she didn’t want to use a jumbo jet,” he considers… “it’s supposed to be a bit retro, a bit about the nostalgia of travel.”
Still in bed, through the fluttering film of the curtains, I wake to 180° views of the ocean. It dazzles like a diva, and intimidates as much as it enchants. Sliding apart the glass-paned patio door—they comprise an entire wall to afford unobstructed views of the sunlit cyan expanse—my instinct is to chill by the deck and inhale my surroundings. So feet dunk in pool, I connect my cell phone to a sleek dock. There’s one in every villa. But barely 20 minutes pass by and nature decides to rain on my parade: the wind gets raspy, waves wild and pregnant, grey clouds crack open. Thunderstorm strikes. Was blasting Imagine Dragon’s “Thunder” necessary? I reanalyse my playlist as I sprint back into the villa at lightning speed.
The good thing about this tropical South Asian island nation, though, is that storms pass, skies clear and the temperamental sea turns tranquil sooner than you’d expect. Luckily, our afternoon plan of visiting a pristine sandbank, 10 minutes from the resort by speedboat, remains uninterrupted. We start with a clean-up drive by the end of which we collect broken Bisleri caps, crushed Milo cans and stray rubber chappals. After the activity, the afternoon progresses into a picnic-cum-snorkelling excursion. Some of my co-travellers take to their DSLRs, others snorkel in the translucent blue waters. I sit down to read under a tree’s shade, feet lodged in white, lukewarm sand. Lunch, for which we all reunite, is light, comprising cold cuts, fruits, Shweppes and tuna sandwiches. Tuna, by now I’m convinced, could well be the country’s national fish. It’s devoured at all hours—smoked, canned and, as I would learn later, even inside samosas.
“You still hot?” Jason enquires across the table, scissoring his chopsticks through a chow mein heap. My eyes are welled up, nose tandoori red. We’ve all daringly bitten into the fiery githeyo mirus chilli, a Maldivian staple and sweetheart, over dinner at the Mediterranean-themed Alita.
“Eat one spoon plain rice,” advises my Korean companion.
“Try desserts,” says Malaysian Kin, sliding some chocolate mousse my way.
It’s a while before the pungency recedes and when it does, we all crack up. Ice broken, inhibitions thawed, that evening we challenge the resort’s staff to a game of volleyball, and lose gloriously. Our opponents aren’t just seasoned players, they’re all six foot some inches. The status quo (for whatever it’s worth) is thankfully restored when we win a game of treasure hunt—and a bottle of sparkling wine.
Day 2 is reserved for an evening tour of Maamendhoo, a laid-back, spick and span local island on the Gaafu Alif atoll, and it’s here that I have a gala time. Dive centre manager, Alice Tessari, who is now also doubling as our guide, starts off by offering us bits of sweetened supari, a cherished pastime of most lungi-clad Maldivian men when they are not fishing. Here, we stroll past children head-butting each other in a friendly football match in an open field and women lounging in joalis, traditional hammock-like coir chairs, outside their single-storey homes, some of which had to be rebuilt after being ravaged by the Tsunami in 2004. Up next on our trail is a visit to a humble grocery store where Alice introduces us to valho mas, but the sticky charcoal-coloured smoked tuna strips turn out to be too fishy and chewy for my liking. On this sleepy islet, our path also crosses with Maamendhoo’s only school. It’s powder blue facade brims with murals promoting Islam, hygiene and computer literacy, all in the same breath.
On our way out, I spot a young man on a motorcycle who I had earlier seen as a staff member in the hotel. I wave out to him and he returns my gesture. Trailing my action, Alice then tells us how after fishing it is the hospitality industry that generates maximum employment in Maldives. I leave having learnt a lot more than I’d thought I would. Marginal as it may have been, Maamendhoo succeeds in offering as much a glimpse into the life of locals—away from the glitzy resorts—as it does into the economy unique to only island nations.
On our last night, the weather turns tumultuous once again, stalling artistes from reaching Kooddoo for an evening extravaganza of Boduberu. Mildly dejected at the turn of events the seven of us decide to chill in my room one last time. The property, however, seems fairly equipped to tackle these periodic climatic assaults, and, much to our surprise, it activates Plan B. Staff members Ismail and Ibrahim charge in with dhols, beers and an infectious energy, cheering us up instantaneously. Ismail drums like a pro, Ibrahim is a novice, and both of them, like most Maldivians, love Hindi songs. Since I am the only Indian in the mix, I must prompt chartbusters for them to play and I’m astonished at how well they do, everything from classics like “Ae meri zohra jabeen” to Varun Dhawan remixes.
The norm in the Maldives, by and large, is one resort to one island. Of its 1,190 islets, 130 are home to resorts and 400 to locals. The rest are uninhabitable. From the capital Malé, Mercure Maldives Kooddoo is a 55-min flight. The reception is another 5 min by buggy. Doubles start from $380/Rs24,200, inclusive of breakfast. All meals come at an additional charge of $148/Rs9,400 per person per night. There are 68 villas, some are scattered on the beach, others are water-facing.
Water sports such as pedalos and kayaking are complimentary for guests. Besides dolphin, diving and snorkelling expeditions, the resort also offers motorised sports like jet skiing ($60/Rs3,820 for 15 min) and tube rides ($25/Rs1,600 for 15 min). Sunset fishing and trips to the local islands of Maamendhoo and Villingili, both 10 min by speedboat and 20 min by dhoni, cost $60/Rs3,900. Other highlights include a culinary class ($25/Rs1,600), where you can learn to rustle up mas riha (fish curry) and mashuni, a breakfast staple loaded with tuna, onion, coconut, chilli, and a healthy dose of fresh lime juice.
Humaira Ansari is a certified nihari-lover who travels with an open mind and lots of earbuds. She invests a lot of time and Wi-Fi in planning her itineraries. She loves neighbourhood walks, meals at a local’s home, and discovering a city's nightlife. She is former Senior Associate Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.