Friday, 16 December 2016

Sun, Sea and Sand in the Maldives

Sun, sea & sand
I have several posts that I’ve written recently, which haven’t been published  because they’re awaiting appropriate photos. I wrote a while back about the importance of illustrating a post with decent and high quality photos, which are relevant to the subject being discussed, so until the opportunity arises to get out and take a few shots, these posts will remain under wraps.

In the meantime, here’s an old article I came across the other day, whilst tidying up my growing number of Word documents. It’s about a holiday I took, nine years ago, to the Maldives. I’m not sure why I originally wrote it, although I do remember publishing a much truncated version on Trip Advisor. There is very little mention of beer in the post, but as this blog is as much about travel, as it is about beer, I thought it worthy of seeing the light of day.

Read on and see what you think, particularly if you’ve always fancied getting away from it all and relaxing in that special place in the sun.

Taking it easy
In March 2007 I spent a most enjoyable and relaxing week in the Maldives. This holiday followed a very stressful six months period where I was working full-time in a new job, whilst at the same time running my existing Off-Licence along with trying to find a buyer for the business. Although we received a firm offer for the shop in October 2006, it took a further four months for the various solicitors to sort out the legal side of things. There was a lease involved, which for us had to be wound up, whilst a new one agreed for the ingoing tenants. The business itself also had to be sold – goodwill, turn-over etc, the stock valued and the new owners briefed and trained on the various aspects of running the shop. I had hoped to complete the sale by Christmas but hadn’t planned on our solicitor disappearing for practically the whole of December! (Nice work if you can get it!)

Tropical sunset
A recently retired friend agreed to manage the shop during the day whilst I was at work. However, I still had to work evenings and weekends, manage all the ordering and make frequent trips to the Cash and Carry to purchase stock etc. Looking back I’m not sure how I managed it, but somehow I did, and by the end of January the sale was complete. We were absolved from our responsibilities under the lease, and after paying our legal fees and those charged by the business transfer agents for finding our buyer and selling the actual business, we were left with a bit of money in the bank. Not much money mind you, but at least we hadn’t lost on the affair.

A holiday was definitely in order and a lazy relaxing one at that. The Maldives seemed to fit the bill perfectly. One of my regular customers had holidayed there on several occasions and although he and his family were keen scuba-divers, he thoroughly recommended it as a place for just chilling out. as well.

Equator Village
Even whilst I was waiting for the sale to go through I had been searching on-line for the best deals to the Maldives. I found that unlike most of the other holidays I have arranged, the Maldives is one place where you really have to book a package, rather than trying to arrange the flights and accommodation separately. I had a budget figure in mind but found it quite difficult finding a package that fitted the bill. Eventually I secured what I was looking for through First Choice Holidays, but although I was online at the time it was necessary to speak to one of the company’s advisers by phone, in order to complete the booking.

The helpful lady at the other end of the line sorted me out an all inclusive package to a resort called Equator Village on the Island of Gan, in Addu Atoll. A quick look at the map revealed that this is about as far south as you can get and still be in the Maldives. The rep had already told me that I would be crossing the Equator, so that sounded worthwhile in itself. We agreed dates, she confirmed the price, I confirmed my credit card details and that was it. I had just over a month to wait before departing for seven days of sun, sea and sand.

The big day eventually dawned and I made my way to Gatwick leaving plenty of time to catch my early evening departure. The Monarch Airbus A330 plane was full, but left on time. Ahead was a 10 hour flight through the night, arriving at around 10am local time, but five in the morning by my reckoning! Fortunately, after the in-flight meal and in-flight film – Casino Royale, I fell asleep. When I was awakened for breakfast, at what by reckoning was three o’clock in the morning, sunlight was streaming in through the cabin windows, heralding the bright tropical day that lay ahead.

A couple of hours later the captain announced that we would shortly be making our approach to Male Airport. Male is the capital of the Maldives, but the international airport, which is the main entry and exit point for visitors to the islands, lies a mile or so off the coast on what is totally re-claimed land. It was hazy as we made our approach, so I didn’t see that much, but after making a faultless landing, our plane taxied back to the terminal and after the aircraft came to a halt we got ready to disembark.

Took my chances on a big jet plane.............
The first thing that struck me on exiting the aircraft was the extreme heat. Having left a damp and rather cold England behind, I wasn’t prepared for either the heat or the humidity. After disembarking we walked across to the main terminal which, thankfully, was air-conditioned. Our passports were stamped by a rather scary-looking immigration officer, and after that it was across to baggage reclaim.  It seemed to take ages for my suitcase to appear on the carousel, and I was beginning to think that it had not been loaded on the plane, when thankfully it turned up. After that it was through customs. We had been warned that it was prohibited to bring certain items into the Maldives. The list included alcohol (the Maldives is a Muslim country), drugs (that went without saying) and pornography – but their definition of pornography also includes most so-called “lads magazines”, as well as anything remotely “hard-core”.

As I had none of these items in my case I was not too concerned, and more to the point was not picked out to be searched anyway. Once through to the arrivals hall I spotted a man carrying a card bearing my name. “Mr Bailey, please come this way quickly”, he said “your transfer flight is waiting to depart”. Having just passed through arrivals, my guide hurried me back to departures. Fortunately it was only domestic departures, but he was correct, the twin-engine, propeller-driven plane was due to depart shortly. What followed was a piece of amusement, as after my main suitcase had been weighed and checked in, I was instructed to step onto the scales, complete with my hand baggage, to be weighed as well! After that, it was up the steps and onto the plane.

Never let them tell you that they're all the same.........
It was a 90 minute flight to Gan, and as I had a window seat I was rewarded with spectacular views of the hundreds of small, coral islands that make up the Maldives. The slight haze, and the high altitude for such a small plane, spoiled the view slightly, but as we approached our destination and came in low over the palm trees, I could see just what a tropical paradise awaited me. As I mentioned earlier, Gan is situated south of the Equator, so before landing, we were each handed a certificate to commemorate our crossing.

For many years, the island of Gan was home to the Royal Air Force, during the time in which the Maldives were a British dependency. A large concrete runway, capable of accommodating large transport planes had been constructed, because the base was once an important staging post in the supply of Britain’s far-eastern interests, such as Hong Kong. Although the RAF departed in 1976, the air-strip is still in daily use with two daily connecting flights to the capital. The authorities have constructed a large, modern airport terminal with the idea of allowing direct international flights between this remote, southern part of the Maldives and the rest of the world. The RAF connection did not end at the airport, as Equator Village, the resort I was staying at, was formerly the NCO’s quarters.

The bar
Myself, plus a few fellow Brits were picked up from the airport by the resort’s mini-bus. Once checked in and shown to my comfortable, air-conditioned, chalet room, I couldn’t wait to don my shorts and get out exploring the resort. I was just in time for lunch, and was shown to my table by Ibrahim , who would be my waiter for the duration of the holiday. Ibrahim asked me where I was from, and when I told him England, he said he would sit me with some other English guests at dinner that evening. He explained that most of the guests were from Germany, with only a small contingent from the UK.

I enjoyed a couple of cold beers with my buffet lunch of chicken soup, followed by tuna with saffron rice. Unfortunately the only beer available at the resort was a canned one, imported from Indonesia and brewed by a subsidiary of Heineken called Bintang.  Although I count myself as something of a beer connoisseur, I wasn’t really expecting much else. Instead I was looking forward to trying some interesting cocktails come the evening!

Swimming pool - minus the bats!
After lunch I walked along the beach before venturing out to one of the small souvenir shops, just outside the compound gate. I bought some postcards and sat out in the veranda area of the bar writing them out, trying to make the folks back home jealous. Later on I decided to give the resort’s swimming pool a try, which was a nice way to cool off. The water was just the right temperature, and afterwards, as I relaxed on one of the many sun-loungers around the pool, I was slightly alarmed to see what appeared to be some huge bats flying around the tall palm trees that fringed the complex. I later learned that these creatures were fruit bats, completely harmless, but possessing a wingspan of up to four feet! It was a good job my wife wasn’t with me as I know they would have really freaked her out!

At dinner that night, Ibrahim was as good as his word and sat me with a couple from Bristol called Tony and Anne. I recognised them from the flight over from Male. Tony had been stationed on Gan 30 years ago, during his time in the RAF, and was on a nostalgic visit back to the island. It was interesting to hear him describe over the next few days, what had changed on the island since he was last there. After dinner, I sat in the bar with him and his wife for a while, before retiring to my bed at 9.30pm to catch up on some much needed sleep.

I must have been tired, as I didn’t wake up until 8am the following morning. I hurriedly washed and dressed and rushed down to breakfast. I was pleased to see that the weather was hot and sunny as this after all, was what I had paid to come all this way for. The chef cooked me a nice omelette, which I enjoyed with some mushrooms and frankfurter-type sausages.

Afterwards I borrowed a bike from reception and set off to explore a bit more of the island. I was allowed to keep hold of this bike all week; parking it up on the veranda outside my chalet when it was not in use. It had a handy basket on the front, but no gears. This was not a problem though as the island is to all intents and purposes flat as a pancake, but it was extremely hot and humid. I purchased a sun hat from one of the souvenir kiosks, as well as a bottle of water. I cycled one way as far as the airport, before heading in the other direction across the concrete causeway leading to the neighbouring island of Fedhu.

The imaginatively-named Bushy Island
It was far too hot to cycle any great distance, so I returned to the resort and spent most of the day relaxing on a sun-lounger beside the pool, sliding in to the water every so often to cool off. The pool had its own bar which one could swim or wade out to, complete with submerged concrete stools. Sitting on one of these, whilst enjoying a cold beer, or fruit juice, was a great way to relax and was another reason I had come to the Maldives in the first place.

The resort’s management were certainly keen to ensure their guests didn’t go hungry, as between lunch and dinner tea and cake were on offer. Despite doing a fair amount of swimming, and taking care not to stuff my face too much, I still managed to pile on several pounds during the course of my stay.

Pick your own
I soon worked out that dinner each evening followed a theme; the first night had been barbecue night, with the second night being Asian night. Over the course of the week we also were treated to Italian and Chinese nights as well as “Pan-grilled flambé” night. That night, after an excellent chicken curry, we met up with another British couple from the Isle of Man. They too had been on the same connecting flight from Male, and were joking that my late arrival had nearly caused the plane to be delayed. This time I stayed up a bit later, in fact it was gone midnight by the time I left the bar.

I have mentioned a couple of times previously that this was a chill-out holiday, and that’s exactly what I did, spending much of the time relaxing by the pool, and leaving the bike riding until the sun was starting to set. I did do a bit of snorkelling, having borrowed a mask plus set of fins from the German couple in the adjacent chalet, but found it difficult to see much owing to the fact I need to wear glasses in order to see things that are more than a few feet in front of me!

Local street-view
So that was it basically. I spent most of my stay swimming, sun-bathing, eating and drinking, plus the odd bit of cycling and snorkelling. Included as part of the package were a couple of excursions; one was called “Island Hopping”, the other was a night-fishing trip. The first excursion was a trip in a flat-bottom boat, complete with canopy to shade us from the sun, across the still waters of the lagoon, to one of the other islands that make up Addu Atoll. The highlight of this part of the trip was encountering a school of dolphins, who entertained us by swimming right up to the boat and practically jumping right out of the water. We landed on one of the islands and were taken on a brief tour by one of the guides. All I remember was the intense heat and lack of shade, although we did walk to a beautiful and secluded beach.

Beach barbecue - note complete absence of shade!
After that it was back to the boat and a short voyage to the uninhabited Bushy Island. To reach this small sandy islet, we had to transfer into a smaller boat and were taken across in relays. A couple of people swam over with one of the guides, but  these people were obviously much stronger swimmers than me, besides I had my camera with me and I didn’t want to get that wet. The idea behind our visit was to enjoy a beach barbecue. A cut-down oil drum provided the barbecue itself, and I got the impression this was a permanent fixture, left on the island by the tour guides for this very purpose.  The guides had brought with them a whole tuna fish, caught and prepared the night before. They slowly roasted the fish over hot charcoals and served it up with some pasta in tomato sauce that they had also brought along for the occasion.

My chalet
Despite its name, there wasn’t a scrap of shade on Bushy Island, and most of us spent our time immersed up to our shoulders in the warm azure-coloured waters whilst waiting for the food to be prepared. Some large golfing umbrellas were provided in each chalet, presumably for the rainy season, so my two English companions and I had had the foresight to bring them along as sun-shades. We sat huddled under then for protection against the ferocity of the early afternoon sun, before going back into the water to cool off after our meal. Afterwards, the transfer back to the boat took place as on the outward voyage.

Enjoying a cold one!
The night fishing trip involved taking the same boat out across the lagoon, just before sunset, and anchoring just off the reef. We were then each provided with baited hook attached to a length of fishing line, wound around a plastic bottle to lob over the side and wait to see what took the bait. I had the usual luck I have each time I go fishing i.e. I caught nothing! Several people did manage to haul in some reasonably sized fish, including a rather nasty looking Moray eel that was quickly dealt with by two of the guides. Despite my lack of fish it was a great experience being out on the lagoon at night and trying to identify some of the unfamiliar constellations of the southern sky.

One thing I ought to mention is that my stay in the Maldives was just a few days away from the Spring Equinox. Gan is situated practically on the equator, and thinking back to my school geography lessons I remembered that at midday the sun would be directly overhead at this time of year. It wasn’t quite, seeing as the equinox was still a few days off, but at noon it was plain to see that the sun cast practically no shadow!

Homeward bound
After a fantastic week of rest and relaxation I had an early morning connecting flight back to Male, before boarding the plane back to the UK. The return flight seemed to take an age, and what’s more we were greeted with sleet showers when we arrived back at Gatwick – welcome to reality!

I would certainly recommend visiting the Maldives. Our winter and early spring (November – April) are the best times to visit when this is the dry monsoon season with blue skies and virtually wall-to-wall sunshine. Between May and October the hot days are frequently interrupted by storms and tropical showers. There are literally dozens of resorts to choose from, ranging from top-of-the-range luxury accommodation to more basic and down to earth resorts similar to where I stayed. In between there are places to suit all pockets and tastes. Most resorts are much closer to the Maldivian capital, Male, and transfer to then is often by boat, or sometimes sea-plane! I would definitely recommend going for an all inclusive package though; otherwise restaurant and bar costs will soon mount up. Wherever you stay though I am certain you will have a fantastic time.


Anonymous said...

So cool!

Anonymous said...

I've never been to the Maldives, but I promised myself that I would definitely go there to soak up and sunbathe on a sun lounger and enjoy nature.