Brian W Fisher

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A True Isle of Paradise

Choosing on which Maldives island to holiday, is not quite as easy as it might sound. Although each of those that have been designated by the government as 'Tourist Destinations' are, of course, islands within the atolls of the Indian Ocean. But there the similarity ends.

So, how do they differ? Let's start with size. Some are large enough to cater for many hundreds of guests at a time and many of those are managed by international hotel chains. A number classify themselves as 'medium' in size, where perhaps eighty or so Maldivian styled (two-three person) chalets are spaced around the resort's beaches. Then there are the more intimate islands, small enough to paddle around the perimeter in thirty minutes or so and where seeing another guest (other than at mealtimes) is anything but common.

Facility wise, every island differs even more. Some of the larger ones have tennis courts, football fields, choreographed entertainment every evening and even swimming pools – although this author has always been puzzled as to why the latter?

There are islands where the nearest reef over which to snorkel or scuba dive can only be reached by dhoni (local boat), others have wonderful house reefs only metres from the shore. Some offer all non-motorised water sports such as catamaran sailing and canoeing on a complimentary basis, while others charge.

Then there is always the cost to consider. This does vary widely between resorts. Choosing between, Room Only – B&B – Half Board - Full Board and All Inclusive, should be made with care if a pre-determined budget is a major factor. To look carefully at 'extras' is certainly my recommendation as these (like alcohol) can quickly turn into a sizeable sum of money by the end of a stay.

'Oh dear', readers might say at this point – 'it all sounds complicated'. In actual fact it isn't!.

While I concentrate on producing a detailed Travelogue of every place in the world I visit (like this one), there are other writers whose expertise lets them pen very differently. As regards to the Maldives, there is in fact a 'bible' – a book entitled, 'Resorts of the Maldives' written by Adrian Neville. His brilliant book lists, page by page - resort by resort - ALL the details a prospective tourist would need to know before selecting the island of choice. It really does make it easy to read (and look at the photographs) jot down any of the resorts that 'tick all your boxes' – narrow things down to one and THEN make your booking.

Having visited a number of very varied Maldives islands in recent years and reported on each in depth, I wanted to pick one that really did differ from the norm and my research (plus a good old scan through Mr Neville's book) I made my choice. Would 'small' be beautiful? It turned-out to be even more than that – a slice of paradise!

The tiny island of Makunudu, although within the Coco Collection Group and operated by Sunland, it sneaks under the radar of many UK tour operators. Because of that it almost borders on the unique. With less than forty villas and an average guest list throughout the season numbering seventy-five at any one time, the island offers the peace and tranquility so many discerning holidaymakers crave for.

From the moment one steps off the resort's powerful speedboat after a thrilling fifty-minute ride across the turquoise coloured ocean from Male and be greeted in person by the resident manager, Lakshman Chandrasekra (a Sri Lankan) before being guided to the thatched reception area where a cold, scented towel and an even colder fruit cocktail are presented, guests know instinctively that they have made the right choice.

By the time the simple booking-in procedure is completed and you're escorted along a sandy path shaded by the island's prolific flora to reach your selected villa, its air conditioning has been activated and your luggage already lying in wait. Every villa has the same amenities – quiet, efficient air-con – a huge (and wonderfully comfortable bed), ample storage space, a desk on which to write postcards (or not as the case may be) and a great half outdoor/indoor bathroom with loads of hot water. The front door opens onto a teak deck (with a low-sited water tap for rinsing one's sandy feet) which in turn lets you step down and walk the few metres along your own narrow, tree-covered path to emerge onto the beach, where lies a sun-bed.

I'd arrived in late February, which allowed me to enjoy the perfect weather – calm seas, azure skies, light, cooling breezes and a lusciously warm sea swarming with fish. The House Reef was amazing. Just a gentle couple of minutes snorkel and there it was – only a few metres deep – masses of colourful coral - the sun's rays highlighting colonies of anemones, which in turn sheltered red and white clown fish. The reef even had a pair of fully grown resident turtles, which let you hover over or swim alongside – a truly exciting experience. That I swam to the reef at least twice every day was a testament to its magnetic allure.

Only, when chatting with the manager, did I learn that he employed five different nationalities of chefs. Up to then, I, like the other guests had been amazed at the variety and quality of the food offered at every mealtime. Dinner was mostly a cordon bleu type that defied any preconceived ideas of island resort standards. Five stars for sure. Twice during my stay that system changed to one of a barbecue nature, where a sumptuous buffet was laid out and a trio of chefs stood ready to grill whatever took your fancy.

I mentioned alcohol earlier. The resort (like all others) had a well-stocked bar and those clients who had opted for the 'All Inclusive' tariff were not disappointed. The 'pay as you go' guests (like myself) were pleasantly surprised to find, that the prices were only a little more than would be found in most UK hotels. Considering that every item consumed at the resort had to be ferried from Male – prices were more than acceptable.

Another, most welcome advantage of Makunudu, was the free use of a sleek catamaran (including a skipper). A couple of hours skimming across the ocean trying to compete with the accompanying dolphins, was certainly exhilarating. Snorkelling equipment was also freely available and even a complimentary scuba dive could be had for the asking. It was little wonder that all of these facilities were in constant use – and very much appreciated!

Two days before my time on the island would end, I signed-up (and paid around $12) for a half day boat trip to an area seemingly in the middle of the ocean - listed on seagoing maps as, Manta Point. Yours truly (having suffered a couple of heart attacks) could no longer scuba dive (definitely a no-no). Nevertheless, I decided that should the opportunity arise to at least see a giant Manta Ray from the surface by snorkelling, then I should take it. On reaching what appeared to be a point of nowhere, the boat stopped - the prepared scuba divers stepped off the gunwales and after a few splashes disappeared from view. The weathered-skinned captain gave me a nod, pointed in the opposite direction in which the divers had gone, treat me to a broad smile and proffered a 'hitch-hikers' thumb. I back-rolled off the side, repositioned my mask and flipped away without any real expectation of seeing a Manta. After all, the Indian Ocean was many thousands of square miles in size and I was limited to searching an area perhaps the size of a basketball court.

Less than a minute later, I almost froze. Coming toward me was a mouth! Not a human mouth but one more than a metre wide and gaping enough to swallow me without my elbows feeling its sides. What to do? I hadn't a clue because I'd not really believed that such a meeting would happen against all the odds. But it had! Like some underwater Golden Eagle, the Manta glided silently closer, that enormous mouth increasing in size. It skimmed under me with inches to spare. My first encounter. But it wasn't going to be the last!

For more than thirty minutes, it and I (and subsequently with four more Mantas) swam this way and that as if by some invisible magnetic cord. We twisted and turned – me like an awkward mammal, they like magical ballet dancers as they swooped, turned as graceful as a swans and allowed me to be as inquisitive as I wished. Keeping open their capacious mouths for the cleaner wrasse to pick at parasites was an endearing sight indeed – tiny things darting in and out with impunity. Then, without warning and as if by some instantaneous signal, all five turned as one and swam out of sight. I think I wore an idiotic and satisfied grin on my face for the rest of the day.

So, what else did Makunudu display that made it so very different? Well, the staff were a delight to be around. Everything worked. The villa was cleaned twice a day. There were 'freebees' galore and internet access was available (if that ubiquitous invention was an integral part of one's psyche). A well-stocked library let you swap books (assuming there was time to read). And – the resort was affordable.

Were there any downsides? Only one. Everyone can remember the devastating Tsunami that ravaged so much of south east Asia and parts of the Indian Ocean region. The Maldives did not escape its wrath. Some islands were affected more than others and in different ways. Makunudu was hit but suffered little or no damage to its infrastructure. What did suffer however, was the shoreline. Much coral was scoured from the ocean bed, smashed into small pieces and washed ashore in huge quantities. Some parts of the island's beautiful beaches were affected and have left bands of broken coral close to the waterline. Not a problem when wearing sand shoes or flippers but without that protection, guests should be wary. The resort's staff are working hard to improve matters and there are more than enough areas of soft, white sand to let squeeze between one's toes.

The last question has be be...'Would I return?' My answer is … 'YES'!

Written by Brian W Fisher 2010.

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