The Maldives is an archipelago like no other in the Indian Ocean with sun-kissed white-sand beaches and clear lagoons in the middle of warm turquoise waters as far as the eye can see
I was born and brought up in Kashmir, an oval-shaped valley in the Himalayas, universally regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful places. ‘If there is heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here,’ Mughal emperor Jahangir wrote about Kashmir in the 17th century.
I would quote Jahangir to emphasize Kashmir’s unparalleled beauty until I visited the Indian Ocean archipelago of Maldives in December 2011 and realized my native region is not unrivaled.
Jahangir may perhaps have had second thoughts had he also visited the archipelago of sun-kissed white-sand beaches in the middle of warm turquoise waters as far as the eye can see in the Indian Ocean.
That I was headed for a special experience was clear around half an hour into taking off from Bengaluru airport in southern India as part of a delegation to the Maldives. As soon as we flew out of the Indian peninsular, we could only see blue waters and clear lagoons across swathes of the Indian Ocean.
I could not take my eyes off the view and continued looking out of the aircraft window until we began our touchdown at the main Maldivian international airport. It was one of the exceptionally beautiful sites as we began our final approach on the Hulhule island.
I have been to over a dozen countries, and with the exception of Hong Kong, San Francisco, and Hawaii, I have never seen an airport as close to the sea. The conical island is only big enough to accommodate the airport and a few other buildings. The airport’s runways are meters away from the sea on all sides. It is a unique sight.
As we stepped out of the airport, there was not the usual hustle and bustle of touristy places. There are no traffic woes to worry about either. Ninety percent of the Maldives is water and ferries are the chief modes of transportation across the archipelago of 1,190 coral islands.
It is a country like no other scattered in the Indian Ocean. The islands account for less than one percent of the country’s area. Only 200 of them are inhabited with the longest road in the country being 16 km long. The Maldives’ population—417,492—is less than the Delhi suburb of Noida (637,272).
The topography and sparse population of the archipelago make it an ideal location to unwind. The country offers unparalleled privacy to visitors if they have deep pockets.
At least 100 palm-thatched resorts across the Maldives occupy an island each and are nestled among palm, banyan, bamboo, mangroves, and coconut palm trees.
Visitors need not go farther than balconies of luxury resorts for diving and snorkeling or to soak up the sun on the white-sand beaches of the earthy paradise.
I stayed at the Hulhule Island Hotel near the airport, where my room was just 100 meters from the sea. I could just step out and plunge into the sea. I could see the skyline of the nearby Male island and ships docking at the port close by.
High-speed boats were the only mode of transportation from Hulhule then. A mile-long China-Maldives Friendship Bridge has since been built to connect the two islands. It has become a major tourist attraction with the Lonely Planet calling it an ‘incredibly impressive piece of engineering’ over the open sea.
No Strings Attached
The Maldives is no longer meant only for luxury high-end tourism with the world’s first underwater nightclub, restaurant, and spa. Its charms are not restricted to honeymooners either.
Families with low budgets can choose from guesthouses that have come up on inhabited islands since 2009. The tourists were earlier restricted to resorts and kept apart from the populated islands. In 2009, the Maldivian government lifted restrictions on visitors from exploring the country beyond the luxury resorts, the centrepiece of its tourism model.
Travelling to the Maldives from India is like a walk in the park. You just need to buy your tickets, do hotel bookings, and have enough cash. There is no need for hassling paperwork, queueing up for submission of the sheaf of documents, or appearing for any personal interviews before embassy officials.
All you need to do is just hop on to a plane from any of four Indian airports in Delhi, Bangalore, Thiruvananthapuram, Chennai, and Cochin to fly to the earthy paradise, where tourists including those from India are offered free visa-on-arrival.
And there are no strings attached. Indians do not need visas to travel to or enjoy the visa-on-arrival facility in 54 countries. But in most countries, some conditions apply. For instance, Indians get the facility in the UAE only if they have a valid American visa.
No such conditions apply for Indians in the Maldives, where they get a 90-day visa-on-arrival. Yet Indians accounted for just five percent of visitors to the Maldives between January and October 2018 despite the geographical proximity. In contrast, 247,911 Chinese tourists accounted for a fifth of all visitors during the same period.
The capital Male is around a 10-minute ferry ride from the airport. The scenic beauty and heritage sites make up for the chaos on the island, where 153,504 people are cramped in a 5.8 square km area.
The country’s oldest grand mosque—made of coral stone in 1656– is among the main attractions in Male. Maldivian presidential palace—Muleeaage—is a few meters away.
Sultan Shamsuddin III built Muleeaage for his son in the first decade of the 20th century before the monarch was deposed. The building was allotted to the Maldivian President when the country was declared a Republic in 1953.
Abu al-Barakat Yusuf al-Barbari’s mausoleum—Medhu Ziyaarath—is a stone’s throw from the palace. He is revered for introducing Islam in the Maldives in the 12th century. The legend has it that al-Barbari, a North African, slayed sea demon Rannamaari, who preyed on young virgins.
According to the local folklore, a virgin girl was sacrificed to the demon to protect the Maldivians from Rannamaari’s wrath. Al-Barbari is believed to have drowned the monster in the sea with his spiritual powers and inspired the king to convert to Islam; his people followed suit.
Like all major landmarks, the National Museum is within walking distance from the Ziyaarath and is located just 800 meters away. Housed in a Chinese-made building, it contains a range of artifacts linked to Maldivian history including 30 Buddhist stone carvings.
There are galleries each for artifacts from the ancient, medieval, and modern periods. The famous lacquer-work boxes are on display on the first floor, along with the first gramophone, phone, and computer used in the country.
The minutes of an underwater cabinet meeting President Mohamed Nasheed held in 2009 to highlight the existential threat global warming poses to countries such as the Maldives are preserved at the museum.
The Maldives is a must-go place for lovers of marine life. Whale sharks can be spotted on South Ari Atoll to Male’s west. Snorkeling trips are organised to the Marine Protected Area throughout the year. North Male Atoll is known for its dive sites. The colours and beauties of the Maldives are best captured by low-flying seaplanes.
Anytime is a good time to visit. The Maldives is blessed with a moderate climate with the mercury staying between 26 to 30 degrees Celsius. The monsoon season marked by short afternoon rains starts in November and ends a month later. The peak season starts around this time and lasts until April.