MALDIVES—When I said I was going to the Maldives, nobody I told knew where it was, what it looked like, what kind of food to expect, or how to get there. Vague notions of lovely resorts, but zero details, prevailed.
A documentary-loving friend told me about “The Island President,” a film about this Asian archipelago, the world’s lowest-lying country (just four feet above sea level, on average) and one of the first to sound the alarm on the dangers of global warming, and its ex-leader, who once said the entire population might need to consider moving to Australia.
Since the Alliance of Small Island States, a group of islands threatened by climate change whose members include Fiji, Micronesia, Caribbean islands and Africa’s Cape Verde is chaired by the Republic of the Maldives’ minister of energy and environment, in October 2017 the Maldives hosted a meeting of the Initiative for Renewable Island Energy attended by many members.
“It is no accident that islands are acting so quickly …our very survival depends on the world moving expeditiously from ratification to implementation,” said Maldives minister Thoriq Ibrahim at the Paris climate change agreement. “The alarming reports about sea level rise accelerating around the world and the heartbreaking loss of coral in the coral reefs and other fragile marine systems” are the latest reminder of the life-and-death crisis, he added.
The Maldives may be under siege climate-wise, but a stay here is sheer bliss. I found the whitest beaches I’d ever seen — toothpaste-white, in fact — water a surreal color of turquoise or pale green jade, and food that recalled southern India, with coconut milk curries and lots of seafood. In this archipelago of more than 1,100 tiny islands southwest of India, about 100 islands are private-island resorts. This means no village: your resort is the only thing on the island, and its restaurants, dive shop and boutiques become your whole world.
To get here, I took a long, long flight on Emirates Airlines from San Francisco with a switch in Dubai, then a three and a half hour flight to Male, the Maldives capital. Seeing the necklace of teardrop- and amoeba-shaped islands, encircled by paper-white beaches, with emerald-green centers of coconut palm forests, made me tingle with anticipation.
Then, I took a speedboat to my resort. Some resorts need a small-plane flight from Male, depending on the distance of their atoll from Male’s international airport. The country’s remoteness is part of its appeal; easy access can’t be expected.
Overwater villas are very common here. At my luxury private-island resort, 30 minutes by speedboat from Male, Anantara Dhigu, my overwater villa had limitless views of the turquoise lagoon from floor-to-ceiling glass windows in the bedroom and bathroom, which featured a stand-alone bathtub (“I almost fainted with pleasure,” a fellow guest remarked). From the staircase of my big wooden deck, I could descend into the sea for a refreshing dip. Some villas, more costly than mine, had private plunge pools.
At Anantara’s cooking school, I learned to make tuna curry, with coconut milk, curry leaves, garlic and ginger, crabcakes, and rice pudding with cinnamon, cardamom, raisins and cashews, very similar to my cooking class in Kerala, India. Except for the view—our lunch was outdoors on a pure-white beach facing that mesmerizing blue sea—and the chef’s native language, Dhivehi. A mix of Arabic, Sinhalese (Sri Lanka), Hindi, Urdu and English, it’s written in a script that looked to me like shorthand. But English is spoken at resorts, since tourism is the main industry, and since the Maldives was a British protectorate from 1887 to 1965.
My resort was doing its part to protect coral reefs with a program the Bangkok-based Anantara chain started at its four Maldives resorts in October 2015, and the U.S. scientist leading it was staying at Dhigu during my visit.
“Climate change is the biggest threat: burning fossil fuels makes the water acidic, corals need non-acidic water to survive, and rising sea temperatures cause coral bleaching, which means corals dying,” said Dr. Andrew Bruckner, who leads HARP (Holistic Approach to Reef Preservation). “Since corals provide habitat for fish and other sea creatures, who sleep and live there, if corals die, the fish leave.”
One of HARP’s first actions, much simpler, was removing a predator which eats coral, the Crown-of-Thorns starfish, and circulating an educational nationwide on what to do if new outbreaks arose.
Guests can help. Each dollar per night they donate is matched by Anantara in its “Dollars for Deeds” program. Since 2010, its Maldives guests resort have also been able to “adopt a coral,” relocating damaged corals by attaching them underwater to metal frames.
A contrast was my stay at a moderate-priced, no-overwater-bungalow resort that aimed to re-create the rustic beginnings of Maldives tourism in the 1970s with humble dive resorts, long before its fancy resorts. Here at aaaVeee, two trees were growing through sand in the bathroom floor in one charming bungalow, whose bedroom also had a sand floor. So did the entrance to the spa, where my massage faced the gorgeous lagoon through open shutters. The paths between the resort’s thatched-roof cottages were sand, too.
Coconuts were paving stones along the paths, spelled out “aaaVeee” (which means “revival”) on the beach, their fronds were used in roof thatch and their wood in cottage construction. Everything underscored the beach-bum, barefoot-chic effect, while décor accents like throw pillows and bedspreads were blue and green, the two colors of these islands. This is where I had my choice of seating in the sea: In a hammock and swing, tied to trees in the sea. On a swim-up sofa with pillows, atop a wood deck in the sea.
“I like unconventional places. We like the Maldives since the lagoon and reef are so nearby, you don’t need a boat to snorkel or dive,” an Italian tourist at aaaVeee told me.
The Maldives twist on “1001 Places to See Before You Die”: See it before it dies.