Diary of a Maldivian retreat
‘There are others about, but it doesn’t feel like it – we feel cocooned and undisturbed’
Tom and I arrive at the small and serene Constance Halaveli by seaplane from Malé airport. It’s in the Ari Atoll of the Maldives, and to get here we’ve been on an 11 hour overnight flight with BA from the UK. Neither of us has slept – well, do you, on a night flight in economy?
We’re starving, so still in our travel clothes we settle down on giant cappuccino-coloured bean bags under palm trees on the beach for a lunch of lobster wraps and salad. It’s light and delicious, and for after I decide to treat myself to a decaf latté for that milky, comforting feeling after my flight. Mistake – all the milk shipped into the Maldives is UHT and really just does not taste good in hot drinks. That will teach me – it will be coconut milk straight from the shell from now on.
Sated and nicely dazed by the delicious sunshine after a drizzly UK, we’re shown to our over-water villa, no 53, to find the staff have unpacked and ironed our things while we were eating. Bloody marvellous.
All we have to do now is admire our mahogany-lined villa and spend some time relaxing our tired eyes by watching the view – which is, essentially, an endless, pea green and turquoise ocean stretching right to the far horizon with nothing in between.
We swim in it off our deck – it’s very shallow, as the tide is right down low – but once our bodies are floating on the water it doesn’t matter. Later, Tom has a session on a stand up paddle board, relishing the fact that he doesn’t have to wear a wetsuit like he does in Devon, while I do a little post-flight yoga on the deck looking out over all that blue.
We’ve pre-booked a 2.5 hour holistic ILA Experience treatment in a couples room at the over-water spa, which we happily discover is an easy walk a little further along the warm bare wood of the jetty from our villa. The combined body scrub, facial techniques and Manipura massage are designed to soothe and rebalance us after our overnight flight. That you can get ILA treatments here at all was one of the main reasons we chose Constance Halaveli, for they’re properly holistic and use divine-smelling, hand blended pure plants and minerals carefully sourced from all over the world (himalayan rock salt from Kashmir, rosehip seed oil from the Southern Andes, Babassu oil from the Amazon, mmm).
It’s a delightful surprise to find that I can lie on the massage bed and look down through the face hole below into the shallows of the ocean. I watch the sea move and shift over small grey rocks, and witness the little shock my body receives as a vibrant yellow and sky blue fish eases itself into view. Eventually, I pass out, and the ILA Experience with my Balinese therapist seems to go on forever in all the right ways.
We share ginger tea served in little ceramic cups, relaxing on a day bed on the outdoor spa deck, then spend some time in the hot pool, relaxing some more, followed by a sea swim off the steps to cool off. I rather dig the the petrol blue and turquoise robes they give us, which make a welcome change from white ones and match the ocean beautifully.
That evening we share freshly grilled seafood with our feet in the sand at one of the three restaurants, Meeru (which means delicious in Maldivian), and celebrate our arrival with a glass of sparkling white (15 US$) – it’s a little sweet, and not entirely bubbly, but I’m too chilled out to care. Coming back, we find the bath filled with foam and rose petals, which is very kind of the staff, but we’re too hot and tired to bother and fall into bed and a dreamless sleep.
We’re over excited to be here. I have a sea swim, while Tom goes for a run around the island – and up and down the jetty to make it last a little longer, for the resort has the longest jetty in the Maldives, we’re told – all 850 metres of it.
We take our time, and forgetting that the island is an hour ahead of Malé time (which in turn is 5 hours ahead of GMT), arrive a little late for breakfast to find they are already clearing it furiously away. No matter – they supply us with scrambled eggs and green tea on request, though we vow to be earlier tomorrow.
After, we find a huge double lounger right where the sand meets to sea and lie there and read for hours, enjoying the perfect heat and peace.
For a late lunch, it’s reef fish balls and a tasty dip for Tom, while I have a fresh prawn salad. Tom goes for a longer paddle, then a wind surf, while I swim madly for ages and take a walk around the island, which takes about five minutes, though in this heat I feel I have ‘achieved’ enough to lounge about and read some more.
Walking back to our room later, I discover the lovely warm bare wood of the jetty has turned into a screechingly hot torture instrument, and run very quickly and unattractively, picking my feet up, to the nearest water urn, so I can bathe my poor seared feet. Ah, that’s better.
Dinner is an indulgent seafood barbecue at Meeru. We order a bottle of New Zealand white and use all our willpower to have just a glass each, asking the staff to keep it for another meal. We have a child waiting at home, so have decided to limit our booze so we can make the most of the gift of undisturbed sleep and return to her rejuvenated.
Tonight we turn off the air con in our room, open all the windows, and properly sleep – we are sweaty, but at least we lose the sore throats and blocked noses that only 24 hours of air con has given us. We’re living outside now, 24 hours a day, for as well as our room all the restaurants and spaces are open to the air too. This is one main reason to retreat to a hot place like the Maldives. Divine.
Delighted! We watch two black-tipped sharks swimming together just off our deck. They’re very close, and it’s amazing, and fills us with an unexpected excitement and joy. After breakfast (we take the Asian rice with seaweed) we go for a short stand up paddle board together – I’m rather nervous, as have only done it once before, but despite the initial leg shake I’m rather proud of myself when I stand up. Hungry for more time on the water, we take out a pedalo and reminisce about childhood jaunts. Tom can’t get enough, and goes for another windsurf, while I return to my book – Confinement by Kathrine MacMahon, which is nicely dark and cold in comparison to my current location.
An easy, tasty late lunch at the bar again, then we have a refresher snorkel session with Irina, the Russian woman who co-runs the dive and activity centre here, TGI Diving, with her husband Tobias,. She’s a really lovely, clear and friendly teacher, and after we’ve learnt how to breathe properly and jump out of a boat with a snorkel and mask on (step out wide, take a breath, hold mask), we feel a renewed confidence, and swim together holding hands to see a shoal of calamari and our first sights of the heart-stoppingly brightly coloured reef fish you’ll see all around the islands of the Maldives.
Later, we both have a very good 90 minute Abhyanga massage, a strong and dynamic ayurvedic massage with warmed herbal oil. We both agree that Ayu is our favourite therapist so far – though all the Balinese girls are exceptionally strong as well as calm and graceful. We relax (again) out on the spa deck with some tea and fruit kebabs, and I’m intrigued to read the instruction notice outside the steam room, which is far more interesting than anything you find back home. ‘Make the vacuum,’ it says. ‘Develop a taste for calm, rediscover your body, listen to yourself’. Ok then, I think I will.
We dine tonight at Jing. Set opposite the spa, it’s the resort’s fusion restaurant and serves gorgeous, elegant meals in a relaxed environment. We have a mocktail and watch fish dart and play in the sapphire blue light around the bar, then are shown in to dine. Being a coffee lover, Tom is particularly drawn to the Red Thai Curry Cappuccino, an inventive and delicious starter, while I love my Ocean Trout Teriyaki. And so to bed.
We’ve been convinced by Irina to try a day boat trip to snorkel with whale sharks – it’s over an hour’s drive to the site and back, but we don’t mind as the Constance boat that takes us there is an amazingly comfortable and classy marine and lime green affair.
There are 8 of us, and we’re made a little late by a moody couple from Russia who have over slept – they proceed to be taciturn and rude to everyone throughout the trip, but it doesn’t dent our spirits, buoyed up as they are by the speedy ride across the glorious expanse of ocean in the sunlight, wind blowing away any remaining traces of our thoughts of home.
It’s supremely unusual to find whale sharks anywhere in the world – usually, they’re migratory, but in the Maldives there’s a site where the young – most especially males – seem to hang out. No one, it seems, really knows why, but the high density of plankton in the water has something to do with it.
We’re told we have an 80% chance of seeing them, but alas, we never do. Instead, we’re treated to the site of a pod of dolphins, swimming with the wake of our boat and dancing in the waves. Lunch is an impressive little black lacquered box of decent salady-type things. Once back at the resort, we watch manta rays cruising just off shore, and enjoy another meal at Jing with a lovely couple on their honeymoon we’d met on the boat. We allow ourselves another taste of that New Zealand, and sleep well. I can feel myself slowly unwinding. Another week here should do it.
It’s been bothering me that haven’t been diving yet. I have a PADI, the international diving qualification, and have dived in Malaysia and the Maldives before, but on this visit I choose not to. I have trouble equalising, and for some mad reason can’t stop thinking about my own death whenever I am deep down in the water. This whole week teaches me that it’s OK not to dive though, and today is a case in point, for its highlight is a snorkel at Kandholhudhoo Island, where we go by boat.
It’s like swimming in a giant fish tank prepared by a friendly god – we see our first cute turtles, and the most awesome array of colourful fish you can imagine – there are oriental sweet lips (which have black and white striped bodies and a yellow and black finish); yellow fusiliers, red snappers, bluefin jacks, imperial angelfish, some weird looking bright jade green and pink affairs and a bright orange anenome that looks rather like a leather cushion.
We have a lazy afternoon – no surprise there – and watch a pink and orange sunset, realising for the first time that there are no insects here at all. When we ask, we’re told they spray the island each night to deter mosquitoes. I fret about the chemicals, but I can never smell anything – rather, the lack of buzzing and biting only adds to my feeling safe and serene.
I note how secure I feel here on all levels – it’s deliberately not edgy, like some trendier Maldivian resorts I’ve visited. For dinner we choose In Villa Dining for a simple tasty supper of chicken curry, which we eat on our deck by moonlight holding hands. After we stretch out on our enormous bed and watch a DVD (Meet the Fockers – highly irritating, but amusing in places).
I get up early to do yoga and sit out on one of our wide and comfy loungers on the deck. I can feel myself begin to slow down and take notice. I spot a heron, standing in the shallows of the water, sunning his long white neck, peering across the sea. I listen to the trickle of water flowing in and out of our cool plunge pool, and the distant hum of a dhoni, a Maldivian sailing boat – perhaps taking some fellow guests on a snorkelling trip. Ahead of me lies a pale blue, then turquoise and – further out – navy blue – Indian ocean. Calm, but rippling slightly with a faint breeze. To my right and left are the grey thatched roofs of my neighbours’ villas, each discreetly hidden behind attractively tierred wooden fences.
I read again – how wonderful to have all this time to spend on novels – then after a late breakfast with our feet in the sand I beat Tom twice at backgammon while we sip green tea and coffee on a giant day bed in the lounge.
We take out a double canoe, marvelling again at the glass-clear waters. Tom has another paddle and chats for ages with the Maldivian watersports manager, a fascinating man who has lived on the island for 30 years. I swim for ages in the sea, moving back and forth along the jetty with my googles on. It’s blissfully quiet, though I confess I can’t stop thinking of the sharks we’d seen off the jetty a few days before – even if they are harmless, the way they swim is eerie. Later Tom tells me he had two of them circling his board. Oooo.
Lunch is a raw tuna salad and some kind of grapefruit concoction to drink. The staff – at least half of whom are Maldivian – are, as always, easygoing and charming. I find myself longing for a little Maldivian music, even some classical, rather than the relentlessly soulful tunes being played. But it doesn’t bother me for long.
We lie in a white rope hammock for ages together under the trees, legs entwined, and remember what it felt like to be together before we had our child. There are others about, but it doesn’t feel like it – we feel cocooned and undisturbed in our own little world. There 57 water villas here, and 29 beach villas, but really you wouldn’t know it.
I am treated to a divine four handed massage with Ayu and Yulia in the spa, which they call the Meditative Indulgence – it’s an hour, but they add on an extra 20 minutes for heads and feet. Each time I have a treatment now, we turn the air con off (it makes me cough) and throw open the doors to the sea.
The fish really show themselves through the face hole – I see a shoal of eight large indigo and violet surgeon fish, little slithers of yellow and orange and jade green reef fish, a large mad puffa type fellow in green and yellow turning his side to me and nibbling the coral, and flickers of deep purple things – amazing.
The head rest moves a little bit beneath my forehead, but eventually I close my eyes and let the therapists scrape my head, dig at my feet and pull me under. They use their own oils – but put ILA rose oil on my face as they know I love it. I’ve been anxious today, as there’s mention that I might be staying out to work when Tom goes home, but all my negative energy is dispersed by the treatment.
What is about these Asian therapists – their hands make the treatment feel like it goes on forever and forever, whereas in the UK an hour and a half goes so quickly. Is it their hands, the heat, the fact I’m already relaxed? They also have real power, no matter how slim or slight they are.
Our last day. This morning from the shower I spot five dark bright blue fish swimming by, a black-tipped baby shark, and a few smaller reef fish. Not a bad diversion to have during a five minute wash-down. Breakfast is on the beach, then we deliberately do little – again – except read, swim, paddle, walk.
In the relative cool of the late afternoon I have a Strength of the Solano rehydration treatment for my hair designed by Swiss anti-ageing specialists Valmont. Locks newly glowing, I watch the ocean with Tom, then we change and head to Meeru for our last night supper.
I wear a simple long cotton dress and no make up, Tom wears light shorts and a white shirt. We leave our shoes behind. There are orange and red tinges to the thatched roof tops as we walk along the jetty, and once on the beach, an amazing moon, all red and low, which rises a little and changes to orange, then, an egg yolk yellow.
We sink our bare feet in white flour-like sand, then finish that New Zealand wine, tilting our heads back to watch the clear stars – there’s orion’s belt, where is venus? We realise we haven’t eaten bread all week, just veggies and a little fish. We feel slimmer, far more serene. Reconnected. Happy.
© Queen of Retreats
Kuoni (01306 747008 or www.kuoni.co.uk) offers seven nights at Constance Halaveli, Maldives from £2812 per person in a water villa with breakfast, including economy flights on Emirates Airlines from London Gatwick via Dubai with seaplane transfers in resort.