Maldives: 1,000 islands, 2 worlds

Per Aquum resort on Huvafen Fushi, a private island and haven for vacationing foreigners, in the Maldives.
Per Aquum resort on Huvafen Fushi, a private island and haven for vacationing foreigners, in the Maldives. HUVAFEN FUSHI

The restaurant was somewhere near the presidential palace. At least that’s what the Internet had said. It was dark in Malé, the capital of the Maldives, where we had woken up at our hotel, hungry after traveling for more than 40 hours. We’d slept through our chance to eat there: The kitchen downstairs was already closed. But Google Maps proposed a takeout place a couple of blocks away.

The day before, as we rode in, jet-lagged, from the airport, Malé had shown itself as a city with the raffish charms of the Caribbean: brightly painted buildings huddled on its shoreline, small boats graced the harbor, and men on motor scooters, either unaware of — or uninterested in — traffic laws, zipped down the boulevard that ran along the sea.

But that first night, as I went to get our dinner, incongruous music was drifting through the streets. It was a high-pitched keening: plaintive, Middle Eastern and seemingly out of place among the silhouetted palm trees swaying near the beach. I knew what it was but had not expected to find it here, a strange accompaniment to the pad thai I’d picked up: From a gold-domed mosque, a muezzin was offering the evening call to prayer.

The Maldives, a natural necklace of more than 1,000 coral islands off the western coast of India in the Laccadive Sea, is mostly known as a glamorous vacation destination, the sort of spot where supermodels and their soon-to-be-ex-boyfriends go for beach-and-bungalow retreats. Its reputation is both hedonistic and decidedly high-end. Earlier this year, the Duke and the Duchess of Cambridge spent a holiday in the country just before their royal tour of Australia and New Zealand. They took a seaplane to a five-star resort on the remote atoll of Noonu in the nation’s northwest corner. The two-bedroom villa where they stayed — thatched roof, sun deck — stands on stilts above the water with a 40-foot infinity pool and unhindered ocean views.

But the Maldives, unlike Bermuda or St. Barts, are more complex than many getaways for European tourists. They are ruled by an Islamic government — one, in fact, that is becoming more extremist by the year. Maldivian citizens, who are mainly Sunni Muslims, cannot practice religions other than Islam. Pork and alcohol are widely banned, except, of course, at the resort hotels that cater to foreign travelers. As my girlfriend, Cheyne, and I arrived at the airport, we chanced across a news report announcing that the country had recently abandoned its quasi-secular legal code and imposed Shariah law.

Perhaps it’s in the nature of an escapist beach vacation to escape: to ignore the local culture and, in essence, face the sea with your back to the land. There’s no doubt that over the course of six days, spent at three resorts, Cheyne and I escaped into extravagant indulgences, whether that meant massages in an underwater spa or a swim with stingrays in a coral reef. But the atmosphere of decadence, while certainly engrossing, was not hermetically sealed. Every now and then, real life — or real life for Maldivians — intruded on our reverie.

The local vacation culture is dominated by isolated, opulent resorts. The majority of tourists never set foot in areas that aren’t overseen by the travel industry. They arrive at the airport and are immediately shepherded by uniformed employees of the Hyatt or the Sheraton to nearby jetties where speedboats whisk them off on 40-minute rides to far-flung islands. It is aboard these boats that the fantasy of luxury begins: Smiling stewards ply you with bottles of coconut water and hand you damp towels to relieve the humid heat.

Cheyne and I spent one day in Malé, then found ourselves on a speedboat the next afternoon. It was a heavily horse-powered vessel headed to the elegant Per Aquum resort on Huvafen Fushi island, a private sandbar in the North Malé atoll. As we stepped onboard, out came the towels and the coconut water. After handing us our life jackets, an attendant proudly told us that in Dhivehi, the Maldives’ native language, Huvafen Fushi meant Dream Island.

As befit the island’s name, we were greeted at Huvafen Fushi’s dock by a beaming team of staff members. They shook our hands and welcomed us by name. There was another round of drinks — gingery and sweet - and a briefing on the available entertainments: the restaurants, the snorkeling reef, the glass-walled gym that overlooked the sea. Although it was only noon, the heat was already at perspiration levels, but that was quickly solved by the polo-shirted man who appeared beside us holding out a tray with more damp towels. As we cooled ourselves and moved toward the golf cart that would take us on a tour, freshly cut rose petals were strewn beneath our feet.

Hufaven Fushi is a lush green refuge from the world where dirt roads cut through mangrove breaks and weathered boardwalks wander over shallows, connecting a village of native huts on stilts, each designed in faux primitive style. The resort, which prides itself on privacy, has only 44 rooms. Although we were told that most of them were occupied, in the day we spent there, Cheyne and I saw only a handful of fellow fantasists.

After lunch at Raw, Huvafen Fushi’s macrobiotic restaurant, our guide for the day, Afzal Ali, one of the resort’s private butlers (or thakurus), showed us the facility’s most expensive and exclusive room, a royal-couple-worthy villa that rents for $22,000 a night in the high season and sits alone at a boardwalk’s end with little else to look at but the sea. Here was the Maldives at its ostentatious best: surround-sound speakers, sun deck with Jacuzzi, private staircase that descended into the ocean, an indoor pool connected to the patio outside by way of a remote-controlled glass wall.

“What we offer is escape, a dream of luxury and remoteness,” Marc Gussing, the manager, told us over dinner. “We’re only four hours from Singapore and Dubai, but we give the impression of being far away.”

In advance of joining Gussing, I had, on a whim, done a Google news search on the Maldives and up popped a story describing a report that had been issued days earlier by the human rights group Amnesty International. In the report, the group had urged Maldivian officials to investigate a police raid in April on a music festival on the uninhabited island of Anbaraa.

“Although there are no laws banning music in the Maldives and Islamic dress is not mandatory,” the report said, “police action appears to have focused on stopping the festival and on forcing women wearing skirts and shirts to cover themselves.”

As we ate our lamb and sipped our Pomerol, I asked Gussing if it was difficult to operate a luxury resort in a country where Islamic law is exactingly enforced. Huvafen Fushi claims, for instance, to have the largest wine cellar in the Indian Ocean, a climate-controlled chamber boasting bottles of Romanée-Conti that sell for nearly $30,000. Were there, I inquired, ever any troubles with the government?

“If I can fill a 6,000-bottle wine cellar on a sandbar, you can’t really say that the government is not accommodating,” Gussing told me with a smile. “Are things changing in the Maldives? Yes. But do international guests ever see it? Are they exposed to it?

“No,” he answered himself. “They’re just passing through.”

International guests have — at least in numbers — been passing through the Maldives since 1972, when George Corbin, an Italian travel agent, opened Kurumba, the country’s first resort, on a former coconut plantation on a tiny island not far from the airport. Working with a team of local partners, Corbin built 30 rooms with coral stone walls and palm thatch roofs. There were brackish water showers and barbecues on the beach.

From this modest start, the tourist business in the Maldives has rapidly expanded to the point that there are now more than 100 resorts, 30 or so of which define themselves as deluxe and offer amenities like lime-and-ginger salt scrubs and private starlight dinners on the beach. Four or five additional resorts are going up each year. The clientele is mainly European although the number of Chinese visitors is on the rise.

As I soon discovered, it was not entirely correct that visitors to the Maldives are not exposed to, or affected by, the country’s Islamic culture. In 2007, for example, 12 foreign tourists — from England, China and Japan — were wounded after Muslim extremists set off a bomb in Sultan Park near Malé’s main mosque.

It’s important to mention that never once during our trip did Cheyne or I feel awkward or unsafe. Far from it: We swam on our own on empty beaches; there were carefree walks alone beneath the palm fronds. News stories that I had read about problems in the Maldives were not unsettling in any immediate way but rather offered glimpses of what was taking place, apparently unseen, in portions of the country not designed for tourists.

Still, by the end of the visit, I felt I needed to explore what the Maldives had to offer beyond the pampered bubble of resorts, and so one afternoon I arranged a trip to the undeveloped island of Guraidhoo. Guraidhoo, with its unpaved streets and leashless dogs, is home to about 2,000 ordinary Maldivians — most of whom, it seemed, were on the beach in hammocks on the day that I arrived.

My guide, Imran Janeen, was pleased to show me Guraidhoo’s hospital and its dilapidated shipbuilding yard where 20 shirtless men were toiling on a huge wooden yacht that had, I was told, been under construction for the last two years. I asked Imran about religion in Guraidhoo — if Islam was strictly practiced. He told me that there were three mosques on the island, which is only 40 acres. There were also seven guesthouses, eight or nine restaurants (depending on the season) and — astonishingly — 50 souvenir shops.

After I was led into what seemed like a dozen of these shops, Imran and I stopped into the Peach Tree, a side-street restaurant serving Indian cuisine. It was early afternoon: Crickets were chirping, a salty breeze was blowing through the windows from the street. We had just closed our menus when the music that I’d first heard in Malé suddenly began — this time, unsurprisingly. “Yes,” Imran smiled, almost sheepishly. “The muezzin.”

It wasn’t long after that a waiter came by to take our order and, with a furtive glance at the bar, offered me a drink. I followed his eyes across the room and there, among the bottles of tea and orange soda, was a row of Kingfisher beers.

I didn’t get one in the end, and Imran, who could not partake, seemed pleased.

“We are Muslim here,” he told me, as we popped our bottles of soda. “But not 100 percent.”