Thursday, 3 April 2008

Maldivian Bliss

I know it seems as though I spend most of my time on this blog recounting my holidays, and I know I promised some writing updates soon, but ... wow. The Maldives are like being in a Bounty advert. And since I could only afford this dream holiday because of the advance from Goldmann, Twisted Wing's German publisher, it sort of counts as writing-related! Either than or crowing. One of the two.

A diary from our week on Rangali Island:

Arrive at the island about 23 hours after stepping out the front door. Qatar's in-flight entertainment is great, so the two lots of long flights weren't as painful as I'd been expecting. In the Conrad sea plane departure lounge we're given chilled towels and fruit juice. Flying over the Indian Ocean to the island in the little air taxi, we see little atolls rising out of the turquoise water. The puffy clouds seem to hug the sea.

The island hosts come out to the jetty to welcome us. Everyone goes barefoot on the island, even in the restaurants at night! Our host, Nasheed, tells us all about the island and then takes us via golf buggy to our villa. We've got a water villa - one of those ones on stilts over the sea - in the spa retreat area. The villa's huge, with a bath that's probably bigger than our entire bathroom at home, and a private sundeck. Although we're knackered, Steve can't resist the lure of the sea and goes on a snorkelling expedition. I relax on a sunlounger on the deck, where I start to hear a weird clicking sound. Too chilled out to investigate, I carry on reading until the clicking gets closer. I look down to find a massive crab scuttling across the decking. It's hard to know which of us gets the bigger shock - the crab's eyes seem to bug out a bit, and he zooms under my sunbed to hide from me, obviously unaware I'm vegetarian.

We have dinner at the island's massive buffet restaurant, Atoll Market. On the way back to the villa we try out one of the hammocks on the beach, and gaze up at the unfamiliar constellations through the palm fronds. There's so little light pollution here that the stars seem impossibly bright against the black sky.

We wake up early, our body clocks out of whack, and have a quick breakfast at our nearest restaurant, the healthy "Mandhoo Spa". The island never seems to get that busy, even though it's apparently fully booked - maybe one of the advantages of going five stars is you're not packed in like sardines! Making the most of the fact the other guests aren't up and about yet, we monopolise the water sports centre for an hour, trying out a jetski and being dragged around on inflatables. Afterwards, walking back to our villa along the long walkway bridge, we spot baby reef sharks in the shallows. We have a bit more R'n'R on the sundeck, but are interrupted by a rain shower. Gives us the opportunity to try out the monsoon showerhead!

Staying in a spa water villa entitles us to a certain amount of credit at the spa, so we head over there for a "refresh air ritual" - a foot massage, followed by sea salt body exfoliations, then a shower, then a full body and Indian head massage. The whole island is geared towards couples rather than families/singles, and so each massage room has two beds so you can have your treatments side by side. Steve's a massage virgin, and despite the paper thong he was made to wear, he's keen on repeating the experience so we book in for lots more over the rest of the week!

We head over to the smaller island for dinner, which starts with a glass of champagne at Vilu Bar, looking out at the sunset over the water. We're then taken down, along with four other couples, to the temperature-controlled Wine Cellar, where we are seated round a large table. The island's sommelier acts as host, explaining during each course why he's chosen that particular wine to accompany it. Halfway through we have the "three mystery wines" section, where we have to guess the origins of each glass. Luckily I'm a bit squiffy, so I'm not too embarrassed when he makes me guess first! I entertain myself hugely by successfully opting for "Spain" and "New World" for glasses one and two, and beating Steve in the process. By the end of the evening, most of us are completely drunk. Steve asks the sommelier how he avoids getting pissed every night. The sommelier tells us he only has a sip of each wine. The poor man is obviously used to the conversation levels degenerating as the night goes on.

We wait for the dhoni - a Maldivian boat which acts as ferry between the two islands - to come and pick up us, entertaining ourselves by watching three crabs jostle for prime position on the jetty. Each night we come back from dinner to discover a different soft toy has been left for us by the guy who does the evening turndown. Tonight's toy is a turtle, which makes Steve happy since he loves 'em.

Wake up late with a hangover, and have an early lunch in Rangali Bar. The weather is rubbish - grey and damp. We've got a scuba lesson booked - we're complete novices, so a bit apprehensive. This is only exacerbated by the DVD we're shown, which tells us if we hold our breath as we surface our lungs will explode like a popped balloon. The DVD is dreadful, with captions like "FACT: scuba divers are more fun than regular people", followed by shots of scuba divers 'dancing' underwater. FACT: according to this video, scuba divers are a bunch of wankers.

Squeezing ourselves into wetsuits, we head to the beach and go under. The current is so strong, thanks to the stormy weather, that it's hard to stay in one place, and the instructor has to keep grabbing us by the scruffs of our necks and dumping us down where he wants us! We go through various exercises - what to do if you lose your regulator, what to do if your 'buddy' needs your air - which unfortunately goes horribly wrong during the 'expelling water from your mask by blowing air out of your nose' exercise, as I manage to inhale rather than exhale, and get a shot of disgusting salty sea water up my nostrils. I try not to panic, but that feeling of not being able to breathe is a bit scary, and eventually the instructor realises I'm not happy and takes me up to the surface to get my breath back.

We head to the Sunset Grill for dinner. We can't actually see the sunset thanks to the cloud, but the food is great. Despite the fact it's a seafood and grill restaurant, there's a whole page of veggie and vegan food on the menu. Top marks. Get back to find tonight's toy is a fish. This does not provoke any feelings of guilt in Steve at his large fish supper.

Have a lazy morning snorkelling on the house reef - feck me, there's a huge range of beautiful fish out there, none of whom seem at all bothered by our presence. They're the most amazing range of colours. Some of my favourites are tubular, and seem to drift across the bottom in groups rather than putting any effort into darting about like the angel fish and gobis.

Our spa treatment today is basically a private sauna, steam room and jacuzzi. We're unsure of exactly how private it is until we see the open air loo! Dinner is at Vilu, an Italian place on the other island. We watch lightning play on the horizon. On the walk back we look under the bridge. We can see large blue fish jumping for the insects attracted to the lights on the struts. Then a manta ray rises up out of the darkness, five foot wide from wing tip to wing tip, skimming open-mouthed along the surface of the water, showing us his gilled white underbelly. It's impressive to say the least, but does make me resolve not to try night-time snorkelling.

We've booked a highly recommended excursion called "Dream Island", where you and your lovely partner are taken by speedboat to a deserted island and left for the morning with some food and a parasol. Despite raining during the night the trip's still on, and we excitedly head to the jetty. The ride to the island is nice, but when we arrive I'm quite shocked by the amount of litter there - not just water bottles, but aerosols, a water pistols, a petrol drum! We try to relax on the beach, but are attacked by loads of mossies (not a problem on the main island, as it's regularly treated with mosquito-killing chemicals - nice!), and unfortunately the insect repellent provided by the hotel consists of a quarter tube of cream - not enough for one person, let alone two who'd like to reapply after swimming! The best thing about the excursion comes as I'm heading back to the beach from the sea, and hear Steve yelling behind me. I turn round in time to see a school of flying fish leaping in and out of the ocean, gleaming silver in the sunlight and only a few feet from my boyfriend.

Have a light lunch and a dip in the infinity pool before heading to the spa for our 'body quench' treatment, which involves being covered in hot oils then wrapped in steaming towels. Lovely. On the way back to the villa I spot something in the water. "What's that?!" I say, pointing it out to Steve. "What, that big black rock?" he replies sarkily. It's turn out to be a ray. We chase it (not that it realises this) down the walkway and manage to get back to our villa's sundeck in time to see it drift past. I try and persuade Steve to dive in and keep it company, but he seems strangely reluctant.

Dinner that night is in the Mandhoo Spa restaurant, which is a bit disappointing from a vegetarian point of view - a healthy, organic restaurant with only one of two non-meat/fish options? Weird.

Breakfast is followed by a hot stone massage in the spa. The masseuses seem a bit surprised by the huge red mosquito bites covering my body, and I explain I got them on another island. Steve has, as usual, escaped without being bitten. I hate him. The best bit of the massage is the salt exfoliation, as feels amazing on my itchy bites! The massage itself at one point does feel as if the masseuse is trying to dislocate my shoulder. Next time I'm putting down "light" as my favoured massage level!

We go to the famous Ithaa underwater restaurant for mid-morning cocktails. It's set about twenty feet under the sea, by the coral reef. We sip champagne and watch the fish through the transparent walls and ceiling.

In the afternoon we go on another excursion - this time a "snorkelling safari" to the coral reef on another island. The reef is huge, like another world, and is covered in all different sorts of coral, anemones and clams. It's very choppy on the boat on the way back, a bit like being in a washing machine, and one poor chap looks like he's about to lose his lunch.

That evening we're booked in for a cheese fondue dinner at the wine bar. It's yummy, and we're relieved when it turns out our huge pot of cheese is not just the first course but the whole meal. We chat to another couple from the UK; she refuses to snorkel, whereas he won't try out the spa. It makes me glad me and the boyfriend are willing to try out new activities - I certainly wouldn't have tried scuba if he hadn't been keen, and I couldn't imagine he would have headed to the spa if he'd been here on his own. They're very friendly and funny though, so we have a good laugh before saying good night. The toy that night turns out to be a manta ray, entertainingly. Not something you'd normally think of putting in soft toy format...

Our last full day. We wake up early and sit on the sundeck, looking at the fresh morning sky. Two crabs on our deck steps keep up company. Have what is essentially a full English brekkie at Vilu restaurant before heading to the Overwater Spa for our two hour 'Tempt' massage, with coffee and vanilla scented oils. This spa, on the other, smaller island, has glass floors so you can watch the fish from your massage beds. Get so engrossed in watching one particular fish who likes hiding under the sand and shooting out in a grump at any other fish that come near his lair that I don't want to turn over when my back's done.

We set up shop on the beach and do some more snorkelling. Spot a sea slug, and also the infamous titan triggerfish, which is pretty large and will attack during this period as it's protecting its eggs. We decide to try out waterskiing, and while I seem to be on the verge of getting the hang of it, the amount of sea water that you inhale every time you get it wrong means we give up after thirty minutes of ingesting more plankton that your average ray. We have another go on the jetski instead. Back in the villa, we try out the massive bath, which takes 40 mins to fill. With tea lights all around it, it's very romantic.

Have a dinner in Atoll Market, which like most of the restaurants on the island is outdoors and candlelit. "Ooh, look at this cute bug," I say to Steve, pointing to a beetle that's investigating one of our chairs. Then, seeing it more clearly: "Actually, that'a cockroach. Let's skip dessert." The complementary toy that night is a clown fish, with cute little orange Lesley Ash lips.

Up at 5.45am - groan. One last look at the beautiful island then it's time to leave. England seems particularly grey and rainy on our return. Thank God for the bank holiday weekend.