Beach lovers rejoice: the Maldives just got more rand-friendly
A new direct flight from SA and incredible festive season deals are just two of the many reasons you should book a trip to idyllic Addu Atoll
As I write this, the surf is rolling onto the reef less than 50m away. I am at my usual corner table in the dining room at Canareef Resort on Herathera island in the Addu Atoll. My waiter, Mahmood, has opened the wooden stackable doors to let in the sound and smell of the sea on all sides.
There is beach sand under my bare feet - for Canareef is close to the Earth in every way - and a soft summer rain patters on the palm trees. A cup of strong coffee and a croissant are close to hand. A pair of herons fly past. A sea breeze whispers off the Indian Ocean. Can you spell c-h-i-l-l-e-d?
There are many reasons to love the Maldives. These are mine.
1. IT'S CLOSER THAN YOU THINK
For decades, the only way for South Africans to get to the paradise that is the Maldives has been to submit to a 20-hour torture-fest via the Gulf. Now, SAA in conjunction with Starlight Holidays is offering regular charter flights from Joburg to Addu Atoll, the southernmost atoll in the Maldives, until early 2019.
The flight takes seven hours and avoids a midnight plane swap in the Gulf only to have to fly southwards again. And despite the sniping from the sidelines, SAA is a fantastic airline with great crew and spotless aircraft. Long may it - and this route to the atoll's Gan Island - prosper.
2. IT'S A BARGAIN
Before, with that long-haul flight via the Gulf to Malé and then another domestic flight to the island of your choice, plus the usual rarified atmosphere of a dollar-friendly destination, the costs began to ratchet up fast.
But the direct charter flight combined with the current packages at three resorts - Shangri La, Canareef and the Equator Village Resort (a "three-star resort with a 10-star heart", as one guest told me) in the Addu Atoll - finally puts the Maldives archipelago within reach of us ordinary South African travellers saddled with the lousy rand.
3. ADDU IS FASCINATING
Addu Atoll, 541km south of Malé and 65km from the Equator, reeks of history. In 1926, archaeologists found crumbling Buddhist stupas on the atoll, proving that people had lived here for thousands of years - Meedhoo island is the oldest populated island in the entire archipelago with the first settlers arriving sometime between 500 and 1,000BCE.
Just 1,200km southwest of Sri Lanka, Gan - the main island in the group - was a secret Royal Navy base during World War 2 and a critical staging post for ships heading to and from India and Australia.
In 1957, the base was transferred to the Royal Air Force and became RAF Gan, one of the tiny outposts of the Cold War, noted in a contemporary report in Time magazine as "a dot of coral only 1 and 3/4 miles long in the Maldives, 700 miles southwest of Ceylon, 42 miles below the equator, and 2,200 miles east of Africa." The air base closed in 1976 but its runway was kept in good shape and is now the heart of Gan International Airport.
Much of the old RAF infrastructure still exists, such as the old Astra cinema - still showing the occasional movie - and the officers' club, now the Equator Village Resort. And unlike many Maldivian resorts, where the government wants tourists to stay holed up in their resorts, the causeways that link the islands of the atoll mean you can visit the local villages on your bicycle (all the resorts have them), allowing you a glimpse into other peoples' lives, which, really, is one of the reasons to travel anywhere.
4. CANAREEF IS EASYGOING
We've all seen the brochures - jetties wandering out to luxury villas perched on stilts over water the colour of an Icelandic beauty queen's eyes, and all of it so derivative and, well, samey .
Canareef is the antidote to all that pomposity. The resort spreads out under palm trees on the longest island in the whole country. My villa is a simple, open-plan, wooden bungalow, with loungers on the deck out front from where, through a hole in the shoreline jungle, I can see the sea and hear the surf pounding on the coral.
There is a vast double bed under a spinning fan and an open-air yet utterly private bathroom out back.
All the public areas - the restaurants, bars, reception - have high wooden roofs and sand floors, as if a simple Thai island resort floated across the ocean and came ashore in the Maldives. The staff are friendly and kind without being obsequious - nothing, thus far, has been too much trouble. The food is simple, wonderful and plentiful. If you like your resorts to have a light tread on the Earth, this one hits the spot.
5. THERE'S GREAT DIVING AND SNORKELLING
The Maldives is all about the fish. This is a string of coral reefs, after all, so the underwater world is spectacular. The first creature I saw on arrival was a green turtle swimming lazily at the landing jetty. The first creature I saw snorkelling was another green turtle, who looked at me nervously and then finned off into the deep blue beyond the reef.
Canareef has a Padi dive centre with access to more than three dozen dive sites. Even if you are like me and don't dive (my ears are stuffed), there are infinite snorkelling possibilities along the reef where you will see manta rays, skipjack tuna, reef sharks (don't worry, they are small and not interested in you), barracuda, beautiful corals and lots of tropical reef fish.
Qualified divers are in for a treat, courtesy of the commander of German U-Boat U-183. The story goes that the Axis forces had no idea that Britain had a naval base in the Maldives until late in World War 2.
There were no attacks until U-183 drifted up to the edge of the atoll one night in March 1944 and took a long-range shot from outside the reef at the 7,000-ton tanker British Loyalty moored in the lagoon. The tinfish ran through a tiny gap in the anti-torpedo nets and struck home. Although the tanker did not sink completely, she never sailed again and was later scuttled off Hithadhoo Island, inside the lagoon.
The result is a popular and absorbing dive spot. According to lonelyplanet.com, "the wreck lies in 33m of water with its port side about 16m below the surface; it has a good covering of soft corals. Turtles, trevally and many reef fish inhabit the encrusted decks, making it a fascinating place to dive".
6. IT IDEAL FOR CHILLING
Canareef Resort is a place that shouts "do nothing". If that is too little for you then there are various excellent diversions. You can head off on a boat to go dolphin spotting or try your hand at game fishing in the heaving blue beyond the island. There are kayaks, stand-up paddle boards and windsurfers. You can have a detox massage at the Sanctuaire Spa or hit the always-open gym.
Or you can do as I do and sit on a lounger at the end of the pier at "South Beach" and stare at the sea, occasionally pausing from that strenuous activity to cool off in the turquoise waters.
For a change of scene, get on your bike and pedal off for a local island tour on Hulhudhoo and Meedhoo islands or take the ferry over to Gan to tour Addu City and see the various relics left by the RAF. In the evening, head down to the jetty for the daily fish-feeding session: a school of blacktip reef sharks along with a lone barracuda and some other clever reef fish have figured out that this is the place to end the day's foraging.
7. TREAD LIGHTLY, UNPLUG AND SWITCH OFF
I have not heard a motor or a loud noise in seven days - though a light plane did fly over on Monday. On this island, people get around on mountain bikes or catch a lift on electric buggies, and it is a nice, easy crank in top gear from one end of the island to the other.
As resorts go, this one's ecological footprint is light. While there is fast wifi - which is why you're reading this even as I sit in the middle of the Indian Ocean - the urge to stay connected has faded fast. That's what a holiday is all about, and why I am now switching off.
GO NOW: GRAB ONE OF THESE AMAZING DEALS
There are still places available at special rates on the next few direct departures to The Maldives. The prices below include flights from Johannesburg and seven nights' accommodation.
FOR CHRISTMAS AND NEW YEAR DEPATURES
- Christmas Dec 22: R23,990 B&B (save R5,000pp).
- New Year Dec 29: R24,990 B&B (save R5,000pp).
Shangri La (five-star deluxe):
- Christmas Dec 22: R69,990 all-inclusive with free Water Villa upgrade (save up to R25,000pp).
- New Year Dec 29: R69,990 all-inclusive with free Water Villa upgrade (save up to R25,000pp).
FOR DEPATURE ON JANUARY 5, 12 OR 19
Equator Village (three-star):
- From R18,990 B&B to R24,502 all-inclusive with breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinks. Save up to R3,000pp on B&B.
- From R19,990 B&B to R32,490 all-inclusive (save up to R6,000pp).
Shangri La (five-star deluxe):
- R39,990 B&B to R56,990 all-inclusive (save up to R5,000pp on B&B)
• Ash was a guest of Starlight Holidays