A little corner of paradise….

I’m back on a beach, looking out to a crystal blue sea in the sticky bright heat. Bliss to be away from the seemingly never-ending winter we’re having in the UK. And bonus, this time there’s no barbed wire, no soldiers to brief and I’m not traipsing around in desert boots and flowing garments, looking forward to a cold seawater shower. We couldn’t be further from Mogadishu here on the island of Medhufushi in the Maldives. Paradise doesn’t quite do it justice.

As an eternal cynic, when I look at holiday brochures, I always take the pictures of deserted pristine white sandy beaches, calm turquoise waters, lone palm trees silhouetted against breathtaking sunsets with a bit of a pinch of salt. I’ve seen what can be done with Photoshop, the deft angling of the camera to exclude from the frame the large building site next door and the colour palette that could ‘enhance’ even the Basingstoke canal to tropical luminescence. This is now my third visit to the Maldives though (the first two were to Bandos island, about 45 minutes away on the Male atoll), and still it delightfully fails to disappoint. Medhufushi – which apparently means ‘ centre of the sand bank’ in the local language Dhivehi – is in the Meemu atoll and a 40-minute seaplane flight from the capital Male. The island resort has a collection of ‘water villas’ out on a row of stilts above the water and looking out to an uninterrupted glistening horizon. We’re in one of the wooden ‘beach villas’, at the water’s edge, tucked away in amongst the coconut palms and leafy bushes with our own private area of white powder stretching to the water’s edge. It’s difficult not to relax when the setting is so serene and the discreet but attentive staff’s sole intent is to prevent you from lifting a finger and make your stay as memorably decadent and lazy as possible.

On Medhufushi, you’re barely aware there’s anyone else on the island, except at meal times when couples and small family groups emerge from their thatched bungalows for a bite to eat in the central open air dining area. We seem to have one entire side of the island to ourselves. We’ve spent hours paddling up and down it in sea kayaks – almost heading off to a neighbouring island we were so intent on following a curious turtle yesterday. Although this is one island that is surrounded by lagoon rather than a reef, there is still plenty of wildlife to be seen underwater. I will no doubt pay later in the sunburn stakes, for the amount of time we spent being toyed with by a couple of reef sharks earlier this morning. Always an exciting sight for anyone who grew up watching ‘Jaws’. Thankfully there were huge shoals of smaller prey around so we thought they were probably not very hungry and anyway we were too big a bite (and yes I am aware that reef sharks are harmless but they always say that until something happens so you can never be too careful I say). Our own feeding times are equally plentiful. Spread across various chefs’ stations interspersed with silver-domed buffet counters, every meal is freshly prepared with local fruits, spices and the day’s catch. For those less adventurous diners, there are tray-fulls of gourmet European food as an alternative to the Maldivian curries. If the chocolate monster in our gang’s orgasmic reaction to last night’s gooey chocolate and pear tart is anything to go by, the dessert selection is nothing short of sinful. The only complaint I would offer on this is that the melt-in-your-mouth coconut cakes, home-baked naans with cinnamon and clove fish curries are not conducive to showing off one’s brand new glamorous bikini in the most flattering light. Which is why having one’s own private beach is a doubly good thing.


Enjoying the view

It’s hard to imagine this and many other islands of the Maldives were completely wiped out by the tsunami in 2004. It has been painstakingly rebuilt and cared for, making it once again one of the most exclusive destinations in the world. And they’re obviously keen to keep it that way. Alongside the extreme luxury and enjoyment of this paradise, runs an ethos of caring for the environment and preserving what’s left of the reefs, the natural wonders living on them and the tranquil surroundings.

If what you’re looking for is clubbing and parties, this is not for you. If you’re looking for monuments, museums and a cultural journey of discovery, this will leave you frustrated. But if, like us, you need a sledgehammer to properly wind down and let go; if like me you’ve read and re-read Chapter One of that bestseller twenty times over the last few months without getting any further; if paddling around with turtles, sting rays, sharks and rainbow-coloured fish in your very own ocean, challenging yourself with the full range of watersports and topping it off with burning purple and orange sunsets over a totally peaceful Margherita or two, then this is for you.

If that all sounds a bit too energetic, there’s always the spa. It sits out at sea, a haven with nothing but the smell of spices and flowers mingling with the sound of the tide lapping up under the floorboards against the stilts.

We’ve got that planned for tomorrow. This evening, we’re off fishing; and who knows, we might even manage to catch our own dinner.


Our ride from the capital Male to the island of Medhufushi on the Meemu Atoll

A breather in my Maldivian paradise


Fine white sands, light turquoise waters lapping up towards the edge of my hammock and peace and quiet so complete that I can hear a lizard scuttling up the coarse husks of the palm tree overhead.

This is what I call paradise and it’s one of the very few places I can really properly wind down and – unheard of for me – find myself nodding off in the middle of the day.

We came to the Maldives last year after a week trekking around Sri Lanka, for a bit of sport, sun and cocktails over the water at sunset.  We’ve never returned to the same spot for a holiday before but it fitted the bill again this year, after spending five months in Afghanistan and running around the subsequent flurry of meetings, lectures and conferences when I got back to the UK.

We chose one of the smallest islands and only a 20-minute scoot in a speedboat from the arrivals hall of Male airport.  The staff are discreet but attentive, the food delicious – mine’s a Maldivian curry every night despite not being a huge curry fan back home – and the location idyllic.  On both our visits, we’ve landed up sunburnt on the first night, not because we’ve shunned sun cream and gone for maximum exposure with baby oil ‘a l’Anglaise’ and not because we’ve been sun-worshippers spending every waking moment glued to our towels.  The problem is once we’re snorkelling on the reef with hundreds of multi-coloured fish, anemones and sea creatures, we forget the time and the fact that our pink British skin is a prime target for the relentless tropical sun.  And just as we’re about to negotiate our way back through the coral to the white sands of our island, we get lured back out by a friendly turtle on his daily outing or we land up half-way round the island in the wrong direction after finding ourselves unexpectedly nose to nose with a reef shark.  Harmless I’m told and not into taking a bite out of big lardy humans with chewy flippers, but not a rule I’m willing to test or become the exception to.

What a shame every holiday must come to an end.  After just a week this time, we’re shaking hands with our friendly waiter Nauf.  He’s spent the week making sure we’ve had everything we needed, giving us regular updates on the weather forecast (mostly scorching), and telling us about his home 400 kilometres away on the South Male atoll.  Then it’s back into the speedboat bound for our Air Sri Lanka flight via Colombo.  There is time for one more memorable moment as we arrive in the dark and pouring rain at Heathrow airport after an eleven-hour flight.  The aircraft’s cabin is jerked out of its slumber just as the wheels are about to touch down with the Terminal 4 in sight.  The engines thrust us forward and up again suddenly and we’re heading abruptly back up into the storm clouds.  As we settle into the approach pattern again, the pilot tells us he’s had to go around as there was an aircraft on the runway.  An abrupt end to the horizontal pace of life and relaxation of my hammock on Bandos Island, but then there’s nothing like a bit of excitement to get me back in the mood for the next adventure….