I truly believe that the food of a country can reveal much about the history and culture of a nation. All that grows in the Maldives are coconuts, mangoes, papaya and fish, so Maldivian food was traditionally pretty simple. However due to the proximity to India (just 350 kms to the north) rice, ginger, chilli and garlic have been traded for centuries, so various types of fish curry have become the national dishes. The other major influence on Maldivian food has been Arab traders, who stopped here on the way through to Asia. They brought with them religion – the Maldives used to be Hindu and Buddhist, but 860 years ago the entire population voluntarily converted to Islam. So even if there were pigs running around the islands, they wouldn’t be eaten. As a result, alcohol is also illegal.
The Maldives’ interpretation of Islam however is noticeably relaxed – apart from the two food bans, many women walk around without headscarves, men and women mix and marry freely and divorce is not at all frowned upon (in fact, a few years ago, the Maldives had one of the highest divorce rates in the world). Explorer Ibn Battuta (the Muslim world’s Marco Polo) stayed here for nine months in the year 1333 and left because he was so fed up with what he called “the locals’ moral laxity”! If Ibn Battuta thought the locals were immoral, he would have paled at the sight of today’s resorts. From the very start, the Maldivian government decided that to keep everyone happy, tourists would be kept completely separate from the locals. This way, foreign tourists could have their bacon and eggs for breakfast without offending the locals. A one island/one resort policy ensures not only exclusivity, but that the local environment is not destroyed.
For their part, the W Maldives Retreat and Spa has realised that not everyone wants (or can afford) to eat haute cuisine every night – sometimes people want real food, on the slab. So we had the reasonably priced restaurant Kitchen – no fuss food with everything from burgers and pizza to Chinese, Malaysian and Thai food. As well, we could choose to dine at Fish, a fine dining, overwater seafood restaurant, or Fire, which offered barbecues on the beach. Wet, the poolside bar, also served a simple café menu as well as Arabic sheesha pipes.
In keeping with the unpretentious attitude at the W, “sweet spots” were strategically placed around the island. Here, we helped ourselves to a dangerously free supply of Magnums, Cornettos, Movenpick tubs, soft drinks, bottled water, sunscreen, beach towels and moisturiser. Among these were bottles of the only Coca Cola in the world to be made with seawater – the Maldivian bottling plant is built on an island with a desalination plant, and the end result apparently tastes slightly different (I couldn’t tell). Understandably, in a country made up entirely of desert islands, fresh drinking water is a really big deal here. On the matter of the environment, the Maldives’ highest point is 2.4 metres or 8 feet above sea level – if sea levels rise, the whole country could actually disappear off the map.
Eating and sleeping was almost all we did on Wednesday, as another big storm buffeted the atoll. I took another walk around the sandy laneways of the island. I realised that there are only three points of access to the beach, which means that to get to some beaches on the far side of the island travellers need to walk all the way around. It means that you can easily sit there and feel like the totally isolated, like the only person in the world – truly magical. I walked out on a beach platform and caught a glimpse of small crabs clinging to the rocky walls, flinching with each movement I made but struggling to hold on amid the waves whipped up by the storm. Not affected by the waves was a long-legged heron standing tall in the wind, and picking its way along the beach.
And that wraps up our coverage of the W Retreat and Spa Maldives, but there’s more to come from this beautiful island nation; I’m currently working on an exciting guest post on how to see the Maldives’ compact capital city Malé without breaking the bank! Stay tuned!
Culture shock: 2/10
Language difficulty: 2/10
Quality of food: 7/10
Physical demand: 3/10
Advice and warnings
The Maldives is a very safe place, and even on the rare occasions when there has been political turmoil, it has seldom affected foreign visitors. The island resorts are like enclaves of the Western world, but on regular islands like Malé, the Maldives is a fairly conservative Muslim nation, and you should take care not to offend – that means modest dress, no alcohol and no eating or drinking outdoors during Ramadan. It is illegal to bring alcohol into the Maldives.
All nationalities (including Pakistanis and Indians) can get a free, 30-day tourist visa on arrival at the airport in Malé, provided they show evidence of a return flight ticket and either a hotel booking, or funds to sustain them for the duration of their stay. For more information, see Maldives Department of Immigration and Emigration.
Getting there and around
From Australia, Singapore Airlines flies to Malé daily via Singapore;
from Melbourne (from $1,396 return)
from Sydney (from $1,413 return)
From Lahore, Emirates offers the best connections via Dubai, from PKR 102,134 return.
From Chennai, Maldivian flies directly to Malé from INR 14,184 return.
From Malé, you take a seaplane or speedboat transfer to the island, pre-arranged (and paid for) as part of the resort’s accommodation package. The cost of this varies from resort to resort.
We stayed at the W Maldives Retreat and Spa. Consider taking “full board” or “half board” options when booking – this means your meals will be be paid for in advance, taking some of the pinch out of the cost. Don’t forget that once you’re on the island all the restaurants are part of the resort, so going to a supermarket to pick up a cheap snack isn’t really an option.