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May 10, 2016, Maldives

Heart of paradise

For Grace Ma, the Maldives’ charm lies not only in its blue seas and powdery beaches, but also the surprising marine life and the warmth of its people

Grace Ma

“BE CAREFUL,” warned my aunt when she heard I was headed for the Maldives. “The sand moves.”

Twenty years ago, many of the newly minted resort islands in the tropical archipelago were built by land reclamation. My aunt had placed my cousin on the beach only to find that the toddler had slid down several notches a few hours later.

Fortunately, the sands of reclaimed island Hulhumalé, which was only established in 2004, did not shift. The land was built to accommodate the growing population and industrial development of the region around the country’s capital, Malé.

And unlike densely-populated Malé, Hulhumalé had spacious boulevards, neat stacks of cheery public housing, as well as a new breed of “affordably luxury” hotels like Newtown Inn where for just US$65 (S$88), I spent a restful night on comfortable and clean bedding before heading to my resort in the Noonu Atoll.

Maldivian line fishing is not to be missed, if only to slow down and appreciate life. I strolled with my guide, Shaffaf, from local tour operator Secret Paradise Maldives to the pier where the boat was waiting on waters cloaked in a golden sheen by the rays of the rising sun.

“Um, I need to let you know that you can wait for hours before catching anything,” said Shaffaf brightly. What, hours? No way, José, I didn’t come all the way just to dip tuna chunks into the ocean.

Unfortunately, he was right. For two hours, the fish were having a field day with free breakfast while an equally frustrated Shaffaf tried to distract me with tales of Maldivian life as we repeatedly hauled up empty hooks.

Suddenly, there was a yank on my line and before I could react, my entire reel rolled merrily off the boat and into the ocean. As I flailed my arms in excitement, the boat captain calmly reached out to grab the line and up came the prize I had been waiting for all morning — a 40cm-long white snapper, which was promptly given to the boat crew since I was going to have breakfast with a local family.

Warm hospitality
Meeting Soba was like reuniting with an old friend. An affable woman, she took me to a few provision shops to buy the meal ingredients before we headed to her simply furnished four-bedroom walk-up apartment that was shared with 10 other family members.

Her cousin was scraping a coconut husk with a “huni godi”, a short wooden bench with a metal extension and a toothed grater. I offered to help but nicked myself within five minutes and decided that it was safer to watch the ladies dice, mix and stirfry the ingredients.

Within an hour, we were sitting down to a lovely meal of kulhimas (tuna cubes cooked in a paste made of chillies, salt, coconut, peppercorn, cumin seeds, onion, garlic and curry leaves) and mas huni (canned tuna mixed with onions, salt, lime and grated coconut).

I ate it all with roshi flat bread coupled with Soba’s secret family recipe of iced milk coffee that was sinfully sweet but oh-so-refreshing on a hot day.

Fifty shades of blue and green
If the warmth of the people on the first day had impressed me, my days at the Sun Siyam Iru Fushi resort were like a surreal dream.

No glossy magazine page could rival the stunning reality of glistening aquamarine waters that greeted me every morning. Is this real, I kept wondering, as I spent blissful afternoons lounging in hammocks dotting the water’s edge and watched sting rays magically appear every evening to be fed by the resort staff.

When twilight descended, the sandy island on which I could walk barefoot nearly everywhere was transformed into a magical woodland with warm lights illuminating the thatched-roof villas and foliage-lined pathways.

Idyllic island living
The Sun Siyam is one of the few Maldivian-owned resorts in the country and is well known for its community projects with the surrounding islands.

Guests are encouraged to donate various items for the local school children, so I brought along colouring sets and English writing books on my visit to the island of Holhudhoo, where the resort had built a pre-school.

Home to just 2,300 inhabitants, Holhudhoo is so small that one can walk its breadth within half an hour. Single-storeyed colourful houses line the streets, which are usually deserted in the mornings except for a few womenfolk and elderly villagers.

Here, life is slow and things are cheap. I had a cup of tea and four snacks at a café for only 10 Maldivian Rufiyaa (MVR), about 90 Singapore cents. But don’t mistake the leisurely pace of life for a lack of motivation though. Our resort guide and Holhudhoo native Ismail founded — and still heads — a non-profit organisation that actively promotes youth development.

By mid-afternoon, there was a lively bustle as the villagers started to hang out over beach football and banter.

Ismail gave me a sneak peek into his home, a typical brightly painted dwelling that had eco-friendly features such as a tank to collect rainwater for drinking and cooking, and a ground well that collects fresh water for bathing.

The Maldives’ marine life continued to take me by surprise. A pod of dolphins swam alongside our boat out of nowhere just as we were approaching Holhudhoo and playfully leapt in and out of the waters before disappearing into the horizon.

“It’s rare,” said Ismail, as he stared in amazement at the phenomenon.

“They usually appear on the other side of the resort.”

On my last morning in the Maldives, I woke early to catch the rosy hues of sunrise and spotted a pearly shell in the sand. As I picked it up to keep as a souvenir, the beady eyes of a surprised hermit crab popped out to meet mine.

My aunt was right. The sands of the Maldives still move — and so does the heart that has the fortune to behold their wonders.

GuideLines
I flew from Singapore directly to the Maldives on Tigerair. 

The US dollar is generally accepted throughout the country. But if you plan to spend some time on the local islands, do have some local currency — Maldivian Rufiyaa (MVR) — on hand, as you may not get a favourable exchange rate when you pay in US dollars.

Sunblock is a must and should be re-applied throughout the day. It is possible to get sunburnt in the Maldives even on a cloudy day.

- Newtown Inn: www. newtowninn.com 
- Sun Siyam Iru Fushi Resort: www.thesunsiyam.com/irufushi/ 
- Tour operator, Secret Paradise Maldives: www. secretparadisemaldives.com

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