It’s like we’re in a film: the waters are turquoise, the sky pure blue. Our little boat is resting at anchor and, in the distance, we can see powder white-gold beaches and thatched huts fringing the shoreline. But dip your head below the surface of the sea and everything changes. A school of sharks is milling around, twisting their bodies, ducking and diving, like they’re enacting a weird sort of underwater dance. Sometimes they are just a hand span away. One brushes against my leg.
Other collective nouns for a group of sharks include a frenzy, or a shiver. This group is exhibiting the former, while inducing the latter, and I'm loving it. We're more than 9,000km from Ireland, snorkelling off the Maldives, and the sharks are nurse sharks. Apparently mainly safe, they have thousands of teeth, a vice-like grip, and don't like to be stepped on or otherwise provoked. Who can blame them?
For someone who isn't a fan of the whole "bucket list" concept (there are surely better ways to experience life than as a list of moments to be ticked off), this trip seems to be one incredible, unforgettable thing after another. We sip champagne on a yacht as the sun sets over the Indian Ocean. Charlene's cheesy I've Never Been to Me came to mind (look it up if you're under 30), and it took a number of sips to banish the earworm. We kayak to a reef, and snorkel to see brightly-coloured fish flit over the pink and purple corals. We take jet skis out and pretend to be James Bond. We learn to season fresh local fish with regional spices, and then eat them beside the infinity pool overlooking the beach.
Orchids grow from the bark of trees lining sandy walkways. A hammock stands up in the sea: swim out and bask, cooled by gentle breezes.
It's then I realise that we're not in a film. We're living in Instagram.
For everyone who has ever flicked through the social media site with rising levels of envy as images of perfection pass under your eyes, and then decided it’s all cropped, filtered and doctored, and that no such ideal place or lives could exist: welcome to the Maldives. The archipelago of tiny sand islands in the Indian Ocean is one of nature’s wonders, made into a series of paradise playgrounds by human ingenuity.
Arriving somewhat travel-stained at the tropical nation’s capital, Malé, I’m picked up by a small speedboat, to bring me across increasingly inviting seas of variously seductive shades of blue. It’s incredible how quickly warmth and beauty, plus cold drinking water and chilled, scented towels can revive a person, and my mood and sense of well-being undergo an almost-instant sea change the moment I arrive.
Lushly forested, and fringed with those white sandy beaches, Anantara Dhigu, as a resort, is considered pretty large by Maldivian standards, even though you could cycle from end to end in less than 10 minutes on one of the handy bicycles left dotted around. I’m staying in one of their Over Water Suites. The little wooden building (that is actually bigger than my house) is reached via a walkway, up on stilts and out over the ocean. I walk through the huge room to a glassed-in bathroom where, one day, I return to find the bath filled with bubbles and bougainvillea. Outside is a private deck, with sun loungers and steps down into the sea.
The resort is one of three islands, linked by complimentary boat service, so there’s plenty to explore, and a wide choice of bars and restaurants. It might be relatively large, but it also seems to swallow up its guests, so it never feels crowded, and there’s always a peaceful spot in which you can feel like you’re alone together in paradise.
The staff are gorgeous, friendly and helpful. Express a preference, and whatever you’re imagining is likely to materialise. There are swimming pools, infinity pools, sea swings, and glass panels under the treatment beds in the spa, so you can see fish as you swoon under expert massaging fingers. There is also a glass panel in the bathroom, just in front of the toilet, which is somewhat less swoon-some, but made me laugh. And yes, I did get to watch fish as I. . .
I’m one of those people who tend to let vanity lapse on holidays. A handy band keeps sandy hair out of my eyes, and loose tops do the job of covering up damp swimsuits. Anantara Dhigu, however, seems populated by a tribe from Planet Perfection. Muscular men trail willowy women, ready to snap cameras at the most opportune moments. Asian families, exotic blooms tucked behind ears, pose for more photos as the sun goes down. A Russian couple sits by the pool. She’s in a white string bikini. He orders champagne. It’s 11am, and I feel a touch of their glamour rub off. Later I have a martini in the pool, but don’t quite feel I’m exuding the same seductive whiff. I get out to play a game of giant jenga. Even the children are picturesque and well behaved.
The Maldives has frequently been in the news for its vulnerability to rising sea levels. Sand management is a constant undertaking here and, out kayaking, I could see a rather impressive cascade of golden sand being pumped from a lagoon, by a rather less beautiful bit of apparatus. It was a tiny moment of reality that brings home the downside of the human ingenuity that has made this paradise possible: the effect that humanity’s quest for experience, sensation, ease and beauty is having on our already beautiful planet.
In 1998, more than 90 per cent of the shallow coral reefs in the Maldives died, when El Nino (the weather pattern that brings warm water and winds from the equator) raised sea temperatures. At the resort, they’re transplanting corals into a protected lagoon at Anantara Dhigu, and you can see the results in flourishing clumps of different types and hues. Still, there’s a poignancy to the whole thing, a sense of fragility, and of unreality.
The unreality partly comes from stepping so far outside my own daily life, the exotic surroundings, all that lavish beauty. But it also comes from the knowledge that all this is likely to be finite. If you’re the bucket list type, you’ll definitely want to tick it off. If you’re the Instagram type, your feed will be the richer for it. If you love luxury, you’ve probably been there already. And if you’re the eco type, I imagine you may feel both intrigued and conflicted. Whatever type you are, the Maldives exerts a powerful pull. Once experienced, never forgotten.