Maldives: Worlds collide in far-flung atolls

By Andy Hay

The Indian Ocean islands are reclaiming their place in the sun in the wake of the 2004 tsunami.

A bar by the beach at Club Med in the Maldives. Photo / Supplied
A bar by the beach at Club Med in the Maldives. Photo / Supplied

The bats start circling at dusk. Big wide sweeps above the banyan trees.

Then the man with the cranky smoke-maker sweeps along the beach laying a smother for mosquitoes - and for a short while you can smell the primus being lit with manuka tinder many years ago on a New Zealand holiday.

But that's far removed from the Maldives, the far-flung atolls that sit low and flat across the Indian Ocean. So flat that the gardener who rakes and sifts the sand between rooms 301-351 at Club Med Kanifinolhu (Kani) remembers the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami, barely impeded, sweeping over this tiny atoll, the water up around his chest, and then rolling on, carrying everything unbolted with it.

This is a Club Med resort, one of 87 scattered through the Maldives, reclaiming its toe-hold, post-tsunami.

The resort is one of two states that exist side by side in the Maldives. The other consists of the towns and villages that live by Islam.

The difference is defined best by the arrival card - because if you flip it over just as you go through Customs a sudden lump may develop in your throat.

This is what you can't do in the Republic of the Maldives: drink alcohol, carry religious idols, do anything that goes against the Koran.

This is what you can do at the resorts in the Republic of the Maldives: drink alcohol ...

And if you want to make your worlds collide and experience life outside the resort, you book an excursion.

The Male (Ma-lay) excursion takes you by boat from Kani to the capital, first seen as a collection of streaky lights on a 1am descent to the airport after a five-hour flight from Singapore. Now on a clear morning we motor the 30 minutes by sea to the wharf and its coral steps. A guide is there to meet us. He has bad jokes and takes us to kickback shopping destinations.

But he also shows us the place where piles of shining fish are lugged in and laid out across a shallow recessed floor; the food markets where crippled and broken people act as quiet door sentries, with dead, deep-set eyes.

He leads us to the historical mosque built in 1656 of carved coral blocks, laid without cement and cool to touch even in the sun.

The city hums in the heat, broiling in a mix of sun and moped vapour, as men throttle past in endless procession.

And it is indeed mostly male in Male. Women are barely seen. The main footpath along the quay is dominated almost entirely by men, sitting talking.

By lunchtime the tour is over and the boat's ready to head back through the twin piers that frame a view of the prison island in the distance.

You are pretty much free to explore the world beyond Kani depending on how much money you want to spend.

The Blue Lagoon excursion starts with a 45-minute blast over the ocean to a huge sandbar with nothing on the horizon - and nearly nothing on the sandbank - just a table and chair.

And while this is a fairly cheesy installation that probably exists as a postcard picturing a waiter with a cool drink standing by an impossibly beautiful couple, it's still good fun.

Next stop involves snorkelling followed by an encounter with a pod of about 150 juvenile dolphins chopping up the shallows of another atoll.

Then we land at the fishing village of Hura, where the tsunami clear-up continues far behind the pace of the resorts.

There is a dusty avenue through souvenir shacks with beautifully tiled floors crammed with souvenir clutter.

Not much here - especially artisan or locally made. The energy is all going into reconstruction; women in burqas heave wheelbarrows full of cement.

The only people in the town square are girls playing bat and ball and old women watching, unmoving.

Club Med is going through a rebuilding process, or more correctly a rebranding adventure.

This is an organisation which began in 1950 when Belgian water polo champion and French Resistance fighter Gerard Blitz set up a little holiday village on Majorca offering affordable, all-in-one-price vacations - long drops, Army tents and stretchers - for Europeans emerging from the battering of World War II.

It was a mini socialist republic, where everyone mucked in, with the emphasis on healthy activity and good clean fun.

Today it is the 10th largest hotel chain in the world.

But the Club Med offer where everyone shares the same experience is changing, starting at Kani. There are three levels of accommodation. The top of the line, over-water lagoon suites, are holiday-brochure heaven.

But the idiosyncrasies of these tiny French outposts, with their quaint little bureaucracies, remain. And as bewildering as it appears, for a day or two you just have to give in to it.

Club Med's all about directed experience, a whole world away from the do-it-yourself holiday New Zealanders tend to take. You do group games, activities and shows.

Turn your back on it and you'll sit in the bar muttering under your breath at the stage show put on by a brigade of barely twenty-somethings who act as entertainment and hosting directors. Go with it and you'll soon be up on your feet in the front row with a couple of caipirinhas under your belt. You'll even find it's fun.

CHECKLIST

Accommodation: Club Med has three grades: overwater bungalows, beach villas and superior rooms.

Currency: You need Maldivian rufiyaa (mrf) or American dollars outside the resort. At Club Med all you need is a credit card. Everything you buy is booked up on a ticket and you pay at the end.

Food: Sensational. Buffet-style with lots of local, Indian, Sri Lankan and Arabic influences. Unlimited during three meal times. The spices are fresh and earthy - and the tastes are diverse.

Drinks: Beer and wine free with meals.

Excursions: There's a wide range on offer, including: shopping in Male (half day); a seaplane and speedboat trip to South Male Atoll (full day); blue lagoon snorkelling, or a visit Hura village (half-day).

Weather: Temperatures in the Maldives are 25C-31C year round. Steady sea breezes. Sun not as harsh as New Zealand's.

Further information: See clubmed.co.nz.

Andy Hay travelled to the Maldives courtesy of Club Med and Singapore Airlines.

- NZ Herald

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