Ruaridh Nicoll finds it's possible to luxuriate on an Indian Ocean atoll and not break the bank
Standing on the bone-white sand, gazing into the clear water, I watched a blacktip reef shark cruise past my big toe. It was tiny, maybe 25cm long, but it moved like a major predator: I imagined that in its mind it was the terror of tiny things.
"Do they bite?" I asked.
"No, they are completely harmless," said Ali, operations manager of Vilu Reef, a resort on the Maldivian atoll of South Nilandhe. "We've only had one incident. A small boy of maybe 4 managed to catch one, which is hard, and he carried it up the beach and dropped it in the swimming pool." There was, he said, pandemonium.
My gaze rose, over a sea richer in fish than your average aquarium, past over-water cabanas on stilts, past the reef to where a blue seaplane was landing with more guests. The Maldives, coral islands on long-extinct volcanoes, pulsed in the sun - a million visions of paradise.
I'd never thought of visiting the atolls, seeing it as posh. A friend from British Airways changed my mind. He complained that because so many visitors to the Maldives were honeymooners (or just plain rich), the front of their flights were always packed, while the economy sat empty.
I got to wondering whether it was possible to visit on the cheap.
Well, it's not easy. One option is to go to the local islands, which number 200. That way you get the flavour of real Maldivian life, in all its Islamic constraints. It's fascinating, but there's no booze, you'll spend days trying to get around on small ferries, and have to swim in a burqa (for men, that's optional).
I looked for a resort that wasn't a five-star tower of marble and palm fronds and which offered deals out of season. The result was Vilu Reef, a truly international experience.
"The Chinese are arriving in ever-larger numbers," said Ali. "And you know what's interesting? Not many Chinese people swim."
"Then what do the Chinese do here?" I asked. "The island's tiny."
"Well they walk round and round until they are bored then they dive in. Our lifeguards are trained to look out for it. We pull them out and then we say, 'We can arrange swimming lessons'."
The truth is that downgrading the price takes away little of the luxury. There's family accommodation in the trees, beach huts that give way to white sand, and houses on stilts out on the reef. These last offer steps down into the sea, with adventures in snorkelling limited only by spectacular sunsets. There are Thai masseurs.
The food is hilariously international, staples from Beijing to Berlin, prepared by charming Bangladeshi chefs who also do fabulous curries and a mean grilled fish.
Then there are one's fellow holiday-makers. I took a sunset walk. New brides in bikinis posed half in, half out of the azure water, their backs arched, hair flung back like models in Sports Illustrated.
It was touching, seeing this, their creating a nirvana in the sunset, on coral white, where they looked their well-loved best. These were best-of-times photos being made.
Theirs is the dream that unfolds as the ads on some cold station platform come to life. It's impossible not to buy into it.
Still, I felt a little guilty at how removed I was from the Maldives itself, so I hired a boat to take me to a nearby island. I was expecting an Indian sort of poverty, but I was wrong.
Eight vast fishing boats were lined up at the quay, waiting to put to sea to line-fish tuna. Shipwrights were at work between seafront villas. No one was too busy to chat. Metal frames covered in fishing nets provided outdoor seating for the covered-up women.
In a rooftop cafe, where men sat smoking, I drank Maldivian coffee and ate tuna and coconut masroshi, bajiya fritters and a slightly astringent mouth-cleanser of nuts, leaf and karanfoo, or clove. The guide, Rasheed, showed me pictures of his Chinese girlfriend on Facebook.
There were two great differences between islands only 500m apart. One was mosquitoes. The other was the vast fruit bats that crashed into the trees above us at dusk. Neither, apparently, is tolerated where tourists stay.
At the end of the trip, I boarded the flight and turned right. As promised, the economy cabin was almost empty except for one of the world's most famous and sophisticated actors (I'll spare her the name-check since she was on holiday). She knew what she was doing: when I went to the loo, I noticed her sleeping full-length across the middle aisle in the arms of her boyfriend.
Getting there: All three Emirates daily flights from Auckland provide direct connections at Dubai with the airline's services to Male in the Maldives.