Off the Beaten Path
Cruising Isolated Indian Ocean Atolls
Feb. 4, 2006 10:00 AM
Over 1,000 islands make up the Maldive Republic; they lie scattered, jewel-like in the clear blue waters of the Indian Ocean, grouped in atolls each surrounded by its own lagoon. Twenty-six of these coral atolls stretch down almost to the Equator. Below the surface sea life is staggering, making scuba diving here some of the best in the world. Coral gardens are only bettered by the colors and patterns of the wide variety of fish that you encounter. However, below the water are just some of the better-known jewels in the Maldives crown – the others are the outlying islands themselves.
Until recently the government had determinedly restricted tourism to Male, the capital, and another 80 or so hotel-developed resort islands. The locally inhabited fishing islands are, as a result, partly closed to non-locals to safeguard the islanders’ devout Muslim lifestyle. It is only now with the introduction of Island Explorer, a new passenger ship operated by the Four Seasons resort that visitors are, at last, able to visit some of these fascinating outlying outposts.
Many islanders see just 10 or so boats a year and there are some islands that have yet to encounter the splashing of a tourist anchor. For those who choose to voyage around these atolls they offer pioneering stuff. Very little has been published about these delightful “off the beaten track” islands, and some of them remain even still uncharted. Cruising here is not for the fainthearted – coral reefs lie just below the surface and are scattered around the island chain. Many are easy to see and appear exactly where the chart states they will, though other smaller outcrops of reef have built up around wrecks of former local craft that long ago hit an isolated coral head and sank. Cruising these waters calls for a sense of adventure, and if you are at the helm: nerves of steel and a jolly good pair of Polaroid sunglasses.
The fifth island to open as a resort within the Maldives was Four Seasons on the island of Kuda Huraa, and it remains both luxurious and definitely five star. This resort boasts an international je ne sais quoi feel about it that is reflected in both its décor and in the clients it attracts, suiting those looking for high standards of comfort and service within familiar surroundings. A high proportion of visitors come as couples, many of whom are on honeymoon. For those spending a few days on the island it offers a variety of organized activities each day that include cookery classes, ecology lectures, or visits to other islands. For the more active, there is scuba diving arranged through the water sports centre where helpful staff and quality equipment make it just as easy to while away the hours in the tropical sunshine playing in the crystal blue lagoon with canoes, small sail boats, wind surfers, and snorkelling equipment.
In today’s modern world most holiday island resorts have their own spa, but somewhat conversely the spa at this resort has its own island. No, I am not joking: out in the lagoon, a short boat trip away, is a self-contained spa unit accessible only by a tiny dhoni, which operates a ferry service on demand. Purely in the interests of undertaking research for the discerning readers of Yacht Vacations & Charters it became my duty to put this sumptuous spa to the test. I chose to have an aromatherapy massage, which is said to appeal to all of the senses and is enhanced by the choice of either of two essential oil blends. Solace oil combines sandalwood, jasmine, and geranium while Zeal oil comprises mandarin, neroli, and palmarosa. Thinking I had enough zeal and not knowing what either neroli or palmarosa were, I chose to have a Solace oil massage. Wrapped in a Japanese-style kimono and a down-to-the-ankles matching sarong, I looked very fetching as I shuffled in matching slippers into a room full of fragrance. Lying face down overlooking the water, a tray of aromatic herbs was placed in front of my face and the treatment began. The masseur used deep, hard strokes and cross fibre massage techniques to say nothing of the occasional slapping, beating, and pummelling, but 60 minutes later as I recovered with my own cup of ginger lemon tea I felt truly relaxed with a feeling of overall well-being.
The management team at Four Seasons is environmentally aware and they have a responsible attitude towards the Maldivians they employ. On a nearby local island of Bodu Huraa the hotel sponsors small business projects and most important, the island school, to ensure all local children are educated to a reasonable standard. Locals are encouraged to seek advancement through the hotel’s own highly evolved training system. A full-time marine biologist is on staff to help with conservation as well as educate the guests with lectures and guided diving and snorkelling tours. The hotel has invested in the creation of an innovative reef restoration program and supports a series of reef balls used as coral nurseries that hatch polyps inside them on their house reef.
The hotel is justifiably proud of the latest enhancement at Kuda Huraa: their new cruising catamaran called Island Explorer. This is an unusual concept in which the notion of a luxurious dive boat is crossed with that of a small cruise ship. Launched in early 2003, the ship’s route takes in two seven-night cruise options: the Northern Passage starting in Male Atoll, visiting Lhaviyani Atoll, and the Baa Atoll; whilst the Southern Cross again starts in Male Atoll, and visits South Male Atoll, Felidhoo Atoll, and Ari Atoll. Guests who select one of the three- or four-day options will embark or disembark the ship en route by seaplane.
This well thought out program allows avid divers, water enthusiasts, nature lovers, and Island Explorers to discover distant atolls and rarely visited dive sites, while at the same time enjoying the same service, comfort, and style offered at the home resort. Each day of the cruise has plenty of activities for both divers and those who prefer life above water. Underwater explorers can take part in up to three dives each and every day. Live Aboard dive boats are generally very basic affairs and usually offer very little for a non-diver to do, and price and the number of possible dives a day far outweigh food and accommodation in importance. Island Explorer is very different because it is both comfortable and way beyond the standard dive boat.
With just 22 passengers the ship feels very like a charter yacht rather than a passenger ship, being an unusual hybrid of both these. Truthfully I believe the ship would be better crewed had the yachting industry been tapped for its professional crew rather than the ethnically diverse team from differing disciplines that was on board. The sleek three-deck catamaran features 10 spacious state rooms and one beautifully appointed full-beam suite, two sun decks with Jacuzzi, restaurant with an indoor and outdoor dining area, bar, lounge and small but comprehensive library. This 39-meter catamaran has a beam of 12 meters and a draft of 1.90 meters, and she cruises at 14 knots using twin MTU diesels and fixed-pitch propellers. A sea-state motion-control system further enhances the innate stability of the vessel. All 10 staterooms are bright and airy with large windows. The mood of the interior is contemporary with teak wood grain complemented by cool, subdued tones and soft goods from the subcontinent. All state rooms are air conditioned and feature twin beds that can convert to a king bed, couch, writing desk, mini bar, satellite TV, VCD and music system, telephone, in-cabin safe, and en-suite bathroom with bath tub/shower. The suite with its expansive panoramic windows offers a staggering 45 square meters of space and features a king bed, daybed, and its own indoor dining area.
To ensure that guests view the most spectacular scenery and sites in these remote waters, Island Explorer stops at preselected anchorage sites. The alternative to diving is to indulge ones self on the private shores of tropical white sandy beaches, or relax in solitude under the shade of a coconut palm like Robinson Crusoe. Try a massage on a deserted beach that surrounds an uninhabited island under the shade of a specially erected tented gazebo. What luxury and how wonderful it is to listen to the sea and feel the gentle breeze whilst being massaged and pummelled into tip-top condition. If water activity is on the menu then try snorkelling, water skiing, kayaking, windsurfing, or even deep-sea fishing. Non-divers can also join a discover scuba diving course or snorkelling excursions.