Finding Rest and Restoration in the Maldives

March 25, 2020 Updated: March 25, 2020
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It’s a moment of absolute relief. After a very long week, knocking around South Asia, we were finally on our final descent, the big pontoon plane gliding down through humid thermals toward an endless expanse of aquamarine. Below us, a little coral island grows larger and larger out the window, one of 1,200 here, spots of green, fringed with white, often encircling blue lagoons, here in the Arabian Sea. 

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Touching down. (Tim Johnson)

The hot streets of Delhi, Male, and Negombo—all from the past week—fade into memory as we splash down, right at the northernmost end of the country, this island being part of one of the remotest atolls here. Taxiing to a long dock, I’m given a warm welcome and a cold towel. All three people waiting for me beam big smiles, and one extends a drink. They’re strangers, but soon these staff members will become like friends. Soon, even if for just a few days, it will feel like home, on the far side of the world. 

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Far from home. (Tim Johnson)

I’m in the Maldives, a series of 26 atolls just east of India. My trip here is unexpected. A week earlier I had been sitting poolside in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, April 21, when news came through that a series of churches and hotels across the country had been targeted in a string of bombings, killing hundreds. After riding out a strict curfew, the next day I hired a tuk-tuk driver and visited St. Sebastian’s, which suffered the greatest losses of all the sites. 

Covering the event as a reporter, I saw things, close-up, that I will never forget—the devastation was both broad, and very personal, smashed windows and physical destruction and blood, yes. But burned into my memory are the little piles of personal items, now separated from their departed owners, perhaps eternally—an umbrella here, a cloth shopping bag, over there, and, most evocatively, just a single slipper, now swept aside. I can only imagine what happened to its owner. 

Leaving the country the next day, I wandered north to New Delhi, then back south to Kochi, finally landing here in the Maldives. I was ready for rest. And maybe a little restoration, too. 

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Over-water villa at Fairmont Maldives Sirru Fen Fushi. (Courtesy of Fairmont)
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Rest and relaxation at the Fairmont Maldives Sirru Fen Fushi. (Courtesy of Fairmont)

And here, at the Fairmont Maldives Sirru Fen Fushi, both begin in the sea. The resort, brand-new less than two years ago, feels like a place for castaways, albeit a fancy one. The only resort on Shaviyani Atoll (an atoll is a chain of islands formed from coral), the property is bisected by a pool that runs the entire width of the island. Villas with private pools string the beach, and a number have also been built over-water, the latter built on stilts, hovering over the waves.

After a full day of relaxation, time to reflect and enjoy and soak up the sun—a massage, a little shopping at an on-site workshop for local artisans, who create, and teach guests, plus plenty of time poolside in a lounger—I meet Charlie Shearn, the hotel’s resident marine biologist. 

Soon after he arrives, holding flippers and a mask for me, he explains why this string of atolls is so special. 

“This is one of very few places on the globe with shallow seas, where the currents bring up so much interesting sea life, including whale sharks and manta rays,” he says, noting that, before he came here, he only saw one manta ray over the course of more than 140 dives. Here, he saw six within the first two months.

Originally from England, Shearn has been in the Maldives for months researching coral reefs. He explains how all these islands came to be—that they were all deep-sea volcanoes, millions of years ago, which collapsed on themselves. 

“I love being able to just walk out, and there’s the reef,” he says, as we walk over the beach and into the blue sea, paddling out to the “house reef,” just offshore. 

While we snorkel our way across the flourishing ecosystem, we don’t spot any manta rays, or whale sharks, but what I do see refreshes my soul—unicorn and trigger and parrot fish, flashing all around us. At one point, a hawksbill turtle appears, out of the blue, and we follow her, out to sea, swimming until we reach the edge of the reef, the ocean floor dropping off sharply, just an endless infinity of deep blue ahead. 

She disappears into it, and we turn back. 

“That’s Kiba—she’s a 30-year-old female,” he says, explaining that they have a registry of dozens of these turtles, who are distinguished, “like a fingerprint,” by their facial markings. 

“She had disappeared for about 20 months—maybe she found a reef on a nearby island, or rode out on the current, anywhere.”

And the next day, I go fishing. Rolling out on a traditional wooden dhoni boat, two guides, Salley and Ali, tell me they were raised on the water, growing up right near this atoll. As kids, they would use hand lines for smaller fish, but have caught huge ones, too. 

“Sailfish, they’re big, and tasty, too,” Ali smiles. I don’t catch much, a couple of tiny ones, but both guides bring in nice catches quickly—and often. Taking a little pity on me, Salley is kind enough to donate his biggest one for my dinner that night, cooked up, fresh, in the resort kitchen.

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The crew members show off their catch. (Tim Johnson)

I hop around a bit on these islands, spending time at the fabulous Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, sipping champagne in Ithaa, their underwater restaurant while sharks swim over my head—all the walls, and the ceiling, just water, behind glass. 

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The beach at Conrad Rangali Island. (Tim Johnson)

Later, I roll out on a big motorboat under late-afternoon rays, spotting dolphins frolicking under the sun, on the waves. And, finding drama of a different sort, in Male, the Maldivian capital, I lose myself in the crush of the city, letting myself be carried along on the tide of humanity in one of the world’s most densely populated places.

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Searching for dolphins. (Tim Johnson)

And back at the Fairmont, after my snorkel, I head to my over-water villa. Showering off the salt, I enjoy a sunset dinner, then walk the beach, marveling at my place, here, under the southern stars, in the breeze, working through the thrills of the afternoon, and everything I’ve seen. 

The sun will rise again, tomorrow, and, as always, the waves will continue to crash. And, just like Kiba, swimming off into the deepest blue I’ve ever seen, I don’t understand, exactly, what the future holds. But I know that everything will be all right.  

When You Go

Stay at the Fairmont Sirru Fen Fushi, where you can swim the longest pool in the Maldives, a total of 656 feet split into four linear sections, then dip into the house reef, which runs a total of six miles.

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The pool at Fairmont Sirru Fen Fushi. (Tim Johnson)
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An aerial view of the Fairmont Sirru Fen Fushi. (Courtesy of Fairmont)

For a change of pace, stay at the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, where rooms and restaurants are spread between two islands, connected by a wooden bridge. If you can’t afford the undersea suite (which comes with a private buggy, jet boat, and butler), sign up for champagne at Ithaa. 

For more info on the Maldives, see VisitMaldives.com/en