Day 14: Male, Republic of Maldives
ABOARD OCEANIA’S NAUTICA — Our first and enduring impression of the Maldives Islands? The water. The Indian Ocean here is crystal clear affording great visibility and yielding almost surreal shades of sapphire and turquoise. Of course, this water means great snorkeling and diving, for which the Maldives are renowned worldwide. The travel posters don’t lie, but seeing it in person is even more compelling.
Our day here began with an excursion to Dhonveli, a small resort island about 40 minutes by speedboat from the jetty in Male. Our speedboat ride was thrilling, but perhaps a bit disconcerting to a few passengers who seemed apprehensive when the boat was momentarily airborne crossing the wake of another boat. We loved it.
And we loved the snorkeling. Masks and fins can be rented from the dive shop and we snorkeled right off the beach where our chaise lounges were parked in the shade of a thatched palapa. A few yards from shore the gradually sloping sand dropped away abruptly from a depth of two feet to perhaps 10 or 12 feet, the steep slope lined with coral. Though the coral did not appear healthy, plenty of colorful reef fish didn’t seem to mind. The fish were totally unperturbed by our presence and swam within inches of our hands and mask. If that weren’t enough excitement, we got a visit from a pair of sharks, perhaps three feet long. They didn’t seem menacing and even the small fish paid them no mind.
We had little time to explore the resort, but did notice a swimming pool, tennis courts, and attractive bungalows lining the beach and perched atop pilings extending into the shallow water. On the opposite side of the island (perhaps 50 meters from the swimming beach) a refreshing breeze and shade increased our comfort level, with the temperature climbing past 30 degrees Celsius before noon.
Deposited back in Male, we took the opportunity to look around this frenetic little city. The country’s capital and only city, Male completely occupies a small island 1km by 2 km. Its official population of 65,000 or so is said to be boosted by temporary residents to as much as 100,000. In other words, it’s crowded. And it seems that there must be at least one motorbike for each resident. Most of them would whiz by as we stood trying to cross the street, but more than once a rider stopped to let us pass.
Opposite the jetty, a large, grassy, partially shaded open space called Jumhooree Maidan or Republic Square is prominently marked by a tall flagstaff atop which a huge Maldivian flag flutters in the breeze.
From here we wandered past the Islamic Center with its imposing Grand Friday Mosque. This impressive, modern structure dates from 1984 and can accommodate up to 5,000 worshipers. The leafy Sultan Park shaded us as we strolled toward the National Museum, a modern Chinese-built structure housing an eclectic collection, ranging from a whale skeleton, to artifacts belonging to various sultans, to the Maldives first computer.
Exploring the fish and produce market on the waterfront revealed almost totally male clientele not to mention vendors. This traditional Muslim country manages nevertheless to function very well as a modern travel destination, and judging by the number of souvenir shops with touts, it’s pretty effective at profiting from it.