Maldives - A Slice of Paradise

Maldives, a collection of stunning atolls, exquisite lagoons and gorgeous sun-kissed islands

Set in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives is made up of 1,190 islands spread across 820 km by 130 km of turquoise sea and attracts more than 400,000 visitors to its shores annually. Only a quarter of that number are inhabitants who live on only 200 islands while there are 26 major coral atolls with about 10 of them set aside for resort development.

Entering Eden
The airport on Hulhule, is a visitors' first taste of the dream. The island has been specially flattened and extended to accommodate major carriers from Europe, Middle East and Asia. Resort speedboats and air taxis (sea planes) are the main means of transport in Maldives, as about 99% of Maldives is water. For a scattered population inhabiting a multitude of small isles, dependence on sea and air transport is natural.

Passengers are whisked off as they leave the terminal building to island hideaways. The idyllic beaches, found on every one of these tropical isles, that make up the Maldives, are blessed with white powder sand and several tonnes of crystal blue waters. The Maldivian experience offers both relaxation (picture a hammock strung between two trees) and activities on land (festival and pageants) or on, in and under the water (fishing, snorkeling and scuba diving), island hopping by dhoni (wooden motorised native boats) or aerial trips by plane.

Undoubtedly famous as a breathtaking sun, sand and sea destination, there is a whole lot more to Maldives than its surface beauty. At the starting point on Hulhule, is the capital Male. Tiny in size, it is the centre of government and trade, and is buzzing with the heady sights and sounds of busy street-life with its bazaar-like charm evident in its shops and markets. The 400-year-old mosque is worth visiting for some very fine coral carvings as is the National Museum for an interesting insight into Maldivian heritage. Other sites of interest include the Presidential Palace and the Islamic Centre.

In the pipeline, a Maldivian Heritage village, is being planned to preserve Maldivian traditional and culture. There, an artists' colony and native community for Maldivians to retain the old ways of living will be set up. The settlement will be run by a village chief with local folk dances performed, traditional craft workshops run and galleries that showcase the arts.

Historical Roots
The first settles were migrants that came across the seas from various parts of the world and all have contributed in some way to a melting pot of different cultures and traditions. The population is a mix of Indian, Sinhalese, Arabic and African. Local music and dance show African influences, as does its unique language Dhivehi which is not spoken anywhere else in the world, and has Sanskrit and Arabic roots, and hints of East African accents. There are South Asian influences too in the music, dance and local food. Many of the traditions are strongly related tot he sea.

Maldives has a rich history seeped in folklore and myth. Stories of brave warriors, everlasting rules and sea-demons abound. The legend of how Maldives as a nation embraced Islam is one such fanciful tale. Abul Barakaath Yoosuf Al Barbary was an Islamic scholar who visited the Maldives during a time when people lived in fear of a sea-demon, who demanded a virgin sacrifice monthly. The hapless chosen girl of the month was brought to a temple by the sea and the next day, was typically found dead. The scholar decided to disguise himself as the sacrificial girl and spent the night at the temple reciting fromt he Koran. The next day, the people were astonished to find him still alive and still reciting the Koran. When the King discovered that the demon had been kept at bay through the power of Islam, he and the entire nation were converted. Islam is recorded to have been introduced in the 12th Century. To this day, maldives is 100% Sunni

Islands in the Sun
Every resort is on its own private island with most operating boat rides to neighbouring islands for shopping or other excursions. Cruising the waters through the atolls is the best way to discover your own isle, explore great dive sites, visit other resorts and local fishing villages. Accommodation is mainly on a full-board basis. Maldives, being a Muslim country, does not sell alcohol in Male although all the resorts on the islands have bars which sell the stuff to foreigners. Every island is different in size and shape and most offer architecture and interiors that blend with the environment and maintain native styles and touches.

Every island resort boasts dive facilities with qualified and licensed dive instructors running the dive schools. The Maldives has a reputation for being one of the best diving destinations in the world with hundreds of famous dive sites. The seas are an explosion of underwater color and life. Legions of fish and other marine creatures flourish amidst the rich coral reefs. There are wrecks and shark reefs for thrill seekers.

Couples seeking to immerse themselves in the classic romantic escape will delight in the balmy setting and peaceful pursuits available. For those seeking active adventure and fun, the Four Seasons Resort has a recreation team dedicated to finding you the right partner for games and organising sunset fishing expeditions and photo trips by helicopter. This is in addition to an array of watersports including snorkelling and diving.

Fast Facts

Dhivehi is the language spoken in all parts of the Maldives. English is widely spoken by Maldivians and by resort staff.

The Maldivian currency is the Rufiyaa. One Rufiyaa is equivalent to 100 laaree. The US Dollar is the most commonly used foreign currency. Resorts accept major credit cards.

There is no visa requirement for Maldives other than a valid passport and health documents. A 30-day visitor's pass is normally issued upon arrival.

Tropical and humid all year around. The rainy season is between May and November. The high season is from November to April.

Casual and light with cottons to keep cool. Sandals, beach shoes or bare feet are the most comfortable. When in Male, dress conservatively. Nudity is not allowed.

East Timor's Underwater World

Dili is the diving world's newest and most precious discovery. Find out what there is to see both in the water, or on land.

Welcome to Dili, the capital and largest city in East Timor, the world's newest nation that also houses what might be the diving world's most precious discovery.

Indeed, the diver who makes it to this little known nation will find plenty to see. Sea walls plunge dramatically down towards the sea bed, and remarkably clear waters house schools of colorful angelfish and batfish, which play hide and seek among the hard and soft corals. You'll also see tuna, macherel and manta rays, and other more uncommon water creatures such as whale sharks, turtles andmanatees - if you are lucky of course.

Getting to the diving sites, however, involves some effort. Chartetting a boat costs about US$800, so shore dives are commonly preferred. Even then, you'll probably have to swim at least 50 meters out to sea before making the underwater descent. But because currents are strong and big waves are aplenty here, entering and exiting the water can be quite a challenge. Most of Dili's most popular dive sites are within an hour's drive from the city; car rental will set you back about US$60 a day and the journey itself will treat you to a series of jaw-dropping scenic views and some opportunities for sightseeing.

Dive Into It
Once you get to Dili's dive sites, you'll be richly satisfied with what they have to offer. Dili Rock poses a challenging dive; currents can be strong, and the swirling sands can affect visibility. However, once you get past all this, the rewards are worth the while. You'll see turtles, manta rays and lionfish, and schools of batfish and butterfly fish. Black Rock is also where manta rays are often spotted. but the dive site is not for amateurs either. its steep walls and strong currents make it treacherous for less experienced divers.

Black Rock in Behou East Timor (Photo by Rob Swanson)

Newer divers might do best tostart at Dollar Beach, which is an especially good viewing ground for manatees. The shallow waters and clumps of seaweed make this the ideal mating ground for these endangered mamals. Even if you're not a diver, the stretches of white sands make it a haven for sun worshippers who want to do little else from relaxing on the beach.

Amateurs can also dive safely at Whale Shark Point. Less experienced divers should stick to the gentle reefs within the coves, whole non-divers may be content to sit around and wait to spot whale sharks, which are known to visit the area around August. if you've missed the season, however, this diving site, just like the rest in Dili, is gorgeous nonetheless.

K41, 41 kilometers to the east of Dili, is yet another favorite among divers. Unlike typical tropical beaches, k41 has a pebble beach that is filled with large rocks. Waves are huge and strong, but currents in the water are fairly gentle, and the dive is straightforward. This is a great spot for night dives and the underwater scene is stunning because of its large variety of sponges and corals that sparkle with vibrant colors in every hue.

Atauro Island - East Timor (Photo by trash0)

Largely given a miss by casual divers because the island is three hours away by boat from Dili, Atauro Island offers one of the most stunning dive experiences. Chartering a boat to the island costs no less than US$700, but most who have enjoyed the experience have declared it worth every cent. During the boat ride, you can expect to see hundreds of dolphines and pods of whales, and if you return during sunste, the view of golden skies reflected upon a shimmering area is one of the most magnificent sights you could imagine.

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