If I asked you to think of the Maldives, what would be the first word to spring to mind? Whatever tops your list, I’ll wager a noun beginning with ‘r’ wouldn’t be all that far behind. The association between romance and the Maldives runs deep, but have you ever considered what the country has in common with one of the biggest Romantics of all – the poet John Keats? You’d be forgiven for arching an eyebrow here; after all, there’s no question that Keats had far more to do with English lakes than emerald atolls.
Then again, the mechanics of memory care little for such trifling details. And so, as I sit on a seaplane bound for the Baa Atoll, I suddenly hear an impassioned cry over the roaring engines: ‘O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!’ One moment I’d been looking down at passing islets; the next, John Keats has hitched a ride on a thermal from the depths of my mind.
The line comes from a letter that Keats wrote in 1817. In it, he grapples with lofty topics – truth, beauty, creativity – but it’s this wistful sigh about the senses that comes back to me. Why? Two hundred years after it was penned, Keats’ cry would make the perfect manifesto for the Maldives.
The act of thought can be a stepping stone to higher things; it can also be taxing and troubling. Clearly, even visionaries yearn to break free and embrace a life of sensuousness instead. In the era of data-diving and deep fakery, to give dominion to the senses has become more than a seductive proposition, it’s a form of release. At the best Maldives hotels, distractions go into deep freeze the moment you step off the seaplane. And when that happens, it’s the senses that unfurl into the gap.
The Maldives has a strange relationship with time. Officially, the clocks are set to Maldives Time, but at some point hotels started tinkering with it, adding an hour here, slicing off 30 minutes there. There is a method to this madness: in the quest for the perfect day, hoteliers have made the clock work for them, shifting dawn and dusk to suit their schedules. Take Joali, for instance, where morning yoga classes are held in an overwater pavilion. It’s a meditative place at any time of day, but it looks positively celestial when set against the ascending sun. These things aren’t left to chance. Then there’s the Nautilus, which has split with the program completely.
On this island, there are no clocks, no schedules, no opening hours. As I’m welcomed on the jetty, I notice that no one wears a watch, from butler to general manager. After taking a draught of thick, syrupy juice that tastes like it was squeezed on the other side of paradise, I’m led in the direction of the houses, as they call them here. I fail to arrive.
Not without a hint of irony, I’m forestalled by Thyme, a restaurant that skirts a beach studded with palms and rippling sea lettuce. As we pass by, the director of sales, Ibrahim, puts a simple question to me: would I like something to eat? ‘Yes’ would be a fitting reply, but I’m displaying the symptoms of someone who spends too long in a world that’s sliced and subdivided by the clock. What I say is almost instinctive – I ask the time.
Ibrahim’s conspiratorial smile is answer enough, but he gently drives the hint home for good measure. ‘Just be yourself. There is no time on Nautilus, so eat whenever you feel like it.’ Just like that, the greatest barrier to gratification has been lifted free. My path forks, and soon I’m toasting temporal divorce with wine the colour of sun-kissed straw. Before dessert, Ibrahim is back, looking a little concerned. Playfully disappointed, he notes that I have been ordering from the menu. At the Nautilus, menu is a dirty word.
They call it unscripted dining – an epicurean alliance between ‘anywhere’, ‘anything’ and ‘anytime’. There are brick-and-mortar restaurants and menus, but they’re both formalities. Here, you get to throw out the restaurateurs rulebook – and I don’t just mean asking for pancakes at dinner. Colours, memories and cultures can all be springboards for meals of your own imagining. So what do I decide on?
Unused to such open-ended extravagance, I have an unscripted moment of my own, blurting out a stream of words that includes ‘exotic’, ‘chocolate’ and – just to test – ‘round’. After a short interval, a nigh-perfect sphere appears on a spice-dusted plate. The dark globe is brittle on the outside and has a soft, oozy core within. Just before I break into it, I let it sit a moment longer, admiring its smooth curve. The chef has taken my tangle of words and moulded it into an emblem of this place, creating a sense-teasing world of his own.
The curtain has been pulled all the way down now. Little more than an hour ago, the sea was a near-fluorescent aqua; now it’s as dark as squid ink. As if to make amends, the moon has emerged from its tussle with an errant cloud, painting a silver channel from beach to horizon.
On the walk to the waterline, I shine my torch in front of my feet, and a hundred eyes bulge back from the darkness. A platoon of crabs is forming up like a de facto coast guard. Claws raised, they brace for my approach…but at the critical moment, their bravado falters. Breaking ranks, they beat a staccato retreat to the shadows.
Perhaps they’re right to be concerned. After all, this is the third time I’ve been in today. Since arriving on Milaidhoo Island, touring the reef has become a ritual as regular as eating. From the foot of my bed, the pilgrimage to the water takes 17 steps, crossing sun-warmed wood and powdery sand. Every time, the first wave is deliverance for my hot soles – a small price to pay for an all-day carnival in riotous colour.
This time, the sand is damp and cool. I wade out, fit the flippers, tighten the mask and pitch forward into the water. What an alien world the reef is at night. Under the shroud of darkness, the coral has taken on a new, shadowy beauty. Falling particles waltz through my torch beam, and even the fish seem to have stage directions, moving like night-time ramblers still shaking themselves awake.
Diving down, I search each crevice for the tell-tale sign of life – eyes, iridescent and unblinking in the light. In one hollow, I find a fish fast asleep inside a bubble, a sort of see-through sleeping bag to keep it safe at night. But the star of the show is a miniature lobster, striped with petrol blue and luminous orange. It wears its long, trailing antenna like an eccentric moustache – the Salvador Dali of the seabed.
I’d always thought of the sea as a silent place, but the reef has a song of its own – clicking, crackling, crunching. Casting around, I spot one of the soloists, a parrot fish in the throes of a midnight feast. I’ve had some remarkable dinners on Milaidhoo, but I never imagined I’d wind up in an underwater version of The Garden of Earthly Delights, watching, listening, to this bird-beaked fish eat hers.
Back on the sand, a table has been set up in a palm-ringed bower. The only light comes from flickering torches, throwing frond-shaped shadows into the canopy. Just after the main course, a fruit bat swoops over the table before turning out to sea. What a life these gentle giants have, roving from isle to idyllic isle. I would know, after all – I’ve been on their trail for nearly a week now.
‘Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret’
Keats might have been writing about a nightingale, but the sense of escape stands regardless. On these islands, you’re given licence to turn into a lotus eater, forgetting the world in the pursuit of pleasure. It’s not so much mindfulness as mindlessness, and the Maldives is the place to practise it.