Scotland on Sunday travel
It started with David Attenborough and Planet Earth, watching him on TV with my kids, and all of us wowing at the whale sharks. So when they heard I’d been invited to the Maldives to swim with them, they couldn’t understand my hesitation.
Well, there’s the name for a start?
“Think fish. The biggest in the sea.”
Jumping off a boat into the Indian Ocean?
“You’ll be fine.”
So a few short weeks later I did indeed don a snorkel and jump off a boat into the clear waters of the Indian Ocean and I was more than fine, I was wowed once more, and felt privileged to catch a glimpse of these gentle giants of the sea. Ours was several metres long, brown with white spots and a vast spatula mouth, resting below us. We drank in the moment, then with one lazy flick of its vast tail the beast shot metres away, oblivious to the human shoal of snorkellers setting off in pursuit, a frenzy of splashing flippers churning up the water’s surface.
If that was a highlight, there were many others to be had at Mirihi Island Resort, one of the smallest islands in the Maldives. At 350 metres long and 50 metres wide, it sits on a coral reef in the South Ari Atoll, a 30-minute seaplane hop from Male airport, where we had flown direct from Gatwick.
“Mirihi International Airport” consists of a few planks floating in an azure sea and it was there we waved goodbye to our shoes for the duration of our visit, boarded a motor boat and gazed at the pinch yourself view ahead.
If you asked a child to draw a tropical island, they would draw Mirihi, named for the yellow flower that grows on the island. A pancake of white powder sand with a tuft of coconut palms waving over lush green bushes and a handful of thatched roofs sitting in clear turquoise water, surrounded by a house coral reef. Hammocks swing between palm trunks, a necklace of water villas on stilts swoops out into the lagoon, and the cast of Finding Nemo swim by.
Independently owned, with just 37 rooms, 30 of them overwater villas with private decks, it’s like having your own island, the ideal destination if you want barefoot bliss in which to relax, reconnect with nature, turn off your devices and chill out. If that’s a disconnect too drastic, there’s free wifi in all rooms, a lobby and bar, and if you can’t miss a big game, there’s a satellite TV in the lobby – although watching the staff’s own football matches late in the afternoon was much more fun.
However, even the most wired stresshead might tire of winding down – all that swaying in a hammock enjoying the 29-degree heat when it’s winter back home, having sublime massages in the Duniye Spa, or just strolling around the beach watching the fish in the shallows – which is where the activities come in.
The water sports centre has an in-house diving school, Ocean Pro, which caters to all levels of divers, from beginners like me to the experienced, who went to explore a nearby wreck, one of 40 dive sites nearby. There’s also kayaking, paddle boarding, wind-surfing and snorkelling, all metres from your villa, like everything on Mirihi.
Board the island’s private yacht and you can head out beyond the reef to the edge of the atoll and the vast Indian Ocean for the whale shark seeker cruises and sunset sailing trips. We sipped cocktails and drank in the views as the ball of fire sun turned the ocean pink then dipped below the horizon, while manta rays flipped and skimmed alongside the yacht and pods of dolphins displayed Busby Berkeley choreography with synchronised leaps out of the water as if in time to our serenading guitarist.
If the water is teeming with fish, the tiny island is alive with wildlife. There are 167 different species of birds in the Maldives, the most common on Mirihi being the grey heron, one of which patrolled the strand in front of my villa, and the black-naped tern. There are bats the size of cats hanging in the palm trees like broken black umbrellas, shrieking like demons but not troubling us at all, and crabs that in daytime hide in holes they’ve dug in the sand, emerging to scuttle about the beach at night. Except for during an overnight tropical rainstorm that saw them climb up my water villa steps to take refuge on the decking till dawn.
Life is more leisurely for the island’s human visitors, with complimentary yoga and meditation sessions, beach cinema, stargazing, a fun and informative rum tasting with assistant restaurant and bar manager Patrick Baranowski in the beach-side bar, a library of books to browse and a fitness centre.
Special mention must go to the food on Mirihi, starting with the sand-floored Dhonveli gourmet buffet restaurant which serves up a banquet of fresh dishes from breakfast to dinner, covering everything from Maldivian to Mediterranean to Indian to local seafood, much of it very healthy, much of it not. For à la carte fine dining, still sans shoes, there’s the Muraka restaurant with its specialities of Maldivian lobster and wagyu beef. There we take a lesson in Maldivian cooking from patient executive chef Felix Bamert, who leads us through making Mirihi’s Beetroot Curry, Dhon Riha (tuna curry) and mango salad, the final step being to sit and enjoy a real taste of Maldivian culture.
Speaking of which, Mirihi really is a paradise destination for families, singles and couples, but remember to respect that you’re in a Muslim country and while you might think those topless selfies with the coconuts look hilarious online, they’re maybe not the best idea, even on your own private balcony.
Mirihi was bliss from start to finish and every day was a highlight. However, my favourite thing, for which no course of instruction was necessary, was to clamber down my water villa steps with snorkel and mask, dip into the lagoon and watch the fish around the house reef. Young black-tipped reef sharks zig-zagged away, more scared of me than vice versa, turtles did lazy laps of the island, manta rays appeared to smile as they flipped past and everywhere there were fish.
I was looking at Nemo’s reef home: delicate angel fish, butterfly fish and of course the cute clown fish themselves, flanked by Blue Tang Dory, reminding me to “just keep swimming”. And hoping we heed David Attenborough’s climate change warnings, for the sake of the endangered whale sharks further out in the ocean, and the humans privileged enough to share the planet with them.
Nightly rates at Mirihi Island start from $600 (£462) per villa, on a B&B basis, based on two people sharing. Prices are subject to 10% service charge and 12% GST. For more information or to make a reservation visit www.mirihi.com or call +960 668 0500 or email email@example.com