I don’t know about you, but the only three golden words I have been desperate to hear this year, have been ‘No more masks,’ and I did hear them as soon as I arrived at my resort in the Maldives. As I removed my mask, the invisible grin that was plastered on my face from the moment I landed in the Maldives, was finally visible.

The stunning archipelago of the Maldives is a dream holiday destination at any given time, but in 2020—the year when all travel came to a standstill and life as we knew it changed forever—a trip to these captivating islands was even sweeter.

For a travel junkie like me who gets restless if she is at home for more than 5-6 weeks at a stretch, being stuck at home for over seven months was worse than enduring kaalapani. So when the opportunity arose to travel, I seized it with eager hands.

Under normal circumstances, my holiday preparation ideally would start with me purchasing new beachwear. However, in this so-called ‘new normal’ world, everything is topsy turvy.

And so my holiday preparation began with me sitting on a stool in my garden, as a man dressed in full PPE kit—which made him look more like an astronaut, than anything else—jumped at me with a nasal swab and stuck it high up in my nose. He followed it up with a throat swab. I blinked back tears and was finally relieved that I had survived my first Coronavirus test.

The Maldives opened for tourism in July, and was one of the first countries to do so. However, most of the resorts reopened only in September after taking all the necessary precautions. To ensure the safety of everyone arriving in the Maldives, all tourists are required to get a PCR test for Covid-19 done, 72 hours before departure. The negative test report has to be uploaded on the Maldivian government website.

Having done that, I was all set to get away for a week of sun, sand, and a high dosage of vitamin sea (and not vitamin C, which one anyway has been consuming in heaps to boost immunity).

Getting there

I flew Air India from Delhi to Male via Thiruvananthapuram. In mid-October when I travelled, Air India was the only carrier flying to Maldives from India. However, now Go Air and Indigo have started weekly flights.

Flying in the new normal is also an experience. Thankfully, the Delhi airport is huge and most people were maintaining social distancing. Everyone wore masks and face shields are compulsory for flying. At the check-in counter you have to show your negative Covid report before being issued a boarding pass. Air India was not offering full service (alcohol, tea, and coffee was not served) and interaction with crew was restricted. I was served a packed meal that had a veg puff, a muffin, peanuts, Greek yoghurt, and a Patanjali juice. You could be more lucky in terms of food with the other airlines.

At the Thiruvananthapuram airport, it was clearly evident why Kerala is leading the fight against Covid in India. As you exit the aircraft and enter the airport you are immediately surrounded by people in full PPE kits who guide you in the right direction. An automatic sensor records your temperature as your picture is clicked. I had to walk from the domestic airport to the adjoining international airport where immigration took place. The process was rather seamless.

The Thiruvananthapuram-Male flight is only 40 minutes. Try booking a window seat, you won’t regret it. Your first sight of the gorgeous blue-green water as you are about to land is a trailer for what awaits you in the Maldives.

Maldives is offering a 90-day free visa on arrival for Indians. No forms need to be filled, they just stamp your passport and check the Covid negative report. Immigration is fairly smooth.

Tourists are not allowed to visit Male or any of the inhabited islands. From Male airport you are required to go straight to your resort, either by speed boat, domestic airline or seaplane. The island-country is home to luxurious world-class resorts, with each established on a tiny private island, giving rise to the concept of ‘one-island-one-resort’. While this makes Maldives a plush holiday destination at any given time, during the present age of the pandemic, it works in their favour even more. The resorts are able to keep themselves Covid-free by controlling the arrival of guests and ensuring that all the staff live in the resort. With no fear of the virus, one can finally go mask-free. And that’s exactly what I did.

The resort

I divided my time between two resorts—Kandima Maldives and Heritance Aarah. While Kandima has a young and relaxed vibe and is more international in nature, Heritance Aarah has a more South Asian feel with a focus on indigenous Maldivian culture. Both the resorts are ultimate luxury destinations with miles of powdery white sand beaches, crystal blue waters, mouth-watering food, and lavish accommodation.

Maldives is a paradise for all water-sport lovers. You can go snorkelling, diving, parasailing, jet skiing, kayaking etc. And if you are not in the mood for anything adventurous, you can opt for a dolphin watching expedition or a sunset cruise. And when the sun sets, covering the blue sky with fiery red hues, you know you’re in for something magical. That’s how beautiful a sunset cruise in the Maldives can be.

Thanks to the unique beauty of the underwater views, the Maldives is also noted as one of the best diving destinations in the world. All resorts offer guests an opportunity to learn diving and gain an internationally-recognised diving qualification.

Image : Kandima Maldives, the resort

Hunger pangs

For me what stood out at Heritance Aarah was its food. Every meal at each of its six restaurants and five bars was memorable. While the tasting menu at Ambula, their contemporary Maldivian-Sri Lankan dining experience that merges the traditional with the inventive, was a burst of flavours, it was the floating breakfast that turned out to be the highlight. Undoubtedly, one of the most indulgent and exotic ways to enjoy breakfast, the floating breakfast is just that—a breakfast that floats on a tray alongside you in the pool. Enjoy a hearty meal while sipping sparkling wine, overlooking the ocean and the sky, and of course, making sure the tray doesn’t overturn.

The floating breakfast tray
The floating breakfast tray
Image : Smita Tripathi

The aqua-villa is a concept popular in the Maldives. Your villa is built on stilts in the ocean giving you unending views and providing you a direct access to the ocean from your private deck. Jump into the sea from your deck, the water is shallow, and it’s like having your own pool. Also, it’s a real treat to see Manta rays and baby sharks swimming close to the deck.

Both Kandima and Heritance Aarah are approximately a 40-minute seaplane ride away from Male. It costs around $500 per person for a return flight. Currently Heritance Aarah is offering packages that include the seaplane fare.

Image : Kandima Maldives, the resort

Two days before it was time for me to fly back from this naturally self-isolated paradise, I had to get my Covid test done again. India requires that you get the test done 72 hours before arrival in the country. The resort organised the test. The test costs between $100 and $150, depending upon the resort.

Tourism is the largest industry in the Maldives, contributing to almost 28 per cent of the GDP. Last year 1.7 million tourists visited the islands. In recent years India has become an important market for them. In 2019, 166,030 Indian tourists visited Maldives increasing the country’s market share to 9.7 per cent. With the reopening of Maldivian borders, India is in the top five markets in terms of current arrival figures, with Russia, UK, UAE, and the USA, being the others.

I suffer from post-vacation blues after any holiday, but returning from the Maldives was particularly painful as it was a reminder that we are still living with the pandemic. As I donned my mask and adjusted my face shield in the flight back, I was just glad I could travel during these unusual times.

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