After two days in Maldives’ capital city of Male—among the most densely packed cities in the world—I boarded a speedboat to a nearby resort.
It was a 20-minute ride across deep blue waters. We tied up at the dock around lunchtime. Some guests floated in the clear water closest to shore while others relaxed with a book on the white sand beach.
I walked the path to the check-in area and sat down to do the necessary paperwork. The worn table and chairs wasn’t what I envisioned at a Maldives resort, but I also knew this wasn’t one of the country’s high-end places.
Embudu was a three-star resort, one of roughly 150 resorts in Maldives, most of which are situated on islands occupied only by the resort staff and guests. Costs run anywhere from the low hundreds of U.S. dollars per day to thousands per day for the most luxurious stays.
It wasn’t my typical travel style, but I wanted a taste of it. And I knew from one other resort experience that there’s something to be said for a holiday where there’s little to plan, nowhere to be, and nearly everyone around you is there solely to relax.
It took about a day and a half for me to sink into its rhythm. But it started on the first evening on the calmer side of the small island. Huge schools of fish filled the water close to the shore. Baby reef sharks swam in the midst of the fish, swaying with black tipped fins just out of the water, every so often speeding up to lunge for a bite.
A large heron patrolled the shoreline for her own meal. She traveled the island to fish throughout the day, and a fellow guest told me she had chicks in a tree near one of the beaches.
Mornings were the best time for snorkeling the reef that surrounded the island. I spotted an adult reef shark, two moray eels, one with just its head sticking out from the coral, its mouth opening and closing repeatedly. Fish of every color filled the blue water, including puffer fish, angel fish, and a charcoal gray fish with gills that fanned a vibrant orange.
Red flags marked where to turn back to shore to avoid being pulled out with the strongest currents, and as I turned past the last flag to head toward the beach, the water got shallow and its color shifted, becoming clear at the rippled sand floor of the sea and grading to a pale blue at the top. I turned to my side to gaze with one eye at the silky underside of the surface of the sea while the other eye peered out of the water at the blue sky.
The scorching midday sun was too much for me, but I came out again in the late afternoon. And by early evening I had the beach nearly to myself, gazing at the buttery soft colors of the water, letting it lap over my legs, and spotting bats flying high over palm trees as a soft white light filled the sky behind them.
It was easy living, the most relaxing stay I had anywhere in Maldives, though still not the type of place I’d go often. I had the odd feeling that I could be anywhere in the world because there was so little connection to local life, and there were some hit or miss trips through the dive shop in the name of pleasing the guests.
On an afternoon snorkeling trip to “stingray city,” I plunged in the water to see it filled with the biggest stingrays and nurse sharks I had ever seen (at that point). I soon realized the guide had dropped a plastic container of fish carcasses in the water. The sharks were the best at getting their snouts in the box, while the stingrays snatched the bits that escaped the sharks’ jaws.
When we returned, I told the dive shop manager that I didn’t like that they were feeding the fish. He smiled and said nothing. I learned later that feeding fish is a common practice at Maldives resorts to ensure guests get their sightings.
Another day I joined on a long boat ride to an open area known for having manta rays, this time confirming beforehand that none were fed. The guide stood on a high spot on the boat. He said the mantas would be on the surface, so we should keep our heads tilted just up, not looking down deep. He instructed us to jump in when he told us, not to swim after them, and yelled at two guests who jumped in too soon. “Over there!” he called out when he spotted a manta, and the boat captain zipped away to another spot.
A guide I met later on a local island, Mahibadhoo, said the best way to see mantas was to stay in one spot and let them approach you. Indeed, as I treaded water at one point, I turned to see one coming right toward me. It was within inches when it flapped its wings and moved off, showing me its white underside. Later, I was startled when I turned around and it was right in my face again.
The boat disappeared at times in search of other mantas. I snorkeled on my own, drifting into a large group of schooling banner fish, the yellow, white, and black of the fish surrounding me and contrasting with the deep blue of the sea.
On our way back we stopped in an area where countless dolphins swam and played. They had charcoal gray on their backs, a lighter gray band on their sides, and white on their bellies. I swam behind a pod of 13 as they dived deep and rose again, eventually breaking the surface of the water as they jumped in the air.
As we left the area, the captain motored the boat slowly. I leaned my head over the side to watch more dolphins play in the surf made along the bow. A short distance away others leapt in the air, one doing a backflip as the sun sparkled off its body. For this, I could have stayed out all day.