Maldives ‘Indian Ocean Paradise’.

The Maldives

The Maldives really does live up to the somewhat cliched description of an ‘Indian Ocean Paradise’.

It really is just that. A simple mention of the Maldives conjures up images of blue waters and soft, white sands, and beaches fringed by palm trees swaying gently in the breeze – and the collection of more than 1 000 islands boast a selection of resorts that are unparalleled in luxury. Plus, the activities on offer around the islands and at the resorts are perfect for families with kids. Maldives, with its capital city of Male as the gateway to the archipelago, really is a paradise.

The coral islands of the Maldives might be magnificently strewn over 90,000 square kilometres of the Indian Ocean but their capital city island, Male occupies just 5.8 square kilometres, making it one of the smallest national capitals in the world.

Most visitors touch briefly at Male, airport before skipping further across the water to one of a hundred Maldivian island resorts. A day or two stay in the capital, however, gives you the rare chance to meet Maldivians at work and play on their home turf. The Male Island with a population of about 140,000 citizens, is densely developed that you might expect it to sink under its own weight into the surrounding turquoise lagoon. Male is absolutely flat, built on a grid pattern and its narrow streets, called magoos, comprise, a mix of shops, apartments, office buildings and rolling motorcycle traffic jams.

Male

During your stroll you can cool off at the protected ocean pool known as the Artificial Beach. Muslim women splash there in billowing burquas, a hint that your dress code shouldn't be a bikini or brief shorts. Elsewhere on the island, clothing ranges from full cover-up to tight jeans and free-flowing frocks. Visitors should simply dress casual-conservative. On the northern point, near the Artificial Beach of Male, a kilometre-long, Chinese-built 'friendship' bridge is under construction to link the city with the neighbouring Hulhule Airport island. Hulhumale, a new dormitory suburb near the airport on an artificial island can accommodate Male's overflowing population.

Male is an easy-going town with no mandatory, 'must-see' attractions. Instead this is a place for wandering and discovery. It is called the Sultan Park, overhung with welcome shade trees, is more sand than lawn and a reminder that, like everything else in the country, the national capital sits on a low coral island. A few blocks away Mulee Aage, the Maldives President's home, a neat colonial-style bungalow, is a refreshingly modest dwelling for a head of state. The golden-domed Grand Friday Mosque is open to visitors, but the more interesting 17th century Hukuru Miskiy (Old Friday Mosque) allows Muslims only, although non-Muslims may visit with permission.

Male's main market, is found right next to the harbour, a wondrous, hangar-sized melee. Step right into this classic Indian Ocean melting pot of aromas, colour, spices, glistening fresh tuna, bananas, vegetables, tinned everything, fabrics, toys and probably even kitchen sinks.

The business district's waterfront esplanade and its inner harbour (with brilliant blue waters) see a constant shuttle of village ferries and resort launches. All day and into the night they either chug or sprint towards North Male Atoll's islands or across to the airport.

The traditional Maldivian wooden dhonis with their tall, Viking-like prows have mostly disappeared from service in recent years, replaced now by faster, more functional, but less romantic launches. Gone too are the shoreline's old cannon bollards, left perhaps by the British or even the early Portuguese occupiers who were sent packing way back in 1573.

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