Alessandro Tomé goes swimming with Whale Sharks for Spear's.
‘Oh. My. God. It is HUGE!’ exclaimed the Not So Blond Twin, jolting me back from the reveries I had drifted into, lolled by the gentle chop rocking our boat. Delusional and somewhat ambitious as I am, I stared down at my wetsuit, hoping the lolling hadn’t inadvertently inspired an embarrassingly visible rise in the skin-tight neoprene. As reality returned to my senses, I saw a graceful, albeit enormous shadow glide under our skiff towards the lights hanging over the side of the local fishermen’s boat to which we were tethered. Within seconds, and in an amazingly well choreographed display in spite of the cramped spaced and aforesaid choppy waters, we had donned fins, masks and blinking light beacons and thrown ourselves trustingly, if anxiously, into the ink-dark night waters of the Thaa Atoll.
A jittery swim in the darkness (having pushed the Still Very Blond Twin in the water first, just in case) took us to the flicker of light that appeared through the gloom and slowly lit up the most stunning experience of our trip and, I think I can say, of our lives (except perhaps for the birth of the Still Blond and Not So Blond Twins). And my marriage to Angel Wife. And… no, that’s it. As fishermen try to catch baitfish at night by attracting them to the surface with floodlights, plankton also rise and concentrate at the surface too. Small, transparent squid and other all sorts also congregate. That is until the biggest fish in the sea decides to make an appearance to feast on the plankton.
And here it was, all 6.5 metres of a whale shark. A small juvenile male, I was later told. To me, huge, massive even. And initially scary, although you know they’re harmless. But very quickly you become very comfortable with him. It is so gracious, so majestic, deliberate in its every movement, with no unnecessary jolts or flinches. And your awe quickly turns to humility at the realisation that he is oblivious to you, that you are a clearly a guest in his realm, a passing shadow of little relevance. As he turns powerfully to feed some more, mere centimetres away but barely bothering to glance at you, with incredible elegance that belies enormous power, in what looks like a stunning, tattooed, sinewy body, you feel blessed to be there. We reluctantly swim back into the darkness after 40 minutes in his presence, my thoughts and emotions garbled, and on the ride back to the heavenly Maalifushi Island I have my answer to a tricky question.
This is Angel Wife’s and my fourth visit to luxury islands in the Maldives and we are left stunned every time. But how does each differentiate from the other resorts? How do you pick one on which to spend your precious free time and money? As the Discriminator, I was looking for the differentiator. And this whale shark experience was the final nail in most other Maldivian destinations’ differentiation coffin.
Maalifushi by COMO, as it is slightly oddly known, already had much to distinguish it by. First and foremost it had already gathered a most invaluable seal of approval from the inimitable Jolly Bunch, a modern but classic Euro-version of the Brady Bunch, with far more disposable income and where the fully grown kids had cleverly managed not to have been weaned off the parental sponsored holiday bottle. Clever Bunch, really! They missed out on the whale shark but still ranked Maalifushi number one for them in the Maldives. They should know, regular, exacting visitors that they are. And rightly so. The island is of particular beauty, and the only resort in the Thaa Atoll, a salutary 50 minutes by quasi-private seaplane from Male. Sure, it’s a little more effort and time, but worth every second of the amazing flight and sights, and that ticks a first, big box. It could feel large at 60 villas, but somehow the layout and most of all subtle management and wonderful staff conspire to never make it feel so. Other than at the occasional breakfast, it felt very small and intimate. That is, everywhere except in the villa we were moved to after a few days, in a blissfully secluded and romantic beach.
Now, when I’m having a less than happy day at the office and wonder what it’s all for, I just think of the Maalifushi Water Villa, with infinity pool, open-plan eating terrace and living room, a dressing room that would still look empty even with all of Angel Wife’s London clothes in it, a bathroom where you could play squash while looking at a myriad of shades of blue, crowned by the neighbouring deserted island to which we swam and paddle-boarded. Then there were the Twins’ quarters, with more TV rooms, kitchen and three outdoor showers. We kept losing things, and ideally children too on occasion.
Another big question always asked by hyperactive city-dwellers is what there is to do. I find it a very annoying question. If you need to be doing something so badly all the time, relaxation is not for you. But again Maalifushi gets the balance right and ticks this important box. Sailing, paddle-boarding, fishing, wakeboarding and waterskiing (well away from the island, thankfully), and other watery allsorts are there. The diving is spectacular and uncrowded, so the Twins and all divers I spoke to told me. Not to mention the daily dolphin run, which is a real spectacle. Another killer discriminating touch is the surfing: people even fly in from Male
for the day to catch the local breaks. The Twins are now surf addicts! As for Angel Wife, she says the Shambala Spa is the best she has been to. Mrs Jolly concurs — and she should know, as she mostly spas and swims in between talking. A lot. I even concurred, just for the stunning beauty of the treatment rooms over the lagoon, so light and so airy.
But I admit, I spent more time eating than massaging, which brings me to the last box to tick: what about the food? I am difficult, supposedly. But we ate Nobu-style and quality most nights in the inspired genial hands of the newly appointed and brilliant chef that is Rob Shipman in the aptly named Tai (snapper in Japanese) restaurant. Truly excellent. Elsewhere we delighted in a mix of delicious Thai, Indian and Italian fare. I even dabbled in the healthy options designed by Shambala — a bit too ‘bird food’ for me, but it helped keep my newly found skinny shape.
If you wonder where to go next and don’t know how to differentiate, distinguish, discriminate, I hope this helped you. Maalifushi is magical because it is distinguished in its no-shoe, no-hassle, but nothing-is-too-much approach, differentiated because you can do it all or nothing at all and feel fulfilled by both, and unique because it made the Discriminator mellow out. Or perhaps the whale shark did. But then again, where else could you do that?