January 12 2012
I learnt to surf in the bathwater waves of Sydney and Costa Rica. The thought of paddling through the UK’s chilly grey tides in a wetsuit and balaclava has never appealed; once you’ve known the joy of surfing in tropical waters that glitter with iridescent sea life, there’s no going back. So four years ago, when friends invited me to join their surf charter in the Maldives, I immediately said yes. Only later, en route to our destination, did I broach the question: are there waves there? Isn’t that paradisiacal archipelago of white-sand islands clustered with palms lapped by temperate waters – not bashed with roiling, eight-foot barrels?
Off we went on luxury surf-and-dive charter Ocean Dancer, a handsome teak motorboat with an on-board spa and minimalist furnishings, built by its dashing French captain. And lo, there was surf in the Maldives. The myriad reefs that make the country an apex for scuba diving also make it a spectacular surf destination: waves are formed when a large volume of water hits an underwater obstacle – a sandbank, rocks or reef bed. In the Maldives, where reefs buffer the open ocean and island lagoons, there are breaks everywhere. Using Ocean Dancer as a grand surf-taxi, we spent a week riding swells off tiny dots of sand and jungle, with only the occasional pod of dolphins or swooping manta ray for company.
The island nation’s potential as a hotspot of the sport was discovered in the 1970s by an Australian, Tony Hussein Hinde. Hinde set up the first surf camp here in the 1980s. Since then, surf-safari charter boats with basic amenities have been ferrying surf bums on a well-worn route between the north and south atolls.
Change is afoot, however. The Maldives has been kept a secret among the wave-riding community, but blue-chip surfers are increasing in number, and they want adventure with a high thread count (needless to say, my friends who chartered the boat are all in finance). And the high-end hospitality market is catching on fast. Certainly it has a captive audience: engendered by its iconography of sunny beach life, salty blonde hair, and perfect, surf-hewn bodies, the sport has a vivid glamour. Slicing down the steep face of a wave provides an adrenaline rush equal to the most treacherous off-piste run (surfing from a skill standpoint is akin to snowboarding – just imagine the mountain was constantly shifting and threatening to engulf you). A daily surf regime is an escape from the inertia that’s an occasional by-product of a stay at even the toniest island resort.
Enter the Maldives, with serious waves and, more recently, serious instructors. New resorts, like Six Senses Laamu on Olhuveli island in the Laamu atoll, employ surf gurus – alongside the masseurs and city-trained chefs and dive instructors – to hone their guests’ skills. Inaugural hotel-sponsored surf competitions aim to put the Maldives on the map as a world-class hub: the Four Seasons Surfing Champions Trophy took place in August, while big-wave hero and Riding Giants star Laird Hamilton was the star attraction at Six Senses Laamu’s Watermen exposition in October. The sport has the potential to bring a younger and cooler crowd to the idyllic shores, and provide a welcome boost to off-season occupancy levels (the surf season runs counter to peak season, with the best swells in April through to November). As President Mohamed Nasheed recently noted, “Surfing in the Maldives has been a secret; now the secret’s out.”
Everything is exaggerated here: the natural beauty, the sunsets, the opulence, the diversity of wildlife in its seas. The bounty is reflected in the sheer multitude of major hotel groups that have landed across these small islands, which spin north and south from the capital like dropped pearls. In May, the Anantara group opened its fourth outpost, Kihavah, in the Unesco-protected Baa Atoll, while an outpost of the US resort group Viceroy opened in September, to be followed by Ayada, a 112-villa new-build resort in the Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll.
The Six Senses Laamu, which opened in May, is the only resort in the remote Laamu Atoll, one of the southern archipelago’s top surf destinations and a 40-minute plane ride from Malé. It’s the third Six Senses property in the Maldives, on an island of tangled jungle with 27 beach villas and 70 water villas. There are no swimming pools; “the pool is all around you”, says Wahid, my dedicated Guest Experience Maker, or Gem, (which, indeed, he was). Guests traverse the resort’s length by bicycle on the narrow sand paths – after dinner it’s a starlit journey, scented by night jasmine.
Beach villas, rather than the overwater rooms (still lovely), are the best bet for Maldives regulars. Pressed on all sides by thick vegetation and at least half a football pitch apart from each other, there’s enough palm-shaded garden to make the other villas completely invisible. It’s only when I climb up to my gorgeous sunset-viewing tower that I spy my neighbours’ roofs, barely glancing the top of the foliage. Inside, decorative emphasis is on wood, glass and stone, with everything locally and sustainably sourced (long a Six Senses mandate). A wall of glass gives a bed-view onto my sand-floored garden and beyond, a wedge of blue sea. Rough-wood floors and low, upholstered seating in sunset hues lend the interiors a subtle safari vibe, as do the campaign-style wash basins, made from travelling trunks, and a sleek platform bed slung with mosquito net. There’s an alfresco bathtub with retractable shutters, so I can bathe with a view of the ocean, a huge power shower, and another outdoor shower at a tiptoe across the sand for post-snorkelling sluice-downs.
Propped on stilts over the water, the restaurant, bar, library, tearoom, reception and ice-cream parlour (offering 60 varieties) are spread across thatch-and-driftwood open-air buildings. Elevated walkways give the interconnected structures a tree-house appeal, and deep sofas, including catamaran nets propped with cushions – for sunset viewing, while dangling one’s legs mere feet above the sea – enhance the beach-shack glamour. The resort’s three restaurants follow the Slow Food policy (another major Six Senses cause), with ingredients caught or grown at source. The sea-facing Leaf restaurant, reached by wobbly rope bridge over the vast vegetable garden, is an organic tour de force.
But the real excitement is on my tower deck, from which I spy my quarry: the house break, catching and curling along the reef a few dozen metres from the shore. A local man is zipping along a three-foot wave on a fibreglass board. (It’s one of the dive-centre assistants; many staff members have become quite good surfers.) I watch him ride wave after wave until dusk descends and he paddles in to shore.
The next afternoon it’s my turn. I have a goal: I can pop-up (getting from flat to standing on the board in one move), and ride a wave, but only straight; I want to be able to trim (turn down) the wave. “We’ll have you there in no time,” says Steve Newton, Laamu’s resident British surf instructor, a sun-bleached charmer with a Cheshire-cat grin. We head to a nearby island; in contrast to the packed breaks of the North Atoll, there’s not another surfer for miles. From the boat, and even from this distance, I can see the tumbling white horses of Yin Yang, a fearsome right-hander that fringes the horizon and can draw up to eight feet in height. Laamu’s Irish marine biologist tells me she grew up surfing, and she’s still scared of Yin Yang. Steve has only taken a handful of guests there, mainly seasoned Australians and Brazilians.
The next day we paddle out to the house reef. It’s ineffably beautiful; waiting for a set to come in, I watch parrot fish nibble at the frond-covered stone beneath my feet (the day before, they’d apparently been kept company by a sea turtle). The waves are two-foot at the most, perfect for practising. By the time I reach the spa later that afternoon, its pod-like treatment rooms resembling bird’s nests caught in the thicket of surrounding mangrove trees, I feel the righteous glow of the truly massage-deserving.
In contrast with Six Senses Laamu’s captivatingly off-map co-ordinates, the Four Seasons Kuda Huraa is just a short speedboat journey from Malé airport. The resort has strong surfing credentials, with eight breaks spread within a few miles of the hotel; in August it held its first Surfing Champions Trophy. “Ten to 15 per cent of our guests come to surf,” says the affable general manager, Sanjiv Hulugalle. “And the numbers are growing year on year.” Hulugalle embodies Kuda Huraa’s sporty, go-getting ambience; when I next see him he’s dressed in a rash vest and shorts for wake boarding.
Kuda Huraa’s surf operations are masterminded by Tropicsurf, a superlative organisation providing instructors and luxury surf holidays in equatorial destinations. Options include chartering the Four Season’s own 39m catamaran, Explorer, anchored between the Four Seasons’ two Maldives resorts (the other, Landaa Giraavaru, is in the Baa Atoll). Effectively a floating hotel with 10 upholstered staterooms, sun decks, whirlpool, restaurant and bar, Explorer is easily the most extravagant “liveaboard” in these waters.
The resident surf guru is an amiable Floridian, Chris Prewitt, an unremittingly optimistic teacher with whom I train in the lagoon for two days. On the third day we head to Tombstones, a break he assures me has not earned its sobriquet for its fatality rate. It’s a thick, slow wave; the name makes sense when it recedes to expose jagged rocks like tipped teeth at the shoreline. The water is the colour of jade and chipped with sunlight; the only sounds are the crash of the water and Chris’s voice: “Paddle, paddle, paddle!” I manage to speed down wave after wave, “trimming” at last, and it is easily the best surf day of my life. Prewitt acknowledges the sport’s recent explosion here. He puts it down equally to the setting – “You’re living the postcard” – and the fact that the waves here are safer than at other, more marquee-name surf spots. He’s witnessed a spike in the number of female surfers, too, proof of which I see during my stay at Kuda Huraa. A gang of Billabong girls is in residence – tall blondes with tawny limbs and white bikinis, they look impossibly cool jogging down the jetty to the waiting surf dhoni, boards tucked under their arms. (A group of women from Doha, sipping tea in the hotel bar in their black abayas, watch them with acute interest.)
Much of Kuda Huraa was destroyed by the 2004 tsunami and reopened in 2006. It’s not as pretty as Six Senses Laamu, nor does it share its natural beauty – an adjacent, heavily inhabited island is shielded from view by a black screen near the jetty. Nevertheless, it has real charm, a first-rate Italian seafood restaurant, unassailable Four Seasons service and vast thatched beach villas modelled with private splash pools, outdoor decks and cabanas (stay in those that face the prettier, sunset beach). At dusk, a long-beaked whimbrel is a regular visitor at my pool, tip-toeing cautiously at its edge.
The manmade reef – one of many eco-programmes initiated by Kuda Huraa’s resident marine biologists – is in the surrounding lagoon, at an easy splash from almost any sun lounger. In the spa, reached by a little boat, a tiny Balinese woman works on my shoulders with coconut-scented creams, while waves rise and fall behind my closed eyelids.
Prewitt, like all surfers, is a philosopher. “The bliss moment – when you’re just gliding down the face of a wave – that’s what keeps people surfing,” he says. If that moment occurs off a sun-dappled Maldivian isle, where on shore a spa, a butler and a sleek villa await, then surfing might prove to be the path to true happiness for a whole new class of traveller.