The first wave you catch in the Maldives can be a real shocker. Not the size but its crystal clarity – a wave so transparent that the reef below looms up, seemingly with almost no water between you the prospect of multiple lacerations. It's an illusion – there is sufficient water – and you finish the ride, doubly stoked: a beautiful wave and you weren't cheese-grated across the reef.
The Maldive Islands were among surfing's best-kept secrets for decades. Two young Australian castaways, the late Tony Hinde and Mark Scanlon, pioneered these Indian Ocean waves in 1973 when the yacht they were crewing on was fortuitously shipwrecked on North Male Atoll. "I was the most spoiled surfer in the world," Tony once told me, recalling how he surfed the islands virtually alone for 15 years.
By the late 1980s, however, word had leaked out about these uncrowded reef breaks. "I went from hiding the surf to sharing it," said Tony, without regret. He and a Victoria-based surfing buddy, Ian Lyon, set up an agency, Atoll Travel, to bring surfers to tiny Kanahuraa Island just north of the Maldives capital, Male. These days the island is known as Cinnamon Dhonveli Resort but the same, near-perfect, left-hand wave still peels around the island's tip, Pasta Point. It is my favourite wave anywhere.
You won't find Pasta Point on any map. Typical of surfing's zany cartography, Tony nicknamed the break after an Italian restaurant that sat on the point. The old pizza-pasta joint is long gone, succeeded by today's sophisticated Makana restaurant. Meanwhile, out front, the surf pumps on, scanned by guests and surf guides as they swap tales of waves and sometimes of Tony "Honky" Hussein Hinde who in 2008 rode his last wave here, just as he had ridden thousands before, and died of natural causes doing what he loved best.
The Republic of the Maldives consists of 26 coral atolls (a word that Charles Darwin derived from the Maldivian Dhivehi term "atholu") strewn down 750 kilometres of the Indian Ocean. The majority of its 1192 islands are uninhabited while 115 are home to upmarket tourist resorts. About 10,000 foreign surfers a year now flock to the surf breaks Hinde explored long ago, often by sailing dhoni. ("Surfing in Sindbad's shadow," was how he once described his life.) Today's wave chasers have it easy with a choice of resort-based surfing or boat-based surfari excursions. On a recent trip I tried both.
Selfie sticks and sunhats are de rigueur for the honeymooners of Centara Ras Fushi Resort and Spa, a Thai-managed, luxury hideaway on sandy Giraavaru Island, 20 minutes by launch from Male. A long, curving boardwalk stretches like an exoskeleton over its lagoon, with suites extending on both sides. From the deck of a Deluxe Water Villa I can step straight down into the sea for snorkelling or a morning wake-up dip, with little but a reef between me and the horizon.
Plush resorts like Ras Fushi, best known for their azure lagoons and over-water suites, now offer surfing daytrip options for their guests. Unlike wave-blessed Cinnamon Dhonveli, most resorts don't have their own private wave just out front; instead, their surfing guests charter a dhoni and guide for excursions to the best North Male Atoll surf breaks.
The definite pluses of resort-based surfing include superior accommodation and dining and, importantly if your partner is a non-surfer, plenty of resort activities such as gym, pool and spa. Note: Maldives' waves break over coral reefs; this is not a "learn-to-surf" destination. One minus is that some resorts are a good distance from the outer reefs, requiring a relatively expensive dhoni excursion.
The Ras Fushi's cornucopia buffets and its rapture-inducing spa are seductive, but I'm here to surf so I head out several times in a dhoni with the resort surf guide, Hamdh. We score moderate waves – it's still early in the swell season – at Honkys and Sultans, twin waves that break left and right on uninhabited Thanburudhoo Island. There's a "crowd" this morning of three other surfers.
A few days later I fly from Male down to South Huvadhu Atoll, just above the equator. Marco Polo, who saw these islands only from sea level, described the Maldives as "the flower of the Indies". I look down on the vision he missed, reef-ringed islands that bloom like flowers on a tropical beach shirt. (Fittingly, some scholars believe the word "Maldives" comes from a Sanskrit term for "garland of islands".) Pulses of swell roll down their flanks, fanning long, white wakes across the reef. Down there be surf.
When Hinde and Scanlon went on their early surfaris to the southern atolls in 1974 they did it aboard a sailing dhoni crowded with local folk, and on an unrelenting diet of fish and rice. These days at least a dozen well-appointed live-aboard surf charter boats trawl the atolls for the best waves during swell season. Accommodating up to 16 guests in airconditioned, en suite cabins, these vessels have showers, bar, Wi-Fi and dinghies. A professional skipper, cook and surf guides look after all the details.
Horizon II is a goodlooking, 25-metre, six-cabin vessel with a big galley and dining saloon, plus a runabout dinghy and a dhoni. I step aboard to meet Captain Waheed and his crew of five, and my fellow passengers – two Australian and three Portuguese surfers, all mature age. Waheed and our Atoll surf guide Madey head us towards their home island of Gadhdhoo where we moor in the channel opposite its left-hand break known as Tiger Stripes.
Surfboards are hurriedly unpacked, fins slotted in and blockout slopped about. We pile aboard the dinghy and the boatman shuttles us out to the break. The waves are fun rather than ferocious and the cobwebs soon wash away as we whoop it up in the 28-degree water. With just ourselves and two Gadhdhoo kids in the line-up, this is what we've come far and paid good dollars for.
"Some guys think of a trip in terms of a 'waves-per-dollar ratio' and then get desperate, hassling for every wave they see," says "Curly", a surfer from Sydney's northern beaches and a veteran of 17 Maldives boat surfaris. We're lucky. The surfers on our boat might be obsessives, spending hours in the water every day, but they're not desperates. In fact they're gentlemen, with the Portuguese trio, all successful surf industry entrepreneurs, being particularly smart company.
We have ten days aboard the boat and score waves on most of them, usually at Tiger Stripes – so named for the bright, parallel ridges in its reef bed – but also with trips to other Huvadhu Atoll breaks with names like Castaways, Five Islands and Bluebowls. At times the sea is flat. "Hey, the waves are sloppy and the wind's onshore – but my worst day here is better than my best day in the office. And I've got a great job!" enthuses Franciso from Lisbon.
Some days we surf to the sound of the Gadhdhoo village muezzin's chant. At other times we go ashore to drink coffee or to explore an adjacent island where the villagers grows their crops. Steve, a knee-boarder from Melbourne and also Maldives' "old hand", nicknames it "Veggie Island" — and by curious coincidence its local Divehi name is Vegan Island.
Curly and Captain Waheed, old mates, spend hours fishing for red snapper, grouper, yellowfin, wahoo and whatever leaps onto their lines. Come dinnertime, Chaminda, Horizons' nifty Sri Lankan cook returns it to us as sashimi or mashuni, a delicious local tuna-coconut sambal.
Another charter boat joins us in the channel but even with its eight surfers and bodyboarders there are still waves for everyone. Ten days pass, with our surf sessions punctuated by epic novels or binges of Game of Thrones, plus emailing, fishing, drift snorkelling and finally an elaborate farewell barbecue on the beach.
Back at North Male Atoll's Cinnamon Dhonveli Resort I immediately check the waves on Pasta Point. Unpacking can wait. I paddle out to its beautiful, mechanical left-hander, catch a few waves and then scan down the atoll to the next island where Sultans and Honkys are both now crowded with surfers, dhonis and charter boats.
Pasta Point is virtually a private wave, accessed only by the island's guests. While the resort accommodates several hundred people, it books a strict limit of 30 surfing guests. Among them, you never know who you'll be surfing with. Last time I was here the talented, one-armed Hawaiian surfer Bethany Hamilton was shredding the waves with her vertical turns. Today the surfers on the point includes Curren, Atoll's dreadlocked Maldivian surf guide-yoga swami, a stand-up paddle boarder and a 40-ish South African guy who enthuses, "I've had fourteen surfs here in five days – more than I've had in three months back home."
Ashore I catch up with Tony Hinde's son, Ashley, a mellow 31-year old Maldivian-Australian who now runs the Atoll surfing operation here. He describes his role as, "keeping up the old man's legacy". For those who knew Tony, that was straightforward respect for his adopted country, the Maldives, the sea and his fellow humans. The basic resort where he first arranged rooms for a handful of visiting surfers 25 years ago has been upgraded and greatly expanded by subsequent corporate owners but the vibe on the point is still the same.
Today's surfing guests – men and women from the Pacific, the Americas, Africa, Europe – might be better-heeled than back then but they're still democratically barefoot and in board shorts, propped beneath a shade tree on Pasta Point, talking story and maintaining an unspoken legacy.
It's a four-hour flight from Bangkok to Male with Bangkok Airways. www.bangkokair.com. Or fly via Singapore or Kuala Lumpur.
Centara Ras Fushi Resort's Deluxe Water Villa package starts at $540 per person per night, through Wendy Wu Tours, see centarahotelsresorts.com
A seven-night Atoll Travel surfer package at Cinnamon Dhonveli Resort, including flights ex-Australia, meals, transfers starts at $4963 ($3601 for non-surfers). A 10-night Atoll Travel live-aboard boat surfari in southern atolls, including flights and meals starts at $3688. See atolltravel.com
A short board (bring your own) is adequate for most waves. All breaks are over coral so reef booties are essential; rash vest and surf hat strongly recommended. For consistent swells, mid-February to November are best.
John Borthwick travelled with support from Atoll Travel, Centara Ras Fushi Resort and Bangkok Airways, and at his own expense.
ALSO IN THE MALDIVES ...
DIVING AND SNORKELLING
Surfari boats don't usually have scuba facilities but most resorts do. Try an intro dive or do a PADI course at Centara Ras Fushi and Cinnamon Dhonveli. The snorkelling is almost as good here on reefs littered with vivid fish.
Male, one of the world's smallest capitals, allows your chance to mingle with urban Maldivians. Attractions include Sultan Park, the President's palace and Grand Friday Mosque, plus good dining spots like Citron restaurant and Seagull Cafe.
Maldivian waters are rich with pelagics and other species. Live-aboard boats usually have a couple of serious rods in action at the stern. Fishing gear is standard, or bring your own.
Resort islands and Maldivian village islands were traditionally separated by a bikini line, so to speak. The two cultures – Sunni Muslim and international tourist – met but didn't collide. Laws have relaxed and foreigners can now also stay on village islands.
WHALE SHARKS AND MANTAS
Whale sharks and manta rays are species in decline but still present in numbers in the Maldives. Join a spotting cruise and keep your camera poised. You'll often see spinner dolphins and sea turtles.