Maldives, Outrigger Konotta Resort review: Tracking down the locals

I'm filling out one of those inevitable, and ever so slightly tedious, pre-treatment questionnaires ("Do you have a skin condition? Do you have heart disease? Are you pregnant?") at the suitably salubrious spa at the Outrigger Konotta Resort, so serene you could hear a facial eye patch drop.

Then I come to the mandatory query "on a scale of one to 10 (10being the best), how are you feeling today?" Back home, on a typical stress-laden working day, I'd probably rate my mental and physical wellbeing at a five. Or, pushing it, a six. But, here in the Maldives, I enthusiastically circle nine (secretly, however, I'm feeling like a 10).

The Maldives (pronounced "Mal-deeves") does that to you. It's my second visit to this island nation and I've been utterly seduced – again – by its myriad allures, as fundamentally artificial as they can be within any luxury resort context here. And, on this return occasion, I'm a little more wise to the artifice that the Maldives represents.

It is perhaps one of the few countries, after all, where it's possible to visit and leave entirely, and for that matter, happily, devoid of any real sense of the country, its people or its culture. And, I suspect, I admit a little conspiratorially, that's precisely the way the archly conservative Maldivian government that presides over an at times fractious Muslim majority nation of just over 400,000 souls, and its tourist industry, tends to prefer it.

You want to meet a manta ray? A sea turtle? A dolphin? Easy. You want to meet a Maldivian? Next question, please. Indeed, on a previous visit I resoundingly lost a battle with another luxury resort to glean a semblance, any semblance, of a cultural insight of the Maldives.

Certainly, for the majority of visitors to Maldives to say you've been to the Maldives is to mean that you've visited a resort and an airport yet scarcely a country. But Outrigger Konotta is one of those seemingly rare Maldivian five-star resorts that manages to combine luxury without pretension as well as displaying a certain willingness to allow visitors to engage with Maldivian culture. 

There's even a wonderful, wildly enthusiastic all-male house band, composed exclusively of volunteer Maldivian employees of Outrigger Konotta,  who perform traditional song and dance for resort guests as they enjoy the mandatory candlelit dinners on the beach.

The five-star Outrigger Konotta, with its 52 extremely capacious villas, is in South Huvadhoo Atoll in the country's deep south, well away  from Male, one of the world's most densely populated capitals that everyone tends to actively eschew. 

It's quite the journey to get here, when you factor in the flight from Australia to Singapore, Singapore to Male and then from Male to Kaadedhdhoo (don't even ask how that one's pronounced), a sleepy island outpost hosting the nearest airport to the resort.

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One of the benefits of electing to stay in this far-flung extent of the country consisting of more than two dozen atolls and 1000 islands is  the sense you get from the air during the flight from Male of the Maldives as a country. 

The islands and reefs, nearly all of which are uninhabited, resemble a giant unravelled string of pearls scattered across a vast turquoise water world. Below me, the ocean is studded with resorts shaped uncannily like the manta rays tourists dive to observe, the tail being the inevitable overwater villa piers and jetty that project from islands and into the sea.

But, by the time you get to Kaadedhdhoo, there's still one journey left and that is the high-speed launch transfer to the resort. The Chinese have discovered the Maldives in numbers and I share the boat with a family who spend the entire trip transfixed more by their smartphones and tablets than the Indian Ocean surrounding them or the island, perched on the horizon like an undersized toupee on a male cranium, growing in size the closer we get to it.

After a few days of glorious encounters with turtles, dolphins but, alas, no manta rays, my wish to engage with real Maldivians – beyond, that  is, the band on the beach – is granted. 

A visit has been arranged to a village on a distant island, though I suspect few holidaymakers request this particular tour, listed in a glossy brochure. 

The island's called Fiyori, population 700, and it's so obscure it's barely Google-able. From Outrigger Konotta, I'm escorted on a one-hour, shuddering, wave-pounding speedboat journey by one of the resort's drivers who hails from Fiyori. Following this jarring though thrilling ride, the island, compared with the unlimited comforts and manicured perfection of the resort, with barely a single trapping of tourism, is something of a culture shock.

It's a bit like switching from the Disney Channel to CNN during a breaking news moment. At the wharf, in the dazzlingly bright sunlight of a hot Maldivian day, we're greeted by the affable brother of the speedboat driver who works at the resort on another island to Konotta. 

Hammocks, carefully positioned under the shade of palm trees and containing the occasional dozy occupant, line the shoreline and swing gently in the sea-breeze.

My guide's waiting for me on a motorbike, my conveyance around the island. First I'm taken to a boatyard where, inside a stiflingly hot ramshackle corrugated-iron shed, a huge tuna-fishing vessel is under construction, the craft propped up, rather precariously, on a collection of straining empty and rusty oil drums. 

It's pleasing to see that, at least here on Fiyori, the Maldives' boat-building traditions are being maintained, albeit with modern materials and techniques.

Next, passing a succession of houses made from coral blocks, once the main building material in the Maldives, extracted from shallow reefs, we stop to inspect the solitary patch of greenery on the entire island: a lush yam farm that supplies both Fiyori and nearby islands.

Then it's off to the village infirmary where we're introduced to the medical staff as well as a frail, ailing elderly man who is being readied for transfer to a hospital. Nearby is the local school, with its small sandy playground, where I meet the principal and a teacher, both recruited from India.

Back at the wharf the old man from hospital is being attended to with enormous and impressive care as he is transferred by ambulance boat, fitted with flashing red and blue lights, toMale.

Elsewhere, passing the village's sturdy, light-green painted mosque, I visit my guide's basic home, where there's a large pile of smashed coral rock awaiting use for the construction of an extension.

Inside the house, my guide's hijab-clad wife and child, who I can just make out in the dark of a tiny living room, are too bashful to emerge from inside it. It's here, too, I have a failed, and ignominious, attempt to test the family hammock, ending up in a tangle of netting like some captured villain from the Batman TV series.

My tour, informal as it's been, ends at a sleepy, al fresco cafe – considerably less glamorous than the one back at the resort, overlooking the waterfront – where I sit down with my guide and some other islanders for a cool drink and a snack before departing and biding my farewells. Flat whites have not yet made it to Fiyori's cafe society.

Before I know it I'm back on the speedboat and back at the resort, delighted to have made the effort to visit fascinating Fiyori. But let's be realistic here. I'd by lying, of course, if I claimed I wasn't pleased to return to the wickedly mollycoddled embrace of the resort. My  wildly indulgent overwater villa is roughly the size of my house back home let alone those back on Fiyori, with its own plunge pool, even though the villa is surrounded by the sea, the biggest pool of them of all. 

Yet, in my visit to Fiyori, I'm glad to have taken the plunge and proven, in an admittedly small way, that there is much more to the Maldives than just sea, sand and spa questionnaires.

TRIP NOTES

STAY

Doubles at Outrigger Konotta Resort Maldives start from $US600 a night, plus taxes, for a beach villa with private pool and includes daily breakfast for two. See outrigger.com. MyMaldives.com.au offers seven-night packages from $4390 per person for a stay in a overwater villa, including return flights. See mymaldives.com.au

FLY

Singapore Airlines operates daily services to Male, the capital of the Maldives, from Sydney and Melbourne, via Singapore. Outrigger Konotta Resort Maldives, which is in the country's southern extremities, is reached via a one-hour domestic flight followed by a half-hour boat transfer. See singaporeair.com

MORE

traveller.com.au/Maldives

outrigger.com

visitmaldives.com

Anthony Dennis travelled as a guest of Outrigger Konotta Resort Maldives and with the assistance of Singapore Airlines.

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