The moment I leap into the mint-blue Maldivian ocean I spy him beneath me, gliding through the depths with lazy sweeps of a tail the size of a tram. I suck in some oxygen, adjust my mask, and dive down to join the endangered whale shark, so completely unlike anything I've ever seen, as he hoovers up his breakfast of krill with a wide-mouthed grin.
There is something deeply moving – awesome in the word's true sense – about a close encounter with the biggest fish on the planet. Adding to his charm is a dusting of white freckles and an utterly harmless – unless you happen to be plankton – nature. "The biggest smile in the ocean," is how Tina, the resident marine biologist at Lux Resort South Ari Atoll, describes the whale shark when feeding. She's on first name terms with this one – a teenager called Stephen, identified by his injury marks.
As I surface into a ruck of snorkels and fins, squeals and shouts, a handful of wooden dhonis – converted Maldivian fishing boats – move in. There must be 20 spectators in the water already, and a kind of frenzy has taken hold. The blue-grey shadow of another whale shark is sighted in the depths, and the pack darts off like paparazzi in pursuit of a royal.
Later, over coffee in the resort lobby, Tina admits this is her first whale shark sighting in 10 days. "We're not always so lucky," she says.
I arrived at Lux a couple of days earlier, a newly renovated 193-villa resort with an accent on casual elegance, multicultural dining and water sports. That first night I keep the doors of my thatched beach villa open and wake frequently to the murmur of the lagoon lapping just beyond my doorstep. From further out in the dense darkness surrounding this coral islet in its sunken atoll comes the soft crush of surf on reef.
I wake at dawn to a vanilla ribbon of beach fringed by lime-green shade trees. The beach is deserted but for two staff raking the sand strewn with branches of coral. The sky is upholstered in grey satin and the morning breeze carries the scent of rain. Before me the ocean fans out in bands of aquamarine and ink-blue above a seabed streaked with reef. At the water's edge a baby lemon shark doodles around.
I'm at breakfast early at an overwater street-food style pavilion named East Market. The interior is a constellation of open kitchens – dim sum, teppanyaki, noodles, fresh fruit, grills and pastries – bordered with wicker baskets brimming with chillies and spices. Before tucking into a bowl of pungent congee, I'm drawn to a small group gathered at the edge of the pier.
Below us lingers a manta ray the size of a bath towel and a consort of two chunky reef fish, gorgeously coloured. As the ray flaps off, one of the fish clings to it, as if hitching a ride or continuing a conversation it had no wish to abandon. Another well-fed fish orbits around the pier and as it passes it tilts to cast a goggle-eyed gaze towards the breathing world. "We call it lazy fish," the waiter tells me. "Always looking for crumbs." I call it clever fish, for he has divined that crumbs occasionally fall from the sky and they taste better than coral.
The day is spent loafing, grazing, and snorkelling on the edge of a reef – an aquatic mountain range of peaks and valleys and grottos teeming with lolly-coloured marine life. As the sun dips, I join a group of guests at the island's western tip for aperitivo hour. It's a weekly feature at the resort, and rather lovely: a low-key beachside clambake. A gentle westerly breeze from Africa stirs the women's evening dresses, and a saxophonist plays a few jazzy cocktail-hour numbers. Then there's dinner at the resort's Japanese restaurant, Umami, and a dish to live for: smoky, yakitori-style skewers of chicken, salmon and fat scallops wrapped in bacon, with a crisp South African chenin blanc.
I wake to the melodious whir of the resort's seaplane, operated by the romantically named Trans Maldivian airlines, delivering the first guests of the day. On my first night I'd arrived too late at Male, the island capital of the Republic of Maldives, for the crossing by seaplane. The lateness of the hour meant a standard commercial flight to the regional airport of Maamigili and a speedboat to Lux. But there's an upside. When viewed from the night sky the many island resorts with their illuminated limbs of overwater villas evoke space stations in the void.
The nation's name means "garland of islands", 1190 of them scattered in a vast Indian Ocean archipelago of 26 coral atolls. It has little to show for a deep history overlain by Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim conquests, and by waves of Indian, Persian and Portuguese traders. What it does possess in abundance is a rare combination of elements – tropical warmth, white sand, pristine reefs, teeming marine life, and a great unimpeded vault of sky – coveted by those who live with too much and crave the blessings of spare beauty. Faced with these vast Maldivian panoramas of aquatic purity, the soul begins to lighten.
"Breathe in joy and peace," says Russian yoga instructor Anna when I join her for a sunset meditation lesson. "Breathe out all your frustrations and anxieties." A red-gold sun sinks slowly, silhouetting two slim figures hunting in the shallows for bivalves or bait. And as the sunset liquefies into a ridge of cloud, it casts a path of beaten brass across the dimpled ocean.
Minutes later a storm strikes and I sprint back to my bungalow through a curtain of tropical rain. I arrive drenched, exhausted, and, somehow, elated.
"Honeymoon central" is how a friend experienced in this part of the world describes the 100 or so island resorts of the Maldives. That's not entirely true of Lux South Ari Atoll. There are plenty of couples, straight and gay, as well as families, large groups, and a few singles. I catch the sounds of Chinese, Japanese, English in its many variants, German, French, Italian, Russian, and Maltese. There are enough activities on the island to allow genial intermingling of all these groups and cultures, and over the next few days I try my hand at jet skiing, sunset fishing, fly boarding; given a bit more time I would have taken scuba diving lessons. With seven restaurants and a good cafe-bakery serving Melbourne quality coffee, there's always an excuse to pull up a chair at a table looking out to a colour chart of blues.
I spend much of my time immersed, stretched like a starfish in the lagoon, gazing up at the sky. The water is refreshingly cool in the morning; by late afternoon it's as warm as a bathtub. It is then, with the ferocity gone from the sun, that guests can be seen reclining half-submerged in the shallows, reading books in the water, aqua-socialising in groups, or canoodling. It's as if human evolution has reversed and the species is returning to the primordial brine.
At two kilometres long and only a few hundred metres wide, the island is large enough to offer freedom and variety. Each day four bottles bearing messages are placed around the resort entitling the finder to a small gift: a facial, a bottle of good wine, a linen shirt or sarong, a jet-ski ride. A small, light-filled and airconditioned Wanderlust library offers more than 120 travel books. A squat banyan "wish tree" is garlanded with the hopes of hundreds of guests inked on strips of weatherproof vermillion cloth. I step up to the tree to read. Many are in Chinese, Arabic, Russian: inscrutable to me. One sweet note, in English, is from a man wishing only for happiness with his wife, and another, in French, simply asks that the sun will rise the next day.
A French chap in his mid-50s whom I meet over lunch tells me he loves the "vibe" of Lux South Ari Atoll after visiting 10 other islets in the archipelago. "On the last island, small and very exclusive, I felt like I was in prison," he says. "And the food here," he gestures at his plate of grilled reef fish on a bed of cous cous and broccolini, "is superb."
One exceptional night I join a small chef's table, featuring the work of chefs from different nationalities and the delights of matching champagne. A flavour-bomb stand-out is seared foie gras with figs, lavender honey, Sri Lankan black pepper and brioche, with a glass of Krug grand cuvee.
On my last day at Lux I farewell the staff and step onto the speedboat that will take me one small step towards home, but not before penning a wish for Stephen, the whale shark, as my offering to the wish tree: "May many years await you full of peace, calm and plentiful krill."
Singapore Airlines flies daily to Male via Singapore from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. Local airline FLYME has return flights from Male to Maamigili airport plus connecting 10- minute speedboat transfer to Lux South Ari Atoll. The seaplane between Male and Lux operates between 6am and 4pm for $600 return.
Lux Resort South Ari Atoll has 193 pavilions and villas over the water or on the beach ranging in peak season (December-April) from $870 to $2900 a night.
Excursions such as swimming with whale sharks, morning fishing, sunset cruises and full-day excursions are available in addition to water sports such as hoverboarding, jet skiing and jet surf boarding. An over-water spa offers beauty treatments and massage, while a zen wellness pavilion is a hub for yoga, meditation, pilates, tai chi and qigong.
There are eight restaurants, including Umami offering sushi kitchen, teppanyaki and robata counters alongside a large selection of sakes and Japanese whiskies.
Luke Slattery travelled courtesy of Lux South Ari Atoll.
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