Wading into the azure water, I couldn’t help smiling. I was surrounded by nothing but the Indian Ocean. Behind me was an arch of golden sand on what looked like a deserted island and not another soul in sight – if you didn’t count the turtle now swimming next to me, or the parrotfish and angelfish darting between my legs.
Pulling on my snorkel, I sank, face down, into the warm water, holding out my hand for the fish to nibble on. That’s when I saw it. A pair of small black eyes looked directly into mine, making fear pulse through me. I froze and held my breath; the few seconds it took for it to swim past me felt like a lifetime. Standing up, I gasped for air, panicking and coughing salty water, and realised I’d just had my first encounter with a blacktip shark. OK, it was a baby one, but it was still terrifying.
“Help, Mike, help,” I yelled, spluttering, desperate to see my watersport instructor. But he was nowhere to be seen. I tried to block out the Jaws music playing in my head as I scanned the ocean, searching for a telltale fin.
I’d come to Randheli Island, in Noonu Atoll, in the Maldives just the day before. I’d worried I’d be bored as I wasn’t on honeymoon or having a romantic holiday. I’d come on a girls’ getaway with my close friend Claire, and I didn’t exactly plan on becoming shark bait. Now, alone in the middle of the Indian Ocean with the shark swimming somewhere below me, I was terrified. I screamed once again and fortunately Mike appeared. Still crouching and gasping for air, I managed to shout: “Shark.”
He didn’t call for backup or scream for everyone to get off the island. Mike simply laughed out loud. “Sharks here are harmless,” he said. “They’re more scared of humans than we are of them.” He told me blacktip sharks can grow to 1.6m and like shallow water, but aren’t dangerous. “There are no great white sharks in the Maldives,” he said, grinning, and I relaxed, suddenly feeling foolish.
Luckily it was time to hop into a catamaran and head back to my new home, Cheval Blanc, a 45-minute ride away. I emerged the other end, looking more like Tom Hanks from Castaway than Ursula Andress from Dr No. My hair was soaked and plastered to my head and I was more than ready for some pampering. Luckily, the Cheval Blanc is the ultimate in luxury, where the spa has a thatched roof and massages especially conceived for it. The five-star resort opened its doors in November 2013, and was home to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge – Prince William and Kate – without baby George for a few days last year. They were no doubt looking for privacy and that’s in abundance here, with just 45 spacious villas on the 169km island.
There are three types of villas here – garden, water and island, which was our home for three days. Hidden by lush vegetation and surrounded by what I can only describe as a jungle, our villa had the wow factor, especially when our major-domo – butler – Thilak showed us around. Modern, sleek and uber-stylish, I had to bite back a gasp, especially when I ventured into the bedroom with its walk-in dressing room, and an indoor and outdoor bathroom housing the biggest tub I’ve ever seen.
Hanging above the bathtub was an amazing piece of art. Couronne was designed by French-born artist Vincent Beaurin and he specifically created each work of art differently for each villa. Thilak explained that it was designed to inspire and soothe guests – and it was definitely doing that for me. “I can’t wait to soak in the bath and look at that later,” I thought.
As Thilak opened up the sliding doors to our villa all I could see were beautiful palm trees that shadowed our own private infinity pool. And ahead of that was the ocean, and our private beach. “I really am in paradise,” I mumbled, completely forgetting the shark incident earlier.
But there wasn’t time for the water now. I was booked in for a jet-lag treatment – a complimentary massage offered to every guest.
We were taken by buggy to the spa, where the therapist took us into a terrace with the most breathtaking view imaginable – 360 degrees of ocean. I was given a thirst-quenching pomegranate juice and told to relax. I’d been doing that since I’d arrived but as I breathed in the salty water my shoulders began to loosen as my therapist worked on them. After 20 minutes, she gave me a scalp massage, which left me almost asleep, it was so divine. “You’re now tense-free,” she whispered, and a few minutes later I was back at the villa, feeling totally rejuvenated. After a quick shower I slipped into my new maxi dress that I’d bought at The Dubai Mall for the holiday. It looked elegant enough for dinner at the White, a buffet restaurant, for the Maldivian night – the theme and cuisine here changes every night. The menu was freshly caught local fish, but flavours from Kerala and Sri Lanka have become synonymous with Maldivian food and so I chose yellow fin tuna, spiced with chilli and curry leaves – delicious. As we dined, we listened to traditional folk music, boduberu, and watched 15 dancers singing and banging drums.
I found myself happily clapping along as the rhythm picked up. They even got some of the guests to dance, while I tried to hide. I love music, but didn’t know the steps to their energetic dances.
The next morning we were up bright and early to have a swim in our private pool as Thilak served us a breakfast of fresh fruit and omelette outside. Afterwards I lay floating and looking up at the clear sky, thinking how lucky I was. The day, like me, just floated by. A lazy morning became a lazy afternoon – well they did tell us when we checked in that while you’re at Cheval Blanc it’s best if you let ‘Maldives time’ take over. Finally, I forced myself to get up and get ready – that evening we were going for a sunset cruise to spot wild dolphins.
All the way out into the ocean I sat on the top deck, scanning the horizon, and finally after an hour there they were – a pod of bottlenose dolphins. They were wild, but so friendly they came right up to the boat. It was magical seeing them swimming and playing, even chasing us. I ran to grab my camera to capture them on film but when I turned back, they were gone. “That was amazing,” I said, shrugging – I didn’t need a picture to remember them. But just as I thought the show was over a family of spinner dolphins appeared and began performing acrobatic leaps, diving in and out of the water right in front of me.
I managed to get a snap of that!
Back on the island, we went for dinner at Diptyque restaurant with Renato Chizzol, the general manager. The restaurant serves Japanese cuisine alongside East-Asian, and luckily Renato ordered for us as I couldn’t choose, the menu was so vast. We watched the chefs prepare our sushi in the open kitchen then dived in – it was so fresh it melted in my mouth. “The fish has been caught this afternoon,” Renato explained. Then he asked if I liked wasabi. I nodded as I usually put it on my sushi. “How about drinking it?” he asked.
The waiter brought over a green mocktail in a Martini glass. I felt like I was about to do a bush tucker trial, it looked so weird. “Bottoms up,” I squirmed. As it hit the back of my throat I was expecting it to burn, but the drink was sweet with only a slight wasabi kick. “Not what you thought it would be?” Renato asked. More mocktails followed with courses of fish and sweet desserts – all under the stars, with just the sound of the ocean as a backdrop. “The perfect evening,” I smiled.
The next morning we were up early again to try out the Seabob – a diving scooter for us to play on. We had a quick lesson, learning how to steer it using my body weight, and growing confident enough to go fast. Then I was off skimming across the sea, and, when I really felt I knew what I was doing, diving under the water on it.
I felt like one of those dolphins we’d sought out, hopping in and out of the water as fast as I could. “I’ve so got the hang of this,” I shouted to Claire, who was eating my surf. By lunchtime, my arms were aching and I was ravenous, but I hadn’t had so much fun in ages.
I dined on lobster with fries at the White restaurant. “I’ve worked off enough calories,” I laughed, dipping my fries into the lobster’s deliciously garlic butter sauce.
Then it was time for (another!) massage. I was seated outside the therapy room overlooking the ocean. The beauty therapist soaked my feet in warm water and rose petals and began to wash them, before giving me a foot massage. Next I lay down inside the room, ready for a Sun Ritual to prolong my tan. It began with a Terracotta Sun Scrub, followed by a massage, all the while being lulled by the sound of the ocean.
I floated back to the villa, but just in time to pack. Sadly, it was time to go home. As we said our goodbyes on the deck and hopped on to the seaplane I took a final look at our luxurious, albeit temporary home, trying to take in every sumptuous detail.
“Did you enjoy your stay?” the pilot shouted above the engine noise. I nodded. “Magical,” I said, remembering the dolphins leaping in and out of the waves. I only had one complaint – I’d only been there for three days. Not nearly long enough.
This story first appeared on Friday in January 2015