These days, all we want to do is jump on a plane and escape to some magical land far, far away from these four walls that have caged us in for the better part of a year. Our mental health needs a respite from the havoc that has been wreaked within the confines of our minds. COVID-19 has grounded the world and obliterated any sense of a normal work/life balance by forcing us indoors, isolated, and with a constant fear of the unknown that pervades every thought we think.
If you’ve found yourself dreaming of vacations far from your local city, and going through old photos of holidays from what feels like a lifetime ago, then you’re not alone. If you’re wondering where you can go for a safe, much-need break from the never-ending cycle of work-home-work-home-work-home, the answer, my friends, is the Maldives.
A quick four hour flight from Dubai will introduce you to the pristine beaches and crystal blue waters of the Maldives. Once we landed in Male, we were immediately met with warm, tropical air as we stepped off the plane. The pleasant weather welcome melted the anxiety that comes with flying surrounded by people we don’t know – “Do they have the coronavirus?!” Probably not, as everyone is required to submit a negative PCR test taken within 96 hours before being permitted to board the plane.
Once we had our luggage, we were whisked away from the bustling airport onto a speedboat that took us to our first island destination in no more than 30 minutes. The boat ride itself to the island resort is delicious. It speeds across the Indian Ocean, and as Male gets further and further away, our stress disappeared into the blue as well. With the wind blowing in our face and the salty, sea air invigorating our senses as we raced across the water, we took a moment to enjoy the ride.
Upon reaching the Grand Park Kodhipparu, we were greeted with smiling faces as sunny as the weather and a lively rhythm on the Maldivian drums. We were immediately taken through the ‘Doors to Paradise’ and into the open air bar just next to the pool for a welcome drink and a moment to soak up the view, while the well-trained staff took care of our check-in. Turns out, paradise is even more beautiful than we imagined.
The Grand Park is one of the few resorts who require proof of a negative PCR test before entering the resort, and all social distance and mask protocol is followed. The reason is practical. Every single staff member has been living on the island since COVID hit. Travel for locals from island to island is not allowed, and if one were to travel to Male (the main island), they would have to undergo a PCR test before returning and quarantine for 10 days whether the result was negative or positive. The result of such strict measures means that when you step onto the island, you’ve literally stepped into a COVID-free sanctuary, and they want to keep it that way. It ensures the safety of their guests and their staff, and it also means you have a worry-free holiday to enjoy.
We didn’t realize how often our thoughts turned to the pandemic until our host, Raffaele Solferino GM of Grand Park told us we were no longer allowed to speak about the virus because it was time to relax and enjoy ourselves.
Turning off and relaxing turned out to be easier than we thought. Endless stretches of beach overlooking the most vibrant colors imaginable didn’t hurt. Despite the fact that the Grand Park was at 75% capacity, it still felt like we were the only people on the island. Our over-water villa looked out over the sea without one hut or boat or island in sight and was devoid of anyone or anything that the privacy and exclusivity of such a gem was appreciated by leaving our curtains – and doors – open day and night.
Grand Park Khodipparu was the ideal place to shed all the layers of stress, worry, and business that nips at our heels every day. A relaxing massage in the award-winning luxury spa took years of worry off our shoulders, a jaunt on a paddle board as reef sharks swam underneath, or a relaxing turn on the lone hammock swing as it idly rocks to the beat of the waves all had their say in bringing us into full holiday mode. The food was also incredible. From the idyllic dinner on the beach under a canopy while our toes wiggled in the sand, to the exciting steaks served up at Firedoor with chance encounters with sharks as they were drawn to the evening lights.
It is truly amazing how much peace you can find by simply sitting and staring at the ocean. It was that balm for our soul we hadn’t realized we needed. Whether we were soaking in the private pool staring at the ocean, lounging on the over-water hammock reading a book, or rinsing off in the outdoor shower after a cheeky, little snorkel off the back of our villa, the serenity and tranquility that transformed us from the inside out was visible by the time we had to say goodbye.
After a few days of heavenly bliss, we took Solferino’s “sexy boat” to our next destination: The Sheraton Maldives Full Moon Resort and Spa. The Sheraton Maldives is perhaps a 15 minute boat ride from Male, but with a few strategic trees and bridges, the view of Male is masked meaning anywhere you go on the island is still a slice unparalleled beauty.
Now that we were well and truly relaxed and our minds had stilled to a gentle purr, the Sheraton had a host of vacation activities that we were ready to enjoy. There were activities lined up that we could drop in – or not – at every hour of the day. Activities would range from yoga or zumba to palm weaving. We tried weaving palm fronds together like local palm-weaver, Hakim, but somehow, or pithy little crowns couldn’t compare with the magnificent headdresses that he could conjure in less than five minutes.
A snorkeling trip was one of the highlights of the entire trip. We swam along the coral reef and spotted fish of every color and size as well as so many sharks we started to lose count. With resident marine biologists with us, we were able to spot new species of marine life that we never even knew existed until we put our heads under water and observed. Another incredible adventure was taking a dolphin cruise.
We were informed that there was only one or two days a year where they wouldn’t spot dolphins, and thankfully, that was not one of those days. We had the pleasure and joy to witness a whole extended family of dolphins swimming and playing alongside our boat, and even jumping up into the air and showing their gymnastic tricks out of water, much to the delight of everyone on the boat.
The food at The Sheraton proved just as delicious at the Grand Park, and each meal felt like a completely different experience. An intimate meal prepared to perfection by Chef Riccardo on the deck overlooking the water, a gourmet lunch served on tables sitting in the lagoon, so our feet were having as much fun as our bellies, and a picnic lunch on a private island where we just lounged on mats in the sand, read books, listened to music, and enjoyed every moment.
Maldivian Night at the resort was also a winner. As there is no travel for locals between islands during this COVID situation, they don’t have the ability to bring in entertainment for their guests. However, that didn’t stop these ingenious staff members. Ever single member of the staff who was Maldivian spent time practicing throughout the week and put on a performance of music, drums, singing, dancing, and yes, Hakim was frantically weaving fronds, all complimented with a traditional Maldivian buffet. Perhaps the entertainment was not as polished as others, but it was one of the best nights because their enthusiasm and pride for their country was contagious and we found ourselves unable to stop smiling or tapping our feet to the rhythms.
The Sheraton is committed to the conservation of marine life and regrowing coral in their efforts for a more ecologically friendly resort. We had the enormous privilege of adopting some coral and taking part in a special experience where we were given the opportunity to plant said coral on a structure to be cared for by the staff of Reef Escapes marine biologists who live on the property. From time to time, we check back on “Jeffrey” just to make sure he’s growing alright. We felt as if we got to leave a little bit of good behind and that we already have a friend waiting for us when we return, which, yes, we will be returning.