Tropical island life suits Andrew Neil fine – as long as there’s 24-hour news
I’ve always wanted to do it but never quite managed. No! Not that. Go wash out your mind with carbolic soap. I’m talking about holidaying in a water villa (a house on stilts over water) in a tropical paradise, waking a decent interval after the sun has risen, rolling out of bed and splashing into a turquoise sea, emerging a few minutes later to a healthy breakfast on a terrace with a sea view under a clear blue sky.
Well, I’ve finally done it. In Baros, a postage stamp of an island in the Maldives. And the reality was even better than the dream. I appreciate I come from Paisley and so am easily impressed by any location that isn’t consistently wet, grey and dangerous on a Friday night (actually most nights). But this is as close as you will come to paradise on earth, other than Lord’s on a warm summer’s day.
Almost 1,200 islands make up the Maldives, shaped like one of those garlands of flowers they stick annoyingly over your head when you check into an Indian hotel. They are the tops of a sunken mountain range in the Indian Ocean, mostly comprised only of tropical trees rimmed by white sand and clean, warm coral sea. Those who claim to be in the know say Baros is nothing out of the ordinary as Maldivian islands go — that Reethi Ra is far more fashionable, Soneva Fushi more eco-compliant. Truth to tell, they all look pretty much alike from a distance. But I will stay faithful to Baros, my first and only Maldives love.
We (the Swedish Engineer and I) flew to Male, the capital of the Maldives, via Dubai on Emirates. You can fly direct from London on British Airways but Emirates is cheaper, especially if you’re flying at the front of the plane. The Swedish Engineer determined that the saving was worth a short Dubai stopover (there must be some Scottish blood in her).
You don’t want to hang around in Male, which has nothing to recommend it. But Baros is only 20 minutes away by boat, so within an hour of coming off the plane we were being greeted on the quayside of our chosen island with cold towels and cold drinks (no garlands, thankfully) before strolling to our water villa.
This was one of many on an oval pier jutting out over the sea. The pictures make it look as if they’re all jammed against each other, which had the Swedish Engineer worried (she likes her peace and quiet, probably a reaction to all the metal-bashing she endures). But the complex is so cleverly designed that you can’t even see your neighbours from your sun terrace and they can’t see you — your only view is the sea and the horizon, with the odd island in the distance. The only time we spoke to a neighbour was when I locked us out and had to ask to go through their water villa, jump in the sea, swim to our place and enter up the steps of the terrace.
The villas are comfortable rather than needlessly luxurious, with soaring ceilings over large beds, secluded terraces with sunbeds and a dining table — and the clear sea beneath. More important, for somebody who doesn’t like to be out of touch even in paradise, there’s Wi-Fi and TVs with BBC World, CNN and Sky News. You can stay abreast of the news while watching a bewildering array of sea life swim past beneath you, including sharks.
Yes, sharks. Small, but definitely sharks. Lots of them. Where we are swimming. This rather alarmed me but then all I know about sharks comes from Jaws. The Swedish Engineer explained that they were harmless. Indeed, we learned that in 30 years only one visitor had been attacked; a British man tried to feed them and lost a chunk of his hand.
It has to be said that there’s not a lot to do on Baros except sleep, swim, sun, snorkel, eat and drink. There isn’t really room on the island for anything else and, anyway, it’s pretty easy to while away a week busy doing nothing, especially with a supply of books and the ability to read the papers on the iPad. If you’re on the pull, a hen party gaggle, a gang of rowdy chavs or a group of braying snotty bottys, then Baros is not for you — which means it’s just grand for the rest of us.
The snorkelling is spectacular. The coral drops dramatically to the dark depths of the ocean and there are tropical fish so beautiful and unusual that you forget about the harmless sharks. One day we swam for ages along the edge of the coral with a huge turtle for company. We parted when an enormous sting-ray decided to tag along.
Next day the Swedish Engineer had the bright idea of swimming round the island. Fine for her — she was once a competitive swimmer. I get nervous if the bath is too deep. But we did it in just over an hour (we’re not talking the Isle of Wight here) in snorkelling gear, mesmerised by the sea life beneath us.
Baros boasts two excellent restaurants, the informal Lime and the only marginally less informal Lighthouse. Neither require dressing up and you dine on fresh fish in the open air at the water’s edge, the sharks circling in the light below (yes, you’re never far from a shark in Baros). The wine (and water) is pricey but since there’s nothing else on which to spend your money, bar an overpriced and understocked boutique, it’s not an expensive place once you get there. We enjoyed several romantic dinners à deux on our suite terrace. Well, it was easier to keep up with Sky News that way. We did escape the news one night, however, to a dining experience (as they say in the brochures) that even an old cynic like me will never forget. Late in the afternoon a fishing boat took us out to the sea. We arrived 30 minutes later on a sliver of a sand bar, no more than 100 feet long and 50 feet wide, in the middle of nowhere. We disembarked to deck chairs and a bottle of champagne just as the sun was going down. Then, in the middle of the ocean, as darkness descended, we dined alone and superbly on our own island, out of sight of the rest of the world. As the stars grew piercing bright, little crabs came out for an evening stroll in the moonlight. I don’t want to get carried away here but it was the most spectacular dinner of my life.
Don’t get the idea that we’re unfriendly (the Swedish Engineer will chat to anybody, even me) but we barely spoke to a soul throughout our stay, bar Jonathan Blitz, the resort’s attentive general manager, and his ever-smiling staff, who live to make your stay a joy.
The lack of mingling is another reason to adore Baros. The island is small but folk keep themselves to themselves, except for the odd nod and good night or good morning. There’s a beautiful bar under cover of enormous palm trees but it was usually deserted. There was no nightlife as such though the same mediocre band that seems to haunt every swish resort played a couple of nights. Nobody missed it on the nights it didn’t perform.
The weather is not entirely reliable: it rained for two of the six days we were there. But there’s a library, a spa and a gym — frankly, this place is paradise even when it’s raining.
The more ecologically aware among you might already be thinking of rushing to enjoy the Maldives before they disappear altogether. There have been warnings that as global warming brings rising sea levels, the Maldives will be among the first casualties. The Maldivian president even held a cabinet meeting on the sea bed in 2009 (his ministers were first given lessons in scuba diving) to highlight his country’s plight.
This stunt was carried uncritically by the world’s media, which always prefers a good picture to checking the facts. But I have done the work for you, dear reader. The world’s leading expert on sea levels is a Swedish professor (not the Engineer) called Niels-Axel Mörner, who has made a study of the Maldives and concluded that ‘sea levels have declined more than 20 centimetres in the last 35 ye
ars and the archipelago will survive the next 100 as well’. Rather less scientific evidence was presented to me by a local who pointed to a tree on the beach and said it was as far away from the water’s edge as it had been 30 years ago.
So probably no need to rush (though why delay paradise?). The islands don’t look like they’re going to disappear any time soon. On the other hand, with the highest part of the whole archipelago only seven feet above sea level, you wouldn’t want to be there when it’s hit by a tsunami…
Andrew and the Swedish Engineer paid their own way on Emirates but stayed on Baros as guests of the resort. See www.baros.com.