Inside the Maldives' first resort as the country celebrates 50 years of tourism
Malé Airport is the Grand Central Station of the Indian Ocean.
Holiday reps and drivers with billboards jostle for space in arrivals, vans and buses honk cacophonously in the street, and sleek speedboats and seaplanes peel off in all directions en route to islands near and further-flung.
Waiting for my transfer outside a Burger King, it hardly feels like I’ve just flown 11 hours across the world.
It’s a far cry from my last visit here 44 years ago, just a few years after Kurumba opened as the very first Maldives resort in 1972.
Established by George Corbin, an Italian tour operator on the lookout for a true Robinson Crusoe experience for his clients, Kurumba kicked off tourism in what is now one of the world’s most desirable destinations – 1.3 million visitors came here in 2021 despite pandemic restrictions.
Back then, there was nothing in these fisherman-inhabited islands: no main airport, no telephones, no banks.
Corbin partnered with Maldivians to build 30 basic rooms on Vihamanaafushi, then an uninhabited island, and named the resort Kurumba after the local word for coconut.
In 1978, my family had been on holidays to Mauritius, the Seychelles and Sri Lanka, and our travel agent recommended this unknown destination as an alternative.
Aged ten and six, my brother and I wondered where on earth we’d washed up. The tropical fish were pretty but accommodation was in the rudimentary wooden shacks along the sugar-sand beach.
A single restaurant served basic meals and for entertainment there was a ping-pong table. The other guests, naked German sunbathers, eyed us with disdain.
Now, alighting at Kurumba’s jetty, I’m unsurprised to find the resort has changed beyond all recognition. And this, of course, goes for the whole of the Maldives.
Today, there are nearly 200 resorts across 26 atolls, and artificial islands are even being built to house new ones.
And what resorts these are, with underwater restaurants, overwater spas and even stargazing observatories and (synthetic) ice rinks.
Kurumba is not the sole preserve of millionaires, although their superyachts are visible from its palm-fringed beaches.
It caters to couples and families with private-pool and beachfront villas and a mix of water sports, boat trips, spa treatments and global dining. It’s an easy choice, only ten minutes from Malé by speedboat.
Further out (about 90 minutes by speedboat or 20 by seaplane), its sister resort, Kuramathi – opened in the 1970s – has a more castaway quality, a wild-feeling jungle interior and a spectacular sandbank where I stand and watch the sun set as a full moon rises behind me (rooms £200pn).
This was also the first resort to introduce overwater villas to the Maldives.
Swimming directly out into the ocean from mine, as manta rays and harmless reef sharks flit past, is the stuff of dreams.
Watching the superyachts glinting in the sunlight I can’t help wonder whether the Maldives is a victim of its success.
Though some of its resorts are taking sustainability seriously, this is a country that could be 80% uninhabitable by 2050 at the current rate of global warming. Resorts and newly constructed islands will create plenty of jobs but also carbon dioxide.
If there’s an alternative future, surely it’s reached by looping back to that original Maldives I glimpsed four decades ago.
Islands such as Rasdhoo – from the mosque of which the call to prayer floats across to Kuramathi five times daily – can be visited by boat trips from some resorts for an insight into daily life there.
You can even stay on some of them, including Rasdhoo, for a cheaper Maldives diving or snorkelling holiday.
But the best news of all is that this year sees a commitment to homestays, bringing a low-impact dimension to Maldivian holidays that will get you under the skin of this bewitching destination by directly supporting the locals in whose homes you stay.
Kuoni offers seven nights’ B&B at Kurumba Maldives from £1,949pp, including return flights from London. Visit kuoni.co.uk for details.
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