My mobile phone sprang into life at Dubai

My mobile phone sprang into life at Dubai International Airport with phone calls and texts advising me to come home immediately as my father had been rushed into hospital. Our luggage was removed from the flight to the Maldives and we headed back to London. The following weeks were spent planning the funeral and wake.
I am no stranger to the Maldives; the aqua-marine waters, coral reefs and lagoons, the crunch of the sand underfoot, the blue skies and swaying palm trees were just the tonic I needed. The magic of the Maldivian atolls is found in the barefoot life-style, the beachwear and the blend of casual living in sophisticated surroundings. The resorts help you escape the hustle and bustle of your regular life with all its troubles and ensure you instantly relax and unwind. I was extremely excited this time as Cheval Blanc Randheli’s position in the Indian Ocean allows their guests to explore the larger species of marine life.

I want to see manta rays

“I want to see manta rays” I told the Major (my travel companion) as I was completing our Personal Preferences Form which were confirmed by our Alchemist a few days later, as part of our pre-arrival experience. On arrival to Velana International Airport, the Major and I were pampered with refreshments in Cheval Blanc’s airport lounge whilst the check-in formalities took place prior to boarding the resort’s private seaplane. A fiery red sunset greeted us as we landed in to Randheli’s six islands, followed by an enthusiastic warm welcome by the management team. We were presented with freshly pressed juices and iced towels, the local music brought tears to my eyes, a reminder of the raw emotions of recent events. The tides dictated the time for our booked excursion which was confirmed for 2.30 the following afternoon.

We were whisked off in a buggy

We were whisked off in a buggy to our over-water villa and on completion of the orientation, our Majordome (butler) took our shoe sizes and returned thirty minutes later with our snorkelling kit in net bags. We wet our feet in our private swimming pool to more easily put on our swimming fins, which were a perfect fit. Our anticipation to see the manta rays was increasing.

Maeva, the marine biologist

Maeva, the marine biologist, was waiting at the dive centre the following afternoon. After introductions were made, the resort manager, Laurent, approached and joked “I have just made a telephone call to advise the manta rays you’re coming, so they’ll be waiting for you”. We laughed and in high spirits we boarded the boat and I replied that if we saw less than ten manta rays then Laurent owed us a drink, to which he agreed.

Maeva held up a map

Maeva held up a map that showed the UNESCO bioreserve where the manta rays were to be found, due to the high density of plankton on the atoll. On route to Hanifaru Bay we were invited to cool off over a shallow reef which I believed was a test of our snorkelling and swimming ability. We dived in and admired the striking colours of the fish and caught sight of two turtles foraging for food on the sea bed.

On arrival to Hanifaru Bay

On arrival to Hanifaru Bay, Maeva telephoned the rangers who were flying a drone above us, explaining they used the drone to detect the location of marine life. However, that day manta rays had not been observed. We sat and waited. Twenty minutes rolled by as we waited under the baking sun. Suddenly the phone rang and Maeva excitedly told us a whale shark had been spotted rising from the ocean depths. We pulled on our kit and jumped in the crystal-clear water. Maeva grabbed her camera and swam off at high speed, with us in hot pursuit. Once in position, we waited until a dark shadow slowly became visible from the black void below. As the whale shark gradually surfaced goose bumps covered my body and despite being in water the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. Whilst whale sharks can grow up to twelve metres in length this was a juvenile and although only half that size, it still seemed huge as it swam very close. Fortunately, we were in no danger as whale sharks feed on plankton. News travelled quickly and within fifteen minutes our intimate experience with the whale shark was interrupted by the arrival of other tourists.

We had time to spare

We had time to spare and as there was a lack of manta rays, I asked if we could return to the coral reef in the hope of seeing more turtles. We saw three more turtles taking the day’s total to five. On the return journey to the resort afternoon tea was served in tiffin tins. The sun was getting lower and with the rhythm of the boat, the hum of the engines and the motion of the waves I began to doze off. However, something caught my eye. Then I saw it again. I shouted over the engines to Maeva who told the captain to head towards a pod of spinning dolphins that were about half-a-mile away. We were soon surrounded by a two-hundred strong pod of dolphins, showing off with their jumping and tail-spinning, this was the perfect end to a perfect day.

On return to Randheli

On return to Randheli, our Majordome greeted us with chilled towels and iced water. Knowing we had not seen any manta rays, he told us he had slipped a couple into our pool. Amusingly, on return to our villa, we found two inflatable manta rays floating in our swimming pool. Later that evening, Laurent caught up with us in the bar and was eager to hear about our adventures. Good as his word, the drinks were served with his compliments.
On checking out the following morning, the receptionist presented a departure gift in a white branded box. When I mentioned a departure gift had already been presented at turndown, the receptionist explained the box was not from the hotel but from the rangers at Hanifaru Reserve. The box contained an aerial photograph of the Major and me snorkelling next to the whale shark. It was taken from the drone and the picture was smartly presented in a mirrored frame. I was so touched by the genuine gesture of kindness, I became overwhelmed with emotion. The Maldives is a special place and part of me will always be there, admiring the stars at night, the pristine beaches and the high levels of service from the friendly staff in the resorts. I cannot wait to return.