The resort islands of the Maldives are generally perceived as beautiful but boring honeymoon havens that can be explored in the time it takes to mix a cocktail. Hence the idea of cycling in the Maldives sounds strange; a travel oxymoron like mountaineering in Holland, or a pub crawl in Mecca or a culture tour in Auckland. (just kidding Kiwis) In a picture perfect setting where physical exercise normally extends as far as a stroll to the spa the idea of pedal pushing in all that sugar soft sand seems absurd. Yet one of the most thrilling travel experiences I have ever had was cycling on a Maldivian island.
I was on the resort of Soneva Fushi peddling back with my wife from an ocean side, open air screening of Hitchcock’s black and white masterpiece,” The Lady Vanishes.” Guided by the light of the vast Milky Way and wafted on by the warm Indian Ocean breeze we whizzed though the tropical forest on our sturdy bikes. It was an exotic, heady ride and ever since I have been harbouring a quiet ambition to explore the special places in the Maldives where it is possible to cycle even further than that magical quarter mile.
I was encouraged earlier this year when the dynamic new president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed announced that his police force had bought five hundred bicycles to patrol the capital Male and other islands. Besides highlighting the president’s target of making the Maldives carbon neutral by 2020 - it also suggested that there must be plenty of places for the police officers to actually cycle.
This, combined with the news that a newly opened Shangri La resort in the south of the country is offering bike excursions to nearby islands convinced me it was time to act. I bought a folding bicycle (Giant Halfway), found a safe way to pack it for the plane (lots of foam and gaffer tape) and headed for the Indian Ocean.
Hallelujah! I am unfolded and cycling to breakfast on Addu Atoll, the most southerly reef that hangs like a pendant on the long chain of the coral islands that make up the Maldives. It’s my first morning and I am following a housekeeper who is wearing turquoise pantaloons and riding a bright red tricycle. Focusing on his cargo of towels I cross the narrow teak pier linking the overwater villas with the main Villingili resort and roll into the cool of the forest. Here the crushed coral cycle path is striped with the shadow of coconut trees, spice scents hangs in the air and huge fruit bats flap by overhead. I glide around a corner as shafts of equatorial sunshine break through the canopy and a young woman in couture swimwear overtakes me on her beach cruiser. When an Italian family greet me with cheerful dings on their cycle bells I begin to wonder if I have died and woken up in bicycle heaven.
Villingili prides itself on being bike friendly and most guests abandon the motorised buggies in favour of the solid Indian bikes that are provided at all the villas. Some haven’t cycled for decades and relish the return to the saddle whilst others are keen but lack the confidence or balance. Consequently there has been an unexpected demand for the aforementioned red tricycles - a case of “Two wheels good, four wheels bad. Three wheels best.”
Later in the day, accompanied by Leslie, the French resort guide I explore the 8kms of manicured cycle paths that run around the spatula shaped island. Hot, green and lush the resort’s look is designer tropics - beautifully landscaped and neatly clipped. It’s all tightly managed right down to the turtle’s nesting area where naturally the young hornbills have the right of way.
As we tackle the gentle incline leading to ‘Chi ‘ the Asian style spa complex on the ocean side of the island I notice that Leslie is slightly out of breath. We stop at the site of an old 2nd world war gun emplacement and she tells me that we have ridden to the highest point in the whole of the Republic of the Maldives. At an altitude of only 2.4metres I was not about to unfurl a flag and Leslie should certainly cut down on the Gauloises but one should mark these events. It isn’t everyday that you get to the highest summit of the lowest country on the planet.
We break for mint tea rather than oxygen in the ayurvedic spa and Leslie books me in for a recuperative legs and derriere massage for the following evening. She is concerned that the next day I will be tackling a serious cycle ride OUTSIDE the confines of the resort. Suddenly the idea of a benign bike ride around a coconut-fringed bay in the flattest country in the world began to feel like a proper adventure.
“Great cycling conditions today Mr. Morris. The weather is perfect” explains Mohamed Inaan, my bike buddy for the day. I look up at an overcast grey sky and catch the shape of tropical storm clouds on the horizon. Inaan smiles, he was born on Addu and knows the danger of too much equatorial sun “Yes hopefully we’ll even get a few downpours” I reply warming to the inverse logic of Maldivian weather chat.
As we cross the large lagoon on the staff dhoni Inaan draws me a map of the western side of the Addu Atoll. He estimates that on our round trip across the strip of five small islands, joined by causeways we will cover around 35km. I am impressed. Although the Republic of the Maldives is made up of over a thousand islands they have only 88 kms of paved road. At a rough calculation it meant we will cycle a fifth of the nation’s entire road network before lunchtime.
First up was the island stretch of Feydhoo, where we land alongside a ragged collection of flatbed dhonis and old cargo boats that resemble floating theatre sets. Nearby men play chess under the shade of a breadfruit tree and fishermen stack up tuna like silver logs on the side of the coast road. I pass up the chance to buy the freshest, cheapest and probably largest fish I have ever been offered on the grounds that I am cycling.- although later in the day I spot a boy with two huge yellowfins dangling from his handlebars.- Instead I plump for a freshly lopped coconut from a roadside vendor. He hands me my change, coins inscribed with Divehi script and decorated with seashells. It feels strangely liberating to be using Maldivian currency and I realise that for the first time ever that I am actually using cash rather than signing a hotel chitty.
Following the reef road we head to Gan, the site of a brand spanking new international airport that seems to have everything it needs for the 21st century besides international passengers. In direct contrast, next door is a former Royal Air Force base that was a used as strategic staging post up until 1976. This military curio that at its peak employed 1200 men now has the intriguing atmosphere of an abandoned film set. There is an art deco cinema, a war memorial, an overgrown golf course and the former officer’s mess that been turned to a hotel. The Equator Village as it is called looks and feels like 1960’s holiday camp that’s been taken over by triffids and is best known as a budget base for divers who come for the pristine coral reef close by.
If you do stay (or are just cycling by) I suggest you cheer yourself up by requesting the well worn DVD they keep at the hotel’s front desk. ‘The Lonely Men of Coral Command’ is an Anglian TV documentary made about Gan in the 1960’s. In an amusing juxtaposition a Whicker-esque narrator describes the hellish life of loneliness, toil and hardship while Technicolor footage of servicemen smoking pipes and darning socks in a tropical paradise tell a very different story.
Next up is the surprise of a long straight five kilometres of road linking Maradhoo island with the main administrative centre of Hithadhoo. In a country with a distinct shortage of tarmac this is the only place where the young Lewis Hamiltons of the Maldives can finally let rip. Inaan complains that not all of them can cope and accidents are now so regular that although there are only one hundred cars on the whole of Addu local chiefs are considering the dramatic step of introducing a traffic light.
After an aromatic lunch of curried tuna and steamed rice at the Southern Park café on the outskirts of Hithadhoo we pay the modest bill (£5), chew our Maldivian mouthwash of areca nuts wrapped in betel leaves, spit it out and heade back. This time we are on the inland roads that link the sheltered villages of the islands. The riding is a little tougher on the white crushed coral surface but we are rewarded with a more intimate glimpse of everyday life. Along the way we chat with children outside single storey coral houses framed by musty walls and shop at small neon lit stores that bizarrely sell tins of imported tuna along with lots of plastic beakers.
There are many more women about than in the mostly male populated boatyards, fishing boats and cafes of the coastal road. The majority wear headscarves although we do passé two women wearing full veils and floor length black burqas. They look like ghosts in negative and appear incongruous set against the election posters calling for progressive change. Inaan explains that recently there had been an increase in traditional Islamic practices on the islands, perhaps as a reaction to the new political freedom in Male.
Riding through Maradhoo –Feydhoo, the prettiest of the island villages with its neat collections of potted plants and banana trees Inaan surprises me by inviting me in for mint tea at his family’s house. His mum and sister are delighted to see him and as we chat I could see for myself the benefits of the arrival of the new resort in the remote atoll. Most Maldivian hotel workers are based hundreds of miles from home and can only visit their family and friends once or twice a year. Sometimes Inaan even cycles to work and could still be back home in time for a game of football with his nephews and a curry with his parents.
The tropical storm clouds have been edged out by a perfectly timed clear blue sky by the time we chug back across the lagoon to Villingili. Sharing a bottle of water with my bike buddy it is satisfying to survey the horizon and trace the crescent of atoll that we had cycled. It is also comforting to know that French Leslie had pre booked that treatment at Chi. Addu may be one of the flattest rides in the world but after 35km in my new saddle I feel I have earned my Indian Ocean massage.
For further information, please contact Elegant Resorts Reservations on 01244 897515 or visit our website www.elegantresorts.co.uk
Shangri-La's Villingili Resort offers the most cycling freedom with 8km of crushed coral cycle paths and access to the 17km stretch of tarmac from Gan www.shangri-la.com
Sun Island land – A large resort with over 300 rooms that offers cycling as one of its many recreational activities www.sunislandresort.com
Island Hideaway – An elegant resort on the island of Dhonakulhi in the Northern Maldives that has a marina as well as cycling facilities. www.island-hideaway.com/
Soneva Fushi – A first class resort that offers the opportunity to cycle barefoot around its well designed tropical island sanctuary. www.sixsenses.com/soneva-fushi
The Equator village – Unusual hotel close to the old RAF base in Gan with direct access to Western Addu atoll island. www.equatorvillage.com
For independent information on Maldivian resorts visit Adrian Neville’s well-researched guide www.sevenholidays.com
If you want to cycle independently in the Maldives the capital Male has the majority of paved roads and the highest concentration of places of interest to visit. Unlike most of the resort islands it is possible to stay at guesthouses in the capital and take local ferries to explore nearby islands.
Island Aviation (Maldivian) fly domestic flights to four atoll airports from their hub in Male. They are happy to carry folding bicycles weighing up to 20kg. www.maldivian.aero
The best option for cycling after Addu is Hadhdhunmathee Atoll (also known as Laamu Atoll) in the south. It has roughly the same amount of paved roads as Addu Atoll and rather confusingly its main island is also called Gan. Sights include the ruins of an ancient Buddhist stupor.
The Maldivian government is developing schemes to encourage more independent travel around the Atolls that will include private hotels, guesthouses and ferry routes. Check www.visitmaldives.com for news.