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“Cue the dolphins,” says David Hooper, a picture of cool with mussed-up hair, washboard-chest and surf board tucked under his arm.
The Englishman is recounting a story on the beach at Six Senses Laamu, a chic island resort punctuated by overwater villas some 260km south of the Maldivian capital Malé. He had been waiting for a swell when all of a sudden a pod of bottlenose dolphins popped up between him and incoming right-hander Ying Yang, the Maldives’ most famous reef break. Unbelievably, and as if prompted, a turtle followed in their wake.
“I’ve surfed all over the world — Morocco, Australia, England, you name it,” he says, matter-of-factly. “But nowhere do you get conditions like here. Where else can you surf with dolphins and turtles?”
I’ve come to the Laamu Atoll — courtesy of two international flights and one seaplane hop — to experience this magic for myself. I have zero surfing experience, and yet Hooper promises to have me standing on a wave within the hour. The sea is gentle today, he says, and the unique selling point for someone with a modest fear of open water is “the screen-saver views”.
He makes a strong argument. More so than elsewhere, the Maldives has a tendency to create one-off, barely-believable experiences. Standing on the same beach, I look past the bushy palms and savour the view unfolding beyond the tideline. With few beach or reef breaks in the Indian Ocean archipelago, and even fewer pro surfers to share the waves with, it’s arguably the most fun-soaked afternoon of water sports you’ll ever experience.
Over the past few years, the Maldives has looked to push itself beyond its comfort zone. Adventure is the new currency and hoteliers are beginning to experiment with sports that fill the gap between spa and beach time. You can now fly-board beside the pectoral-wing glide of flying fish in the Noonu Atoll. Or you can deep dive with whale sharks, then sample fine wine at the below-surface wine cellar at Anantara Kihavah Villas in the Baa Atoll.
Despite being one of the world’s most expensive places to learn how to channel your inner Kelly Slater or Duke Kahanamoku (the father of modern surfing, for the uninitiated), surfing has found its audience in the Maldives. There are as many board short-wearing Brazilians and Australians in rash guards where I’m staying as honeymooning couples and in a country with 1,100 islands, there are dozens of little-known surfing setups. Elsewhere, other resorts including the luxurious Niyama Private Islands in the Kudahuvadhoo Dhaalu Atoll and COMO Maalifushi offer a variety of surf breaks and boat rides out to accessible waves.
After a quick lesson in timing, popping up and moving my feet, I’m out on the waves, paddling across an enclosed lagoon to open ocean. There’s a growing sense of confidence at how easy the waves are to manoeuvre and a feeling of magic at work when I bob up and over them into the big blue.
I catch the first break, only to be pushed back to shore above a fleeting schools of angel fish. The second attempt is accompanied by an unexpected sighting of fruit bats hanging in the sky. For a half hour this continues, until I eventually pop-up on the crest of the perfect Maldivian wave and glory fills the air.
Nothing is ever this easy in reality, of course. Slowly, the thought of a turtle or dolphin appearing seems to rise from nowhere, causing me to lose balance and bounce head first into the frothing surf. The power whacks the board out from under my feet and the opportunity is gone — I somersault into the tumble-dryer wash and abruptly stop on the shoreline with a face full of sand. I’m in a daze, but have a huge grin across my face.
Even so, nobody would pretend that surfing in the Maldives is easier — or cheaper — than elsewhere. But it does offer something rather extraordinary few other places can match. The most memorable moments come when you least expect them. When there is no drama, no event, no strange company. Just contentment, sitting on a surfboard, listening to lapping water and watching the sun bury itself beyond the horizon.
A day later, after another few attempts, my chest muscles ache and it’s time to leave. The fluency on a holiday here isn’t to be found on a sun lounger or empty sandbar, but out at sea, surrounded by crystal-blue waters so blue they make you feel giddy. It’s hearing a soundtrack of buzzing waves that rolls in like radio static. In the swell of the waves, the horizon at sunset and the glowing violet tinge of the night sky.
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