Triple Crown

The Maldive Islands offer the ultimate marriage of sun, sand and sea.

The last time we stood on the Kurumba Island beach in the Maldives was 24 years ago, in 1977, on our honeymoon. We were cold, wet and disheveled, victims of an absurd and careless shipwreck. Our boat had sunk after striking a coral reef, and all I wanted was to wash off the salt that covered my body.

We took a room at a hotel nearby. On the bathroom floor, the staff had left an old bucket half full of water. I kicked it over in anger, stood under the shower and realized I was washing in cold sea water. Those were the days before desalination, and it turned out the bucket had held our entire fresh water ration for the day.

Our recent visit there was different. We arrived at the beach dry and orderly from the tender of Taipan III, a 172-foot CRN-built motoryacht. We walked along the deserted stretch of soft, white coral sand, the gentle breeze an emollient against the heat. To our left, lofty coconut palms lurked, laden with fruit; to seaward, the calm, clear water was a stunning light cobalt blue, stretching toward the reef. There, the lagoon ended and the deep blue Indian Ocean began. As we tramped the sand, hermit crabs of every size scurried underfoot, carrying their mobile shell homes with them. The hotel with the bucket was bigger and a little grander. There were a few more bungalows and the thatched roofs had been recently renewed, but the basic concept of a beachside cabin on a Robinson Crusoe-style island was the same.

Little else had changed on the island.

Because of our honeymoon, the Maldive Islands have always been special for us. But for anyone who worships the Triple Crown of sun, sand and sea, where the only activities are in, on or under the water, these islands offer the ultimate vacation getaway. Greater rewards still await those who choose to tour the chain in high style, as we did on our second visit.

Taipan III is all luxury, originally built in Italy as the 155-foot royal yacht Pearl Star for the Emir of Bahrain and later extended by Rybovich/Spencer. We caught up with Taipan in the Maldives as she passed en route to a summer in the Mediterranean. Capt. Greg Maund and his crew made us wonderfully welcome and gladly joined in our adventure, helping retrace our honeymoon trip.

Our shoreside excursion completed, we re-boarded the 28-foot tender Python for a return trip to our temporary home. Strange how a little exercise can wake up the taste buds and make you hungry, even if it has been only a few hours since breakfast. We changed for lunch in our stateroom, a wonderfully exotic hideaway that mimics the Asian design theme aboard Taipan. Hand-crafted teak joinery is carved with Mandarin characters that signify long life, luck and good health. Just being in the space creates a sense of well-being. The cabin is, as are the other four, furnished with exquisite antiques from across Asia, all complemented with richly embroidered silk fabrics.

That day's sumptuous lunch came courtesy of Chef Simon Oss. The stunning salad of smoked chicken in fresh pesto sauce was washed down with a well-chilled Chilean chardonnay that brought out every nuance of the food's flavor. A huge platter of prepared tropical fruits followed, and we could not resist the homemade vanilla ice cream.

That evening, we sat on the beach at Giraavaru, watching the tropical sun sink slowly below the horizon while our crew busied themselves with the barbecue. Simon cooked fresh tuna bought from a local fisherman. The rare steaks tasted as wonderful as they looked, and we barely had room for the divine lime and ginger tart that followed.

A total lack of light pollution in the Maldives makes night skies seem positively alive with a profusion of stars. It is awe inspiring to lie back and study the heavens. The trip back to Taipan by speedboat showed another benefit of darkness: Our wake positively sparkled with phosphorescence created by the twin props churning up plankton.

The Maldive Republic is a collection of 1,190 tiny coral islands in a 500-mile-long chain of 26 separate atolls. The chain is southwest of Sri Lanka, starting at 7 degrees north and terminating just south of the equator. Each island is surrounded by crystal clear lagoons encrusted with reefs, which, from aerial photographs, look like pale blue spots on the skin of a dark blue leopard. No island is naturally more than 10 feet high, and few are heavily populated. The government has restricted tourism to Malé, the capital, and 80 hotel-developed islands. The Maldivian-inhabited fishing islands are partly closed to visitors to safeguard the islanders' devout Muslim lifestyle. English is widely spoken and understood by most Maldivians, especially on the islands most tourists will visit. With temperatures around 85 degrees Fahrenheit-in and out of the water-most travelers are happy to laze in the sun and stay on their resort island, except for scuba or fishing trips.

Aboard Taipan, we had the chance to enjoy luxurious accommodations and see more than just one island, yet still chill out. Our haven from a stunning sundeck in the heat of the day was a spectacular double lounge on the main deck. The casual afterdeck bar provided a fine view of our exotic location. Through a set of double glass doors, the more formal, spacious saloon is guarded by antique hand-carved statues of Buddha, which cast a serene sense of calm around all who grace the sumptuous sofas. One bulkhead is devoted to a superb 200-gallon saltwater aquarium stocked with tropical fish that delightfully recreate the environment below Taipan's long, low white hull.

A visit to Malé is a must. Your day will be spent ambling around the streets of far-flung outposts, poking around in local markets, shops and stores, and gaining a wonderful insight into people and the way they live in a somewhat alien world.

Our first stop was the fish market. Fish by the tray were brought in and dropped onto the tiled floor, where they flapped about. Market traders sorted and graded them and, almost before the fish had gasped their last, sold them. A quick walk from the fish market was the produce market. Tropical fruit was piled into huge heaps and set under makeshift sun shelters. Wherever you go, you are invited to try or taste produce.

Not to be missed are local sweetmeats and savories, all homemade and nothing short of delicious. We were amused by, but did not sample, local cigarettes, which appear to be thin tubes of newsprint wrapped around small amounts of tobacco. Large coils of coir rope and string, the byproduct of coconut husks, are for sale and appear more important than duct tape as the local multipurpose fixative.

Well away from the souvenir shops, I bought a sarong of the style worn by the local male population. At $3, I thought it an excellent keepsake and found it delightful to wear around Taipan's deck.

Outside the lagoons, Maldivian waters are deep, and bringing up Taipan's hook took awhile. As it rose from the depths, so did our excitement. We were about to sail south to another island in another atoll. It was not that we had explored all the islands of our present atoll; we had anchored off many, with names as diverse and fascinating as Paradise, Bandos, Kuda Bandos and Himmafushi. But we had an invitation to accept at the southern end of South Malé atoll.

Our voyage to the island of Rihiveli took us clear of North Malé atoll, through a channel and past the well-known Club Med resort. There, at anchor in the lagoon, was the stunningly elegant Huisman ketch Foftien, a 20-knot breeze aching to get at her sails. We motored at 14 knots through the channels between the subsurface reefs and headed for our lunchtime stop at the island of Kadoomaafushi. Twenty minutes after we anchored, the Taipan crew had set up a tented shelter ashore, shading a spectacular luncheon table.

We arrived late off Rihiveli and anchored outside the lagoon. Early the next morning, we went ashore to discover that it was already an hour and a half later than we thought. Rihiveli has its own time zone, designed to give its residents better use of daylight. The island is a model of environmental friendliness and caring management, with a strong French influence. It is a green island, in all senses of the word. Rich, tropical landscape is beautifully maintained, tamed but not spoiled, and the people use local materials and natural breezes instead of air conditioning and imported products. There are no telephones, televisions or minibars in the rooms.

The island's nicest feature is the lagoon on one side with two outlying uninhabited islands. They can be reached by wading across the lagoon, where the water is waist-high. A distance of about a quarter-mile makes the trip a perfect after-lunch activity.

After a glorious stay on Rihiveli, it was time to head back to North Malé. Our last meal aboard Taipan was locally caught, baked tropical spiny lobsters served with Simon's special version of Thousand Island dressing. As I ate, I mused. Thousand Island salad dressing must have been named for somewhere. Perhaps it was the Maldives.

Contact: Cox Marine, (401) 845-9777; fax (401) 845-2666; mj@coxmarine.net; or any charter broker. Taipan III charters at $130,000 per week for 14 guests, plus expenses. MYBA terms; she is not available for charter in the United States.