I’m not a very good swimmer. Scratch that. I’m dismal. I only learned properly a few years ago. I can get to point A to point B just as long as it’s a short distance with absolutely no stopping on the way. Treading water wasn’t included in the lessons which means I’m terrified of deep water and that’s anything I can’t stand in.
This means a trip to the Maldives presented me with a dilemma. It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world with stunning marine life that you can see from the shallowest of depths. Just whack on a mask and fins to go snorkelling. Easy. You don’t need to know how to swim really, it’s all about floating.
But for someone uneasy in water, it’s hard to relax. A never-ending barrage of questions keep on bubbling up. Is that water leaking into my mask? Did I just brush past a jellyfish? How long can I hold out before I need to clear my tube? Let’s say it somewhat dampens the experience.
So, an underwater excursion on a submarine was a godsend. No anxiety, I get to stay dry and see lots of glorious fish in a dazzling array of colours. Winner.
Not only that but it’s a relatively cheap outing – a rarity in the islands, which count as one of the most expensive places to go on holiday. Plus it’s something you can squeeze in on your day of arrival or departure on your way to or from your resort as it’s a five minute ferry trip or taxi ride from Velana International Airport in Malé to get to the meeting spot.
Spot the eels! (Picture: Ann Lee)First a boat takes you to the submarine in the middle of the ocean. Wedged between two floating platforms, it’s a dinky white and yellow vessel that can seat up to 50 people. Nothing like the hunk of metal I had in my mind from war films. That’s because it’s never seen any navy action but instead it’s a recommissioned tourist sub originally used by the French in Martinique, explains the captain Aishath Amira.
To get in you need to clamber down some steps into the main vessel. With its purple seats and navy blue interior it’s like being in a lurid club but with neon coloured fish not beats punctuating your consciousness.
We submerge quickly until we’re 40 metres deep. One side of the boat faces a reef called Tear Drop while the other side has less action although we swap mid-way so everyone gets a chance to see their own Finding Nemo in action. It’s nothing short of jaw-dropping.
Amira describes the most spectacular marine life that she spotted on a trip. ‘We saw a whale shark. It was 30 foot long. Normally they don’t come inside the atoll but he or she may have got lost on their way eating planktons.’
But she has a personal favourite: ‘I’ve seen dolphins a couple of times. We were lucky to see a school of them. Sometimes they’re attracted to the vibrations or noise made by the submarine so they come with us in the water and they spin around and around and then go away.’
A man calls out the names of the fish as they appear. Surgeon fish, grey with a shimmer of neon blue and yellow fins, start nibbling at the food they throw down to attract the marine life and circle the submarine. Unlike snorkeling where you’re just floating on by, you get a chance to really study them up close so you can notice the tiniest details.
In the middle of the chaos of the feeding frenzy, a stubborn little unicorn box fish coloured with dark spots and cute in its angular ugly looks – the Sly Stallone of the fish world – pops up with a determined pout trying to get in on the action. Blue tail trigger fish, a shock of deep navy with wide fins, glide on by serenely.
There are tiny little orange fish twitching around and hiding in holes when they’re away from the giant pack but my favourite is the moray eel and the even rarer honeycomb moray eel, which is yellow with a distinctive pattern on its skin. They emerge like sea monsters, shy and cautious from their underwater crooks, their mouths gaping open and shut continuously.
The submarine is small and compact (Picture: Ann Lee)The explosion of sea life glide, float and circle around each other; a gorgeous, vibrant cacophony of colours, stripes and patterns.
Sure, snorkelling and diving may be the most adventurous option but if you can’t or won’t swim or want a family outing, this is a great compromise.
‘There are so many,’ a little girl keeps on screaming in delight. It’s not just her though. The submarine has turned us all into big kids, wide-eyed with wonder at the magic of the ocean.
Tickets for Whale Submarine tours start from £57.
Where to stay
The spacious rooms at Robinson Club Noonu (Picture: Robinson Club Noonu)
Watching a chicken peck at the delicate grains of sand as the sky behind it explodes in a riot of warm orange at sunset is one thing I didn’t expect to see in the Maldives. But here I am at Robinson Club Noonu, a relatively new resort that was once the site of a chicken farm.
Many resorts in the Maldives can feel a bit intimidating; there’s so many couples floating around that you feel like you’re encroaching on their love bubble. But not at Robinson Club Noonu. This is a 5 star resort complete with all the luxuries you’d expect but with a far more down-to-earth approach. That’s because of its family friendly policy which means it has the wholesome air of a European retreat.
Not that it scrimps on the exclusivity you’d expect from the Maldives. From the moment you step onto the jetty, you’re completely pampered. It has pristine beaches with the softest white sand and milky azure blue sea that glistens with colourful sea life. Make no mistake, this is your fantasy island come alive.
You can wake up to an amazing view like this (Picture: Robinson Club Noonu)
The whole resort takes just 20 leisurely minutes to walk around. It’s tiny but outrageously pretty. Dark pink, purple and orange flowers burst from every corner amid a tangle of palm trees. Rooms are well proportioned with high ceilings and most have their own pools whether they’re in the garden, on the beach or on the porch of the water villas. The latter even comes with a hammock over the ocean strung up in a hole in the bathroom floor to hit that sweet spot between thrill-seeking and relaxation.
The resort has only been open since 2017 with the understated decor looking fresh and modern. But where it really makes a statement is its stunning surroundings – from my room I once spotted 6 or 7 stingrays just casually strolling on by at sunset within 30 minutes. I didn’t even have to break out the snorkel mask but if you want to see the reef up close they have an excellent dive centre which offers guided tours or more daredevil water sports.
Their in-house spa Dunyie offers a wide range of treatments all carried out by their talented masseuses. The service is outstanding – from the front desk to the waiters at their two restaurants – everyone is falling over themselves to help you have the best trip possible.
Robinson Club will have you wishing that like it’s other famous namesake Crusoe, you’ll end up being shipwrecked there.
Room rates at Robinson Club Noonu start from £1,040 per person for seven nights all-inclusive.
How to get there
I flew from London Heathrow to Malé via Doha with Qatar Airways. The flight takes around 13 hours and 50 minutes and costs £681. Private transfers to Noonu Atoll can be arranged by Robinson Club.
MORE: Why Beijing’s hutongs are the best places to eat in China
MORE: How Tuscany’s hot springs helped me tackle my stress
MORE: Why the Seychelles should be your next beach holiday