The Maldives is a beautiful country. The water is crystal clear, a beautiful blue-green color that I think must be etched deep somewhere within the ancestral human brain as the very model of nature's aesthetic elan. The beaches are broad and clean. The people are friendly and themselves beautiful. The beach resorts are the sort of place you expect only exists in the unfulfillable dreams of an overambitious Hollywood set designer: the settings for the private overwater bungalows are just a bit too perfect.
When you arrive, your plane circles over a chain of atolls in the midst of clear blue sea, before coming to rest on a palm-fringed island not much larger than the runway and terminal building. You walk outside, where you're met at the curb by brightly-painted boats bobbing in water so clear you can see giant tropical fish by moonlight. It's idyllic.
It's also one of the few places I've been that I'd really never consider going back to.
I had never really thought about it as a travel destination. This put me on an even footing with most of my peers here in the USA: While the economy is based almost entirely on tourism, and it's a tremendously popular spot with European honeymooners, there are almost no American visitors to the Maldives. In the case of almost everyone I talked to, including some in the tourism business, I was the first person from the United States they'd ever met.
But an opportunity arose to travel there more or less for free, so we figured, what the heck, why not? I'll tell you why not. It's the most boring place on the planet. In order to preserve the native culture, foreigners are only allowed after sundown on resort islands (which were formerly uninhabited), the capital, and a some nearby utility islands (such as the airport and the garbage dump island). An additional handful of inhabited islands are allowed to have day visitors, but these visits are strictly regimented and under no circumstances are allowed to continue into the evening.
I'll be the first to concede that it's their right to do this. Good for them, in fact. It just doesn't make for a very interesting experience, unless you can stand day after day of nothing but beach and sand (that sounds ridiculous, but trust me, it gets old).
We spent most of our time in Malé, the capital, where foreigners are allowed to move freely and mingle with the locals. The entire island is about a 30 minutes' walk from end to end, so instead of restaurants, mostly people just go home when they're hungry. In the evening a few hundred beautiful people congregate in a beautiful park on the west end of the island to play football or watch the sun set (beautifully), and that's about it for the day.
The highlight of the trip was probably an open-air concert at the outdoor public entertainment area near the large mosque in the northeast corner. There were some genuinely talented acts, including a guy who sang Indian movie hits, doing a remarkably convincing job of both the male and female parts.
I had an amusing conversation with some Maldivians about the Local Movie, released this year with great fanfare in an attempt to infuse some local sensibilities into the cinema.
"It's very exciting," they snarked. "For a few minutes the wife thinks about raising her voice to her husband, but then she realizes it is a bad idea and they are happy together again."
The thing is, for the Maldives that is pretty exciting.