Sandy’s blond hair dances with the wind and catches the reflection of the light that bounces off the ocean. The speedboat cuts through the blue waters and I breathe in the salty spray like it’s a balm for the soul. It’s been less than an hour since we got off the plane. We are headed to Gili Lankanfushi, a resort north of Malé Atoll in the Maldives.
Gili Lankanfushi has a strict no-shoes policy. It seems like a simple gesture, but it has a long reaching effect. As I walk barefoot to our villa, the weight of modern life seems to slip away. I sense it through my eyes, not just my feet: a light of sea and sky, conjured by Oceanic powers that, for now, remain a mystery.
The private villas are connected by wooden jetties that reach into the lagoon. All of the villas are overwater, built with nothing else than wood and glass. The staff call the style #rustic-chic#. I call it architecturally honest as it reinforces the sense of the place rather than forcing itself into it. Gili Lankanfushi overall increases the beauty of the atoll, just like an elegant necklace adorns a beautiful neck.
We are unwinding in our villa and Sandy wastes no time to jump into the water. There is a hammock held by two wooden poles that sprout out of the water. It is a scene of simple beauty, or perhaps I should say: it is simply beautiful. The monochromatic background, blue water and blue sky, is a pure aesthetic experience, while the hammock is an accent that brings the phenomenon into frame. I start taking pictures and Sandy asks:
“Would it be too cheesy to post this as #paradise?”
We spot a reef shark and in the next few minutes another shark and a ray visit our secluded villa. I keep taking pictures, moved by the beauty that is all around me, and I find myself in the need to ponder the question of paradise more seriously.
Marketing often abuses the term “Paradise”. Anything with a decent beach and some palm trees is suddenly an Eden. Why are we so ready to make this association? The Christians Biblical Paradise was a garden, not a beach. For the Chinese, the immortals lived in the mountains. The sea for much of human history was a place of monsters, not angels. The Romantics changed our perception towards the ocean as an allegory of our emotions. The 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris had a Tahiti exhibit that caused a sensation, positioning the tropical islands as an escape and a refuge from the constraints and anxiety of modernity.
Paul Gauguin was at the Exposition and set sail for Tahiti. Alas, he, as many tourists experience now, never found there the exoticness that he sought and painted. We are unlikely to find our own paradise by just boarding a plane. The problem, author Alain de Botton argues, is that we bring ourselves with us to the island. “Our capacity to draw happiness from aesthetic objects or material goods in fact seems critically dependent on our first satisfying a more important range of emotional or psychological needs, among them the need for understanding, for love, expression and respect.”
Yet, my happiness in Gili Lankanfushi is not brief nor fleeting. The simplicity and the beauty of the place move my spirit. I am not free only from the shoes, the smartphone anxiety and stress. I am also free from a constant search for meaning. My psychological needs, rather than bringing me back down to earth, abate, and my mind is calm. I am free to experience. Finding peacefulness means to be able to recall it, in time of need. This is the magic that beauty makes.There are few places that merit the name “Paradise”. This is one of them. I am indeed happy that I brought myself along.
Before sunset we join the resident marine biologist, Clare Baranowski on a cruise, looking for pods of dolphins. The sun begins to sink and it paints the surface of the ocean with dramatic colours. Clare is somewhat of a marine guru and she harbours a genuine enthusiasm for the ocean. She leads us to multitudinous pods of spinner dolphin, that jump into the air and as they spin, the golden sunbeams dress them in a mantle of crimson and gold. Then the larger bottlenose dolphins appear.
It is a parade of life that has come to see the sun away on its westward journey. Clare is beaming, pointing out the different species. She has seen this spectacle on many occasions, yet it is as if, like us, she is seeing it for the first time.
We watch the dolphins’ social interaction and Claire helps us appreciate their emotional life, that they are sentient as much as we are. The cruise is beyond an animal spotting experience, it opens the opportunity of experiencing empathy towards wildlife, letting go of the barriers between us and the animal world. It is an experience that allows us to develop the values of conservation and sustainable development. The opposite, to see ourselves outside of nature, turns Paradise into a strip-mall.
If we forget that places like these exist, or if we never experience them at all, the risk is that we consider normal the detachment from nature, the pollution, the noise and the frenetic activity of the cities. Then we would do nothing to reclaim paradise.
The ethos of Gili Lankanfushi is predicated on eco-tourism and a zero-waste lifestyle. They uphold these tenets quite seriously. Which means, they also take fun seriously. At Gili, they offer a full array of watersports and activities that put you in direct contact with the beauty of the ocean. Waterboarding, kayaking, waterskiing and waves that have become legendary in surfing circles and among connoisseurs.
We go snorkelling with Clare. She takes us to a site with 20 hawksbill turtles, and where rehabilitated ones are released. As we freedive, we witness an underwater world that had remained hidden. Around us roam nurse sharks, fusilier fish, clownfish and of course turtles, while anemones complete the picture.
Clare explains to us that rising ocean temperatures are already having an effect on this ecosystem.
“For example,” she says, “the female to male ratio of the turtles has been completely skewed because males only hatch in cooler sands.”
The Ocean is mysterious and largely inaccessible to us. Yet we can understand its frailty, and do something about it.
The night is clear and the breeze carries the smell of salt. I wanted to surprise Sandy, and needed some help. Gili Lankanfushi provides a personal assistant to all visitors. The staff call them Mr Fridays… one of the several Robinson Crusoe references at Gili. Mr Friday helped me organise a dinner by the shore.
I take Sandy by the hand and lead her to the appointed place. Mr. Friday’s orchestrated a trail of lanterns that leads to our table in the beach.
Paradise is not lost.
In the morning, I am enjoying in my hammock. Something catches my eye. It’s a plastic bottle in the lagoon. It is an unfathomable blemish, a sacrilegious violation of beauty. Of course, in a city I wouldn’t even have noticed. So I jump into the water and swim towards the offender. As I swim back, I realise that something has changed in my consciousness, as Emerson put it:
“The most useful man in the most useful world, so long as only commodity is served, would remain unsatisfied. But, as fast as he sees beauty, life acquires a very high value.”
Sandy is packing her bag slowly. It’s time to go back to the world.
“I’m going to miss this place,” she says.
She catches me fiddling with my camera, my mind already on business, on the thousand pressing matters that wait upon my return.
“Are we being evicted from Paradise?” she asks.
I like to think that by experiencing Paradise, we are bringing back its peacefulness and the values of sustainability, that we bring home something greater within.
When to go:
Because of the Monsoon than runs from May to October, it's an ideal winter and autumn destination. The high season is during the spring. Gili Lankanfushi remains intimate even during the high season. Summer is perfect if you don't mind a bit of rain.
How to get there:
There are direct flights from Hong Kong to Malé. From there, a short ride on a speedboat will take you to Paradise.
What to do in the Maldives:
Gili Lankanfushi is the ultimate chic-escape. The Maldives are an ideal spot for honeymoons and proposals. We at Blueflower organise a beautiful experience at Gili Lankanfushi. Click here to learn more.