I’m standing at the base of a towering, 80-foot coconut tree, watching a local who is clearly part man, part monkey shimmy up to the top and harvest a handful of nuts using a piece of rope and a machete.
“The trick is to hug and pull, hug and pull,” says my instructor. Yes, I am having a lesson in how to climb coconut trees, on the idyllic, paradise island of Kanifushi in the heart of the Maldives archipelago.
“But you’ve got to be really careful today because it rained last night so the trunk will be slippery.”
I wait for the professional tree climber to come down then give it my best shot. I hug and pull like fury but hopelessly fail to even get both feet off the ground, never mind get anywhere near the top.
You possibly thought the Maldives were all about smooching couples loafing around on sun loungers, sipping cocktails and dipping in and out of infinity pools all day long, but you’d be quite wrong. I’ve just had a week there and can testify that there is far more to this Bounty commercial destination than boring old ‘barefoot luxury’ and rutting honeymooners.
Where to stay in the Maldives
There are more than 1,190 islands in the Maldives, 100 of which have resorts on them, so there is plenty of choice. But the new five-star resort of Atmosphere Kanifushi, a 35-minute flight by sea plane from the capital of Male and tucked into the south-western most corner of the sparsely populated Lhaviyani atoll, is the one to head for.
Atmosphere is a new Indian Ocean brand and Kanifushi is different from most of the other Maldivian resorts that are owned by big international names such as Four Seasons, Hilton and One & Only. Its focus is much more local and its mission is to offer guests authentic Maldivian hospitality and the opportunity to experience the real Maldives.
What to do
There are heaps of activities here (aside from the coconut tree climbing). Snorkelling is not to be missed, and there are several sites located near Kanifushi in the breathtaking aquamarine lagoon.
Head for the uninhabited island of Vavvaru, where there is superb fish-spotting to be accessed from its talcum powder-white shores. We saw turquoise parrot fish, translucent angel fish and giant shoals of tiny neon tetras. On the trip back we were accompanied by giant manta rays and a magical pod of gleaming dolphins, racing in the bow waves of the boat.
For a taste of the real Maldives, book the fascinating excursion to Naifuru, another island, around 25 minutes away by dhoni, which is inhabited by locals. You’ll meet the people and learn all about the Maldivian way of life, such as: their schools follow the British system, they drive on the left and are devout Muslims. The locals might even invite you into their home and offer you some salted fish. Hospitality is big here.
Back at Kanifushi there is fabulous diving at the PADI-licensed dive centre, for both beginners and experts, plus numerous alternative water sports including canoeing and learning how to sail catamarans.
A Club House offers ping pong, a fully equipped gym and an immaculate, floodlit tennis court complete with resident tennis pro, who helped me adjust my dodgy backhand and fine-tune my service action.
You can also do cooking classes at Kanifushi. I learnt how to make sushi at the Teppanyaki Grill restaurant, courtesy of Hermes the highly-skilled Sri Lankan chef. He laid on an extraordinary demonstration of knife throwing; think Tom Cruise in Cocktail, only with razor-sharp sushi blades.
There is also a nature walk and talk, where you can find out about all the local flora and fauna. The island has heaps of jungly vegetation, from spectacular banyan trees to pandarus trees with other-worldly exposed roots, as well as sweet-smelling wild hibiscus and pink and purple bougainvillea. It is also rather alarmingly inhabited by screeching crows and over-sized fruit bats, which swoop silently every evening.
Should you be feeling particularly keen, you can get instruction in basic Dhivehi, the local tongue, or have a lesson on the history and culture of the Maldives with a local who is happy to answer all questions, however dozy.
A particular highlight is the sunset fishing trip, on offer several times each week. A group of us pulled off from the jetty at 5pm one balmy evening and headed out into the lagoon armed with simple hand lines and no rods. As the sun lowered on the horizon and turned from amber to coral pink, we quietly teased our lines in the gentle waves, some of us successfully hooking barracuda, red snapper and wriggly banana fish.
Where to eat
Kanifushi has several restaurants, all serving up delicious, freshly prepared dishes. One of the best is Just VEG, which, as the name suggests, is a meat-free eaterie, located right on the ocean at the opposite tip of the island from the main reception. Kanifushi is just 2.3km long and 90m wide at its widest point, so nowhere is very far, but you can hire bikes and there are regular electric buggies to transport you if you don’t fancy the walk.
On TripAdvisor, Just VEG has deservedly been voted one of the Top 10 Maldivian Restaurants. Course after course of superb, slightly spicy vegetarian dishes are piled on to the table, defying even the devoted carnivore to miss their meat. There is also a differently-themed extensive self-service buffet each night at the main Spice restaurant, ranging from Asian to seafood to Italian.
A truly special night-time BBQ can be arranged on the beach, too, exclusively for you and your party, surrounded by twinkly lights and accompanied by the gentle lapping of the Indian Ocean.
How much does all this cost?
Make no mistake, the Maldives is a luxury destination. But Atmosphere Kanifushi has an all-inclusive Platinum Plus package. That means that everything is paid for, from most of the dining options and activities to your minibar, which is generously stocked and replenished each day. Having been, I think it’s excellent value for money.
If you time your visit carefully and avoid the peak season from October to April, you can pay as little as £2,000pp for a week, including all flights, food and endless Maldivian activities. There is also currently an extra ten per cent off for all parties.
Plus, of course, you can learn to climb a coconut tree, and you can’t put a price on that!
Find out more at Atmosphere Kanifushi