Meedhupparu, Raa Atoll, December 2001

I booked the holiday back in April. I was somewhat amazed to not be able to get my first choice island, and settled on Meedhupparu instead. We arrived at Gatwick airport about two and a half hours before takeoff and there was absolutely no queue at all. Clearly the events of September 11th had mad a lot of people cancel their holidays. So we were quite surprised to find that the plane was quite full, though there were still some spare seats. The reason was that they had combined the Manchester and London flights. The next surprise was that we weren't stopping in Bahrain, as had been previously said. Whilst Bahrain is good for duty free shopping, the plane was originally due to arrive there at 3am, so I was pretty pleased we weren't going there.

The flight was operated by Airtours. The flight itself was fairly average for a charter flight. It's a while since I'd flown with Airtours, and they still charge for headphones for the in-flight entertainment and they charge for all drinks, including soft drinks. Most of their rivals no longer charge for headphones and a lot of them also give you free wine with your meal on long haul flights.

We landed at Male and transferred to the air taxi building. The first flight was going to Meedhupparu and we managed to get onto it mainly because we knew where we were going and most of the other people on the bus didn't. I always enjoy the seaplane flight. You get a great view of the islands and reefs below you, though this time it was a bit cloudy. The flight itself took 45 minutes.

Meedhupparu is the only resort in Raa Atoll and was only opened in June 2000. It's owned by Aitken Spence, a Sri Lankan company, which has a chain of about 12 hotels. The rooms were spacious, with high ceilings, air conditioning and a fan. The bathroom was partly open air and had two showers, one which was cold water only. There was also a small verandah at the front but we couldn't see the sea from our room. It was completely obscurred by undergrowth.

The hotel has two bars; the main Disco Bar, and another Beach Bar, which was open until 6pm. There was a swimming pool and a couple of hot tubs. Not surprisingly, most people chose to swim in the sea rather than the pool. The lagoon was a very good depth for swimming and it was warmer than the pool. On the sports side, there was also a well-equipped gym, three table tennis tables, a dart board and several board games in the bar. Herbal massages and sauna were available at the Ayurvedic centre, and there was also a hairdressers.

We were on an all-inclusive package as are all the guests on the island. This included meals, snacks which were available at various times of the day and most drinks. The spirits available weren't famous brands, but they were imported. For example the gin was from England, but I can't say that I've ever heard of it. The beer was German canned beer, which again, I'd never had before. Wine was not available from the bar, but you could get house wine in the restaurant with lunch and dinner. Cocktails were also not available. The drinks in the bar was also only inclusive up until 12am, though the bar remained open until 2am and there was a disco from 11pm onwards. If you were paying, the drinks weren't cheap. The mini bar in the room was also not inclusive, with one exception. Two small bottles of mineral water were provided every day and you could get as many large bottles as you liked. In fact, we were all encouraged by the management to drink as much water as possible at the welcoming meeting. This made a pleasant change from other Maldivian resorts where they restrict you to getting water a glass at a time.

The guests were about half British and half Italian, with a few Germans and French. There was evening entertainment available from about 10pm-11pm, though it was more geared towards the Italians. They did speak in English too, but they always seem to say about five times more when they were talking in Italian. Weather permitting, the entertainment was usually in the small amphitheatre. They had had a few accidents with glasses there, so unfortunately you couldn't take drinks there as there were no plastic glasses available.

The food was very good and all meals were buffet style. It was the first Maldivian island I've been to where you wouldn't starve if you didn't like fish. Fish was available, including traditional Maldivian fish and coconut balls, but they also had joints of New Zealand lamb, pork, beef and chicken. At lunchtime they had a special Asian corner, which not only had Indian-style curries, but also had some really good stir fries, Thai and Far Eastern style dishes. There was also a pasta dish with every meal, and some of the Italians sitting near us seemed to eat nothing else. Drinks were served by the waiter and you have the same table and waiter for the duration of your holiday.

This was the first time we'd visited in December. All our previous visits had been in February/March and the weather wasn't quite as good. It rained for the first three days we were there. There was some sunshine for two of the days, but it rained almost solidly on the other. Fortunately, it then started to brighten up. The next couple of days were a bit cloudy, though dry, but the second week was sunny all day. I did feel sorry for those people who only came for a week. The mosquitoes were worse than our previous visits, probably because of the rain. They seemed to be active during the day and at night and I got quite a few annoying bites.

The diving school was run by The Crab Diving Center. There were four instructors, three of them Italian and one German. They all spoke reasonable English, so dive briefings weren't a problem. The first dive, as it seems to be on all Maldivian islands, was the checkout dive. You have to do a mask clear and a regulator recovery. It's done on the house reef and the dive is limited to 20m (65 ft). All in all it didn't sound like it was going to be too promising.

I'd brought all my own equipment except tanks and weights. The school's equipment was all Scubapro, so was good quality and quite new. On the first dive, they allocated me with a numbered plastic crate to put my equipment in and that was the last time I had to worry about it. Whenever I turned up for a dive, my crate was on the boat, dive kit all washed and dried, with a pile of weights next to it. At the end of the dive, you just left your crate on the boat and the staff took care of it.

Despite the fact we were diving the house reef, we used a boat and didn't go in off the beach. We chugged around the island for a couple of minutes before dropping in the water. As we descended, it soon became obvious why we didn't go in off the shore. The current was pretty strong, too strong to swim against. The coral wasn't great, but there were schools of fusiliers, barracuda, some batfish, an eagle ray, a turtle, a stingray and an octopus. Suffice to say, when we eventually surfaced 57 minutes later, I wasn't complaining. It had far exceeded my expectations.

After doing the checkout dive, I could then book onto the normal boat dives. They left twice a day, one at 9am and one at 2pm. They had a weekly schedule and most of the sites were between 20 and 40 minutes away. Once a week they did a full day trip to the nearby Baa Atoll. Night dives were done twice a week. All dives were to be no-decompression dives, with a maximum depth of 30m (100 ft) and a compulsory safety stop of 3 minutes at 5m. The maximum dive time was about 50 minutes, not including the safety stop, and computer and alternate air sources were compulsory.

I'm not that keen on getting up, particularly when I'm on holiday, so I signed up for the afternoon dive to Vaadhoo Tilla. A tilla is an underwater hill in Maldivian. We went down and swam around it. It has some nice overhangs and there were loads of fish including gold fish, tuna, yellow snapper and surgeon fish swimming around. There were also several moray eels and an octopus. My dive time was 51 minutes and my maximum depth was 30m.

The next day we went to Kottefaru Kuda Tilla. The thing that struck me about this dive was how many anemones there were on the top of the reef. During my last visit to the Maldives, it was just after the coral bleaching had occurred. It also seemed to affect the anemones, which had also been bleached. They've certainly recovered. There were plenty of them and most of them had one of the two species of anemone fish you find in the Maldives. These are Clark's anemone fish and a species which is endemic to the area. It's only found in the Maldives, the Laccadives and Sri Lanka and it's known either as the Maldivian anemone fish or the black footed. Apart from the anemone fish, there were also shrimps, morays and what looked a lot like a squat lobster, though I'm not sure exactly what it was. The dive profile was the usual 30m for just over 50 minutes.

The next day, we went to Beriyan Faru Tilla. The site is actually two tillas. The smaller one had lots of overhangs, with clouds of glass fish in them. There were shoals of trevally and a couple of giant morays. The day after, we went to Fenfushi tilla, where again there were loads of glass fish, plus some yellow snapper, at the start. One section of the tilla was sandy, but after crossing this part, there were lots of overhangs with squirrel fish in them. At the end there were oriental sweetlips and loads more anemone fish on the top of the tilla.

I decided to go on the full day trip down to Baa Atoll. There was an extra US$20 charge for this above the normal price for two dives. This went to the hotel to cover diesel and the packed lunch. I did think it was a bit expensive, considering I'd already paid for lunch and the packed lunch, whilst adequate, wasn't very exciting.

The first dive of the day was Dhonfanu tilla. This was very similar to other dives I'd done. There is a nice swim through from about 25m upwards, but I'd run out of no-deco time by the time we got there. We did see a grey reef shark, but there was no sign of the dolphins that they sometimes see there.

For lunch, we went over to the nearest resort island, which was Soneva Fushi. Most of the resorts are happy to show around people around. The previous week they'd been given a tour around Royal Island, but Soneva Fushi is quite expensive, and they didn't want riff-raff like us around, so we were told to "naff orf". Admittedly they didn't quite use those words, but the accent and the sentiment was definitely there in my opinion. So we moored up next to a nearby reef and some people did a bit of snorkelling.

The next dive was called "The Aquarium", and we were going to see some sharks. There is a line of about 7 tillas. For some reason we dropped in so that we had to do a 20 minute swim over 4 tillas. As we didn't have an opportunity to look around, it seemed a bit pointless, not to mention a waste of air. I can understand why they didn't drop us on top of the sharks, but nearer would have been a good idea.

As we arrived at the site, which was a bowl shape with a hole in one side, the first thing I saw were 4 eagle rays "flying" in formation. Then we all settled down and watched. There were more than 40 grey reef sharks swimming around in circles in this bowl. Most of them were juveniles of various sizes, with three adults about 2m (6 ft) in length. It was a very impressive site. I've never seen so many sharks at one time, even on shark feeds, and the best thing was that this was their natural behaviour. Towards the end of the dive, we also saw a big shoal of smallish barracuda swim in and the eagle rays kept swimming off and coming back. This dive was shallower than normal at about 20m, and our dive time was just over 50 minutes.

After the full day, I went back to doing the afternoon dives for a couple of days. The next day we were unable to dive the first choice site because of the current, so we dived Vandhoo Candu. This is a channel between two reefs on the edge of the atoll. It wasn't the best dive, and the coral certainly wasn't the best. We started on the outside wall and quickly drifted into the atoll, and it wasn't a bad dive with highlights including several morays, including a honeycombed one, a big Napolean wrasse, several lion fish and grouper. The next day it was back to Beriyan Faru Tilla, Again we spent most of the time on the smaller tilla which was covered in glass fish. I managed to spot a couple of scorpion fish on the big tilla as we headed up to the top at around 6m.

The following afternoon, it was back to Vandhoo Candu again. This time, the plan was to concentrate on the outer wall. We jumped in and saw a turtle on the top of the reef. I headed off down the wall and noticed that I was going down a bit quickly. My first thought was that I had a problem with my BCD, but then I realised that I was surrounded by bubbles including those of the divers above me. I was caught in a down current. It wasn't that strong, though keeping up was a bit of effort. There was a biggish overhang with some nice soft corals on it, so I sheltered in there and tried to persuade my buddy to come in to get his breath back, but he didn't really understand what I was trying to say, so we carried along the wall. After a short time, the wall flattened out a bit and the down current disappeared. It was at this point we saw a reef shark. Our dive guide later told us it was the first reef shark he'd seen in Raa Atoll. And he'd been there over a year. Then we drifted into the channel again, though our dive was cut short because our air usage had been higher than normal at the beginning. As we were just coming to the end of the dive, we can across another, weaker down current. Clearly it's a dive site that deserves some respect, though there were no real problems.

The next day I actually got up in time for the morning dive to Maafaru. A faru is one of those ring shaped reefs that are so distinctive from the air. The dive was far more relaxing than the previous day and we spent much of it was at around only 15m, because there was a large overhang with lots of really attractive blue and yellow soft corals hanging from the ceiling. For the second day in a row, we saw a shark. This time it was a leopard shark which was sleeping on the reef. Squirrel fish swam in and out of the overhangs and there were shoals of Spanish flag. Then I had a luck stroke of luck as a manta ray swam past us. They're quite common earlier in the year, but this was the first one they'd seen for 4 weeks. It was also the first one I've seen in the Maldives and only the second one I've ever seen, so I was pretty pleased.

That night, I did the night dive. They provided us with very bright torches, which was great. There's nothing worse than a night dive with a useless torch. We went back to Beriyan Faru Tilla, though stayed on the big tilla for the whole dive. There were spiny lobsters in every overhang and the smaller shrimps were also out. Coral cod were out hunting and one tried to take advantage of my torch beam by snapping at something in it. It moved so fast, I don't know if it was successful. Other predators were also about including surgeonfish and lion fish.

The next afternoon, we went to Vaadhoo Tilla. For some reason, there was quite a cold current coming in from the open ocean. It was probably only one or two degrees less than the usual 28°C, but it made the water shimmer in patches were the different waters mixed. I was impressed by how much the table coral had started to recover on this reef. The patches were obviously only about 2-3 years old, but pretty all the same. Swimming around the tilla were spanish flag with oriental sweetlips on the top of the reef and quite a few anemone fish.

The next morning, I went to a site with the snappy name of Kudathulaadhoo Tilla. It was deeper than the other tillas we dived, with the top in about 16m. It had some nice overhangs at around 25m with blue and yellow soft corals in them. We also saw an eagle ray and a dog toothed tuna. The top of the tilla had some quite big table coral which had obviously survived the bleaching a few years earlier. The depth probably helped keep the water temperature down. As we came up, we did the usual 5m safety stop in blue water as we drifted away from the tilla.

My last dive was that afternoon to Fenfushi Tilla. This time the current allowed us to do the more interesting side of the tilla. As we went down the wall, we came upon loads of glass fish. Tuna were darting in at unbelievable speeds snapping at the shoals as they whirled away. As we moved further up the reef, there were loads of anemones with anemone fish in them. We were just about to start our ascent when we saw a turtle. It had decided it was hungry and was eating an anemone. Not surprisingly the Clarke's anemone fish that had made their home there took exception to this. So we watched for five amazing minutes as the turtle used its front flippers to fend off the anemone fish as they tried to go for its eyes whilst it carried on tearing at the base of the anemone. It really was a fitting way to round off my last dive of the holiday.

I found the dive school staff profession and easy to get along with. They managed to leave more or less on time without making you feel like you were in the military. On two occasions, there were no other customers on the boat, but they still took me out. The prices were about average for the Maldives and can be found on the The Crab website. Having my kit unloaded and washed for me after every dive was brilliant. I hate washing kit.

The coral in the Maldives had started to recover since the bleaching, which I had seen in 1997. The reefs aren't what they were, but they are still interesting. The unpleasant brown algae has disappeared, as have the huge shoals of red-toothed triggerfish that were feeding on it. Sponges seem to have taken advantage. There are more around than I remember. The table coral is making a comeback. There were small to medium patches. Considering they can only be 2-3 years old, it's growing very fast. Hopefully there won't be a recurrence of the very warm water in the next few years and the coral can continue to recover. In the shallows around the island, the coral wasn't as good and was mostly dead. I don't snorkel much but other people seemed to enjoy it.

The fish life is what makes the Maldives special for me. Most of the sites are subject to current, so the diving isn't as easy as it is in other places like parts of the Caribbean where they wrap up divers in cotton wool. Where you get current, you get fish and I saw loads of fish on every dive. In addition to the small tropicals that you usually find on the reef itself, there were always shoals of fish like trevally, grouper, snapper or surgeon fish swimming past.

Some people may want to do more than two dives a day, and apart from the night dives twice a week, that is all you can manage at Meedhupparu. Unlike some islands, you can't dive the house reef from shore. The current rips past the end of one of the jetties so fast that you can see round patches of smooth water on the surface surrounded by slightly choppy water. However, each dive is 50 minutes plus a safety stop and they go to 30m (100 ft). Even with a 5 hour surface interval, you're still using up a lot of your no-decompression time.

We paid about £1290 each for the fortnight with JMC. The resort is quite new, and the prices look set to rise a bit more next year, though it's hard to tell with the current UK travel company practice of printing high prices in the brochure and then offering large "discounts". Certainly the resort wasn't more than half full. I really enjoyed my stay and the hotel comes highly recommended.

Sadly the same cannot be said of Airtours, who truly excelled themselves on the flight home. We boarded more or less on time and then sat in our seats for about an hour. When they eventually gave an explanation, we were told that it was problems with the paperwork and the fact that the ground staff had to cope with three planes leaving at around the same time. This didn't sound very convincing.

About half an hour before we landed, the pilot came on and told us that "some" of the luggage for Gatwick hadn't been loaded. Again he blamed the ground staff. As we docked at Gatwick, the London ground staff told us that "most" of the luggage hadn't been loaded. As we entered the terminal we were given a letter explaining that over 200 pieces hadn't been loaded because the plane was overweighted. Since it wasn't full and most people had followed the security guidelines and taken little hand luggage, this was very unconvincing.

At the carousel, they unloaded about 10 pieces. The rest of us had to fill in a form and didn't get the luggage back until the following Friday, which was inconvenient. What annoyed me the most was the way the pilot had lied and blamed the Maldivian ground staff in a rather patronising manner. Whatever the real problem was, it clearly wasn't their fault.

Both Monarch and Air 2000 fly to Male, so I think I will be using them in future. First Choice feature Meedhupparu in their brochure and they use these two airlines.