“Uh…lemme check with my secretary.” [Of course I was free. I was unemployed, trying to take a new career path in a new country at the age of 31].
“You’re in luck. Looks like I’m free. Why?”
“Because we are going to the Maldives. Surprise!”
‘Surprise’ was both accurate and an understatement. The Maldives are a place I wanted to visit but never thought I actually would… kind of like Mars. This was the first I had heard of this trip that Dominic had stealthy booked as a belated honeymoon and much needed break. We were leaving in a week, and all I had to do was pack.
I’m a light packer, but of course I end up over packing, something I suspect many self-proclaimed light-packers do. In my defense, I wasn’t sure what kind of activities to expect on Cocoa Island. I scoured the internet to get an idea of where we were going. I found a few dated and scant reviews all saying the same thing–a romantic Robinson Crusoe paradise island–which sounds lovely and all, but it doesn’t help me figure out how many pairs of jeans to bring.
It’s 2pm on a Wednesday, and we depart Heathrow on the Emirates A380–a new and enormous aircraft that carries like a million people on long haul flights. Dominic is uneasy about flying in economy for eight hours, as he has become used to flying Upper Class on business trips. As we shuffle through the tarmac, I hold his hand assuring him that we’ll get through this economy flight together. When we get to our seats we are delighted with the proletarian section of the plane. They are spacious and clean. The food listed on the menu is appetizing. And there is enough entertainment to make us forget we are even on a plane. We chat and giggle and hold hands for hours. I order a red wine and he a virgin Bloody Mary, which is sadly just tomato juice with a lime squeeze. Dominic is disappointed, and I can empathize. A lengthy discussion ensues and we agree that the only kind of Bloody Mary is the kind that is flavorful, spicy, and a self-contained meal. There is something about traveling that makes you talk about things you normally don’t talk about, like Bloody Mary preferences, and those conversations are my among favorite. Three movies later, we arrive in Dubai at 9pm. As we fly over the city, I see a long string of orange lights dotted along the coastline. The Dubai Airport* is a strange and interesting place full of all sorts, from elderly Arabian sheiks to young Midwestern backpackers. After a two-hour layover and the worst, most expensive Halal Whopper I’ve had to date, we depart for Male (pronounced Maa-lee, not male like a man), the capital city of the Republic of Maldives.
Four hours later it’s 9am, and we are safely stepping off the plane in Male. The Uggs I’ve been wearing for the last three months in London are stifling in the 30 C heat, and I love it. A representative from the resort with dark brown skin and a calm, bright smile greets us at the gate. He ushers us to a table outside asking us to wait a few minutes before we board the speedboat to Cocoa Island. While Dominic uses the restroom I yank off my Uggs and rummage through my bag for my cherished flip-flops. As I place them on my feet, I feel like Cinderella in her glass slippers.
Everything feels safe and organized on the speedboat. I am in a state of wonderment as we whiz away from the docks. It’s warm, wide open, and full of every shade of blue, which is so very different than London. I’m hopping from seat to seat snapping photos that I know will not capture my excitement of being in this new place. Dominic and two other passengers sit in composed appreciation. After 40 minutes of gliding along in the speedboat thinking how good life is, we arrive at Cocoa Island, and it’s clear that jeans are entirely unnecessary. We are welcomed to the island with fresh coconut juice (in the actual coconut) and a cool aromatic towel. We’ve only seen about an inch of the island and are delirious with laughter and awe. Our kind hostess, Widi, receives us as if we are old friends and thoroughly briefs us on the Como Shambhala amenities. I like Widi–a lovely woman in her thirties with pretty feet and bizarre tattooed eyebrows that I got used to by the end of our conversation. She’s from Bali. She lives on a neighboring island with her husband because there is not enough room on Cocoa. They go to Male maybe once a month for supplies. She has worked on Cocoa Island for four years, and while she loves it here, she misses Bali all the time. She doesn’t go back as often as she would like because the thought of all the hustle and bustle of non-island life is too intimidating. I understand where she is coming from. I’ve only been here ten minutes and am already petrified of going back to London.
It’s 11am and our room won’t be ready for another two hours. Widi suggests we have breakfast while we wait. We are seated at a table in the sand with a view of what I can only describe as paradise. Those legendary turquoise waters are truly turquoise. The sand is something between sugar and flour in both color and consistency. The temperature is ideal. The roofs are indeed made of palm fronds and the flourishing foliage looks like a Garden of Eden. The island is so teeny you could hold it in your hand. I have never been anywhere like it. The only communication Dominic and I have amidst our delirium of happiness is a constant beaming smile. The strains of life in London melt away as we play with the sand underneath our feet. We idle over a scrumptious island breakfast then make our way over to a pair of lounge chairs nestled in between the infinity pool and the glistening ocean. We stretch out, take a deep breath of clean air, and immediately conk out.
The room is a self-contained cottage cradled into a dohini–a traditional Maldivian fishing boat that looks like a bloated canoe. The structure rests on stilts over the water. Rosewood and white is the color palette; the decor exudes that of a modern Zen Indonesian bungalow. It is luxurious but not lavish. All the amenities of a Four Seasons are available but not thrown in your face. The bathroom is almost as big as the living space. Through the sliding glass doors is a private deck–complete with cushy lounge chairs, a table for two, and a swim ladder jutting directly into the endless ocean. The flat screen TV inside seems superfluous. It is a generous offering, which is what we came for. We slip into our bathing suits and park ourselves on the deck chairs covered in velvety white terry cloth pads and let the tanning begin. After five minutes I am roasting, and the electric blue sea is calling my name. I plonk right into the room temperature water. It is so calm and clear that it feels like I’m in a swimming pool with coral and marine life. I swim straight out to the natural boundary where the color of water dramatically changes from cerulean to sapphire. I feel at home and safe in this water. I return to my post on the lounge chair and lose consciousness until the evening, as does Dominic, waking up only to take intermittent dips in our private ocean. My book lays untouched on my lounge chair, as it does for most of the trip.
We freshen up and get dressed for dinner. There is only one restaurant and one bar on the island; there’s no need, or space, for more than that. We walk over the wooden deck from the chain of villas perched above the water to the mainland. The Ufaa Restaurant sprawls out underneath an alang-alang** pavilion and the open sky. Dominic and I once again laugh at the ridiculous perfection of the place. We order an island cocktail and start to look over the menu. Starters are an average of $30USD, entrees $50USD, and dessert $20USD–ouch! It was difficult to accept that each dinner was going to cost about $200USD, but if this was the only hiccup in the trip, we couldn’t complain. We order a bottle of Australian Sav Blanc with our food. It’s so warm outside that our wine glasses start to sweat after just a few minutes, but a weightless breeze wisps about keeping us refreshed. It feels like we are dining in an outdoor planetarium. We stroll back to our suite relaxed and happy.
Snorkeling and Yoga
The next day we wander over to the Dive Center to pick up our complimentary snorkel gear. On the way, I find what feels like a hidden treasure–a hammock hanging from a mangrove tree. I adore hammocks and would sleep in one every night if I could. I slunk into it like it’s made for me, and I just swing for a while. I could stay here all day, but it’s not exactly entertaining watching someone swing in a hammock, and Dominic is ready to snorkel. At the Dive Center we are warned of two creatures: stingrays, who lurk just under the top layer of sand, and triggerfish, who will attack with their chunky teeth if provoked. Dominic is concerned by the unassuming presence of the stingrays, but the dive master assures us there has never been a ‘reported’ stingray attack on Cocoa. We manage to avoid any stingray landmines or trigger fish attacks. The reef is very shallow and there are lots of colorful fishes to see, like angelfish, pufferfish, and wrasses. We also see triggerfish, baby sharks, and even manta rays. The Maldives are a chain of islands 400 nautical miles west of Sri Lanka and make up the largest reef formation in the world making it a prime location for underwater sightseeing.
Everyday from 5-6pm there is a complimentary yoga class. I decided to go today, and Dominic was interested as well. The class is held in a beautiful open-air yoga studio at the edge of the island with the still sea on one side and a sandy courtyard on the other. Our instructor is Indian. The mats are already set up facing the ocean. There are about ten people in the class today. Doing yoga in setting like this is a dream. After savasana, final resting pose, our instructor brings each of us a small cup of the most delicious and robust herbal tea along with a cool scented towel. Dominic and I compliment his tea, and he tells us it’s simply ginger, lemon, and honey, but it tastes like there is more to it than just that. We walk in literal yogic bliss through the trees into the sunset. Back in our room we get ready for dinner. We sleep well that night and look forward to another idyllic day on Cocoa.
The island is at full occupancy, as it is most of the year with only 30 villas total, and in order to accommodate our stay we have to change rooms three times, which is a lot considering we are only here for five nights. Our flexibility behooves us because the two other rooms are free upgrades. After seeing a standard room, I can’t comprehend how it could get any better.
But it does.
It’s our third day and time for our first room switch. We pack our stuff before we leave for breakfast. Much like our first day on the island, we idle over our morning feast, pass out on a lounge chair by the ocean, and are politely woken up to be told that our new room is ready. The gentleman from the hotel points to a huge villa at the end of the island, “That is your new room.” I look confused. He smiles and tells us not to waste any time, as the room is, “very special”. It finally dawns on me that the entire villa is ours for the next 24 hours!
As we walk through the grand entrance, it feels like the enchanted castle in this island fairy tale. It is an enormous villa that could sleep a family of eight comfortably. With a full kitchen, three massive bathrooms, and a dining room, it is far more space than we need, but nobody heard us complaining. We are two people living in a mansion–absurd for everyday but fabulous for a night. I’m so overwhelmed that I drink a glass of white wine from the non-mini-mini-bar to chill the F out and celebrate our temporary celebrity status. Dominic and I do a little dance of joy on all three tiers of our ocean deck surrounded by gradients of blue and a small island off in the distance. The view is one of the most breathtaking I’ve ever seen. We even have our own private hammock–and that’s when I knew. I knew I had found heaven on earth. I sat down at one of the tables outside to write. I was so happy all I wanted to do was write about this ludicrously deliciously perfect magical place.
Later that day, after a whole hour of snorkeling, we are starving and we decide to indulge in lunch, something we had agreed we’d try not to do since we were eating $200 dinners every night. But with our new P.Diddy status we decided to splurge. Even though the resort is at full occupancy, most of the time it feels like we are the only couple here, with the exception of breakfast and dinnertime. There is only one other couple at the restaurant. The loudest sounds are the gentle lapping of the ocean and the faint rustling of the trees. The waiter arrives with our drink order. It’s so quiet that we can hear the ice cubes rearranging themselves as the fizzing Coke is poured into the clear glasses with a bright circular slice of lime floating at the top. We are mesmerized as the waiter does something so simple with such grace.
After lunch we explore the island a bit. First we visit the hydrotherapy pool, which is encased in a stunning wooden pavilion with lush green plants woven throughout. Our skin soaks up the soothing minerals in the water and is massaged by the therapeutic jets. Then we enjoy some of that lively ginger tea on one of the chaise lounges next to the pool. We just sit for a while because we can; we have no place to be except our rock star crash pad. A spa is adjacent to the pool, so I freshen up with all the yummy bath gels and lotions and fluffy warm towels. I feel new and improved as I emerge from the spa. We wander between the mangrove and blossoming frangipani trees on the sandy pathway covered with hibiscus flowers that change from yellow to red when they fall to the ground in the evening. There are black crows that circle the island overseeing their land while the water hens, herons and gannet keep watch of shore. Wooden swings and hammocks hang on trees, and huts with lounge chairs are scattered all over the island–each one feeling like you’ve Christopher Columbused a secret chill-out zone. You could spend one satisfying day alone just drinking in the view from any given point on the island, which is exactly what Eric Klemm thought in 1976 when he first came here.
Eric Klemm is a German photographer who frequently came to the Maldives for photoshoots back in the seventies. People mainly went to the North Male Atoll, and he decided to venture to the South Male Atoll instead. It was love at first sight, and when he returned to Europe he could not forget his new found romance. By May 1980, Klemm had figured out how to lease the island, and he moved here (Maldivian islands by law are not available for sale but can be leased). He named it Cocoa Island, and I wish I knew exactly why, although I think it has something to do with the palm trees, as that was the first thing he saw on the island from afar. His original plans to build a personal island hideaway were shattered when the Maldivian Minister of Investment informed him that as a foreign investor he must use the island as a tourist resort. This stressed Eric out because he had no plans, or finances, to build a hotel. Well, when things are important enough mighty doors open, and things worked out for him. Within a year he and his team built a small resort to accommodate eight visitors. He lived on Cocoa for 15 years. He now lives in Vancouver with his wife (whom he met on the island) and two children. He is still a photographer.
The Maldives recently gained their independence from the British in 1965, and it was only in 1972 that the first tourist resort opened. Much of Maldivian history is embedded in myth and folklore, but archaeological evidence indicates that people first inhabited the islands 5,000 years ago. It is an Islamic republic (there is a small mosque on Cocoa). The local language is Dhivehi, but English is widely spoken. Tourism and fishing are the country’s major sources of revenue. About 1,200 islands comprise the Maldives; of the 200 inhabited islands, 80 are tourist resorts.
By our fourth day on the island we are familiar with our fellow holidaymakers. Although nobody speaks to each other, everyone is aware of one another’s presence. At the very most, polite smiles are exchanged; generally people keep to themselves. The majority are couples, mostly European–Germans, Italians, French, English, Spanish–and a few Asians. I’m pretty sure I was the only American, as I had the loudest laugh of anyone there. We could gauge the people who had just arrived by their pale skin and hurried walk. The sun is so strong here that it would turn an albino a shade darker in a few hours. And after just one day on the island you tend walk everywhere in slow motion, as there is no rush to get anywhere.
Life on Cocoa
After breakfast we move to our third and final room. I really don’t want to leave our P.Diddy suite at all. I get over it (only because I have to), and I am grateful that we stayed in such a place for the night. Our new room is on the opposite end of the island. The one room villa turns out to be an impeccable blend of the standard room and the mansion. The bed is mounted on a platform of Japanese tatami mats with a beautiful rustic tapestry hung on the wall behind it. The bathroom is just as stunning as the others, complete with an outdoor shower. The long deck extends out to the most spectacular stretch on the island where the water is a richer turquoise and the sand more white and powdery than anywhere else. There are no neighbors–just us at the edge of the earth again. We stay here all afternoon snorkeling, swimming, sunning, and snacking. We request a bottle of wine be brought to our room in the evening so we can enjoy the sunset on our deck. We lose track of time and by 9:45pm we get a courteous call regarding our dinner plans for the evening. It was nice being looked after without feeling pressured. We decide on room service. The food comes quickly and they do everything short of bring the restaurant to us. All the accoutrement is exactly as it is in the restaurant, and the service charge is just $5USD.
The service and staff on the island is flawless. They always call you Mr. and Mrs. Such and Such without a fleck of attitude. Someone always knows of your whereabouts on the island and the duration of your stay. They personify the chilled island vibe with their gentle voices, soft smiles, and relaxed gate. They are respectful of their duties and guests. Rooms are meticulously cleaned twice a day.
We were so pleased with the room service that we order breakfast in the room the next morning, which is our last morning on Cocoa. Fortunately we have the entire day to hang out since we don’t leave for Male until 11pm. We walk around the island for a couple hours scuffling our feet along the sand and the water. We stop at the pool to take a non-salt water swim and lay in the shade. It is particularly hot today. I’ve reached my Pocahontas look-a-like stage, and Dominic is swimming with a long sleeve shirt on, so shade was good for both of us. We are like lions slowing moving around from one shady spot to another just sleeping and watching the lay of the land. I peacefully drift off for an afternoon nap with the warm breeze drying my wet skin. Later Dominic wakes me up and says that he’s ordered us drinks. Afternoon cocktails! Our first round of delicious ginger mojitos goes down quickly. We order another round; it’s our last day here after all. Dominic writes some lyrics, and I sit with my pen in hand but end up just people watching. I watch the staff set up for dinner. They set each placemat, glass, and fork on the tables with consideration. They devotedly water each plant that seems to grow without any help. They quietly joke around with each other without losing focus on their task at hand. The even seem to sweep the floor in tune with the sound of the ocean. I watch a family who I can tell has just arrived that day because they meet the skin color/walk criteria. They have a baby (the only one I’ve seen so far). It looks like Mommy is on the way with a second. I think they are English, and they seem like a nice family. My reverie was broken when a hotel manger hands the phone to Dominic. We called the spa earlier to book two massages for that day. There was only one slot available, and I insisted Dominic take it. Sure enough they dutifully located us at the bar to let us know that a space had opened up for me.
At 5pm we are both seated in an outdoor lounge waiting for our massages. We fill out a brief questionnaire that helps them identify our ayurvedic doshas (body types). Each treatment is given in a small private glass hut at the water’s edge with soothing yoga-like music and the sound of the ocean. The room permeates the Como Shambhala signature scent–a blend of eucalyptus, geranium, lavender and peppermint, used for all their revitalizing in-room toiletries and those special moist towels they offer. Dominic and I both like a serious deep tissue massage, and this was more of a gentle prod. But the setting could not be beat. We head back to our room to freshen up for our final dinner on Cocoa Island. I’m addicted to the outdoor shower. The air is still and warm. A full moon beams through the infinite midnight blue sky filled with stars. I inhale the blend of eucalyptus and lavender in the soap with the lightly salted air swirling in the steam. The water feels like it’s falling from the sky onto my head, down my body, and onto the wooden deck under my feet.
Luckily our last night fell on Seafood Barbeque Night, where all sorts of fresh catches are grilled and served with a delectable salad bar. Several of the staff come to our table to wish us a safe journey back to London and they hoped we enjoyed our stay. We rave about what a wonderful time we’ve had, and they seem genuinely satisfied and proud of their island.
At 11pm we leave on the speedboat that brought us here six days ago. The ride feels much longer this time. Maybe it’s because it’s nighttime. Maybe it’s because I’m not ready to leave. Our flight to Dubai doesn’t depart until 2am. We aren’t looking forward to our two-leg flight home mostly because it’s the in the middle of the night. There is a direct Emirates flight from London to Male, which we would definitely take next time.
Truth be told, within the first 20 minutes of being on Cocoa I was ready to fill out a job application and stay forever. But by the end of our stay, I would have to think twice about it. There is something about living on Cocoa that seems lonely, transient, and perhaps too quiet for long-term living. My travel itineraries typically include raucous market stalls, vibrant music, cold showers, chicken buses, and a backpack. This wasn’t that kind of trip, yet on this small island I explored myself and my new surroundings, which are reasons why I travel. Maybe that’s why we must visit places like Cocoa Island–to reconcile the stillness we’ve lost in our hectic and overly complicated lives. And to take that peace we feel while on the island and release it back into the world.
Before I left I was disappointed that I didn’t get my nails done and a new bathing suit and a haircut for my exotic island getaway. As soon as I arrived here, all those extravagances were diminished by the grandeur of this place. The sun provided a radiance that no bathing suit or manicure could compete with. And the salt from the ocean gave my hair a wild sexy texture even the best haircut couldn't emulate. But most of all, I felt happy, which is the best beauty treatment I know of. I needed nothing else in the world except to let go of everything and just be here.
And I realized that this is why there are so many couples here. They are people who just want to be together in peace, and I found it rather touching. Couples come here to rejuvenate, recharge, and reconnect. They have come here to press the reset button on their lives and, perhaps, their relationship. I can’t imagine a more appropriate place to do just that. Next time we come to Cocoa Island, and there will be a next time, I know all I need are my bathing suit, a few gauzy dresses, and sunscreen–everything else is provided, including happiness.
* Note: you cannot smuggle small bottles of wine from the plane into Dubai. They take it away from you at security. I’m shameless, I know.
** A type of Indonesian thatched roofing.
All photographs and video by Dominic Goldman.