TRAVELS IN THE TIME OF CORONA
GETTING TO THE MALDIVES
Travel industry super publicist Geoffrey Weill guides us through his long ride to the Maldives during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I’ve flown Etihad, which I loved, but I’ve always wanted to fly Emirates. When I checked in online for our flight to Malé at our Dubai hotel, a pop-up offered an upgrade from economy to business for a fraction of the real cost. I grabbed at it. Wow! Emirates’ business class!
The Ritz-Carlton concierge told me that leaving at 7:30 a.m. would be fine for a 9:45 a.m. flight in business class. We waved good-bye to the Burj Khalifa en route to Emirates’ terminal that is designed exclusively for business class passengers. It’s Dubai, so of course it’s colossal, stretching for thousands of yards of marble and halogen lighting almost into infinity. We wheel our luggage to one of 50 or so active check-in desks and then begin a process that takes conservatively an hour.
Unbeknownst to me, an app must be downloaded for entry to the Maldives during these Times of Corona. Except I can’t seem to manage to download the app. The cheery check-in clerk has clearly been through this before. He aims a gun at my phone, and up pops the Maldives Covid-19 entry form. I realize it’s an endless parade of questions and he suggests I take a seat and come back when I’m done.
I sit at a low table and go to work. I have to answer what seems like 783 questions about where I live, where I was born, why I was born, why I am bound for the Maldives, and where I am staying. Had I been trans, I would have no choice but to opt for M or F. I have to take a selfie and upload it. I have to photograph the result of my COVID-negative result taken the day before. I have to upload my passport information page (Hint: never leave home without your and your family’s passports saved in your phone’s photos). I press submit, and up pops a QR code that the check-in clerk had told me to save as a photograph.
I go back to the check-in desk, and the cheery clerk, who is now checking in someone with even more luggage than we, excuses himself and once again aims the gun so I can repeat the identical exercise for my wife. Back to the low table. Another 783 questions, a photo of her, and three uploads.
No trans: F. Submit. Save. Back to the check-in clerk. He aims the gun, and I go through the whole rigmarole again for my daughter. Then back to the desk, and the whole thing again for my son. I begin to wonder if our visit to the Maldives is going to be worth this torment. Finally, we check our six suitcases onto the flight and receive our boarding passes. We grind a kilometer or so along moving floors to the business-class lounge. The lady at the desk wears the iconic Emirates hat with veil that becomes a scarf. She swipes the first boarding pass over a light. The machine buzzes rudely.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “You have discounted business-class tickets, so you may not use the lounge.” She says it politely, but with just a hint of disdain, as if we haven’t recently showered. How very British, I think. Even within the class system there’s a class system. We slink away, abashed, descend an escalator, spray our masks with duty-free cologne testers and amble to the gate.
We board, and there are gracious smiles and welcomes. We are actually escorted personally to our seats. On our way, we pass through first class, with its private compartments. The business class section is quite lovely, despite the seats being surrounded by acres of beige wood-grain Formica that looks exactly like Formica with faux beige wood-grain, which is unspeakably not attractive.
But the service is expert and caring and over-the-top polite. Drinks are served. I ask for socks and am brought a pair—the first time I have ever flown business class without being offered an amenity kit. Or maybe because we are “discounted” they are kept from us.
The 777 ambles out to the runway and we’re off. We can watch the take-off on our TVs, since the camera is somewhere in the nose of the plane. The flight crew is now shrouded in disposable gowns. Is it appendectomy time again? We are handed giant menus. We select our main courses. The food is unusually delicious. Wine is poured by the gallon. My wife and the kids watch movies. I stretch my seat flat and nap. I’m awoken by the sensation of descent. The scheduled four-plus hours turns out to be three and a half hours. Out of the window the ocean is turquoise and there is a blizzard of reefs and islands. We touch down gently and coast past tall apartment buildings. This is my fourth time in the Maldives, and I don’t recall skyscrapers.
We emerge from the plane and descend stairs into warmth and a refreshing breeze. There are limos for the First Class passengers, and we in business (even wretched refuse discount passengers) are whisked in a minivan to immigration. The immigration clerk has the charm of a python, but the forms I labored over at Dubai airport seem to have done their work, and we are through in minutes. We wheel our luggage out and are immediately accosted by Soneva representatives who take instant charge of our cases, our hand luggage, our lives.
They hand us fragrant moist towels. We have now entered a world of pampering. We are walked to the check-in desk for Trans Maldivian Airlines (operator of the world’s largest fleet of seaplanes) so our luggage can be weighed. Our six cases clock in at about 50,000 kilos, but everyone seems too gracious to grimace. A minivan drives us around the airport to an undistinguished building that houses the very comfortable Soneva arrival lounge.
There we find more cool towels, delicious fruit drinks, a sideboard groaning with snacks. Other Soneva-bound passengers are here. too. One couple cannot quite keep their hands off each other. They are Russian. He is about 40 and busy on two phones, yet somehow still able to caress his lover. She is 40 going on 30 with seriously collagen-ed lips and an I-can’t-stop-smiling facelift. There’s an American family whose accents are south of the Mason-Dixon Line. We are all comfy now, but, of course, it’s form-filling time. A variety of questions are asked—of which my favorite is “while you are staying with us, do you wish to sign for extras and meals each time, or just have a bill at the end of your stay?” I choose the latter.
It’s now back to the minivan and a drive to the Trans-Maldivian seaplane terminal. There are literally dozens of De Havilland Twin Otters lined up along the docks, bobbing in the water. We are escorted along the jetty to our plane, and clamber aboard (not easy). Our embarrassing stack of luggage fills the rear of the plane. The Russian couple and the Deep-South family board, too. As do two other couples who are bound for the Dusit Thani, the plane’s second stop.
The door to the cockpit is open, and there are two pilots, both snazzily dressed in white shirts with gold-braided epaulets, ties, sunglasses, finely pressed shorts—and no shoes. One of them makes the safety announcements and then sits. As I am seated in the front row, I can watch the two of them go through the pre-flight checks. Together they reach up to the ceiling to handle the throttle.
In the Soneva lounge we had each been given a pair of ear-plugs in a cute little cotton draw-string bag—and we all screw them into our ears. We drift away from the dock and the engine noise increases as we bounce out to the open water. The barefoot pilots turn the seaplane into the wind and we begin to whoosh across the waves. Faster, faster, louder, louder and suddenly the waves are down below us.
It’s a 30-minute flight to Soneva Fushi. My wife and daughter had downed a Dramamine in the Soneva lounge, needlessly it turns out, since the flight is smooth if not as silk, as canvas. As we fly we see island resorts, each with lines of docks leading to overwater villas. Some seem incredibly close to each other, like five-star public housing, others are more separated.
We circle over the island that is Soneva Fushi and splash down atop turquoise waves. We meander to a floating dock. We remove the earplugs. Carefully, we descend the seaplanes steps to the wobbly dock and grab a railing to keep upright. We clamber aboard a speedboat and as we depart, we look back to see minions heaving our luggage into another boat.
Aboard the speedboat the Soneva pampering clicks into high gear. Micky introduces himself. He is our barefoot butler. Other butlers introduce themselves to the passionate Russians and the Deep Southers. We are handed cool towels and iced fruit drinks. And then comes the best part: Micky gives each of us a cotton drawstring bag on which is embroidered: “no shoes, no news.”
We remove our shoes and place them in the bag, which Micky labels Villa 9. We will not be wearing shoes for the next four days. The “no news” message on the bag dates to an earlier era when the Maldives were really isolated. Sadly—or not, you choose—our cell phones are not similarly embargoed. And to make it even worse —or better, your choice again—the Wi-Fi at Soneva Fushi turns out to be NASA-class.
We draw up to the jetty at Soneva Fushi. We’re warmly welcomed by a phalanx of hosts and helped ashore. All the staffers, Micky too, are wearing linen shorts and matching linen shirts whose buttons are concealed beneath a tailored strip of linen. They are super stylish and super creased—which is, of course, the whole point. Without the creases, you’d assume they’re wearing Dacron.
We walk along the wooden jetty to the sand and the heart of Soneva Fushi. Here is where we will have breakfast. Here is the bar. Here is the little parade of shops and galleries. Micky packs us into an electric golf cart and we weave through the jungle to Villa 9. It’s gorgeous, right on the beach, has its own pool and three bedrooms. One of the bathrooms is indoor/outdoor and is so vast it would make the perfect location for a Bar Mitzvah. The master bedroom closet and bathroom are so immense I wish we had breadcrumbs to find our way back to the bed.
Oh yes, I think, we can deal with this. Our luggage, miraculously, is already here. Micky explains that we will shortly have a COVID-PCR test, order a room service dinner, and then remain isolated in the villa until the next day. The nurse arrives in a hazmat suit. She swiftly swabs our nostrils and in a blink of an eye, she’s gone.
We’re alone now in paradise. The sun is setting. We unpack, we swim, we shower, we swim, we laze. We order dinner—and two bemasked waiters serve us an array of Italian, Thai and Malay dishes in our very own dining room that comfortably seats 12. We have our own chic SMEG refrigerator full of drinks and snacks. There is a bar with bottles of liquor, a stocked wine fridge and a bottle of very high class eclectic Champagne sitting in an ice bucket. In an instant, it’s de-wired and uncorked and my wife and I attack it. The kids have Cokes. It’s been a long day and we’re exhausted.