My Stepford hideaway

by HILARY BONNER, Mail on Sunday

Last updated at 13:43 29 January 2001

Once again I have been hypnotised by eight acres or so of palm-fringed sand in the middle of the Indian Ocean. I shall try to write a reasoned critical appraisal of Nakatchafushi. But don't bet on it.

Maybe it's something they put in the water, or in my case more likely the gin, but the moment I arrive on my favourite paradise island I turn into a Stepford Wife.

Just like the women in the famous film, who are turned into benign robots, my critical faculties vanish. I acquire an absurd sense of well-being and a permanent soppy grin.

I have just returned from a sixth trip there. Surely anyone with half an inquiring mind should want to see more of the world than the same tiny island on their major annual holiday?

Then comes the moment. Hot, sticky and tired from a 13-hour journey, you make your way along the quayside outside Male Airport to the Nakatcha speedboat. As you step aboard, you take your shoes off. And that's it - arrival of soppy smile directly synchronous with realisation that shoes will not be required again for the duration.

The Maldives still has a no-shoes, no-news philosophy. Dressing for dinner means T-shirt and shorts. There's no TV or radio on Nakatcha and no delivery of newspapers. I've been a journalist all my working life, for goodness sake!

Deprived of the media for more than an hour or so, I start to twitch. But that's only in what passes for a state of normality. Under the hypnosis of Nakatcha, everything is different. I do take a short-wave radio with me. This time I never even got around to installing the batteries.

It's quite fun to watch new arrivals succumb to this trance-like state. The unique Nakatcha welcome is usually enough to get 'em. New guests, already relieved of responsibility for their luggage and everything else, are led along shrub-lined sandy paths to the reception area, where they are immediately offered a cold towel, ushered to a squashy sofa and presented with a glass of chilled fruit punch.

Only then are they asked to fill in a registration document. Cramped limbs relax. Tired brains begin to relish the prospect of being almost as obsolete as shoes. The eyes glaze.

The staff look smug. The island is run meticulously by the Maldivian company Universal and, from manager Ahmed Rasheed down, everyone who works there seems intent on smiling you into submission. Returning visitors are greeted like old friends.

When the tourist trade began on the islands, in the Seventies, accommodation was inclined to be primitive. Often rooms with sand floors and salt water showers were all that was on offer. Now, with 95 of the 1,000 Maldivian islands designated tourist resorts, times have changed dramatically.

The Maldives still do not have the sophistication of the Caribbean, the Seychelles or Mauritius - but that is probably their greatest charm. Also, although prices are going up, they remain way below that of other paradise islands.

To love the place as I do, you have to regard simplicity as a plus rather than a minus. Having said that, Nakatcha is one of the more luxurious islands and its standards of comfort are high.

The food's good, as long as you go on a bedand-breakfast deal when you eat what and when you like in a gloriously pretty outdoor restaurant right alongside the water.

Curries as fine as you will get anywhere in the world start from as little as £5.50, barbecued steaks, flambé dishes and lobster are around £20 and lavish buffet suppers between £17 and £24. A full or half-board deal is, as ever, the most economic package, but means a duller indoor restaurant and much duller food.

On Nakatcha, as with almost all the Maldivian islands, the island is the hotel and the hotel is the island. There is no little bar to go to down the road and, as this is a Muslim state, you are not even allowed to bring in a duty-free bottle. But on the resort islands, every imaginable drink is available damn near round the clock. And Nakatcha does not sting you. A gin and tonic - a decent measure, certainly an English pub double - costs about £2.50.

It's rather more difficult to quantify the spirit of the Nakatcha. They'll even whisk you off to a deserted sandbank for your dinner, where you watch the sun set into the ocean while your private chef for the night barbecues your dinner which will be served on an immaculately laid table by your private waiter. Almost obscenely wonderful.

Apart from that and a trip to Male - which has little to recommend it - or a neighbouring island or two, there is absolutely nothing to do except read, swim and dive. Strange then that the days seem so short.

The diving, of course, and the snorkelling are magical - even now, less than a couple of years after the tragedy of coral bleaching which has killed off 75 per cent of the world's coral.

There's a long long way to go, but it is growing back and the marine life in the Maldives, including manta rays, whale sharks and turtles, is as abundant as ever.

Nakatcha is truly tiny - 382 yards long and 109 yards wide - and yet its shrub-shrouded bungalows a few feet from the beaches contrive to give a sense of space and privacy. It takes only about 15 minutes to perambulate the entire island - longer if you pause to gossip with those you meet on the way.

No conversation is ever worth remembering, however. People rarely discuss anything remotely consequential on this island. After all, they're mostly deeply under hypnosis like me.

Nakatcha defies you to be contentious, encourages you not to think an intelligent thought for as long as you are there and lulls you into a glorious, sun-drenched stupor.

If the very idea of this horrifies you, do not go near the place. If you find it attractive, beware. You could join Nakatcha's international army of dedicated repeaters - I was there once when 49 of the 55 rooms were inhabited by returning guests. To make a dozen or even 20 visits there is not at all uncommon - and the island has been going for only 20 years.

Before that, like most Maldivian resorts, it was a deserted coral island, its only vegetation a few palms growing out of the sand. There's no natural water, washing water is desalinated and flasks of rainwater are supplied for drinking, so there are seldom any mosquitoes. Neither are there any flies worth mentioning.

Nakatcha is scrupulously clean, so the little beggars can rarely find anywhere nasty enough to breed. Outdoor eating, and even reading on your terrace after dark, are therefore unhindered pleasures.

Each bungalow has its own little area of beach and its own numbered beach loungers. No need for beach-towel reservations here.

Everything about Nakatcha is designed to make life peaceful.

So is it really absolutely perfect? Of course not. I don't like the piped music in the bar and I wish they'd never built the swimming pool - it's pretty but somehow detracts from Nakatcha's unique desert island feel.

Er - that's the best I can do on the debit side. There must be more. But we Stepford Wives see only the good things. That's what Nakatcha does to you. Suspends the brain, pampers the body. Makes you forget. And puts that soppy smile on your face.

I think it's called being on holiday.

Travel facts KUONI (01306 747 000) operates a year-round charter to the Maldives from Gatwick. Independent travellers can book Nakatcha direct with Universal, from around £60 a night B&B per room. Call 00 960 323 080, fax 00 960 322 678 or email For scheduled flights call Sri Lankan Airlines (020 8538 2000) and Emirates (best deals available through DNATA on 020 7932 9900).

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