This piece was written at the beginning of February 2020, before the full spread and subsequent impact of COVID-19 was understood by the international community. Read our UK safety guidelines here.
I hear the shark before I see it. A gentle splash breaks the early morning ocean calm, giving way to a manic writhing. “Oh... fuck,” I mouth to myself — because there’s no-one else to mouth it to — as that unmistakable dorsal fin approaches, 23 million years of apex predator-engineering in the making, a perfect cartilaginous blade of doom, not five metres from me. I can already see the MailOnline comments section, below the report of “Lone Brit mauled in tropical shark horror”: “Some of us can’t even go on holiday to get eaten by a shark!” writesGloucesterJim69, who receives 438 green thumbs up.
The shark begins its approach; time to meet my maker. At least this is better than falling down the stairs or a sudden pulmonary embolism. Not to mention there’s some drama in bleeding out into the expanse of the ancient sea. Then, the full shape of my fishy grim reaper comes into focus and... it is a shark, yes, but one the size of a large trout — one metre long on a good day. A tiny, and entirely harmless, black tip reef shark. By now it has ceased its thrashing, allowing me to marvel at this great predator in miniature. The perfect arc of the fin tipped with black, the smooth, yellow-hued skin and the empty glass of its eyes.
It is beautiful, and then it is gone, gliding into the blue with a flick of its caudal fin, in search of a reef snack. The sea returns to a sheet of polished opal rippling softly in the Maldivian breeze. I am alone again, my femoral arteries intact. I have lived to tell the tale. Now I just need someone to share it with.
“Solitude is fine,” wrote Honoré de Balzac,“but you need someone to tell that solitude is fine.”
It’s day three of my desert island holiday of a lifetime. I’m in the Republic of Maldives, the archipelago nation made up of nearly 1,200 idyllic coral islets spread across the Indian Ocean, to the south-west of India and Sri Lanka, and I’m beginning to wonder what I’ve done to deserve this, in both senses of that phrase. Not only: what kind of overprivileged arsehole gets to do this as part of his job? But also: how did I end up here, alone and friendless? The answer, simply put, is to see what a trip to paradise looks like or, more to the point, feels like when taken solo.
To clarify, I have travelled alone in the past. Hanging out of a chipped, blue train in Sri Lanka as it winds through spindly pine forests. So lonely in the smog and sprawl and crackling internet cafes of Lima that it feels something like pleasure. A quiet weekend in Berlin as winter thaws into spring, the hedonism of others reverberating from behind closed doors. Hitching a ride on a cargo ship that crawls through the muddy waters of the Amazon; fat, black beetles the size of tennis balls clattering into the cracked bulb above my hammock as soon as darkness falls. But a holiday alone feels different. A (semi-)static enterprise used for unwinding, for switching off. Somewhere with a beach, a swimming pool and, ideally, a buffet breakfast where the fruit is arranged in strange and inviting shapes.
Last year, an ABTA survey found that one-in-six British travellers now holidays alone; three times the number who did so in 2011. What was once seen as an occupation for the sad, the lonely — and possibly the criminally insane —has been experiencing a boom. People who like to strike up conversations with strangers on trains are no longer alone. (Except when they’re alone.)
This rise can be attributed to several factors. “Technology has definitely played a starring role,” says Sarah Reid, author of Lonely Planet’s The Solo Travel Handbook. We can book a table at a trendy restaurant with Open Table, swipe right on Hinge for a date that same evening, navigate awkward backstreets via Google Maps and checkin for a nice little dopamine treat with Instagram whenever we see fit. “I think it has given travellers more confidence to go it alone,” adds Reid. It has also meant that, even if we are participating in a physically solitary experience, we are ever-increasingly tethered to our day-to-days by the phones in our pockets, whether we like it or not.
Reid also notes an increasing social acceptance of solo travel. Rather than feel sorry for you, friends are likely to be impressed by your daring. I conducted an informal survey of mine. “I like my own company and always feel more immersed in a country if I’m solo. I never feel lonely,” a colleague who regularly holidays alone tells me. “I’d like to say it [holiday-ing alone] is about ‘realigning my chakras’ or something,” says another. “But really, it’s about time alone, being able to do what I want to do, when I want to do it.” “Take a book,” adds another friend helpfully. “Maybe two!”
For my own part, I’ve travelled alone consistently for two reasons: a combination of want and necessity. A desire to be — and to be seen as — a young man on the move with no one to answer for or to, the wandering narrator of my own fascinating and not-at-all-contrived story. Also, because, on the cusp of 28 and single, my friendships are starting to “evolve”; lives are becoming busier: long-term relationships, saving for that elusive help-to-buy scheme, group holidays, worsening hangovers, the tricky logistics of city-dwelling. Six months can pass without seeing close friends. (“Let’s go for a drink soon?”)
We live in an era of selfishness rebranded as self-actualisation. Why compromise because someone in the group chat doesn’t fancy Lisbon? Why wait? A 2016 study published by researchers at the University of Oxford found that men begin to lose their friends after their mid-20s; that things just... get in the way. We let things drift. I try not to think about it too much.
After a 12-hour flight I arrive bleary-eyed in Malé, capital of the Maldives, which sits on the largest of the archipelago’s islands. It’s a shrunken, sober metropolis of 143,000 people where mosques and markets compete for space with freshly-erected skyscrapers and seafront condominiums. It feels like a city being built in front of your eyes; an improvisation. The sea, as blue as the photos you’ve probably seen, the only nod towards paradise. I feel sleep-deprived and oddly nervous. I’m here. I’m doing this.
Outside the entrance to Velana International Airport, a soldier in combat fatigues, a beret and a surgical mask idly handles a machine gun. He steps from shiny-leather-boot-clad foot to shiny leather-boot-clad foot on the cracked tarmac, heat shimmering from its baked surface. Posters are plastered throughout warning against signs of the nascent novel coronavirus, as airport staff and fellow tourists eye each other from a safe distance. Are my glands up? Is that an ache in my back? How’s my breathing? Don’t cough on me!
Stepping into the caustic sunlight, sweating and disorientated, I’m shepherded into an air-conditioned people carrier by a smiling man in a neat white uniform. “Not far, sir,” he says as we pull out onto a perfect ribbon of freshly-laid motorway that runs adjacent to the ocean, the primary colour-clad skyscrapers melting into a blur as we pick up speed towards the city’s seaplane terminal. In order to reach the white sand dream of a thousand travel agents’ windows, you need to take a seaplane, a tiny, eight-to-15-seater twin-propeller aircraft. Couples in floral shirts and summer dresses clamber into a bright red fleet of air taxis bobbing patiently by a sun-bleached jetty. On their way.
The captain of my seaplane, wearing shorts, a short-sleeved shirt and aviator sunglasses, fires up the engines. We take off and Malé is soon reduced to a densely-packed pin on a map, before disappearing altogether, blue sky and sea the colour of anti-freeze stretching out to the equator.
In the lounge before the flight, I had typed “solo travel” into Google on my phone to see what the top prompts are. Is solo travel safe? Is solo travel fun? Is solo travel weird? Is solo travel lonely? Is solo travel for me?
The plane lands with a thud on the sea. I’m whisked straight to my villa, which is on stilts and looks lifted straight from a brochure where couples, tanned and smiling, hold hands in matching white linen. “Please enjoy your stay.” The door closes. I am here, I am alone. It is the nicest placeI have ever stayed, it is perfect. It is bigger than my flat. I pace around it, occasionally breaking out in manic laughter to no one.
I turn on the tap, I turn on the TV. I walkout onto the decking that faces the shimmer oft he afternoon and the sea. I take a photo, then another, then 10 more. I post one to Instagram.“Looks amazing!” someone replies within minutes, which makes me feel... good. This is paradise. I walk around the deck again, I take another photo. I feel good. I feel... good?
A decade ago, the Czech billionaire Jiri Smejc decided he wanted to buy his own slice of tropical paradise, but there was a catch: you can’t just buy an island in the Maldives, at least not without certain requirements being met. Firstly, you can only lease an island from the government, not buy it outright. Secondly, you can’t use said island purely as a private residence: there has to be some sort of resort or hotel in order to contribute to an economy and workforce which is so greatly dependent on tourism (it is the nation’s number one industry, with fishing second). Smejc spent $(US)200m on building the perfect island retreat, both for himself and some lucky, and very wealthy, guests.
Velaa Private Island (“velaa” means “turtle” in the local Dhivehi language) opened in 2013 on the Noonu Atoll, a 45-minute seaplane flight from Malè. It is made up of 45 residences and villas, with thatched roofs, infinity pools, temperature-controlled wine fridges and tastefully expensive Scandi-leaning interiors. It has three restaurants: one, Aragu, overseen by Gaushan de Silva, formerly of Copenhagen’s Noma; another, the Japanese-inflected Tavaru, is set in a towering, cocoon-like structure that breaks through the palm tops like an alien lair in the jungle. The butter and fine wines are from France and caviar is on the breakfast menu.
The paving stones, designed to remain cool underfoot even on the hottest days, are imported from Jordan. There is a covered tennis court, a squash court, a climbing wall, the most comprehensive wine cellar in the republic, a PGA-approved nine-hole golf course with grass that took eight years to cultivate, jet skis, private yachts and a submarine.
“If you want Celine Dion to play for you at your private villa, we can arrange it,” says the resort’s marketing manager Lisa Jakobson. “I mean, it would cost you a lot... but we could do it.”This is beach holidaying for the international jet set: CEOs and deal makers, monied families and ultra-aspirational honeymooners.
Fortunately for Celine, she is slightly out of my price range. I play an hour of very hot and rusty tennis against an amenable Czech coach who loves Chelsea FC and treats my risible cardiovascular stamina with good humour. A highly-coordinated teppanyaki chef called Joe flips his knives and sears Wagyu beef for me upon the third floor of the alien tower; it is delicious. The private yachts are left moored, the submarine unsubmerged, the wall unclimbed. These are activities which, I surmise, require another party to be present.
I swing from solitary elation, a thrill at being left alone, to a sort of sunny yearning. “Did you see that!?” “Can you believe it!?” The questions become rhetorical. If a tree falls in a forest, if you observe the most beautiful sunrise alone... “You should play golf,” I’m told. “It’s the best course in the Maldives.” I should, I agree, admiring the beautiful incongruity of the Augusta-green grass being fed by an army of sprinklers.
From time immemorial, men, both real and fictional, have embarked on solo voyages to test themselves, to feel some form of noble suffering: Pheidippides dropping dead after running from Athens to Sparta to plead for aid against the Persians; Robinson Crusoe, stranded and mad (at least until Friday turns up); Børge Ousland, the first to trudge unaided across the Antarctic.
In 2018, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey revealed that, despite being worth $(US)4.2bn, he had starved himself and sat in concrete silence during a mindfulness retreat in Myanmar. He drew online ire for neglecting to mention the ongoing plight of the minority Rohingya people, which was dominating the news cycle at the time. (Just buy a boat or something, Jack.) I add myself to this pantheon of soul-searching males as Noi, a massage therapist with some kind of dark magic running through her hands, works out a particularly troublesome knot in my shoulder as a soundtrack of gentle chanting fills the spa. “You need to relax,” she says. I know, Noi, I know.
Who am I? Nobody knows. I devise a number of aliases to deploy when meeting my fellow high-net-worth guests, a form of defence to guard against my lingering self-consciousness. I am the bad boy of cryptocurrency trading. I am the disgraced heir to a petrochemical fortune. I wrote a book about myself and it is very popular. (How else do people make money these days?) But, it turns out, my aliases are of no use here. When you’re able to holiday on a private island, you tend to keep yourself to yourself.
My interactions with other holidaymakers are pleasant and fleeting. A French couple riding bikes wave as they weave past me; a small boy yelps in unfiltered delight as he spots a shoal of feeding fish, their oil-slick scales colliding with the teal. Alone, these experiences take on a special meaning; I happily fixate on them, replaying scenes of small kindnesses over and over.
I become quietly obsessed with a man I see at breakfast, who, each morning, appears resplendent in a different matching silk shirt and shorts set from Versace, a baroque beachside king. I watch a dutiful Instagram boyfriend take photos of his partner in ever more elaborate poses. I see three members of staff paddle contentedly in the surf at dusk after finishing their shifts. I lock eyes with a young woman at dinner who is also eating alone, just a couple of seconds, before we both return to our silence and seared tuna. I don’t see her again.
The Maldives are sinking, maybe. The lowest lying nation in the world, with an average elevation of less than 2.5m, coral bleaching and rising tides make it one of the most vulnerable nations on earth, according to a 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The government has started to divert sand in order to create a series of new islands designed to escape the rising seas; others believe these new islands, which affect the tides, are impacting on the fragile weather system.
Velaa employs a team of marine biologists who are adding to, and repairing, the delicate reef, and the resort also plans to create its own sustainable water-bottling plant. The straws are paper, of course. “As long as there is money, there is sand,” a member of staff says to me matter-of-factly when the subject comes up. These islands, it would seem, are a kind of perfect mirage propped up by expensive sand and the desires of tourism, the sea probing gently, waiting to reclaim.
I watch the way the light of the evening catches in the translucent wings of the fruit bats that drift laconically from tree to tree. A DJ in a summer dress and noise-cancelling headphones plays soft house to an empty bar. I take long, arcing bike rides around the island, I start talking to myself. A slow procession of freighters creeps along the horizon at dusk, on their way to some far-off, smog-choked port.
I try to read but I can’t concentrate. I photograph one corner of the beach, documenting it across every hour and shade of light. It’s February. The sun sets at 6.20pm daily, a blood-orange orb gently descending, spectacular and undisturbed. Eating dinner alone, I listen to the sound of my cutlery clinking against white china. I sit on the edge of my deck in the dark, the only light coming from a private yacht moored offshore and the stars. Orion’s Belt freshly polished.
I’m a bit drunk, small and insignificant beneath the scale of it all. I wonder how many more times I’ll be able to do this before... something. Real responsibility, a next step. I wallow in my muddled thoughts and the sound of the blackwater lapping against the villa’s concrete stilts.
I wake at seven the next morning, mouth dry from hotel room air conditioning and £10 bottles of Heineken. I inspect the water in front of me for that telltale dorsal fin but am met only with the soft roll of the sea. A small crab skitters into the crystal abyss as I dip in a toe, then another, before clumsily launching myself into the shallow water: 20m to the edge of the reef, that’s all. Arms and legs flailing, I eventually tap the rock barrier, which is slimy to the touch. I feel very proud of myself, hangover abated by saltwater and a burst of adrenaline. Perhaps today is the day I shall golf. I feel ready to conquer all of my fears.
Across the bay, I watch as a large bald man, wearing a larger pair of action-red Speedos, emerges from the thicket of palm trees and marches down towards the shoreline. The sunrises higher, the water sloshes lazily against the jetty, the palms begin to lilt in the breeze and, somewhere out there in the reef, a shark is off searching for its breakfast.
I bob and Speedo Man bobs. Each of us alone in our own small, private, paradise.
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