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How 50 years of tourism has transformed the Maldives

One of the first resorts to open in the Indian Ocean paradise, Baros is still leading the way half a century later. By Sarah Marshall.


Baros Maldives
Baros welcomed its first guests in December 1973 (Baros/PA)

Among the nearly 200 picture-perfect resorts in the Maldives, Baros is the stuff of legend. Having recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, it welcomed its first guests in December 1973 and was just the third hotel to open (after Kurumba and Bandos) as the island nation took the very first tentative steps on a journey that would see it become one of the world’s most desirable destinations.


Before then, this chain of 1,192 low-lying tropical islands sprinkled across the Indian Ocean barely registered a flicker on the international stage. Most were uninhabited, with the rest home to small villages of up to a few hundred people. So cut off, in fact, the only means to contact the rest of the world was to send a Morse code message to the embassy in Sri Lanka.


Word slowly started to spread of a paradise of epic proportions but the Maldives, back then at least, was not the luxury haven it is today. The first people to appreciate the beauty of Baros were an intrepid bunch of divers who had to jump into the water from Maldivian dhonis (traditional boats) and wade ashore.


They stayed in barrack-style huts of palm leaf walls, sand floors and coconut thatched roofs, and slept on repurposed bunkbeds made from metal frames and mattresses stuffed with coconut fibre. Fresh water – the biggest luxury of all – arrived in buckets. Air conditioning? Forget it.


Baros in the Maldives (Baros/PA)

Days were spent diving and spearfishing (now banned); the nights barbecuing under the stars and dancing in the shallows.


But these people weren’t the first to spend time on the island; in the late 18th century it was presented by Sultan Hassan Nooraddeen as a gift to the indigenous Giraavaru people who swiftly used it as a place to harvest coconuts.


The Robinson Crusoe experience remains at Baros, to a degree at least. Located in the North Male Atoll, an easy 25-minute speedboat journey from the airport and capital Male, the island’s story is one of evolution rather than radical change.


Things progressed in the 1980s in the form of upgraded rooms made from coral stone walls, cemented floors and curtained showers. Overwater villas – now emblematic of the Maldives – arrived in 1992 and the rest, as they say, is history.


Lush vegetation surrounds Baros resort (Baros/PA)

The heart of the island is Sails, the breezy bar designed to replicate a traditional Maldivian house with a central living area surrounded by verandas all around. Think tall bar stools, swinging day beds, cosy corners, canvas sails on the ceiling and live music most evenings, the bar itself overlooks a sandy coconut grove filled with dozens of shady palms – a nod to the island’s past as a coconut plantation.


Meanwhile upstairs there’s a lounge dedicated to local history and culture, with 400-year-old maps, ancient clothing and native musical instruments among the exhibits. A few steps away is the beach, with sand as soft as silk and the sea lapping ashore with barely a whisper.


Luxury, of course, is an ever-evolving concept and that is especially true when it comes to travel. As tastes change and new trends emerge, the needs and wants of travellers shift, meaning hotels must always be one step ahead in order to remain relevant, and in a destination as saturated as the Maldives it’s even more important.


The Lighthouse restaurant (Baros/PA)

Some properties have introduced underwater villas and spas the size of villages. Kagi Resort (kagimaldives.com), for example, pushes the boundaries. The chic and laid-back 50-room resort has just unveiled the first pickleball court in the Maldives, hoping to attract the growing number of people taking up the sport.


Despite being unrivalled when it comes to history and heritage, Baros does not rely on its pedigree. Small enough to walk around in less time it takes to drink a glass of champagne, the island is car-free and quiet and takes a refreshing old-school approach to what a holiday should deliver.


The 75 villas – a mix of overwater and beachfront – are kitted out with private pools and custom-made furniture crafted from locally sourced tropical timber. In the spa, Balinese therapists soothe away worries and knotted muscles while French and local chefs serve up dishes at the fine-dining The Lighthouse restaurant, while nurse sharks patrol the waters beneath.


Nurse sharks swim in the house reef at Baros (Baros/PA)

The Maldives is all about the sea and Baros is blessed with one of the best house reefs to be found. Resident dive guide Maria had a successful career in IT in a previous life, but ditched Microsoft and her native Czech Republic for an altogether different path. “I came on holiday and have been here ever since,” she smiles. “The marine life is like nowhere else.”


She has a point. Divers, snorkellers and ‘pier-pointers’ are in for a treat. Curious but harmless black-tip reef sharks are easily spotted from the shore, as are rays and the resident turtles. Further afield these waters are home to playful spinner dolphins, whale sharks and giant manta rays that glide along like something out of a sci-fi film.


Whether at sea or on land, Baros is special for visitors and locals alike. Ibrahim Afzal – or Appu as everyone knows him – is the island’s longest-serving employee having joined at the age of 16. Now, some 36 years later, he has worked his way up the ranks and holds the senior position of laundry manager within the housekeeping department.


Relaxing at the sandbank on Baros (Baros/PA)

“I was nervous arriving here because it was my first time leaving my family. But everyone was very friendly and after a couple of days I adjusted,” he says.


“Baros was very different back then. Our facilities were much more simple,” he laughs. “I remember one evening a guest turned up at the bar in the middle of the night because his bed had collapsed.”


It’s safe to say there’s no chance of that happening today.


How to plan your trip

Baros (baros.com) offers double rooms from £509 per night.

Virgin Atlantic (virginatlantic.com) flys from London Heathrow to Male from £802 return.


 

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