When looking down from above and afar, the hundreds of islands that make up the Maldives loosely resemble an inverted night sky.
Countless islands, sandbanks, atolls and turquoise reefs scattered in a sea of deepest blue stand out like the stars, burning bright and suspended in the endless night of our universe.
It is easy to feel insignificant, small, a tiny cog in the vastness of nature.
Which is perhaps why many seek out this remote destination and the opportunity to leave a million niggling worries and responsibilities behind, however briefly.
After two airplane journeys, a seaplane and a speed boat, my toes are in the sand, and I am welcomed to Milaidhoo island with a flagon of icy coconut water to rehydrate, swiftly followed by a glass of champagne,
I’m here to experience a new stargazing retreat, allowing guests to discover the beauty of our galaxy from an Indian Ocean paradise.
Milky Way from the Maldives
As a country that is 99% water, the Maldives is the perfect place for stargazing, with great dark sky quality and little light pollution between islands.
Starting from spring 2023, Milaidhoo will be offering a number of astronomy retreats, timed to maximise the chances of clear skies.
This will be outside of the traditional rainy season, which spans roughly from May to October, with dates based on analysis of an indigenous Maldivian calendar system known as nakaiy, lunar cycles and astronomical events.
The retreat will include the opportunity to name a star, guided stargazing, lectures on Maldivian night sky history and culture, and dinner under the stars on a secluded sand bank.
Guests will be offered a ‘healing space’ treatment, starting with vibrating singing bowls, followed by a Balinese massage using rose aromatherapy – inspired by a rose which was sent to space in the late 1990s, as an experiment to create an entirely new scent.
They will also have a chance to set sail on a traditional Maldivian dhoni and learn the ancient skill of wayfinding – using the sun, stars and waves to steer a course.
Guests will have the opportunity to spot the winter constellations of the northern hemisphere, including Orion, Taurus, and Auriga, and stars such as Sirius – the brightest in our night sky.
Milaidhoo is only a few degrees north of the equator, so it may also be possible to see constellations in the southern hemisphere, such as the Southern Cross.
Astronomy expert Valerie Stimac, who will lead the retreats, says stargazing while on holiday is “a great opportunity to even further disconnect from the stresses of everyday life” and learn more about a destination through its skies.
“During a general stargazing session, eyes adjust to be able to see the formation of our galaxy in the night sky – it’s not something you can see in cities where most people live,” the 35-year-old from Cleveland, Ohio, says.
“And so that first moment of awe, when you realise that we are part of something so much bigger than just a planet or just a solar system, we’re in a galaxy and there’s even more beyond that, that’s my favourite thing to guide people through.”
Stimac, who wanted to be an astronaut when she was a child, says the pandemic has helped the growth of astrotourism – where people travel to stargaze – as it is a great activity for “getting away from other people and being outdoors”.
Using a powerful laser beam, she helps us identify the constellations Sagittarius, which loosely resembles a teapot, and Scorpius, part of which looks like a scorpion’s tail.
She is patient as our group asks questions ranging from the basic – “What is a galaxy?” – to the profound – “Are we more likely to discover alien life in the universe or will it find us?”
The resort has turned off outdoor lighting to aid our night vision, and we are gently chastised for looking at our phones unless we have a red filter which won’t interfere.
Be a castaway for the night
For a truly special experience, guests can visit a secluded sand bank just minutes by boat from the island, which changes shape at different times of year as the sand shifts.
As waves gently roll in from all directions, we are treated to canapes and champagne followed by a three-course meal of sushi, barbecued meat, fish and vegetables, and fresh fruit, surrounded by dozens of candles and lanterns.
Dinner and a stargazing session is included as part of the astronomy retreat, but at extra cost, guests can arrange to stay overnight, sleeping on a four-poster bed with just the stars for company, while a nearby anchored yacht provides facilities.
As stargazing is always weather dependent, there are alternative evening activities in case the skies cloud over, such as night-time snorkelling, where guests may be lucky enough to discover bioluminescent blue plankton that sparkles in the water.
What else does the island offer?
Milaidhoo is part of the Baa Atoll’s Unesco Biosphere Reserve, so snorkelling in its azure shallows should not be missed.
Following the reef which encircles the island, I spot yellow and blue surgeon fish, parrot fish, clown fish and incredible coral formations.
Guests can also arrange to swim with manta rays in Hanifaru Bay, a protected marine area that is a mere 12 minutes’ speed boat ride away.
Back on land, this is a resort that encourages barefoot luxury, but I stick to flip flops, mindful of the tiny crabs that scuttle across the sand, and lizards darting across the island’s paths.
Cocktails by the water
Sitting with a cocktail (or mocktail) in hand, doing nothing and watching the sun set, is essential Maldives behaviour.
Milaidhoo Bay Sunset is the perfect sundowner. The fiery orange concoction is mixed with two types of gin – one which is infused with chilli giving it a spicy kick – fresh mango, and served with half a red chilli on the side.
We sip ours at the Compass Bar’s infinity pool as the sun sinks below the horizon, and as the sky darkens, delicate lights in the pool begin to twinkle in homage to the stars above.
Sand on the floor gives this bar a relaxed, beach vibe, while hanging egg chairs are perfect for curling up with a book.
What are the rooms like?
Milaidhoo is one of the few Maldivian-owned resorts, and local influences are peppered through its 50 villas.
Doors and windows are painted pink or blue to reflect the colours used by locals on nearby islands, while ceilings are vaulted to mimic an inverted boat hull.
Privacy coconuts – for guests to put outside their door when they do not wish to be disturbed – are hand painted by one of the island’s housekeepers.
My beach villa is spacious and bright, with dual aspect floor to ceiling windows, and I can see a slice of beach and sea past the private freshwater pool from my enormous bed.
Water villas are set over the sea and have infinity pools and steps that lead directly into the water.
The small, personal touches are what make Milaidhoo truly unforgettable – fresh aloe vera delivered to my villa after I sunburn my pasty British legs, staff remembering how I take my coffee, a surprise flower-strewn bath after snorkelling and “see you soon” spelled out in leaves on my bed on my last evening.
I end my stay feeling like a VIP, knowing I will soon be yearning for the beauty and silence of a still Maldivian night sky.
How to plan your trip
Abercrombie & Kent (abercrombiekent.co.uk; 03301 734 712) offers a seven-night trip to the Maldives staying at Milaidhoo in an over water villa with private pool from £5,500pp based on two people sharing on a B&B basis. Includes flights and seaplane transfers.
The ‘Milky Way from the Maldives’ retreats will launch in spring 2023, for more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Subscribe or register today to discover more from DonegalLive.ie
Buy the e-paper of the Donegal Democrat, Donegal People's Press, Donegal Post and Inish Times here for instant access to Donegal's premier news titles.
Keep up with the latest news from Donegal with our daily newsletter featuring the most important stories of the day delivered to your inbox every evening at 5pm.