Pinch me. I am on the deck of a gorgeous yacht enjoying an impeccable lunch, while we motor past the palm-fringed islands that occasionally punctuate the crystal-clear waters of the Indian Ocean. No other boats are in sight – just flying fish jumping out of the turquoise sea up into a background of endless sky.
The staff have taken our dive equipment and are setting it up while we dine. Suddenly, there's a call from the dive deck: Dolphins astern!
This is life on the Four Seasons Explorer, a live-aboard dive boat that cruises through the Maldives, an archipelago of almost 2,000 islands and coral atolls in the Indian Ocean near Sri Lanka. With 100 dives to my credit, I thought I'd seen it all. But I soon learn that staying on the water brings a fresh perspective on paradise (not to mention some delightful perks).
The ultimate valet diving
I love diving – but I hate dealing with the equipment. Every dive demands a set-up, and even at operations that promise "valet" diving there's always schlepping and rinsing of lead weights, heavy tanks and miscellaneous other minutiae to be done. On the Explorer we hand over our gear on arrival and it's ready to go for every dive. And no more slipping into soggy wetsuits. After each dive, boat staff rinse and hang our suits, which reappear, dry and folded, before the next excursion. They also defog and rinse your mask. Hassle deleted.
The diving happens off our ever-present companion boat the dhoni, a traditional Maldivian wooden houseboat, close kin to the Arab dhow. After the schlep factor, the downside of diving is always salt. It gets in your eyes, skin, mouth and hair. Sitting salty – and oftentimes cold – for up to an hour while headed shoreward is no fun. Our dhoni, however, has two hot showers on the rear deck, open to the view of the azure Indian Ocean – and equipped with L'Occitane shampoo and conditioner, fluffy towels and a flush toilet. This is, after all, the Four Seasons.
Serious break time
The first morning, I wonder whether I've died and gone to divers heaven. After a spectacular dive – rays, sharks, huge Napoleon fish and lots of eels – I'm expecting the usual damp, cold and salty surface interval. But no. The dhoni whizzes back to the mother ship in 10 minutes for a three-hour relaxation break. They welcome us back aboard with lemongrass-scented washcloths and lime-mango smoothies. Then comes hot breakfast with lots of choices (Eggs Benny have nothing on Eggs Explorer, with smoked salmon and avocado replacing the usual ham). Well-rested and sated, we dive again later in the morning.
Food when you need it
Diving is more physical than it appears, and divers are always hungry. With most operations, you're lucky to get a lousy store-bought cookie. On this trip, the dhoni staff serve us skewers of dragon fruit, melon and kiwi immediately after each dive. But this nothing compared with the gastronomic event on the morning we stay on the dhoni for a two-tank dive. After we've showered off from the first plunge, the staff usher us to the roof, which is furnished with enough couches for all eight of us. There, we snack on breakfast bento boxes – good cheese and crackers, fruit, croissants – and cappuccino. And then a big manta ray swims by just off our bow. Followed by a few dolphins.
A true dive master
I have contempt for most of the dive masters whose trail of bubbles I've followed. They often seem to be globe-trotting layabouts whose only way to see the world is a not-too-hard-to-get dive masters certification. Why do I judge them so harshly? In my experience, they take off underwater and rarely look back at their supposed charges. Like a macho hike leader – only the stakes are higher underwater. But the Explorer dive masters are cut from different cloth. Maybe it's the Four Seasons imprimatur. Or maybe it's that they know they'll be facing us for a full week. Either way, they are constantly looking back at us, checking to make sure we're okay. The ratio is far better than the usual 10-divers-to-one master, too. The Explorer's maximum is six to one, and most of the time we max out at four divers. They divide us by experience level, which is also comforting. The less-seasoned divers don't go so deep, and the old hands are spared the inevitable delays and possible panic attacks.
The range of a regular dive boat is about an hour's drive from shore, which limits the accessible sites. In contrast, the live-aboard can move at great speed to diverse locations all over the Maldivean archipelago. Want to swim with five-metre-long whale sharks? Manta rays? Grey reef sharks? It's all on the agenda as the boat follows the fish to their far-flung undersea lairs.
The writer received a discounted rate on this trip. Four Seasons did not review or approve this article.