“Find the magic of balance.” That was Ganga, my yoga instructor’s advice during my one-on-one yoga class as I tried to strike Warrior Pose. Unfortunately, I was on a stand-up paddleboard at the time, in the lagoon at the Four Seasons Kuda Huraa Resort in the Maldives. Paddleboards aren’t very stable. Nor was I. It took a little more coaching, and a few dunkings, but I was finally able to hold the pose.
I spent five days at Kuda Huraa, sampling their water sports activities, their spa, and their cuisine. My time there coincided with the annual Surfing Champions Trophy Competition, featuring Shane Dorian, Bethany Hamilton, Rob Machado, and other top surfers in an “All-Star” type competition. I shared waves (well, an ocean, to be honest) with the top pro surfers, and generally spent most of my waking hours in, on, under, and above the water.
It’s no coincidence that the area would host the event: With some of the best conditions in the world, it’s a prime place for expert and neophytes surfers alike. Part of the latter camp, I spent four days with TropicSurf, an Australian-based company that runs the surf schools at Four Seasons resorts around the world. I was hoping for a game-changing experience surfing the Indian Ocean. Little did I know I’d be getting a life-altering experience instead.
My first day, the surf crew took me to Ninjas, a reef break by a nearby island, and gave me a quick primer on surfing reefs. You see, reef breaks are different from beach breaks in that there’s no bottom and no safe zone in the waves. On beach breaks, waves form as the water gets shallow; on reef breaks, waves form as they approach the reef. The difference is that after a fall on a beach break, eventually you’ll hit a point where you can stand and free yourself from getting pummeled by the surf, while on a reef break, with no bottom, the waves keep pushing you under.
That’s precisely what happened to me on my second wave. I came off it badly, got the wind knocked out of me, and when I surfaced, got hit by another wave, which caused my board leash to wrap around my neck. Things got worse from there: My board dragged me into the kill zone, where I was hit by one wave after another as I tried to unwrap the leash. Each wave drove me further underwater, and I struggled to reach the surface. At one point, as I was clawing my way up, I thought I wasn’t going to make it. Eventually, just as one of the instructors reached me, I washed up on the reef, gratefully trading some scrapes and bruises (Maldivian tattoos, they called them) for the pounding of the waves. The boat came to get me, and with some help, I was out of the water and safe. I was done for the day, and gave some thought to being done with surfing all together.
The TropicSurf guides would have none of it. They broke down for me where things went wrong, telling me what to do next time, and giving me tips for dealing with that break. The next morning, they insisted I go back out. So we did. I was terrified as I paddled back to the same spot where I nearly drowned, but the first wave that came by I paddled into it, remembered my training, and popped up, making a serviceable bottom turn to ride the wave to its end, whooping with pride and excitement. Success! Yes, I got back on the horse (er, board), and had a great ride. For the next three days, I rode ever bigger waves, making better turns each time, falling, getting knocked around by waves, and enjoying every bit of my time on the water.
TropicSurf—their motto: “Surfing is difficult. We make it easy”—provides excellent one-on-one instruction. I had Andy and then Josh with me on the break, advising me on waves, critiquing my performance, while Percy waited in the catch zone to ensure my safety. These were not your typical surf instructors, and their surfing and teaching skills are extraordinary. I saw many times where Andy or Josh actually followed me into a wave to observe, rather than staying behind to watch from afar. (In addition to instructing novices like me, the guides spent their afternoons surfing with the pros visiting for the competition.)
But surfing isn’t the only expert instruction Four Seasons Kuda Huraa offers. Also onsite: top-quality diving through its PADI-certified dive center. The dive staff put me through a quick check-out dive, testing my basic skills, and then we headed off along the resort’s home reef. During my 45-minute dive, I saw a colorful assortment of reef dwellers, with my dive master pointing out the more interesting specimens along the way. I also met Bob, a six-foot long moray eel. Bob shares his hole with a scorpion fish, one of the most venomous fish in the sea. Bob will let you pet him if you dare. I did not.
A few years ago, much of the coral in the Maldives died off as a result of ocean warming. In an effort to restore the reefs, Four Seasons Kuda Huraa is invested in a coral regeneration program. During my dive I saw dozens of the frames used to restart coral growth along the reef. The resort also has a turtle rescue program to help save the local sea turtle population. For the Four Seasons, it’s not just about taking advantage of the surrounds, but restore the balance of nature in one of the world’s most incredible ecosystems, too. (Through various programs, guests can contribute to these conservation efforts during their stay.)
And if all this weren’t exciting enough already, I also got to test the resort’s newest addition, Water Jet Boots. The boots strap onto your feet and use the water jets from a modified jet ski to launch you into the air, holding you up to 20 feet above the surface. I put on a pair of wetsuit pants (for protection, I was advised), and a stoutly padded flotation vest and helmet. I strapped on the Jet Boots, my instructor goosed the throttle, and I started moving through the water. As I pulled my head up, the Jet Boots launched me into the air and held me, suspended above the lagoon on a jet-powered stream. Steering with my knees, I propelled myself around the lagoon, like an awkward Tony Stark. If I fell, I dove headfirst, and the thrust of the boots would launch me back up in the air like a porpoise.
My next, and somewhat calmer, adventure involved the Sea Bob, a mini-underwater sled that pulled me around the lagoon like a diver from James Bond’s Thunderball. Using two handles to steer and accelerate, and wearing a dive mask for visibility under water, I cruised along the surface and dove under, scaring a baby reef shark in the process. Sea Bob can cruise at speeds up to 8 knots, which is plenty fast when you’re holding on with both hands.
I also went snorkeling on a shark safari. Before the trip, I met with Ben, the resort’s resident marine biologist, for a short lecture on sharks. I learned that of the thousands of shark species, only five are considered dangerous, or man-eaters: hopefully we’d be seeing none of those. Instead, our likely fellow swimmers would be the local black-tipped reef sharks, not known for aggressive behavior. And, as promised, the safari yielded a wonderful array of sea life, including tropically colored reef fish, parrotfish, skipjacks, and, of course, some reef sharks. One of them, about 4 to 5 feet long, swam right by me. After that excitement, Ben took me to the stingray site near a local fish processing plant where stingrays congregate by the dozens. I swam over to the edge of the plant, where I looked down at what looked like an undulating gray carpet. On closer inspection I realized I was looking at literally dozens of giant stingrays, all moving along the bottom to feed on fish scraps. It was spellbinding to watch the rays as they swam in circles along the jetty.
After I exhausted myself with activities, I ventured over to Kuda Huraa’s Island Spa. This full service spa offers the standard array of treatments, and two exceptional services; I tried both Healing Waters, and the Secrets of the Sea. Healing Waters was performed on cushions of warm water, with my body weight adding to the pressure of the deep tissue massage. Secrets of the Sea was a transformative nighttime experience, during which I was the only client in the spa. Dry skin brushing, essential oils to soothe the body, an herbal bath, facial massage, and a full-service 90 minute massage soothed and relaxed the deepest knots in my muscles, restoring balance to my battered body.
As for food, Kuda Huraa has three restaurants to choose from: Reef Club, for Italian cuisine, the Kuda Huraa Café, with an international menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and Baraabaru. Baraabaru is rated as one of the top 100 Indian restaurants in the world, and the tasting menu bears out this ranking. I sampled assorted curries, fresh naan breads, chutneys and house-made pickles; all made for a flavorful and restorative feast after my day on the water.
Five packed days flew by, the intensity of the water sport experiences off set by the setting’s mellow, restorative atmosphere—a cycle of expenditure and rejuvenation as consistent as the rising and falling of the waves. Ganga the yoga instructor was right: It really is all about the magic of balance.
Rates at Kuda Huraa start at $900; N. Malé Atoll; 960-6644-888; fourseasons.com.