The eyes are small, dark and unsettlingly empty. More unsettling still, there are at least eight pairs of them, attached to 10ft torpedo bodies, brushing past my Boden swimming costume in a catalogue shot that would turn women pale.
Half the number of circling fins would have an ashen Roy Scheider in Jaws realise the need for a bigger boat.
Yet here I am, in the Indian Ocean, swimming with a shiver of sharks. So much for my husband’s claim that, apart from wafting around in floaty dresses all day, there’d be nothing to do in the Maldives.
Think of this archipelago and certain preconceptions spring to mind. But beyond the honeymoon toasts and celebrity boasts, I’m discovering that it can be action packed and perfect for families. We split our stay between two island resorts in a bid to maximise this once-in-a-lifetime experience because, believe me, it’s not cheap.
From the moment we land at the jetty of the Anantara Dhigu resort, the low beat of a boduberu drum announcing our arrival as if we were kings, it’s clear this bikini atoll is brimming with life.
Fiona Hardcastle takes her family on a trip to the Maldives and finds it can be ‘action packed and perfect for families’. Above is Anantara Dhigu, one of the resorts that the family visits
Fiona says it takes just 10 minutes to walk the length of the Anantara Dhigu resort, which is made up of 110 beach villas and over-water suites
‘Welcome to Dhigu,’ smiles Lamya, head of our welcoming committee, bestowing us with coconut water for the briefest buggy ride to our new home. A compact resort made up of 110 beach villas and over-water suites, you can walk from one end of the island to the other in ten minutes but the surroundings leave me spellbound. Palm trees stand sentinel over the softest white sands. The sea is a collage of blinding blues. In the distance, white tablecloths flutter in the evening breeze as barefoot diners stroll towards the fanciest barbecue ever held on a beach. I am itching to get started. Others are, too.
‘Can we go fishing?’ asks Felix, 11, keen to catch his first whopper.
‘Can we go surfing?’ asks Evie, 16, keen to catch her first wave.
‘Can we watch Crazy Rich Asians?’ asks Rose, 17, keen to watch her favourite film on the 20ft screen being erected further along the sand.
Yes, yes and yes, my children. But first things first. Clothes off, cossies on and I’ll race you into the sea. Few delights surpass that of immersing winter bodies into warm equatorial waters and as we swim out to Instagram Hammock — a pretty driftwood and rope affair rising out of the shallows — all thoughts of chilly Britain melt away.
Back to our adjoining beach villas — stylish low structures that hug the coast and ooze understated luxury — and a homecoming of Homeric intent. Beds are a vision of coconut calligraphy, palms spelt out to wish us a wonderful stay. A complementary bottle of bubbly is on ice. The open-air bathtub is filled with rose petals.
‘I feel like a goddess,’ sighs Felix, pulling on a sumptuous towelling robe. We laugh, but I know exactly what he means.
The burning question as we sit down to a waterfront dinner of freshly caught grouper with lip-smacking Maldivian chilli sauce is what excursion to do first. We opt to strap on a snorkel and dare to stare a nurse shark in the eye.
The marine biologist who accompanies us on the 40-minute trip to the sharks’ seabed home assures us they are harmless, but I climb back on board after a few palpitating minutes. Not so the others.
All smiles: Fiona and her family enjoying their stay on Anantara Dhigu
‘Get lots of pictures, Mummy!’ shouts Evie, tossing her hair and treading water with a dozen of these supposedly peaceable creatures.
On the boat ride back, the children agree it is the most exciting thing they’ve ever done. There are benefits of never having seen Spielberg’s seaside horror.
Other outings prove just as memorable. A fishing trip finds the vegetarians among us mortified by their flair — all I catch is coral which I hastily throw back — while a surfing lesson sees the children master their balance leaving my husband and me beached on our boards.
‘Can we move here, mummy?’ beam three faces, exhilarated by their newfound prowess.
I’m promising nothing until I’ve lain face down on a massage table with mesmerising views of the turquoise sea. Better still, ask me again after a perfectly mixed cocktail at another perfect sunset.
We hold back the tears as we say our goodbyes at the jetty. Felix, the new owner of a hand-woven coconut palm hat, hugs everyone as though they’re lifelong friends. Which, in our memories, they always will be.
Could our second bite of the Maldives even come close? A thrilling seaplane journey to Niyama, another private island resort an hour’s flight from Male, and we’re off to an exhilarating start.
Fiona took a ‘thrilling seaplane journey to Niyama’, pictured, another private island resort
Fiona stays at an over-water pavilion room featuring an infinity pool and a Jacuzzi, like the one pictured
Above, musicians play boduberu drums and dance on the beach of the Niyama resort
‘Da plane! Da plane!’ cries my husband, reliving his 70s childhood and the TV series Fantasy Island where every guest’s dream comes true on their tropical stay — although with unexpected twists.
Our first is the discovery that we have our own butler, Imthi, who will drive us anywhere in his buggy.
He starts by giving us a tour of the island, snaking his way through the sandy paths that dissect the central jungle and are home to its 134 villas.
The second surprise is our room: a vast over-water pavilion.
‘I’ve been in smaller cathedrals,’ I utter, blinking up at the vaulted ceiling as the children let out incredulous screams, while Imthi beams and covers his ears. ‘I’ve never seen a bigger TV,’ says my husband, panic flitting across his face as he clocks the multiple remotes.
Not that we will be watching a second of it given the other distractions at our disposal.
Outside, an infinity pool, Jacuzzi, swing. Inside, a sunken sitting room, bar and telescope. Even, Lord help us, an electric guitar. Stairway To Heaven, anyone?
‘Welcome to Nature’s Playground,’ reads the handwritten message on the full-size wall mirror, signed by the convivial general manager Haf. It’s time to get the party started. For while Dhigu is a family paradise, Niyama is a high-octane jamboree where the only people who stand out from the crowd are those not wearing Dior sliders.
Up close: Fiona and her family (not pictured) go swimming with nurse sharks – her children say that it’s the ‘most exciting thing they’ve ever done’
A seven-night trip to the Maldives with Audley Travel costs from £7,584 per person (based on two sharing). Price includes a three-night stay at Anantara Dhigu and a three-night stay at Niyama Private Islands on a half-board basis, international flights and return transfers. For more details, call Audley Travel on 01993 838310 or visit audleytravel.com/the-maldives.
No matter. Sundowners are a great leveller as is demonstrated at the surf shack where Haf gets the evening off to a riotous start, regaling us with tales of revelry while he plies us with rum.
‘There’ll be a pile of bikes here by morning,’ he says nodding towards a new batch of guests arriving at the waterfront bar on the customised cycles provided by the resort but who will soon be too drunk to ride back.
By the time our Island Uber deposits us for dinner at Tribal, an African restaurant buzzing with life, I feel we could be anywhere between the Maldives and Mombasa. The menu is an explosion of culinary firsts — ostrich appetizer, warthog stir-fry, peanut soup.
My son and I share a fillet of dry-aged Wagyu beef, keen to see what the fuss is about. ‘Gourmet,’ he declares, closing his eyes in bliss.
Just like everything else that emerges from the world-class kitchens here. Treetop sushi or a champagne breakfast six metres under the sea?
The only downside is the eye-wateringly expensive wine. The cheapest is £75 a bottle. ‘Well, we’re here now,’ says my husband sternly, forging on to financial ruin.
It would be easy to while away the days in our own private water palace but, keen to redeem myself from sharkgate, I am determined to look another sea creature in the eye and not be found wanting. Surely I can hold my own with a turtle?
Our final day on fantasy island and an afternoon boat trip with the Dior contingent. But who’s looking at labels when there are dolphins somersaulting around the stern of our boat in a show so magical that even the scary Russian on board breaks off from an irate call to smile at his toddler son.
In the evening we dance ourselves silly, barefoot on the sand, in an unforgettable night of reggae, ribs and rum.
It’s with the heaviest of hearts that we put our non-designer shoes back on. Niyama? More like Nirvana.