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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Thousand island dressing

The 1,192 islands of the Maldives are a tropical paradise of clear blue ocean, white beaches and coconut palms -- all surprisingly reachable from Moscow. When the gray of Russian winter has finally saturated every last bone of your body and depressed even the most steadfast spirit, it may be time to head to the Maldives. A group of 1,192 tiny islands scattered near the equator off the coast of India, the Maldives, a land of sun, warmth, fresh fish and no hassles, provide one of the world's best antidotes to the trials of Moscow. Perhaps most importantly, they are easily accessible thanks to a Finnish travel agency in Moscow which can book you onto direct charter packages from Helsinki. Every tropical paradise stereotype proves true in the Maldives: powdery white beaches lined with coconut trees, stunningly clear aquamarine waters, intensely bright sun perfect for tanning, and brilliant night skies. For many visitors, the undersea world is the greatest lure here, and they spend a good chunk of their day either underwater diving with a scuba tank on their backs or floating on the surface with a mask and fins. About 800 varieties of fish inhabit the 750-kilometer long chain of islands, and even the most blas? landlubbers are quickly charmed by the barrage of rainbow colors. Sharks are the most famous of fish and are frequent companions to divers and snorkelers, but these are not the Hollywood man-eating variety. Other creatures of the deep include Manta rays, octopi, lobsters, blowfish and a seemingly endless variety of colorful fish (some of these, such as the clownfish, start to resemble Russian political leaders if you spend enough time under water). Most resorts rent out snorkeling equipment and run dive operations, although many visitors bring their own favorite tools of the deep. Many resorts also run their own dive schools which prepare novices within a couple of days. Admiring the rich marine life can lead to occasional minor ear infections, though a good dive shop can provide ear drops to solve the problem within a few days. Rinsing ears after every dip in the water can help prevent the ailment. Above ground, the Maldives is a nation without any required sights, or even much touristy culture to speak of. So tourists can relax without feeling any guilt about missing the attractions and in fact, most never even leave their resort island for anything more strenuous than a dive. A couple from Moscow recently stayed at the Angaga Resort, a trip booked through the Moscow branch of Area Travel, and the choice seemed perfect for any veteran of the Russian winter. Located on a tiny island to itself, Angaga hosts just 50 bungalows, along with a large dining room and reception area, and that is it. Ten minutes is all it takes to walk around the island. There are no natives other than the staffers there, or at most of the other 80 or so resort islands developed for foreigners. Women are completely absent from the staff ranks, due to a government rule aimed at preventing fraternization with guests. In resort bars where alcohol is served, workers are from neighboring Sri Lanka. Even though tourists and guest workers inhabit some of the islands, there is still plenty of room for the nation's population of less than a quarter of a million people as 1,000 of the Maldives islands are still uninhabited. The bungalows at Angaga have Western-style bathrooms and air conditioning, as well as a porch area perfect for reading and relaxing. The public areas of the island are also designed for low-key living, with details such as a sand floor in the dining room and bar which make dressing up superfluous. Other resorts do favor more Westernized and upscale facilities, although Angaga fans say that you don't really need a marble floor and black-tied waiters at a desert island resort. When not underwater or relaxing, visitors to the Maldives can choose from a variety of sports, including volleyball, darts, board games, water skiing, and wind surfing. Yet even with the relatively limited array of activity (at least to the eyes of someone who has lived through rebel uprisings, military curfews and the other excitements of Moscow life in recent months), time passes quickly while relaxing. Some of the larger resorts offer discos for night owls, but on the whole the Maldives is definitely the place for day people. Perhaps the only wrinkle in this image of near holiday perfection at Angaga is the food. Yes, you can eat fresh seafood everyday that would be only a dream in Moscow. Yet preparation is often unimaginative; it is typically fried in a style that attempts to emulate European cooking. By Moscow standards, of course, even that is something to dream about. At Angaga, lobster and crab are available for a steep surcharge. For the best food, Maldive regulars say, one must head for the Italian-run resorts, which ship down their own native chefs and barrels full of pastas and cheeses. Yet these resorts often must be booked through Italy, a rather difficult task from Moscow. Unlike the Italian resorts, which attract few other nationalities beside Italians, Angaga has a mix of Scandinavians, Swiss, French, German, British and a few others. One surprise was the arrival of a Polish stock broker and his girlfriend, a clear sign of the economic success some have already achieved in that Russian neighbor. Most visitors seem to arrive in pairs, either married or boyfriends and girlfriends, and some have returned to the islands several times. One Swiss man showed a visitor his photo with another woman on a previous visit and explained: "You know, I change them from time to time." Even though it may not have worked out for this Swiss man and his previous friend, most couples appear enchanted by the privacy, solitude and beauty of the Maldives. Visitors from Moscow will probably appreciate the islands in ways the others cannot understand. One of the best deals to the Maldives is through a discount travel agency called Asia Express in Moscow. The company offers two air routes to the islands, both for $873. One is on Balkan Airlines from Moscow with a stop in Sofia, Bulgaria; the other is on Aeroflot through Colombo, Sri Lanka. Flights leave Monday, Thursday and Friday. Flight time is about 10 hours. Booking is through Asia Express at #1526/27/28, Beta block, Izmailovo complex, from 9 A.M to 7 P.M. Credit cards accepted. Tel. 166-7710, 166-1196,166-1295,166-4391, fax 166-1667. Another way to get to the Maldives is via European charter and, from Moscow, Helsinki is the easiest gateway. Area Travel, 5 Spiridonevsky Pereulok (tel. 290-6683, 203-6539), a Finnish travel agency, makes bookings for several packages to the Maldives. For instance, a mid-February departure with flight, accommodations at Angaga, and full board cost 7,245 Finnish marks ($1,270) per person for one week and 9,445 ($1,655) Finnish marks for two weeks. A helicopter transfer (operated by Russian pilots) from Male airport to the helipad nearest to Angaga, followed by a boat ride is also included. A package at Keredu, a cheaper hotel, costs 5,845 Finnish marks ($1,025) or 7,045 Finnish marks ($1,235) for two weeks. For about the same price as Angaga, Keredu will throw in a package of dives. On top of those costs you must figure in the round trip to Helsinki from Moscow (about $300 there and back), all drinks at the resort, and scuba diving trips and/or any rental of snorkeling equipment. Tarom, the Romanian airlines, flies from Moscow to the Maldives but there are substantial layovers in Bucharest and Dubai en route to Male.