“You can take that off,” said Ms Mandy Koh, an island host, as I stepped onto the pier of Lux North Male Atoll.
I was too stunned by the sight before me to realise that she was talking about my face mask.
You cannot prepare your senses for the Maldives.
The blue is all shades, from aqua just this side of translucent to deepest indigo in the depths of the sea and the night sky.
It does not seem possible that a nation like this can exist, let alone proffer such modern amenities as Wi-Fi, soaking tubs, overwater bungalows and artisanal gin and tonics.
And yet, as much of the West emerges haltingly from the pandemic, the Maldives is positioning itself as the place to go to rediscover the beauty of travel.
The island nation is waging this campaign even after a recent uptick in Covid-19 cases laid bare the limitations of its healthcare system – strapped, overworked and under-resourced.
But this is the paradox of the Maldives. Tourism accounts for one-quarter of its gross domestic product and fuels its other economic drivers, such as construction (there is always a resort being built) and fisheries (the catch of the day, forever on the menu).
My husband and I, fully vaccinated, came expecting white sand beaches and crystal clear water. We got that – as well as three days of torrential rain and high winds.
But beyond the natural beauty, what stood out was the culture: the local culture, the YOLO (you only live once) culture, and the new vacation friends who make you promise to look them up when you touch down in their part of the world.
Maybe you can find this kind of exuberance wherever masks are coming off and people are gathering again.
At our resort, the pandemic has not been all that bad for business. More than half of the 67 villas – all done in an aesthetic like Miami’s South Beach meets Mykonos, Greece – were occupied when we were there in May.
“From December through April, we were almost full,” said Ms Tatiana Kozlova, the resort’s director of sales and marketing.
The three days we spent at Lux came with sunny skies and plenty of room to sprawl and socially distance – except, after many months of pod life, some were eager to do the opposite.
Indeed, posting pictures of crystalline water and sky-on-fire sunsets on Instagram engenders comments like “must be nice”.
But there is more to the Maldives. Take the lesser-known ways to preserve paradise in the face of climate change. Lux has 46 star-shaped planters on the ocean floor around the island to attract fish and promote the growth of coral. Single-use plastic is virtually banned. Even in the gym, water comes out of a glass dispenser, into a reusable tumbler.
Conservation is also paramount at Joali, a three-year-old resort on the island of Muravandhoo. Each guest gets a rose-gold-coloured reusable water bottle. To cut down on the ingredients it must import, Joali has an on-site farm to grow herbs and vegetables.
Like Lux, Joali is restoring the reef surrounding it by planting growing corals. “We call them fragments of hope,” said a staff member.
We had hoped to snorkel near that reef; the weather had other plans. The rainy season is rather unpredictable because of global environmental changes.
But Joali prepared for this: sumptuous interiors, a bed that begot naps, a spa for a timely “inner strength and resilience” massage.
There was no shortage of gustatory delights: sushi and pasta conceived by Michelin-star chefs, briyani as good as its brethren on the subcontinent, a Turkish breakfast buffet with an olive bar.
Then there were the classes. Yoga and HIIT (high-intensity interval training), yes, but also gin tasting, wine tasting and sake tasting.
It was on our final night, sipping gin and tonics while Bruno Mars played, that we got to engage in the kind of conviviality that travel offers and the pandemic prevented.
When it was time to leave, not even the wild weather could dim my enthusiasm.