EVERYBODY HAS A PICTURE of the Maldives in their head: a fantasy-perfect island with immaculate white sand and swaying palms, surrounded by a stunning turquoise sea filled with colourful fish and corals.
Its the picture in the magazine that halts your browsing and makes you go: Aaah... Its the ray of hope that you hold onto in November, when you look outside your window and realise that youre facing months of blustery winds, overcast skies, freezing rain and darkness.
You may not even be aware that this place youve dreamed about is the Maldives until, like me, you arrive there.

Its my first dive in the Maldives. We almost ran over a huge manta in the dhoni - the dive-boat - on the way out here, and nobody batted an eyelid.
I found this a bit odd, as I had leapt up and was about to fling myself overboard with excitement.
My next shock is to jump into the sea and feel warm. There is absolutely no thermal impact. I look down into the breathtaking blueness - its around 30m here - and I can see the bottom.
The dive briefing specifically mentioned rays and sharks, so Im cheerfully expecting to see neither. Before Ive even cleared my ears, I can spot both! Despite my exaggerated pointing, nobody else seems to be paying attention. Unbelievable. What is wrong with these divers
The dive site is called Caribbean Tale, and were descending towards a large coral block with a massive overhang. And here, on my very first outing, is where I discover my problem with Maldives diving.
There are some large reef sharks (sharks! sharks!!) apparently asleep under the rock. Im practically hopping from fin to fin to get close to them, but this is made difficult by several enormous thornyback rays (wow! Just... wow!!) that are settled immediately in front. Despite my antics, they show no intention of budging.
I feel giddy. Its overwhelming. Theres just way too much going on.
I have no idea where to look or what to point my camera at next.
I stand no chance of capturing even a fraction of this experience.
A heady mixture of joy, wonder and severe frustration at my own shortcomings washes over me. Throughout my diving here, its going to become a familiar feeling.
Back on board, and I find myself doing some spectacular retching over the back of the dhoni. How very uncool - and right in front of the German tourists. A combination of jet-lag, dehydration and over-excitement is taking its toll.
With a minimum of fuss, dive guides Gabriel and Alike make sure Im fine, while getting me to drink a lot of Coke. It works a treat.
Our next dive is called Sharks and More. Its a simple enough dive; you stay on the coral block, and an almost comical variety of stonkingly fat blacktip reef sharks and twitchy little whitetips circle around you. Within 10 minutes Ive given myself a headache from banging the shark signal so repetitively against my forehead.
A baby eagle ray, nicknamed Idefix by the guides, swoops by for a cameo performance. This miniature creature is cute beyond words, with an immaculate white underbelly, a proper smiley face and pristine spots on those dark, velvety wings. I feel a powerful urge to grab it close and take it home with me.
In one morning and just two dives, Ive seen more life here than in two years worth of trips to the Red Sea.
The other divers appear blasé, because so much exposure to exciting stuff has short-circuited a part of their brain.
Gabriel, concerned about my throwing-up episode, asks me whether I would like to stop when the boat returns to the jetty after the second dive. But Im rooted onto this boat - nothing is going to persuade me to miss an opportunity for more. Im smitten.
Is the diving at Kuda Funafaru always like this Apparently so. Can you guarantee that divers will see sharks here I ask Gabriel and Alike.
Yes, they answer, looking slightly confused by the question. For them, its a no-brainer.

To get between islands in the Maldives, I took an air taxi (for the boys: it was a DeHavilland DHC-6-300 Twin Otter seaplane). I spent every moment of the flight with my nose glued to the window for the incredible views.
I had to force myself to put my camera down and just... enjoy.
From the air, you get to see the strings of water bungalows, arranged like ornaments off the pale curved beaches. White splashes drew my eye to the sleek brown bodies of a pod of dolphins as they punched their way through the waves. As the plane swooped low over a shallow lagoon, I spotted six enormous rays, basking in a circle.
Filitheyo, Filitheyo. If anybody had to invent the perfect paradise island for a diver, they couldnt do better than this.
The dive centre here purrs like a well-oiled machine; theres a constant, lively hum of contentment from blissed-out customers.
You can take your pick of the four boats that head out twice a day to different sites. You can also pitch up at almost any time you like, and have a cylinder dropped off for you (and picked up afterwards) at any combination of the islands well signposted entry/exit points. They even have a wreck!
Being a British diver, I insist on heading for the wreck first. Im lucky that the guide is with me, or I might have been too busy enjoying the fish to spot it.
The small wreck suddenly takes shape from a jumble of brown-ness at the bottom of the reef. Its at about 30m, and the current is ripping along its starboard-lurched deck. I can see that the dive guide is suitably impressed and/or horrified by my comic, narked, somersaulting attempts to hold a camera still as I cling to a fragment of rope on the bow.
So yes, I really should mention that a feature of Maldives diving is current. Current is good. Current means lots of life. You can swim into it, go with the flow, or anchor yourself with a hook or a finger and just hang.
From Filitheyo, I took the dive-boat on a day trip to Manta Point.
I wasnt really expecting mantas. Our small dive group waited in the current, clinging to any bare piece of rock we could find, close to a small outcrop of coral. The viz was thick with plankton.
And, much to my amazement, the mantas came - emerging like enormous ghosts, and hovering above the outcrop that serves as a cleaning station.
Everybody was entranced. At one point, a neglected reef shark literally barged its way in front of my camera - probably because nobody was paying it the least attention.
Occasionally, a manta would turn and glide over our heads. I kept forgetting to breathe. My finger became sore from pressing the shutter on my camera so repetitively. I couldnt quite believe what I was seeing.
It was so heart-stoppingly brilliant that I could do this dive a thousand times over and never be bored. We all surfaced, laughing and amazed, and clambered back onto the boat; friendships were made on the spot.

I walked off the seaplane and had to stand on my shoulder-bag. The jetty was scorching hot and, having relaxed into Maldives-style, I wasnt wearing any shoes.
Once Id retrieved my flip-flops, I walked onto the beach and straight into the dive centre, where I encountered a dive goddess. Ingrid is, quite simply, diving perfection.
Sleek and bronzed, she speaks many languages with impeccable politeness, and accompanies every word with the correct diving hand signals.
She stands comfortably and confidently at the bow to direct the dhoni skipper to exactly the right spot. Under water, she glides like a mermaid.
Not that I had much time to observe her, because there was always a turtle, ray or shark to hold my attention.
At one point I jumped off the boat and spotted four whitetips spread out and lazing on the bottom, their dark shapes silhouetted against the white sand. But before I even got to them, I had practically collided with a turtle, and spent a happy 10 minutes being studiously ignored as it chomped on soft corals.
The dive sites from Medhufushi have evocative names such as Sharks Tongue and Pretty in Pink. And its here that I first encountered the classic channel dives for which these islands are famous.
The channels are the inlets and outlets that the sea flows through as it moves across the islands. There is usually a ledge or overhang, and the marine life promenades up and down the channel, opening in front of you. The stronger the current, the more prolific the life.
At times, I simply lost count of the number of sharks. How fabulous is that
If you believe in global warming and rising oceans, the Maldives, with over a thousand jewel-like islands, will become the first country to disappear beneath the waves.
To lose somewhere so unique and precious would be a punishment for humankind of biblical proportions.
But whether youre concerned about the environment or not, Id urge you not to miss any opportunity to visit what is, unquestionably, a diving paradise.

Kuda Funafaru is so posh that it has its own VIP lounge at Male. Its the kind of place for which the traditional 5* rating is simply inadequate.
But there are no solid gold taps in the bathrooms. Theres no Dubai via Essex bling. Instead, each villa has that effortlessly gorgeous and ultra-tasteful look and feel that contemporary interior designers aspire (but rarely get the budget) to achieve.
I had my own infinity pool. I had a choice of outdoor Bali-style shower or indoor European-style shower or an enormous Jacuzzi with a view out to the beach and the sea. It was so posh that I was scared even to touch the mini-bar, for fear of having to take out a second mortgage.
If you want your partner to think youre truly amazing (and money is no object), just bring them here. Youd have to be emotionally comatose not to feel some serious love for whoever brought you to this place.
As I walked barefoot along the sandy paths, I picked up an amazing flower that had fallen from the tree. Before Id reached my villa, my hands were full of the flowers Id collected. The place just drips with beauty.
One of the more southerly islands in Noonu Atoll, the diving here is pristine. A family of bottlenose dolphins lives on the west side of the island, and in the early morning they play with anybody whos up for snorkelling.
Ideal for: small group diving, lots of personal attention. Stunning dive sites.

Filitheyo is truly an island for divers - you can dive pretty much anytime, and all around the island on the house reef. Many divers here are repeat customers, and theres a good balance of nationalities.
Its upmarket, but relaxed and friendly. The dive centre is incredibly professional and efficient in a way that actively helps and encourages you to go diving. Four different dive-boats operate, giving a wide choice of dive sites. Just sign up for a space!
I stayed in a water bungalow and went to sleep with the sound of waves lapping beneath the floor.
The deck at the back is perfect for watching the sunset, and your own personal stairs into the sea allow you to take an easy dip at any time.
On Filitheyo, I had my Avatar moment. I was heading through the trees at dusk; the sound of exotic birdcalls filled the air, and the trees smelt of frangipani.
As I drifted along the sandy path, the lights either side of me came on in my wake, like phosphorescence. Magic.
I promised myself that if theres one place on earth Ill come back to before I die, its Filitheyo.

Medhufushi is gorgeously glamorous. It has a great bar built out over the water on a jetty from the beach.
As you walk along the slipway, a gang of baby blacktip sharks, barely half-a-metre long, re-enact the Sardine Run with a shoal of fish fry in shallow water close to the beach.
Everything on Medhufushi is within a few lazy strides.
The restaurant looks out over a huge infinity pool. The dive centre is 20m along the beach, opposite the jetty, and you can walk off the boat and straight into the bar.
I stayed in a beach bungalow with a private deck and porch swing backing onto my own stretch of beach. The sand is covered with shells. Actually, its crawling with shells. A zillion tiny hermit crabs trundle back and forth in a crustacean superhighway.
From here you can also take a liveaboard trip on Sheena, and many people spend a couple of days on the island to relax either before or after their liveaboard experience.
More on the Sheena in a future issue.

GETTING THERE: Louise Trewavas flew with Sri Lankan Airlines to Male.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Werner Lau Dive Centres (www.wernerlau.com) at Filitheyo Island Resort and Medhusfushi Island Resort (www.aaaresorts.com.mv) and Zitahli Kuda Funafaru Resort &Spa (www.zitahlikudafunafaru.com).
MONEY: US dollars or credit cards.
WHEN TO GO: Year-round, but UK spring and winter is best.
PRICES: Regaldive can arrange packages. Two weeks half-board with flights and transfers to Filitheyo this September would cost £2099, or to Medhufushi £1899, www.regal-diving.co.uk. A pre-booked 10-dive package at Filitheyo is 360 euros, Medhufushi 460 euros and Kuda Funafaru 580 euros.
TOURIST INFORMATION: www.visitmaldives.com