IT TOOK ME A WHILE TO WORK OUT where I was going. Maldivian place-names can seem like tongue-twisters at the best of times, and scouring the tiny map of the islands for Iru Fushi Beach & Spa Resort didnt at first bring me much luck.
Then I read that the islands real name was Medhafushi - but that title crops up in not one, but five separate Maldivian atolls.
My second challenge came in working out that, although the hotel brochure described Iru Fushi (Medhafushi) as being situated in Noonu Atoll, in fact my large-scale Maldives map named
it as Southern Miladhunmadulu.
Jet lag, tropical heat and a 45-minute seaplane hop across an endless expanse of bright blue Indian Ocean dotted with seemingly identical islands didnt help me gain a sense of place.
All I knew was that we had landed on a mirror-flat lagoon, where a traditional Maldivian welcoming party was waiting with hot flannels, tropical cocktails festooned with dainty paper umbrellas and a dozen men carrying palm fronds and beating traditional bulbul drums.
Iru Fushi looks small from the air, but with 180 rooms cunningly designed to make sure almost everyone has a sea view, it proved surprisingly easy to get lost. A network of sand paths had been artfully laid out through the landscaped gardens, but the lush vegetation obscured any potential landmarks.
Two long, curving jetties stretched out from the eastern edge of the island, teak horns that were home to the luxuriously appointed water villas on one side, and Jacuzzi villas on the other.
I had been given a Jacuzzi villa, though strictly speaking it should have been called a two-Jacuzzi villa, as I had one in the bathroom and one on the wooden verandah, which had a ladder leading into the sea. The bathroom also had a separate shower, just in case I ran out of ideas on how to get wet.

ACCORDING TO THE LITERATURE, Noonu Atoll is one of the northern atolls most recently opened up to foreign tourists. As such, the resort claims that the 52-acre island is surrounded by virgin waters little visited by divers.
Such claims are often made, but a visit to the dive centre next morning brought me face to face with the man who has found most of the dive sites around Iru Fushi.
Koen Zuurbier is a tall, lean Dutchman who has worked in the Maldives for more than a decade. Here at Noonu, he has spent several months mapping out the potential dive-sites for the new resort.
One advantage of the northern atolls, he says, is that they seem to be less prone to some of the severe currents found on sites further south. Whether that means that they are also less attractive to bigger pelagic species, especially manta rays and whale sharks, remains to be seen.
Our first dive was at a site he had called Koens Dream. A small reef outcrop rose from a sloping sandy bottom, unremarkable at first except for a school of barracuda posing with their heads facing into the prevailing current.
Koen swam rapidly towards the barracuda, dropping to the very edge of the reef and scanning the blue. He signalled for me to stay low, hugging the reef. Seconds later, I was aware of the dim torpedo shapes of several grey reef sharks just at the edge of visibility. A minute later and they were making passes over our heads, six or seven medium-sized sharks, and then more.
After five minutes I was able to count at least 20 individuals, some more than 2m long, clearly female, with distinctive swollen bellies. Impervious to the current, they performed a bewildering, bewitching dance above our heads.
For our deco time we moved to the reef top, spotting octopuses poking their heads shyly from holes in the coral. With the excitement of the swirling shark circus behind me, this was a good time to readjust to the calm contentment of being under water after a break of several months.
Here were the familiar Indian Ocean species that I had missed; cheeky orange-striped triggerfish, hairy hermit crabs and fat black sea cucumbers, their backs dusted with sand like rather unappetising cream buns.
The dive sites north of Iru Fushi were varied in their biology, and of varying quality. In some spots the reefs were by no means unspoiled. There was evidence of storm damage, and in places clear patches that had succumbed to coral disease and the after-effects of bleaching.
Sadly, there is nowhere in the Indian Ocean that is totally free of the damning evidence of our impact on the seas.
However, at other sites the corals were in perfect health, and the diversity of fishes and invertebrates as good as any I have seen in the region.

IRU FUSHI RESORT HAS BEEN BUILT by Ahmed Siyam Mohamed, a Maldivian hotel magnate who has spent around $50 million developing the island. He happened to be visiting the resort during my stay, and admitted that the current downturn in the global economy was a worry.
But, hopefully, divers will appreciate the beauty of the northern atolls, he said wistfully. We have created what we think is one of the best dive centres in all of the Maldives. British tourists are currently the biggest single nationality visiting the Maldives, and Mr Siyam is banking on attracting a healthy proportion of the islands annual tally of some 800,000 visitors to his four resorts.
Iru Fushis dive centre is at one end of a long walkway built on stilts in the lagoon. From a distance the curved roofline is reminiscent of an alien spaceship. Hot showers, large spacious kit stores, air-conditioned classrooms and new high-speed compressors dispensing air and nitrox are all administered by a multi-national crew who can offer every sport diving course available in half a dozen languages.
Apart from standard equipment, Koen has also stocked the centre with dive-scooters, particularly useful on a recent trip on which divers were able to follow a school of dolphins that found the engine noises intriguing.
Scooters are not my thing, although dolphins are another matter. The next day, as Koen and I prepared to dive at Angel Reef, our stationary boat was circled by a lone bottlenose dolphin.
The soughing of the animals breath was a siren call to follow it into the water, but he, or perhaps she, chose not to stay within sight as we slipped in.
Swarms of ebony triggerfish followed us throughout the dive, and tiny marble-skinned rock skippers seemed to inhabit every tiny hole in the rubble substrate.
A bright flash of orange and blue gave away an elegant lyretail grouper.
It was in some ways an unremarkable dive, and Koen seemed apologetic that we had seen no large charismatic species, or even a stray reef shark. Like many dive leaders, he was intent on making sure that I, as a journalist, had the best, most memorable underwater experience.
By the end of our week, diving intensively in each others company, Koen was more relaxed, acknowledging that, despite my having dived in so many places around the world, he now understood that I was one of those divers whose primary interest was simply in being under water.
And we did indeed see wonderful things. At Dhigu Faru there were three-spot angelfish with dainty blue snouts, their dark, feather-fine anal fins dramatically contrasting with their canary-yellow bodies.
Concentrating on the seemingly commonplace, as always, brought rewards. Among the shoals of reef fish were distinctive Maldivian species such as the phantom bannerfish, busily ferreting among the corals and sponges.
With a little imagination, the curious scalloped ridge between their eyes seemed to give them the appearance of some Dickensian clerk wearing pince-nez and hunched over his papers.
There is nothing Dickensian about the accommodation and facilities at Iru Fushi. There are several restaurants, two pools, a fitness centre and extra treats for those nationalities that think a diving holiday isnt complete without karaoke in the bar. There are laser dinghys, windsurfers and inflatable banana rides.
And then there is the spa. Not only does it dispense a wide range of Asian and oriental massages, aromatherapy and holistic yoga, it also offers the Maldives first sleep therapy.
For those suffering from broken nights, nay, shattered dreams, special massage beds are used to help realign your body. There is mood music and mood lighting, and then you are offered a pillow menu. You have a choice of fillings: hollow, dry and siliconised fibres or even rejuvenation pillows, filled with buckwheat, millet and wool.
There are pillows for people who sleep on their back, those who sleep on their tummy or those who sleep on their side. Guests signing up for sleep therapy are also asked to keep a sleep diary, to be analysed by a spa consultant. Two or three dives a day is all most people need to ensure a good nights sleep.
My biggest challenge was the Jacuzzi in my bathroom. Electronically programmed, it had a control panel that would have done justice to a Boeing 747.
It also shrieked what seemed to be a welcome message in Japanglish at me, accompanied by a series of flashing lights and the whirrings of an internal pump that sounded powerful enough to keep Maldives rising sea levels at bay.
I finally admitted defeat (two nights running) and called maintenance to disconnect it so that I could sleep.

UNDER WATER, THERE WAS A GREATER CHANCE of serenity. At a dive site called Christmas Tree, I found underwater heaven - an irregular thila sticking up from the sand, with large overhanging ledges all around the base.
Giant grouper skittered into the darkest recess at the bottom of the tree, while great clouds of blue-stripe snapper hung at the edge of the reef in the shelter of branching soft corals.
In the coral rubble, a mantis shrimp scuttled behind a boulder.
It was visible only just long enough for me to spot a flash of brazen blue-ringed eyes, and legs in red pyjamas.
Christmas Tree is named after the zig-zag shape of coral ledges that protrude like a childs drawing of a festive fir.
You need to swim away from the thila to see the effect, but up close its a case of starting at the seabed 27m deep, and circling the levels of the ledges as if visiting a department store.
The outer tips of the reef were covered in healthy gorgonians and brilliant green and yellow cup corals. At the reeftop, 18m below the surface, the surrounding blue was buzzing with jacks and a few tuna, zooming past like jet-fighters.
Below, the reef was so filled with life that I scarcely cared what bigger species passed by. Nudibranchs and flatworms slithered, cowrie shells glistened and delicate cleaner shrimp fussed.
There was no need to say much to Koen as we surfaced. Just one thing: Please dont bring too many divers here, I said plaintively. And only if they have perfect buoyancy.