Bryony Gordon: 'I don't need booze to make the world look beautiful'

Bryony Gordon
Bryony Gordon's sober trip to the Maldives was a 'huge test' - jakkapan21

Sober holidays. Just the words themselves used to be enough to strike fear into me. They seemed no more likely to me than choosing to take time off to climb Everest.

To me, not drinking alcohol on holiday went against the very grain of going on holiday: it seemed perfectly pointless to go away and not sit on a terrace with a cocktail (or six) pretending to watch the sunset. And speaking of sunsets, I had, until last year, never experienced one on a holiday that hadn’t been framed around sundowners, from drinking huge tumblers of Tusker beer in the Maasai Mara to knocking back pints of Piton in St Lucia.

As for sunrises… well, if I had seen one that I remembered, it was usually because of the crushing sense of anxiety that came rushing to me as the sun broke through the horizon, reminding me that I hadn’t yet been to bed. Holidays were the only place you were actually expected to drink all day every day (“you’re on holiday!”); they provided the perfect enabler for my alcoholism.

And then… well then I was sent to rehab, in the autumn of 2017, and started attending AA meetings, and honestly, the thing I was most worried about was not my first Christmas, birthday or New Year’s Eve without a drink, but my first holiday.

I knew, in a very privileged, First World way, that our initial jaunt to sunnier climes would be a huge test that would indicate just how successful I would be at this whole sobriety lark. So, somewhat impulsively (moi?), I booked something immediately. 

The Maldives: paradise in the Indian Ocean Credit: iStock

I chose the Maldives, for two reasons: it was the first place I had ever been and I immediately felt a sense of calm; we had gone there on our honeymoon, and all I really remember was the quality of the cocktails and the speed at which the amazing staff would bring you a drink, sometimes when you hadn’t even ordered one.

I burst my eardrum – not diving, as you might expect in a place as beautiful as the Maldives, but by drunkenly putting a cotton bud in my ear – and that had put an end to any trips we had planned to see the aquatic life of the Indian Ocean. I felt a bit ashamed at all I had missed. We could have been anywhere hot in the world, really, except perhaps for the Middle East, where such fervent drinking in a bikini would probably have got me arrested.

So this was honeymoon mark II – and without the booze, something for which I was grateful on the three flights out to our chosen island. Before, planes meant free alcohol. Now I sought out mineral water and sat with a hydrating face mask on and got my nails done during the stopover in Abu Dhabi airport (who knew?), feeling relieved that I wouldn’t be arriving with a hangover. We arrived at our resort, Anantara Kihavah, in the Baa Atoll, a Unesco reserve, just before sunset (I was too busy gawping at the private pool in front of our villa to notice it).

After a buffet dinner breathtaking in its deliciousness, we went back to our “room” for an appointment with some Slumber Gurus, aka two women who gave me and my husband incredible massages before running us a “bath” filled with essential oils – and by bath, what I mean is a sort of mini pool in an outside bathing and loo area bigger than our entire ground floor back home. I was so tired that I avoided it, fearing I might drown – something that never occurred to me on the umpteen occasions I had arrived on holiday, hit the bar, and jumped in the pool fully clothed. I went to sleep feeling soothed, which I think is what you are supposed to do on holiday. 

Bryony doing 'aerial yoga'

I soon learnt that the best way to avoid evening temptation was to make the day count. I cycled around the island with my daughter and we went on boat trips to look for dolphins. We spent hours in the trampoline park attached to the kids’ club, ate fresh sushi for lunch, and every morning I would get up and exercise as the sun rose.

One day, I did aerial yoga with an instructor who guided me through poses in a sling, and I watched the sky turn pink upside down. On other mornings I would step into the Muay Thai boxing ring (air-conditioned, of course), and spar with a delightfully camp young man from Bangkok who appreciated my, um, bulk and lack of maintenance (“the glamorous women, all they do is squeal!”) 

After six days of swimming, and a few more massages in the overwater spa, watching the sea life go by as I had my shoulders kneaded, it was time to move to another resort near the airport, though Naladhu Private Island felt a million miles away from anywhere built up. It has a handful of beautiful villas that feel more Maine coast than Maldives. But from the pool and the sundeck outside the villa, you are unmistakably in the Indian Ocean – and what feels like the wild side of the Indian Ocean, at that. Our villa was right on the edge of the water, and at times it felt as if we were at the edge of the world. When the tide was up, sharks swam straight past us. When it was down, tiny stingrays sunbathed in the shallows, along with all sorts of peculiar sea creatures straight from the depths of a David Attenborough series.

At Naladhu, there were a million things to do, and all of them seemed to involve doing not very much at all. Staring out at the sea was not something I was minded to do much of when I was on the grog, but here it was hypnotic and meditative. A walkway from the island gives you access to two other resorts, where you can use the kids’ club and watersports facilities. We would drop our daughter off, then swim back through the water and read by the pool, or sit on the overwater swings. Each morning, I did a yoga or Pilates class. I joined in with aqua aerobics, and didn’t feel the slightest bit self-conscious. At night, I sat on the day bed outside our villa, reading and listening to the waves. Sometimes, I fell asleep there. And when I woke to the sun rising, I knew that I didn’t need booze to make the world look beautiful. Quite the opposite, in fact.