As the seaplane descends from the clouds high above the sun-dappled cerulean water, I gaze transfixed at the island’s virgin white sand. Dolphins happily race each other as a nearby yacht traverses miles of serene blue ocean. No matter how many pictures you’ve seen, no matter how many other stunning beaches you’ve run across barefoot, you’ll never be prepared for the sheer beauty of the Maldives. The first view of the archipelago literally takes your breath away.
A nation made up of 26 atolls—islands with coral reefs encircling a lagoon—spread out over 56,000 square miles in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives has seen its fair share of invaders and traders, from the Aryans to the Persians to the Arabs and ending with the Portuguese, Dutch and English. Today, the Maldives is an independent state committed to environmental conservation—President Mohamed Nasheed wants the nation to be 100 percent carbon neutral by 2020—and a popular tourist destination, especially for those from colder climes. Americans can fly via Qatar Airways to Doha and take a four-hour flight from there to the Maldives. The flight is smooth and Qatar’s business class is the best in the business.
Although nearly 2,000 islands exist in the country of 400,000 people, most of them are uninhabited and have been that way for centuries. Most Maldivians live on or near the bustling capital, Malé, which, from the air, looks like a cluster of pastel Monopoly houses.
The Maldivian government prohibits most foreign development, so the number of resorts is limited. (The government also strictly controls what non-Maldivians are allowed to bring into the country so leave the bacon and the bible at home). Most resorts are dispersed throughout the Maldives; some are a short boat ride from Malé while others require more extensive travel.
For true seclusion, take a seaplane or Maldivian airlines to one of the outermost atolls. Haa Alifu atoll is the northernmost and the closest to India. Start your visit at Utheemu, the historical island. Visit the palace of national hero Sultan Mohamed Thakurufaan, who, in the 1500s, successfully led a small band of locals against an invading Portuguese garrison. Don’t forget to greet the residents, who are friendly if a bit shy with visitors.
A short boat ride away is Manafaru Island where you will find Beach House Maldives, The Waldorf Astoria Collection. Beach House is a quiet resort, great for couples and families who want a relaxed retreat. Guests have their choice of 83 villas but should opt for beach versions instead of the over-water variety. Villas are neatly positioned on paved pathways amid native foliage. Each is spacious, with wooden rafters, black and white stone floors, local art and teak platform beds covered in striped cotton duvets. A sunken living room could pose a problem for children or the disabled; the steps can become slippery from ocean residue. The living room opens onto a private walkway that leads to your own stretch of pristine beach. A sliding wooden door behind the bed reveals an indoor/outdoor bathroom with a large tub, separate shower and toilet with bidet, and a personal plunge pool with a cabana built for two. A stone pathway leads to an outdoor shower, a treat on a hot day. Although you’re a stone’s throw from your neighbors, you never hear them.
Beach House Maldives
While the Maldives could never accommodate a golf course, golfers will enjoy Beach House’s simulated golf program. Art collectors should visit the hotel’s private gallery showcasing local art. For those wanting even more seclusion, the hotel owns two nearby islands that can be used for private excursions.
If Beach House seems too Robinson Crusoe, the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island is a bit more glamorous. Located in South Ari atoll, at the southernmost section of the country, the Conrad boasts several bars, myriad restaurants and a large water sports area, perfect for more intrepid couples. No wonder Paul McCartney is a fan. Sink your feet in the coral sand, which, much to my amazement, stayed cool, even under the hot glare of the sun. Guests can hire a yacht to take them snorkeling or diving to view elusive whale sharks or dolphins. A number of islands in South Ari are uninhabited. Boats often drop anchor at one of these isles. Don’t be surprised to see naked women sunbathing.
After a day of diving, savor five different wines during a private wine dinner hosted by the sommelier at The Wine Cellar. The black sand wine and cheese room is a welcome retreat on a hot day. Dine at Sunset Bar and Grill and Ithaa. The former is an excellent seafood restaurant that affords guests spectacular island sunsets from private decks. The latter is the world’s only all-glass underwater restaurant. During the day, rays swim overhead as you savor local tuna. At night, the space is illuminated. Guests with very deep pockets can rent out the entire restaurant as sleeping quarters.
Ithaa Undersea Restaurant
This is the place to stay in a thatch roofed, over-water villa. Opt for a Spa Water Villa. Decorated in a soothing turquoise and white color palate, the large sleeping quarters have vaulted ceilings, teak floors and oversized windows overlooking the lagoon. Bathrooms have his and her stainless steel sinks, large roman baths and separate spa areas for in-room massages. The private deck leads down into the water. I spied several shy crabs on my walk down as well as the elusive spotted ray.
Although visitors to the Maldives should enjoy their respite from the real world, the real world invariably intrudes. Travelers should be cognizant of the country’s fragile eco system and its uncertain future. Only bring what you will take back with you. Use only natural products while in the Maldives. Don’t throw away that plastic. Be aware that the coral reefs, which protect the Maldives from flooding and erosion, are dying. In 1998, El Nino caused many of the reefs to die of “heat stroke” and a larger human presence is affecting the natural order of things. Maldivian marine biologist Azeez A. Hakeem has said, “by keeping corals alive and restoring coral reefs where they cannot recover naturally, we aim to restore the reef and its fisheries, to keep ecosystems from going extinct from global warming, and to protect the shoreline from vanishing under the waves.” Take a diving expedition to see for yourself. Many islands are sinking and the future of the Maldives, the lowest lying nation in the world, is in peril. One should enjoy it now but help preserve this paradise for generations to come.
Conrad Maldives Rangali Island
South Ari Atoll
Republic of the Maldives
Beach House Maldives, The Waldorf Astoria Collection
Haa Alifu Atoll
Republic of the Maldives
725 Fifth Avenue, 22nd Floor
New York, N.Y. 10022
—Shandana A. Durrani