I’ve been to the Maldives several times, despite flight schedules that often have you arriving in the middle of the night. If you want a rarefied kind of barefoot luxury, there isn’t a more perfect place. It’s the ultimate wind-down destination, with sand so soft you don’t need shoes, not even at the most sophisticated resorts. The Indian Ocean provides the magic, as well as the country’s position on the old spice route from Arabia to India, giving its people the rich cultural heritage of both places.
The archipelago of almost 1,200 small islands, some of them proverbial drops in the ocean, is blessed with pristine white-sand beaches and views of the crystal sea. Then there’s the remoteness, a welcome respite in our overconnected age, and the warmth: a constant temperature of around 28 degrees Celsius, tempered by sea breezes and the occasional monsoon.
There are more than one hundred resorts scattered across the chain of 26 atolls. Overwater bungalows and private pools are entry-level features at many hotels. A private waterslide, yacht or an elevated lookout are not out of the question, either. Although all the stops have been pulled out to attract wealthy guests with a taste for bling, it’s rarely blingy — that would be counterintuitive.
There’s another, more urgent reason to visit: because it’s the lowest-lying nation in the world, an estimated 80 per cent of the Maldives will be uninhabitable by 2050 due to rising sea levels. About half of the country’s budget is spent on adapting to climate change. Artificial islands are being built to house its citizens in floating cities. (Surprisingly, many Maldivians can’t swim.) Many resorts have become conservation activists, as the climate crisis threatens them all.
It’s almost midnight when we touch down in the Maldives on my most recent trip. With other guests, I’m conveyed by speedboat from the capital, Malé, across a dark sea, the lights from resorts and boats twinkling all around us. It takes only 25 minutes to reach the Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Kuda Huraa. I arrive after midnight but the joy is waking up at dawn in my overwater sunrise-facing villa and diving (or splashing) directly into my own lap pool. Better still, I can dispense with the bathing suit as it’s completely private.
I’m in room 402, a spacious and well-thought-out water villa with an enormous outdoor deck that includes sunlounges, sofas, day beds and two overwater netted areas for lazing while iridescent fishes swim below me. I have steps directly into the warm lagoon, which has a stronger tide than expected in monsoon season.
The overwater bungalows are joined to the village-like island by boardwalks. Four restaurants serve international cuisine (Indian, Italian, pan-Asian and grill). There’s also a poolside bar and a kids’ club. The spa is on a separate, miniscule island, reached by a short trip in a rustic wooden dhoni. Try the healing waters massage, where you’re gently rocked and kneaded on a cushion of warm water while supine in an airy hut on the beach.
The resort is especially popular with surfers, as it’s just a 10-minute boat ride from one of the Maldives’ most famous surf breaks, Sultans. Big names such as Kelly Slater and Rob Machado arrive every August for the Four Seasons Maldives Surfing Champions Trophy, an event the resort has held for the past 10 years. At the beachfront water sports centre, guests can take private lessons with Tropicsurf, a surf school that originated in Noosa. Talented and patient instructors will help beginners stand up on a board for the first time or refine the skills of experienced surfers.
What sets Kuda Huraa apart from many luxury resorts is its leadership in conservation. It was the first resort in the Maldives to employ a marine biologist full-time, more than 20 years ago. The Marine Discovery Centre is the first stop to learn about the ocean and various conservation projects. Kids can shadow scientists for a morning as part of the Junior Marine Savers program. For a donation, guests can sponsor a coral frame, first planting live coral onto the frame, which is then placed in the reef to grow. It takes about three years for the corals to cover the frame, providing the ecosystem with essential oxygen. The resort has planted more than 8,000 GPS-tagged frames in the reef. Guests are sent photos of their frame’s progress every six months.
Turtle rescue is another important initiative. When we visited, there was one turtle in residence, Ari, a female olive ridley, who had been caught in a net. She had to have her front flippers amputated and was learning to swim again. Only about one in 1,000 hatchlings survive in the wild. Scientists have discovered that eggs deposited on hotter sands lead to a high proportion of female hatchlings, which has big implications for the survival of the species.
The marine biologists take us out one afternoon on a dolphin cruise, where we brave choppy seas to watch spinner dolphins do just that: spin in the air like graceful ballerinas. Although it looks like an expression of joy, it’s thought to be a way to rid their bodies of parasites. Like many animals in the Indian Ocean, the dolphins are in danger from fishing nets, marine debris such as microplastics and noise pollution that interferes with their complex communication systems. We’re joined by several other boats chasing dolphins, and I wonder if we’re part of the problem.
The abundant sea life means the Maldives are a magnet for PADI-certified divers and recreational snorkellers. But if close encounters of the underwater kind aren’t your thing, there are cooking classes at the fine-dining Indian restaurant Baraabaru, beach picnics, sunset cruises, fishing excursions and long, slow meals, beginning with several turns of the extravagant, international-themed buffet, where it’s possible to have Chinese dumplings, French pastries and masala dosa for breakfast, all on one plate.
A 45-minute seaplane flight on a monsoonal day transports us to another resort in the distant Baa Atoll: the Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru. Known as one of the most biodiverse places on earth, Baa Atoll is a UNESCO-designated biosphere reserve consisting of 76 islands, of which only 13 are inhabited. The narrow 42-kilometre-long Landaagiraavaru island is ringed by several picture-perfect white-sand beaches and has a strip of jungle and organic gardens at its centre. Guests can navigate the long, sandy road on classic bikes. There’s also a boardwalk stretching out into the lagoon, where the overwater bungalows sit. Everything is impeccable, from the white linen kurtas the staff wear to the detailing of the villas. I’m in overwater bungalow 305, which is bigger than a house, features a private pool built into the 182-square-metre deck and an elevated platform atop a spiral staircase, perfect for contemplating the ocean.
Like its sister resort, Landaa Giraavaru is heavily invested in marine conservation. The impressive Marine Discovery Centre opened in 2006 and features several injured turtles in residence. So far, the centre has released 102 back into the wild. The coral replanting program has placed more than 5,000 frames in the reef around the resort. As a way of curtailing the poaching of ornamental fish from the waters, the centre is pioneering a captive breeding program to help locals sustainably make an income from selling fish to aquariums.
Upon arrival at the resort, we’re given a “manta phone” as part of the Manta-on-Call service. The phone rings when manta rays have been spotted in the area. Guests drop everything — some even leaving mid-massage — to meet at the wharf for the boat ride to Hanifaru Bay, known as one of the world’s best places to see manta rays. It’s not unusual to spot more than 150 curious mantas emerging from the deep to check out the human interlopers. It can get crowded in the water — not just with mantas, but with divers from nearby resorts who heed the call at the same time.
Working with Manta Trust, a United Kingdom-based charity, the marine biologists at Landaa Giraavaru are involved in monitoring the magnificent creatures, which have a wingspan of up to seven metres. More than 5,000 manta rays have been documented and tracked since the program began, and scuba divers are encouraged to photograph them and upload the images to
a website to help observe the animals’ movements.
Some guests don’t come to Landaa Giraavaru for the diving. It has an exceptional wellness program, too, led by four highly qualified Ayurvedic practitioners who work in association with the Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana institution in Bangalore. It’s serious business, with programs ranging from three days to more than a month. The elimination program involves several intense days of eating ghee (clarified butter) — a frightening prospect for some, but apparently only about three per cent of patients give up before the week’s end.
All guests are given a complimentary consultation on arrival. At the simplest level, practitioners want to balance the three biostatic energies — vata, pitta and kapha — that form the pathway to good health according to the 3,000-year-old tradition. My pulse is checked and I answer a series of questions to determine which body type, or dosha, I am. Once assessed, I’m invited to take part in a program that involves various therapies, such as yoga (aquatic yoga on floating mats in the saltwater pool and anti-gravity yoga using suspended hammocks in a garden pavilion), hot and cold “fever” baths, mud therapy and massage with a selection of the healing herbs grown in the organic garden. The resort’s four restaurants feature symbols on their menus to help guests choose the best food options for their body type. Nothing is compulsory, although it is fascinating.
Landaa Giraavaru offers more lavish indulgences, too, such as five-course lobster dinners, DJ-led cocktail parties on the beach and picnics on the resort’s exclusive private island. At dusk every day, the practitioners and therapists gather outside the spa and sing a beautiful song, thanking Mother Earth for her bounty. We’re all aware we’ll need her blessing if the Maldives are to have a future in the face of climate change.