When the first tourists arrived in the Maldives in 1960s, they made their way to Malé by hitching rides on cargo ships. They then negotiated with fishing boats to drop them at island homestays. Fast forward to 2018 and the allure of these islands stretching from Sri Lanka to the equator is obvious; bone-white beaches and swaying palm trees, blue seas teeming with Disney-worthy marine life, life-affirming sunsets and night skies so clear you can watch shooting stars. The further you go from Malé, the more delicious the sense of isolation. Head north for large species of marine life — mantas, turtles, dolphins in their hundreds — or to the far south for deep dives, shipwrecks and encounters with whale sharks, nurse sharks and hammerheads. The Maldives’ far-flung location and logistical challenges ensure a holiday here is never going to be cheap so it makes sense to go all-inclusive, full or even half-board when you can.
For creative types: Fairmont Maldives Sirru Fen Fushi (£££)
Few places in the Maldives manage to combine culture with barefoot chic quite like Sirru Fen Fushi. It’s the only resort on the northern Shaviyani Atoll, so remote it takes over an hour to reach by seaplane from Malé, meaning immaculate reefs, empty horizons and not a chink of light pollution. It’s also the first resort to have its own underwater gallery. There are a dozen life-size figures planted on the seabed, sewn with corals and turned into a mesmerising artificial reef, which will grow and evolve over time.
Rooms: Villas from £792, half-board.
For wellness: Como Maalifushi (£££)
Como Maalifushi, the only resort in the northern Thaa Atoll, is quite the celebrity hideaway — although staff will never say who has stayed. They’re lured by vast sun-drenched villas, attended to by butlers who won’t bat an eyelid at requests for 100 white, scented candles, and a wondrous range of activities — £1m yachts for hire, night snorkelling with whale sharks, diving with hammerhead sharks. But the real star is the peerless Como Shambala spa, where Ayurvedic doctors prescribe morning meditation, stress-busting breathing, beachside yoga, and hours-long massages and facials, alongside delicious spa cuisine.
Rooms: Villas from £612, B&B.
For added extras: Amilla Fushi (£££)
The thoroughly modern Amilla Fushi, a 30-minute seaplane journey from Malé, has banished teak and thatched-roofs in favour of angular white villas, stacked along the beach or over the Tiffany-blue sea. Inside, there are polished concrete walls, aquamarine floor tiles, wicker chairs and jumbo bathrooms stocked with eco-friendly Aesop amenities. Elsewhere, there are treehouses, with an extra bedroom and stilted swimming pools. Go full-board and on top of three meals a day, you can have breakfast delivered to your room for free, afternoon tea, daily laundry and a 50-minute massage at the Javvu spa.
Rooms: Villas from £1,123, full-board.
For photographers: The St Regis Maldives Vommuli (£££)
Sitting on the rim of the Dhaalu Atoll, the St Regis Volummi is a super-luxe property that can do it all — romantic, spa, family-friendly. All of the accommodation is large and opulent; the water villas the most dramatic, with razor-sharp lines and huge infinity pools. Then there’s the over-water spa, shaped like a lobster with six treatment rooms positioned in the pincers, and the curvaceous Whale Bar where you can swallow up those Indian Ocean sunsets.
Rooms: Villas from £1,435, room only.
For a Bond hideaway: Velaa Private Island (£££)
Stepping into Velaa’s watersports centre feels like diving into James Bond’s toy box. Aqua-gadgets include racing trimarans, jet skis, parasails, a two-man submarine and sea-bobs. Villas are huge, with interiors that feel almost urban; black-and-white photographic feature walls, smoky-hued sofas and eclectic artworks, alongside massive open-plan bathrooms. Other conspicuous displays of wealth include a six-hole golf course, a Clarins spa (with a snow chamber), and the highest rooftop bar in the Maldives, 75ft atop a building that looks like a spaceship.
Rooms: Villas from £3,087, B&B, including seaplane transfers for two.
For a fly and flop: Naladhu (£££)
This sweet retreat can be reached in just 30 minutes from Malé via the resort’s leather-lined, wi-fi-enabled Sunseeker yacht. You can stroll its entirety in 15 minutes but what it lacks in size it makes up for in the enormous villas; 20 in all, with outdoor bathrooms the size of your average city centre apartment, and beds so grand couples could roll around all night and never touch each other.
Rooms: Villas from £530, B&B.
For beaches: Kanuhura (£££)
Resting in the peaceful Lhaviyani Atoll and ringed by a mile of soft, sparkly sand so broad and white it’ll make your eyes water, Kanuhura is the stuff your beach dreams are made of. With more than enough sandy square-footage to go around you’ll always be able to find a spot to cast off your (complimentary) kayak or SUP, join some early morning Maldivian warrior training (tossing coconuts and lugging logs up the beach), or kick back and slow down with a good book. Further isolation can be found by nipping on the hotel’s little blue dhoni over to two smaller — utter beautiful — uninhabited islands, spotting stingrays and purple starfish along the way.
Rooms: Villas from £690, B&B.
For families: Soneva Fushi (£)
Perfectly embodying all your Swiss Family Robinson fantasies, thatched-roofed double-decker villas have paprika-red sofas, netted beds and bamboo-shrouded outdoor bathrooms. Take the clan dolphin-spotting on a dhoni, explore the island on bicycles (stopping at the ice cream parlour), snorkel, kayak or drop into The Den, a kids’ club with a Lego room, a music studio and pirate ship. After dark, rocket up to the observatory and gawp at the rings of Saturn. Service is super — every villa gets their own Man or Girl Friday.
Rooms: Villas from £817, B&B.
For romance: Hurawalhi Island Resort (£)
Astonishingly beautiful and adult-only, all your romantic needs are covered here, from the spectacular 30-minute seaplane transfer to boozy picnics on a secluded sandbank to coconut-y couples’ massages. The beach villas are the most private, with jungle-wrapped plunge pools and flowery paths streaming straight on to sandy shores. And the house reef is a beauty, bursting with brilliant, energetic marine life. View it at its romantic best with dinner at 5.8, the world’s largest undersea restaurant.
Rooms: Villas from £350, B&B.
For manta-spotting: Four Seasons Landaa Giravaaru (£)
Manta rays are playful, have the biggest brains in the fish world and a wingspan that can reach up to 18ft, and you’ll find more of them here in the Baa Atoll Biosphere Reserve than anywhere else on earth. This is where Blue Planet II came to film 200 mantas hoovering up plankton in Hanifura Bay, an excursion that can be arranged by the Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru in partnership with the Manta Trust. After being awed by nature, relax in supersized villas, with private pools and beds facing the ocean.
Rooms: Villas from £756, room only.
Published in the July/August 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)