Travelers curious for a preview of paradise can visit the Billy Graham Center Museum in Wheaton, Ill., where a room lined in soft, white clouds with strains of ethereal choral music evokes a visit to heaven. I remember stopping by that exhibit many years ago, but lately I’ve found a real-life substitute for paradise — a visit to the islands of the Maldives.
A necklace of 1,190 coral islands — each fringed with powdery sand and ringed by turquoise waters — the Maldives don’t offer much more than total pleasure. Arranged in 26 atolls strung 500 miles north to south in the Indian Ocean, straddling the equator southwest of India and Sri Lanka, not one of the islands is more than a square mile in size, and their average elevation is a mere six feet above sea level. Only around 200 are inhabited, and nearly half of those are merely resorts, one per island. Each hostelry creates its own interpretation of utopia, so resort-hopping is an opportunity to experience various degrees of heaven.
Any trip is apt to commence in the country’s capital city, Malé. Maybe not in Malé itself, since the island city, barely a half-mile square, has its own neighboring airport island. Once you land, it’s not necessary to take a ferry across to town since facilities for boats, seaplanes and Maldivian (the national carrier) planes are efficiently set up alongside the terminal for transport to the outlying islands. On a recent trip to three different resorts, I arrived at the airport three times, each time connecting to a different trip onward.
My first time at the airport, team members of the Conrad Maldives greeted me and ushered me to the resort’s comfortable private lounge to await a seaplane departure. Flying back two days later, it was staff from the Vivanta by Taj – Coral Reef who met the plane and escorted me to the speedboat for the 50-minute ride to their resort, skimming over water so clear the boat seemed to float on air. Returning two days later, I was turned over to representatives of the Shangri-La Villingili, who guided me through the Maldivian boarding process for the convenient commercial flight down to the southernmost atoll.
Once you arrive, what is there to do? Besides the guaranteed scenery — lush tropical foliage, white-sand beaches, brilliant turquoise lagoons — accommodations, recreation, activities, cuisine and mood vary from resort to resort.
First decision is room preference. Visitors choose between beach and water villas, and even those come in different settings. At the Conrad, a private path from my secluded suite led me just a few steps to walk along the sandy beach, while the elevated ocean-view villa at Shangri-La nestled within foliage providing a view beyond my private lap pool to the distant sea.
Water villas hover on stilts over the lagoons for guests who like to live as if at sea. At the Vivanta Taj, I could walk down the steps from the deck of my water villa, slip into flippers and mask and ease directly into the lagoon, an activity so convenient I went on mini fish-watching excursions several times a day. Luxury water villas in the Conrad’s Spa Retreat include their own private massage and treatment rooms. On land or over water, most of the villas are such soothing sanctuaries it’s possible to hunker in, order room service and never venture out.
But recreational activities lie beyond: Paddle boarding, sailing, surfing, water skiing and kite surfing are common options. Snorkeling is almost inevitable, whether you walk into the water off any beach or, at the Shangri-La, pedal your bike over to the house reef lagoon. Dive centers provide instruction, equipment and boats for SCUBA excursions. Twenty dive sites surround the Shangri-La, and the Taj’s “Discovery” program prepares novices in one day to dive down and explore the famous MS Maldives Victory shipwreck that lies offshore.
With relaxation a primary goal, spa facilities are well-developed. The Conrad built an entire overwater Spa Retreat with the ocean ebbing and flowing right down beneath the wooden floorboards. At the Shangri-La’s sophisticated Chi Spa, each guest enters a private suite of rooms for preparation, treatment and recovery; and the signature massage features generous applications of soothing warm coconut oil stroked into the skin with heated cowry shells. The Jiva Spa at the Taj embraces a philosophy rooted in the ancient rejuvenating Indian approach to wellness and spirituality; its Vishram aromatherapy relaxation massage starts with a ceremonial foot wash in a basin with blossoms bobbing in the water. For men, Jiva offers the Japanese Sake Modern, Classic Barbershop and other specialty shaves.
While alcohol is forbidden in the Muslim country, resorts are allowed to serve full bar menus and wine lists on premises. Except for a few items of local produce, all food has to be imported through Malé, yet many menus offer exceptional cuisine with dishes from India, Malaysia, China, Indonesia, Italy, Japan and the Middle East, in addition to European choices. Breakfast buffets include a full array of cheeses, cereals and fruits along with waffles, muffins, pancakes and sushi. Many resorts arrange sailboat or sandbar picnics or private dining. Dine by Design at the Shangri-La caters meals in-villa or at other romantic spots around the resort, and the Vivanta by Taj serves a candlelit sunset dinner on a formally set table and seating snugly carved out of sand on the beach.
Food is not inexpensive. At the Vivanta Taj’s Open-the-Grill, a delicious three-course lobster meal with two glasses of wine cost $162, and the lunch tab for a pizza and two beers was $56. To skirt high food charges, consider “full board,” inclusive of all meals and beverages. More economical is “half-board,” including dinner and breakfast with beverages extra. After the hearty breakfast buffets, the appetite for lunch is apt to be minimal.
Novelty activities are an additional attraction at each resort. The Conrad’s Ithaa underwater restaurant allows guests to dine in an aquarium underwater dining room, and its Nemo mini submarine takes passengers on half-hour rides through the coral reef. At the Vivanta by Taj, a dozen stingrays swim up to the beach each afternoon for guests to hand-feed them chunks of fish. The Shangri-La prints a weekly list of daily activities that may include core muscle training, a sunset dolphin cruise, visits to the extensive Chef’s Garden or cycling between four linked islands on a nine-mile-long trail that happens to be the longest road in the country.
An increasingly popular way to island-hop is to sign on to a safari boat or “liveaboard.” Ranging from large yachts to mini cruise ships, these boats package accommodations, food and activities for itineraries exploring the islands by sea. Options vary widely, ranging from cheap and cheerful vessels with shared bathrooms to luxury yachts fitted out with spas, personal butlers and air-conditioning. Life aboard involves fishing, snorkeling, sandbar picnics, visits to local spots and merely relaxing en route. Some safaris specialize in spots for surfing; diving safaris may deliver guests to four or five SCUBA sites a day.
Visitors who want an active vacation ashore should consider one of the bigger islands. In addition to water sports, the Shangri-La offers a nine-hole golf course, a nature trail, bicycle paths, a mini “village” of shops and an Eco Center. For rainy days, most resorts have fitness rooms equipped with treadmills, stationary bikes and weight machines. There are Ping-Pong and pool tables and video games. Room service at the Taj offers a movie package which includes DVD rental and two snacks.
International resorts deal in U.S. dollars, and credit cards are accepted. Most resorts offer at least one daily bottle of drinking water. Besides business center facilities, superior WiFi is a common gratuity. Inquire about the prices of spa treatments and whether the resort charges extra for use of sports gear. Be sure to clarify the cost of transportation back and forth to the Malé Airport. If not included with the stay, the resort may be able to offer a favorable rate arranged with the carrier.
The Maldives is the planet’s lowest country, and ecology is a priority on the fragile islands. Each generates its own electricity and desalinates its own water. Rubbish must be burned. Swimmers are asked to avoid crushing the coral or stepping on it, and some resorts invite visitors to help replant the reefs. At the Shangri-La, a toy turtle on the night stand lets guests signal whether they require a daily change of sheets. With the tourist industry leading the country’s gross domestic product, visitors are welcome but asked to be respectful while enjoying the time they spend in this paradise on Earth.
Maldives Info to Go
Visas are not required for visitors arriving with passports, proof of onward travel and sufficient funds. Direct flights from India, İstanbul, London, Qatar, Singapore, Sri Lanka and the United Arab Emirates arrive at Malé International Airport (MLE), located on its own small island a ferry ride across from the island capital city of Malé. Highly organized inter-island transports depart from there by air and sea. International flights from Milan connect to Gan (GAN) on the southernmost atoll.
Where to Stay in the Maldives
Conrad Maldives Rangali Island Barefoot elegance is the byword, with the lobby and bar right on the sand. The Conrad embraces two islands and features the overwater Spa Retreat, seven restaurants and four bars. Rangali Island, Ari Atoll $$$$
Shangri-La’s Villingili Resort and Spa, Maldives A mile in length, the Shangri-La offers tennis; nature hikes; a nine-hole golf course; and visits to Mount Villingili, at 16.7 feet above sea level the country’s highest point. Villingili Island, Addu Atoll $$$$
Vivanta by Taj – Coral Reef Hunkered on a tiny island enclosed by a superior reef, the Taj is ideal for water sports lovers who enjoy cuisine served beside a breathtaking infinity pool overlooking the lagoon. Hembadhu Island, North Mal Atoll $$$$
Restaurants in the Maldives
Dr. Ali’s Three distinctive Eastern-style dining rooms present cultures and cuisines of the Indian Ocean, South China Sea and Arabian Gulf in the Shangri-La’s smart-casual restaurant. Shangri-La’s Villingili Resort, Villingili Island, Addu Atoll $$$
Latitude The main dining room at Vivanta by Taj offers creative fusion dishes from pad Thai to the traditional Maldivian breakfast mas huni, made of chopped tuna, onion, coconut and chili. Vivanta by Taj – Coral Reef, Hembadhu Island, North Male Atoll $$
Mandhoo Five elements — air, water, fire, earth, plants — inspire the dishes served in the Conrad Maldives Spa Retreat overwater restaurant. Crabmeat with mini-dices of avocado are among “air” options. Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, Ari Atoll $$$
Read more about undersea dining in the Maldives.
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