Flying low over the Indian ocean, the water is the colour of opal. Hundreds of green and white flecks, each a tiny island, are loosed across the surface. And once you’re on the ground – what little there is of it, at least – the Maldives look as much like the picture-book paradise as you could come to expect.
Off the south-western coast of the Indian peninsula, the Maldives is a string of atolls and quays, which formed literally on the back of a coral reef that’s been growing for hundreds of thousands of years. Home to a population of only 350,000, the main business of the Maldives is tourism.
There are more than 100 resorts scattered across the almost 1,200 islands, each of which is in near complete isolation from the outside world. Secluded beaches, exclusive reef breaks and private diving destinations are par for the course in the Maldives. Many resorts even have their own time zone and, more often than not, your room will have an entirely unobstructed view of endless ocean.
But despite the vast distances that separate these atolls from the troubles of the city, let alone one another, visitors can still reasonably expect the world-class dining they’re accustomed to, whether in European, Asian or Arabic-style cuisine. And while the capital, Malé, is a strictly dry city, many resorts boast storied wine cellars (there’s no shortage of Dom Pérignon in the Maldives, let me personally assure you).
That said, you can live in the lap of luxury pretty much anywhere these days, so the real drawcard of the Maldives is neither the bed linen nor the wine list. It is, undoubtedly, the fragile and miraculous ecosystem that stretches out in every direction around you. Take a step outside your bedroom door and your feet find spotless white sand. Walk down to the water’s edge and you’ll find it teeming with tropical sea life, from neon lionfish to immense whale sharks, green turtles that bob among the coral and graceful manta rays that glide like A380s.
Here are three excellent examples of Maldivian hospitality, where you can watch the sun rise – and set – over the ocean in utter relaxation.
Cocoa Island by Como
You’ll likely arrive at cocoa Island after nightfall, ferried by speedboat over darkened seas from the airport at Malé. But that moment when you open the curtains the next morning is a revelation. To call it an ocean view doesn’t cut it; the rooms at Cocoa Island are in the ocean. One need only stretch out of bed and amble down a short stairway to float in the warm water below.
There’s an understated elegance to Como’s Maldivian resort; ostentatious displays would spoil the grandeur of the view. Instead, architect Cheong Yew Kuan has appointed the spacious villas with white linen, warm New Zealand pine and metres of glass. An enormous Balinese daybed invites an abundance of wasted time, while private outdoor showers make you wonder why you’d bathe any other way.
If you’re somehow enticed to leave your room, you’ll be rewarded. The island has its own in-house marine biologist, who’ll guide you through the bountiful reef just metres off the shore. It’s already impressive during daylight hours, but after dark it’s truly something to behold. Night snorkelling (it’s a thing) reveals a starburst of aquatic life, schools of jewel-blue fish and moray waving out from behind their rocks.
Back on dry land, Ufaa Restaurant is featuring some of that local sea life on the menu; the likes of reef fish carpaccio with fennel, caper and dill, or freshly caught lobster from the nearby lagoon, cooked in a tandoor and served with mint raita, or chargrilled with tropical fruit salsa. Those keen to sample some local cuisine can try the Jobfish curry, cooked in ramba leaf and tomato, and served with a handmade roti.
For the health-minded, there’s an open-air pavilion to practice yoga, and a shady hydrotherapy pool in which to while away a few hours. Balinese-trained masseurs are on hand to provide the signature ‘Shambhala’ treatment, carried out in a private treatment room with a view of the ocean.
Wow factor: The serenity
Best suits: The discerning traveller
Rates: Start from US$1,050 (about A$1,413) per night. comohotels.com/cocoaisland/
The most recent entrant into the Maldivian resort scene is Amilla Fushi. Bringing all the creature comforts of Sydney’s Surry Hills to the middle of the Indian Ocean, Fushi rethinks the resort restaurant concept with something of a dining precinct. Separate bars and bistros are set along the shoreline; the ‘bazaar’ mixes up homey if high-end comfort foods such as fish and chips and pizza, while Wok and Grill feature pan-Asian and modern Australian cuisine respectively. Further along the beach is the Wine Shop and Cellar Door, which offers over 8,000 wines by the bottle or the case, along with some unapologetically fancy cheeses.
The pride and joy of Amilla Fushi is Lonu, the fine-dining restaurant overseen by Australian celebrity chef, Luke Mangan. Set on a wharf overlooking the crystalline waters, Lonu has its own rooftop bar to settle in for a cocktail before (or after) dinner. Executed by consummate chef Nonky Tejapermana, the menu’s reserved, if accomplished. You’ll find Australian lamb cutlets with pistachio tabouleh and saffron yoghurt, or local Maldivian snapper dressed with pine nuts, currants and basil. And a pro-tip: chef Nonky’s raspberry soufflé is the work of a master.
If you find time for anything other than eating (and let’s face it, why should you?), it’s worth noting that Amilla Fushi sits within the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of Baa Atoll. A short boat trip off the coast of the resort delivers you to Hanifaru Bay, home of the giant manta. Swimming with these incredible creatures is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences and is not to be missed.
Javvu, meanwhile, is an ultra-modern spa with a tea lounge, hair salon and 10 private treatment pods set among a burgeoning tropical forest. There’s even an old-timey barber, where even the most genteel of hipsters can have their lustrous beards oiled and trimmed.
The suites are similarly contemporary, with treetop villas nestled on stilts among the canopy, and beach houses featuring private pools and their own little waterfront.
Wow factor: The restaurant scene
Best suits: Young couples or pals on holiday
Rates: Start from US$1,306 (about A$1,758) per night. amilla.mv
One&Only Reethi Rah
When a resort is managed by the former Michelin Guide directeur général, it’s a fair bet you’re in for something classy. And that’s exactly what you get at One&Only Reethi Rah. A more classical style of five-star accomodation, every aspect of this resort is polished to a high shine.
The rooms, which will soon undergo a generational refit, are already palatial yet tasteful. Each villa is nestled within a little grove of coconuts, where a carved gate opens onto personal beachfront, replete with pool and hammock.
The level of service you’ll find at Reethi Rah is the stuff that sets the bar, and raises it. Your personal butler will walk over coals to ensure you’re comfortable, and every staff member you’ll happen across has warmth, wit, and a welcome reserve of good sense. It’s clear that working for One&Only is a well-earned point of pride for these skillful employees.
With the aforementioned Jean-Luc Naret at the helm, it’s probably not surprising that dining on Reethi Rah is an unalloyed pleasure. Fanditha is perhaps the most fun, with Arabic-style spit roasts cooked over coals served with chilled rosé under the stars by the beach. The Beach Club serves casual, all-day bar food, while Reethi Restaurant has almost literally something for everyone. Tapasake is the most ambitious, with its modern Japanese cuisine and a strong sake and Euro-inflected wine list in an incredible setting.
The enormous spa offers an exhaustive range of treatments: Ayurvedic, Swedish, Hot Stone, Balinese – even ‘Watsu’, a style of Shiatsu performed in a mineralised pool – are available. Natural facials and intensive skin-analysing procedures are also on offer.
The Sunset Sandbank Experience, however, is perhaps the most eye-opening activity on offer. Your captain will shuttle you out to a deserted island only accessible at low tide, far out of view from any landmass on the horizon and miles away from the nearest boat or human being. As the pink sun sinks into the Indian Ocean, your hosts offer champagne and picnic boxes, and you’ll be reminded, once again, why you travelled all this way.
Wow factor: The hospitality
Best suits: Those with an eye for the finer
things in life
Rates: Start from US$1,190 (about A$1,601) per night. oneandonlyresorts.com