An idyllic escape in the Indian Ocean, The Maldives comprises a constellation of exclusive atolls, which offer a paradisiacal combination of five-star resorts and breathtaking natural beauty. By Paul Rubio
Scattered randomly over the far reaches of the Indian Ocean, the 26 isolated atolls and surrounding waters of the Maldives epitomize raw beauty and simplicity. Azure waters teem with marine life, while fringed islets drown in downy sands and rising tides. However, it’s the presence of top global resorts that ultimately consummates this Maldivian love affair, facilitating the romance between creature comforts and earth’s core elements.
The Maldives’ resort formula is simple—each boasts a verdant private island surrounded by a coral reef and endless sand bars, relying on the fundamentals of hospitality, design, architecture, and size to differentiate themselves. Though current law forbids foreigners from purchasing real estate in the Maldives, the resort experience cultivates an unwavering cerebral blueprint, fostering that zen-like state for visitors.
Straddling the equator, the understated luxury of Cocoa Island discreetly rises from the Indian Ocean in the form of 34 marine-chic villas and suites. The exclusively over-water suites take the form of spacious, traditional Dhoni boats, while the more expansive thatched-roofed villas offer penthouse and sub-penthouse equivalents. The suites and villas are spaced a minimum of 24 feet apart, offering well-positioned angles and noise-canceling distances for privacy. Each private deck begins with Balinese-style day beds, adjacent to the sumptuous outdoor shower, and ends with a series of steps leading to the water.
Design interiors champion the concept of rustic luxury at Cocoa Island, where a juxtaposition of dark and light woods and white accessories complements elements of natural light and the ocean. Simple wooden foot bridges lead to the resort’s common areas: the signature Balinese-inspired COMO Shambala spa, the avant garde hammocks suspended from towering palms, the action-packed dive center, and the resort’s single restaurant, Ufaa. On a daily basis, Ufaa presents an evolving menu of gourmet South Indian cuisine, Asian specialties, and Mediterranean staples, coupled with vegetarian and low-calorie options.
With a maximum of 72 guests allowed at any given time, the intimacy remains uninterrupted throughout Cocoa Island, whether exploring the island’s perimeter, encountering a sea turtle on a morning snorkeling excursion, or relishing an outdoor shower. The non-intrusive Cocoa Island team stands at your beck and call, but also at your discretion, avoiding the sycophant style of most high-end resorts.
Indeed, Cocoa Island’s soul resides in its amazing staff, yet its pride rests on unparalleled natural endowments. Within seconds of dipping below the water’s surface, an intense and ever-changing panorama ambushes your senses. Moray eels, schools of Oriental sweetfish, and blue surgeonfish perform their latest synchronized swimming routines, while a titan triggerfish chases a baby black-tipped reef shark. Here, snorkelers can experience an underwater rhapsody often achieved only through deep-water diving in other parts of the globe.
Farther east in the Malé Southern Atoll, a series of petite islands host three separate Anantara properties: Anantara Dhigu Resort & Spa, Anantara Veli Resort & Spa, and Naladhu. All are connected by a small network of footbridges, lagoons, and shuttle boats. Each property flaunts a unique style and appeal. Dhigu’s predominantly oceanfront bungalows, Anantara Veli’s traditional over-water villas, and Naladhu’s immaculate ocean homes suit all vacations tastes.
While Cocoa Island’s resorts specialize in unabashed couples’ romance and intimacy, the breadth of Anantara’s resorts allows for more opportunities for families and couples slightly less keen on a Robinson Crusoe kind of solitude. The Anantara enclave has nine eclectic bars and restaurants, three idyllic swimming pools, and plenty of wide-open spaces for water sports enthusiasts. Kayaking, snorkeling, windsurfing, wake boarding, parasailing, and water skiing beckon at the water activities center, Aquafanatics, where a ground staff organizes Asian cooking classes, local arts and crafts, and land-based sports tournaments. The flagship overwater spa features the dexterity of Thai massage therapists, who indulge guests in traditional and signature treatments over tranquil glass-bottom floors.
In the entire Maldives, Naladhu is the only resort to provide the bona fide ocean home experience, pampering guests with 3,200-square-foot houses perched over the rising tide. The baroque-patterned wrought-iron entrance opens the doors of tropical elegance, combining contemporary minimalism with maritime nostalgia. Antique accessories combine Asian inspiration with European influences. Replacing a central living room with an infinity pool, cool, fresh waters are steps away from anywhere in the house, spilling into the ocean at one end and into the innovative Plexiglass/marble bathtub at the other. Behind the bathing area, a passageway leads to the beautifully landscaped outdoor shower, mirroring the indigenous shrubbery and palm trees that adorn the western perimeter of the infinity pool. On the footsteps of the hardwood floors and meticulously furnished master bedroom, a queen bed hammock sways back and forth, nearly gliding over the water. A thatched-roof dining area and private veranda welcome light breezes while unveiling a panorama of ocean and sky.
Personal butlers readily await the requests and whims of residents in Naladhu’s 19 homes, but an overwhelming sentiment of completeness often renders the intended butler services null and void. Given Naladhu’s exclusivity, guests are able to use the common facilities and outlets of neighboring Veli and Dhigu, though the reverse does not apply, so guests can easily maintain varying degrees of privacy.
Across the lagoons, at Anantara Dhigu Resort & Spa, a festive yet relaxing ambience prevails. Compared to its two neighbors, the property feels busy with 110 villas, live music in the evenings, and the enclave’s most popular restaurant, Fuddan Fusion Grill. However, Dhigu successfully stymies the big resort feel by virtue of its design and ample acreage. Service never drops below a five-star level and the property fills a niche for families and couples who enjoy regular doses of human interaction.
The details: The Maldives
Cocoa Island: cocoaisland.como.bz, $680-$3,990.
Naladhu: naladhu.com, $1,555-$3,230.
Anantara Dhigu Resort & Spa: dhigu-maldives.anantara.com, $1,000-$2,000.
Getting there: The Maldives
There’s no way around it: escaping to the Maldives’ incomparable remote beauty requires the longest of long hauls from North America. The prize is well worth the sojourn, but expect a good 30 hours of flying time in both directions and at least one stopover.
Because of the complexities of time changes and a lack of airline partners, most online search engines present convoluted, bizarre, and overpriced itineraries to reach Malé, the capital of the Maldives. Therefore, it is sometimes beneficial to break the trip up into two separate tickets: to/from the US to a gateway city and then to/from the gateway city to Malé. The only year-round European gateways to the Maldives are London (with British Airways) and Düsseldorf (with Air Berlin). The principal Asian gateway is Singapore on the top-rated Singapore Airlines, while all other connections are through the Middle East—Dubai with Emirates or Doha with Qatar Airways. Frequent-flyer gurus can easily figure out ways to pay for one or both of these legs with miles, especially using Star Alliance’s generous and valuable North America-to-Central Asia routing on Singapore Airlines.
The majority of flights arrive into Malé late at night, requiring an overnight stay in the capital. Offering little of tourist interest, visitors hardly spend more time than necessary in the tiny city, with a short stay at the surprisingly vanguard Holiday Inn Malé. Upon arrival and after immigration (visas aren’t required for US citizens), a representative will transport passengers to the Holiday Inn Malé via speedboat; the following morning, a Cocoa Island or Anantara representative will collect you at the Holiday Inn and transport you to isolated, water-bound nirvana. The resorts’ private speedboat transfers must be arranged in advance.
Airline tickets and resort prices are much higher during peak season—December to April—when Europeans dominate the azure expanses and rainfall is predictably light. Asian markets are more prevalent in the rainy low season, May to November; but long periods of sunshine still persist during these months.