The 1,192 islands in the Republic of the Maldives stretch 500 miles from north to south across the equator, like a string of lustrous pearls in the azure waters in a remote corner of the Indian Ocean. With a total land mass of 115 square miles, this is Asia’s smallest country, both in population and in land area — if all the islands were placed side by side, their total would measure smaller than the city of Athens, Georgia! With an elevation of 4 feet 9 inches above sea level, the Maldives also claims the world’s lowest average elevation.
Famed for its powdery, white sand beaches, and high-end resorts with sumptuous overwater bungalows, turquoise lagoons, and some of the best scuba diving and snorkeling in the world, the Maldives has a reputation for luxury. However, there is more than just luxury to offer here. I have just returned from a fabulous week in this most special of destinations, so read on and I’ll tell you just how many amazing experiences there are to see and do here, both on land and under the sea.
You will arrive in the Maldives at Malé International Airport, which perhaps oddly isn’t actually on the capital island of Malé itself, but rather on the small reclaimed adjacent island of Hulhumalé. Upon landing, you will transfer to the nearby docks, where walking down the overwater ramps to your waiting seaplane is the first of many unique and exciting things about your holiday. Whilst seaplanes are not a cheap way to travel, life is about the journey, and this will likely be one of the most scenic views of your life. You can’t put a price on that!
A seaplane travels three times faster than a boat, making it the ideal way to travel in this archipelago nation. From the minute you take off, the seaplane journey to your resort will be a 30-minute to one-hour flight of jaw-dropping aerial views, picture-perfect islands, luxury overwater villas, powdery sandbars, islands, atolls, reefs, and lagoons. Seaplanes only fly during daylight hours and they will not fly in bad weather.
We flew Trans Maldivian Airways, which currently flies to more than 80 Maldives resorts, carrying over 1,000,000 passengers per year, and Manta Air, the newest domestic airline to service the Maldives.
Pro Tip: There are a few things to know before you board your seaplane. Firstly, there are no toilets on board, and there are no business class seats. There is also no air-conditioning. So, although there will be fans, it can be rather hot inside the aircraft before take-off. Lastly, seaplanes have 15 seats, all very close to one another, and not all are window seats, so keep that in mind when boarding. There is no prior seat allocation.
If you’ve ever stared at photos of overwater bungalows and dreamed of visiting one, you’re not alone! Overwater bungalows come with a host of luxurious facilities — glass-bottomed bathrooms, private infinity pools for floating breakfasts, sun decks, overwater hammocks, and outdoor beds for catching a tan without having to leave your room, being lulled to sleep by the sound of waves beneath your bed; all this and stairs leading directly to the ocean where you can snorkel with sea turtles, fish, and occasionally sharks.
What could be dreamier? Relaxation and privacy, all with amazing views. Overwater villas are the epitome of vacation goals.
Planning a holiday in the Maldives? Then stunning underwater images of tropical fish and colorful coral have probably already crossed your mind. Diving and snorkeling experiences in the Maldives are some of the best in the world, and the excellent reefs and abundance of marine life make this destination an ocean lover’s dream.
Between the atolls and islands, there are channels connecting the Indian Ocean to the Lagoons. Diving is an incredible way to see this underwater world and there’s a real sense of peace that washes over you when you’re floating 10 feet underwater.
Scuba diving is done at a fairly leisurely pace. You’ll drift in the ocean currents, past ocean walls, festooned with colorful sponges, soft corals, invertebrates, and over cleaning stations where wrasse and shrimp service manta rays. You’ll likely spot eagle rays and Napoleon wrasse, pelagic fishes like trevally or barracuda, probably the occasional whitetip or grey reef sharks, and if you’re really lucky, the rare hammerhead shark.
You don’t have to be scuba qualified to experience the underwater world of the Maldives. Simply don a mask, snorkel, and put on a pair of fins — a whole new world awaits. At JOALI Maldives, we slipped into the water before breakfast from the beach in front of our villa, and found fish and coral awaiting us. At Anantara Kihavah Maldives, we snorkeled the house reef, which teamed with reef fish and colorful coral gardens. Later on, we went out by boat to snorkel with giant manta rays in the protected Hanifaru Bay, the world’s largest manta ray feeding location. From LUX* South Ari Atoll, we snorkeled with sea turtles and eagle rays before going to look, unsuccessfully, for rare whale sharks. They can be found with a bit of luck and some searching, all year round in the Maldives.
Pro Tip: With a tropical climate and warm temperatures year-round, the Maldives can be dived at any time, although August-November is considered the best time to see manta rays and whale sharks.
Climate change-driven coral bleaching is a major concern in the Maldives. In 1998, more than 90 percent of the coral in the Maldives was killed in a mass bleaching event. In 2016, the phenomenon known as El Niño caused a sustained spike in seawater temperatures, resulting in the mass bleaching of 72 percent of the shallow water corals.
While coral populations have been recovering steadily in recent years, the Maldives would improve with a little help. Coral regeneration programs have been implemented at various resorts, and visitors can participate in activities like the “coral farming” workshop we took part in with the resident marine biologist, at LUX* South Ari Atoll. We started with tiny shards of coral that we attached to a metal frame that would ultimately be placed in the resort’s coral nursery, and will hopefully develop into “adults” over time.
After tourism, fishing is the Maldives’ main industry, and almost a third of the country’s workforce is employed in the industry. From catching, to packaging, and exporting.
Nutrient-rich waters mean barracuda, swordfish, and giant trevally are regularly spotted. Snapper and groupers are widely caught, but tuna is the fish most commonly caught. Keen anglers can experience the thrill of casting a line in the Maldives and night fishing expeditions are an option, with this usually being aboard traditional dhoni fishing boats with a handline. Fly fishing is also an option. Do note that spearfishing is prohibited.
Most of the mammals and reptiles found in the Maldives are found in the water. This is not a safari destination! Whales and dolphins are common, and so are sea turtles (green, hawksbill, and leatherback). There is the occasional sea snake, and even more uncommon, saltwater crocodiles.
The small size and isolation of the Maldives mean that its birdlife is very limited. Only 5 subspecies of birds have been identified as endemic to the Maldives, including my favorite, the White-breasted waterhen. The waterhen is often considered the national bird of the Maldives and it’s regularly seen on the beach or scuttling in and out of overhanging bushes. They are incredibly cute little birds, especially when they have small babies in tow. Like the human tourists, most of the birds you’ll see are migratory visitors from Europe, vagrants, or imported species, and there are around 160 to 180 different species of those!
One of the other few bits of wildlife you are likely to see on your holiday is the fruit bat. Fruit bats, or flying foxes, seem to catch people’s eye in the Maldives, and they are most often seen around dusk, swooping down from the tree tops to sip water from the pool or heading out over the ocean in their nightly quest for food.
Food was another highlight of the Maldives for me.
Fish has long been a staple ingredient in Maldivian local dishes. In a country where fish is one of the few abundant natural resources, it’s no surprise that the Maldives’ most popular breakfast dish features tuna. Mas huni is made by mixing together chopped tuna, onion, and chilies with grated coconut and lime juice, then served with thin flatbreads known as roshi. Traditional breakfast dishes like this were on the menu at JOALI Maldives.
We had the opportunity to eat breakfast in Anantara Kihavah Maldives’ underwater restaurant, Sea. The octagonal dining room has huge glass sides, allowing diners incredible views of marine life, swimming to and fro, while they eat. It’s rather hard to concentrate on your breakfast when eagle rays and the occasional turtle or shark are drifting past!
Having eaten to our heart’s content, and sampled all kinds of dishes, when we reached Lux* South Ari Atoll we joined a cooking class. There, the chef taught us a few traditional Maldivian dishes. Starting with Hedhikaa, the catch-all word for snacks, we learned to make a traditional samosa before moving on to a cabbage and coconut salad, then a tuna curry (dhon riha) made with coconut milk, fresh tuna, onions, curry leaves, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, and cumin — delicious.
The Maldives seem to have some of the biggest skies in the world. Free from light pollution, each tiny island presents the perfect place to observe the universe. However, nowhere is better prepared than Anantara Kihavah Maldives, where a custom-built observatory boasts a powerful research-grade 16 inch Meade LX200 telescope, for seriously up-close star gazing. Here, you can lie back on a circular daybed and gaze at the stars glittering overhead, while the island’s resident “Sky Guru,” Shameem, teaches you about the constellations before introducing you to the Maldives’ most powerful telescope.
Looking through the viewfinder, you can see the pale yellow rings of Saturn, the craters on the moon, the cluster of over 300,000 stars that form the constellation of Hercules, and Omega Centauri, the largest known globular cluster in the Milky Way. A mesmerizing natural light shows a whole new world of wonder.
Found on most resort islands, spas in the Maldives are a haven for tranquility, rejuvenation, and relaxation. Luxury spa facilities offer plentiful signature treatments along with comprehensive ranges of products that provide a lavish pampering experience. Perhaps a deep cleansing, hydrating skin care program, nourishing body exfoliation, or a detoxifying wrap?
Indulge in a Balinese or Thai massage like the ones offered in the over-water treatment rooms at Anantara Kihavah Maldives or LUX* South Ari Atoll, or perhaps a visit to the authentic hammam (a Middle Eastern variant of a steam room), like the beautiful marble-clad one at JOALI Maldives. Whichever treatment you decide upon at your resort spa, the experience is sure to revive you, body and mind, and make your holiday in the Maldives even more relaxing.
If all this activity sounds a little too much for you, don’t fret, there are always beautiful beaches around. It’s a joy to kick off your shoes and walk on Maldivian beaches. The shimmering white sand, the swaying coconut palms, and the turquoise waters all combine to make the Maldives one of the most photogenic destinations in the world and a true holiday paradise.