While no one could ever compare the Maldives to a place like Cancun, there are—truth be told—patches of this archipelago that are positively fizzing with frenetic hotel activity, namely in the capital of Male and its surrounding islands. But on the remote Baa Atoll (a seaplane ride from the Male airport), looking out on a two-mile-wide lagoon, one sees nothing but a ridiculously disco-blue sea, a lick of blond sand cutting across it like a whiplash, and, across the water, a handful of tiny islands clustered together like palm-topped gunships on their way to war. Below the surface of the lagoon, the merciful lack of human interference manifests in world-class diving: lime-eyed squid, black-tipped reef sharks, and on one recent dive ten minutes from shore, a school of 50 manta rays. This is pre-cisely what you want from the Maldives—desert-island flawlessness seasoned with a dash of breathtaking thrill. The Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru has chosen its spot wisely.
With the November opening of this resort—the hotel group’s second in the Maldives—the Four Seasons has struck out on its own, creating an aesthetic worlds apart from both the rustic chic that defines the bulk of hotels here and the rock-and-roll fabulousness associated with the remaining ones. The look of the Landaa Giraavaru’s 102 villas, with their high triangular roofs and overtly structural design, is an homage to Sri Lanka’s late famed designer Geoffrey Bawa, conceived by his protégé Ismail Murad. Though certain aspects—like the Venetian-cut glass mirrors featured in some of the rooms—seem incongruous and even somewhat jarring, other touches are contemporary and fun, such as the polished concrete bathrooms with gigantic tubs that could easily fit four people. Here the beach villas are, for a change, even more charming than the overwater ones, set just yards from the lagoon, surrounded by plush vegetation, and delightfully adorned with sand-floored sitting rooms and long beautiful swimming pools. If an unhindered view of the sea from your bedroom is a priority, sacrifice a little privacy and ask for a villa with less crazily overgrown sea lettuce sprouting from the garden below.
Delightful discoveries turn up around every corner of this 44-acre island. At the waterfront you will find top-of-the-line watersports boats; in the Ayurvedic spa, deeply knowledgeable tantric therapists; in the teen center, a game called geocaching, which involves treasure hunting with a handheld GPS. At Al Barakat, the Lebanese-Moroccan restaurant, you’ll happily feast on killer baba ghanoush—even if the lighting is a touch municipal—but the Italian restaurant Blu is the real draw come dinnertime. Whitewashed with an eel-colored pool separating the bar and the dining area, it looks out over that knockout lagoon.
If you’re really serious about absorbing the maximum amount of the Maldives’ natural beauty, consider the Explorer, Landaa Giraavaru’s fully crewed 128-foot, three-deck catamaran with 11 rooms (don’t even think about bringing your own superyacht here; it would just loll about hopelessly on the endless sandbanks). A floating mini Four Seasons that can be rented exclusively, the vessel is perfect for exploring untouched atolls or for jaunts down south to the smaller Four Seasons resort at Kuda Huraa. The Explorer is also a brilliant alternative for divers, but those who travel without oxygen tanks and flippers will be equally charmed by the experience. Ask nicely and the crew will set up a lobster picnic on an empty beach, with chairs and tables sculpted from sand and treatment beds placed in the shade of a nearby coconut tree for a languorous postlunch massage.
From $800; 800-819-5053; fourseasons.com.
Six More Stars in the New Maldives
Island-hopping in the Maldives has never been sexier. Since the 2004 tsunami, which devastated this area off the coast of Sri Lanka, several spectacular new resorts have opened and others have received luxurious makeovers. Now the only problem is that with nearly 1,200 alluring islands, hashing out an itinerary is a formidable task. Hence our guide to six key spots, any combination of which would make for a trip rich in natural beauty and manmade chic. —Julie Earle-Levine
W Retreat & Spa, North Ari Atoll
W’s world-debut resort is still a stunner. Seventy-eight minimalist villas, including 42 overwater oasis retreats, boast decks the size of most Manhattan apartments as well as their own plunge pools, barbecues, and spacious daybeds. The sleek aesthetic, unfortunately, extends to other arenas—self-serve towel stations are a bit too spartan for us. Still, it’s the perfect place to do absolutely nothing but pamper and party. The open-air spa, Away, delivers pedicures on a deck in view of flying fish, and Fifteen Below, the Maldives’ first underground club lounge, hosts international deejays who play until the last guest shimmies home around daybreak. From $1,250; 877-946-8357; whotels.com.
One & Only Maldives at Reethi Rah, North Male Atoll
If measured by its guests alone, Reethi Rah is the most stylish newcomer—Gucci and Jimmy Choo are de rigueur at dinner and Jade Jagger is a regular. But everything here is luxe. Thirty-two of the resort’s 130 villas—a term which belies their sprawling nature—are overwater, and the grounds include 12 white-sand beaches. Black granite infinity pools litter the property and white snapper laksa with baby-banana ice cream compose a typically elaborate lunch. From $1,200; 960-664-8800; oneandonlyresorts.com.
The Rania Experience, Faafu Atoll
It’s called an experience for a reason: The Rania is not a hotel but rather the combination of an exclusive-use island and an 86-foot-long motorboat. Your group of up to 15 can choose to sleep in the three-bedroom villa, where you are able to dine on whichever patch of sand you find most appealingly pristine, indulge in a coconut body wrap under a palm tree, and take dips in the sea just steps from your door. Or you can spend the night in one of the four TV- and satellite phone-equipped bedrooms on the boat, then stroll around a nearby uninhabited island or do a dive session before breakfast—there are 40 sites in this atoll alone, with a house reef that attracts such sea life as turtles and lobsters. Either way you’ll be pampered to the extreme by your personal chef, dive instructor, spa therapist, and butler. From $13,000 for two; 960-674-0555; raniaexperience.com.
Huvafen Fushi, North Male Atoll
Spa fans should head here for the vast creative menu and the underwater treatment rooms, where you can get a pro-collagen marine facial or an Indian head massage (perhaps the purest bliss we’ve ever known) while gazing at passing parrot fish. All villas—both overwater and on land—have their own pool, and Fushi is also constructing five new dhonis (traditional Maldivian fishing boats) that guests can take to a snorkel spot or for a picnic lunch at sea. For those who are best lulled to sleep by the rhythmic movement of the ocean, a one-bedroom cruiser with its own spa quarters and Jacuzzi will launch in May. From $1,100; 960-664-4222; huvafenfushi.com.
Soneva Gili Resort & Six Senses Spa, North Male Atoll
Soneva Gili’s 45 eco-chic overwater lodges are certainly sumptuous, with their part-glass floors, alfresco walkways to the bathrooms, and large rooftop sundecks. But the 15,000-square-foot Private Reserve villa—which opened in September 2005 and has been a favorite among Russian moguls ever since— is beyond belief, with its own waterslide, wine cellar, massage pavilion, and staff. For a little less hoopla but just as much luxury, book one of the two spa suites; they afford absolute seclusion, not to mention daily treatments. The green focus here extends to dining: Organic fruit and vegetables are grown in an on-site garden, and even the caviar is from an environmentally friendly farm in the Caspian Sea. And an impressive, just-opened wine cellar seats guests who come for tastings at a table made of driftwood from the tsunami. From $1,265; 949-640-1198; sixsenses.com.
Anantara Maldives, South Male Atoll
Those seeking adventure in glamorous waters will find it here. This newcomer offers a slew of activities, including three- to five-day yoga and meditation clinics, windsurfing lessons, submarine explorations of reef life, and Thai cooking classes. And while a number of resorts offer infinity pools, the intimate five-acre Anantara raises the stakes with infinity tubs inside the overwater suite bathrooms. At this Thai-owned resort, traditions from the Maldives and Thailand coexist everywhere, from the more than 16,000-square-foot glass-bottom spa to the dining rooms—Baan Huraa offers Thai dishes, while Fuddan Fusion Grill’s menu is stocked with Maldivian seafood recipes. A new sister property, Naladhu Maldives, will open on Veligandhu Huraa, South Male Atoll, this spring. From $600; 960-664-4100; anantara.com.