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The Indian Ocean: Maldives

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The Magnificent Maldives
If you're searching for the best above-the-water suite in the Maldives, look no farther than the two Sunset Water Villas at the Hilton Rangali Island Resort & Spa, a 25-minute flight from Male, the capital. Each has two bedrooms, two marble bathrooms, and a deck with a Jacuzzi—which is some feat considering they are on stilts above the lagoon, where baby sharks (harmless, rest assured) cruise among reef fish (watch them through the glass floor). The whole place seems magical, from how the stilts manage to the two flat-screen televisions, Bose theater system, and electronic blinds. Just ask your butler, who knows everything. Villas, $3,500. South Ari Atoll; 800-774-1500, 960-450-629;

Yacht to Charter: Sanjeeda
Until recently, the chicest charter in the eastern seas was Amanresorts' Ikan Gurami. But last month a 93-foot sailing dhow began plying the waters between the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Seychelles, and Comoros. Captained by an Englishman, this teakwood beauty sleeps 12. Don't come expecting gold taps—this is relaxed, romantic, and authentic. Rates, $9,700 $; 44-208-898-9320;

Hot Property: Christina Ong Scores Again
When movie director Anthony Minghella checks into a private island resort before it's even finished, you know you're dealing with a hot spot. The resort, Cocoa Island in the Maldives, belongs to Christina Ong, who turned Parrot Cay in Turks and Caicos into the Caribbean's hippest hangout. And despite teething problems-a pool and spa not complete at opening-it looks like she's going to do the same with Cocoa.

This private island is in the less-developed South Male Atoll, a 30-minute boat ride from the airport, and is dominated by a curling tongue of bright-white sand (the Maldive president supposedly used it for family cookouts). The landscaping has a cultivated wildness: Expect tangles of hibiscus and palms rather than manicured lawns and beaches.

Cocoa is made up of four one-bedroom villas, a pair of two-bedroom villas, and 30 thatched-roof cottages, all along offshore wooden walkways. Mostly in place when Ong arrived, the buildings have been transformed by architect Cheong Yew Kuan (who did the Begawan Giri in Bali), and the interiors are designed in Ong's inimitable style: sleek, beach-house-clapboard white, with large double-vanity bathrooms. Some have mezzanine-style sleeping areas; all have hi-tech specifications, such as modem ports, DVD players, and air-conditioning (hi-tech in this part of the world). Every room looks out onto the horizon. From the private decks you can slip into the lagoon, which has terrific snorkeling thanks to little local sea traffic. The diving is also excellent: Vadhoo Channel, considered one of the world's top sites, is just ten minutes by boat.

Ong's interest in creating healthy retreats is again in evidence here. She has installed, as at Parrot Cay, a yoga-centered Shambhala Retreat. And the kitchen, under the guidance of Australian Stana Johnson, turns out delicious South Indian-influenced cuisine using organic ingredients and loaded with coconut and fresh fish. Rooms, $540- $1,800; 960-441-818;

Best Cellar: Sunny Side
Those who think there are no good vintages to be found in the Maldives should meet Sunny Chuang. The sommelier at Vilu, the Hilton Rangali Island's restaurant, will show you around the two ingenious cellars carved out of the lagoon's sandy floor where 6,500 bottles are kept cool six feet below sea level. One cellar seats 14 for dinner, with a five-course menu that evokes commentary from Sunny, who always gets the match right (for example, he'll pair foie gras with a perfect 1998 Doumier Morey-St.-Denis, Clos de la Bussière). All this on a dot of an atoll an awfully long way from France. 800-774-1500, 960-450-629;

Smart Advice
If you loved the Hilton Rangali's over-water spa, wait until Huvafen Fushi opens in the Maldives in December. It has two underwater glass treatment rooms. 960-443-847;

Hot Property: Walking On Water
The stilted suites at Soneva Gili Resort & Spa, built in the middle of the island's lagoon and reachable only by boat, are a water lover's dream. Only 15 minutes from the Maldives' Male International Airport, Soneva's rustic wood-and-rattan suites have daybeds and terraces with overstuffed cushions in fuchsia and Buddhist orange. They are also the largest in the islands, with a 24-hour soundtrack of waves lapping against the reef (ask for room 32, 33, or 34). Couples love the privacy and the fact that, with a staff of 230 for only 44 rooms, there's little reason to leave your terrace. Except, perhaps, to get a massage at Soneva's superlative spa and dine in the restaurant. There's excellent buffet-style sushi for lunch and an eclectic wine list that runs from French to Mexican. There is also a pool, of course, though real water babies will prefer to snorkel on the reef. If there's one complaint, it's that when the tide is low it can be easier to wade to your suite than paddle, which dampens the fun of rowing to bed. A piece of advice from one regular in the know: Skip the Crusoe Residences altogether and opt instead for a less expensive Residence Suite off jetty three. They are attached to land by walkways (which suit those who find all that water imprisoning after a while), but the sea is deep enough to swim to your villa. Rooms, $645-$2,340; 960-440-304;

Great Find: Jewel Case
Look for Sifani jewelry at the shops in the Four Seasons at Kuda Huraa, Soneva Gili, and Soneva Fushi. We love the white and yellow gold bracelets, earrings, necklaces, and rings with pink quartz and black mother-of-pearl ($945-$1,245). The shapes are simple but the detailing is extravagant without being too opulent. 44-207-838-0160;

Up and Coming: Kiss the Cook
ONE TO WATCH Frankly, Taj Exotica Resort and Spa Maldives might be too near Male to escape the aircraft noise, but this new luxury resort still makes the cut because chef Ashfer Biju is the best in the atolls. At both resort restaurants, The Deep End and 24 Degrees, "Everything is one hundred percent fresh, with new menus every day," says the Indian-born Biju. "We've got the most spectacular fish in the world on our doorstep." Biju has a light, inventive touch that combines Indian spices with local fish and Mediterranean traditions: spaghetti with banana prawns, red seared tuna, and foie gras on squid-ink tagliatelle. Our favorite is the prawn three ways—marinated in yogurt and lemongrass, cooked in a clay oven, and served with avocado and cucumber (his mother's recipe). This feast doesn't get any better, not even in India. Dinner, $95. South Male Atoll; 960-44-2200;

Boat to Book: Four Seasons Afloat
If you can't get a room at the Four Seasons at Kuda Huraa, the new Four Seasons Explorer has 11 staterooms designed by Singapore's Kat Kng that are sleek and minimal—whites and highly polished teak. All have DVD players, CD systems, TVs, and telephones; the top suite has a private dining area. The boat is designed for divers, but non-divers will appreciate the luxury of a 24-person staff, including a marine biologist and a spa therapist. Rooms, $1,445-$2,525 for three nights; includes meals and drinks; 960-444-888;

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than American Express.


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