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The 1,192 islands in the Maldives are already home to more than 120 resorts, including the recently opened St. Regis Maldives Vommuli Resort (rooms from $1,976; starwoodhotels.com). So does this collection of atolls in the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean really need any more hotels?
Sonu and Eva Shivdasani thought so. The husband-and-wife team, who originated Maldivian barefoot luxury when they opened Soneva Fushi in 1995, score again with Soneva Jani (rooms from $1,870; soneva.com), a 40-minute seaplane ride from the Maldives’ capital, Malé. Out of Noonu Atoll’s 3.4-mile Medhufaru lagoon—one of the biggest in the Maldives—24 bleached-wood overwater villas rise like fairytale castles, complete with turrets and oval windows. Dotted along a curvy pontoon, they are the antithesis of the corporate hotel. Instead, Soneva Jani is the product of the couple’s wild imagination, creating a paradise for both big and little kids; fun details include a water slide from the top floor of several of the water villas, retractable roofs above the master beds for nighttime stargazing, and bicycles for all. For those seeking space and privacy, there’s also a 15,328-square-foot, four-bedroom Island Reserve Villa with a private gym at the end of the jetty, which starts at $15,150.
The central hub, the multilayered Gathering, has a sushi room, chocolate room, and overwater hammocks for sunset cocktails. On the island itself there are tennis courts and an open-air floating Cinema Paradiso. There are plans for up to 26 more villas and a rum shack on the wild South Beach, at the end of the island away from the main Medhufaru Beach. Be sure to make time for dinner at So Starstruck, an open-air turret from which a magnificent telescope rises from a glass floor and where resident astronomer Mike Dalley is on hand to talk guests through the night sky.
Also a 40-minute seaplane hop from Malé is the Four Seasons’ first-ever private island—the only exclusive-use hideaway in a unesco biosphere reserve. Voavah (rooms from $38,000; fourseasons.com) is a five-acre island that sleeps 22; the staff numbers 28. Choose between a three-bedroom beach villa with a master bedroom that opens onto a sandbank or a two-bedroom water villa with suspended catamaran nets and an infinity lap pool, possibly the prettiest spot on the island at sunset. At the heart of the property is a two-story Beach House with two further suites, a children’s bunk room, and a vast open-air dining room and sitting room with suspended swing sofas overlooking the main pool and the powder-soft beach. Everything one wants from an island resort is here: an overwater spa, a water-sports center with a PADI dive master, and a 62-foot yacht for dolphin spotting or picnics on a nearby island. And with VIP services at the airport, a private seaplane direct to the island’s pontoon, and a no-paparazzi guarantee, Voavah has the highest swank factor for the lowest-key guests. Monophobes needn’t panic, however. For a change of scene, there are tennis courts, cocktails at Blu, and good people-watching at the Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru resort, just a 20-minute boat ride away.
Also within Baa Atoll, famed for hosting one of the largest populations of manta rays in the world at Hanifaru Bay, is the locally owned and managed Milaidhoo (rooms from $1,625; milaidhoo.com). Rather than celebrate the new, the resort, which opened in November after suffering construction setbacks, is championing the old—the Maldives at its best. It aims for desert-island luxury with great spa offerings and island activities, including boating trips with local fishermen and learning how traditional dhoni boats are constructed. With 50 overwater and beach villas, each with its own pool, and children accepted only over the age of nine, the tiny, 984-by-590-foot island will certainly be a draw for those seeking peace and romance.
Meanwhile, the polar opposite exists another 20-minute boat ride away. Finolhu (rooms from $850; finolhu.com), with its 1970s retro feel, has managed where others have failed: to create the Maldives’ first party island. With mermaids in the pool by day and flame throwers on the beach by night, Finolhu swings from morning till dusk. The party that signed and sealed the resort’s status was hosted in December by model sisters Cara and Poppy Delevingne, when 160 of their friends and family took over for a five-day fancy-dress fiesta. Hangovers are mopped up over tacos at the Fish & Crab Shack, the best crab spot in the Maldives, positioned along a stunning mile-long crescent-shaped sandbank. Then back for a snooze to one of 125 overwater or beach villas, where funky props include Marshall speakers and vintage phones that read Press for Champagne, before starting all over again.
Not only does Finolhu dance to the beat of its own drum, but it ticks to the tock of its own clock. The resort sets its own time, two hours ahead of Malé—sneakily coordinating cocktail hour with those magical sunsets.