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Maldives: High Life on Low Islands

This tiny Indian Ocean paradise, world famous for its average elevation of just six feet, is drawing increasing numbers of jet-setters.

If road-tripping and hill walking are among your ideal vacation pastimes, you might want to stop reading right now. If, however, a tropical paradise sounds good to you, then continue, because that’s exactly what the Maldives delivers.  

The longest road in the country is only 14 kilometers and the highest peak is a mere five meters above sea level. (Check out the view from up there when you’re at the eighth tee on the Villingili Island golf course.) The entire nation is just twice the size of Miami but, with over 660 kilometers of beaches and 1,200 islands, Maldives must rank among the world’s premier venues for luxury beach bumming.

Malé, home to a third of all Maldivians, is one of the most densely populated cities in Asia. On many of the rural islands, however, you can experience a more timeless side of island life among coconut groves and stands of banana, papaya, and drumstick trees.

Malé, home to a third of all Maldivians Photo: Adobe Stock
Malé, home to a third of all Maldivians Photo: Adobe Stock

Whether you arrive at one of its many resorts by traditional dhoni boat or seaplane, you’re likely to be greeted by boda beru (“big drums”) music. This is the sort of peaceful welcome that was familiar to sailors back in the 12th century. Despite their hospitable attitude, however, the Maldivian people had a somewhat fearsome reputation among early seafarers: “The Indian pirates do not attack them and cause them no alarm,” noted Ibn Battuta, the legendary Moroccan explorer, when he visited the sultanate in 1343, “for they have found that whoever takes anything of theirs is struck with a sudden calamity.” In fact, Battuta reported that any crewmember of an Indian ship would be beaten for the offense of harming or insulting an islander; such was the fear of divine retribution.

Many locals will tell you that it was Battuta who brought Islam (now the official religion) to these islands, but in his memoirs, he told the tale of a countryman of his—a Berber named Abou Ibérécót—who had vanquished demons here and subsequently converted the people to Islam. 

Walking on the beaches, you’re likely to notice the domed back and snaggle-toothed undersides of the golden cowries. Once among the Maldive Islands’ most prized exports, they were so sought after that local women would leave woven palm mats in the sea as floating gardens to attract the cowry mollusks. In Battuta’s time, these shells served as currency, and they were exported as far afield as Bengal and Yemen. 

A Honeymooners Favorite

You might imagine that the Maldivian reputation as the perfect honeymoon destination was a relatively new thing but even centuries ago, there was apparently something irresistibly romantic about these islands: “I married in that country many wives,” Battuta wrote of the 18 months he lived in Maldives. (In his case, it wasn’t necessarily a happily-ever-after fairytale ending, however: when he left, he abandoned all his wives and instead ‘sent for a slave girl I was fond of’.)

Recently, Maldives tourism has focused as much on diving as on honeymoons. The upwelling currents of the Chagos-Laccadive Ridge make this one of the richest places on the planet for marine life. These tropical waters boast 2,000 species of fish, 12 kinds of whales and dolphins, and 145 types of crabs. You’ll also find 200 types of coral—about three times as many as there are in the entire Caribbean Sea.

Most resorts offer diving courses but if you prefer simply to snorkel, the good news is that the shallow lagoons and barrier reefs showcase spectacular marine life within just a couple of meters of the surface. Fishing is another favorite activity and surfing has come of age in recent years (see sidebar); all the best resorts now have dedicated surf teams who can advise and accompany you to outlying breaks. 

If relaxation rather than action is what floats your boat during vacations, note that stand-up paddleboarding offers a more tranquil way to get out on the waters. You might still get a jolt of energy as you watch one of the harmless (but surprisingly plentiful) white-tipped reef sharks scything through the water below you. 

Photo:Adobe Stock
Photo:Adobe Stock

Spas and Seaplanes

Whether it’s for unadulterated relaxation or to unwind knotted muscles after a bout in the waves, be sure to check out one of the Maldives’ world-class spas.  The one at Four Seasons Kuda Huraa is said to be the only spa set on its own private island and part of the experience is in the short voyage over on a dhoni. If you want to travel more widely—and a lot faster and farther—try a scenic flight in a seaplane, which is almost certainly the most exclusive and most exciting Maldivian vacation experience. 

Gourmet dining is widely available. It’s unusual for visitors to dine off-property so, if you are staying for more than a few days, try to opt for a resort with a variety of options. Yellowfin and skipjack tuna are regional highlights and be sure to sample a Maldivian barbecue. Apart from seafood and tropical fruit and vegetables, almost everything is imported. High-level resorts offer specialties from all over the world, so you won’t need to do without French champagne and wagyu beef, for example.

For family holidays, there are beaches, pools, clubs for kids, spas, and a whole range of activities—from adrenalin watersports to shark feeding to reef exploration to village visits. Getting bored is about the only thing that it’s impossible to do in the Maldives.

Mark Eveleigh traveled to the Maldives on an expense-paid press trip, covering the Four Seasons Surfing Champions Trophy.


A Surfer’s Paradise

It wasn’t Maldives’s flat, smooth water that brought me to these islands. I still recall the first time I saw the country featured in a surfing magazine and assumed that it must have been an error; it seemed impossible that an archipelago that was internationally renowned as a diver’s daydream could also be a surfer’s paradise.

Since then, surfing in the Maldives has come of age, and I arrived at the islands mainly to surf with some of the sport’s finest athletes on crystal-clear Indian Ocean breakers.

Photo:Adobe Stock
Photo:Adobe Stock

“It’s my first time here,” said Kelly Slater—who had become a household name as the greatest surfer of all time. “Now it’s one of those places that I want to come back to year after year.” 

Slater had flown to the Maldives with dreadlocked superstar Rob Machado to catch waves with a group of their old friends—all legends in the world of surfing—and with local pro Hussain “Iboo” Areef.

“High expectations make for poor traveling companions,” Machado had said in The Drifter, the surf movie he’d filmed in distant Indonesia. But few among the pros here had ever surfed in the Maldives and they were clearly reserving judgment. We were on a Four Seasons resort boat heading out to the reef break known as Sultans, where the full power of the Indian Ocean wraps like a patriarch’s snowy beard around the deserted islet of Thanburudhoo.

Across the watery horizon, an entire fleet of boats was shuttling surfers to spots with fearsome names like Ninjas, Jailbreaks, and Tombstones. Dive boats puttered among the atolls heading for dive sites with names like Colosseum, Shark Point, and—less imaginative—Aquarium, and sport fishermen were motoring for open water in search of yellowfin and skipjack tuna (one of the Maldive’s national animals). 

We paddled out into the waves at Sultans with the reef slipping under our boards and the occasional seaplane flying low overhead, shuttling visitors to outlying atolls and distant resorts.

“It’s just such a great location and the waves are beautiful,” Slater enthused later. “They’re playful but it’s really high-level and high-performance surf.”


WHAT IT IS: Part of the Chagos archipelago (along with the Chagos Islands), Asia’s smallest country is southwest of Sri Lanka and India in the Indian Ocean. It is home to just 390,000 people, who inhabit fewer than 200 of the approximately 1,200 islands.

CLIMATE: The dry season runs predominantly from November to March with the humid, rainy southwestern monsoon bringing the wettest weather from June to August.

GETTING THERE: There are three international airports and four others with paved runways. Several international carriers fly to Velana International Airport on Hulhumale Island, which is connected to the capital by the Sinamalé Bridge (aka Chinese-Maldives Friendship Bridge). You can charter a seaplane to access outlying resorts and islands or for exclusive diving/surfing/fishing trips.

WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: A visa on arrival is issued at no cost when you land in the country—however, you must have an ongoing ticket and accommodation booked before arrival. Also, every traveler must fill in and submit a Traveler Declaration form within 96 hours of arrival.


ACCOMMODATIONS: The Maldives is home to around 80 resorts, and the majority occupy their own private islands and are in some cases easily accessed by private launch from the international airport. One such resort, Four Seasons Maldives at Kuda Huraa (A+), is the sort of luxury hangout where you kick your shoes off on arrival, savor the white talcum-powder sand between your toes, and stay barefoot until check-out time. More remote properties—like Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru (A), set in a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve on Baa Atoll—are reachable via seaplane. Also noteworthy are Anantara Kihavah (B), Raffles Meradhoo (B), and the new Ritz-Carlton (A+) on the Fari Islands.

CUISINE: Interested in a Maldivian barbecue? You'll find one of the best at Café Huraa (A) at Four Seasons. If Indian cuisine is more to your taste, try Baraabaru (A+)—the nalli nihari (slow-cooked lamb shanks) are unforgettable, and deck-side tables come with the added excitement of nocturnal shark-watching. The Four Seasons Reef Club (C) is a peaceful sundowner spot set beside a quiet (i.e., adults-only) pool and specializes in Italian food.