The Maldives is Mother Nature in overdrive: technicolour coral, beaches so white they’ll make your eyes squint and water so blue it looks like the saturation has been set to max. This archipelago of 1,190 islands has become a poster child for island paradise, but there’s more variety than you might think. Some atolls are better for manta rays; some attract whale sharks; and others are great for surfing, deep-sea fishing or have beaches running for miles. Tragically, several coral reefs were badly damaged during a worldwide bleaching event in 2016, so those keen to explore beneath the surface will need to plan carefully before visiting this ever-changing seascape. But much like its marine life, the Maldives’ accommodation is similarly vibrant, and you’ll find everything from love nests and party pads to castaway villas and overwater bungalows, meaning there’s just as much action to be had on land as there is in that dazzlingly blue water.
Named after the island’s immaculate, half-mile-long sandbank, Seaside Finolhu is perfect for hand-in-hand strolls. It recently refreshed all of its villas in sherbet shades of yellow, pink, blue and green, and the rest of the resort is similarly playful; take a stroll around the island and you might find an inflatable water park on the seashore or fire dancers on the beach. There’s plenty more to do here, too, including tennis and yoga, and a raft of places to eat and drink, from the beachside buffet to the tiki-lit crab shack. Even with all this, rest assured that the island is also large enough that you’ll always find somewhere to hide away and relax.
Rooms: Villas from £598/Rs 60,242, all-inclusive (finolhu.com)
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This paradise idyll is well-suited for solo travellers, honeymooners and families alike. The spacious villas — some overwater and some on the beach— are decked out in Saint-Tropez-style whites and blues, with large living rooms, even larger wooden decks and private pools. The food is excellent and sustainably sourced and there’s a bonanza of free daily activities, including kombucha-making classes, chess lessons and diving near the Hanifaru cleaning station, as seen on the BBC’s documentary series Blue Planet II.
Rooms: Villas from £653/Rs 65,782, B&B (amilla.com)
‘Anything. Anytime. Anywhere.’ is Kudadoo’s mantra and this ultra-exclusive, all-inclusive resort keeps its promise. Everything really is included here, from mini-bars stocked with Patrón tequila and Old Tom gin to round-the-clock gourmet meals in the restaurants or in your room and unlimited treatments at the temple-like spa. All the watersports and excursions are included as well. The resort has just 15 overwater pool villas, giving it a members-only feel, and the house reef is brimming with colourful coral and fish.
Rooms: Villas from £2,540/Rs 2,55,878, all-inclusive (kudadoo.com)
This private island resort brags one of the most beautiful house reefs in the Maldives: it’s a whopping six miles long and abundant with bright, healthy corals and kaleidoscopic reef fish. It’s also home to the country’s only Coralarium, a semi-submerged tidal gallery with a collection of eco-concrete sculptures that double as an artificial reef, encouraging corals, fish and crustaceans to the area. There’s plenty to admire above the surface too, including airy villas with private pools, open-air restaurants serving Japanese tapas and grilled Maldivian tuna, and a serene spa.
Rooms: Villas from £871/Rs 87,744, B&B (fairmont.com)
Fresh from a pre-pandemic spruce, perennial favourite Gili Lankanfushi is as dazzling as ever. One of the longest-established and most environmentally conscious resorts in the Maldives, it’s easy to see why guests return year after year: the lagoon setting, world-class cuisine, outstanding spa and castaway-chic villas are truly first-class. But it’s the service that stands out most: many of the staff have been with the resort for decades and won’t bat an eyelid at even the most outlandish request — they once ferried in a baby grand piano at the request of one virtuoso visitor. But, in truth, days are all about luxuriating in the beautiful surroundings, feet in the sand, floating in the sea or sitting on the balcony watching stingrays in the water.
Rooms: Villas from £980/Rs 98,774, B&B (gililankanfushi.com)
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This stylish new resort exudes cool from every corner. The first of three luxury destinations in the Fari Islands (a new mini-archipelago of man-made islands a45-minute speedboat transfer from Malé), it has a sleek tropical modernist design—all low-slung wooden loungers, four-poster beach beds and villas with ocean-facing plunge pools. Start your day with a spot of yoga, perhaps followed by some standup paddle boarding in the lagoon, before dinner at restaurant Brasa, one of 12 places to eat and drink on the island.
Rooms: Villas from £1,585/Rs 1,59,671, B&B (patinahotels.com)
You’ll find this island escape in the barely-inhabited Thaa Atoll, surrounded by no less than 25 outstanding dive sites, including one of the most reliable whale shark spotting locations in the country. Guests who sign up to see the huge fish are alerted when the animals have been sighted and told to head to the boat. In between times, you can lounge in your villa: all pale woods, four-poster beds and billowing white curtains. Alternatively, sip piña coladas by the pool and visit the thatched-roof spa, one of the best in the Maldives.
Rooms: Villas from £612/Rs 61,652, B&B (comohotels.com)
It’s the Beckhams’ Christmas getaway and where Buzz Aldrin comes to look at the stars—Soneva Fushi is celebrity central. Not that you’d ever know, with everyone in their hidden beach villas or fantastical overwater villas. The starfish-strewn beach is admittedly hard to leave, but activities include snorkelling trips to look for manta rays, eagle rays, stingrays, hawksbill turtles and spinner dolphins, sunrise yoga and jungle meditation sessions or spying the stars through a telescope.
Rooms: Villas from £1,375/Rs 1,38,516, B&B (soneva.com)
A one-hour domestic flight south of the capital Malé, Raffles Meradhoo has some serious edge-of-the-world vibes. Half of the resort is set on floury sands, the other half is set on a stilted wooden deck out at sea, a few minutes from the jetty by speedboat. In between is a house reef bursting with biodiversity. The comfortable rooms, in cream and duck-egg blue, are some of the most romantic in the Maldives, ranging from beach villas with large tropical gardens that open out onto the beach to overwater villas with wooden stairs dropping into the Indian Ocean, all with private pools.
Rooms: Villas from £1,345/Rs 1,35,494, B&B (raffles.com)
Set on a long, jungly island ringed by miles of white beach and bountiful coral reefs, Dhigurah’s pristine location beats many of its pricier rivals. The styling is simple and the service is informal, but all the villas are extremely spacious and have huge private pools. The beach villas are especially peaceful and relaxing. Elsewhere, there’s an Olympic-size infinity pool, six bars and restaurants, a spa and gym. Hop on your bicycle and pedal across a wooden walkway to Dhigurah’s sister hotel, Falhumaafushi, and you can also use their facilities. The area is also a magnet for green sea, olive ridley and hawksbill turtles, while whale sharks are known to make occasional appearances, too.
Rooms: Villas from £415/Rs 41,806, B&B (cenizaro.com)
This feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India January-February 2022.