By Maldives specialist Francesca
Most of the islands in the Maldives are home to just one hotel, surrounded by sand, sea and a coral reef full of fish. Although the appeal of these isles is their isolation there is plenty to do and you can choose to be as active as you wish.
With expert marine biologists, world-class dive centers, access to pristine reefs, and exceptional food and dining experiences, the Maldives are far more than just a destination for pure relaxation. Having been lucky enough to sample many of the activities, here are some of my favorites.
Explore shipwrecks and snorkel with turtles
For both dive enthusiasts and those who prefer to float along on the surface, the Maldives offer a vast breadth of marine life.
Most resorts have a dive center with professional guides and instructors, and offer basic open-water dive training as well as refresher and specific courses. The house reef around your hotel is likely to be home to the same species as in other areas, but you can also choose to join a boat trip to dive sites around the islands, where you can either dive or snorkel.
On a recent trip to Baros, I snorkeled straight from the beach, and was rewarded with some of the best marine sightings I’ve ever experienced. Swimming across the lagoon, the reef suddenly drops down, and from out of the sunken dhoni boats that lie on the seabed came turtles, an octopus and a rainbow of brightly colored fish.
For the ultimate relaxation, guests at Huvafen Fushi can simply enter the water at one end of the beach and be carried along by the drift current, bobbing gently down the full length of the island, all the while observing the vivid underwater spectacle below.
After a day of snorkeling or diving, joining the resident marine biologist to discuss the day’s sightings is a particular highlight offered by most resorts.
Cocktails and canapés on a dolphin cruise
You don't have to get wet to get close to the marine life and I always suggest an evening dolphin cruise. This is one experience that’s best shared with a group, offering better value for money and the added buzz of mutual excitement when dolphins are spotted.
Sailing out from the island with cocktails and canapés, we were on the only boat in the water that evening and so when, seemingly out of nowhere, a pod of dolphins arrived, it felt as though they were there solely for our entertainment. They stayed for half an hour, putting on quite a show for their enthralled audience, playing, diving and darting around us. There’s something about seeing them in the wild that is truly mesmerizing.
Dine at the best table in the Indian Ocean
With a picnic blanket in the middle of the ocean, uninterrupted views and only a few curious fish as neighbors, the private sandbank dinner offered by both Baros and Velassaru is the epitome of Maldivian luxury. As your waiter lays out your meal on the 'thilas', or sandbank, sit back with a glass of champagne and enjoy the complete isolation, where the only interruption between the sea and the sky is an occasional passing dhoni sailing boat.
Wine tasting with reef sharks
For something different, Constance Moofushi's wine tasting is an experience without compare. Wade out to a table set in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, and sample a number of wines while the baby reef sharks swim around your knees and the island’s sommelier talks you through the nuances of flavor. Having tasted a number of wines, you can then select a bottle to take back to your table for dinner.
Snorkel with whale sharks
From May to October, whale sharks migrate to the waters off the Maldives and while you should be able to see them from most islands, Conrad Maldives Rangali Island is the best located resort and works closely with Maldivian whale shark specialists to ensure the best possible experience.
I spoke recently with some of our travelers who had visited in May and, having snorkeled all morning without any luck, were about to return for lunch when their guide received word of a sighting. Their patience was rewarded by an amazing dive with a number of these playful, and harmless, sharks and the excitement in their voices was palpable, all these months later.
Meet the manta rays
Another common sighting in the Maldives is manta rays, attracted by the plankton that cluster around the resort lights that reflect into the ocean. Again, these are found around most islands, though Conrad Maldives Rangali Island's resident manta ray, Nadine, is perhaps the only one who'll put on a show, effortlessly diving and flipping through the water as guests observe from the bridge. As an endangered species, it was a privilege to be able to spend time just watching these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat.
Fill up on the freshest fish
Seafood platters laden down with lobster, cuisines from around the world and fish so fresh you may have snorkeled past it that morning; the food in the Maldives deserves its reputation. For romance, the sandbank dining at Baros is rivaled only by the private piers that stretch out from Velassaru, with just enough space for a table for two.
The Lighthouse restaurant at Baros was one of the first in the Maldives and where I spent my last birthday, celebrating with cake and champagne. For a more restrained, though equally delicious, dining experience, the detoxifying menu at Cocoa Island is designed to complement their ethos of health and wellbeing. And for a meal worthy of a celebrity chef, the Raw restaurant at Huvafen Fushi is said to be a favorite of Gordon Ramsay's.
Relax in luxury
While simply being in the Maldives, with nothing but crystal clear waters and an occasional palm-fringed island on the horizon, can induce an immediate sense of absolute calm, all resorts have a spa for guaranteed relaxation.
For an immersive experience, the glass walls of the underwater spa at Huvafen Fushi provide a subterranean view into the ocean that is immediately calming. Numerous brightly colored fish dart and dive around you, an occasional turtle may swim by, and I left feeling both relaxed and eager to get into the water to meet the marine life up close. At night the spa transforms into a sociable space for cocktails, canapés and a chance to join the marine biologist to learn more about the multitude of life swirling around you.
I would suggest pre-booking spa treatments so that you can arrive knowing everything is in place. If you have an early flight and we've been unable to arrange an early check in, a massage on arrival will get the vacation started on a perfect note, and set the tone for the rest of the trip.
The Maldives for families
The Maldives may not immediately come to mind as a vacation destination for families, but a number of resorts are perfectly set up for children. With 'children's clubs' and babysitting services, both Kurumba and Conrad Maldives Rangali Island are favorites for families looking for a vacation that suits both parents and children.
Only a ten-minute speedboat journey from Male Airport, Kurumba is both well-located and excellent value. The dedicated play space and pool area ensure that parents can relax, knowing their children are being well looked after.
Though the idea of being educated while on vacation may not sound appealing, the marine biologist at the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island will bring the seabed to life for young explorers. Seeing turtles, octopuses, manta rays, and exotic fish darting in among the reef will mean they return home as lifelong marine enthusiasts.