The Maldives is a byword for amenity, romance, and tropical bliss. A beautiful string of low-lying coral islands in the Indian Ocean, they're also a wonderland for diving fanatics and sun-seekers alike. The country's 26 natural atolls and over 1,000 islands brag uniformly perfect coasts dropped like pearls in the warm waters of turquoise blue lagoons. With bright white powdery sand adjacent to most of the islands, it's not surprising that over a million visitors come here each year.
The leisure market is its unique selling point, and it is home to some of the world's best hotels. Almost every resort has its own private island, complete with personal butlers and in-room massages. Such luxury has made it a firm favourite with honeymooners, who revel in the possibility of escaping to a romantic haven. The islands also offer slightly less pricey options, and some resorts are marked for families and divers.
The Maldives are highly low-lying (80% of the territory is less than 1m/3.3ft above sea level). As such, the islands have worked hard to become one of the best environmentally friendly countries on earth and continue to do so. Luxury and tourism have often been crucial in providing economic benefits to local inhabitants who struggle to utilise local resources.
Recently, it has become more possible in the Maldives for solo travellers and backpackers to avoid luxury hotels and stay among the local people. What indulgence means, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.
The country's small size and tropical oceanic location provide that fish and fruit, normally the coconut, are central ingredients in many dishes. Most meals will comprise fish, usually combined in some way with rice and coconut.
The islands are heavily influenced in aroma by the Indian subcontinent, specifically Kerala in southern India and Sri Lanka, but with its own distinct richness of flavour. The use of peppers, chilies, and curry leaves to make curries therefore flourish, and flavours are generally very hot and spicy.
Things to do and see:
Beautiful Addu Atoll, the most southern of the Maldives island groups, is clearly worth visiting. There are four main occupied islands and a bit of around 20 uninhabited islands and sandbars. Luxuriant greenery covers these islands and villages are surrounded by trees heavy with tropical fruits. This atoll is especially famed for its coral Here, the coral is said to be the best in the country, and there is an inflow of large manta rays and sea turtles. The present-day road linking Gan's Equator Village resort to the city of Hithadhoo is a great place for a bike ride.
A fishing trip on a modern speed boat furnished for big game fishing is a great experience for any wannabe Hemingway. Move out during the day for tuna and sailfish, or go at night to catch grouper, snapper, squirrelfish, or barracuda.
Climb aboard a traditional dhoni (Maldivian wooden boat) and find your bliss as you cruise around desolate desert islands. This happy experience is best enjoyed at dusk when the sun dips below a multi-hued horizon. As you voyage, you'll enjoy tropical cocktails, drinks, and snacks, while local musicians beat their boduberu drums to attract the dolphins.
The ferry trip from Malé to the nearby human-made island of Hulhumalé is a look to the future. A utopian town, Hulhumalé is set to become the new center of the Maldives in decades to come as sea levels rise. Anticipated to be a centre of youth development and new traditions, this idyllic development was designed to be a 'city of days out' Visitors can take benefit of the many shopping and dining options, explore local markets, undertake wildlife safaris and dive and snorkel. At 2m above sea level, it is huge by local standards.
Divers and non-divers parallel will revel in the opportunity to journey into the underwater world of the Maldive's teeming reefs. Moored a short distance from Malé, the comfortable windowed 'whale' submarine gives a unique perspective on the local coral reefs. Once in the depths, you will be treated to up-close views of manta rays, reef sharks and colourful fish as the submarine's feeding systems attract the wildlife nearer. Be sure to bring your camera, as these sights will be a once in a lifespan experience.
The puny capital of the Maldives is its beating heart. Crowded and full of activity, it is a fantastic place to visit for a taste of Maldivian life away from the closeness of the resorts. It is a strange place, with colourful buildings and lively markets, juxtaposed with island sensibility and buzzing local culture. Though there is not a huge array of sights, a visit to the alluring 17th-century stone Hukuru (Friday Mosque) or Malé's National Museum to see the Sultans thrones is the best way to spend the afternoon.
Lacquered wooden boxes are the most characteristic Maldivian handicrafts and are most famously produced in Thulhaadhoo in Baa Atoll. The craft involves the process of making and hollowing out pieces of wood from endemic trees to form intricately crafted boxes, containers and ornamental objects. gorgeous reed mats are woven throughout the country, the most famous of which are those that are woven by the women of Gadhdhoo in Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll. Ambulant from placemats to full-size single mattress mats, are hand-decorated with intricate abstract designs.
In Malé, most mento shops line the northern end of Chaandhanee Magu, earlier known as the Singapore Bazaar for its many imports from Singapore. The local market offers stalls with a collection of local produce, mainly from the atolls, such as different kinds of local vegetables, fruits and yams, packets of sweetmeat, nuts and breadfruit chips, bottles of homemade sweets and pickles, and bunches of bananas hanging on coir ropes from roof beams.
Many resorts offer day trips to islands where you can usually visit local artisans in their workshops and buy some of the alluring local arts and crafts. Traditional crafts, though often finite to the tourism market, are exceptional examples of Maldivian skill. Crafts are traditionally built with coral, wood, shells, stones and natural pigments. Boat building, mat weaving and glaze work are also popular. Malé also has several markets of fresh and pure food produce for those wanting to sample the local fare.
Just one dip under the bright blue waters and it's easy to see why the Maldives is a top destination for divers around the world. So, get your limbs on and take a plunge beneath the surface of this extraordinarily diverse country. Some of the world's best sites are found in the Maldives, and all resorts have professional, fully-furnished dive schools. A dive that shouldn't be missed is at Mushimasmingili Thila, where you'll see grey reef sharks, giant photographers and tropical reef fish in a pristine section of Ari Atoll. The Maldives owns five different turtle species, and they can be found most prominently in the Baa Atoll. January to April is generally calculated as the best time for diving, with fine weather and clear visibility.
If Malé's crowded streets leave you searching for recreation, make a short ferry journey to the silenter side of the Maldives and visit the tranquil neighbouring island of Villingili. Historically used as a holiday island for sultans, this hidden gem is now an excellent place to enjoy the quaintness of Maldivian life. Join the locals at the beach, watch a cricket match in the park and picnic under the droves of gently-waving palm trees.
There are around 1000 desolate islands in the Maldives, many of which are no more than a bit of sand and forest. However, some of the islands are excellent examples of picturesque paradise and those in search of a little adventure can opt for a day tour exploring their rugged shores. Another option is to combine a visit to a fishing village with a trip to a deserted island, where the day is often rounded off with a beach barbecue as the sunsets.
There is little nightlife in the Maldives, and this is clearly not a destination for party animals. That said, most resorts have bars, sporadic live music act and a few larger ones even have small nightclubs. Beach parties and barbecues are also popular.