With a priority place on most bucket lists and one of the highest concentrations of luxury brands on the planet, the Maldives is the ultimate destination for discerning travellers in search of paradise. And if your idea of paradise is (like almost everyone else’s) white sand, palm trees, tropical temperatures, bright blue skies (until it’s time for a dramatic sunset) and being marooned on a tiny desert island, the Maldives is the archipelago state for you.
The country has 1,200 coral islands and sandbars, grouped together in atolls, with 200 or so inhabited. As well as being the dream beach destination, it’s also an excellent place to snorkel and scuba dive—many hotels have their own PADI centres—and to surf or windsurf.
The islands also host underwater spas and restaurants, over-water villas and bedrooms with slides leading straight into the sea—it’s not hard to see why the country is popular with honeymooners.
Castaway hopefuls should note that, these days, the desert islands around here offer unprecedented levels of luxury. The remote coral islets are home to some of the finest resorts in the world – and here are five of our favourite ones.
Best for… space and seclusion: One&Only Reethi Rah
It’s a bold move to call yourself the One&Only, but this is the original, inimitable Maldives luxury hotel. It opened in 2005 and has set the bar high for upscale resorts in the country ever since. You hear whispers throughout the islands about the service (the staff to guest ratio is around three to one), the good treatment of staff and, of course, its high-profile guests (though you’d be hard-pushed to get a discreet employee to share any gossip). The palm-lined paths encourage adults to be big kids and cycle around all day. Even the sand is raked to manicured perfection.
The service is uniformly faultless, from your butler who will appear in a buggy at precisely the moment you need one, to being greeted off your long flight by the airport manager Hussein, a chat with whom is almost worth missing your speedboat transfer for.
Since so many of the guests are “repeaters” (some lucky families have spent every Christmas here since the mid-Noughties), staff have to keep thinking outside of the box—whether that’s by building a treetop dining area for the couple that returns for Valentine’s Day each year or delivering a floating breakfast to your private pool before you wake up. The timeless thatched villas have elegant interiors, but it’s the outdoor area in each—with a private pool, hammock, day-bed and even your own beach—that steals the show.
For such a discerning clientele, the restaurants have to stay ahead of the game, too—along with dinner among the treetops in the aforementioned (and amazingly positioned for sunset) treehouse, there’s an excellent Japanese restaurant (so good that a family of sharks stops by every evening to try and get in on the action), Middle Eastern plates served at tables on the sand at Fanditha and a plant-based restaurant in a beautiful garden, where even the most committed carnivore won’t be crying out for some steak.
At the spa, the state of bliss continues long after your treatment has ended thanks to the garden you can relax in afterwards, which leads down to the sea and a yoga pavilion. It has a Bastien Gonzalez nail studio, Espa menu and a Watsu pool—plus the wonderful Aussie spa manager is a deft hand with a Dyson Airwrap and can take on even the most humidity-expanded hair.
Best for… design and sustainability: Joali
Joali opened in the Raa Atoll in 2018, with its wellness-focused sister property arriving three years later. The villas are deceptively huge (they’re modest thatched cottages from the outside, but inside the ceilings are miles away and the floorplan is endless), with a feminine decor of rose-gold accents, pastel sofas and ceiling fans that look like petals. Even the dressing gowns are adorned with flowers and birds seen on the island—and the hotel’s branded seaplane puts the Trans Maldivian Airways ones to shame.
It’s all a labour of love by its female owner, who is also doing her part to empower local women, with initiatives such as supporting women in tech by donating to teach schoolchildren coding and inviting a roster of female artists, chefs and wellness practitioners for residencies on the island.
There’s a lot of greenwashing in the Maldives, but Joali can count itself among the most sustainable resorts in the country, with a reef-restoration project, regular support for local communities and organic produce grown in the chef’s garden. Like many of the islands, it works with the Olive Ridley project to rescue sea turtles who have been harmed by discarded fishing nets.
The island has a natural sand bar that gets even longer when the tide is out—making it even more perfect for hosting weddings and cinema nights. Restaurants include the Japanese Saoke, decorated with carved wood and old wine bottles (a testament to the good times it has hosted), and suspended over the water; Tuh’u, home to Middle Eastern and Levantine flavours in tribute to the owner’s Turkish heritage; and Bellinis, serving to pasta that would please even the most homesick Italian.
And if you’ve overindulged, Joali Being—a whole new wellness concept for the Maldives, with incredible facilities—is a short speedboat ride away.
Best for… eating and drinking: Patina Maldives
This hotel in the newly formed Fari Islands is more cosmopolitan than most resorts in the Maldives—it has a marina and is part of an archipelago that includes two other hotel brands. There’s a Ritz-Carlton a few minutes away by speedboat and a Capella will be opening soon, taking the combined total of food and drink outlets to more than 20, with a shuttle going back and forth between all three.
At Patina, guests can choose from restaurants that include the plant-based Roots, excellent sushi and assorted Asian favourites at Wok Society, and Greek and Mediterranean classics on the beach at Helios. There’s also the Fari Beach Club, where the menu has been created by a Michelin-starred chef and the ceviche is the perfect lunch option for the tropical heat; a Scandi-Japanese fusion restaurant with a former Noma chef at the helm; a Patagonian grill; and a cheese and wine room, plus a couple of food trucks, including one dispensing daily ice-creams.
Eco-friendly initiatives include a bottling plant on the island for the refillable glass bottles, a kitchen garden providing much of the produce and bath products made from washed-up seaweed in Margate by British brand Haeckels. Even the design itself is biophilic—the Brazilian designer kept the landscape in mind to create harmony between nature and the modern architecture. It’s especially evident at the spa, where the standalone treatment suites are set throughout the gardens and the relaxation area has a lily pond.
There are artworks all over the island, but the standout is inevitably the huge James Turrell installation, which guests can visit at different times of the day to appreciate the changing light.
Best for... rest and relaxation: Soneva Jani
You will have likely already seen images of Soneva Jani’s famous water villa slides and crystal-clear lagoons on the Instagram feeds of A-listers—from Stanley Tucci to Gwyneth Paltrow—but the draw of this paradise island goes much further than just its reputation as the ultimate celebrity getaway. The first is its sheer scale; unlike other Maldivian islands which can be limited in their size, the resort's 54 over-water villas are divided into two ‘chapters’ that are built at either end of a sprawling 150-acre private atoll.
This vast space gives the luxury of complete privacy and seclusion; each self-contained villa comes with its own kitchen and living area, complete with unrivalled views of the spectacular sunsets from the upstairs balcony. At night, you can even retract the roof at the press of a button, allowing you to lie back and watch the stars from your bed.
Every whim can and will be catered for by a private butler, who appears at a moment’s notice, and an electric bike outside your door is ready to whizz you off down the sandy pathways if you decide to venture out and explore the island. And there is plenty to discover, with 12 restaurants all based around the delicious home-grown and daily caught island produce—from enormous crabs and fresh sushi (best enjoyed reclining in front of the open-air cinema screen that floats on the edge of the lagoon), to organic salads and juices, and even a home-made ice cream bar.
But the real unique draw is Soneva Soul, the spa concept that takes wellness to a new level. Traditional ayurvedic treatments, yoga and meditation sit alongside the most cutting-edge technology, including vitamin IV drips, immune-boosting cryotherapy, auto-haemotherapy and even a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, so guests can book in for a complete body, mind and soul rejuvenation.
Best for… an authentic castaway experience: Gili Lankanfushi
If your idea of a luxury Maldives holiday has more of a desert-island, Robinson Crusoe feel, Gili Lankanfushi is the far-flung paradise for you. The hotel, which turns 10 this year, has taken its literary inspiration literally, with butlers named Mr Friday after the protagonist’s loyal assistant. It also keeps the 18th-century theme alive with a “no news, no shoes” outlook on island life.
The over-water villas are rustic in the best possible way, with some of the rooms eschewing the typical Maldivian walkways—instead, they’re adrift in the water and accessible only by boat, with a deck guests can paddle from and a hammock strung up for you to swim across to.
There’s a plant-based dining experience served in the Gili Garden, or guests can take a more sybaritic approach to their stay with a sommelier-approved “sip and soak” spa treatment. Other activities include learning to hang ten on some of the best surf in the Maldives; you’ll also be able to adopt a coral after learning all about its restoration and rehabilitation. Your steadfast Mr (or Ms) Friday can be tasked with everything from setting up a stargazing bed on your villa’s roof to arranging candlelit dinners on the beach.
The 1,700-square-metre Private Reserve is the biggest over-water villa in the world—and this floating palace includes a spa, gym, open-air cinema, four bedrooms, infinity pool and a slide taking you straight into the Indian Ocean.
This piece originally appeared in Harper's Bazaar UK
Feature and sq image: patinamaldives | Instagram