The world’s first underwater spa is in the Maldives,
at Huvafen Fushi resort.

1.    HAIL THE TAXI

Usually other countries’ taxis are a source of great rip-off tales
for travellers. Taxis here are jaunty public ferries linking the
islands: most foreigners will use only the route between the airport on
Hulhulé Island and the capital, Male. Possibly the world’s most scenic
airport taxi rank, it’s a strip of turquoise water teeming with luxury
yachts, picturesque dhonis (sailboats) and bright tropical fish. The
10-minute trip costs   $1.30 but the people-watching is free. The
seaplane taxis offer another spectacular perspective on the Maldives.

2.    FISHY BUSINESS 

Male’s fish markets are an eye-opener, but not for the squeamish.
Giant tuna are laid out in slabs while choosy buyers shop for home and
the resorts. Once you see the fishmongers at work, you’ll pray you never
meet a cranky one in a dark alley. Expect to pay around 45 rufiyaa 
($3.80) for a kilo of quality tuna meat caught that morning. Go early –
it’s clean but refrigeration is scant.

3.    UNDERWATER DINING

Admire fish both on and off the plate at Ithaa, the world’s first
underwater restaurant at the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island resort. The
14-seater glass dome sits five metres under the sea and serves plenty of
fish, while the wine cellar is dug  two metre down into the island’s
depths (hilton.com). Nearby Kihavah Anantara resort has followed suit
with the four-level Sea.Fire.Salt.Sky, where Sky is a rooftop bar and
Sea is under water (anantara.com)

Ithaa, the world’s first underwater
restaurant at the Conrad Maldives
Rangali Island resort. 

4.    ISLAND FARE

Rated the Maldives’ top restaurant, Ufaa is on Cocoa Island by COMO,
in the Kaafu Atoll, 30 minutes by seaplane south of Male. New
Zealand-born chef Shane Avan serves fish fresh off the boat in a blend
of Maldives-Mediterranean-Asian fusion. Book ahead if you’re planning to
drop by from another hotel (comohotels.com). Reethi Restaurant, in the One & Only Reethi Rah, on the North Male Atoll, is often quoted as its closest rival (oneandonlyresorts.com)

5.    SHARK PARK

The Maldives became a shark sanctuary in 2010 when it banned all
shark fishing: take a night dive with grey reef sharks, go hammerhead
spotting or watch whale sharks. There’s no defined season for the big
fellas,  local marine biologists, say. They just appear around bait
balls, which are great rolling masses of small, tasty fish. Check out
the snorkelling trips in the South Ari Atoll
(maldiveswhalesharkresearch.org). If paddling with predators ain’t your
thing, most lagoons are shark nurseries, and harmless baby grey tips and
little lemon sharks are easily spotted on your walk on the jetty to the
overwater spa.

6.    SCREENSAVER SCENERY

You know that picture that comes pre-loaded on your new laptop? Yes,
the one with the palm trees and toothpaste-white beaches. It’s probably
photographed in the Maldives. Add a hammock, umbrella and icy drink and
you’ll know why the little country is high up on the world’s
must-visit list. The Maldives straddles the Equator, so temps don’t
fluctuate much from the annual average of 30 degrees.

Sea.Fire.Salt.Sky at Kihavah Anantara resort. 

7.    SLEEPING OVER WATER  

Of the almost 1200 islands in the Maldivian archipelago, only about
300 are inhabited, and all with the teensiest land masses. The solution?
Sleeping over water is de rigueur here. Generally pricier than garden
rooms, you can dive straight into a blue lagoon from your over-water
living room.

8.    SENSATIONAL SPAS

Most Maldivian resort spas are over water, preferably with a glass
floor so you can watch baby sharks gambol while you’re face-down on the
massage table. Spa Cenvaree at the new adults-only Centara Ras Fushi
Resort Maldives was named  Best Luxury Emerging Spa in the Indian
Ocean at the recent 2014 World Luxury Spa Awards
(centarahotelsresorts.com), while the  Ayurvedic treatments at Six
Senses Spa Laamu (sixsenses.com) and Banyan Tree’s luxury Spa Vabbinfaru (banyantree.com) also took home silverware. And you can’t go wrong at the One & Only Reethi Rah’s ESPA (reethirah.oneandonlyresorts.com/spa.aspx) or the Jiva Grande Spa at the Taj Exotica (tajhotels.com). Of course, the world’s first underwater spa is in the Maldives, at Huvafen Fushi resort (huvafenfushi.peraquum.com).

9.    SPICE SHOPPING

Opposite the Male fish market is a real local’s market: walk past the
fishing boats and dhoni along the harbour wall till you come across
boxes and boxes of ripe papayas, chillis and enormous bunches of green
bananas slung around a rough building. Must-buy items include local
spice mixes for heart-warming curries and proto-Golden Roughs: coconut
and palm sugar rolled up in dried leaves like cigars for a quick
pick-me-up if you’re flagging in the midday heat.

One & Only Reethi Rah Spa. 

10.    ELITE RESORTS

The first tourists arrived in the Maldives in only 1972, but all the
world’s major hotel brands are now here. Recent openings include
Maalifushi by COMO by wellness pioneer Christina Ong (see comohotels.com), Club Med’s new luxury face with 52 villas (clubmed.com.au) and Atmosphere Kanifushi Maldives’ 150 villas and suites (atmosphere-kanifushi.com).
Expect royalty and rock stars at two newcomers in the Noonu Atoll,
exclusive 45-villa Cheval Blanc Randheli from the owners of Louis
Vuitton and Moet (chevalblanc.com) and super-luxe Velaa Private island, with Michelin-starred restaurants and a golf academy by José María Olazábal’s (velaaprivateisland.com). Elite, yes, but more cater to families than you’d first think.

11.    SUPERB SNORKELLING

You don’t have to kit up to the hilt to enjoy the Maldives’
spectacular marine life. Even the scardest snorkeller can spot
spectacular lionfish, parrotfish, a range of rays and weird unicorn fish
as well as oriental sweetlips and clownfish, which are endemic to the
Maldives. The archipelago is a transit zone for fish life, so expect
plenty of variety and a rainbow of colours in even the shallowest
waters.

12.    SLEEPING WITH THE LOCALS

Traditionally, the Maldives’ 300-odd inhabited islands have been
split between resort islands and local islands. The government recently
launched its new integrated resort development project, with the first
guest house islands occurring in the Laamu Atoll, in northern Maldives.
The aim is for 2100 new guesthouse beds on offer by 2017, which is good
news for travellers on lean budgets and those seeking a deeper cultural
experience.

Ari Atoll, Maldives. 
Photo: Alamy

13.    SURF’S UP

It’s all about reef breaks here, and the best-known are in Male’s
Atolls, which can get a tad crowded. The recent 2014 Asian Surfing
Championships were held at Sultan’s Point, near the Four Seasons, and
the inaugural Maldives Open 2014 ran on September 3-7 at Lohis Point, a
long, consistent lefthander near the Adaaran Hudhuran Fushi Resort. Take
a surf safari through your resort or off a live-aboard boat. Luxe surf
safari outfit Tropic Surf has set up a surf shack at the new Maalifushi
by COMO resort in the relatively unexplored Thaa Atoll, deep in the
south-west of the country. It lists Farms as its most requested break in
the area, but is still discovering new breaks (tropicsurf.net). The peak surf season runs May to October, beginning earlier in the southernmost atolls.

14.    GOING DOWN

With more than a thousand species of fish here, the Maldives’ diving
is famed. The dive season runs from January to April, with clear water,
little wind and up to 30 metres’ visibility, but year-round is still
very good. Expect it all: steep drop-offs, caves, wrecks, reefs,
channels, soft and hard corals. North and South Ari Atolls get a mention
for great manta ray and whale shark action, while quiet Lamuu Atoll is
shaping up as the new go-to spot, say the divers from theperfectdive.com.au.

15.    SHORT EATS

Get down with the locals and tuck into Maldivian snack food. While
super-spicy tuna curry tops the menu, cafes dish up short eats or
snacks, to get you over the afternoon slump. Order up on maas roshi
(little tuna and coconut patties) and kaashi bokibaa (coconut, rosewater
and palm sugar balls).

Locals fishing
 Photo: Belinda Jackson

16.    ON THE LINE

Maldivians surely can fish before they can walk. Net fishing is
illegal even for commercial operations: the locals use pole and line
fishing, as they have done for centuries, catching one fish at a time.
Make no mistake, they can bring the fish in at speed, but sustainably
and without the environmental damage of net dragging. You can chase the
big game on a tag-and-release fishing safari on liveaboard boats or
through your resort.

17.    DOLPHIN SPOTTING

One of the great joys of the Maldives are its little spinner
dolphins. They earn their names for their antics: in the late afternoon,
as they make their way out of the lagoons and into the deep ocean to
hunt, the dolphins will leap into the air to spin, just for the sheer
joy, it would appear. They’ll happily follow your boat, but don’t jump
on command.

18.    STYLE FILE

The Maldives has its own, laid-back tropical style. Expect sandy
floors in chic restaurants, open-air lobbies, thatch roofs overhead and
the swish of an overhead fan ruffling the white curtains on your rustic
timber four-poster bed. The colour scheme is turquoise lagoons, white
sandy beaches, baby-blue skies and yellow, for the big sun and the lemon
curl in your martini glass.

19.    THE BIG FIVE

Spot the Maldives’ marine Big Five: manta and eagle rays, sea
turtles, dolphins and sharks, including whale sharks. On the protected
species list are turtles, great clams, whale sharks and conch shells.
Endangered marine species  such as the whale shark, turtles, dolphins,
as well as corals, are  all protected by law.

Public taxi
 Photo: Belinda Jackson

20.    SPEAK EASY

Does your airline ticket send you to Kadhdhoo Kaadedhdhoo or Kadhdhoo
Kooddoo? The Maldivian language is Dhivehi, a mix of Arabic, Urdu and
Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese, and the script is called Thanna. To the untrained
eye, the alphabet could even resemble a series of punctuation marks.
Here’s all you need: “fushi” means “island”, and “Hingadhaan!” means
“Let’s go!”

The writer was a guest of Como Hotels & Resorts and Conrad Maldives Rangali Island.


This feature by Belinda Jackson was published in Sydney’s Sun-Herald newspaper’s Traveller section.