While the Caribbean may be the first port of call for agents looking to sell island vacations, the Maldives offers a wealth of unique opportunities, says Alex Coxon
Stretching 600 miles from the upper reaches of the Laccadive Sea to just below the equator, the constellation of 1,190 islands and 26 atolls that make up the Maldives is quite unlike anywhere else on earth. Well before the descent into Malé International Airport, you get a taste of what is to come. Island after glistening island appear like pearls from the sky, each set against a turquoise backdrop. And the spell isn’t broken upon touchdown. With speedboats and seaplanes waiting to whisk guests away to their resort of choice — the closest located just 10 minutes from the airport — it isn’t long before vacationers get to feel powder white sand or the warm waters of the Indian Ocean between their toes.
For most visitors, the Maldives is the ultimate beach vacation. “Its crystal clear waters and white sands make it a dream location,” says luxury travel specialist Chloe Cipollone, who owns Chicago-based New Millennium Tours. “But it also has a real mystique about it that people want to see and experience first-hand.” Cipollone adds that while very few US agents are currently selling the destination, demand is growing rapidly. Indeed, the latest figures from the Maldives’ Ministry of Tourism show a 14% year-on-year rise in visitors from the US. Of these, honeymooners and celebration travelers are the main focus for Cipollone. Likewise for Zaid Ameen, managing director of local tour operator Elegance Paradise. “Most American tourists are honeymooners and hideaway guests who like to escape… people who prefer a private package, including a private villa host, spa and… total relaxation,” he says. But with an $800m expansion to the international airport now underway — a move set to increase capacity to 7.5 million passengers a year by 2018 — that profile could well expand to incorporate entirely new demographics…
As post-nuptial getaways go, the Maldives is hard to beat. With 109 resorts to choose from, each tucked away on its own palm fringed islet, seclusion is a given. Honeymoon hospitality is a Maldivian forte, with resorts such as Soneva Fushi providing a plethora of romantic activities, including the chance to cuddle up under the stars at its open-air cinema. Elsewhere, Shangri La’s Villingili Resort and Spa takes honeymoons to the next level through its choice of accommodation — offering treehouses alongside its pool, beach and water villas. And it’s a similar story at the Gili Lankanfushi Maldives. Its stunning water-top Crusoe Residences come with private overwater hammocks, plus a personal ‘Mr Friday’ butler to meet any special requests.
THE ULTRA-LUXE VACATIONER
There’s a reason why the Maldives is beloved by royalty and billionaires alike — and it’s not just down to the exquisite backdrop. Understated opulence is the name of the game here. Exclusive hotspots on the horizon include the Soneva Jani — opening in October — where standout features will include an observatory and waterslides on more than half of its 25 residences. Further down the line, the Oberoi Group is also set to dip a toe into Maldivian waters, having signed a deal earlier this year to launch its first property on the island nation. Those who can’t wait, however, might consider Conrad Maldives Rangali Island with its panoramic undersea restaurant; Velaa Private Island with its nine-hole golf course and 6,000-bottle wine cellar, and Cheval Blanc Randheli with its loft-style villas, each with a shimmering infinity pool.
THE DIVING ENTHUSIAST
With more than 200 varieties of coral and 2,000 species of fish residing in its waters, it’s little surprise that one in 12 travelers head here with the express intention of diving. The majority of resorts are geared up for the novice diver — notably Kuredu, Vilamendhoo and Oblu by Atmosphere at Helengeli, thanks to their certified facilities, the quality of their house reefs and the number of outlying sites. For the real enthusiast, though, a liveaboard boat might be a better option, giving marine adventurers the chance to dive three or four times daily — and to sample a range of reefs. Specialist tour operators such as Deep Blue Adventures can arrange liveaboards taking in the North and South Malé Atoll, as well as Mulaku, Ari Atoll and Felidhoo which are renowned for their whale sharks and manta rays.
THE BUDGET-CONSCIOUS TRAVELER
While figures from the 2015 Maldives Visitor Survey show that 82% of tourists opt for resort-based vacations, they also reveal a growing preference for guesthouses — with one in 12 people now selecting this type of accommodation. It’s a trend that might surprise some. But, thanks to the rise of the guesthouse, the country is becoming steadily more accessible — with options also on islands such as Maafushi, Guraidhoo and Fulidhoo. Many of these islands can be accessed using public ferries. But it might be better to join an organized tour from operators like Encounters Travel, whose budget programs include private transfers alongside guesthouse accommodation and cultural experiences.
THE SPA SEEKER
The sheer volume of spa resorts on offer in the Maldives is an incentive to visit in itself. Ayurveda, detox, even week-long wellness programs can all be found here. For stand-out experiences, consider Per Aquum Huvafen Fushi, with the world’s first underwater treatment rooms. Also Maalifushi by COMO, whose Shambhala Retreat is situated across eight overwater, ocean-facing treatment rooms and an open-air yoga pavilion. At Six Senses Spa Laamu, it’s all about treatments for two, with its extensive spa menu offering coupled-focused meditative treatments at a beach-based spa. At Dusit Thani, meanwhile, the Devarana Spa promises to put guests on an unforgettable high, with six of its eight treatment pods located in the treetops.
Forget any preconceptions you might have about the Maldives; the right resort can also give the little ones a vacation of a lifetime. There’s an ever-growing list of child-friendly options for the 21% of international travelers that visit the islands as a family. And some big-name brands have got in on the act. The Four Seasons Kuda Huraa resort offers loads of extras for the kids, including free meals for those under six, a children’s spa and complimentary activities. Other options include Angsana Velavaru, which features a kids club, babysitting, and fun snorkeling safaris. Per Aquum Niyama Maldives meanwhile makes VIPs of children, with its Explorers Children’s Club, a playground and splash park alongside a packed daily itinerary of activities.