Best… out-there architecture
Opened in November 2016, the St Regis Vommuli has some of the most individual, oddball-in -a-good-way architecture anywhere in the Indian Ocean. Think: an over-water spa shaped like a lobster; a whale shark-inspired bar; and villas that look like giant, mutant manta rays. Oh, there’s a library, too, shaped like a really big conch shell. It’s not all Insta-ready design smarts, though: set on the remote Dhaalu atoll, right on the edge of an underwater cliff, this is one of the Maldives’ least-explored snorkel sites. There’s also the famous John Jacob Astor Estate, one the largest private villas in the Maldives, complete with four-poster beds, three private pools and Bentley-made electric buggies. The name of its Singapore designers pretty much nails it: WOW.
Best… restaurant for dining in the treetops
To display such cuckoo ambition as Wagyu tenderloin served up a tree takes some beating. But that’s the USP at Nest, a bamboo-trimmed Asian restaurant part-suspended six metres off the ground and linked by jungle treetop walkways at Niyama Private Islands. “We use freshly caught raw ingredients and flown-in harvests as well as seasonal island garden produce,” says chef de cuisine Agam Saipul. “Our must eats? Try the Indonesian soup, Hokkaido scallops or Maldivian coral lobster.” Lobster in a treehouse: who knew?
Best… way to find a deep state of zen
First strategically disrobe, then descend the stairs for a rubdown eight metres deep in a coral-embedded cocoon at Huvafen Fushi’s Lime Spa. At this depth, eyeing turtles and clownfish through a Perspex seawall in the world’s first submerged massage parlour, you’ll reach peak Zen before you can say, “Where’s Nemo?”
Best… beach to surf with turtles
Fair warning of the manly thrills that lie ahead is the washboard-stomached surfer barrelling towards you with a grin on his face the size of a sliced coconut. “I’ve surfed all over, from Morocco and Australia to Cornwall and the Indian Ocean,” beams tanned-and-toned instructor David Hooper, “but nowhere do you get conditions like you do here. Where else can you ride a barrel with dolphins and turtles?” The wave putting a grin on Hooper’s face is Yin Yang, a no-nonsense reef break located a five-minute boat trip from Six Senses Laamu in the South Maldives. Leave the sun lounger and find the real glory of Laamu out at sea, in the swell of the waves. Here, you can find in-the-know surfers from Brazil, Australia and Bali, all drawn to the powerful right-hander because of its clockwork consistency and the locals’ refreshing attitude to sharing the rush. Squint a bit, ignore the beach’s palm-fronded curves, and you could be on Bondi or Kuta Beach. Just without the crowds.
Best… street food van
Located on a 1.8km sandspit, the Funky Food Van at Finolhu happily upends the classic Maldives fine-diner. Picture a hot pink and white Volkswagen Kombi parked on a beach lagoon serving pitch-perfect Brooklyn-grade burgers and pimped-shrimp sushi to retro beats. What’s not to love?
Best… pop-up cocktail bar
Use Google Maps and you can find the Lagoon Bar at the revamped Lux South Ari Atoll, an adults-only beach club. Order an Aperol spritz at East Bar, then go pug-eyed Caribbean with a caipirinha while plonked on an inflatable swan.
Best… underwater meal
The Maldives is on its fifth underwater restaurant in as many years. The latest is M6m (Minus Six Metres) at OZEN by Atmosphere, a goldfish bowl stocked with handcrafted Spanish crockery, themed coloured glassware and a seven-course seafood tasting menu that includes a toast of Taittinger Brut and takeaway of single-origin Madagascar chocolate mascarpone.
Best… seven-star private island
Whatever excess you can imagine, Coco Privé Kuda Hithi will meet it. More intimate home than resort (checklist: infinity pool, 24-hour staff, personalised menus, a private spa), it relentlessly amps up the VIP experience. Need a troupe of entertainers for a prince’s birthday? Or a Ukrainian children’s circus? How about building a temporary cask ale bar? Yup, they’ve done all that. The villas are littered with gadgets: iPads control the residences and there’s an inhouse iMac, XBox and PlayStation for rainy days. As kapow moments go, it’s really up there.
Best… new design hotel
Expect exquisitely toned architectural lines at the 95-villa Gran Meliá Huravee, opening next month and located on drop-dead-gorgeous Kalhudiyafushi Island in the rarely visited, coral-fringed Thaa Atoll.
Best… mountain hike
The Maldives is the flattest country on earth. But you do need to know about Mount Villingili, a rite of passage at the Shangri-La’s Villingili Resort & Spa. Head to tee number eight on the resort’s nine-hole golf course and after two to three sweat-free steps – up to 5.1m – you’ll have summited the highest point in the country. “Guests often completely miss it,” says resort manager Allwyn Drego. Shocker.
Best… popcorn moment
Blame Soneva Jani for ruining the movie-going experience. Owners Sonu and Eva Shivdasani (him a former Etonian, her an ex-Vogue cover star) came up with the “no news, no shoes” barefoot luxury concept, and their zeitgeist-shifting approach shows no sign of slowing. A case in point: the new Cinema Paradiso, where you can watch starlit Oscar-winners on catamaran nets suspended above the water.
Best… Ibizan pool party
“We all love Cara Delevingne, so what she did really turned the dial for the resort,” says Mark Hehir, CEO of Finolhu, the latest see-and-be-seen sunshine queen in the Maldives. “It was huge!”
He’s talking, of course, about the model-turned-actress’s visit with a gang of fabulous friends to Instagram the life out of the resort’s Ibiza-meets-Sesame-Street pool party. Within hours, Finolhu became the most talked-about place on Snapchat. “But we’re proud of all our fabulous collaborations,” says Hehir. “Paris Hilton did a DJ set in July and she really injected energy into the destination.” Finolhu offers frivolities, including inflatable flamingos, mermaid acrobat performers, fire-eaters, contortionists and stilt-walkers. Then chew over the The Fish and Crab Shack, for feet-in-the-sand buckets of prawns, crab platters and Champagne cocktails, plus a swim-up pool bar. Is this the hottest spot in the Indian Ocean? We don’t need Cara to tell us.
Best… round of golf
That means a play-when-you-please round at the Troon-designed, short-game golf academy on Velaa Private Island, designed by two-time Masters champion José María Olazábal. With nine tees, six greens, seven bunkers and a saturated blue lagoon to yourself, it’s a Ryder Cup fist-pump, not a whisper-quiet putt.
Best… hotel opening of 2018
The buzz is building around the soon-to-open Movenpick Resort & Spa, the Swiss hotelier’s first in the archipelago. But while Kuredhivaru Island promises all the usual thrills (dive centre, beach sports, marine research centre), it knocks it out of the park with a guests-only super-yacht to whisk you around nearby Edu Faru, the country’s first marine national park.
Best… caffeinated morning pick-me-up
Mornings at the splashy new Baglioni Resort (the Italian palazzo hotelier’s first outside Europe, opening March 2018) will run like this: a beans-mean-business coffee bookended by fabulous service. Feel the froth on your gums: cold-filter never tasted so good.
Best… only-in-the Maldives mood dinner
The Maldives has a tendency to create barely believable one-off experiences. Yet the sybaritic zenith may have now been reached at Milaidhoo Island with the Deep Sleep Mood Menu, an imagination-tingler that turns the dial up to 11. It starts with a 90-minute tri-scented massage, followed by a sleep-promoting candlelit dinner overlooking the ocean, loaded with sleep-inducing foodstuffs. “The menu is light and easily digestible,” says general manager Shuhan Ahmed. “So it includes foods that are known to help with sleep, including a balanced mix of protein and carbohydrate and foods that contain tryptophan – an amino acid believed to help you catch some zeds.”
In a nutshell, that means a four-course workout of passion fruit green tea soup and lobster and king prawn salad, followed by grilled tuna loin and a cheeseboard without the guilt trip. Sweet dreams!
Best… hammock to lie low in
Prone to showing off its best bits at every opportunity, the hammock at Anantara Dhigu lolls in studied langour. Tied to two wave-lapped trees, which loiter 100m offshore at Aqua Beach, it pits you in a staring contest with an unparalleled strip of dazzling horizon.
The prime indication of stealth wealth in the Maldives? Over-water thatched villas and on-jetty buggy service are yesterday’s news. Instead, ponder Cocoon Maldives, a Milan-inspired design resort fitted with Perspex furniture, bespoke interiors and smarter threads than a Gucci showroom.
Best… National Geographic photo op
Hanifaru Bay in Baa Atoll’s UNESCO Biosphere Reserve offers the chance to hang out and enjoy the company of the world’s biggest population of manta rays, an experience – in the words of the great TV naturalist David Attenborough – as astounding as it is beautiful.
Best… kids club ever
Sonu and Eva Shivdasani (yes, them again) have found a way to give youngsters an experience as good, if not better, than their parents’. The Den at Soneva Fushi is filled with Alice in Wonderland passageways and a Peter Pan pirate ship. Then comes the jungle zip line, water slide, DJ room, ping-pong hut, trampolines and Tarzan swings hanging in the botanic garden. Come departure day, Junior may well refuse to leave.