White-sand beaches, world-class surf breaks, stunning reefs, diverse marine life, and a plethora of luxury resorts with drool-worthy overwater bungalows—the Maldives loom large in the popular imagination as a once-in-a-lifetime destination at the edge of the world.
However, while it can still take well over 24 hours to fly there from the United States, getting to this Equator-straddling island nation is easier than ever. There are flights to the capital of Male from cities all over Asia, including Bangkok, Hong Kong, Seoul, Shanghai, and Singapore; from Middle Eastern hubs like Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Dubai; and even from Frankfurt (seasonally in winter), Istanbul, and London. It has become so easy, in fact, that I have been there twice this year so far!
There is a gloomy side to this sunny destination, though. Prevailing climate change concerns posit that the country’s low-lying atolls and their reefs might not be around for much longer due to rising sea levels. All that added a sense of urgency to my travels, and let it be a catalyst for your own plans as well. Here’s what you need to know to make the most of a trip there.
PACK: If you’re just planning on staying at a resort or two, you won’t need much beyond your beach gear and some casual evening wear. Be sure to bring as many of the necessities as you can, such as sunblock, since hotel boutiques tend to charge astronomical prices for everyday goods. Most resorts have unpaved sand paths and wooden piers, so leave the heels at home and just bring sandals or flats. Some resorts even encourage guests go barefoot. However, since the Maldives is a traditional Muslim country, if you visit Male or a local island village you might need more modest attire, including outfits that cover both the shoulders and the knees for ladies.
SLEEP: Although many resorts bear some resemblance to one another—private beaches, seaside restaurants, secluded spas—what you want to do and see will dictate your choice of hotel. Want to swim with the whale sharks? Angsana Velavaru is a great choice since it’s just a half-hour boat ride to their stomping (or is it swimming?) grounds. Feel like you might want a round or two of golf? The Shangri-La Villingili has a nine-hole course. Surfers will want to take advantage of the Four Seasons Kuda Huraa’s on-property Tropicsurf outlet and services and the gnarly tubes of six of the Indian Ocean’s best breaks nearby. Just feel like snorkeling? Pick a hotel with a great house reef, like Jumeirah Vittaveli, where you can spot rays, turtles, and even baby blacktip reef sharks.
RELAX: Many of the top-tier resorts in the Maldives offer phenomenal spa experiences worth considering. The Six Senses Laamu’s spa, for example, specializes in incorporating traditional Indian Ayurvedic philosophies and techniques into its treatments, and even has an Ayurvedic practitioner on staff to give guests health and wellness evaluations.
EAT: Thanks to the location of the Maldives, strung along the trade routes between Asia, India, and the Middle East, the archipelago’s cuisine is an eclectic mélange of influences and flavors. Be sure to try a traditional curry (careful, they can be spicy!) with fresh-caught reef fish or tuna, made with coconut milk and spices such as turmeric, cumin, pandan leaves, cardamom, and even cinnamon. Another not-to-miss specialty is Maldivian lobster, whose colorful blue shells contain succulent tails. Forego a simple butter-garlic sauce in favor of a dry rub with ingredients like sea salt, chili, garlic, curry leaves, and pepper.
STAY: Though interisland flights and transfers are plentiful and reliable, transiting between resorts can often take an entire day out of your trip, whether or not the weather is inclement. So unless you’re spending more than 10 days in the country, I would suggest picking a single resort and sticking to it.
CONSIDER: The Maldives has experienced political turmoil and infighting recently, including the imprisonment and self-exile of the country’s first democratically elected president and an assassination attempt on the current president. While the Maldives briefly declared a state of emergency in November 2015, the tourism industry has been largely unaffected. That said, travelers might want to investigate the situation and decide whether the destination is right for them.