Once treasured by sea traders plying the Indian Ocean, the low-lying Maldives today attract well-heeled wayfarers looking for what could be the ultimate tropical-isle idyll. Here are three new private-island resorts (and one majorly revamped old favorite) to add to your wish list.
It is fitting that the names of so many of the Maldives’ 1,190 islands end in the sounds of “ee,” “oo,” or “ah.” These are often the only sounds one can muster when a sunrise reflects a rainbow of pastels onto the surface of a glass-calm lagoon, or a school of bioluminescent plankton floats by the beach at night, mirroring the Milky Way up above. For all the fragility of this low-lying Indian Ocean archipelago of coral atolls, it is undeniably one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Paradise isn’t without its troubles, of course. The Maldives is famously at risk from climate change, with some scientists predicting the nation—whose average elevation above sea level is only 1.5 meters—will be inundated by rising ocean levels by the end of the century. Coral bleaching is another pressing issue. Nevertheless, new resorts are still popping up seemingly by the dozen each year, pushing a number of environmental groups and hotel brands to harness the thriving tourism industry, the country’s largest source of income, to counter the environmental effects. These four, picked from the latest crop of private-island resorts, are all reason enough to hop on board a seaplane and add another voice to the chorus of “oohs” and “aahs”—whispered not to enjoy this place while it lasts, but in the hope that it lasts forever.
On the ceiling of the Whale Bar at the St. Regis, a mural by Paris-based artist Maya Burman depicts the property’s own creation myth. The story goes that a grandfather, father, and son swam across the ocean until they came to a beautiful island, whereupon they decided to build a place resembling all the ocean creatures they had passed along the way. This mural was, of course, painted after Singaporean firm WOW Architects spent four years creating the resort, which is much more a study in retro-futuristic architecture than the charming allegory suggests.
Among the collection of otherworldly structures—a seashell-shaped library, a spa laid out like a lobster—only the palatial Alba restaurant, its heavy-draped four-meter-high windows standing guard over the pool and main beach, feels overtly regal and Astor-esque. Elsewhere, interiors flit between Mad Men handsome in the manta ray–shaped overwater villas; treehouse-luxe in the A-frame beach and garden villas, which are decorated with geodes and handmade seashell light fixtures; and serenely calm amid the polished Venetian plaster of the whale shark–inspired Whale Bar and multipurpose Vommuli House.
Unexpected surprises become apparent the longer one stays. Atop a grand outdoor staircase that leads to the roof of Alba, a telescope awaits for stargazing, while the best daytime view comes from the hydrotherapy seawater pool on the front deck of the overwater Iridium Spa. Pop-up restaurant Cargo, housed in a shipping container planted in the island’s jungly interior, is only noticeable at night when it lights up; by day, it’s hidden amid vegetation still tall and wild thanks to the fact that all structures were built offsite then reassembled here to minimize the impact on the island’s environment. On the cocktail menu, the gin and tonic portion alone—six aromatic versions strong—requires some exploration.
Though St. Regis didn’t sign on to manage the resort until well after construction had begun, the brand’s sophisticated stamp is everywhere. The library is filled with handsome coffee-table books from Phaidon and Rizzoli; the wine cellar boasts the oldest vintage in the Indian Ocean; Island Marys (Vommuli’s version of the Bloody Mary) are presented in pearly nautilus shells; and personal butlers are on hand to serve afternoon tea in-villa or arrange a session of aerial yoga. And, just when guests landing back at the seaplane terminal in Male think it’s all over, a chauffeur-driven Bentley will whisk them to the international airport for one final St. Regis kiss goodbye (960/676-6333; doubles from US$2,470).
Maldivian resorts can often feel removed from their cultural surroundings. Not so with Milaidhoo, which has deeply embedded the Maldives into its identity. When its owner decided to convert the tiny teardrop-shaped island into a resort, his litmus test was that if a Maldivian sultan of the past were to come back as a guest, he should be able to recognize the island as true to his country—albeit, subtly so. Thus the colorfully painted front doors of the 20 beach villas mirror those of Maldivian homes, and lacquerware, a national art form, is displayed on the walls of the 30 overwater villas. Almost all furnishings were custom-made to pass the test, such as the deep, hand-carved sofas and traditional undhoalhi swinging daybeds found in each of the villas, all of which come with pools that glow each night with LED lights.
And then there’s Ba’theli. Modeled after three traditional wooden fishing boats and staked out in the lagoon at the end of a jetty, the centerpiece restaurant and lounge is helmed by Ahmed Sivath, who rose to local fame as the host of a TV cooking show. It bills itself as the only modern-Maldivian restaurant in the country, refashioning a spicy tuna salad called mashuni as fresh yellowtail with coconut and pumpkin, plying guests with exotic garnishes such as “copra essence” and “perfume of young curry,” and serving a sublime screwpine ice cream for dessert.
As the Baa Atoll already has its share of family-friendly resorts, Milaidhoo is tailored to a more grown-up clientele, catering to a maximum of 100 guests aged nine and above and maintaining an air of peace and quiet at all times. All villas are one-bedroom, and the closest thing to a kid’s club is a table of chic wooden games in the Compass Pool Bar, where guests can pair their chess with champagne-vapor shisha or a fine Cuban while swinging in suspended bamboo-fiber cocoon chairs and burying their feet in sand floors.
A nearby sandbar, meanwhile, can be accessed via speedboat for a session of sunrise yoga or a sunset dessert. Other excursions bring guests to a neighboring island to experience local village life or, between May and December, to Hanifaru Bay to swim with the manta rays and whale sharks that congregate there. Not that you need to go far to encounter marine life: Milaidhoo was a popular dive site before it became a resort, and its house reef features caves and overhangs populated by lemon sharks and octopi year-round (960/665-4441; doubles from US$1,900).
As an adults-only resort, Hurawalhi, which opened in December as the first high-end property from the Maldivian Crown & Champa hospitality group, lends itself best to honeymooners and couples looking for privacy without any pretense. That said, this is still a place where guests can come and play. Staff are attentive without being obsequious, messages about diving trips are etched on chalkboards by the Manta Trust–run marine biology center, the game room features air hockey and a Game of Thrones pinball machine, and DJs and movie nights are accompanied by colorful tiki drinks from the bar in Canneli, the all-day restaurant.
Perhaps it’s the abundance of natural materials and largely textile-free design that encourages the no-shirt, no-shoes vibe. New York–based architect Yuji Yamazaki designed the sand-floored lobby and Canneli as soaring, breeze-filled halls hung with free-form chandeliers of wood, coral, and globe lights that flutter above stone-built water features. The curving jetty that leads to the other two restaurants, Aquarium and 5.8, is another eye-catching wooden feature, resembling glowing dominoes when it lights up at night. The jetty to the overwater villas, meanwhile, ends at a small, westward-facing hut whose sole purpose is to serve as a backdrop for champagne sundowners.
Yet the standout attraction—and one that lures guests from other resorts in the Lhaviyani Atoll—is the aforementioned 5.8, the world’s largest all-glass underwater restaurant. Named for its metric distance below the lagoon’s surface, it’s located by a popular feeding spot for reef life, meaning Michelin-trained chef Bjoern van den Oever has to compete for diners’ attention with schools of blue fusiliers, parrot fish, glistening barracuda, and lionfish that spread their translucent fins by the spotlights. This he does with five-course, three-hour tasting menus inspired by the array of countries in which he’s worked before—red mullet with cauliflower couscous and bisque sauce, diver scallop with peach almond vinaigrette and squid-ink cracker, a mini lobster-roll sandwiched between two clouds of meringue. And while the quality is on par with dress-coded restaurants in any major city, here, there’s a shoe rack at the door. This is, after all, barefoot luxury (960/662-2000; doubles from US$415).
Chalk it up to the fact that it’s located near ley lines, but Kanuhura has been blessed by good fortune. Its name, which means “Corner Island,” refers to its location at the northern fringes of the Lhaviyani Atoll, where reefs and currents protect it from erosion and fill its shores with uncommonly soft sand. Once a haven for Maldivian fishermen who would stop for a rest before venturing out into the open ocean beyond, the island became a hot spot for European travelers when it first opened as a luxury resort in 2000. News spread quickly via word of mouth among a clientele that has been repeatedly coming back ever since.
Now, a US$42 million overhaul by Hirsch Bedner Associates has breathed new life into the property, giving its 10 restaurants and bars and 80 villas a cheery palette of whites, blues, and pinks. A tastefully restrained “gypset” style is seen in touches like shell-covered swings for bar stools, bright brushstroke art in the villas, Electra bikes for every guest to traverse the island’s 16 and a half hectares, and teepees in lieu of cabanas on the beach. Numerous acquisitions range from libraries of books in each villa to a Jetlev water jet pack at the water sports center, but the most notable is the neighboring isle of Masleggihura, which Kanuhura now offers as an additional beach escape.
The resort’s new slogan is “unfettered paradise,” but it could equally be “get fitter in paradise.” General manager Robert Hauck, who has completed 38 marathons, has introduced a focus on fitness, with plans to host marathons on the island and recruit Muay Thai world champion Irshaad Sayed to design the first martial arts academy in the Maldives. In the meantime, tennis boot camps and a Maldivian workout that replaces exercise balls with coconuts and palm trees are readily available, as is a 50-page treatment menu at Kokaa Spa for relaxation afterward.
All the playful touches in the resort’s facelift—down to the neon signage at the Deli ice cream shop and café—seem geared toward attracting a new kind of clientele. But the fine linen bedsheets, the orchids in every room, the long moonlit private dinners in the chef’s garden, and the way the barefoot staff will cheekily teach a young guest how to shoot behind the back at billiards—all of these point back to Kanuhura’s original, enduring appeal (960/662-0044; doubles from US$500).
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2017 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Out of the Blue”).