- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 31, 2008

MALE, Maldives

How many times can you say, “It’s so beautiful”? How about 1,197, once for each island in the Maldives? Flying in over some of the palm-fringed specks that make up the 26 atolls, it is as if precious stones in every shade of blue were tossed from the heavens. Coral formations encircle lagoons in this 85-mile-wide, 475-mile-long swath of atolls south of India, about 300 miles southwest of Sri Lanka.

The Maldives quickly melt away malaise, delivering an extraordinary vacation for honeymooners, romantics, luxe travelers, spa connoisseurs, families and, especially, divers. “Our first [dive] trip here we likened to golf at Pebble Beach,” says Kristin Cancilla of Colorado.

The Maldives - tropical, exotic, international - remain largely undiscovered by Americans (about 2 percent ofvisitors) but popular with the British, Germans, Japanese, Koreans and Russians. Italians are attributed with the start of tourism here in 1972, and there are still a couple of islands regarded as predominantly Italian.

Dive director Alexis Vincent of Conrad Maldives Rangali Island says, “I get that a lot: Mal-what? What’s that?” The “what” is blissful isolation in an increasing luxury market. About 200 islands are inhabited by natives, and another 87 hold resorts, most of them claiming they are five- and even six-star destinations.

“I like to say it’s a thousand stars,” says Dominick Ruhl, Anantara resort’s general manager.

It takes commitment to get here. Emirates airline’s direct New York-Dubai flight helps (there’s a layover and then on to Male) but even without delays, start to finish took us more than 30 hours. Yet, we’d do it again and again.

The Republic of the Maldives is 99 percent water, with a total land mass of 115 square miles. (Rhode Island has 1,045.) A third of the population, 89,000, live on Male (pronounced “ma-lay”), making it one of the world’s densest capitals.

Vacationing here requires two decisions:

First, a traveling companion. Visitors are mostly couples and families.

Second is choosing a resort, especially important here, as there’s little interaction with the native islanders. Visiting a local island, as they’re called, requires an invitation, although nearly any resort will be able to offer a tour.

If you visit the Maldives, get under the water; otherwise, you’ll miss the amazing sea life that attracts many. Some visitors say it’s the best diving in the world. Conrad’s dive director puts it this way: “For diving worldwide, I would say, it’s the most consistently good diving especially in regards to the variety and abundance.”

At any of the many five-star resorts, programs include diving, sunset and dolphin cruises, traditional Maldivian hand-line fishing, stunning beaches and fish-laden reefs, gourmet cuisine, eye-popping spas, infinity pools and modern conveniences including wireless Internet (even at sea with the Four Seasons Explorer yacht).

Similarities aside, each resort is unique. Here’s a sampling:

m The Beach House at Manafaru Maldives is turning heads as one of the newest and northernmost resorts. Just 11 percent of its 35 lush acres were developed, with 68 designer villas including stunning over-water accommodations.

Beach House claims the Maldives’ only golf simulator and offers martial-arts instruction. The Shui Spa’s standout is the Indian Marma Massage in which the therapist balances himself holding two robes while delivering a balletlike, strong massage using his feet. Villas start at $700 a day, plus $265 per person for the 40-minute flight and 35-minute speedboat transfer from Male. Go to www.BeachHouseCollection.com, phone 960/332-0705.

m The 96-room, 12-acre Four Seasons Kuda Huraa means “small village,” but none of the Four Seasons’ world-famous luxury and service is sacrificed. The pool is classic Four Seasons. The Island Spa lives up to its name, reached by quaint, small dhoni (a traditional wooden boat).

Over-water treatment rooms include a view of the tropical fish from the massage table head cradles. The signature treatment is the 2 1/2-hour Sea Escape. For sunset dinner at the Reef, keep an eye out for the baby sharks and the resident fruit bats. The Indian restaurant is a standout.

m A seaplane ride away is Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru, where about the same number of rooms awaits on an island four times larger than Kuda Huraa. Ms. Cancilla from Colorado says, “I think the service and spa at Kuda Huraa and Landaa are both exceptional … and everywhere we were, they knew us” from before.

Guests at both properties often add on a three-, four- or seven-night stay on the well-appointed Four Seasons Explorer, perfect for avid divers and snorkelers. A marine biologist offers lectures and guided underwater tours, while the friendly staff meets every need, from welcome-back-aboard drinks to nightly footage by Scubazoo of the day’s highlights. Guided swims with large whale sharks and manta rays are worth the booking in themselves. Kuda Huraa starts at $650; www.four seasons.com, 800/819-5053.

m Anantara is actually three island resorts in one - Anantara, Anantara Veli and Naladhu - and excels in dining options. Dine by Design lets guests select the where and when for a romantic meal, such as a beachfront dinner with heart-shaped palm fronds and candlelight. The variety in dining options, such as Italian, fusion and Thai, becomes important on longer stays, which is the norm here.

There’s even a disappearing dining venue: When the tide rises, the lagoon sand spit where lunch was served is covered in water. There also is a Thai cooking class, a wine guru and a salt sommelier, who offers a delightful tableside presentation of salts, chutneys and mustards. The breakfast dhoni picnic and snorkel resulted in great underwater footage of swimming with a green turtle. Surfing lessons are available, and the over-water spa is another jaw-dropper. Prices start at $780; www.maldives. anantara.com, 960/664-4100).

m Naladhu, meaning “pretty little island,” is across the lagoon and part of the dine-around program. Here 19 colonial-style houses offer nearly every amenity imaginable, from private swimming pool to a massive deck with palm trees, a daybed, a swing bed, and an adjacent bathroom with outdoor shower, steam room and chaise lounge, plus see-through tub. Breakfast at 5 p.m.? No problem.

Or arrange impromptu excursions to see spinner dolphin. Quite a few guests seem never to leave their rooms. Rates begin at $871 per night for the buy-five-get-seven special; www.naladhu.com, 960/664-1888.

m Cocoa Island is a quiet, small-island getaway but still upscale. Focusing on healthy eating and spa therapies at its Como Shambhala Retreat, Cocoa strives to provide a peaceful, harmonious sanctuary (the meaning of “shambhala”). Spa treatments are complemented by a hydrotherapy pool and free yoga classes.

Vegetarian dishes with organic ingredients are a specialty. Great dive sites are nearby, and the resort is an easy speedboat ride from Male. All of its 33 villas are over water, including the original dhoni-shaped villas. Prices start at $590; www.cocoaisland.como.bz, 960/664-1818.

m The 150-room Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, one of the Maldives’ largest resorts, is actually two islands connected by a walking bridge. Arrival is by seaplane.

The quiet side, Rangali Island, is usually preferred by honeymooners (50 villas), while the more populated Rangali Finohlu has the pool, watersports and the must-see Ithaa Restaurant, said to be the world’s first all-glass undersea restaurant. Ithaa, which means “pearl,” seats 14, and cost $2.5 million to construct. Couples may have their wedding ceremony here.

The 21 over-water spa villas, each with its own treatment room, are part of the Spa Retreat, a destination spa set on stilts over the ocean off the main island, while the Over-Water Spa offers glass-floored treatment rooms above a coral reef in the resort’s lagoon.

The property has 10 dining options, from in-the-sand Japanese cooking to the outstanding spa restaurant to a popular international buffet.

The 10,000-bottle wine list is impressive, as is the wine-and-cheese bar with black-sand floor. The wine cellar has special tastings and dinners with tabletop, pop-up TV screens for presentation. Rates begin at $585; www.conrad hotels.com, 960/668-0629).

For more in formation, go to www.visit maldives.com and www.emirates.com.

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