A Beach Worth Traveling 9,000 Miles For

How to plan a trip to the Maldives you won’t forget

Susan Crandell
Over-water villa at the Conrad Rangali Island resort.
Photograph: Photo courtesy of Conrad Rangali Island resort

Might as well admit it. After a week in the Maldives, I have completely changed my tune, discarding my former mantra—“beach vacations are boring”—to become an over-water bungalow groupie. This despite rainy November days (note to self: when they say monsoon season, they are not kidding around).
     This archipelago of islands in the Indian Ocean is one of the few places in the world with waters so protected that you can build villas on stilts without worrying that the next tropical storm will wash them away. “Maldives” is a stamp that would never have entered my passport if I hadn’t been invited there by Hilton to tour the company’s three resorts. (Some days it’s good to be a travel writer – very, very good.)  Still, my immediate question was this: Why, with the Caribbean or Hawaii within shouting distance, depending on which side of the country you call home, would anyone travel nearly 9,000 miles (the distance from my home in New York to Male, capital of the Maldives) just to vacation on a beach? What, is the sand crushed diamonds? Do the dolphins leap out of the water and shake your hand?
     I went a skeptic, returned a believer. There is a special magic to these ocean aeries: I loved lying in bed in the morning listening to the waves lap against the supporting piers, then opening my eyes to a vast panorama of blue. Floating alone on the vastness of the sea. It’s insta-Zen, like being on a cruise ship but without all those annoying other passengers. Herewith, a go/no go cheat sheet to reveal whether the Maldives are right for you.

Number 1:  Over-water bungalows.  To me, they are the essence of romance, your own private world hovering above the sea. It was a real heartbreak to be there without my guy.
Number 2:  Whale sharks.  It’s one of the few places on earth where you can swim with the world’s biggest fish.  On the day we took the big dive boat out to the reef where the whale sharks hang, we spotted a young female right away.  It was extraordinary to snorkel alongside this enormous spotted fish as she glided silently through the water just a few feet below. 
Number 3:  Superlative snorkeling and diving.  These islands make most divers’ life list for the diversity of fish that feed on the reefs.  At my favorite of the three hotels I visited, the Conrad Rangali Island, you can see dozens of Nemo’s buddies – clown fish, surgeon fish, angelfish, groupers, eels – with a quick swim from the beach to a reef.  I’ve snorkeled Fiji and the Big Island, and they have nothing on the Maldives for variety and color.
Number 4:  Underwater eating.   The Conrad built the world’s first underwater restaurant, a big  acrylic structure that seats about 30 where you can eat lunch or dinner 15 feet down, swiveling your neck to watch the schools of fish that swarm around the eatery. 
Number 5:  The seaplanes.  Workhorses of the Maldives, they are the preferred mode of transportation from Male to far-flung resorts.  The big turboprop Twin Otters on floats add adventure to the equation; even if your flight is delayed the wait is painless in the Conrad guest lounge where 10 minute back massages are complimentary.
Number 6:  See them before they’re gone.  The Maldives are flat as a pancake, rising only three or four feet above the sea.  If  global warming continues to bring water levels up, these islands could vanish like Atlantis as soon as 2060; the government is already putting an emergency fund aside to buy themselves a new homeland in Australia or Sri Lanka or India.  To publicize their plight, the cabinet recently conducted a meeting underwater in scuba gear, for a photo op seen round the world.

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