Picture the Maldives. Go on, we’ll wait while you stir up those images. We’d put a reasonable wedge of cash on you seeing a small but perfectly formed island – perhaps with some overwater villas languishing in the tempting shallows. The sea’s a hue you’ve never really seen before in real life and perhaps there’s a cocktail or two featuring in there. Or a scuba tank, depending on your leisure-based leanings. No matter, it’s all much of a muchness. Or is it? With 26 atolls and around 1,200 islands, not every sand bar is created equally.
Step away from the barefoot chic and perfectly groomed resorts for a second. They’ll still be there waiting to welcome you – perhaps with a hot towel and spa treatment, but not before you’ve explored some of the Maldives nooks and crannies. Expect giants among sea creatures, unique topography and some inhabited but intriguing outposts. Gird your exploring loins and book that excursion or stay, you’ll not regret it.
For something unique
Flip through enough Maldives resort websites and you start to question your sanity. As the thatch huts and blue-green ocean blur into one big Maldives blind spot, you wonder if you’ll ever see another habitat again. This is where Fuvahmulah strides confidently in to relieve your synapses from the endless shades of azure. Not only does it boast marshland, pebble beaches and freshwater lakes – there are swamps, dense forest and fertile soils to be rummaged through.
A one island atoll, Fuvahmulah only opened up its gorgeous self to tourists in the last five years. Residents no doubt keen to keep the unique spots away from prying tourist eyes. But pry we must, after all, now we’ve been officially invited – it would be rude not to.
Untamed and unheard of?
Dhaalu Atoll: Aaaveee
It always pays to question eco-credentials in the Maldives. Overwater construction spells trouble for the seabed. And anything imported comes with a hefty carbon footprint. Not that sustainability aspirations should be mocked, but we’re always looking for more than just good intentions.
Aaaveee are the sustainability leaders – meaning if you’re looking for the classic Maldives glass floor experience, you might want to look somewhere else. That said – and trust us when we say this – at Aaaveee Nature Paradise, you’ll be just about as close to nature as it gets. Get yourself onto the Orbzii app to discover more of what this resort has to offer.
South Ari Atoll: Lonubo
We’d never label Maafushivaru untamed or unheard of. But their additional exclusive island is firmly in best kept secret territory. Maafushivaru guests can visit the island by day, or even spend the night – with just an inquisitive heron and a few bats for company. Frills keep you from Tom Hanks Cast Away levels of desperation, but you’ll want to scream ‘Wilson’ at the top of your voice. Why? Because why not?… Straggly beard strictly optional
Not to be confused with the Dorset lair of the rich and famous, sandbanks in the Maldives are literal banks of sand. Barren and blissfully isolated. Unlikely to be on any atoll Maldives map – your best bet is local knowledge. Though, for an easy option, resorts will offer picnics or even fully catered meals in isolated locations.
Orbzii Tip: Opt for the picnic. Warm dishes don’t travel well. The most upscale resorts can fail at this last hurdle. Unless they’re sending a chef and barbecue – in which case, it’s the barbecue option. Every time.
Inhabited and intriguing
With the exception of Male, it’s easy to think of all the Maldives islands being home to just one single, and one very upscale, resort. Addu Atoll breaks that mould. A sprawling, mostly connected collection of six islands makes up Addu City. Inhabited by Maldivians, its landscape is buoyed by mosque minarets teetering above more municipal affairs. Amongst the functional sights, you can snuffle out goodies. Hunting down a bakery anywhere in the world is one of travelling’s greatest pleasures. And the Maldives is no exception. You might not find a creme pat that would make Mary Berry blush, but Neon Bakery makes an impressive Kanamadhu Cake. A Maldivian dessert yet to grace Berry’s table. Shame, it’s a showstopper.
Wild encounters & the best atolls for diving
South Ari Atoll
The human race is divided into two very distinct schools of thought. One half would gladly dive into waters harbouring the world’s largest fish. The other? They’d rather gawp at a whale shark on screen, while David Attenborough murmurs soothing facts and alarming ecological warnings. We’re firmly in the dive in group. And South Ari Atoll is THE place to do it. You can snorkel or scuba amongst the gentle, 65ft leviathans in the South Ari Atoll all year round. Benign and slothful they may be, but they’re also endangered. This is very much a hands-off encounter.
Orbzii tip: Stay near Maamingili, Sun Island or Dhigurah to be close to the action.
Baa Atoll holds the loftiest of all travel credentials – a UNESCO nod. Except you’ll find no gothic architecture here. Named a World Biosphere in 2011, it’s the coral festooned waters that won the UN over, putting it firmly in the running for best atoll in the Maldives for diving.
Seagrass beds, reefs and mangroves make an attractive home for wrasses, green turtles and nurse sharks. But it’s the feeding frenzy you’ll come here for. For 6 months of the year, divers share the waters with hundreds of them. At 3.5 metres across, they swim in formation hoovering up plankton as they go. A spectacle worth getting your PADI cert for.
Orbzii tip: Hanifaru Bay is the manta hotspot, but we can guarantee that every tourist with a smidgen of Google-fu is headed there too. Try dipping your flippers at Horubadhoo Thila as well: a ray cleaning station open for business from May to November.
Advanced divers, this is your atoll. Tired of small corals and tropical fish? You’re going to hit the big money at Hammerhead Shark Point. A crack of dawn dive sees you descending 30m to the hammerhead’s stomping grounds. Barracuda, groupers and white tips call the Rasdhoo Channel home – so big pelagic sightings are the norm.
Rasdhoo and Kuramathi are the closest accomodation options: Kuramathi’s in-house Marine Biologist might win over eco-types, but Rasdhoo might turn heads with its very reasonably priced guesthouse. Get yourself over to the Orbzii app to discover what each has to offer.
Atolls to avoid?
A mixed bag if ever there was one. Being close to Male airport does mean you’ll be unpacking your smalls within an hour of landing. But it also means you’ll be within earshot of every Maldives flight. For. Your. Entire. Stay. It’s not that we’re averse to the wonder of aviation, a little plane spotting can be entertaining. Emphasis on the little.
The briefest inspection of an atoll Maldives map will serve you in good stead: we’d suggest avoiding resorts close to Male Airport, unless you like your island loafing served with a side of engine noise…
Whether you love a good coral or not, your Maldives diving experience depends on them. And, if you know your Staghorns from your Whips, you’ll also know that Maldives coral is in big trouble.
You could always count on the Southern Ari Atoll for some serious coral action, but even there, the coral bleaching has been devastating. But before you sling your snorkel into the nearest recycling bin, all is not lost. Some corals are showing signs of resilience and there’s still a relatively healthy fish population. The solution? Some resorts are getting guests actively involved in coral conservation. The absolute legends. For example, you can book yourself into the Anantara and be transplanting coral alongside a marine biologist. For our money, that’s $100 well spent.