|Island magic Maldives style|
For rooms with a view, deserted beaches and soul-stirring sunsets, the Maldives are the perfect holiday choice - just four hours' flying time from the Gulf but a whole world away, says Kathi Everden
If there is a dream destination anywhere in the world, the Maldives must be in the running for the title. Some 1,200 tropical islands sprinkled over 90,000 sq kilometres in the Indian Ocean, all set around reefs and atolls with turquoise lagoons, sparkling white sandy fringes and a palm tree heart.
Temperatures hover between 24 and 32 degrees Celsius all year-round, with the sea equally balmy, and there's the bonus of an amazing underwater world of rainbow fish and coral outcrops conveniently located within snorkelling distance of every resort.
Its charms were ‘discovered' around 30 years ago by intrepid Italian travellers on a diversion from Sri Lanka, and the destination instantly became a magnet for divers always in search of new depths to plumb.
But, with better airline links from carriers such as Emirates and Qatar Airways, and a wealth of deluxe resort development in the 1990s, the Maldives are now being promoted as the ‘new exclusive destination' of the 21st Century.
Names such as Banyan Tree, Four Seasons, Hilton and Six Senses have opened resorts that rival their competitors in the Caribbean and the Seychelles, and a new raft of water villas, spas and gourmet restaurants are earning a reputation for excellence around the world.
But, with around 90 islands dedicated to tourism, there's something for everyone in the Maldives, from family resorts to exclusive getaways, cruise boats to Club Med style dive and disco.
All have unlimited sun and pristine sands, and offer access to the treasure trove of 1,350 species of coral and fish attractions via snorkel, scuba, glass-bottom boats, reef trips or seaplane safaris.
From paddlers to professional divers, there's equal opportunity to view the abundance of fish, turtles, rays, dolphins and sharks, whether in the safe shallows of the lagoon or at the reef ‘walls' where shoals of slow-moving fish create your very own aquarium.
Striped and spotted, spiney or smooth, the names give an indication of the exotic sights - blue-faced angelfish, oriental sweetlips, blotcheye soldierfish, firefish, parrotfish, turkeyfish, clown triggerfish, spotted unicornfish, long-nosed butterflyfish and Picasso triggerfish are just a few of the yellow, purple, pink, black and blue creatures that populate the waters around the Maldives.
Rays lie dozing in the shallows; baby sharks potter around the lagoons, and dolphins perform graceful gymnastics offshore in one of the world's unparalleled natural attractions.
Underwater, the coral gardens offer one of the few disappointments of the islands.
A victim of the El Nino phenomenon a few years ago, the warming of the sea during a one-month period bleached out the living coral in shallow waters leaving around sixty per cent of it prone to algae and damage.
With temperatures returned to normal, the situation is now being reversed and the sight of delicate coral flowers blooming again amid the coral graveyards has begun to be almost as big an incentive as the more normal fish spotting.
For those plumbing the depths, however, the destination retains its pre-eminence, offering reef, wreck, night and safari dives. Above the waves, wind-surfing, water skiing and para-sailing are also growing in popularity and big game fishing is another attraction for those with a penchant to throw a line for sailfish, tuna, barracuda, marlin or shark.
But, while most visitors live their dreams lazing on the dazzling beaches, paddling the lagoons and generally soaking up the sun's rays, there are also a number of excursions beyond the reef for those seeking a different Kodak moment or to flex their credit cards.
The capital Male occupies a two-kilometre island close by Hulule, where jets regularly astound with their precision landing on such a relative speck in the ocean.
Home to around 70,000, Male is the commercial hub of the islands with a thriving fishing industry as well as markets, malls and a bustling parade of tourist shops in Chandanee Magu, patrolled by salesmen eager to offer discounts as long as your patience.
Timing a visit to coincide with the landing of the catch, you can experience a close encounter with some of the underwater world's less amiable inhabitants such as the long-snouted sailfish as well as the prolific skipjack, the principal export of the Maldives.
All these are laid out in neat rows for sale in the local fish market, while the nearby vegetable market is also a visual feast with its fresh array of tropical produce.
A few hours is ample to take in the sights, including a few archaeological remains in the National Museum, the carved coral walls of the Hukuru Miski mosque, the Islamic Centre and Grand Friday Mosque, and Sultan Park.
But, for most, the brilliantly patterned US$4 sarongs, $2 tee-shirts and papier mache fish mobiles and plaques are among the must-have bargains, as well as raffia, woven and coir handicrafts, and jewellery, much of which has been imported from Sri Lanka.
Getting away from the (relative) high-rise landscape of Male, there are also boat trips from most resorts to nearby local islands, where you can experience a taste of island life before the tourist deluge.
Fishing and boat-building are a mainstay, but it's a delight to wander the shady lanes of the islands and meet the local inhabitants; shy tots with angelic smiles and football-mad teenagers, as everywhere, with the latter boasting new Chelsea football strip adorned with the Emirates' logo...
The Robinson Crusoe experience...
To sample the magic of the Maldives at its best, the Six Senses group offers two of the most unique resort experiences combining elegance on water at Soneva Gili with a return to nature at Soneva Fushi.
The latter is reached by a 30-minute seaplane flight from Male, where guests are met on arrival with smiling sari-clad staff proffering fresh coconut drinks, ice-cold towels and a ‘No Shoes, No News' bag for their footwear.
One of the biggest resort islands in the Maldives, this is a strictly casual environment, where stressed executives are encouraged to drop out in a hammock, dine with their feet in the sand or relax with a massage on the beach - and everyone is given their own bicycle to pedal round the palm-shaded lanes.
Excursions include a day away at a deserted island, complete with gourmet picnic, where you can claim sole possession of your own tropical beach and lagoon until you reluctantly radio for a speedboat to collect you.
In addition, you can have a private sunset cocktail on a sand-pit, barbecue in your own villa garden where staff set up a buffet and grill with candle-lit jasmine-strewn table, or perhaps snuggle down with a CD and indulge in a marshmallows and chocolate treat, followed by a champagne bath.
Accommodation is in rustic villas, each with a private garden, outdoor bathroom and entrance to the beach, while the spa is another treat, offering a menu of treatments both indoors and al fresco.
For a change of scenery, Soneva Gili has a South Seas appeal, the only all-water villa resort in the Maldives set within one of its largest lagoons.
Picture perfect turquoise seas frame every view, whether in the bar, the spa or the massive villas, with their outdoor showers, water-side loungers, roof sundecks or open-air lounges.
For those with a yearning for privacy, seven Crusoe residences are accessible only by boat, and the discrete water-borne room service means romantics need never leave their maritime haven.
But that would mean missing the sunset from the bar, followed by exquisite cuisine served under the rustling palm trees, all adding up to another perfect day in paradise. AW
Getting there: Emirates, Sri Lankan and Qatar Airways offer regular services from the Gulf to Male International Airport.
Time to visit: Temperatures are constant year-round, between 23 and 32 degrees Celsius. Monsoon season is from May to September, when tropical downpours are interspersed with regular sunny periods.
Where to stay: Most visitors take a package combining flight and accommodation, and there are plenty of options available from Dnata, Emirates Holidays and other travel agents.
A four-day, two-centre package for two to Soneva Fushi and Soneva Gili are available from US$2,400 this summer, inclusive of seaplane and speedboat transfers, breakfast, one dinner at each resort and welcome fruit and champagne.
Tourism: The Maldives Tourism Promotion board website can be accessed on www.visitmaldives.com, and gives comprehensive details of resort islands and tours.
Visas: Available free on arrival for most nationalities and valid for 30 days. A US$10 departure tax is levied on all visitors.
Language: The Islamic Republic of the Maldives has its own distinct Dhivehi language, strongly influenced by Arabic. However, English is the language of commerce and is widely spoken on resort islands and in the capital Male.
Currency: The local currency is the Rufiya and US$1 is equivalent to around 12 Rufiya. Major credit cards are widely accepted, as well as the US dollar.
Additional information: The import of alcohol is banned. Visitors are requested to refrain from removing coral and shells from the marine habitat.