Whether you long for pampered nights in a 4-star resort or fish-filled days some 80 feet underwater, your tropical wishes are sure to come true on one of the 87 resort islands of the Maldives. Straddling the equator, the 1,102 islands that make up the Maldives form 26 atolls, or rings, of coral scattered over an area of land 510 miles long and 75 miles wide. The air of tranquility enveloping the archipelago makes the Maldives the ideal place to escape from the real world to a palm-fringed haze.
Malé International Airport is located on its own private island, Hulule, next to the capital city of Malé. This landing strip of an island is the checkpoint for all international visitors. While direct flights to the Maldives are difficult to find from the United States, you can easily fly to Singapore from the West Coast or to Europe (London, Zurich) from the East Coast and catch a connecting flight to paradise.
Resort and tour operators usually arrange transportation from the airport to the islands via powerboat or jet. Another way to travel the waterways snaking through Maldives is on a dhoni, or small waterbus.
Although the high season (December through April) attracts more crowds, this time of year offers the best weather and the longest days on the islands. A visit between May and November is more of a gamble, as this is the rainy season and humidity is high. The high season also provides the best weather for scuba diving. Temperatures during the high season remain a steady 86 to 90 degrees during the day and drop only to 77 to 79 degrees at night.
Since tourists began to slowly trickle onto these islands in 1971, the resorts have grown bigger and better than their predecessors. A package deal at a resort is the simplest way to enjoy a vacation, and options range from expensive to very luxurious. These islands may not be the best option for budget travelers, but they are perfect for those looking to splurge on top quality accommodations and amenities located on isolated beaches. Diehard divers should book a stay on a live-aboard boat; these offer non-stop diving opportunities, as well as the chance to dive out-of-the-way sites.
While meals don't revolve around shrimp, the catch of the day is the star in this litany of fish dishes -- fried fish, fish curry, fish patties, fish balls, fish soup. It may be difficult to find a truly authentic meal, as most of the resorts tone down the spiciness to please the tourist's palette. To compensate, end your meal with the Maldivian version of the after-dinner mint -- a sliver of aceca nut wrapped in aceca leaves with cloves and lime paste. Don't leave the islands before relishing the taste of the island's coconuts, whether in a sweet curry or a frothy drink.
If you crave a relaxing vacation that allows for some serious scuba diving, the Maldives will certainly not fail you. The water is among the best for diving -- clear and warm with temperatures hovering between 82 and 86 degrees. When Marco Polo referred to the Maldives as the "flower of the Indies," he might have been referring to the bouquets of fish that decorate the clear, turquoise lagoons.
If the water and beaches become an unlikely bore, wander into the city, a neighboring island, a different resort, or a local fishing village. The small size of the islands and their proximity to one another make day trips and most inter-island travel quite simple. Head to the capital of Malé to visit the mosques or hunt for bargains at the markets. For a more relaxed day, arrange a trip (either through a resort or a hired dhoni) to a local fishing village and catch a glimpse of native island life.
While you are there
Strap on an oxygen tank, load up an underwater camera and swim with the reef sharks in the Shark Thila reef, or explore the Maldive Victory wreck located near the airport island, Hulule.
Dance to the beat of a different drum -- the bodu beru, to be exact-at a culture night sponsored by a resort.
Visit the highest natural point in the Maldives, located on Farldhoo in the Northern Atolls. Climb to the top for striking views of this distribution of islands.
To fake that you've been there
Work the terms "Chickens, Colas, Kate's and Honky's" into conversation, especially 1 you may have with a surfing aficionado. These words -- which sound like the names of local restaurants or bars -- are actually the best breaks for surfing in the North Malé atoll.
Linking for a better vacation
Visit the official Maldives tourism site for an array of information about the islands.