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Beyond the beach

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The Maldives may be famous as the ultimate paradise for spas and honeymoons but there's plenty to tempt the active traveller. By Adriaane Pielou


Sand like talc under your feet, the sound of palm fronds rustling in the breeze, and around you mile upon turquoise mile of empty ocean. Few places live up to the clichés like the 1,119 islands dotted around 26 atolls in the 5,000 square miles of Indian Ocean that make up the Maldives. So much intense, tropical beauty, all you can do is grin. Most of the islands can be walked around in 10 to 30 minutes, so after an undemanding day, dinner under the stars and a drink in the sand-floor bar, you'll probably be asleep by 11pm.


Around 100 of the 200 inhabited islands are home to a resort, the furthest no more than 90 minutes by seaplane from the Maldives' international gateway, Male Airport. The inter-island ferry service the government is setting up exists more as a fledgling plan than anything a visitor could rely on, so the alternative is the taxi-boat, which takes visitors to the islands in the North and South Male atolls. The cost of private transfers doesn't encourage island-hopping, so it's important to choose an island well set up for whatever activity interests you. And beyond the temptation to flop on the sand and reach for another cocktail, there's a surprising amount to do.


The opening-up of the south of the archipelago has brought splendid new hotels from Shangri-La, Park Hyatt, Jumeirah, and The Residence. Meanwhile, air links to the region have been enhanced with the recent upgrading of the airport on Gan, once an RAF base, on Addu Atoll.

 

learn to dive

 

The beauty of the Maldives' beaches is only rivalled by what lies below the surface of the ocean. Teeming with tropical fish, these warm waters are a wonderful place to snorkel or learn to dive, while experienced divers can swim with whale sharks and rays. Along with a watersports centre, some with wakeboarding, tube-riding, kayaking, Hobicat sailing, water-skiing and more, every resort in the Maldives has a dive centre.


For novices, it's best to choose a resort with a good 'house reef', where you can swim to the outer-reef slope rather than have to rely on a boat. Among these are Kuredu and Shangri-La Villingili, The Residence, Park Hyatt, W Retreat & Spa, Olhuveli Beach, Bathala, Biyadhoo, Ellaido, Embudu, Eriyadu, Filitheyo, Machchafushi, Mirihi and Vakarufalhi. Some of the most splendid coral and greatest wealth of marine life is in the less-visited waters of the south. Here, the coral was spared the bleaching effects of the warm El Nino currents in 1998 that still affect the reefs in the north.
The 50-villa Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa opened in April 2011, in one of the most remote locations in the south. The house reef here is abundant in coral, and children as well as adults can learn to dive. In the north, there's a good all-age dive centre at the 150-room Conrad Rangali.

 

cycle in the sand

 

Set in lush jungle on Kunfunadhoo island, Soneva Fushi gives visitors bicycles to get from their Robinson Crusoe-style villas to the sand-floored restaurant. But for a long ride you must head south to Addu Atoll, where Gan and four other English-speaking islands are linked by a 17km causeway. Cycling this route is not only great exercise, it's a great way to see Maldivians going about their daily lives. Bikes can also be rented at the 140-room Shangri–La Villingili, the first luxury resort in the south. Accommodation is in tree house rooms and guests enjoy spectacular snorkelling in the waters around the island.

 

anyone for tennis?

 

Few resorts have tennis facilities, but there are courts at Kurumba, the One&Only Reethi Rah and One&Only Kanuhara. Golf is provided at a handful of resorts, and the Royal Indian Ocean Golf Club, the world's first floating 18-hole course, is due to open next year.

 

riding the waves

 

Surfing has only recently taken off in the Maldives and the only resorts well set up for the sport are Dhonveli Beach and Lohifushi. Nearby, Four Seasons Kuda Huraa uses a boat to get guests to good breaks and has launched a surfing school. For kite surfing, the new Shangri-La and Olhuveli are the places to be.

 

under canvas

 

Some resorts - such as the One&Only Kanuhura - have an open-air four-poster on a nearby sandbar that you can book for the night. The only resort where you can live under canvas, however, is Banyan Tree Madivaru, a dot in the ocean, where there are six luxury tented pool villas.

 

bring the kids

 

In an expensive destination, where week-long hotel and flight deals start at about £1,200 and five-star deals from about £2,500, one of the more affordable resorts is the 78-room Equator Village Resort, formerly an RAF base, on Gan. Rooms cost $198 a night for a double - including full board and drinks, with 50% reductions for under 12s - and are in the former barracks. The Astra cinema, the officers' mess and lovely gardens are also still going strong. And it's easy to get to snorkelling and dive areas. As a rule, few resorts have really good children's clubs, the exceptions including Kuredu, the One&Only Kanuhura, Bandos and Kurumba.

 

live on board

 

Four Seasons' Explorer and the two Sultan of the Seas boats, the most luxurious of the Maldives' liveaboard vessels, provide fabulous experiences, taking a dozen-odd divers at a time to barely visited dive spots such as Huvadhoo, one of the largest coral atolls in the world. For other liveaboard boats, useful sites include maldivesdivetravel.com and Elysianmaldives.com.

 

do your bit

 

A resort with a marine research centre, and often a resident marine biologist, adds immensely to a holiday. These include little Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru, neighbouring Angsana Ihuru, and nearby Baros. Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru has an outstanding Marine Discovery Centre, and the Shangri-La's traditional Maldivian night-fishing trips combine fun and research.

 

paddle power

 

Olhuveli Beach Resort & Spa, on South Male Atoll, has launched a new canoe safari. Suitable for families and couples, this self-guided excursion allows the active to step off the island, pick up paddles and explore the shallow lagoon, with its deep channels, sandbanks and private island. Guests can also collect snorkel and fins and dive into the deeper blue waters to visit the abundant marine life on the resort's house reef.

 

immerse yourself

 

Anantara Resort & Spa on Dhigu encourages guests to indulge in a variety of eco ventures, including a scientific expedition beneath the Indian Ocean, dolphin-watching, snorkelling with a marine biologist to capture images of underwater life on camera, and swimming with majestic manta rays. The resort also offers deep-sea fishing and hires out solo and tandem kayaks to explore its lagoon. Back on dry land, the Anantara runs cookery classes under the guidance of resident master chefs. Guests can also fine-tune their cooking skills at the One&Only Reethi Rah, a sleek all-villa resort set along six kilometres of private beach. Not only can gourmands enjoy a choice of cuisine from three restaurants, they can also learn the fine art of harmonising tastes and textures at the resort's culinary school. Under the expert tutelage of master chefs, they will be taught the delicate nuances of food presentation and world cuisine, and then enjoy their creations at a sumptuous lunch. They leave the course with a certificate, recipe card and a souvenir apron and chef's cap.

 

For more information, see www.visitmadives.com

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