Where to Eat, Drink, Stay and Play in the Maldives

The ultimate guide to one of the world's most exotic travel destinations.
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Christina Vidal
 (@jetsetchristina) enjoying a half-submerged hammock at Gili Lankanfushi Maldives. 

Christina Vidal (@jetsetchristina) enjoying a half-submerged hammock at Gili Lankanfushi Maldives. 

In 2019 alone there were 20 new resorts planned in the Maldives, a minute archipelagic nation some 370 miles off the coast of India. Made up of nearly 1,200 islands that barely register on a map, it has nonetheless has become the season’s hottest exotic getaway, what the Wall Street Journal calls “a destination for the 1%” that has attracted flocks of celebrities, influencers and well-heeled travelers thanks to its exotic appeal, luxe resorts, and Instagram-worthy scenery (7.4 million #maldives posts and counting). 

Though it ranks as the smallest country in Asia, the Maldives has outsized appeal. Perched in the Indian Ocean and comprised of 26 natural atolls surrounded by a protective coral reef system, it has attracted the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Joe Jonas (who honeymooned there) and Prince William and Kate Middleton. The island nation is famous for the overwater villas that extend over its shallow waters as if to further invite visitors to become part of their spectacular natural surroundings.

The tranquil and alluring scene at a Garden Villa at The St. Regis Maldives.

The tranquil and alluring scene at a Garden Villa at The St. Regis Maldives.

Perhaps the only thing that can attempt to match the sheer natural wonder of the islands is the level of luxury and privacy that many of the world’s top hospitality brands have brought to the A-list archipelago. In the Maldives guests can experience the beauty and tranquility of one of nature’s most stunning environments, while enjoying the five-star level of service that one might expect only in the heart of the world’s great cities. And with a relatively consistent temperature in the 70s and 80s, it’s a reliable escape any season of the year. 

Most visitors will fly into Malé, the capital city of the Maldives and the home of the nation’s governmental institutions and its economic center. But with the abundant hospitality and culinary offerings spread across the rest of the nation’s islands, seaplanes or small boats are the preferred mode of transport for getting to and from these prime destinations, adding to the sense of adventure. 

A jetty juts out into the sparkling sea at Shangri-La’s Villingili Resort & Spa.

A jetty juts out into the sparkling sea at Shangri-La’s Villingili Resort & Spa.

The reliance on these crafts to travel around the country does make going out to dinner a more complicated affair; but the world-class resorts more than make up for this with the level of culinary extravagance found on the premises, with many offering multiple restaurants of the highest quality serving everything from Maldivian cuisine using the freshest local products, to European and Asian menus that would rival those in New York, London or Tokyo. In fact, many visitors will find all of their needs and desires fulfilled without ever leaving the island they’ve chosen, thanks to the arrival in the Maldives of many of the world’s most elite hospitality brands, including Raffles, Fairmont and Waldorf Astoria. 

Just as it delivers first-class service to its guests in the world’s great metropolises, the St. Regis Maldives Vommuli Resort brings its uncompromising luxury to this remote utopia. Located in the Dhaalu Atoll, and accessible by seaplane, the resort offers unparalleled seclusion, but with seven restaurants and the luxuriant Iridium Spa, guests will find nothing less than the epitome of service expected from the iconic brand. 

Seventy-seven villas, including 44 over water and another 33 on land, range from the merely spectacular garden villas with private plunge pools to the John Jacob Astor Estate, a three-bedroom overwater villa with an infinity swimming pool and amenities one would only find in the most fabulous luxury mansions. If the seven restaurants, each exquisitely designed, don’t satisfy your culinary desires, have your butler arrange a private dining experience for the ultimate romantic evening. 

The Whale Bar at the St. Regis Maldives Vommuli Resort.

The Whale Bar at the St. Regis Maldives Vommuli Resort.

When Czech financier Jiří Šmejc, a frequent visitor to the Maldives, decided to develop his own resort, reportedly investing around $220 million, the end result was the spectacular Velaa Private Island Maldives. A playground for the global elite, the island offers plenty of activities for those who prefer a more active time away, with a gym, tennis and squash courts, in addition to a climbing wall and even a golf academy. Housed in a tall, architecturally-striking tower is the teppanyaki grill, Tavaru, which serves mouth-watering offerings with elevated views of the surrounding island and turquoise waters. Velaa also offers one of the most exclusive dining experiences in the entire country, at Gaushan de Silva’s Aragu, where the world-renowned chef lets guests choose from a list of ingredients, with which he creates a menu on the spot that will dazzle even the most jaded foodies. 

The Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru, one of several Four Seasons properties in the Maldives, is heavily inspired by its natural surroundings. This UNESCO Biosphere Reserve wilderness allows guests to savor both the expected beach paradise on one side of the property and a lush jungle on the other, a duality of natural seclusion to satisfy any guest’s preferences. Explore the surrounding area with the resort’s Flying Triggerfish seaplane, its DeepFlight submarine or its manta ray program that allows visitors to swim up-close with one of the largest known manta population on Earth. The ThreeBedroom Land and Ocean Suite allows guests to stay both over water and on land simultaneously, with lagoon-based dwellings in one of the most private spots on the entire island.  

Luxury travel blogger and influencer Christina Vidal (@jetsetchristina) soaking up the sun at Six Senses Laamu.

Luxury travel blogger and influencer Christina Vidal (@jetsetchristina) soaking up the sun at Six Senses Laamu.

COMO Hotels and Resorts also has offerings in the Maldives, with a beautiful location on Cocoa Island, but the stunner has to be the COMO Maalifushi, located on the pristine Thaa Atoll in the southern Maldives. In addition to the incredible diving found throughout the archipelago, Maalifushi is also a destination for those luxury travelers who love to surf, as it’s home to some of the premier waves in the entire region. Of course, luxury comes first and one would be hard-pressed to top the experience to be had in the COMO Villa, the most exclusive abode at the resort.

The Villa itself offers more than 4,300 square feet of overwater space, managed and curated by the guests’ personal butler and situated to ensure the utmost seclusion and isolation on the property. With two large bedrooms in the Villa, this is ideal for either a couple’s getaway or even a double-date vacation, with isolated sleeping spaces letting couples enjoy their vacations with friends, without sacrificing the privacy they also desire throughout their stay. 

An infinity pool overlooks the pristine beach at Conrad Maldives Rangali Island.

An infinity pool overlooks the pristine beach at Conrad Maldives Rangali Island.

Living up to its brand’s reputation, the Cheval Blanc Randheli is an artistic experience by design. The magnificent and expertly curated art and design throughout the property is eye-catching yet seamlessly compliments its natural surroundings, and even the dining offerings are considered “culinary arts,” as Randheli’s five restaurants and four bars ensure that each meal is an experience for guests to cherish with both their eyes and finely-tuned palettes. The crown jewel is likely Le 1947, a 12-course gastronomical celebration that combines world-class French cuisine with a playful approach that is ideal in such laid-back surroundings. 

As for accommodations, each villa has its own appeal, but nothing can top the Cheval Blanc Randheli Private Island. On this isolated island just offshore, an entire team of Ambassadeurs, Cheval Blanc’s version of butlers and concierge attendants, take care of every need, desire and whim of guests. And with a master suite in addition to multiple guest bedrooms, it offers an unrivaled option for those with families, or groups of friends wishing to vacation together and enjoy the private spa room, screening room and panoramic views of the magnificent surrounding sea.

A chartered fishing boat sets out from the COMO Maalifushi resort.

A chartered fishing boat sets out from the COMO Maalifushi resort.

 For those choosing to stay at the exclusive Soneva Fushi resort, a choice exists between the two sides of the island. The more active should choose the “sunset side,” which has extensive reefs for underwater exploring and even dolphins that frequent the waters just offshore. On the “sunrise side,” privacy is the catchword, with endless vistas looking out over the ocean and the ideal piece of paradise for feeling completely disconnected from the rest of the world. As with its fellow Maldivian luxury resorts, Soneva Fushi focuses heavily on providing world-class culinary experiences on the premises, and arguably none offer a finer selection. 

Fresh in the Garden, with its organic, planet-based menu, and So Hands On, the sushi bar in collaboration with a three-starred Michelin chef from Japan, are both must-visits for Soneva Fushi guests, while the Once Upon a Table experience is considered culinary theatre, as a rotating roster of renowned chefs create world-class meals without preset menus. But the absolute gem of the roster is Shades of Green, a plant-based, Nordic-inspired, garden-to-table experience. The five-course menu begins with a tour of the garden from which the food is grown, and diners are invited inside the creative process as Chef Carsten Kyster turns these colorful ingredients into truly world-class culinary presentations. 

The gorgeous Soneva Jani

The gorgeous Soneva Jani

While visitors to the Maldives are more than welcome to journey from island to island, with seaplanes and speedboats available aplenty, the manner in which the most exclusive and luxurious resorts offer every amenity and service within their own property makes secluding oneself in these refuges of tranquility all the more reasonable.  

Deep Dives  

If there’s one thing that connects all of the atolls and islands of the Maldives, it’s the surrounding Indian Ocean. Crystal clear blue waters, many with reef structures, make it possible to do extraordinary scuba diving and snorkeling from most places within the archipelago, and almost all resorts offer diving opportunities within a short distance of the property. But there are still a few off-the-beaten-path spots that any serious diver should consider visiting during a trip to the Maldives, as they are truly special undersea experiences. 

Located some 75 miles north of Malé city, Lhaviyani Atoll has been popular with knowledgeable divers for decades, and for good reason. Madivaru Kandu, located nearby, is a high-energy channel that provides for concentrated levels of beautiful sea life while experienced explorers will make a beeline for the two diveable shipwrecks in the area. But while some of these areas are well-established, there are still enormous swaths of lesser-visited dive sites that offer the chance to discover new wonders, and even interact with the 15 species of shark seen in Lhaviyani Atoll’s local waters thus far. 

Diving with a manta ray at Ari Atoll.

Diving with a manta ray at Ari Atoll.

Perhaps the most diverse of dive spots in the Maldives, the South Ari Atoll offers dozens of surrounding dive sites ranging from the Vilamendhoo caves to coral-covered seamounts and dramatic dropoffs. Visitors can take a day trip to Maamigili for the chance to see enormous whale sharks, or take the highly recommended night dives that provide an entirely different diving experience. 

Advanced divers can even find extraordinary dive trips right from the country’s capital city, as North Malé Atoll nearby offers adventurous types the chance to visit the channel at Kuda Faru or the drop-off at Voshimas Tila, where divers can share the water with reef sharks cruising the currents below. There’s also a fantastic shipwreck in the area that has been reclaimed by colorful sea life, providing unforgettable dives for even the most seasoned of undersea explorers.