Cover Bicycles are the mode of transport in resorts throughout the Maldives

We embark on an island-hopping adventure in the Maldives. Retreat or play, the archipelago delivers on its promise of once-in-a-lifetime moments along its cerulean atolls

An archipelago spanning across 1,200 islands, the Maldives is a country of tiny specks of land with snow-white sand in the vast Indian Ocean. Amidst the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Maldivian government mobilised the enforcement of mandatory testing and safety protocols for inter-island transfers to create open-border policies for tourists. Every island embodies a unique culture of its own, which is why my boyfriend Sean and I recommend visiting the Maldives with an itinerary that allows the space and freedom to explore its diverse atolls.

We began our island-hopping excursion in the archipelago’s southern reaches. Boarding our seaplane from Malé, in search of connection: to ourselves, each other and nature.

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COMO Maalifushi is the first resort to open in the Thaa Atoll. With over 65 island villas and over-water villas, the property offers the intimacy and seclusion that we have come searching for in the Maldives to begin with. Pared down with cool creamy interiors and the warm comfort of home, our over-water villa overlooks the cerulean water, as clear as a looking glass into the world under the sea. In this all-action retreat, there is an endless number of activities—from surfing, diving and water sports to holistic therapies. Play or rest, the choice is yours.

At the end of a sandy avenue lined by towering palm trees stands COMO Shambala Retreat, with an open-air yoga pavilion and breath-taking massage therapy rooms perched above the water. On our first morning, we casually went from scuba to spa. With an approach that blends ancient wisdom with science, COMO Shambala is renowned for its ethos of wellness that offers guests a prism to see themselves in a whole new light. We retreated into silence as our massage therapists with their healing hands worked their wonders on us, ridding us of Zoom fatigue knots. With our stiff calves restored back to regular programming, we hopped right on the sunset dolphin cruise. Pods of spinner dolphins leaped into the air with their playful essence, the way dolphins were meant to be, wild and free.

The sea transforms into liquid silver as the day draws to a close. Sunset yields to the lavender fleece of twilight. Stars blink awake.

We spent our last afternoon at COMO Maalifushi by joining their coral propagation programme. This self-sustaining method of coral propagation is quickly transforming reefs and sandy sea floors into refuge areas for juvenile fish and crustaceans. As a source of spawn for the propagated coral species, they con- tribute to biodiversity and increase the productivity of the reef. Guests can sponsor a frame, attach fallen branch corals on the frame, name it and receive photo updates on its growth. We only hope that our frame grows into a home that will support marine life of all shapes and sizes. As we placed our frame into the sandy bottom, we bid farewell to the Tawny Nurse Sharks, who all call COMO Maalifushi their home.

Nestled in the Raa Atoll with wooden walkways that curve over the lagoon is Joali, with a barefoot luxury that offers a signature “Joy of Living” philosophy. Architectural ingenuity and attention to detail make Joali stand out in the crowd—from manta ray-shaped tree houses to Saoke, the resort’s Japanese restaurant designed by architect Noriyoshi Muramatsu, a float- ing haven that would impeccably fit as a setting in a Christopher Nolan film. Boasting a team of the Maldives’ most seasoned hospitality all-stars, Joali has a level of service unlike what we have ever experienced before. Everywhere we turned, we were greeted by our names with big smiles. Unfettered hospitality is part of their identity after all. For a resort clearly positioning itself in the supra luxury segment, it is a refreshing surprise that there was not a single air of stuffiness.

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Joali is where creative imagination come to life in full force. Guests are spoiled for choice when it comes to diverse culinary options with views into the azure vista. The spa, in partnership with Espa skincare, features a marble Hammam, which we were treated to during Sean’s birthday. Design does not come much dreamier than Joali, where playfulness and restoration go hand in hand. 

Spirituality and environmental stewardship build the foundation of Four Seasons Resort at Landaa Giraavaru. Their spa, AyurMa, is grounded on four pillars: Ayurveda, Yoga Therapy, Wellness and Planetary Wellbeing. “People are actively seeking out ways to optimise their health because of a global pandemic,” says Dr Shylesh Subramanya, Ayurvedic physician and director of AyurMa. “What better way than to help them connect to themselves and to nature.” Four Seasons at Landaa Giraavaru is more than a luxury resort; it is a sanctuary to discover individual and shared experiences designed to cultivate care for ourselves, our communities and the planet. 

We kicked off our wellness journey in full swing at a personalised Ayurveda consultation, Chakra Blessing followed by anti-gravity yoga. Freshly showered, we took our bikes (inscribed with our initials) out to dinner. We nearly biked off the walkway as a fever of spotted eagle rays caught our attention at the corner of our eyes. In our true fashion, we ditched the bikes to change into our swimmers and jumped right into the sea with no hesitations. Dinner can wait. With a pastel sunset overhead, we quietly swam alongside the rays as they led us to a fever of 20 more spotted eagle rays. It is in nature where we find magic and ourselves. 

The property’s Marine Discovery Center is a pioneering research centre that allows guests to experience once-in-a-lifetime marine life encounters and participate in conservation projects including Reefscapers’ coral propagation programme. Their Turtle-Rehabilitation Program, which is responsible for the recuperation and release of Maldivian sea turtles, reveal the haunting human-made horrors sea turtles face as they fall victim to ghost nets, fishing nets that have been left in the ocean by fishermen. We were moved by their commitment to educate guests about marine life and the man- made threats they face and by their unwavering custodianship to the oceans. We met with Beth Faulkner,
a bright marine biologist of Maldivian Manta Ray Project (MMRP) and expert guide to our Manta Safari.

The Maldives is home to the world’s largest population of manta rays. Although we missed manta season by a long shot, we tried our luck. I have learnt with wildlife sightings, that it is best not to get the hopes up, it is the wild after all.

Halfway through the 45-minute boat ride, Beth approached us. “I’ve just received word from my col- league”, she announces with a smile, “there are mantas up ahead.” Keeping our cool was simply not possible. As we snorkelled into the open sea with anticipation, a manta ray glides in our direction like an angel coming into view. Suddenly, there were manta rays surround- ing us. Their grace, size and inquisitive nature as they barrelled took my breath away. When you look into the eyes of a manta ray and wonder what it is thinking, you get the feeling it’s looking at you and pondering the same question. Through my goggles, I gazed down upon once-colourful dead coral reefs. It was a bitter- sweet moment for us. One, for the joy we felt being in the presence of these majestic creatures. Two, for the sorrow that all might be lost for manta rays and marine life if we, as a species, don’t get our act together.

Underneath the waves of paradise, coral reefs are in peril. The 2016 El Niño brought upon the longest global coral bleaching event in history, devasting 60 percent of coral reefs in the Maldives. Scientists predict bleaching events will become more frequent due to manmade climate change. If we choose not to respect and protect our natural heritage, we are at stake of losing coral reefs by 2030.

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Through the environmental stewardship of COMO Maalifushi, Joali and Four Seasons Landaa Giravaru, we are inspired to support initiatives that give back more than they take away. When you plan to visit the Maldives, we encourage you to participate in coral propagation programmes or fund grassroots organisations that aim to protect, conserve and preserve. May your travels be guided by the positive impact we all can make.

There are many ways to help conserve coral reefs in the Maldives and in the rest of the world. Wear sun- screen that is reef friendly. Chemicals that may harm reefs include Oxybenzone (which has been linked to the bleaching of coral fragments and cells, damage and deformation of coral larvae and damage to coral DNA and its reproductive success) and Octinoxate. Eat sustainably sourced or local seafood. Yet individual action alone will not reduce global emissions, we must vote for political leaders who are committed to climate action. We need to collaborate as a community, together. Our offset plan must be activism.

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  • PhotographySean Lee-Davis