"May I please have more ice in my Coke?" Even on an 80/80 (degrees/humidity) day during monsoon season in the Maldives, bartenders habitually skimp on the ice cubes. In the alfresco airport lounge, Hassan reluctantly scoops more into my glass; as I watch the soda become slushy in seconds, my thoughts turn to the new science of climate change—a subject that haunts this remote Indian Ocean archipelago, which crisscrosses the equator. According to the C.I.A. World Factbook, the highest natural point in this island republic is an unnamed eight-foot hummock in the Addu Atoll. Should global warming thaw the polar ice cap and raise the sea level incrementally, the Maldives will be one of the first places on the planet to disappear under the waves. No wonder requests for extra ice make Maldivian bartenders nervous.
Despite this Atlantis scenario, it is water that has drawn me nine time zones across the earth. World events and personal crises have postponed this journey half a dozen times; now, having finally landed at Male International Airport after traveling for 46 hours, I'm in dire need of salus per aquam. Distant seas have always been my favorite playground: I've splashed around in the Philippines, Thailand, Micronesia, and many of the world's other remote bodies of water, and I've discovered that they can be a powerfully restorative tonic. For me, this part of the Indian Ocean is the final frontier. Perhaps I'm a glutton for punishment, but after so many false starts, I feel compelled to explore as many as possible of the archipelago's 1,190 islands spread over 34,750 square miles. (Of these, only 202 are permanently inhabited; another 87 have been turned into resorts, and the government recently auctioned leases to 12 additional hotels.) For a few weeks, I plan to soak my aching limbs in several of the 26 atolls aligned perfectly along longitude 73 off the west coast of India.
In Male, the capital, I board a DeHavilland Otter piloted by a barefoot Canadian expat and fly north to Soneva Fushi, a resort that claims its own jungle islet in the Baa Atoll. Seen from 2,500 feet above, ring reefs, called faru, resemble white freckles. Where the Indian Ocean rolls over coral beds, it lightens from deep indigo to delicate periwinkle. People from many cultures—including the Islamic, which predominates in the Maldives—believe that the color blue has protective or healing properties. The plane skims to a landing near the local airport (a floating pontoon buffered by recycled-tire fenders), and the cabin crew tosses my bags onto the rocking platform. A converted dhoni (a traditional wooden fishing boat) transfers me ashore.
Towel and sunblock in hand, I'm primed to dip into that curative sapphire sea lapping Soneva Fushi's white beach. Just as my toe touches the surf, a 20-inch reef shark cruises past a foot away. My first encounter ends in undignified flailing, but after several days I adjust to sharing the water with these lemon-yellow creatures, which linger around tidal shallows. (A diving instructor assures me that these are, in fact, only babies—the adults disappear out to sea.) As consolation for that first day's baptism, my therapist, Aisha, gives me a Veli Modun sand massage at the water's edge. Maldivians have patted down stiff muscles this way for centuries; it's a delightfully intuitive use of an abundant natural resource. Cool saltwater tickles my toes and then reaches higher, rinsing off the soft sand. I take a quick plunge, and Aisha leads me to a thatched beach champa (hut) for rubdown part two, with coconut oil.
Another morning, I leave my villa, which has unobstructed views of the atoll on the eastern shore, to pedal a bike under tangled plumeria and cassia trees. Enormous fruit bats flap overhead, looking for young coconuts; these leathery apparitions are actually quite sweet, once you get to know them. At Fushi's Six Senses spa, Dr. Vijay Kumar assesses my ayurvedic dosha (body type) and leads basic Ashtanga yoga sessions. To counter the effects of jet lag, he pulls out a bottle of Dasamoolarishtam, a digestive draft that tastes like cough syrup. In a treatment room cooled by an indoor waterfall and stream, the Sodashi eucalyptus-and-lemongrass oil massage offers another kind of healing. Then, for a lunch treat, chef Ashley Goddard guides a group of guests through the resort's organic garden, where the kitchen staff prepares curry from freshly picked eggplant, served with yellow-lentil dal.
Once I've adjusted to the time change, I head back to the North Male Atoll, to visit Fushi's sister resort, Soneva Gili, where seven residences built on pilings stand in the middle of the lagoon. Stranded above schools of Napoleon wrasse, the only way I can reach shore is by signaling Fathuhy, my personal thakuru (butler), who ferries me there in an outboard dinghy. (Besides its lagoon houses, Gili has 37 suites, attached to three jetties.) After splashing water on my bare feet from strategically positioned terra-cotta urns, I dash down a long, hot pier to Gili's overwater spa, where a dainty Maldivian attendant awaits with cool hand towels and iced ginger tea. Five treatment rooms have beds positioned above glass floor panels so I can lie facedown during an outrageous Planet Earth treatment with gem-infused oils from Dubai (sapphire for tranquillity, ruby for vitality) and count the emperor angelfish swimming underneath. Both Soneva resorts employ healers from the Arya Vaida Chikitsalayam & Research Institute in Kerala. At Gili, Dr. Divya practices authentic ayurvedic therapies on carved margosa-wood examining tables. When I show her a flight-swollen ankle, she prescribes padadhara—the pouring of heated, spice-infused oil on my legs to improve my circulation. Of course, propping myself in the spa's open-air lounge while fixating on the compelling reef break also helps. Glimpsed between deep blue sea and green lagoon, the curling white surf induces a meditative trance—just the sort of mystic experience found in other energy-intense places, such as the Big Island or Sedona, Arizona. When I snap out of it, Fathuhy transports me back to my private isle, where a sous-chef grills kebabs of freshly caught tuna for a picnic dinner. I abandon my mosquito net-draped bedroom at moonrise to camp out on the roof deck's ample daybed. As coconut-palm thatch rustles in the onshore breeze, the Southern Cross guides night fishermen safely around the Gili reef and back toward Male.
To hop to other resorts in the North Male Atoll, I simply have to request a speedboat transfer. Around the corner from Soneva Gili, the Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Kuda Huraa is slightly older and lies next to a main marine thoroughfare. The island's eastern shore is quieter; even so, the staff makes up for it. Sincere hospitality is one of those cultural imperatives that give certain countries (Bali, Thailand) an edge in the hotel game; the same holds true in the Maldives. During a sudden rain shower, I wrestle with a dock attendant, who firmly insists on clasping my umbrella. It's embarrassing for someone unaccustomed to this level of service—I'm not like P. Diddy. Honestly.
At Kuda Huraa, the Island Spa is separated from the resort by a short tidal channel, so after being transported by dhoni from the main dock, I expect to stay awhile. Three of the five spa bungalows contain courtyard soaking tubs big enough to fit Ganesha, the Hindu elephant god. I choose a toning body wrap that layers sandalwood clay with frankincense body milk. The spa commissions its own Balinese herb-and-spice products—the fragrance of vanilla and sandalwood linger for hours on my skin. Later, resident yogi Ashish Dhawan settles himself on the sundeck of my overwater bungalow for pranayama breathing exercises and a discussion of meditative practices.
Islands in the Maldives aren't static entities, which I learn at Cocoa Island, in the South Male Atoll, where currents and tides eternally shift the pink-tinted sandbanks. Just beyond a swim ladder hung from my villa's sundeck, waves lightly ripple over an emerging silica plot inhabited by stalking herons. Fragile sand dollars and dappled cowries litter another narrow spit, which nudges the house reef at low tide. The Maldive Islands lie along an ancient sea-trading lane between Arabia and the Malacca Strait, and their delicate shells were prized as currency almost 2,500 years ago. In fact, every aspect of island life has been influenced by overseas commerce: the language, Dhivehi, is derived from Sanskrit; the breakfast tea is grown in Sri Lanka; the curry recipes hail from southern India. (I adored rising chef Stana Johnson's Kerala-chile crab in the Ufaa restaurant.) Thanks to the Maldives' stint as a British protectorate, the national pastime is soccer.
Returning from a shelling expedition, I pause in the resort's spa, Como Shambhala Retreat, which reminds me of an ashram in Goa. Carved wooden swings hang from pandanus trees. The sandy courtyard is circled by an open-air yoga studio and hydrotherapy-pool pavilion. Hotelier Christina Ong handpicks every therapist for Cocoa Island. (Most come from Bali.) The limited treatment menu is an equally well considered blend of ayurvedic, Thai, and Indonesian rituals. In a treatment champa at surf's edge, my masseuse, Natlada, concludes an Indian head-massage by delicately cupping my ears. It's just like listening to the sea in a shell.
Larger and grander, Taj Exotica also lies in the South Male Atoll. The resort's four-room Mandara Spa, facing a 200-acre lagoon, is managed by a global consortium, but the sensibility remains local. Beach villas with sundeck plunge pools circle a lily-pond courtyard at the extreme tip of Emboodhu Finolhu Island. (I almost fall off the yoga pavilion during a tai chi session.) As the treatment menu is voluminous, it's better to book longer (two-hour) rituals—Elemis body wraps or facial plus massage—rather than single treatments, especially since leaving the island's pellucid view becomes harder as time drifts along.
It's possible to lose half a day waiting in the airport for a seaplane transfer to the eastern rim of Lhaviyani Atoll in the far north, where One&Only Kanuhura caters to a boisterous crowd with champagne sabering, waterskiing, and karaoke club nights. (A sister resort will open in early 2005 on Reethi Rah, nearer Male.) However, after I enter the Veyoge spa, Filipino therapists speak in hushed tones while escorting me to a candlelit lounge with goldfish ponds and overstuffed chaises. The Theyo Dhemun massage uses an essential oil of roses—the rose happens to be the Maldives' national flower. Not a big fan of bustling resorts, I leave the next day for a quieter atoll.
Watching the dhonis navigate around Male makes me want to test my sea legs. In the Ari Atoll, circumnavigating Dhoni Mighili resort takes less than 10 minutes. With only six rooms tucked behind a screen of hibiscus and casuarina, this resort feels deserted, especially at dawn, when hermit crabs raise sand pyramids to the sea god Neptune. As the sun comes up, silver fingerlings race across the lagoon. Each bungalow comes with its own yacht (including captain and mate), so we're going for a drive around the block. My Maldivian butler, Diggy, carries a breakfast basket down the dock toward the Serenity, a 72-foot sailing dhoni. Motoring beyond the house reef, the captain steers for Kaudolhudoo, a coconut palm-fringed dot on the horizon. On the foredeck, I lounge like a sultana on canvas pillows. A pod of bottlenosed dolphins surface dead ahead. For what is likely the ultimate indulgence, I simply have to ask two therapists who were trained at Thailand's renowned Chiva Som spa to accompany my day cruise. Natural Ytsara products from Thailand are the focus for a purifying white-clay body wrap and a calming lemongrass-sweet orange oil massage, which take place in the private stateroom while we're anchored for lunch.
Dhoni's sister resort Huvafen Fushi has generated buzz for having the world's first underwater spa room. Thirty-six feet below the surface of the sea, this aquarium is a novel way for non-divers to spot striped clownfish during aquatic guided meditation with yogi Sudhir Tampi. During a yoga session, I'm totally distracted by a Peeping Tom—a brilliant orange sea anemone has pasted itself to the outside window and wants to know what we're doing sitting cross-legged down here in its realm. Just opened in July, the resort has a high-salinity Lonu Veyo flotation pool and a restaurant that specializes in raw food. (Chef Christian Fogliani also bakes terrific pizza in a wood-fired oven on the beach.)
On Vabbinfaru Island, I complete my Maldivian immersion by signing up for a snorkeling trip with Banyan Tree's marine expert, Azeez, who takes guests to the channel just offshore. Originally an agronomist, he has shifted his focus to green-turtle preservation and coral reclamation. Before we backflip out of the dive boat, Azeez tells me, "We do not have a word for environment in Dhivehi. We never had to think about protecting it before the coral began bleaching." In 1998, El Niño raised the Indian Ocean's temperature by a mere four degrees, to the mid eighties,but that was enough to wreak havoc on the Maldives' vibrant underwater realm. Azeez is experimenting with new ways to induce coral growth. As we drift in the current, he points to yellowfin fusiliers swirling near a cone-shaped electrode that juices staghorn coral reproduction. When a fully grown shark patrols the flat-table coral below me, I gargle in my snorkel.
While the guest rooms are lost in a cramped maze on tiny Vabbinfaru, Banyan Tree's spacious spa pavilion is geared for languid three-hour "indulgences." Bamboo garden champas have outdoor soaking tubs and canvas chaises. Sessions commence with a choice of incense (bergamot or myrrh) and a mint-infused footbath. During a facial, an aesthetician named Ronny drizzles Thai honey on my skin, which has become sensitive from too much salt and sun exposure.
In contrast to the oceanic bounty I encounter everywhere, freshwater remains a scarce commodity in the Maldives. (Male's Coca-Cola bottling plant uses desalinated seawater. The result tastes sweeter than our stateside Coke.) Local islands rely on a thin natural aquifer, a resource that simply accentuates the fragility of this remarkable marine republic. Not surprisingly, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom is an outspoken Kyoto Protocol advocate. His backup plan?Should the Maldives eventually submerge, rumor has it, Australia has offered asylum to the entire population—currently about 340,000 souls. Let's hope they never have to accept.
All resorts arrange transfers from Male International Airport, either via private launch, for the North and South Male atolls, or, for the outer atolls, via seaplane service from the air-taxi terminal on Maldivian Air Taxi (www.mataxi.com) and Trans Maldivian Airways (www.tma.com.mv). Singapore Airlines (800/742-3333; www.singaporeair.com) flies to the Male atolls five times a week. Emirates (800/777-3999; www.emirates.com) connects through Dubai.
DOUBLES FROM $700, INCLUDING ALL MEALS
VABBINFARU ISLAND; 866/822-6926; www.banyantree.com
DOUBLES FROM $490, INCLUDING BREAKFAST
MAKUNUFUSHI; 960/441-818; www.cocoa-island.com
DOUBLES FROM $1,776
NORTH ARI ATOLL; 960/450-751; www.dhonimighili.com
Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Kuda Huraa
DOUBLES FROM $410
NORTH MALE ATOLL; 800/332-3442; www.fourseasons.com
DOUBLES FROM $775, INCLUDING BREAKFAST
NORTH MALE ATOLL; 960/444-222; www.huvafenfushi.com
DOUBLES FROM $455
LHAVIYANI ATOLL; 960/230-044; www.oneandonlyresorts.com
DOUBLES FROM $455
KUNFUNADHOO; 949/640-1198; www.sixsenses.com
DOUBLES FROM $905
LANKANFUSHI; 949/640-1198; www.sixsenses.com
DOUBLES FROM $450
SOUTH MALE ATOLL; 960/442-200; www.tajhotels.com