"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.