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.