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Calling All Castaways to the Maldives

Seen from above, the Maldives look like amoebic tufts floating in a vast petri dish. On the ground, this necklace of islands southwest of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean defines many people's idea of balmy perfection: transparent lagoons, coral reefs, sand like talcum powder. And no newspapers.

A republic of 26 atolls, the Maldives encompass more than a thousand blips of sand, punctuation marks in the sea that can each be crossed on foot in minutes. Some 900 are unsettled, 202 are home to Maldivians, and 74 are claimed by private-island resorts. Though the lives of locals and visitors rarely intersect, anyone who takes a day trip to a native-inhabited island can get a rich glimpse of Islamic culture.

Of course, such an excursion means you actually have to come out of the water, a trade-off many are reluctant to make. With a phenomenal amount of marine life, and underwater visibility of up to 200 feet, the Maldives have some of the finest diving and snorkeling anywhere.

But as the English, French, and Italians (American tourism is practically nonexistent) who have frequented the Maldives for years have discovered, even paradise has its chinks. At many resorts, nothing beyond breakfast is included in the price of a room, not even flippers. It is also worth remembering that one man's cozy is another man's cramped.

So are the Maldives worth the trek halfway around the world? Certainly, if you stay at one of the archipelago's top private-island resorts (the ideal trip would include at least two). All are reached in 20 to 40 minutes by helicopter, seaplane, or speedboat from the international airport on Hulhule, opposite the capital, Male. All deliver a high level of comfort and service, with a lovely tropical dimension. And all make you a virtual captive of your resort-- which, at these establishments, is hardly a bad thing.

By Maldivian standards, the jungly island of Kunfunadhoo is huge: nine-tenths of a mile long and 1,300 feet at its widest point. Anyone unmoved by these numbers should get on a dhoni-- the traditional wooden fishing boat-- and have a look at a few other islands in the archipelago. Kunfunadhoo will feel as large as Sicily.

Soneva Fushi is actually the second hotel to be built on Kunfunadhoo. In 1983, after only a few years in operation, the first property folded because of the logistical problem of delivering guests from the airport. In those days it took up to 10 hours by dhoni or three hours by speedboat. People arrived traumatized.

With transportation since streamlined, those in pursuit of style and sophistication call off their search at Soneva, sighing a sigh that says, "I've found it." The 48-room resort is the environmentally sympathetic creation of Sonu Shivdasani, the scion of a wealthy family with vineyards in Provence and computer factories in his native India, and his Swedish wife, Eva, a former model. (He is the "Son," she the "eva" in Soneva.) Together, they have hatched the most fashionable spot in the Maldives.

As design director, Eva is the engine that drives the luxuriously natural sensibility. Every building is set on the waterfront and discreetly integrated into the landscape, from the units housing two and three guest rooms to the freestanding villas. Eva says she wants guests to feel like Robinson Crusoe, but did Robinson Crusoe receive his faxes in a chic bamboo tube hung from a string on the door of his thatched-roof, whitewashed villa? Was he asked to place a terra-cotta plaque on his bed as a signal not to change the Egyptian cotton sheets, thereby doing his bit for water conservation? Did he splash around in a bathroom enclosed on only three sides, the fourth opening onto a sandy walled garden? Being a castaway was never this good.

It's good from the moment you set foot on Kunfunadhoo. Arriving guests are handed a cool towel and a coconut (you sip its water through a straw) in the open-air sand-floor bar. As you sink into comically oversize bamboo armchairs under a mass of ceiling fans, the assistant manager gives a breezy orientation. By the time he is finished, he has used the word romantic nine times, all in relation to a catalogue of private outings. Young couples tend to stiffen at this point, a certain panic descending over their faces. How to choose between the sunrise breakfast and the desert-island lunch? A morning of fishing á deux for wahoo and marlin, or the "ultimate" sunset cruise (with champagne and canapés, of course)?

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