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Calling All Castaways to the Maldives

Those who remain island-bound voice no regrets. At lunchtime, the sashimi bar beckons. Laurie Burr, the young English chef, expresses himself best on the á la carte dinner menu, which might include baked local jobfish (similar to bass, but meatier and less delicate) marinated in garlic, chilies, and red onion and sauced with a pungent mixture of capers, lemon juice, and olive oil. There are no instructions telling you to head for the beach with the bottle of Sonu Shivdasani's own Côtes de Provence rosé left in each room. But it seems like the sensible thing to do, especially if you bring the asymmetrical tumblers that echo palm trees bent by the monsoon.

Compared to Soneva Fushi, the Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Kuda Huraa has a less adventurous, more American feel. The property barely covers 15 acres, much of it reclaimed land planted with palm trees from neighboring islands.

But Four Seasons does a magical job of overcoming the island's physical limitations. Somehow, you never feel pinched for space. And whatever it lacks in natural endowments, it makes up for with some of the Maldives' most seductively glamorous water villas-- stucco-and-thatch constructions on pillars directly over a shallow lagoon. Many guests miss the first round of evening cocktails at the Reef Club because they can't pull themselves away from fish-spotting on their private decks. (The club is the only place to be at sundown, when crimson-bellied fruit bats put on a nightly show.) Angled so that sun worshipers can practice their rituals unobserved, decks have steps leading straight into the water.

The boardwalk pier that provides access to the 38 villas is almost as long as the island itself. As in the 68 beachfront units, a generous use of teak and other tropical timbers contributes to a spare, airy look that is perfectly in keeping with the equatorial setting. Left uncovered, the beautiful undersides of the vegetal roofs are held in place with a handsome network of split bamboo. Casually posed here and there are nautilus-shaped shells hand-carved from boulders hauled up from the ocean floor.

As part of the Four Seasons' upgrade of Kuda Huraa, open-to-the-sky showers-- rustic enclosures of exposed coral and mortar-- are being added to the beachfront villas. (Note that since these buildings are slightly staggered, you should insist on a front-line unit when reserving. Also specify exposure: Asian guests almost always request the sunrise side of the island; Westerners go for sunset.)

Kuda Huraa has more than just creature comforts. Stretched out beside the largest freshwater pool in the Maldives, slackers get a bang-on view of the surf crashing against the house reef in a ribbon of white. Singaporean Raymond Howe-- surely the gentlest and most compassionate diving instructor in the Maldives-- and his dive team have charted 65 sites that can be reached by boat in an hour or less. Conny Andersson, senior executive chef of India's new Four Seasons Resort Goa, who was called in to get the failing kitchen on track, found that Kuda Huraa was already employing-- but underusing-- talented Indian and Thai chefs. Future menus will spotlight whole white snapper cooked in a tandoor oven, and a lobster version of pad thai. There are also plans to move an already excellent herbal spa to a nearby island, where glass-floored treatment rooms will be cantilevered over the sea.

When, after a long courtship, the Hilton Group finally secured the management of the resort on Rangali island last year, it was like snatching the brass ring. The company was convinced that of all the islands, Rangali held the greatest promise for redefining the way people experience the Maldives.

They weren't wrong. Under Hilton, Rangali is now two islands connected by a dramatic 1/3-mile-long footbridge as straight as a Roman highway. The original property, on the 17-acre main island, houses 100 beach villas. Across the way, a desert island was acquired for 30 new overwater villas. By connecting the two, a pleasant if ho-hum hotel was transformed into the Maldives Hilton Resort, one of the most exciting destinations in these islands.

The practical and psychological benefits of the footbridge are many. Even if you never budge from your lounge chair, you feel you can escape. Even if you always use the dhoni to get from one island to the other, you know you can take a real walk (the other islands are a bit maddening in this regard). Pulling up to every resort in the Maldives is thrilling, but no arrival matches that at Rangali. Guests disembark from a seaplane to a pavilion in the middle of the bridge, in the middle of the lagoon.

Hilton's makeover of Rangali included a much-needed enlargement of the beach villas to 780 square feet. It also took an eraser to a number of fautes de goût. Crunchy coir matting is now underfoot; sheets of woven palm leaves face the ceilings and shoot up behind the beds as improbably high headboards. Fresh, bright, and smartly furnished, these accommodations are a great value, even if they are so tightly packed together that their eaves touch.


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