To the Maldives, islands where Robinson Crusoe wannabes sleep on Egyptian cotton sheets and dine on just-caught lobster.
Patrick Cariou

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)?

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.

Water villas are of the same high caliber as those at Kuda Huraa (but a lot cheaper). Unfrivolous essays in wood, they combine New Zealand redwood oak floors with cedar walls and untreated teak decks. Since Hilton used only plantation trees, it follows that guests are implored-- rather cheekily-- to conserve energy ("Experience your fan!") and to help carry plastic and metal refuse off the island (nobody does).

Unfortunately, the food at Rangali is not yet up to its setting. One meal from the Asian and Mediterranean buffets in the Atoll Restaurant goes a long way. Holding out the greatest hope is the new Sunset Grill & Bar, an octagonal bungalow erected over the shimmering water with a handful of private step-down dining terraces. If the chef relaxes and learns to simply grill the succulent local lobster, he could wind up with the best restaurant in the Maldives.

People laugh about how some of the Maldives are little more than sandbars, but it's no joke. In what must be a record villa-to-land ratio in the islands, Banyan Tree checks in with 48 units on a comma-shaped speck 650 feet in diameter (not counting the tail).

Though the island of Vabbinfaru is squeezed for space, gripes are balanced out by a state-of-the-art spa and some of the country's most stylish accommodations. However, only those in the slightly more expensive "beach" category, nearest to the shore, should be considered. Villas are round, with conical thatch-and-bamboo roofs that, seen from indoors, spiral upward like the inside of a conch shell. Floors are crazy-paved in polished beige granite; four pairs of louvered French doors are set into each faÁade; and palm-wood four-posters carved with ornamental knots are romantically draped in mosquito netting. First-night guests are wowed by bougainvillea-strewn top sheets folded like fans that have welcome to banyan tree spelled out in green leaves picked by the houseboy on his way to making up the rooms. Charmingly, bathrooms follow the curve of the villas' outside walls, with yet more louvers opening onto private gardens.

Of the world's top-end international spas, few match the authority, seriousness-- and possibly even the beauty-- of Banyan Tree. For a 30-minute "tension relief" massage devoted exclusively to the neck, shoulders, and back, you enter a hushed bamboo hut with a palm tree pushing through the middle of it. New World music by Medwyn Goodall plays gently while peppermint oil burns in one corner, sandalwood incense in another. A teak massage table is draped in emerald Thai silk, with a cotton batik pillow at the head, and a footed celadon bowl of floating jasmine flowers on the floor (for a visual treat while you're on your stomach).

All Banyan Tree therapists, who are from Thailand, custom-blend the spa's massage oils by hand. For the tension massage, you're instructed to pick a crystal (say, garnet) from a velvet-lined horn-and-brass box, then to place it in a tumbler of water (okay, so this part's not so serious). A therapist applies a mixture of sweet basil, ylang-ylang, and lavender oil using only her knuckles, elbows, and forearms-- and the force of a sumo wrestler. It's the massage of a lifetime-- especially since by drinking the garnet water you ingest "passion, sensuality, confidence, and social success."

Banyan Tree has so many assets you almost forgive its uninspired food and its size. Much harder to swallow are the staff volleyball and soccer games that take place on the island's best piece of real estate in the hour leading up to sundown-- the most precious part of the day-- at least four times a week. The general manager said that if the games were called off, there would be an employee walkout. And he said mine was the only customer complaint in six months.

Like many of the Maldives, Vabbinfaru offers the peculiar thrill of being able to see straight through from one end of the island, shaggy with coconut palms, to the other. Repeat visitors point to this as one small but telling reason why the archipelago succeeds in delivering the ultimate island experience. After the Maldives, they warn, you may be spoiled for life.

The Facts

Getting There
From the United States, flying east is the only way to go. You connect in London or Paris, then in Dubai for the flight to the main island of Male. (Traveling west entails a 15-hour layover in Singapore.)

Soneva Fushi Kunfunadhoo Island, Baa Atoll; 800/525-4800 or 960/230-304, fax 960/230-374; doubles from $205 (meal plans start at $40 per person per day).
Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Kuda Huraa Kuda Huraa Island, North Male Atoll; 800/332-3442 or 960/444-888, fax 960/441-188; doubles from $250 (meal plans start at $34 per person per day).
Maldives Hilton Resort Rangali Island, South Ari Atoll; 960/450-629, fax 960/450-619; doubles from $220 (meal plans start at $50 per person per day).
Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru Island, North Male Atoll; 960/443-147, fax 960/443-843; doubles from $400, including all meals.

Best Books
Lonely Planet Maldives (Lonely Planet Publications)-- The best diving resorts, restaurants, beaches, and-- most important-- methods of getting around.
Dive Maldives by Tim Godfrey (Atoll Editions)-- Indispensable for the underwater enthusiast. Major dive sites, excellent maps, and a maritime history lesson. Available in Male bookstores, and at dive shops throughout the islands.
Guide to the Maldives by Royston Ellis (Bradt Publications)-- A useful pre-trip read: the history and culture of this Islamic republic.
-- Martin Rapp

On the Web
Gateway to the Maldives-- A comprehensive site full of practical information, links to Web pages for Maldives resorts, and details on cruising, diving, and windsurfing.
-- Emily Berquist