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Anyone with insulaphobia – said to be a fear of islands and isolation – would do well to avoid the over-water bungalows of Huvafen Fushi in the Maldives.
As the buggy bumps across the wooden jetty towards my thatched home, the island becomes smaller and I'm overcome by an odd sensation;I feel as if I am leaving this world for another. The slosh of seawater underneath tells me where I am, marooned (in a five-starred fashion) on the Indian Ocean. But I am not alone, of course, if you consider the world that exists below.
I'm unprepared for the first glimpse of life underwater. At the sunset pool villa it's a few steps down the ladder and a plunge into cool-looking mint green water that belies its pleasant temperature and onto the deeper darker waters of the house reef. For company, there are the green-blue wrasse and big-nose unicorns. Having later conferred with a reference book, I'm quite sure I also spotted some oriental sweetlips.
For the first-timer like me, these are the first of many implausible moments in a fantastical place, with no filters necessary to make the water any more blue or the sand any more white. I see aquatic spectacles from everywhere, including the glass-bottomed floor in the lounge area and the bath.
One mid-week dawn, usually a time for making school lunches, I'm in bed watching schools of flying fish, a flash of silver in the air chased by a much darker and larger predator behind. Embracing over-water life is a cinch, it turns out; the ever-so-gentle rocking of the villa and the gentle waves are the ultimate soothing agents. As an islander tells me, "Some people like the sand between their toes. But others might just like to look over the water."
On this "garland of islands", a double chain of 26 atolls, there are 1190 coral islands and sandbanks spread over 90,000 square kilometres. It is also a place of varying time zones that are not set by an official body but by the individual islands and their desire to provide as much daylight as possible to holidaying guests.
In the north Male atoll and 30 minutes by speedboat from Male International Airport, Huvafen Fushi is the grand dame of resorts and one of three I'll stay on. Built in 2004, it was considered one of the first high-end luxury stays, and is the most recent addition is to the suite of properties managed by the Small Maldives Island Co.
Adults only, well-suited to couples or anyone in need of some sweet solitude, there are myriad places for vows and special occasions, but to be frank, most days feel like a special event. You can dine in the underground at the climatically controlled wine cellar with hot rocks to warm your feet, or have a beer and wood-fired pizza in a coconut grove overlooking the ocean.
At the sunset dinner gathering of stingrays or pink whiprays, resident marine biologist Fanny has brought a bucket of fish gizzards to the water's edge, as has been the habit for the past 10 years or so. Not unlike children jostling for cake at a birthday party, the rays crowd around Fanny, snorting through their gills and flapping their magnificent fins. There's Paul, whose barb fell off during a rescue to remove a fishing hook, Holey who has a hole from injury on her top side and Cutie, who lifts her snout when waiting for food. Fanny points out a ray with the lump that shows she's pregnant.
Tourists are actively discouraged from feeding wildlife, and only fresh raw ingredients are on the menu.
For human contact I dine in the restaurant with sand for floors and modelled in the shape of a dhoni. The dhoni is a symbol of the Maldives and said to be the only vessel in the world primarily made of coconut wood with a life expectancy of up to two decades. Long before tourism became the mainstay of this island nation, trade was the economy with wealth and prosperity pushed along by the trade winds. Arab writings from the 10th to 12th centuries record that these dhonis had been sailing to and from Persia and Oman for some time. The currency was coir rope from the coconut, dried fish, tortoise shells and cowrie shells, according to Adrian Neville, author of Dhivehi Raajje: A Portrait of Maldives.
If Huvafen is the place for solitude then Finolhu is the place to ratchet up the social and wellness gears. In the Baa Atoll, it's 20 minutes from Male by seaplane, captained by uniformed pilots in bare feet.
At the 125-villa resort built in 2016, Genevieve Soszynski, a fitness goddess and UFC master (Ultimate Fighting Championship of mixed martial arts to the uninitiated), is urging me to try out a class to reach my #fitness goals.
"I want to look like you," is the best I can do before zipping to the Cove Club of pastel-coloured, chandelier embellished treatment rooms with hopeful-sounding treatments such as Friday Night Body and the Rockstar massage.
It's Monday so I emerge looking much the same as I did pre-massage, just more relaxed. A pan-pipe-free playlist of Bowie and Abba has helped.
This is a living-large resort on a speck of an island.
It's family friendly and has a games arcade for pinball and Pac-Man, pool parties, a cinema screening classic movies and, tonight at the beach club, a mesmerising acrobat in top-to-toe pink leotard spinning from a hoop suspended between two coconut trees.
It's not just about DJs and rockmelon juice; this day's outing involves a walk out to the kilometre-long sandbar to the Crab Shack for seafood, salads and the shack's signature drink, icy rose. Leonardo DiCaprio has been known to perch himself at the end of the sandbar with a bucket of prawns, bottle of champagne and baseball cap for disguise. Even megastars need their quiet time, it seems.
During the 30-minute speedboat ride to Amilla, I'm told that while some A-listers are happy to keep the party going on Finolhu, others prefer this calmer, older sister, built a year earlier. Barefoot, with snorkelling gear in the basket of my cruiser bike, I ride on sandy paths under jungle canopies to the beach, with its house reef and breath-catching drop-off, before retiring to the villa or, more accurately, house. It is one of 59, with dressing space and private pool.
Ilyas Easa, the Maldivian sommelier, takes me on a wine tasting which provides an opportunity to sample from a few of the 8000-strong collection in the cellar. Trained in France, Easa laughs at the absurdity of his profession.
"They come to me and talk of terroir? What is this terroir? I only know limestone," he says.
The 25-year tourism veteran has witnessed the changing environment first-hand, especially the bleaching of the Maldives' coral reefs.
"As a child, I used to swim around among the brightest coral but not so much now."
So accustomed have I become to snorkelling in gentle waters of the house reef that I'm unprepared for the choppy waves which make for a stomach-churning ride out to Hanifaru Bay, still in the UNESCO Baa Atoll.
We are not alone as we enter the bay in search of manta rays who come to feed from the rich plankton stores in this region. There are four boats doing the same, and a patrol boat to ensure we behave.
Our guide gives the OK from the water and we are off the back of the boat and bobbing around like corks. And there they are, majestic and huge, about three metres in span, basket-like mouths filtering food, gliding towards me, then at the last minute turning away in the most graceful display.
Jane Reddy travelled a guest of the Small Maldives Island Co and Singapore Airlines.
Huvafen from $US1100 a night plus taxes, double occupancy. See huvafenfushi.com
Amilla Fushi from $US1100. See amilla.mv
Finolhu Rates starts from $US900. See finolhu.com
Singapore Airlines operates numerous flights to Singapore from Sydney, Melbourne and other Australian capital cities each week. Singapore Airlines and SilkAir fly to from Singapore to Male.