Sirru Fen Fushi – Secret Water Island – sits so far north of the Maldives you are almost on the fringe of the Arabian Sea. This tiny atoll, held together by lush green mangrove forest, is so petite you can walk from tip to tip in 10 minutes. A natural lagoon surrounds you with pale blue water and is rich with sea life; hermit crabs scatter under foot at the beach, manta rays glide past your bungalow, and you might even see a just-born sea turtle rowing across the sand in a bid to make it to the sea.
This island is yours to explore, with several spaces to just chill. You can swim the 200-metre infinity pool that is bracketed by the Willow Stream Spa and the Balinese-inspired Onu Onu beach bar (which is home to a fun permanent resident made from rope). The heart of the resort is the Raha Market where you will have your barefoot breakfast or grab a simple lunch. The open-air art studio offers adults and kids alike the chance to make casts of local corals or get creative on canvas.
At the end of the island, 42 water villas form a giant Egyptian Eye of Horus, making the most of the lagoon, while lush beach villas are hidden throughout the island, as are the region's first tented jungle villas (glamping doesn't really cover it).
The water villas are split into two main categories – the aptly named Sunrise and Sunset – with two- and three-bedroom options available. The rooms are spacious and hit the right note for simple barefoot luxury; crochet mats sit at the foot of your California king bed, glass buoys decorate the bathroom mirror in a cascade of knotted rope and a giant copper bathtub has the best view in the bungalow. Outside, your 25-metre deck leads to a day bed, private plunge pool and steps into the lagoon. Grab a snorkel and flippers from the dive centre and keep them handy. A Bose stereo allows you to play your tunes throughout the villa, an extensive mini bar means you want for nothing and there are thoughtful touches such as sunscreen and a disposable underwater camera.
As your go-to lunch spot, Raha Market is casual, with local touches such as the Maldivian fish curry and a spicy Malaysian laksa. Evenings at Raha might include Italian night with fresh pasta and a salad bar that stretches almost the length of the island. Have date night at Azure, a seafood experience suspended over the lagoon where you might find Alaskan crab meat and yuzu mayonnaise or steamed white snapper and squid ink risotto. Kata Japanese is a sushi-at-sunset option closer to the water bungalows. Onu Onu, with its soaring bamboo roof, is all about the cocktails and snacks. There's in-room dining, too, because it can be tough to leave your luxurious abode.
Since you are on a speck in the Indian Ocean, swimming out is more appropriate.
Underwater artist Jason deCaires Taylor – whose work can be found in Mexico, the Bahamas and the bottom of David Copperfield's pool – has created the world's first partly submerged art gallery just offshore, a collection of sculptures housed in a cubic gallery space. The work is designed for interaction with divers and snorkellers but also to draw attention to climate change. "Especially in the Maldives, the low-lying island will be particularly affected by the rising sea, so part of the message of the work brings home that fact," deCaires Taylor says. "And you will be able to see the incremental stages of the water level changes on the artworks."
The human forms in the gallery are designed to encourage local sea life to set up home on them, so they are always changing, like the sea itself. Other shapes and forms are drawn from indigenous plant species. The Fairmont's swimming pool forms the entrance and visitors snorkel along an undersea pathway flanked by trees before entering the art space.
Take a sunset dolphin cruise with onsite watersports professionals Sub Oceanic, or let them take you on a snorkel with the in-house marine biologist. You might see butterfly fish, blue triggerfish or unicorn fish, plus a local lobster or two. This northern section of the Maldives has been chosen because of the unspoilt reef that includes cleaning stations for the manta rays, or you can simply float off the steps of your over-water bungalow to get amongst the action.
Fairmont Maldives is a perfectly curated castaway experience. The all-villa resort is situated in the north because this is still relatively free of large-scale tourism, unlike closer to Male. This means that the underwater world, the real draw of the Maldives, is rich with sea life, has great coral coverage and attracts larger visitors, such as the manta rays and dolphins. Jason deCaires Taylor's tidal art gallery, called the Coralarium, is a unique drawcard and easily accessible. And thoughtful touches such as the outdoor art space give guests plenty to do.
Sunrise beach villas start from $US550 per night for bed-and-breakfast option, Sunset water villas start from $US850 per night for the same, but check the full-board options for the full indulgent experience. Fairmont Maldives, Sirru Fen Fushi, fairmont.com/maldives
Who doesn't love a personal butler? But you have to resist calling for too many golf-buggy pick-ups as strolling your own private island is part of the fun.
It's a mission to get here (plane to Male, plane to Hanimaadhoo, small boat to Sirru Fen Fushi), but you can't have a true castaway experience and still be able to nip out to the shops.
Paul Chai was a guest of Fairmont Maldives.