Underwater and overwater, Fiona McGill samples new expressions of simplified luxury in the Maldives.
A surreal sight looms on the horizon as our speedboat hurtles out to sea. The smallest of tinnies, loaded high with tables and chairs, is being rowed towards a lick of white sand in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Progress is slow and the cargo looks crazily out of proportion to the boat beneath it. Earlier trips have ferried sun lounges and market umbrellas from a traditional dhoni anchored a couple of hundred metres away. Subsequent journeys will bring crates of ice, food, champagne, crockery and glassware. And staff, of course.
This is the Republic of Maldives, a paradise where nothing - not even a sit-down champagne lunch for six on a glorified sandbar - is too much trouble. We're staying at the newly opened Diva Island Resort and Spa on the South Ari Atoll, where the desert-island picnic is a particular lure for honeymooners. A couple can spend a day in splendid isolation, before using a mobile phone provided by the resort to summon a ride home to their over-water villa.
It's the kind of experience that cements the Maldives' reputation as a place where romantic dreams come true. Although water sports - especially snorkelling, diving and surfing - and family activities are significant attractions, there's a lot of loving going on in the Maldives and at times singles may well feel like the original gooseberry.
Reality hits when our underwater guide, Imran, leads us - six singles, as it happens -offshore for a snorkelling tour. There are fish in all colours, shapes and sizes and countless table corals, many more than a metre across. But the scene is like a beer garden after a drunken brawl: there are tables lying on their sides, upside down or smashed in two, a result of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that claimed 82 Maldivian lives, left more than 12,000 people homeless and pummelled the tourist industry. (Tourism and fishing underpin the economy in this Muslim nation of about 300,000 people.)
On South Male Atoll, at the resort of Cocoa Island, a snorkelling trip reveals similar carnage. As we paddle in 40 metres of water along the edge of a reef, our guide, Abdulla, pauses to point out turtles, lobsters, clams and fish, as well as the dead coral that litters the sea floor, like sun-bleached animal bones in an Australian drought. Happily, he says, new coral is forming.
Nature is what the Maldives is all about: the magnificence of it - atolls, white sand, tropical vegetation, the turquoise sea that is at least 27 degrees year-round and the rich marine life it sustains.
The underwater wonderland pulls in divers and snorkellers from around the world. Some formidable reef breaks draw experienced surfers. There are magical sunsets, the ocean almost boils with hundreds of spinner and bottlenose dolphins and fish seem to leap on to a beginner's line.
First and foremost, however, the Maldives is a collection of high-end beach resorts largely cocooned from ordinary Maldivian life and aimed squarely at the European market. (Europeans, especially French, Germans, Italians and Britons, accounted for almost 75 per cent of visitors in the first half of 2008.)
Resort operators hope more Australians will escape the southern-hemisphere winter to enjoy the Maldives in the off-season, when room rates are as little as half of peak prices.
Nature's other face is one of discomfiting fragility - 200 inhabited islands in a total of 1190 islands lying south-west of Sri Lanka, straddling the equator and an average height above sea level of one metre. Although the coral is regenerating and the tourists are returning to the Maldives - there are 92 resorts and 50 more due in the next decade - on current global-warming predictions, rising sea levels will inundate the islands by the end of the century.
The country's first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, who was sworn in earlier this month, has announced a plan to use tourist revenues to buy land for displaced Maldivians, in countries including Australia. We share dark jokes about the best reason to visit the Maldives: because they're still there.
For now, though, the good times roll and resort operators continually raise the indulgence bar. Five-star resorts boast five-star menus - lobster, tuna, wagyu beef, spring lamb, fresh fruit and vegetables, exquisite breads, pastries, desserts and cheeses.
Wine lists are comprehensive. Spas are the last word in pampering. Villas are beautifully fitted out and maintained - when I leave my room for more than a short time, a butler nips in to clean up after me. There are deep baths, comfy beds, cable television and steps off the deck into a balmy sea.
At Soneva Gili, 20 minutes by speedboat from the airport in Male, the resort is one hour ahead of the rest of the country. The motto is "No News, No Shoes"; general manager Kurt Berman gets about in bare feet as he spruiks Soneva's philosophy of "intelligent luxury".
Accommodation is in 44 beautifully appointed over-water villas. Most are reached via timber boardwalks. A handful - including the Private Reserve, which sleeps 10, entertains 100 and has been an escape for Madonna and Lionel Richie - require boat access.
My sprawling three-room villa has a bicycle at the door and easy boardwalk access to the island but I enjoy its feeling of being cast adrift. The look of the villas is natural and understated, with weathered timbers and elegant furnishings. The lagoon laps at the lower deck; waves pound the reef about 200 metres away.
There is everything I could ever need and some unexpected luxuries. Exhausted after my late-night arrival, I dump my dirty clothes in a basket in the huge bathroom-cum-dressing room. Next evening, there's a knock at the door. My butler, Siyaz, is holding a tray on which there is a package of my clean clothes - gift-wrapped in white linen and tied with a white ribbon. The service varies from resort to resort but the result is always more elegant than a tangle of smalls dripping over the bath.
In the Maldives' most northerly atoll, Haa Alif, more than two hours from Soneva Gili by light plane and speedboat - and light years further in aesthetic and mood - is The Beach House: new, brash and high-tech. "Sleek, contemporary and sexy" is how the resort describes itself and the guests include plenty of couples and even a bride and groom preparing to get hitched on the beach. Families are also on the radar and the kids' club is well appointed.
There are 68 villas; mine boasts an infinity plunge pool, electronic bath, Duravit basins, toilets and bidets, Frette linen on the king-size bed and a choice of nine pillows. I have my best night's sleep since leaving home.
We depart by speedboat at 4.30am - a high-speed James Bond chase across the inky ocean - for Diva Island where Swiss hotelier Johnny Mathis is overseeing a move into the five-star bracket of the crowded Maldives market. (Diva was formerly the three-star White Sands.)
Spas are integral to the Maldivian resort experience. At Diva Island, treatments are in over-water treatment rooms, then it's back to the steam and ice rooms, perhaps a doze on a day bed and a dip in the pool.
At Cocoa Island, owned by David and Christina Ong's Como Group, the spa is an equally intoxicating experience. Small treatment villas are dotted along the island's western shore. There is a yoga pavilion open on two sides where your downward dog can greet the sunrise across the ocean and a spectacular hydrotherapy pool under a soaring thatched roof.
At Soneva Gili, I enjoy a massage while mesmerised by the fish I can see beneath the glass in the floor. Later, I don my snorkel and join them.
Fiona McGill travelled courtesy of the Maldives Tourism Promotion Board and Singapore Airlines.
Male is the gateway to the Maldives. Singapore Airlines flies there for $968, with an aircraft change in Singapore. Malaysia Airlines flies for $735, with an aircraft change in Kuala Lumpur. (Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, excluding tax.)
December to April is high season, with prices to match. From May to mid-October, room rates can drop by almost 50 per cent and many resorts offer deals that include bonus nights.
The author stayed at Soneva Gili (sixsenses.com), Diva Resort & Spa (naiade.com), The Beach House at Manafaru (beachhousecollection.com) and Cocoa Island (cocoaisland.como.bz).
Low-season packages - including flights, transfers, accommodation and breakfast - cost from $4685 a person, plus $702 taxes. Phone Pinpoint Travel Group on 1300 658 544 or see pinpointtravelgroup.com.au.
For more information on the Maldives, see visitmaldives.com.