It was exactly the tropical paradise I had dreamt it would be. When the 12-seater seaplane flew over the Maldivian atolls, the islands below were the emeralds I had always imagined. When I arrived on Milaidhoo Island and was escorted to my overwater villa by my "island host" (they hesitate to use the word "butler"), the sand sifted into my sandals like white sugar, as I had fancied it would. When I stepped on to the deck of my villa and saw the turquoise Indian Ocean lapping directly below the infinity pool, my eyes misted up, just as I had expected they would.
What I hadn't imagined, in all the years I'd spent dreaming about arriving in the Maldives, is that I would be doing it by myself. Famed as an idyllic honeymoon destination, I had naturally envisaged my husband being by my side. I'd seen the two of us leaping off the deck, hand-in-hand, then dining in a heart shape made of tealights on an empty beach. I'd seen us reading the same book while sunbaking on a deserted sandbank, then drinking champagne in the bathtub at sunset. I'd seen us dressed head-to-toe in white, all of the time.
Rather than lament my solitude, however, I decide to take it as a challenge. Why should the magic of the Maldives be diminished by my aloneness? Why couldn't I find romance in this destination without someone by my side?
It was dusk by the time I had unpacked and settled into my elegant villa, the work of Maldivian architect Mohamed Shafeeq. In an attempt to assuage any feelings of loneliness, I did what most single ladies would in such a situation and began feverishly Instagramming the lavish details of my villa. The generous sundeck with its infinity pool, sun loungers and Maldivian swinging daybed. The king bed facing the ocean, and the huge bathroom with its ocean-view tub and tropical rain shower. The traditional Maldivian lacquer art, fuchsia hand-woven rugs and cushions set against the otherwise neutral palette of the space, with its high pale wood ceilings and white walls.
With that out of my system, I pop the complimentary bottle of Ruinart champagne beckoning from the ice bucket, play Bobby Darin's Beyond The Sea on the Bluetooth speakers, then dive straight off my deck into that famously clear, bath-warm water to watch the sun set. After the swim and a couple more glasses of champagne, I decide that dancing with myself in front of the mirror isn't weird, neither is dressing myself up and taking myself out to dinner at Shoreline Grill, halfway across the 300-metre-long island.
There, I eat fresh-off-the-boat yellowfin tuna at a table set in the sand just metres from the sea. Couples canoodling at the other tables bother me not – I am too full of champagne, too bewitched by the stars being shaken out across the sky, to even think about feeling awkward.
Milaidhoo Island, a relative newcomer to the Maldivian resort scene that opened in 2016, is set in the heart of a UNESCO biosphere reserve in the Baa Atoll, a half hour seaplane ride north west of the capital Malé.
Next morning after breakfast, a combination of one of the most decadent breakfast buffets I have experienced and well-considered a-la-carte dishes, I set off on a guided snorkelling trip over the coral reef that encircles the island.
Within minutes of donning flippers and snorkel I spot schools of orange and white clownfish, parrotfish, triggerfish and other colourful exotics darting among the coral. We swim over the edge of the reef and 11 eagle rays appear beneath us, gliding slowly across the sea floor like speckled black birds, and a giant turtle that we follow until it drifts out of sight.
In any circumstance this would have been a bucket-list experience, but doing it alone gives it an extra element of magic. Without a travel companion to prod each time I see some intriguing marine creature, I notice I was more observant.
Back in my villa (one of 50 on the island, a mix of overwater and beachfront), having no one to talk to brings to the afternoon an almost meditative quality. I read, nap and take an afternoon bath in the egg-shaped, freestanding tub. I dip in and out of the ocean, letting the salt and the sun sink into my bones and the rest of the world just wash away. Occasionally, I call my attentive island host for a fresh coconut, but otherwise I was blissfully alone and very much at peace.
Another benefit of solo travel is, of course, that you get to do exactly what you want, when you want, and I spend day two doing just that.
A morning yoga class is followed by a massage in the Serenity spa, set in an overwater pavilion, where small blocks of citrus-infused shea butter are melted into my skin beneath the therapist's expert hands.
By the time cocktail hour and live music at the chic, sand-floored Compass Pool Bar rolls around, I feel like a new woman. One who doesn't have a single person other than herself to worry about, and who has all the time in the world to chat to the friendly waitstaff and learn facts she might otherwise have not, like how traditional Maldivian houses also used to have these sandy floors. The whiter and softer the sand, the richer and more important the family.
Dinner, later, is at Ba'theli, the archipelago's only Maldivian fine-dining restaurant situated in a recreated Maldivian dhoni boat jutting out into the lagoon. I sit on the deck eating an elevated version of the local staple mashuni (coconut and tuna salad) and am entertained by my dining companions, the reef sharks and eagle rays feeding in the water below.
My final evening on Milaidhoo I go on a sunset dolphin cruise. As I sit with my legs dangling off the front of the boat, sipping champagne and intently watching a dozen dolphins leap and spin out of the water, I wonder why more of us don't take these sorts of romantic holidays on our own.
Reflecting on the past few days in paradise, I realise how much more present I have been than if I had been in constant conversation with someone else. The Maldives has many gifts. On that evening, this sense of presence was one of its sweetest.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN THE MALDIVES
TRY TRADITIONAL MALDIVIAN FISHING
Fishing is the Maldives' second biggest industry after tourism and the country is a pioneer of sustainable fishing. Jump on a boat with local fishermen and learn why their unique pole and line fishing method, which has very little by-catch and wasted fish, is better for our oceans.
SNORKEL AT NIGHT
If you thought snorkelling was only a day activity, think again. With the daytime marine life asleep, the nocturnal creatures come out to play. Equipped with an underwater light, you'll see plankton that shimmers like stars, sleeping turtles and more.
VISIT A TRADITIONAL VILLAGE
When you're tucked away on one of the 132 resorts scattered across the 1200 Maldivian islands, it can be easy to leave without knowing what life is like for the 450,000 locals who live here. Milaidhoo offers guided tours of nearby islands, giving guests a glimpse of local village life. See milaidhoo.com
PICNIC ON A SANDBANK
A sailing boat delivers you to a white sliver of sand in the middle of the ocean with daybeds and a picnic hamper filled with Maldivian delicacies. Glasses of champagne are poured and you realise this is a desert island dream and that the Maldives do it better than almost anywhere else.
Had enough beach lazing and craving some culture? At the Maldives National Museum you'll find a collection of historic artefacts including weapons, religious paraphernalia, marine skeletons and more, that tell the history of this unique archipelago.
Nina Karnikowski was a guest of Milaidhoo Island.
Sri Lankan Airlines flies daily from major Australian airports to Malé, usually via Colombo. From there it's a 30-minute seaplane, followed by a 15-minute speedboat, to Milaidhoo Island. See srilankan.com
Rates at Milaidhoo Island start from $1625 a night for a water pool villa on a half board basis, based on two sharing. See milaidhoo.com