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1. HAIL THE TAXI
Usually other countries' taxis are a source of great rip-off tales for travellers. Taxis here are jaunty public ferries linking the islands: most foreigners will use only the route between the airport on Hulhulé Island and the capital, Male. Possibly the world's most scenic airport taxi rank, it's a strip of turquoise water teeming with luxury yachts, picturesque dhonis (sailboats) and bright tropical fish. The 10-minute trip costs $1.30 but the people-watching is free. The seaplane taxis offer another spectacular perspective on the Maldives.
2. FISHY BUSINESS
Male's fish markets are an eye-opener, but not for the squeamish. Giant tuna are laid out in slabs while choosy buyers shop for home and the resorts. Once you see the fishmongers at work, you'll pray you never meet a cranky one in a dark alley. Expect to pay around 45 rufiyaa ($3.80) for a kilo of quality tuna meat caught that morning. Go early – it's clean but refrigeration is scant.
3. UNDERWATER DINING
Admire fish both on and off the plate at Ithaa, the world's first underwater restaurant at the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island resort. The 14-seater glass dome sits five metres under the sea and serves plenty of fish, while the wine cellar is dug two metre down into the island's depths (hilton.com). Nearby Kihavah Anantara resort has followed suit with the four-level Sea.Fire.Salt.Sky, where Sky is a rooftop bar and Sea is under water (anantara.com).
4. ISLAND FARE
Rated the Maldives' top restaurant, Ufaa is on Cocoa Island by COMO, in the Kaafu Atoll, 30 minutes by seaplane south of Male. New Zealand-born chef Shane Avan serves fish fresh off the boat in a blend of Maldives-Mediterranean-Asian fusion. Book ahead if you're planning to drop by from another hotel (comohotels.com). Reethi Restaurant, in the One & Only Reethi Rah, on the North Male Atoll, is often quoted as its closest rival (oneandonlyresorts.com)
5. SHARK PARK
The Maldives became a shark sanctuary in 2010 when it banned all shark fishing: take a night dive with grey reef sharks, go hammerhead spotting or watch whale sharks. There's no defined season for the big fellas, local marine biologists, say. They just appear around bait balls, which are great rolling masses of small, tasty fish. Check out the snorkelling trips in the South Ari Atoll (maldiveswhalesharkresearch.org). If paddling with predators ain't your thing, most lagoons are shark nurseries, and harmless baby grey tips and little lemon sharks are easily spotted on your walk on the jetty to the overwater spa.
6. SCREENSAVER SCENERY
You know that picture that comes pre-loaded on your new laptop? Yes, the one with the palm trees and toothpaste-white beaches. It's probably photographed in the Maldives. Add a hammock, umbrella and icy drink and you'll know why the little country is high up on the world's must-visit list. The Maldives straddles the Equator, so temps don't fluctuate much from the annual average of 30 degrees.
7. SLEEPING OVER WATER
Of the almost 1200 islands in the Maldivian archipelago, only about 300 are inhabited, and all with the teensiest land masses. The solution? Sleeping over water is de rigueur here. Generally pricier than garden rooms, you can dive straight into a blue lagoon from your over-water living room.
8. SENSATIONAL SPAS
Most Maldivian resort spas are over water, preferably with a glass floor so you can watch baby sharks gambol while you're face-down on the massage table. Spa Cenvaree at the new adults-only Centara Ras Fushi Resort Maldives was named Best Luxury Emerging Spa in the Indian Ocean at the recent 2014 World Luxury Spa Awards (centarahotelsresorts.com), while the Ayurvedic treatments at Six Senses Spa Laamu (sixsenses.com) and Banyan Tree's luxury Spa Vabbinfaru (banyantree.com) also took home silverware. And you can't go wrong at the One & Only Reethi Rah's ESPA (reethirah.oneandonlyresorts.com/spa.aspx) or the Jiva Grande Spa at the Taj Exotica (tajhotels.com). Of course, the world's first underwater spa is in the Maldives, at Huvafen Fushi resort (huvafenfushi.peraquum.com).
9. SPICE SHOPPING
Opposite the Male fish market is a real local's market: walk past the fishing boats and dhoni along the harbour wall till you come across boxes and boxes of ripe papayas, chillis and enormous bunches of green bananas slung around a rough building. Must-buy items include local spice mixes for heart-warming curries and proto-Golden Roughs: coconut and palm sugar rolled up in dried leaves like cigars for a quick pick-me-up if you're flagging in the midday heat.
10. ELITE RESORTS
The first tourists arrived in the Maldives in only 1972, but all the world's major hotel brands are now here. Recent openings include Maalifushi by COMO by wellness pioneer Christina Ong (see comohotels.com), Club Med's new luxury face with 52 villas (clubmed.com.au) and Atmosphere Kanifushi Maldives' 150 villas and suites (atmosphere-kanifushi.com). Expect royalty and rock stars at two newcomers in the Noonu Atoll, exclusive 45-villa Cheval Blanc Randheli from the owners of Louis Vuitton and Moet (chevalblanc.com) and super-luxe Velaa Private island, with Michelin-starred restaurants and a golf academy by José María Olazábal's (velaaprivateisland.com). Elite, yes, but more cater to families than you'd first think.
11. SUPERB SNORKELLING
You don't have to kit up to the hilt to enjoy the Maldives' spectacular marine life. Even the scardest snorkeller can spot spectacular lionfish, parrotfish, a range of rays and weird unicorn fish as well as oriental sweetlips and clownfish, which are endemic to the Maldives. The archipelago is a transit zone for fish life, so expect plenty of variety and a rainbow of colours in even the shallowest waters.
12. SLEEPING WITH THE LOCALS
Traditionally, the Maldives' 300-odd inhabited islands have been split between resort islands and local islands. The government recently launched its new integrated resort development project, with the first guest house islands occurring in the Laamu Atoll, in northern Maldives. The aim is for 2100 new guesthouse beds on offer by 2017, which is good news for travellers on lean budgets and those seeking a deeper cultural experience.
13. SURF'S UP
It's all about reef breaks here, and the best-known are in Male's Atolls, which can get a tad crowded. The recent 2014 Asian Surfing Championships were held at Sultan's Point, near the Four Seasons, and the inaugural Maldives Open 2014 ran on September 3-7 at Lohis Point, a long, consistent lefthander near the Adaaran Hudhuran Fushi Resort. Take a surf safari through your resort or off a live-aboard boat. Luxe surf safari outfit Tropic Surf has set up a surf shack at the new Maalifushi by COMO resort in the relatively unexplored Thaa Atoll, deep in the south-west of the country. It lists Farms as its most requested break in the area, but is still discovering new breaks (tropicsurf.net). The peak surf season runs May to October, beginning earlier in the southernmost atolls.
14. GOING DOWN
With more than a thousand species of fish here, the Maldives' diving is famed. The dive season runs from January to April, with clear water, little wind and up to 30 metres' visibility, but year-round is still very good. Expect it all: steep drop-offs, caves, wrecks, reefs, channels, soft and hard corals. North and South Ari Atolls get a mention for great manta ray and whale shark action, while quiet Lamuu Atoll is shaping up as the new go-to spot, say the divers from theperfectdive.com.au.
15. SHORT EATS
Get down with the locals and tuck into Maldivian snack food. While super-spicy tuna curry tops the menu, cafes dish up short eats or snacks, to get you over the afternoon slump. Order up on maas roshi (little tuna and coconut patties) and kaashi bokibaa (coconut, rosewater and palm sugar balls).
16. ON THE LINE
Maldivians surely can fish before they can walk. Net fishing is illegal even for commercial operations: the locals use pole and line fishing, as they have done for centuries, catching one fish at a time. Make no mistake, they can bring the fish in at speed, but sustainably and without the environmental damage of net dragging. You can chase the big game on a tag-and-release fishing safari on liveaboard boats or through your resort.
17. DOLPHIN SPOTTING
One of the great joys of the Maldives are its little spinner dolphins. They earn their names for their antics: in the late afternoon, as they make their way out of the lagoons and into the deep ocean to hunt, the dolphins will leap into the air to spin, just for the sheer joy, it would appear. They'll happily follow your boat, but don't jump on command.
18. STYLE FILE
The Maldives has its own, laid-back tropical style. Expect sandy floors in chic restaurants, open-air lobbies, thatch roofs overhead and the swish of an overhead fan ruffling the white curtains on your rustic timber four-poster bed. The colour scheme is turquoise lagoons, white sandy beaches, baby-blue skies and yellow, for the big sun and the lemon curl in your martini glass.
19. THE BIG FIVE
Spot the Maldives' marine Big Five: manta and eagle rays, sea turtles, dolphins and sharks, including whale sharks. On the protected species list are turtles, great clams, whale sharks and conch shells. Endangered marine species such as the whale shark, turtles, dolphins, as well as corals, are all protected by law.
20. SPEAK EASY
Does your airline ticket send you to Kadhdhoo Kaadedhdhoo or Kadhdhoo Kooddoo? The Maldivian language is Dhivehi, a mix of Arabic, Urdu and Sri Lanka's Sinhalese, and the script is called Thanna. To the untrained eye, the alphabet could even resemble a series of punctuation marks. Here's all you need: "fushi" means "island", and "Hingadhaan!" means "Let's go!"
The writer was a guest of Como Hotels & Resorts and Conrad Maldives Rangali Island.