Maldives: it's become a byword for tropical island bliss and eye-popping luxury. Even if you've never been to this Indian Ocean archipelago, you'll appreciate that it is the acme of glamorous beach holiday destinations.
Those who have visited know that its waters really are crystal clear and a semi-surreal shade of turquoise, and that the sand is truly sugar-white. They may also realise that the sun doesn't always shine over these specks of land, especially if they've come in June or July when storms can blow across the islands.
But they will no doubt be aware that the very best time to enjoy the Maldives - with clear sunny skies and low humidity - is from now until about mid March.
Strung out like tear drops or pearls across an area four times the size of Wales in the Indian Ocean south west of India, the Maldives comprises 1190 islands. Most of them are the merest slivers of sand and vegetation set above coral reefs of gorgeous colours and vivid underwater life, clustered into 26 atolls.
The atolls are the visible remnants of large volcanoes that sank into the sea millennia ago. Just 200 or so of the islands are big enough and have sufficient fresh water to have become inhabited.
The Maldives' first tourists - a small group of Italians - came to the archipelago just 40 years ago next February. In October 1972, eight months after they arrived, the first resort, Kurumba Village, opened.
There are now about 100 island-resorts here, many presenting a seemingly never-ending spiral of indulgence, others emphasising romance, coral wonders and more.
The Maldives has many unique attributes, among them the lowest high point of any country in the world - mountaineers are unlikely to be satisfied with a maximum height of 7 ft 7 inches. The average height of the land is 5ft above sea level, which means that the archipelago is susceptible to rising sea levels.
If you support the view that man-made climate change is threatening the planet, then taking a 12-hour flight to reach the islands might be a difficult choice to make.
Savvy travellers will be mindful that until fairly recently this wasn't the only trouble in paradise. It is just three years since the 30-year dictatorship of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom ended. During his rule the local population (currently about 315,000) was governed with an iron fist and shared little of the significant revenue generated from tourism, the nation's dominant source of earnings. Indeed, the Maldives was orchestrated as a bizarrely counterpointed world where movement between the islands inhabited by the Muslim nationals and those of the lavish, champagne-popping resorts was strictly limited to those with special permits.
However, three years ago, Mohamed Nasheed came to power on a crusade for both liberalisation and environmental conservation. The new president has pledged to make his country carbon-neutral within the next decade. That is, no doubt, an uphill challenge given that fishing and tourism are the key components of the Maldivian economy, neither of which are light on carbon.
"Maldives - always Natural" is the new tourism slogan adopted after a cabinet meeting last month.
The seat of government is vibrant, densely packed Male, where most of the people live. Overcrowding is an issue: a few miles away, the artificial island of Hulhumale is under construction as a spill-over - which might appear to contradict the new tourism slogan.
On an island adjacent to Male and Hulhumale is the Maldives' principal airport. About 280 miles south is Gan airport, served by domestic operator Maldivian Aero. You get around from these points either by speedboat (privately chartered or belonging to your hotel) if your destination is relatively close, by seaplane or, if you have much time and want to see authentic Maldives, by ferry.
Most visitors to the Maldives stay at island resorts. Highlighted below is a range of the best, giving standard - and generally eye-watering - nightly rates (all room only unless specified) simply as an indication of pricing brackets. However, by far the most cost effective way of enjoying a resort holiday here is with a package inclusive of flights.
There's also the possibility of taking a very different sort of holiday here: independent trips around the archipelago are just (only just) starting to become viable.
NEW KIDS IN THE LILY POND
There are frequent new hotel openings here. The Jumeirah group is one of the newcomers - the last few villas of Jumeirah Dhevanafushi have just been completed. Set on Gaafu Alifu Atoll, a 55-minute speedboat ride from Male airport, it boasts 39 villa suites, each staffed by a chef and butler and costing from US$2000 (NZ$2571). Another Jumeirah resort is being devised for action and for families. Jumeirah Vittaveli, on South Male Atoll is due to be completed in December; doubles from US$1143.
Adding to its success with ultra-luxury resort Huvafen Fushi, the Per Aquum group is putting the finishing touches on a sleek retreat in Dhaalu Atoll, a 40-minute seaplane flight south of Male. Offering 87 villas, a spa and underwater nightclub, Niyama resort is set to open in January, with doubles from US$650.
And in the southerly Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll, the Ayada Maldives has just opened with 112 contemporary-chic villas, starting at US$950.
TOP OF THE LUXURY LEAGUE
It would be difficult to find a resort with more pizzazz and ritzy glamour than One & Only Reethi Rah; doubles from US$990. Set in North Male Atoll, a 50-minute speedboat ride from Male airport, it offers 130 huge and lavishly equipped villas, all with personal butlers. There's also a fabulous spa, three gourmet restaurants and a host of watersports and land sports. The real cachet here is space: much of the island was man-made specifically for the resort.
A drawback of the Maldives is the fact that you can't venture out to different places for meals: your island is your world.
Foodies, though, will have plenty of gourmet adventure at Taj Exotica; doubles from US$700 in South Male Atoll, about a 40-minute speedboat trip from the capital. It is set on a small island with large extension of strikingly conceived overwater villas reached by walkways.
Yet the real tour de force is The Deep End, widely regarded as the best restaurant in the Maldives, serving the likes of lobster ravioli with onion confit and shaved truffles, and herb-crusted lamb loin with creamed red wine glaze. Meanwhile, 24 Degrees presents less formal, brasserie fare.
At Baa Atoll, a seaplane ride further north, Soneva Fushi doubles from US$560 presents perhaps the ultimate in laid-back luxury. Once you've marvelled at the playfully and organically devised architecture, you'll find plenty to do. The resort occupies one of the largest islands and there are bikes to ride and walks to enjoy. Other facilities include an open-air cinema and an observatory.
Furthest south, indeed across the equator, is Addu Atoll. Here, Shangri-La Villingili is a big, bold enterprise with superbly orchestrated accommodation, some in so-called Tree Houses - actually raised platforms in high vegetation. Facilities such as tennis and kayaking are augmented by nature trails with a resident botanist on hand for guidance. There are snorkelling trails, too; the coral here is wonderful. You can also step beyond the tourist bubble: the resort island is linked by bridges to five others with local communities. You can take a bike ride around them stopping at villages en route.
ANY BUDGET OPTIONS?
For independent travellers, the Holiday Inn Resort Kandooma presents fairly basic but good-value accommodation in South Male Atoll, with doubles from US$157.
Last year the Taj group's good-value Vivanta brand refurbished Coral Reef resort in North Male Atoll. It's a stylish place with 62 pleasingly furnished villas, a dive centre and much charm. Doubles from US$495.
Alternatively, opt for an all-inclusive hotel so that you won't spend your holiday blanching at the cost of meals. On South Ari Atoll, to the west of Male, Constance Moofushi is a dreamily elegant outfit with a notably high standard of food. Doubles look pricey at US$870 but you won't spend any extra on meals.
It is a sad fact that the El Nino of 1998 caused sea temperatures to rise temporarily, resulting in the death of a great deal of the Maldives' coral. The good news is that in many areas it is starting to grow back, thanks to a number of conservation schemes, most notably a Unesco project at Baa Atoll.
While most resorts have snorkelling and dive centres, some also offer the services of a resident marine biologist. One such is the Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa, doubles from US$986, in the far south at Gaafu Alifu Atoll. A reef encircles the island and is set in one of the world's largest atolls. Opened in April, the Park Hyatt is the first resort in the Maldives to follow Earth Check (formerly Green Globe) certification standards, with care taken not to disturb the reef. Size matters: the water temperature here is more consistent than in many other areas so the coral thrives.
ROMANCE VERSUS HAPPY FAMILIES
As well as romantic retreats, there are also plenty of resorts catering for families.
Of the honeymoon havens, Cocoa Island, doubles from US$750, is one of the most intimate. Set on a tiny island in South Male Atoll, it has just 33 stylish villas built out over the water and with generous decks giving straight on to a coral reef. There's a Shambala spa and a relaxed restaurant and bar.
Further west, Lily Beach at South Ari Atoll presents a lively contrast. Newly refurbished as a chic all-inclusive resort, it offers a good range of facilities (spa, tennis, watersports and more) as well as two imaginatively pitched children's clubs. A family villa sleeping four costs from US$1550, all-inclusive.
GOING IT ALONE
You can visit the Maldives as an independent traveller, staying in local guesthouses in Maldivian communities and getting about on ferries. In practice, however, this requires a degree of serendipity and a laidback attitude. There is very little formal information available, so you need to be prepared to ask around and keep an open mind as to where and when to travel. A new public ferry service is being developed to link the major islands, but this has yet to come into complete operation. In the meantime, private services run between atolls on a fairly ad hoc basis.
- INDEPENDENTBy Harriet O'Brien